The Celtics have spent nearly a decade crawling toward the top of the NBA but have yet to win a title during that span. There have been alterations, some more significant than others, although in recent seasons the team mostly made tweaks on the fringes.
The hope and belief was that a core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Robert Williams would be sufficient. But after the Celtics lost to the eighth-seeded Heat in Game 7 of the conference finals last season — one year after a crushing Finals loss to the Warriors — there was a sense within the organization that it was time to try something new.
Yes, it would be risky to disrupt a group that had come so close. But it also would be risky to be stagnant. So in June, president of basketball operations Brad Stevens made a significant move that fundamentally altered the team’s identity.
Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic and backbone of the team, was sent out in a three-team deal that brought in big man Kristaps Porzingis, a 7-foot-3-inch disruptor who can do things on a basketball court that few others can.
“His ability to just move at both ends of the floor is better than I thought it was,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “But he’s just really smart and he’s skilled. He can score at all three levels in the past and I think the ball will find him a lot, because of the innate skill that he has to make two-on-ones and to make it easier for the other guys.
“He gives us a different dynamic.”
Porzingis is hardly an unknown quantity, of course. He exploded onto the NBA scene with the Knicks after being drafted fourth overall in 2015. He was named an All-Star in 2018 but tore an ACL two weeks before that game.
He sat out the following season and was traded to the Mavericks that February, potentially giving Luka Doncic the star sidekick he was missing. But Dallas was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in consecutive years and Porzingis was traded to the lowly Wizards in February 2022.
He had perhaps the finest season of his career last year, even if it was never going to end in a meaningful way. And now he will get a chance to build on that progress while playing for a team that is favored to win the NBA title.
No one on the Celtics roster ever played with Porzingis before, but this group has quickly realized how much he will help them unlock. When players were asked in recent weeks about Porzingis’s potential impact, they tended to smile before answering, as if hinting that they know something the rest of the NBA will soon learn.
“I’ve played against him over the years, but when you really see a guy like that, he’s really 7-3, maybe even a little taller,” Horford said. “Just the way he moves, his feel for the game and some of the things he brings, I’m just really excited.”
Porzingis needed just six minutes in his preseason debut Oct. 8 against the 76ers to offer compelling evidence of how he will change this squad. In short order, he drilled a 3-pointer, pinned a Tobias Harris shot against the backboard, slipped free on a screen-and-roll and barreled down the lane for a dunk, and converted a monstrous one-handed alley-oop on a lob from Derrick White. It was all quite loud.
“He’s obviously a very skilled player,” Tatum said. “He makes the game easier for myself and for everybody else. His versatility, obviously the ability to stretch the floor and shoot anywhere. So when he’s open, find him.”
Porzingis’s unique offensive talents have been apparent for years, but beyond his height and length, he is not physically imposing at the other end of the floor. There is a perception that he could be easily pushed around by burlier big men.
The Celtics, however, have been particularly impressed by his value as a defender.
“I just think he has really good instincts,” Horford said. “Sometimes it’s not easy when you’re on the back line trying to recognize when to come help, when to drop off, things like that. It comes pretty easy, from what I’ve seen. He’s able to recover, make a play, and be able to help us.”
Porzingis generally will be deployed in drop coverage, in which he sags back on the screener to protect the rim in pick-and-roll actions. But during training camp, he also has been given some leeway to freelance, trapping ball-handlers in the corner and disturbing them with his wingspan.
“His size and ability to shoot and move the way he can is special,” White said. “I think just defensively the different things he can do on that side that doesn’t really get talked about as much as the offensive side. Just his size and length at the rim and being able to go vertical and make them make tough twos. So we can do a lot of different things with him out there.”
There is little question that Porzingis will change the way this team plays. And in some cases, that could bring unease to a team that has been on the cusp of a title. But rather than raise questions about altered roles, Porzingis’s presence has ignited excitement about what could be possible.
“The crew has welcomed him with open arms,” assistant coach Sam Cassell said. “Like, ‘You’re a part of us now. You’re a Celtic now.’ ”