In five of the last six seasons, the Boston Celtics have finished the season with a top-10 defensive rating, with the one exception being the injury-plagued, COVID-affected 2020-21 season, when they landed 13th.
During that time, switchability was the foundation of their defensive success. From Al Horford to Grant Williams to Marcus Smart and more, they’ve had guys who can play their defensive role to perfection and guard multiple positions.
Heading into the 2023-24 season, they still have guys like that on the roster. But with the addition of Kristaps Porzingis, drop defense could become a staple.
Boston played in a drop at times during the 2023 postseason, as Robert Williams was coming off the bench, and Horford has become less switchable later in his career, and it was met with middling success. Trae Young and James Harden made them pay, nailing easy floaters or simply finding open guys on the perimeter or in the dunker spot.
Adding Porzingis into the mix gives Boston a whole new look on the interior.
“I’ve been most impressed with [his defense]... He’s doing a good job of talking to us, protecting the basket, and really staying active,” Al Horford said after Boston’s practice on Friday.
At 7-foot-3, Porzingis is one of the tallest players in the league, but his defensive presence goes beyond that. His timing, positioning, and shot-blocking have a chance to completely transform the Celtics’ defense, especially with the players he has around him.
“I just think he has really good instincts. Sometimes it’s not easy when you’re in the back line trying to recognize when to come help, when to drop off, things like that,” Horford said. “It comes pretty easy to him, from what I’ve seen. He’s able to recover and make a play and be there to help us.”
In his seven NBA seasons, Porzingis has played for a top-15 defense just once. It was the 2021-22 season, and the Dallas Mavericks held the fifth-best defensive rating before they traded Porzingis. They had guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock backing him up on the perimeter, while the Celtics have Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, among others.
Perhaps the most intriguing part about the Celtics’ potentially lethal drop is how Porzingis will be able to play off White and Holiday when defending the pick-n-roll.
Last season, White was the best shot-blocking guard in the league, and a lot of his damage came when trailing his matchup. White even allowed his cover to get slightly past him at times so he could time up a block. As for Holiday, who is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, his ability to defend from behind is just as impressive.
With how talented they are at contesting shots from behind, Porzingis will have more freedom than ever to sneak back into the paint, search out blocks, and snag rebounds.
“That’s something I have to get used to because sometimes I stay a little bit too long helping those guys where they already can block either from behind or from the side, and I can get back to mine so I can box out and fight for a rebound,” Porzingis told me after the first preseason game when I asked him about the dynamic.
The relationship between Porzingis and Boston’s guards on the defensive end will be symbiotic. White’s and Holiday’s affinity for blocking shots from behind will allow Porzingis to drop back further, preventing open layups. Meanwhile, Porzingis’ size and length will give more time for the guards to time up blocks and get back in position.
Boston won’t abandon switching on the defensive end, but with Porzingis in the lineup, drop coverage should be more heavily featured throughout the year.
And as the Celtics look to build chemistry in that area, trust will be the key.
“It’s a trust factor, right? Bigs usually help up because they don’t trust that the [guard] is going to chase and challenge, or he’s not going to recover, or he’s not going to be physical,” head coach Joe Mazzulla told me after Thursday’s practice.
“Our guards, top to bottom, do a great job of taking pride in pick-and-roll defense, and they chase him, challenge, they fight to the ball, and they’re physical. So you can’t help up as much, and you don’t have to put yourself in a difficult situation where it puts us in a two-on-one on the weak side. So that’s just a trust factor that we have to build as a team in our pick-and-roll defense.”
The Celtics have assembled a roster with elite potential on the defensive end. It just may not look the same as it has in previous years.
With Porzingis in and Smart and Williams out, the switch-heavy defense Boston was known for in years past could be largely swapped out for a drop D where opponents will have up pick their poison. Should they challenge a 7-foot-3 Latvian at the rim or risk getting swatted by one of two All-Defensive guards?
It will take time for Porzingis and the Celtics to get used to this new dynamic, but as they build that trust and connectivity, expect to see some destructive splendor on the defensive end.
“That’s still something that I have to get adjusted to because those guys are so elite on the defensive end,” Porzingis said of the Celtics’ drop defense with White and Holiday trailing drivers. “It just makes my job easier. It’s great to play with those kinds of defenders on my team.”