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The Kristaps Porzingis gambit

The Porzingis trade is another bold swing from Brad Stevens, who has shown he’s more than willing to take risks.

Kristaps Porzingis Introductory Press Conference Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s been a tumultuous offseason for the Boston Celtics, to say the least. Fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals defeat to Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, the Celtics have faced down questions about their ability to take the next step and claim a championship. Ready for a shake-up, President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens made his move: Marcus Smart out, Kristaps Porzingis in.

Porzingis joins the Celtics with the dreaded “injury prone” label hanging over his head, but for their part, the front office doesn’t seem deterred. During his tenure, Stevens has shown a willingness to roll the dice on injury risk. He extended Robert Williams III to a four-year, $54 million contract in his first offseason at the helm, and dealt a package that included a first-round pick for Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon in his second.

The effectiveness of these gambles has been mixed. Williams has struggled to stay available, missing large chunks of each of the last two seasons, while Brogdon was a liability due to injury in the Eastern Conference Finals this past summer. Still, there’s no denying the value. The $13.5 million AAV for a player with Williams’ talent is a bargain as the cap continues to rise, while the Sixth Man of the Year cost them just the 29th pick in the draft and zero rotation players from their NBA Finals run.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images

Now, the Celtics have appeared to capitalize on risk once again. For the price of Smart, they acquired a talent upgrade in Porzingis, while moving up 10 spots in this summer’s draft and tacking on an additional first round pick next year for good measure. Feelings about Smart and his worth to the organization aside, this was a home run from a value perspective. Teams don’t often add players of Porzingis’ stature and receive first round picks for their trouble. The trade came with a subsequent extension for Porzingis, adding two years and $60 million to the $36 million player option this season that he picked up to facilitate the deal.

There are two ways to look at this. The positive read is a pretty simple one: it’s a sub-max contract for a player who arguably provided max value last season. Porzingis was outstanding for the Washington Wizards last season, unquestionably the bright spot in what was otherwise another lost season in DC. He averaged a career-high 23.2 points per game and scorched the nets to the tune of a 38.5% mark from behind the three-point arc, and he’s a high-level shot blocker and rim protector. In a basketball sense, he makes this team better.

The drawbacks are more complex. This is now a three-year union with a center who has played more than 60 games in a season just once since 2017 and has an ACL tear in his past. Health isn’t a given for any frontcourt player, considering the physical demands of the position. At 7-foot-3, Porzingis falls on the extreme end of that spectrum. Players that big notoriously struggle with durability — it’s just a fact of basketball life for players that size.

Porzingis will take up 20% of the team’s cap for two years after this season. It’s not an unreasonable deal. Porzingis was eligible for $17 million more than he received, so it in fact constitutes a healthy discount on the part of the Celtics. Even still, that $30 million per season would feel a lot better if it were more certain what it could bring. With a career-high of 72 games played across a full season — in his rookie year, one surgically repaired ACL ago — it’s fair to question whether he can be expected to hold up across a full NBA regular season and a deep postseason run.

These are questions that have to be asked, because financially, the stakes have never been higher for a deal like this. We’ve crossed the bridge into a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and the Player’s Association, and it’s a deal that appears highly likely to punish teams for spending big money to contend. Under the new CBA, teams that surpass the second luxury tax apron ($17.5 million over the luxury tax line) face a variety of impediments to roster construction. Second apron teams lose access to their mid-level exceptions, are restricted from signing in-season buy-out free agents and eventually face consequences in the NBA Draft.

With the extension in place — and assuming the Celtics complete the presently delayed extension for Jaylen Brown — the team will have more than $124 million committed annually to just Porzingis, Brown and Jayson Tatum in 2024-25, and will find themselves staring down the barrel of those limitations. Building a championship roster will be harder than ever. If the Celtics don’t quickly resemble a contender under their new Big Three, their avenues to get there are going to be narrow.

Obviously, we have yet to see how these measures will play out in practice. Nor have they fully discouraged teams from pushing in their chips anyways, as evidenced by Porzingis’ erstwhile teammate, Bradley Beal, and his acquisition by the Phoenix Suns. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck has been vocal in his willingness to pay whatever it takes to bring another championship to Boston, and to this point, he’s been true to his word (though you can quibble about the decision to allow Grant Williams to depart for Dallas in restricted free agency). Will that resolve change if this latest reshaping of the roster doesn’t pan out?

None of this is meant to make the case that the Celtics shouldn’t have dealt for Porzingis. It was clear after the team’s stagnation in the Eastern Conference Finals this summer that there was merit to shaking up this roster. Brad Stevens and the Celtics have found themselves on the doorstep a number of times but have yet to cross the threshold. They may need a push, and in a vacuum, Porzingis is the kind of All-Star caliber talent that could provide one.

Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum, though, and it’s important to bear in mind the context this deal operates within. Porzingis raises the ceiling of this team with his unique blend of game-warping talents, but there are concerns that bear mentioning. If this trade leads to Banner 18 hanging in the TD Garden, it will be worth the final price on the receipt. If not, this is the kind of deal that could lead to very difficult conversations down the road. For now, it’s a risk that Brad Stevens and the Celtics clearly have the gumption to take.

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