KP has missed 9 games and the Mavs have essentially played .500 ball without him on the court. Realizing what he brings the team next to Doncic shows how vital he is to team success.
Kristaps Porzingis has been a mixed bag based on expectations coming into the season. The former All-Star is averaging 17.3 PTS, 9.4 RBs and 2.1 BLKs a game while adjusting to playing next to his first potential MVP candidate teammate in Luka Doncic. Some view this stat line as underperforming based on his newly signed 5-yr $158M contract, but all sports fans know that stat lines only tell part of the story.
While his specific stats don’t illustrate him jumping right back in where he left off pre-injury, the Mavs won 20 of the 31 games he played in. That’s a 65% win percentage, which is a good bit better than they’ve been without him.
KP has been sidelined since December 29th after the loss to the Lakers, where the Mavs have gone 5 and 4, or a 56% win percentage.
Now a .560 stretch over a 2-week span is nothing to push the panic button over, it does show that this team was designed around Porzingis playing integral parts on offense and defense.
On offense, Porzingis is a floor-spacing big that drags the opposing team’s big defenders out towards the perimeter. He has a reputation for being a great shooter from distance that they MUST respect or else they will get benched after he hits one from 35 feet out. Simply by standing at the perimeter with his defender moving out to him, the paint has a lot more space for a crafty player like Luka Doncic to use and wreak havoc. This is right out of the Carlisle playbook as this was a go-to move he employed for Dirk even in his later years. The respect players pay to KP in these offensive situations is about his history as a scorer, not the fact that he’s shooting his second-lowest 3PT% in his career at the moment. They know he can hit, so they have to cover him.
This offense is predicated on creating space for Luka to work with and no one has more gravity on this team than Porzingis. True, there are many other players shooting the outside shot better than KP, but with his All-Star status and that he’s being covered by bigs who aren’t necessarily comfortable guarding out on the perimeter, he changes the board more than anyone else. Even Maxi Kleber, who plays a similar position on offense right now AND is shooting 40.6% on 3PT shots, is shooting most of his shots wide open because he isn’t garnering the kind of coverage KP gets.
Now he’s hitting more because he’s so open, but that means his defender isn’t near him, which means he’s in the paint keeping Luka from driving. This changes the face of the offense since Luka can’t get all the way to the basket unhindered and thus results in slightly different outcomes for Luka. For instance, Luka took 29 drives and only got 6 free throw attempts over two games in KP’s absence because there was a defender there to properly defend.
Additionally, Luka’s 3PT shooting has been down as of late and it’s hard not to think that defenses are hounding him more without a secondary scorer that garners the respect that KP does. Since KP has been out, Luka has shot 28.3% from 3PT range, whereas he’s shot 32.2% on the season as a whole. With extra defenders pressuring Luka, he’s settling for more contested 3s or he’s kicking out before to other Mavericks who are filling in the scoring void.
This is also true in the clutch where the Mavs have struggled all year and especially as of late with clutch losses to OKC, Charlotte, and Denver. In the clutch, the game seems to shrink down to stars vs stars and Luka hasn’t been able to overpower teams the way Chris Paul or Jokic have against the Mavs.
With a second star out there in KP, opposing defenses have to split attention and Luka has more room to operate and defenses will be more prone to make mistakes and foul him, giving him scoring options from 3, in the paint or at the line.
In KP’s absence, the Mavs have dropped 6 spots in the clutch rankings from 19th to 25th in the NBA. And on top of all that, if you add 17.3 points per game back into the equation, the game MIGHT not ever be close enough to be considered clutch. The point remains, KP is missed on offense.
With KP sidelined, the big man rotation for Dallas consists of Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic which seems kind of thin defensively when you look at it on its face. For one thing, 3 players to take on 2 positions for 48 min a night, with Boban only playable in specific situations, means that Maxi and Dwight are bearing full loads with Dorian playing some of his minutes at the 4. Even with Dorian filling in some time, he’s not always helping down low because he’s tasked with defending the best opposing player, leaving the big man work to a lone center. Yet again, you see how the defense has been designed around Porzingis’ integral role.
The current Mavs defense is really designed to challenge teams to run off the perimeter and drive into the more open midrange leaving a defensive anchor in the paint to keep them from scoring right at the bucket. Well, Porzingis is that defensive anchor where he averages 2.1 BLKs per game and keeps the elite company on his defensive field goals saved. He is keeping pace with reigning 2X Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert by effectively defending 47.6% of shots taken against him at the rim to Gobert’s 47.8%. In case you’re wondering, that’s very good considering that KP challenges nearly 8 shots a game.
In KP’s absence, Maxi Kleber has filled in admirably blocking 1.4 shots per game and providing a great presence in the paint. However, when Maxi is NOT on the court, Dwight Powell and Boban are not mobile enough to keep smaller and faster guards from getting to the rim. Dwight Powell is insanely efficient on the offensive end, but he is neither a shot-blocker nor a rim protector. He can body up mid-sized Power Forwards and keep people honest from deep. Boban is there to grit and grind with big-bodied centers who want to bully their way into the paint, which makes him very situational at best since he can’t really do much to wings and guards.
Again, the issue isn’t that the Mavs don’t have options, as these 3 bigs without KP all serve their purposes, but it is thin if any one of them ends up in foul trouble like against Charlotte where Dwight fouled out in OT and Maxi ended the game with 4 fouls. With an extra big working in that rotation, there is a good chance the paint isn’t open for Charlotte to score at will down the stretch and that game never goes to OT. This is revisionist “shoulda, woulda, coulda”, but the point stands that an extra rim defender against a scrappy team keeps things from getting out of hand, as that game should NEVER have been in doubt.
Porzingis is also SORELY missed in the rebounding battle. He collects the 2nd most rebounds on the team with 9.4 RBs a game after Luka’s 9.6 RBs, which is crucial considering the drop to the 3rd spot is Dwight Powell with 5.6 RBs. The team has stepped up in his absence collecting rebounds (especially with Luka getting 15!!!!! last night) to cover for it, but nothing can replace a 7’3” player who is nearly averaging a double-double with rebounds.
Defensively, Maxi and Dorian the Mavs BEST defenders as they can defend multiple positions, but KP is probably their 3rd best defender on the court based on his effectiveness in his role. He immediately changes the game plan for opposing teams’ offenses knowing that someone as mobile and rangy as he is policing the paint. With the depth at the center position as thin as it is, missing the player who eats the largest chunk of minutes there on defense is notable, not to mention when he’s able to close games WITH one of these other bigs like Dwight or Maxi DOUBLING the defensive presence in the paint. Pairing bigs in the paint against teams can take away the ability for players like Chris Paul to take over in the 4th quarter by removing his drives from the equation. Bottom line: Porzingis is missed on defense.
Porzingis is far from a perfect player and he’s still learning how to play modern basketball next to Luka Doncic, but he is clearly being effective while he’s getting acclimated. With Mavs fans now thirsting for every single win with their new playoff-bound team, caution needs to be taken to make sure one of their best and most expensive players is fully healthy once the playoffs get here. So while it is frustrating to see him get late scratches and sit out weeks and weeks, it is wiser to take the patient approach to get his production back to the team.
The Mavs are still in 6th place and just half a game out of 5th without him, so it’s better to see him sit now and make a SCARY playoff run once he’s back and the team can trust that he’s FULLY healthy.
Featured Image: NBAE/Getty Images - Bart Young