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The Mavericks Bet Big On Kristaps Porziņģis. It’s Paying Off On Offense, But What About Defense?

Midway through Luka Dončić’s rookie season, the Dallas Mavericks seized on an opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often. Then-New York Knicks star Kristaps Porziņģis, still recovering from an ACL tear at the time, informed Knicks management that he wanted out of New York. Mere hours after news of the fateful meeting between Porziņģis and the front office broke, the Knicks and Mavericks reached a deal to send him to Dallas.

Based on both the package the Mavericks sent to New York and the post-trade comments of head coach Rick Carlisle, it was clear pretty immediately that the team was thinking big. “We obviously think Porziņģis is a great young talent, similar in many ways to Dirk [Nowitzki],” Carlisle told ESPN Radio. “This is kind of a Dirk-and-[Steve] Nash type of situation, only these guys are taller.”


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Porziņģis sat out the remainder of that season as he finished rehabbing his injured knee, but the Mavericks nonetheless committed to him in full that summer. Dallas signed the sharpshooting center to a five-year, $158 million contract, locking him in as Dončić’s running mate for the long haul.

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The first season of the Dončić-Porziņģis partnership was a successful one. Dallas’s offense blitzed the NBA to the tune of a league-best 116.7 points per 100 possessions, breaking the all-time record for offensive efficiency.1 Dončić put together arguably the greatest age-20 season in the history of the NBA, thrusting himself into the mix with the small handful of very best players in the league. The Mavs pushed the L.A. Clippers within an inch of their playoff lives but ultimately bowed out of the first round in six games. Porziņģis, though, saw his own run cut three games short after tearing the meniscus in his right knee.

That injury kept him out of the team’s first nine games of the 2020-21 season, and he was then eased into the lineup with a lighter minutes load. The team’s roster had been decimated by COVID-19-related absences, and Porziņģis was still rounding his way back into game shape; he struggled to get his long-range shot on line, knocking down only 28.6 percent of his deep attempts through his first nine appearances.

Something clicked for Porziņģis in his 10th game back, though, even as he scored just 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting and the Mavs lost a heartbreaker to the Suns. He scored 14 of those 19 points after halftime, and he was on the floor for the final 12 minutes and 32 seconds of the game. After playing in shorter, six-minute spurts earlier in the year, Porziņģis found the extended run refreshing.

“I think [playing longer stretches] gave me more time to get into a better rhythm and get better looks and not rush things — which I tend to do a lot now that I’m playing shorter minutes,” he said after the game that night, per the Dallas Morning News. “That’s something maybe I can communicate [to the coaches].”

Two games later, Carlisle did something coaches are typically loath to do: He rearranged his rotation to flip the rest schedules of Porziņģis and Dončić. While Dončić had previously been the one playing nearly the entire first and third quarters, sitting at the beginning of the second and fourth and then returning for the end of each respective half, that’s now what Porziņģis does. Dončić, meanwhile, exits around the six-minute mark of the first quarter, returns a few minutes later, then takes another rest midway through the second quarter before returning to close the half. (The Mavs only sometimes give Dončić a second rest after halftime.)

Since Carlisle made the switch, both Porziņģis and the Mavericks have been electric. Dallas is 20-11 overall and 16-7 in games Porziņģis has played since Feb. 4, a stretch during which he’s averaging 21.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 blocks in 31.1 minutes per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and connecting on 40.7 percent of his 6.3 threes a night. Meanwhile, the Mavericks offense, which had averaged 110.9 points per 100 possessions prior to the rotation switch, has surged to 117.8 points per 100 across the 31 games since then.

It’s the longest sustained stretch of elite-level individual offense Porziņģis has put together since the ACL injury. But there’s also been ample evidence throughout his Mavericks career that his mere presence on the floor is a net positive for the team’s offense.

Consider Dončić’s pick-and-roll game. Only one player (Trae Young) has been screened for more often this season than Dončić, per Second Spectrum. Among the 53 players who have run off at least 750 ball screens this year, trips that include a Dončić pick and roll have generated the ninth-most points per possession. Those pick and rolls have been more efficient when Porziņģis is the one setting the screen (1.244 points per possession) than when they’re set by anyone else (1.193).


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But that’s not all that surprising. Porziņģis is 7-foot-3 and has from-the-logo range on his jumper. He’s also considerably more skilled than the other players that screen for Dončić. Dončić is actually screened for by a non-Porziņģis teammate far more often than he is by Porziņģis himself, but Porziņģis’s presence on the floor has a dramatic effect on the efficiency of those plays. Dončić pick and rolls with non-Porziņģis screeners have generated 1.280 points per possession this season with Porziņģis on the floor, compared with just 1.161 with KP on the bench. The same is true on drives, where the average Dončić venture to the rim has resulted in 1.307 points with Porziņģis in the game but just 1.244 points with him on the pine.

What’s more, it still feels like there’s meat left on the bone for Porziņģis. His post-up numbers have crept upward in terms of both volume and efficiency this season, but he still has plenty of room to grow on that front. A player his size, with his touch, should be able to do better than the 59th percentile2 in points per possession generated when he’s thrown the ball on the block.

Porziņģis could still be scoring more on post-ups

Post-ups per 100 possessions and points per possession on post-ups, with scoring percentile, for Kristaps Porziņģis

Points per possession
Season Team Per 100 poss. Average Percentile
2020-21 Dallas Mavericks 8.971 1.096 59th
2019-20 Dallas Mavericks 5.221 1.022 30th
2017-18 New York Knicks 12.605 1.058 44th
2016-17 New York Knicks 6.065 0.992 22nd
2015-16 New York Knicks 7.408 1.095 58th

Among players with at least 100 post-ups per season. Through games of April 12, 2021.

Source: Second Spectrum

At the moment, Porziņģis also has a microscopic free-throw rate. It’s sitting at a career-low 0.194 free throws per field-goal attempt, according to Basketball-Reference.com, a figure so low that it actually ranks 744th out of the 813 player-seasons among 7-footers who played at least 1,000 minutes in a given year. Considering he’s an 80.6 percent free-throw shooter for his career, getting to the line more often would surely make him an even more efficient scorer. (It would also do more to justify his constant agitation for more touches.)

Still, it seems fairly clear at this point that when Porziņģis is healthy, he and Dončić will combine to make the Mavericks a devastatingly efficient offensive team. We have nearly two seasons’ worth of evidence for that, and each player’s skill set lends itself to keeping that going for quite a while.

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The questions come on the other end of the floor, where Porziņģis, due to both his size and the outsized burden Dončić carries on offense, has been and will continue to be tasked with the larger load. And it remains to be seen whether he’ll be up to the task.

Porziņģis has always had good rim-protection numbers, going back to his early days as a Knick. But it’s not yet clear that his prowess in that area definitively dissuades opponents from venturing into the paint. According to Second Spectrum, Maverick opponents have taken a slightly greater share of their shots from inside the lane (and a smaller share from the midrange area) with Porziņģis on the floor this season than when he’s been off it.

Porziņģis isn’t scaring teams away from the paint

Share of shots by location on the floor for Maverick opponents with Kristaps Porziņģis on and off the court, 2020-21 season

In the Paint From Midrange From Three
On the court 44.2% 14.8% 41.2%
Off the court 43.2 15.3 41.5

Through games of April 12.

Source: Second Spectrum

The league’s best paint-patrollers don’t just thwart opponent attempts at the basket but also prevent them from happening in the first place. If Porziņģis’s help-defense instincts kicked in a bit sooner or if he were a bit quicker to rotate over from the weak side when he sees a driver blow past a teammate on the perimeter, he would be a more effective deterrent. Instead, his help defense is below-average, despite his penchant for blocking shots.

Porziņģis also has occasional difficulties defending in space, though he has been somewhat better in that area in recent weeks. Smart teams still configure their offense to force him to change directions multiple times in quick succession (something that 7-foot-3 people unsurprisingly struggle to do) or else keep up with smaller, speedier guards as they turn the corner, particularly on pick and rolls. There are 70 players who have defended the screener on 500 or more ball-screens this season, per Second Spectrum, and the 1.129 points per possession teams have scored when Porziņģis is that defender is 23rd-highest.

The Mavericks do their best to keep him at center (he’s played 99 percent of his regular-season minutes in Dallas at the five, compared with just 22 percent in New York) and thus close to the rim, where his height and monstrous limbs play up. They also try to pair him with mobile frontcourt partners like Maxi Kleber, so he doesn’t have to jump out on the perimeter all that often. But opponents can still force it, and when they do, it’s a problem. Rest assured, they will do this in the postseason, and they will do it relentlessly until Porziņģis figures out how to stop it.

Pre-injury, Porziņģis earned the nickname “Unicorn” specifically because he looked like the rare player capable of creating gobs of space on one end and just as easily erasing them on the other. Dirk on offense, and something like Draymond-Green-plus-9-inches on defense. 

Porziņģis can still do the former because of his size and range, and it’s hugely valuable both individually and on a team level. His ability to do the latter is more limited, though, as is the area of the floor he can effectively erase. That alters the ceiling for both him as a player and the Mavericks as a team, and makes building around him and Dončić a trickier proposition.

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Footnotes

  1. Four teams are on pace to rebreak it this season.

  2. Among players with at least 100 post-ups.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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