After a wild night in which one three-team blockbuster deal went up in flames so that another could be born, the Celtics, Wizards and Grizzlies have completed a relatively significant trade that could affect next year’s title chase. Details: Boston receives Kristaps Porzingis and two first-round draft picks, Memphis gets Marcus Smart, and Washington lands Tyus Jones, Danilo Gallinari, Mike Muscala and a second-round pick.
The 30,000-foot-view assessment of all this chaos is that all participants walk away with something they needed. But let’s start with the biggest and most shocking loss. The Celtics say goodbye to their longest-tenured player, a polarizing, one-of-a-kind defender-winning floor general whose contributions often transcend statistical evaluation. Smart was the heartbeat of Boston, the type of manager whose jersey would have been raised in the rafters one day had he ever won a title in the city that met him.
The Celtics made the playoffs in all nine of his seasons. And in all nine seasons, they were never outscored per possession with him on the field. “I think toughness in general is hard to quantify,” Brad Stevens said in 2016. “Everybody brings their own skill levels to the table and everything else, but you have to have a competitiveness and an ability to figure out a way to win that possession. And he’s able to do that on a lot of possessions. “
Smart isn’t flawless (erratic decision-making, an iffy outside shot, a body that gradually slows down), but makes up for everything he did — especially as one of the league’s most versatile and tenacious defenders in a switch-almost-everything system – won’t be easy.
Boston’s return was very reasonable (two firsts? In this economy?), but the impetus behind the deal was less about improving a championship-quality basketball team than dealing with a looming financial burden caused by the NBA’s draconian collective bargaining agreement. But by trading the $41 million Smart had left on his deal after Next season on Porzingis’ expiring contract, Boston has cut costs and given itself some more flexibility (it owns all of its draft picks) while building a balanced, humongous and over-talented team.
In Porzingis, they land a stretch of All-Star chops who can space the floor, highlight Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White with dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls and insure (in the short term, and possibly beyond) the next season) Al Horford and Rob Williams III. He makes a lot of sense for a guard-heavy team that was thin up front.
Offensively, Stevens has coveted that archetype, be it Luke Kornet, Mike Muscala or Danilo Gallinari, tall, skilled centers who can’t be ignored behind the 3-point line. Porzingis is far from the most talented version Boston has had. He turns 28 in August and is coming off one of his best seasons: career highs in scoring average (23.2 per game), field goal percentage (49.8), effective field goal percentage (56.5) and true shooting percentage (62.7).
According to Second Spectrum, Porzingis’ quantified shooter impact was plus-8.28 and his quantified shotmaking was plus-5.39 last season. That was 10th and first, respectively, among all players who made at least 1,000 field goals. Translation: He made way more shots than he expected. It either means that he has established a new normal or that he is in a slump. The fact that Porzingis made just 30.77 percent of his uncontested 3s last season, suggests Boston would be wise to bet on Porzingis maintaining that performance—in an offense where he will spend plenty of time as the third or fourth option and will be able to operate against defenses more preoccupied with Tatum and Brown.
The Celtics are also betting on Porzingis’ good health. Porzingis crossed the 2,000-minute mark last year for the first time since tearing his ACL in 2018. This is a huge deal. When he’s on the field, his team’s offense draws the opponent. Porzingis just finished 18th in estimated plus-minus and 20th in real plus-minus. At his best, which was on display at times last season, Porzingis is basically unguardable: He’s 7-foot-3 and has a high release that makes perfect contests seem meaningless. He combines apt handles with intricate footwork, seemingly creating space when he wants to.
Without the ball, Porzingis can be a spot-up threat, curling into the paint from a wide pindown and making a trailing 28-footer look like a free throw. The possibilities are endless. Boston can create mismatches all over the floor by having wings and guards set down screens for KP, forcing help, unwanted contacts and confusion.
After a season in which Boston finished second in 3-point rate and sixth in 3-point accuracy, the team’s spacing will be even better, with more ways to diversify if and when its offense falls apart. For example: Last year, the wizards generated 125.3 points per 100 live games when Porzingis had a post-up. That was the third-best mark in the league among all players who averaged at least two post-ups per game. game (only DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Jokic were ahead).
Porzingis is not a genius passer or even someone strong enough to bulldoze smaller defenders into the post. But he has a habit of making extremely difficult shots look effortless, whether facing up from 15 feet or, with his back to the basket, using shot and shoulder fakes to set up his man for a soft fallaway. When he’s patient and in rhythm, he’s harder to guard one-on-one than most bigs:
When help comes, either against a defense that shifts and then sends a hard double team, or after he draws two defenders on a drive to the rim, Porzingis calmly makes some tough reads:
There were 47 players who set at least 1,000 ball screens last season. Washington produced 1.23 points per game. possession when Porzingis set a screen that ranked first out of those 47. On direct plays, when the screen directly led to a shot or a pass led to a shot, Porzingis finished second in efficiency. Fourth was Draymond Green, fifth was Jokic, and sixth was Joel Embiid.
Boston’s ball handlers will appreciate the advantages Porzingis creates for them out of the pick-and-roll, whether he’s popping for a 3, rolling into a post-up or diving all the way to the rim. (Guarding the Celtics will be a headache when he puts a pick closer to midcourt.)
Boston can also kickstart possessions by having him set a screen with Timelord or Horford. You jump, you roll, and the set develops from there. On paper they will be a nightmare to stop. In reality, there are questions about who will play with whom and when. Would Joe Mazzulla prefer Porzingis as his sixth man or starting power forward? If the latter, would Williams start alongside him? Will Horford come off the bench? Will Porzingis close in clutch situations? Will Malcolm Brogdon be over his bench role, healthy or even on the team?
Tactically, it will take time to find ways to highlight Porzingis instead of solely using him as a complementary piece. But ironing out chemistry issues is what the regular season is for. He was excellent on the Mavericks before a meniscus injury derailed his career in 2020. A personality clash with Luka Doncic didn’t help, but again, health is what really matters here.
And many of the aforementioned questions will be answered by how quickly Boston’s defense can coalesce. The Celtics are no longer switching with Smart gone and Porzingis in the door, but KP is a solid drop defender who plays a decent cat-and-mouse game. He moves his feet, hits the ball and is quick enough to get up quite high on the floor. Boston is long and smart enough to shrink the floor, battle over and under screens, contest shots and do whatever it can to make sure Porzingis isn’t out on an island or forced to guard in space.
What the one-time All-Star lacks in strength, he makes up for with a 7-foot-6 wingspan that’s longer than almost anyone else in the league. Last year there were 210 players who were the closest defender of at least 200 shots in the paint. Of those 210, only Jaren Jackson Jr., Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Nic Claxton and Royce O’Neale helped hold opponents to a field goal percentage lower than 42 percent, the rate the players shot when Porzingis was around.
It’s nice, although luck is definitely involved. He’s not feared on the cup, and is less of an impressive shot blocker than someone who prefers to avoid fouls with valiant attempts at verticality. The Celtics will be fine as long as Porzingis actually makes more effort on defense. For years, his energy has waned when he’s off the ball, when he needs to rotate Before a pass gets where the offense wants it. On average, the Knicks, Mavericks and Wizards have all struggled on defense when Porzingis is at 5. If the Celtics reverse that trend and get the same player Washington had last year, they will at least be back in the conference finals.
Don’t be shocked if Memphis joins them on the other side of the bracket. When Ja Morant returns from his 25-game suspension, the Grizzlies will roll him out with Smart, Desmond Bane, Jackson and Steven Adams. It is a wild defense with three good to great playmakers and a top toughness. Memphis just traded Jones and moved on from Dillon Brooks. In many ways, Smart is the two players in one body. At 29, he’s a bit advanced in terms of the Morant, JJJ and Bane timeline, but patience and the long view only works for so long. At some point, the Grizzlies needed to take a swing and infuse their homegrown core with a player who can elevate what they do on both ends.
On offense, Smart doesn’t naturally complement Morant. But they make it work. He is a better shooter than most people think – 36 percent on 6.6 3s per. game over the last three postseasons isn’t bad — and he doesn’t stop moving when the ball isn’t in his hands. They can partner right up in the pick-and-roll (small-small screening actions were a staple in Boston), especially if opponents stick a bigger defender on Morant or try to hide a big on Smart. Small lineups with Luke Kennard will be fun. Bigger lineups that let Smart be the point guard when Morant isn’t available will cause physical pain to opponents.
In defense it will be scary hours. Brooks just made the all-defensive team and took on some of the toughest on-ball assignments every night. Smart can replace that, but then also wreak havoc elsewhere, always communicating in transition, flying across the paint to protect the rim, taking charges, drawing fouls and skipping lanes. It’s an upgrade. Barring injuries, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be the top defense in the NBA next season.
And then there is the identity match. Memphis is desperate for a veteran pro with playoff experience who can introduce some critical leadership qualities to a young locker room that went off course last year. Smart can only help as a voice in Morant’s ear. If one of last year’s rookies takes a step forward and proves capable behind the arc, Memphis could find itself making a deep playoff run.
The same can’t be said for the Wizards, a team that wants to be very bad right away and is doing whatever they can to make it happen. It’s the only rebuilding team in this trade, so it’s not great that Washington didn’t get any of the first-round picks that changed hands. But it’s interesting that they landed Jones; they can either keep him as a stopgap point guard or flip him for more assets.
If Porzingis had opted out of his contract, they would have explored sign-and-trade options, and then, if none were viable, they would have been okay with letting him go for nothing. Instead, they get some draft equity back, which is what they would have eventually asked for in a universe where KP remained.
Overall, this trade pushed all the participants in the direction they want to go. At the same time, all three of them are probably looking at themselves in the mirror and realizing that they have a lot more work to do in the next few weeks.