It could not have been easy for new Boston Celtics big man Kristaps Porzingis to be a mere spectator during Latvia’s fairly tale run at the 2023 FIBA World Cup in The Philippines this summer.
It had to be excruciating to be anchored behind the bench as Davis Bertans’ last-second 3-point attempt was off the mark in a heart-wrenching 81-79 loss to Germany in the FIBA quarterfinals on Wednesday morning.
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But it speaks volumes to Porzingis’ commitment to the Celtics’ quest for a different sort of gold during the upcoming NBA season.
International play really matters to those born outside the United States. Taking a non-Olympic year off, like many American NBA stars do, is not often a consideration.
The confidence with which Brad Stevens suggested that Porzingis will be ready for Day 1 of training camp next month suggests that, in a different situation, Porzingis might have been able to grind through the injury. But on the heels of the seismic swap that delivered Porzingis from Washington, and the two-year, $60 million extension inked in the aftermath, it’s clear that both sides understood a need to prioritize the season ahead.
Stevens acknowledged Porzingis’ selflessness when he noted last month on WEEI, "Those guys that represent their countries, they really enjoy that opportunity. So he was heartbroken not to do it. But he put the opportunity here, and took away any chance of having lingering effects by addressing it now and it shouldn't be a big deal.”
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The Celtics were well aware of the risks involved in international play after watching Danilo Gallinari, one of last summer’s big-splash additions, tear his ACL competing for Italy.
It’s one thing when an injury like that happens to a rotation piece on a mid-level contract. But it still stung due to Boston’s injury woes at the big-man position last season. Gallinari ended up never appearing in a single game for the Celtics and got shipped to Washington in June as part of the Porzingis swap.
But it still had to gnaw at Porzingis to watch from behind the bench. Latvia was the smallest country to make it to the quarterfinals. The team is still not yet guaranteed an Olympic berth. Continuity made up for much of the overall talent that Latvia lacked compared to bigger countries, particularly without its most skilled player.
The new fairy tale scenario would be a healthy Porzingis aiding Boston on a title quest, then getting an Olympic opportunity next summer. The Celtics would be far less nervous sending Porzingis to Paris with a banner already secured.
Credit to Porzingis for taking the longer view. He prioritized health and the quest for an NBA title while accepting a mere spectator role on what had to be a magical experience for Latvia.
By sitting out the summer, Porzingis showed he’s all in on what the Celtics are trying to accomplish.