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Joe Mazzulla intrigued by Kristaps Porziņģis, seeking new Celtics identity

Can Joe Mazzulla utilize Kristaps Porziņģis’ diverse skill set in a more defined role to recreate the Celtics’ offense, or will we see more of the same in 2023-24?

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Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla smiled — tanned and relaxed from a recent vacation — as the Celtics introduced Kristaps Porziņģis, his new center tailor-made for Boston’s spacing-oriented offense. Porziņģis will shoot many threes, likely more than his 5.1 career per game, and add a new element the Celtics almost lacked entirely last season as a post-up presence.

Asked how they’ll set up Porziņģis’ inside game, Mazzulla quipped, “get him the ball in the post,” as Brad Stevens’ head swung right toward Mazzulla hearing the one-liner. Some things never change.

It was a small acknowledgement that after a summer of change, the team’s dynamic needed alterations after a disappointing finish to 2023. Boston also added two assistant coaches with extensive NBA experience in Charles Lee and Sam Cassell to further learn what does and doesn’t work. Even though Mazzulla viewed last season as a success, a significant personnel shift with Porziņģis signals change is coming — how much?

“We have a great team and I won’t change his mentality,” Cassell said earlier this month. “That’s who he is, but I’m gonna help him enjoy it a little more. That’s all.”

Unfinished Business defined the team last year following a Finals run they hoped to avenge. They could certainly run with that slogan again, but a dramatic shift in the roster signals more urgency. When the sentimentality of Smart being gone fades away and the realities of the new collective bargaining agreement settle in, The Time Is Now seems more appropriate.

“Whether I do this for one more year or fifty more years, I’m going to learn something every offseason,” Mazzulla told reporters after Porziņģis’ introduction. “[In] three categories: where we’re at offensively and how we can maintain some of that ... how can we improve? ... same thing defensively ...”

“(Then), I felt like coming into last year, a lot of our motivation was coming off the Finals that we have time, how do we take a step back?...develop this year’s culture and competitive nature ... playing together and being the hardest playing team every night.”

Stevens and the Celtics removing “interim” from Mazzulla’s title and signing him to a long-term deal affirms his overarching formula and philosophy. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted this week that Mazzulla never received heat for his performance in 2023. Adding Porziņģis only further accentuates the franchise's commitment to Mazzullaball.

Porziņģis’ career usage level of 27% matches Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s and his nightly post-ups (3.4) surpasses Boston’s as a team (3.1) last season. Instead, Mazzulla utilized another shooting big man in Al Horford nearly exclusively behind the line (68% FGA came from 3).

Porziņģis’ arrival reflected Boston’s plan to pivot from its smaller, five-out lineup from one season ago back to double-big alignments (only 28 G, 332 min. in 2023). His shooting pushes him closer to perimeter status on offense, though it shouldn’t start and end there. Mazzulla will need to find ways to blend his three best players’ strengths, which requires movement and quick decisions.

In Dallas in 2020, Porziņģis averaged 0.81 PPP (27th percentile) on post-ups; head coach Rick Carlisle resisted them, saying it isn’t a good play anymore. Those plays drew attention to some of his ball-stopping tendencies, face-ups sometimes turned into stand-and-watch. That’s the risk joining an already stagnant Boston offense.

Porziņģis and Robert Williams III are tentatively expected to start games. If the Celtics want to utilize Porziņģis around the post for the most time possible, along with Horford at the four, Horford makes sense as Porziņģis’ running mate for the brunt of games. Porziņģis flashed flexibility in some off-ball screening scenarios, crucial to closing with Rob.

Porziņģis and Robert Williams III intrigue as a defensive duo against teams that struggle to shoot, but the need to utilize Williams III as a roller would mostly mandate spotting up Porziņģis on the wings — something that irritated him in Dallas. That’s not the best use of his overall talent. He likes to play above the break and rarely attempts threes from the corner.

“I want to come here to make life easier for (Brown and Tatum),” he said last month. “Hopefully with my skillset and my talent, I can take some pressure off of those guys. That’s it. I came here to try to make this team better. I’m excited to play with such high-level guys who have been there year-to-year, and have that experience already. I think it could be a great combination.”

Horford will play less often at age 37. Malcolm Brogdon, if he returns, will key the smaller lineups while Horford sits, while Porziņģis and Williams III can relieve each other at center. That’s flexibility the Celtics didn’t carry for much of last year, especially since Williams III managed only 35 games.

Stevens mentioned needing to balance the team’s positions, and while center appears solidified, Payton Pritchard will need to reemerge in the back court. Sam Hauser has to build on last year’s growth, or one of Oshae Brissett and Dalano Banton will have to outperform their veteran minimum deals.

However, that’ll all matter less and less if Porziņģis produces similarly to last season. He averaged 23.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 49.8% from the field, 38.5% from three and 85.1% on 6.4 trips to the free throw line. He’ll allow Boston more offensive flexibility. The Celtics rarely created point-blank looks for its bigs, whether by sealing smaller players or navigating in cracks against Miami’s zone as Porziņģis did here.

Porziņģis isolated more (1.1 poss. per game) last year effectively (1.15 PPP), spotted up well (1.08 PPP on 4.7 att., 65th percentile) and his post-up game ranked among the NBA’s best (1.18 PPP, 89th percentile). Those latter two bode well to complementing Tatum, and fitting in a different space than Brown operates on the floor.

Porziņģis took 21 corner threes total last year, 191 mid-rangers (46.1%) and 471 in the paint. Brown attempted 65 shots in the corner, 206 from mid-range and 691 in the paint. Similar profiles creates both flexibility and some overlap to sort out.

“Adding a guy like Kristaps allows us to do both,” Mazzulla said. “He’s made a living in the trail spot, being able to play and pass and shoot threes and attack closeouts from there, then he’s top in the league in posting up. So, I think you have to be able to do whatever makes the most sense for our’s how do we fit him in, and at the same time, how do we continue to build off of what made us really good last year?”

Porziņģis’ success with the Celtics will depend first on a commitment to a role, and second to continuing improvements on his weaknesses — physicality, playmaking and post positioning. He also noted a lack of playoff experience.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to help this team,” he said. “I have a taste of (the playoffs), I know what it’s like, the first playoff series was good, just didn’t have luck, and second one was a different style, different kind. Each series is completely different, so I’m gonna have to be ready for any scenario, and as the year goes along, in the regular season, we’re gonna find that rhythm and that chemistry, and that’s gonna carry us into the playoffs ... you’re always evolving as a basketball player, I’ll be a much better player by 30 than I am now.”

Having three stars allows Boston to consolidate its regular season efforts, sit one, rest a center and let the remaining players cook while the others recover. This roster projects well to winning a ton of regular season games in various ways, but like the last two postseasons, it’ll only matter come April, May, and June.

The Porziņģis trade marked an aggressive swing, probably a needed one, toward a new direction. Will they figure out how to coexist in that time? And when next summer comes, do the Celtics intend to pay for and play three stars, embracing the second apron similarly to Phoenix, or does Porziņģis mark the beginning of a possible transition away from Brown? How that hierarchy sorts out is Mazzulla’s puzzle now.

“It just makes our offense more dynamic,” Mazzulla said. “We’re gonna be able to open up some different things, take some pressure off of our team, so it’s just a matter of what the matchups are and how we can put all of our guys in the best situation to being efficient on both ends of the floor.”

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