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Double bigs forever

Expect to see a lot of Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Kristaps Porzingis playing together next season.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Back in 2020-2021, then head coach Brad Stevens insisted on playing double bigs with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis starting together in the frontcourt. It faltered early and by the end of the experiment, Thompson-Theis played 34 games together (starting 24) and posted a 0.5 net rating (113.5 offensive rating, 113.0 defensive rating). It wasn’t exactly the picture of winning basketball, but the seeds of change had been planted.

That would prove to be Stevens’ final season on the Boston bench before moving up to the front office. No, it wasn’t because he couldn’t make fetch happen with TnT, but over the last three offseasons, you can see the throughline of all his moves. Reacquiring Al Horford gave him a veteran presence in the middle and out on the perimter. Re-signing Robert Williams to a four-year, team-friendly contract kept Boston’s best big man prospect in years room to grow. Bringing in Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari last year would have given Joe Mazzulla a ton of size off the bench. And now, two years into his tenure as President of Basketball Operations, Stevens made what could be a career-defining move bringing Kristaps Porzingis to the Celtics.

“Kristaps [Porzingis] seems to be a in a really good place. He is focused on what matters. He’s coming here to do his part to help us win,” Stevens said during a radio interview for The Jimmy Fund last week. “That was very clear in communicating with him when he was here for his press conference.”

Whether it was because of injury or necessity due to the roster imbalance, Joe Mazzulla used the double-big lineup sparingly. Williams and Horford played together in just thirty regular season games; in the playoffs, Williams only rejoined the starting lineup after the players implored their head coach to switch it up after the team was on the brink of elimination against the 76ers and returned to the bench after they fell into an 0-2 hole vs. Miami.

Now, there seems to be a bigger commitment to play big. And why not? It worked. Back in August, I wrote:

In a recent interview with The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach, owner Wyc Grousbeck talked about the front office’s idea of reshaping the team by getting bigger. The case for adding the 7’3 Porzingis is simple: the double big lineup worked so well. When Horford and Williams played together, the Celtics gave up just 103.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and were a stingey 104.3 in the playoffs. Regardless of who starts, head coach Joe Mazzulla can more or less always play big with a menacing rim protector on the floor; Porzingis blocked a hundred shots last season and Boston will most likely play in drop or up to touch on screens.

And that’s just on the defensive end.

It's true that the modern NBA has become more perimeter-oriented. Teams are playing smaller and shooting more threes. Officiating has become more favorable to guards and wings with less hand checking and physicality. But size will always matter in a sport dominated by giants. Contenders abound with massive frontlines featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic and the Celtics could boast the most fearsome threesome in the league next year.

Again, from last month:

What Boston now has in Porzingis is a three-level scorer in the front court. Last season, he shot roughly 20% of his shots at the rim, 25% in the paint, 25% from the mid-range, and 30% behind the arc; Horford and Williams’ splits were 15-10-5-65 and 75-20-5-0 respectively. That variety will give the Celtics a threat in the high and low posts, a reliable pop and roll man in the PnR, a lob threat, and kick out release valve. Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s also the calming salve for an offense that looked discombobulated at times and degenerated into Jays isolations far too often.

When the rest of the league zagged, Stevens ‘zinged. “The part that was very obvious was he’s 7-foot-3. He can play the 5 and the 4 and he can play with any of our 5’s and 4’s which I think is important,” Stevens said of Porzingis. “If you bring in someone that is just a center, it’s hard to play them and Rob together. But if you bring in someone with the skills that Kristaps has, that has the skillset that Al has, you can mix-and-match a little bit. You can stay bigger longer.”

Bigger. Longer.

As Stevens mentioned, it’s all about being able to play two out of the three bigs Boston will deploy throughout the regular season and ideally, exclusively in the playoffs. We’ve seen glimpses of what Williams is adding to his game this summer. A jump hook and a mid-range shot will make him more versatile, but as Stevens suggests, you can’t exactly play two centers like him together.

But with Porzingis now in the mix, Mazzulla can effectively play a big in the dunker spot (Williams or Porzingis) and a big above the break (Porzingis or Horford). As good as Williams and Horford were together on defense, the offense clicked, too. Two seasons ago, Williams-Horford registered a 113.2 offensive rating; last year, in albeit a smaller sample size, that offensive production grew to 119.0 points per 100 possessions. The pair only managed to play a shade over eleven minutes a game together over 30 games, but with Porzingis in the mix, those double bigs minutes should become more frequent and even more potent.

There’s also the downstream benefits. By pushing Tatum to the 3 and Brown and White to shooting and point guard, Boston will be big everywhere. Stevens has talked about the need to balance the roster this offseason to justify trading Marcus Smart for Porzingis and while there’s truth to that, the deal was also a very conscious decision to fundamentally change how the Celtics look next season. It’s a recipe that the Nuggets turned into the franchise’s first championship last June when they started 6’11, 6’10, 6’8, 6’5, and 6’4 and mauled through the NBA playoffs en route to lifting the Larry O’Brien. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Boston could be raising Banner 18 very soon.

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