The ‘risky’ move that unlocked Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics

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THE WEDDING PLANS were made months in advance. Long before the Boston Celtics stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to blow Game 7 at home. Long before the team’s front office had to take stock of another disappointing season that ended agonizingly close, but still short, of the franchise’s 18th NBA championship. Long before the idea of trading former Defensive Player of the Year and heart-and-soul of the team, Marcus Smart, ever became an option.

When Smart and his fiancee Maisa Hallum set September 16 as the date for their wedding at the posh Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach, California, the idea was to be surrounded by family, friends and basically everyone from the Celtics organization that had drafted him No. 6 overall in 2014 and helped him grow into the player and man he is today.

The setting on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean was majestic. Surrounded by beautiful, manicured lawns, white flowers adorned the aisle and the gazebo. Guests at the resort stayed in villas and bungalows. The pool — an ode to the Coliseum in Rome. Everything about the place screams grand.

But by the time the RSVP cards were due, the entire dynamic had changed. Boston had worn down over the seven-game series with the Heat, unable to counter Miami’s switching defense and blazing-hot 3-point shooting (43% in the series, 48% in their wins).

Smart hadn’t been the problem for Boston, but the idea of acquiring a floor-spacing big man that teams had to respect as a threat in the post had become a necessity.

And so the beginning of Smart’s married life became the final scene of the Marcus Smart Era with the Celtics.

“It was kind of like saying goodbye right before the season started,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum told ESPN of the lavish wedding. “It was really tough. Jaylen [Brown], Smart and I had been to four Conference Finals and one Finals. We just been through so much together. It was like the band was breaking up.”

Tatum, Brown and Grant Williams were at the wedding. So was Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck. Even head coach Joe Mazzulla and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens showed up and struck an epic pose in the photo booth.

Photos from the event were published by People Magazine and quickly went viral, agitating Boston fans still reeling from the stunning three-team trade on June 23 that had sent Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for center Kristaps Porzingis. It was, the thinking went, a cold, analytics-driven trade, made by an increasingly analytics-focused franchise.

Porizingis had shot a career-high 39 percent from behind the 3-point arc with the Washington Wizards. But having a good year on a team that goes 35-47 doesn’t change long-standing narratives. And Porzingis’ had never quite lived up to the promise he’d shown as a rookie in New York, when none other than Kevin Durant dubbed him “a unicorn.”

Smart had spent the better part of the past decade building his reputation as the Celtics’ locker-room leader and their defensive backbone. He was also Brown’s closest friend on the team. The move for Porzingis was bold, but Stevens and the Celtics believed the moment called for it.

Twenty-five days after their crushing playoff loss, the seventh in the Brown-Tatum era, and amid the annual whispers of whether to break up the wing tandem, the Celtics pivoted — hard — away from a player they always believed they needed, toward a player they never knew they did.

“I’m a big believer that whatever a narrative is on someone when they’re 19 or 22 or even 24, you just kind of keep following them and just let them develop and let them grow,” Stevens told ESPN.

And like a real estate developer looking at a house with good bones that could use a remodel, he had a vision for what Porzingis could be in the right situation.

“This was risky,” he says. “But as [assistant coach] Jay Laranaga used to tell me, ‘If we’re not trying to improve, we’ll stop being good.'”

THE FIT WAS so good early on that Tatum started comparing Porzingis’ role with the Celtics to that of Pau Gasol, who in 2008 was traded to the Lakers to team up with Kobe Bryant. It was a duo that led LA to titles in 2009 and 2010.

“Kobe really needed Pau for those last two championships that they won together,” Tatum says. “Whatever path that I’m on and we’re on, KP really feels like the missing piece.”

Porzingis was 3,000 miles away when the trade went through, training in gyms across Spain. He knew enough about Smart’s importance to the Celtics, his leadership, his defense, the mutual love between player and city, to understand how big of a gamble the team was taking by trading for him.

“I didn’t know it was going to be [Smart] in the trade, but seeing what they were going to give up for me, I realized that ‘OK, they really wanted me,'” he told ESPN. “That means that they expect a lot from me, also. So I have to show up.”

He has done that and then some — playing a critical role for the Celtics, who take the best record in the NBA (37-11) into Thursday’s showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers (7:30 p.m. on TNT).

“He definitely surprised me in the sense I didn’t really know him,” Tatum says. “I only knew him from the handful of times I played against him, but he’s lived up to all the hype.

“We struggled last year against Miami because they were switching, and we didn’t have anybody to really throw the ball to, to expose their switching. They took advantage of us on that, and KP is like the ultimate answer for that.”

The Celtics used to put Smart or Jae Crowder on Porzingis when they’d play over the years, telling them to get up under him and be physical enough to make him uncomfortable. It worked, to some extent. But the Porzingis who showed up in Boston had changed.

“You put somebody big on him and they’re probably too slow and not quick enough to keep up with him,” Tatum continues. “You put somebody shorter on him, they can stay with him, but he’s 7-foot-4, so he’s literally just going to shoot over that top and not be affected.” This is why Durant dubbed Porzingis a “unicorn” all those years ago and why the Dallas Mavericks were so giddy to team him with their own mythically talented player, Luka Doncic, in 2019.

But injuries and an unexpectedly poor fit with Doncic stunted Porzingis’ development in Dallas and hurt his reputation. The lowest point came in the 2021 playoffs, when the LA Clippers played him off the floor defensively, forcing former head coach Rick Carlisle to replace him with Boban Marjanovic.

“Obviously I wasn’t playing at my best,” Porzingis says of that season in Dallas. “I had some injuries here and there and couldn’t really get a good rhythm. It wasn’t a good place for me.”

That experience forced him to take a hard look at his game — and his future.

“I really checked myself,” Porzingis says. “From that point on I started building my game back up.”

THE TRANSFORMATION BEGAN in earnest in the summer of 2022. Back in February, his tumultuous tenure in Dallas had ended when the Mavericks traded him at the deadline to the Washington Wizards for Davis Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie. It was a stunning fall.

It was then, when he went home to Latvia for the summer, that Porzingis asked his friend and former national team guard Zanis Peiners to train him.

Peiners had never coached before, but had always been something of a coach on the floor for the national team. And he always loved analytics. So his instinct, he says, was to study what Porzingis had done well throughout his NBA career — and double down.

With help from Wizards assistant coach Dean Oliver and Latvian journalist, Reinis Lacis, they did just that.

The first task: “Post-ups without too many moves or too many dribbles,” Peiners says. “When he just gets the ball in the right position, where he’s efficient, more or less middle of the court, free throw line – just take one or two dribbles, make one counter move, and then shoot. It’s the simplest thing.”

Over and over, in gyms across Spain, Latvia and Monaco, they drilled it in. It was repetitive, tedious, boring at times. But the results have been astounding. According to Second Spectrum, Porzingis is averaging 0.51 dribbles before taking a shot this season, second-fewest among players with 400 or more shots. He only trails Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez.

That’s been a game-changer for the Celtics, who ranked 26th in post-ups per game last year. This year, they are 8th, largely because Porzingis is averaging 1.48 points per direct post-up, the highest rate in the NBA among players to run 75 or more post-ups, and the highest since Second Spectrum began tracking such data in 2013-14.

“He just takes advantage of whatever the defense has given up in that moment,” Tatum says of Porzingis’ ability to hunt mismatches. “He knows his spots. He knows where he’s effective. He’s a very smart basketball player.”

The second task: learning when to pick-and-pop and when to roll hard to the basket to draw fouls.

“That gives you a lot more efficiency,” Peiners says. “When to drive – without too many dribbles or moves – and when to pop and shoot.”

Another massive improvement: The Celtics have averaged 8.9 points per game directly from Porzingis’ pick-and-pop plays when he is the screener, the most for any player this season. Conversely, Porzingis has averaged 1.12 points per direct drive over the last two seasons, up from 0.89 in his first six NBA seasons, per Second Spectrum.

In other words, he’s become elite at not only recognizing when to pop and when to roll, but also in converting once he makes that choice.

That’s given the Celtics something they desperately needed last season to counter switching or zone defenses: optionality.

“Our guys are easy to play with and they’re about winning,” Stevens says. “They want guys that are going to be able to help do that. So if you’re in a position where you have an advantage, they’ll find you. And I think that people have quickly found out how good Kristaps is if you find him in advantageous situations.”

IT WOULD BE easy for Stevens to gloat at how well his bet on Porzingis has paid off so far. But this wasn’t a move made to win regular season games. The Celtics have won an average of 49 games per year since teaming Tatum and Brown in 2017-18. This was a move made to get them over the hump in June.

“From day one the message I’ve been trying to send these guys is, ‘I’m here to help win us a championship,'” Porzingis says. “That’s all I’m here for and I’ll do everything necessary, whatever the team needs.”

He says all the experiences he’s been through, the messy exit from New York, the uncomfortable fit in Dallas and his time with an underperforming Washington team, have prepared him for his first stretch run.

“I think sometimes when you’re younger, your physical abilities might already be there, but your mental is not there yet,” he says. “Now the mental is there, the physical is there, and once all those things click, that’s when you get a really good product.”

Stevens happened to see all of this nearly a year ago.

Since Porzingis had moved back to the Eastern Conference, the Celtics had been tracking his development more closely. But seeing it in person underscored just how much he’d grown.

Sitting in the stands, Stevens watched as Porzingis hit a 30-footer with 3:35 left in the first half, then a 27-footer 46 seconds later, pushing the Wizards’ lead to 10. He saw four consecutive possessions in the third quarter feature Porzingis assisting on a three from Corey Kispert, assisting on a mid-range jumper by Monte Morris, and then hitting another 27-footer of his own.

He saw the final stat line: 32 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 14-21 shooting, including 3-5 from deep.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don’t know how you would want to put it,” Stevens says. “I was at the game last year, on the road with our team, when we got drummed in Washington. He was a big reason for it. … Seeing that in person had an impact.”

Porzingis didn’t know how big of an impression he’d made in that game or even if anyone was noticing.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the front office – Brad and [VP of basketball operations] Mike [Zarren] – because obviously they watched what I did last year. They really paid attention,” Porzingis says. “Being in a smaller market, I thought it would maybe go under the radar, but I did everything I wanted to do to build myself back up to being that player.”

The Celtics did more than pay attention. They had a vision for what Porzingis could do for their team and the guts to go through with the remodel.

It’s hard to say if other teams noticed as well. If they did, no one was prepared to sacrifice as much to get him as the Celtics did. Smart cried when he learned he’d been traded. Fans in Boston probably did, too.

But Smart still had the fairy tale wedding he’d been planning.

Only time will tell if the Celtics’ gamble on Porzingis will end as happily.