How Kyrie and Porzingis have fulfilled each other’s destinies

This is a different Kyrie Irving. Two feet firmly planted in the present, preaching inside Dallas’ huddle before running out before the world. He lavishes postgame affirmations to a largely inexperienced roster that follows each crafty step of his signature Anta sneakers — as they follow Luka Dončić’s dribble. At 32, Irving’s fourth stop of his 13-year NBA career has produced the exact circumstances his second pro situation was supposed to beget with Boston.

Irving’s Mavericks now face his former Celtics in the 2024 NBA Finals that begin Thursday night. That opposing side happens to be hoping for key contributions from 7-foot-2 center Kristaps Porziņģis — the very All-Star talent Dallas once hoped would serve as Dončić’s co-star for a decade of chasing titles like this.

It’s a rich irony almost destined within the NBA’s modern world of team building, one in which the league’s new collective bargaining agreement should only further encourage player movement and trade activity. And there are always reunions waiting to cap each season of reality television. Jrue Holiday was a Celtics adversary of postseasons past until he wasn’t, and his former Milwaukee team could have taken the place of Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals along a different timeline. That series still pitted the Celtics’ All-NBA playmaker, Jayson Tatum, against a former Boston teammate in Aaron Nesmith, who guarded his assignment like they were back behind closed-practice doors.

For Irving and Porziņģis, each a basketball lifetime away from their pasts, these respective full circles are conjoining almost as they were supposed to unfold with the opposing teams of this Finals matchup. How those situations crumbled, and how Irving and Porziņģis both finally arrived at this stage, are stories rife with All-Star melodrama — that nearly intersected in a trade for one another along the way. But they are also stories about growth.

Irving, remember, requested out of Cleveland in 2017 and pinpointed Boston to find his respite from LeBron James’ shadow, having reached three straight NBA Finals together. Irving was searching for a home to call his own. He wanted a program to cover in his fingerprints, to bring his worldly sense of basketball and greater artistry to a different locker room.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration) (Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Irving, league sources told Yahoo Sports, considered the Cavaliers to be in flux. Cleveland was in conversation with former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups to become its next general manager after Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and lead executive David Griffin couldn’t agree to terms on a new contract. Irving and his representation were already hearing credible rumblings around Cleveland and James’ camp that the four-time MVP was eyeing Los Angeles in free agency following that 2017-18 campaign as well. Plus, the Celtics had draft capital and ready-made veteran players to send the Cavs in return for Irving.

According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, Irving’s then-agent, Jeffrey Wechsler, informed Gilbert that his client preferred to be dealt to either the Spurs, Knicks, Timberwolves or Heat, with the list intentionally excluding the Celtics — the franchise Cleveland had just faced in Eastern Conference finals. And once Wechsler secured permission from Gilbert to contact opposing teams, sources said, he and then-Celtics president Danny Ainge engaged in frequent dialogue about Irving’s trade market.

This is not to characterize Irving-to-Boston as some elaborate, clandestine operation. Cleveland’s front office valued the 2018 Nets draft pick that Boston held — by way of the fabled 2013 Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade to Brooklyn — as a top-five pick in that upcoming draft, sources said. The Cavaliers considered that selection the premier draft asset that was offered to Cleveland as part of any incoming packages rival teams were offering for Irving. The Celtics, though, would not have been as emboldened to trade for Irving, himself two years from reaching unrestricted free agency, without learning of his untold interest in Boston first.

There was just never much opportunity for Irving to lead the Celtics as he once hoped. Gordon Hayward was lost to a season-ending injury not five minutes into Boston’s 2017-18 campaign. An ailing knee kept Irving out of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals — where Boston would run up against … who else? James’ Cavs.

Sure, the sturdy showings of a rookie Tatum and second-year Jaylen Brown would lead to natural points of tension between gifted 20-somethings all seeking to establish their place in the league’s pecking order. “Just learning that being on such a talented team, that it’s not just talent that’s going to take you over the top,” Tatum recently told reporters. “You have to have guys that are willing to sacrifice, guys that are willing to do the other things in order for the team to have a chance. It wasn’t a Kyrie thing, it was all of us.” Yet Irving’s inconsistent approach also seemed to curtail any chance of him finding the voice he wanted to resonate so desperately among Boston’s youthful roster, a seasoned voice that is now being heard loud and clear with Dallas.

There were days during Irving’s second year with the Celtics, after he famously told fans he planned to re-sign with Boston when he reached free agency that July 2019, when Irving walked into the facilities with a hoodie pulled over his face, side-stepping eye contact with passersby as if he were dodging defenders in the lane. Irving was prone to grunt and nod as he milled around the practice floor. He’d string his sneakers together while sitting in the corner. There were activities and practices Celtics figures questioned if Irving was even going to show up for, sources said, as his participation in routine team functions was never guaranteed. That same unsteady and unchecked presence followed Irving throughout his tenuous tenure with Brooklyn.

When the calendar flipped to 2019, as Irving’s second Celtics season drifted closer to the All-Star break — which brought us that hallway footage of Irving and Kevin Durant joining forces — Irving started sharing candid thoughts with members of the franchise about his lack of faith in Boston’s direction. The Celtics once dreamed of pairing Irving with Anthony Davis. But come late January, when New York’s front office began to quietly pursue deals to move on from Porziņģis, the Celtics and Knicks even held tangible dialogue about swapping Irving for the 7-2 sharpshooter, league sources told Yahoo Sports, before the Mavericks swooped in and sent a package headlined by two first-round picks to New York.

By dealing Porziņģis, the Knicks announced to the league that New York was positioning itself to splurge in free agency for two All-Stars — with Durant and Irving, of course, atop the wish list. If the Knicks could have secured Irving ahead of that trade deadline, perhaps the folks around Madison Square Garden would have left a strong enough impression on Irving, and he would have recruited Durant to join him in Manhattan as opposed to the borough across the East River. Perhaps Irving never ends up with the Mavericks after Porziņģis’ tenure alongside Dončić came to its own conclusion.

Dallas originally billed as Porziņģis’ forever home once his own representation requested a trade out of New York. For several stretches, Dončić and Porziņģis formed a lethal pick-and-roll combination as they found commonalities away from the court. When the NBA flocked to Disney’s campus to restart the 2019-20 season, their first full year playing together, Dallas’ linchpins were often spotted in the pool, splashing through games of volleyball and sipping hard seltzers. Dončić shared an Instagram story of him and Porziņģis lounging on a green lawn, soaking inside twin inflatable cold tubs, a Bud Light fixed in Dončić’s right hand. Their growing bond was palpable to Mavericks figures and onlookers familiar with both players. A shared connection with Boban Marjanović, the affable and larger than life NBA journeyman from Dončić’s native Serbia, seemed to bring Dallas’ combination closer.

A torn meniscus ended his strong run in the bubble, however. More leg injuries limited Porziņģis to just 43 games in 2020-21. When he was healthy, Porziņģis often felt reduced into the league’s priciest spot-up shooter under Rick Carlisle. Dallas’ historic offense around Dončić couldn’t justify the post-ups Porziņģis always seeked. And he still struggled when Jason Kidd was installed as head coach. “On paper, it would be the perfect fit, but it just didn’t mesh the way that we wanted to,” Porziņģis once told Yahoo Sports. “We just did not mesh together well. Sometimes it’s like that in the workplace, you know? It just didn’t work out the way you expected.” As the February 2021 trade deadline approached, Dallas began to explore his market value, sources said, searching how to break Porziņģis’ gargantuan salary into more useful parts to complement Dončić’s solo act.

They wouldn’t deal him until a year later. The Raptors’ front office long harbored an affinity for Porziņģis, and Toronto was one of the teams on his preferred list of trade destinations away from New York. Before the 2022 deadline, the Raptors were offering a package of Goran Dragić and a first-round pick to rival executives, sources said, aiming to upgrade Toronto’s postseason push. A deal with the Mavericks would have united Dončić with his fellow countryman. Instead, the Raptors moved forward on a trade with San Antonio to bring Thaddeus Young north of the border.

There was little traction on other Porziņģis deals. He had missed another stretch, five straight games, with a bone bruise in his troublesome right knee. And so Dallas officials redialed Washington. The Wizards and Mavericks had held discussions on other trade frameworks, but these waning moments before the 2022 buzzer sounded were when the two teams first discussed sending Porziņģis to the nation’s capital, sources said. Dallas was able to net an additional ball-handler in Spencer Dinwiddie, a secondary creator for Dončić, and Dinwiddie would eventually serve as part of the out-going salary Mavericks president Nico Harrison sent to Brooklyn in order to acquire Irving.

Porziņģis found his form next to Bradley Beal in D.C. He started and played 23 of the Wizards’ first 24 games, and would finish the 2022-23 campaign posting a career-best 23.2 points over 65 appearances — the most since his rookie year.

It was such a strong bounce back showing, Porziņģis could have declined a player option for this season worth $36 million. There were strong enough signals, according to league sources, that Porziņģis was positioned to receive an even richer payday from the Utah Jazz should he have reached the open market.

Testing free agency likely would have brought a larger dollar figure from Utah for Porziņģis, sources said, than he ultimately netted from Boston. The Celtics had traded Marcus Smart to Memphis and were suddenly in position to trade Tyus Jones to the Wizards for the right to offer Porziņģis the two-year, $60 million contract extension he later signed. Boston had previously approached Washington about acquiring Porziņģis before the 2023 trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports. And it seems no coincidence that his last game before the Wizards shut him down in pursuit of draft lottery ping pong balls, Porziņģis poured in 32 points against Boston for one of his best performances of the year.

In order for the summer blockbuster to get completed, though, Porziņģis had to pick up that option for this 2023-24 campaign — which then limited the sweet-shooting big man to a smaller salary with the Celtics in accordance with the league’s cap restrictions. And so essentially, by picking up that $36 million to get traded to Boston, Porziņģis agreed to less money than what would have foreseeably been available in free agency in order to pursue the franchise’s 18th banner and his first ring.

Porziņģis fit as well as Boston brass imagined. His pick-and-pop threat provided even greater space for the Celtics’ bullpen of perimeter ball-handlers. He transformed from a statistical liability with his post touches in Dallas to producing one of the most efficient post-up seasons in NBA tracking-data history, with Porziņģis’ post-ups this season generated a staggering 1.29 points per possession.

Irving has found a balance with the Mavericks. He picks his spots to take the wheel behind Dončić’s lead, but he is the unquestioned vocal bassline to this momentous run to the Finals. Kidd calls him a calming, poised presence. He’s eight years older than Dončić — the same seniority James offered Irving when they first teamed with the Cavaliers. For this Dallas duo, their partnership has seemed to stand on growth as much as their common gifts. “A big word that we both can agree on is maturity,” Irving said after the Mavericks bested Oklahoma City in Round 2.

Boston marks Porziņģis’ fourth team just as Dallas does for Irving. Tatum and Brown have Holiday as their championship-tested anchor of their backcourt — with more spacing on the way, thanks to a certain center’s return from injury. Dončić has his vaunted co-star. Irving can’t seem to miss a left-handed floater.

Here’s to hoping it takes seven games to decide which group finally claims the crown.