Kristaps Porziņģis is a case study: in a player’s maturation, in the importance of role acceptance, in the beneficial nature of a different sports scenery completely changing who you can be.
Porziņģis’ departure from the Dallas Mavericks, and his renaissance season with the Boston Celtics, has been discussed online recently, but there’s only so much nuance that can be crammed into social-media discourse.
The Athletic’s Tim Cato, who covers the Mavericks, and Jared Weiss, who covers the Celtics, decided to have a conversation about Porziņģis’ career and how it’s ended up in the place it is now.
Tim Cato: Jared, the internet decided to talk about Porziņģis late last week. It centered on the differences between Porziņģis, key starter for the Boston Celtics, and Porziņģis, unsuccessful co-star for Luka Dončić with an unglamorous ending to his Mavericks career. It was, in my opinion, too reactionary and lacking nuance. You and I, we love nuance.
Let’s talk about the real reason Porziņģis has changed as a player and how his career ended up here, which is that he has been replaced by three Latvian teenagers in a trench coat, clearly.
Jared Weiss: The only conclusion I can come up with is that Dončić is a terrible teammate. Or maybe it’s that the league is rigged for the Celtics. Nothing else is coming to mind. Give me a minute?
Cato: But seriously, trench-coat theory aside, why has Porziņģis been so good in Boston this season?
Weiss: Oh you know what, I just remembered: Most careers go through waves. Porziņģis is a distinct player, and it’s taken a while for him and his team(s) to figure out how to maximize him. The simple answer this season is he is on a team so stacked and well-balanced that there is little pressure on him to step outside his comfort zone. He rarely has to do anything he isn’t good at, and it’s even rarer that the team needs him to carry it.
When Boston made the trade with the Washington Wizards, the natural assumption was he was going to run a ton of action out on the high post elbows where he could pass to cutters and try to face up and attack off the dribble. The surprise has been he’s mostly been used in middle pick-and-rolls or the low post. The bigger revelation has been on defense, where he steadily has improved guarding up in space and even switching.
There’s plenty to parse through this season. But to understand where he’s at now, we have to go back to when he first arrived in Dallas.
Cato: Dallas had a team-building problem in Dončić’s rookie year. The front office, led then by Donnie Nelson, had realized Dončić was too good, too soon, to lose games in his second season. The team had also recognized that Dennis Smith Jr., their 2017 first-round pick, wasn’t a long-term fit next to him. They had no idea their only other young prospect, Jalen Brunson, was on an All-NBA development path.
So Dallas decided to try to be good right away, and it traded for the best available player on that year’s market: Porziņģis.
Porziņģis was acquired as Dončić’s running mate, and the max contract Dallas signed him to that summer was proof. (By trading for him, there was an implicit understanding he would receive one.) And when Dončić and Porziņģis did play together, especially in the 2020 NBA bubble, Porziņģis often looked like the capable 1B option he was brought in to be.
But those two hardly played together: just 47 of the 75 potential games in the 2019-20 season; 40 of the 72 potential ones in the following year; and just 23 of the 56 potential games in the 2021-22 season, which ended when Dallas traded him to the Wizards.
Porziņģis was often injured — he had knee surgeries after both full seasons in Dallas — and sometimes hampered even when he was on the court. His immobility became an issue, as did his inconsistent shot. Dallas increasingly wanted him to be a shot finisher, not a creator, but Porziņģis had been acquired as the second option. He wanted touches and shots built into the Dallas offense that, during his time here, he wasn’t efficient enough to earn meritocratically.
Dončić and Porziņģis liked each other. Any strain on their relationship was nuanced — one of misaligned expectations, one where Porziņģis struggled to readjust to the new role Dallas needed. Due to the injury absences and the team’s defensive success without him, Dallas traded him for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns.
That trade, in my opinion, has not had long-term team-building implications. Letting Brunson walk for nothing was the gaffe that still haunts this franchise. But even in hindsight, there was reason to believe Porziņģis wouldn’t adjust and couldn’t stay healthy enough. It just seems they were wrong.
Weiss: Considering how well he played in Washington last year, you can’t help but wonder what would have happened to his career if he stayed in Dallas and was finally healthy. Dallas has much better creators who could’ve been unstoppable just running two-man actions with Porzingis. We’re seeing in Boston how easy he makes it for players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are good creators but not nearly on Dončić and Kyrie Irving’s level.
Cato: But that’s the question, right? Do we think Porziņģis could have become the player he has been in Boston without that stop in Washington? What changed there that he carried over to the Celtics?
Weiss: It seems like the Washington trade forced him to re-evaluate what he expects and what he wants. He got all the usage he wanted with the Wizards and used that to hone every facet of his game. The irony is that once he got to Boston, the Celtics haven’t tapped into some of those growth areas. We briefly mentioned it earlier, but Boston doesn’t do many of those rub cuts on his post-ups to try to force the defense into a double-team. The Celtics typically enter it to him and space around him for kick-out options.
What was interesting about his decision to sign with Boston — since this was effectively a free agency for him with his player option over the summer — is he knew he could probably start making All-Star teams again in Washington. The opportunity to put up big numbers was too promising. But he made the right call, as he is still putting up similar numbers because his efficiency has taken a huge step forward.
Cato: In December, Porziņģis went on JJ Redick’s podcast, “The Old Man & the Three,” and Redick asked him if there was a “pissing contest” between himself and Dončić early in their time together.
“Early on, for sure,” Porziņģis said.
In a previous answer, he had said, “What I could have done better (is) better maturity, for sure.”
When Porziņģis came to Dallas, he was seen — and saw himself — as an equal to Dončić. When Dončić accelerated to a first-team All-NBA level in his second season while Porziņģis struggled to reacclimate after missing a year and a half with injury, though, that dynamic changed. Even though it was obvious to us outside observers that this was Dončić’s franchise, I think Porziņģis probably did need that time he spent in Washington to reset his career expectations.
Weiss: Porziņģis’ career has always been two steps forward then one step back. It’s not just that health and development came together for Porziņģis at that moment. He was the rare high draft pick for the New York Knicks. Growing in that spotlight, especially as someone who isn’t a product of the AAU system, set him on an awkward path.
His capability to maintain his playstyle in a more physical playoff environment hadn’t caught up to the hype of his regular-season production yet. It also took a while for the pendulum on playstyle to swing back in his favor across the league, which seemed to be a major factor in his role in Dallas. That’s before considering the main factor: health. As ideal as this season has been for him, we still don’t know how he’s going to hold up in the spring. But at least he has found an identity that works.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 5, 2024
Cato: There was another answer from Porziņģis I found fascinating too, when he talked about not being “into analytics and numbers.” He wanted someone to present them to him in a manner he understood, which reminded me of a righteous rant Rick Carlisle went on during a postgame interview in December 2019.
“The post-up just isn’t a good play anymore,” Carlisle said then, in part. “It just isn’t a good play. It’s not a good play for a 7-3 guy. It’s a low-value situation. Our numbers are very substantial that when he spaces beyond the 3-point line, you know, we’re a historically good offensive team. And when any of our guys go in there, our effectiveness is diminished exponentially. It’s counterintuitive, I understand that, but it’s a fact. I think there’s certain situations where it makes sense. If we can get him on a roll in the paint toward the rim, that’s a good situation. And that’s what we’ll try to do with all our guys.”
Two things can be true at once. Porziņģis, who joined Dallas as an equal co-star to Dončić, expected to be viewed as such. Because New York had built much of its offense around him getting post touches, the idea he wasn’t receiving them in Dallas may have been symbolic of the overall dynamics he had with Dončić.
But as the league has increasingly moved to switch-based pick-and-roll schemes, post-ups have been revitalized. Porziņģis wasn’t good at those mismatch post-ups back then. But his efficiency in those situations paints a completely different picture today.
Weiss: After Joe Mazzulla spent last season talking about cross-match targeting, it was the first thing that came to mind when the Porziņģis deal went down. The Celtics roster is better structured to utilize Porziņģis that way, since everyone in their starting lineup can run pick-and-roll. Robert Williams III forced them to re-evaluate being a five-out offense and they can’t stay ahead of the curve while ignoring how much of the league has shifted back to the mid-post. They always wanted to find someone new to do both, now that Al Horford is past his prime.
The one surprise is he isn’t playmaking out of the post as much as he has in the past. According to Synergy, he would pass on roughly 26 percent of his post-ups in the prior two seasons. That’s down to 17 percent this year, though he is by far the most efficient player out of the post on points per possession in the NBA.
The primary explanation is likely that most of his post-ups come at the nail at the middle of the floor, so they can’t pull off a lot of the give-and-go actions teams use when a big posts up on the block off toward one side of the floor. Usually, if Porziņģis passes out of a post-up, he’s either kicking it back to a shooter on the perimeter or hitting a cutter crashing in from the weak corner. Teams also don’t double him as much because the Celtics have so much talent around him.
Maybe the best explanation for why he’s so good now is that he never takes fadeaways anymore. He catches the ball, reverse pivots through the defender to create the room he needs and then usually pulls up with his weight centered. He’s not backing that many players down, but he isn’t letting them dictate the physicality anymore.
Cato: I didn’t always enjoy watching Porziņģis on the Mavericks. I love watching him in Boston. It’s partially that he missed shots in Dallas he now makes more regularly. But he’s turned into one of my favorite types of players: one who can average 20 points without being the primary focus of an offense.
I know Boston runs plays for him. I know there are shots Porziņģis expects to receive heading into any given game. But much more than was the case in Dallas, they’re shots created by his Celtics teammates, ones that are counters to the defensive strategies any given opponent employs, rather than ones scripted on a strategy breakdown hours before the game.
Porziņģis was the first unicorn, and he’s been lapped by even more ridiculous talents who have entered the league. But he’s found his magic again, and the fact there are other 7-footers with guard-like skill sets doesn’t diminish that he was one that many of them looked up to as they were entering the league.
And even as some have surpassed him, Porziņģis’ maturation into the player he is now is something they can look up to again.
(Top photo: Paul Rutherford / Getty Images)