Kristaps Porzingis will join the Boston Celtics under the most difficult of circumstances. Not only are the Celtics reeling from an Eastern Conference Finals heartbreaker at the hands of the Miami Heat. But Brad Stevens used one of the team’s most beloved players to bring Porzingis in.
Now, Porzingis will have to win the fanbase over.
Boston’s roster is the most talented group of players Porzingis has likely ever played with. Yes, the Dallas Mavericks had Luka Doncic, but their depth paled in comparison to what the Celtics have. The biggest challenge will be figuring out how to ensure Porzingis fits with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
When Stevens traded for Porzingis, it’s unlikely he expected him to spend his time as an off-ball threat around the perimeter. Instead, the hope is that Porzingis can bring a new dimension to the Celtics' offense, a dimension that includes post-offense and post-creation. Having an additional scoring threat could create new opportunities for Tatum and Brown to succeed.
Hand-offs like the one above will give Brown a new avenue to explore when getting downhill. Defenses will be in a quandary. Do you stick with Porzingis to defend a potential kick-out to the perimeter, or try and collapse onto Brown, who ended last season shooting 71% around the rim?
Help defenders are going to be sucked in from the corners, allowing Brown to grow his confidence when providing secondary creation via drive and kick plays. And most importantly, this type of elbow action will blow the door off of zone defenses within milliseconds.
Last season, neither Al Horford nor Robert Williams could provide the level of gravity that Porizgins brings around the elbows and the free-throw line extended. Post-hand-off actions didn’t possess the same level of urgency for a defense, as they could sink back to limit Brown’s drive without needing to worry about another star-level talent being part of the action. That will change now.
Another area that Porzingis can help Brown is by filling the role that Marcus Smart occupied last season when the two players had a back-cut action that continually resulted in an easy two points for Brown.
Porzingis ran similar actions for the Washington Wizards last season and should easily fit into his role as the facilitator in those back-cut actions.
It’s the same for Tatum. Similar to what the Philadelphia 76ers tried to do with James Harden and Joel Embiid, the Tatum/Porzingis pick-and-roll is going to be a weapon with few equals.
As a defender, do you go with Tatum or stay with Porzingis? What if you send two, and Porzingis just hits Tatum over the top, or vice versa? There are going to be so many questions that can’t be answered when the two stars combine in screening actions that we should expect, or at least hope, that it becomes a staple of Boston’s offense.
Last season, Tatum operated as the pick-and-roll ball-handler 5.8 times per game, which equates to 22.5% of the time he was involved in Boston’s offense, per Second Spectrum. Adding Porzingis as the screener elevates the Celtics' pick-and-roll threat to new levels, especially since the incoming big man is a threat on the roll, in the pick-and-pop, or flowing into a post-up that allows for some additional ball movement.
We’re likely to see both Brown and Tatum develop two-man games with Porzingis. However, it would make sense for Tatum to utilize those actions a little more due to his ability to create off the dribble when drawing a crowd whereas Brown will likely be more of a hand-off receiver or pass receiver when cutting toward the rim. Neither of those options is better; they simply ensure Boston is hitting multiple avenues on offensive possessions while utilizing their three best players in the best spots on the floor.
On defense, Porzingis will give Tatum and Brown another rim protector to funnel ball handlers toward. While the 7’1’’ veteran isn’t known as a shot blocker, his size and length often operate as a deterrent around the rim, forcing shooters to adjust their timing, arc, and release point - thus taking them out of their usual rhythm. There are times when Porzingis does get the block, too, as you would expect.
Under Ime Udoka, both Tatum and Brown thrived on defense. Having a rim-protecting big man who could mop up any mistakes liberated Boston’s star wing duo to be more aggressive when defending on-ball or operating as helpers. With Porzingis now in the big man rotation, the Celtics will have three big men who bring different aspects to a defensive system and should once again allow Tatum and Brown to play an aggressive brand of defensive basketball.
We will likely see Porzingis deployed as a drop big, with Tatum and Brown stunting toward ball-handlers as they look to penetrate or probe the defense, allowing Porzingis to angle his body and takeaway straight-line drives.
Hopefully, with an additional body protecting the rim and some smart minutes management for Al Horford and Robert Williams, Boston can get back to the defensive identity that so many members of their roster discussed throughout last seasons.
As for the overall fit with Porzingis, both Tatum and Brown have shared the court as part of a three-headed monster before. The only difference now is that they’re the two primary heads, and Porzingis will need to get in where he fits in if he wants to make the best of this golden opportunity that has been afforded to him.
On paper, the fit works. In terms of skillsets, everything matches up. Now, Joe Mazzulla will need to get creative to ensure teams can’t easily scheme against them. Fortunately, containing three star-level talents isn’t easy, so it’s hard to envision a team nullifying Boston’s offense next season, especially if they start to utilize the mid-post area more now that Porzingis is on the team.