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Kristaps Porzingis May Be Best Suited As a No. 3 in Dallas

Luka Doncic is ready to compete for MVPs and championships now. But the Mavs’ other max player is starting to look more like Luka’s Bosh than his D-Wade.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dallas is way ahead of schedule. Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told me in October that the organization’s expectations for the season were to make the playoffs. “It’s a step-by-step process,” Nelson said. But Luka Doncic’s leap from Rookie of the Year to MVP candidate has caused the Mavs to skip steps. The championship window is already cracked open. Doncic is leading Dallas’s offense to 116 points per 100 possessions, which is both the best in the NBA this season and the best in history, and the Mavericks are tied for the fifth-best record in the West. The Mavs are young, but it’s already worth pondering how they can find the right pieces to break the championship window open.

The first big move Dallas made to complement Luka came almost one year ago, when it acquired Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks; the Mavs then signed Porzingis to a maximum contract extension this past summer. Results have been mixed for the 7-foot-3 big man since he returned to the court this season after being sidelined for a year and a half recovering from a torn ACL. While Porzingis has been a stellar defensive anchor and a threatening floor spacer from way beyond the 3-point line, he hasn’t shot the ball well and his post offense remains nonexistent. It’s unwise to expect any player to immediately perform at an optimal level following a major injury, especially when they’re also being installed in a brand-new system. But Porzingis has also been hurt, which is the most pertinent concern; he missed 10 games with a sore right knee and received a platelet-rich-plasma injection before returning on Tuesday. It’s just another addition to the long list of injuries he’s suffered since 2015:

  • Right leg: sore knee, sore hip, sprained ankle, sore foot, inflammation to the bone and tendon of his knee
  • Left leg: torn ACL, sore Achilles, sore knee, sprained ankle, sore groin, strained quad, and bruised thigh
  • Other: lower-back tightness, right-shoulder issue, right-elbow problem

Porzingis either missed games due to injury or struggled while playing through pain during each of his three seasons with the Knicks, when his role was more demanding. The Knicks force-fed him post-ups and isolations like their offense was a tribute to Carmelo Anthony. Because of his heavy workload, fatigue built and Porzingis’s fast starts fizzled in December or January. During the 2017-18 season, he expressed frustration with his nagging injuries and said he was tired just weeks before tearing his ACL. Phil Jackson didn’t think Porzingis was built to carry the Knicks. Can Porzingis be relied on as the second star in Dallas?

It’s not that the Mavericks should trade Porzingis. The 24-year-old is a key cog to their defense and brings offensive value with his deep shooting range. They might not be able to find an acceptable trade even if they wanted to, considering he’s been hurt again and is not playing up to the five-year, $158 million extension he signed this past summer. That salary also complicates his place on the Mavs. Before the season, it was tempting to view Doncic and Porzingis as the new-age version of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, but what if KP is actually the Chris Bosh to Luka’s LeBron? Or even the Brook Lopez to Luka’s Giannis Antetokounmpo? Bosh was and Lopez is an important piece of the championship puzzle as a defensive presence and complementary offensive weapon. What complicates matters is that Porzingis has been far less durable and successful on the court than Bosh and makes more than twice as much money as Lopez.

The Mavericks could use their own Dwyane Wade or Khris Middleton to lighten Luka’s shot-creation workload. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry aren’t the top-level guys for that job, but they show what it could look like with occasional explosive scoring outings, such as Hardaway’s 29-point performance last week in a win over the Blazers or Curry’s 30-point game in Mexico City against the Pistons. They are spark plugs who complement Doncic because of their ability to make plays off the dribble. Porzingis, though, makes plays off of others. A day will come when Luka receives the James Harden treatment and gets trapped in the half court, forcing someone else to make a play or bring the ball up. Porzingis hasn’t shown he can be that player—he shoots 24.5 percent when he dribbles more than once in a possession, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Porzingis can shoot from deep and is a uniquely nimble scoring weapon for a player his size when running off screens, but he’s a long way from looking like a player who can defeat mismatches in the post or generate consistent shots off the dribble. Could the Mavericks find that player before the deadline?

Danilo Gallinari stands out as an option. Multiple playoff teams have expressed interest in the Thunder forward, including the Mavericks and Sixers, according to league sources. Gallinari is a potent scorer everywhere on the court, in any play type—whether he’s posting up, isolating, or in the pick-and-roll as a screener or ball handler. Though Gallinari, 31, has never been an All-Star, he’s played like one this season in Oklahoma City and last season with the Clippers. Gallinari can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, but few teams will have cap space, and most of them will be younger teams unlikely to pursue players in their 30s. The team that retains him heading into the summer will have a significant advantage in keeping him since they’ll have his Bird rights, and thus the ability to offer a more lucrative deal. Dallas may not have enough assets to acquire Gallinari if OKC decides to trade him, but he’s a dynamic player whom the team should pursue.

The Mavericks are continuously cited by league sources as a potential landing spot for Grizzlies wing Andre Iguodala, who could help them this season as a secondary ball handler without compromising their future cap space. The Mavs have also made offers to the Timberwolves for Robert Covington, but those have been declined, according to multiple league sources. Covington won’t make many plays off the dribble, but he’d be an upgrade over Dorian Finney-Smith as a 3-and-D wing. It remains to be seen whether Dallas has the ammo to complete a trade, but it’s clear that the team is looking to bolster its postseason odds.

We already know what KP would likely prefer Dallas to pursue: a center. Porzingis has said in the past that he prefers to play power forward because at center he wastes energy battling against bigger players. So far this season, 88 percent of his minutes have come with a second big man on the floor, half of which featured Dwight Powell, who ruptured his Achilles tendon on Tuesday and will be out for the foreseeable future. Powell was one of the NBA’s best lob threats but was an undersized defender and rebounder, which might explain why the Mavericks reportedly have interest in Pistons center Andre Drummond, according to Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill.

The Hawks were close to a deal that would have sent Chandler Parsons and the Nets’ 2020 first-round pick to Detroit for Drummond, but Atlanta was unwilling to add the pick because Drummond’s contract extension demands are currently too high, according to multiple league sources. I’m not a Drummond fan because of his inconsistent defense, subpar scoring efficiency, and price tag. Drummond will make $27 million this season and $28.7 million next season (or possibly more if he opts out and tests free agency), but quality centers can be found for much less. Just look at the Lakers with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the Celtics with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, or even the Mavericks themselves with Powell and Maxi Kleber. Yet I understand the appeal. Drummond would solve Dallas’s rebounding issues, and he could add value as a screener, roller, and playmaking hub from the post. He’d also assure that Porzingis can keep flying around the perimeter like a wing rather than bang down low on rolls, dives, and post-ups. If Porzingis were to miss time, Kleber could take on more responsibility and they’d at least retain size inside with Drummond. Though Drummond has glaring flaws, it does make some sense to upgrade from Powell and add a big man to support Porzingis.

But skipping steps doesn’t mean rushing into rash decisions. Dallas could pursue a wider range of players in the summer. Drummond and Gallinari can become free agents, and Clippers center Montrezl Harrell, another free-agent-to-be, also makes sense as a target. Goran Dragic or Fred VanVleet would be nice fits in the backcourt, while Joe Harris or Davis Bertans would look great on the wing. Dallas would have to trade Hardaway to create cap space, use their midlevel exception, or work out a sign-and-trade to add an impact free agent this summer. If the Mavs wait until 2021, they could have enough cap space to pursue a max free agent, depending on what the salary cap is. Plan A remains Giannis and Plan B could be Rudy Gobert. Even if Giannis and Gobert go elsewhere, the 2021 class still could include Gordon Hayward and Jrue Holiday.

The Mavericks don’t need to be patient, but they should be calculated. The clock is ticking steadily toward Doncic becoming eligible for a supermax in the summer of 2022, at which point Dallas’s financial flexibility will evaporate. We’re many years away from Doncic’s first unrestricted free agency and the kind of hype that surrounded LeBron James before he joined the Heat or Giannis as he approaches his choice in 2021. That conversation will come, just as it has for Giannis, unless the Mavs hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. The Mavericks found a transcendent superstar in Doncic, but it won’t be easy to complete the roster and win a title. The Mavericks need to assemble a team that can win with Doncic and Porzingis but can also survive during Porzingis’s inevitable absences.