Kristaps Porzingis has been regarded as the second franchise player alongside Luka Doncic since his arrival with the Dallas Mavericks in 2019. Then came injuries and his poor start to the 2020-21 season. Can the Latvian be the second star next to Doncic that the Mavericks need?
Kristaps Porzingis has been a big question mark since his arrival with the Dallas Mavericks. He has made the organization look both good and bad at times in their decision to bring him from the Big Apple to the Lone Star State. But perhaps the most frustrating part about the Latvian talent is that he remains a question mark. The Mavericks were hopeful Porzingis could solve their problems when they sent two first round draft picks and Dennis Smith Jr. to New York on January 31, 2019 for the then injured Latvian. And the Dallas brass still had that belief even before his first game for the team in the following off-season when they gave him a max contract including a player option. Porzingis has shown the promise of what he can be as Mavs fans got pretty excited in August 2020 when he dropped 34 points and 13 rebounds on the L.A. Clippers in one of the games in the playoffs bubble. But that was somewhat of a distant memory as of mid-February 2021. The Mavs started the current season with a more than disappointing 8-13 record and Porzingis has played the worst defense of his career. The question is if is that is because of his meniscus operation or something else. That goes along the other important question: What exactly is Kristaps Porzingis? Can he be the second-best player on a title contender? The second question cannot be answered yet, but the stats for this season don’t support a yes answer.
Porzingis’ defensive stats for the start of the 2020-21 season are especially tough to swallow. Sure, every player needs a certain recovery time after a major operation. But here are the most meaningful numbers. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavs are giving up nearly 10 points more with their most important defender on the court with his net rating being about -6. If Luka Doncic was not on the court, the Mavs with Porzingis allowed nearly 17 points more than they scored themselves. Okay, there needs to be a certain fairness after a comeback. So, it begs to look at the numbers from his first complete season with the Mavs. Porzingis did not play all the games in 2019-20 either and he was returning from a much-longer injury break. But some numbers were needed to analyze. Injuries have been a major part of his career – there is no way around that fact – which makes an evaluation that much more difficult. Just like the fact that there is not really a direct comparison for Porzingis’ game because he personifies two entirely different positions offensively and defensively. Kevin Durant coined Porzingis the “Unicorn” while he was still in New York because he was the rare big man who could shoot threes and protect the rim on defense. But how much of that is reality?
More wing than big man
Looking at his offense, Porzingis has been the second option since arriving in Dallas – the player other than Doncic for whom opposing teams spend the most time planning. At first glance, that seems to fit as he averaged more than 20 points a game and has been Dallas’ second scoring option both in 2019-20 and the current season. But a deeper look tells more. The NBA nowadays is mainly led by teams with star duos. The best teams usually have a second option who perfectly accentuates the strengths of the other leader and can take over games depending on opponent or game situation. The best possible versions of this currently are Anthony Davis as well as Khris Middleton and Paul George. A comparison to the wings seems better since Porzingis’ shot selection in 2019-20 looks more like them than a big man. He took only 26 percent of his shots at the rim and nearly exactly 40 percent behind the three-point line. George for example had percentages of 21 and 45. Porzingis’ role in the Mavs’ five-out offense is clearly defined with the idea of giving more space to Doncic. But Porzingis was not really someone who was active around the basket during his days in New York either. Essentially, he is the tallest shooting guard in NBA history. Porzingis has been highly efficient at the basket, converting 68 percent of his shots near the rim. The numbers for this season dip to lower than 37 percent from the midrange or on three-pointers. And that is not an exception. Besides the strong 2017-18 season, in which he hit 41 percent of his three-pointers, Porzingis doesn’t really deserve his reputation as a good shooter. He really doesn’t have any sweet-spots on the court – at least not over long stretches. And he doesn’t effectively hit his open shots according to the heat maps. That is especially problematic when you consider that as opposed to the other best second options in the league, Porzingis cannot create shots for himself.
Needs help for shots
Despite being such a big name, Porzingis really has frighteningly few moves in his repertoire. Take away the missing post game, which is also due to his high center of gravity and slender stature, and he really has a number of problems in his game. His very rudimentary ball-handling makes Porzingis very limited as a shot-creator. Only 19 percent of his shots in 2019-20 did not come with an assist pass. That is quite low even among big men – ranking 124th behind even guys like Draymond Green and Clint Capela. Most of his shots come from the catch-and-shoot as either the roller or the pop-out player after a pick. Or it will be a turn-around jumper in the post over a smaller defender. All told, 68 percent of his shots came without a single dribble. As a scorer, Porzingis is unusually dependent on other players for being considered such a “star”. And he is rarely a playmaker. Comparing Usage Rate and Assist Percentage, he has a 0.36 and ranks in the lower 10th percentile. Offensively, Porzingis really doesn’t deserve the star status, even though over stretches during his career he has phases in which he hits a lot of his shots and seems “unstoppable”. But altogether, he is a rather inefficient offensive player who is highly dependent on others and other than spacing doesn’t give much back to the offense.
Offense of course is not the only aspect of his game and Porzingis has made a name for himself as a rim-protector. Last season, he lived up to that – at least as a helper from the weak side. His Block Percentage of 3.1 percent was very solid even though he produced better numbers while in New York. With Porzingis as the nearest defender, opponents shot just 51.6 percent at the rim – a very good showing. Problems occur though when Porzingis goes against physically stronger centers in one-on-one defense or has his lack of mobility exposed on the pick-and-roll. This has been very visible at the start of the 2020-21 season. The Mavs are among a large number of teams who had real problems at the beginning of the season with the usage of drop coverage. Porzingis also doesn’t really excel as a rebounder despite his size. His numbers are okay but not dominant. Until this season though, Porzingis has been a positive factor on defense. In 2019-20, the Mavs conceded 2.9 points fewer per 100 possessions when he was on the court. And Dallas hope that effectiveness returns. But there is still the question if he can be the second-best player of a title contender.
Mavs betting on Porzingis
The Mavs are betting on Porzingis in two aspects. First off, they hope the Dallas medical staff can come up with a plan for Porzingis so that he is able to play his best basketball at the right time and can withstand the physical stress of a deep playoffs run. Porzingis’ physique is unique and his medical file is pretty thick for a player in his sixth season. The other bet the Mavs are making is that Porzingis can carry the way he played in the bubble over to an entire season or at least a post-season. If he can get hot at the right time, other deficits in his game -including a lack of shot creation – will be quickly forgotten. Mavs optimists will say Porzingis despite his deficits was a major reason they were able to play at the same level as the Clippers in the playoffs. Pessimists meanwhile will argue that it was only three playoff games in addition to a strong stretch after the 2020 All-Star break. The sample size with the inefficient scorer and long-time injury absentee was bigger. That brings up the final question.
Two or three?
In the current version of the Mavericks – in which essentially one player creates almost everything when he’s on the court – Porzingis can be a second option. He doesn’t need to be a playmaker and can concentrate on his strengths. But the Mavs in their current constellation are not where they want to be: namely in the title conversation. Depending on one player also has its downsides, and the Mavs’ significant crunch time problems came to light last season. For this other version of the Mavs, a bit of the burden must be taken away from Doncic, someone is needed who can create simple shots without the Slovenian and give the offense an identity with him on the bench. Porzingis has not shown an ability to do that. The player who was nicknamed the “Unicorn” because of his unique combination of skills has simply been one-dimensional. Maybe that will change one day. But more likely is that Porzingis is better suited to be the third part of a Big Three. At least if the Mavs really want to break out.
by FIVE Magazine #177 – Kristaps Porzingis– Text: Ole Frerks