For the first time since coming to Dallas, Kristaps Porzingis is alone in the spotlight. He spent the first two months of the regular season with his new team riding shotgun to Luka Doncic, who was putting together an MVP-caliber season before spraining his ankle on Saturday. But while Luka’s absence in the next few games will create more opportunities for Porzingis, it may not change his role in the offense.
Porzingis is a totally different player than he was with the Knicks. Instead of running the offense through him in the post and using his length to attack mismatches, the Mavs have turned their star big man into a 7-foot-3 shooting guard.
The new version of Porzingis was on display in Dallas’s first full game without Doncic, a 120-116 road victory against the Bucks on Monday, which ended Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak. Porzingis had his third-most points (26) and second-most assists (four) of the season, but his looks mostly came within the flow of the usual offense. He was 4-of-8 from 3, including several moon shots from way behind the line, and spent most of his time spacing the floor and moving without the ball. He closed the game in the fourth quarter with consecutive 3s from the parking lot over Giannis Antetokounmpo:
Kris-STEPH Porzingis showing OFF pic.twitter.com/iIIXpTUq4d— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) December 17, 2019
It was his best performance in a Mavs uniform, but he had been steadily building toward it during the last month. There were a lot of uneasy moments at the beginning of the season. Not only was Porzingis coming off a 20-month absence after tearing his ACL, he had to adjust to a new offensive system, as well as a new place in the pecking order. He made an All-Star game in his last season with the Knicks as the centerpiece of the offense, but Doncic already filled that role in Dallas.
Porzingis wasn’t the only one going through an adjustment process. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle needed time to figure out his new team. Dallas got out to a 6-5 start, including two ugly losses to the Knicks when they went out of their way to attack their former franchise player.
The big change happened when Carlisle overhauled his rotation to play Doncic and Porzingis together more often. He had staggered their playing time before realizing Porzingis didn’t need to be a primary option. In fact, he was better when he could play off someone else. The Mavs have gone 12-3 since the move with wins against the Bucks and Lakers. Porzingis is the biggest beneficiary. His net rating went from minus-7.1 in his first 10 games to plus-16.7 in his last 15.
The raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Porzingis is averaging the fewest points (17.2 per game) since his rookie season and his lowest field goal percentage (40.1) of his career. He has taken a step back on offense to give others room to shine while rededicating himself on the defensive end. A poor rebounder in his first three seasons in the NBA, Porzingis is averaging a career-high nine boards per game, and he’s allowing opposing players to shoot just 47.4 percent at the rim, 2.6 points lower than back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
More important than how much Porzingis is scoring is where he’s scoring from. Porzingis is attempting a career-high 6.1 3s per game. He’s creating more room on the floor for his teammates while cutting in half the percentage of his offense that comes from the dreaded long 2-point range. He has gone from featured option to role player. Porzingis is averaging the fewest number of touches (53.9 per game) and the lowest average time of possession (1.4 per game) of his career. The types of shots he’s getting in Dallas have changed as well:
His post scoring, once the foundation of his game, has fallen off a cliff. Part of the issue is timing. Porzingis isn’t as comfortable finishing over smaller defenders as he was before the injury, and it’s easy for them to get under him and push him off his preferred spots. He’s only in the fourth percentile of post scorers in the league this season, which is hard to believe for a player with his staggering size and touch.
There are plenty of times when Porzingis shies away from contact and doesn’t use his size well. But instead of asking him to be something that he’s not, the Mavs have taken advantage of all the things he does well.
They don’t force-feed him the ball. Porzingis is not posting up as much, and he surprisingly hasn’t had much chemistry with Doncic in the pick-and-roll. He’s more comfortable popping out to the 3-point line than rolling to the rim, and his poor post game means that defenses can switch those screens without worrying about Porzingis punishing the mismatch. He’s better playing off the two-man game than being in it.
There’s a broader trend at work. Porzingis is more effective at finishing plays than creating them. He’s not capable of quickly reading the defense and making plays on the move: He has career averages of 1.4 assists per game on 1.8 turnovers. But he doesn’t need to try and be a playmaker in Dallas. Either he takes the shot as soon as he touches the ball or he keeps it moving.
The numbers, via NBA Advanced Stats, are telling. The more Porzingis holds the ball, the worse he is:
|Dribbles||Field goal attempts||FG%|
|Dribbles||Field goal attempts||FG%|
Doncic is an interesting comparison: He shoots a much higher percentage from the field after taking three to six dribbles (50.4) than he does after zero (42.9) or one (37.1).
The problem is that there is an opportunity cost that comes with Luka’s style of play. Time with the ball is zero-sum. The more one player has it, the less for everyone else. It can be hard for the point guard’s teammates to get into a rhythm when he’s dribbling the ball into the ground.
Porzingis can score without having to do that. He doesn’t need many plays run for him. It’s hard to deny a 7-foot-3 player the ball on the perimeter. Porzingis is so tall most closeouts don’t even bother him, while a bigger player who hugs him 30-plus feet from the basket is leaving the defense exposed at the rim.
His ability to space the floor makes life easier for everyone else. The Mavs have plenty of capable perimeter playmakers not named Luka Doncic who can run the offense. Jalen Brunson is averaging 15.5 points on 44 percent shooting and 9.5 assists in the past two games. Seth Curry and Delon Wright combined for 39 points and six assists on 14-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee, while J.J. Barea had 12 points and five assists in the game when Doncic went down, a 122-118 OT loss to Miami.
Dallas currently has the highest-rated offense (116.6) in NBA history. It wouldn’t make sense to change what they have been doing to slow things down and force the ball inside to Porzingis.
He deserves a ton of credit for embracing his new role. Porzingis could have caused a stir in the locker room by demanding a bigger part in the offense, especially after Doncic went down. But, just as he has all season, he said the right things to the media: “We want to keep this offensive system going. I don’t want to—just because I want to get my own buckets—mess up the timing and the spacing and things like that. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
Porzingis said he wanted to win when he asked out of New York, but winning sometimes requires a level of sacrifice many 24-year-olds aren’t willing to make, especially ones who have had as much success as him. He’s been forced into the same type of complementary role as a stretch big man as Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, except he’s had to make the transition at a much younger age.
The good news for Porzingis is that the nature of that role is changing. Bosh never averaged more than 2.8 3s per game in any of his four seasons with LeBron James in Miami. Love averaged 5.7 in four seasons with LeBron in Cleveland, and Porzingis is already ahead of that number in his first two months in Dallas.
There is still so much room for him to grow as a shooter. He’s taking very different types of 3s than his predecessors. His four makes against Milwaukee were all from at least 27 feet away. Dallas has started running plays for him to curl around screens off the ball and fire:
Porzingis, who is hitting 33.6 percent of his 3s this season, has done all this without even shooting that well. He could be in line for an offensive explosion if he heats up. The odds are he will, if for no reason other than Carlisle will keep letting him bomb away. It’s hard to know what’s the limit for the number of 3s he could take. Karl-Anthony Towns is attempting 8.5 per game this season. The NBA is in uncharted territory. Porzingis is in the right place at the right time to ride that wave.
Whether Doncic is on the floor or not shouldn’t change anything for him. The most valuable thing Porzingis can do in Dallas is not hold onto the ball.