Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens decided the run-it-back option wasn’t the best option. He astutely preyed on the Washington Wizards’ desire to rebuild and discard their most talented, expensive players and attempted to acquire intriguing 7-foot-3-inch center Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis has been nicknamed “The Unicorn” for his uniqueness, a 7-footer who can stretch the floor with 3-point shooting, take defenders off the dribble, and even score on postups, despite his slight frame.
It could be said that Thursday’s expected No. 1 overall pick, Victor Wembanyama, is an extension of Porzingis. Maybe Porzingis crawled so the 7-5 Wembanyama could walk, but Porzingis is still only 27 and is coming off the best season of his career.
To gain such a talented piece for the frontcourt, Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon was in the initial deal, but the Clippers reportedly backed out.
Porzingis had the potential to be a superstar, but injuries have prevented that. He’s missed 237 games over his eight-year career, including the entire 2018-19 season with the Knicks because of a torn ACL. He was traded to the Mavericks, had some uneven years there, before the Mavericks discovered he wasn’t a fit with Luka Doncic, and traded him to the Wizards.
This past season was Porzingis’s chance to showcase his skills. Porzingis played in 65 games, his most since his second year, and averaged career highs in points, field goal percentage, and shot 39.8 percent from the 3-point line. That final number is crucial because the Celtics now have a big man who can stretch the floor and clear space for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics want to shoot 3-pointers, they want to stretch the floor, and it had become apparent that Al Horford, now 37, had slowed considerably and could no longer fill a major offensive role.
Porzingis is not only a strong 3-point shooter but a plus shooter in the midrange, and his height allows him to shoot over 95 percent of defenders. The Celtics had to adjust their offensive approach. They had to be harder to guard and less predictable. Porzingis as a third option allows for that.
Before the Celtics’ Eastern Conference competitors padded their rosters with more talent, Stevens was poised to strike first. The Wizards traded former All-Star and franchise cornerstone Bradley Beal to the Suns in the first move of their rebuild. The Heat, desperately seeking star power, missed out on Beal and are likely to miss on Portland’s Damian Lillard.
The Bucks have to determine whether they want to bring back former All-Star Khris Middleton if he decides to opt out of the final year of his contract. The 76ers are waiting on whether James Harden will return.
The Celtics were a championship-caliber team before this possible trade and they really are now. They are expected to move former first-round pick Grant Williams because of his salary demands, while Danilo Gallinari, who just opted into his contract last week, could be headed out to match salaries.
That means more work for Stevens. The Celtics are not a finished product. Porzingis would make them a more efficient offensive team and even better defensively because of his pick-and-roll prowess. The drawback is his injury history and Stevens goes into next season knowing he’s not getting close to 82 games from Porzingis.
But they don’t need 82 from Porzingis. They need him to contribute to a three-headed monster at center and give opposing teams different looks. He could start at power forward alongside Robert Williams with Horford coming off the bench.
Either way, coach Joe Mazzulla now has more frontcourt options. They have someone who can consistently post up and hit a midrange jumper and they’ll just have to manage his health and workload for the playoffs. Also, this is the first time Porzingis has legitimately competed for a championship and if this works out, it could serve as a long-term marriage.
Stevens has to take some chances this offseason. He has to find ways to upgrade his roster and seize opportunities such as when Washington decided to start over.
Stevens isn’t done, but this could be a good start to the summer. It offers Celtics faithful some hope and optimism after such a difficult ending to the season. And there might be more moves to come, perhaps beginning with Thursday’s draft and free agency in 10 days.