Breaking Down Kristaps Porzingis’ Roller-Coaster Start With Dallas Mavericks

Shock and excitement swept the NBA world when the Dallas Mavericks traded for Kristaps Porzingis in January of 2019.

Mavs die-hards, European hoops enthusiasts and all fans of dynamic basketball immediately dreamt of Porzingis forming a lethal partnership with rising star Luka Doncic and head coach Rick Carlisle.

Fast forward to today, and Porzingis’ first few weeks of action in Dallas have been interesting, yet underwhelming. He’s been relatively productive, but his impact has been inefficient and he isn’t yet the true 1-B to Luka’s 1-A.

We shouldn’t be shocked by KP’s rocky start, however, considering how long he was on the shelf. He went 20 months between his last game for the New York Knicks and his first with the Mavericks. 

The Latvian tower remains a dangerous three-point weapon, as well as a rim-diving threat and a shot-blocker. He’s averaging a respectable 19.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes. However, a closer look at the film and some of his advanced metrics illustrate why he hasn’t sniffed his peak effectiveness yet.

Porzingis currently has the team’s lowest net rating (4.9), and he also owns Dallas’ worst cumulative “Total Points Added” (-21.5), per NBAMath.com. His collaboration with Doncic has also yielded mixed results: Their net rating (5.3) is lower than the Mavericks’ overall (10.0).

It’s readily apparent that Porzingis is struggling as a shot-creator, particularly in the mid-range. He’s taken a healthy dose of dribble pull-up jumpers, and the results are sub-optimal.

KP is fairly effective on one-dribble drives or the occasional crossover pull-up. But when he tries to do too much and generate shots with his back to the basket, he’s unreliable. In sequences when he takes two dribbles before shooting, he shoots 44.7 percent. When he takes 3-6 dribbles, he’s at 39.4 percent.

Post-ups and pull-up jumpers are often more difficult than your typical catch-and-score attempt. Footwork, rhythm and balance are more compromised in these scenarios. Porzingis has been a victim of all of these downsides so far, and he’s forcing too many of these difficult shots. Defenders are keeping him off-balance and thwarting easy looks.

Here are a few clips of KP’s missed mid-range jumpers against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. In all of these sequences, he’s either settling for a fadeaway toss against a smaller opponent (i.e. Lonzo Ball or Josh Hart), or he’s taking predictable turnaround jumpers against Brandon Ingram.

It’s been rare for him to fake out opponents and get a clean look. He doesn’t regularly get them to bite on pump fakes or pivots, so he doesn’t get to the free-throw line enough, either. He often ends up leaning away and releasing the shot at a tough angle.

Sure, he owns a great combination of height and shooting touch, but not everyone can pull off mid-range turnarounds with the fluidity and efficiency of Porzingis’ Mavericks predecessor, Dirk Nowitzki.

Even when Porzingis works to create a shot with deep position, he struggles to consistently convert with his back to the basket. Here’s an example from Wednesday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves:

Porzingis admitted his early-season frustration to Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I was frustrated and really down on myself early on. I thought I’d come in right away after the injury and put up the numbers that I know I’m capable of early. It was difficult. I knew I put in so much work in the summer and rehabbing, so I was upset at myself. I’m not shooting the ball well; I’m getting opportunities, open shots, and it’s my job to make them.

Porzingis’ early-season shortcomings from mid-range aren’t a cause for panic. While it’s frustrating that a 7’3″ tower is shooting just 43.0 percent on two-pointers, I expect KP and the Mavs to make the necessary adjustments. KP should continue recovering his physicality and only become more comfortable in his post-ACL phase, and Carlisle will undoubtedly work to get Porzingis more looks where he’s comfortable.

He may never be a great post-up player, and that’s okay. There are plenty of other ways for him to be potent, both near and far from the hoop.

It would behoove Dallas to get Porzingis a few more catch-and-shoot attempts coming off pin-downs, pick-and-rolls and cross-screen action in motion. KP isn’t the Mavericks’ primary on-ball screener, but he’s been successful when he sets off-ball screens and rolls to the basket from them.

Watch him slip the pin-down screen, cut to the hoop and use his great hands and size to finish:

Patience is the name of the game, whether it’s Porzingis’ path to full effectiveness or his collaboration with Doncic. It’s a bit unfair to hope they’d be Stockton-and-Malone right out of the gate.

Nevertheless, the numbers aren’t pretty and suggest that there’s a long road ahead. Porzingis is shooting just 33.3 percent on passes from Doncic, and their offensive rating together (112.9) is worse than their respective offensive ratings without each other.

However, both of those numbers should improve as Porzingis gets in a better rhythm physically and Dallas finds optimal lineups and schemes for the KP-Luka pairing. The young European duo has shown flashes of pick-and-pop prowess that are hard to guard. They’ve also connected on a few weak-side lobs when opponents are too focused on Luka’s high-screen endeavors with Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber.

While Porzingis and the Mavericks are taking baby steps to access his offensive ceiling, KP is (thankfully) much closer to his defensive peak.

He ranks third on the Mavs in net defensive points saved (11.4, per NBAMath.com), and he’s been a highly-effective rim protector thus far. He brings terrific range to an interior defense: Would-be scorers are shooting just 45.2 percent within ten feet of the hoop. That’s a whopping 10.3 percentage points worse than they fare against the rest of the league.

Porzingis is particularly proficient as a help defender from the weak side or on switches. His five-block effort on Tuesday against the Pels exemplified his discipline and balance as a shot-contester:

If he remains diligent and successful on the defensive side, it’s hard to imagine that the offense won’t eventually catch up and/or at least feed off the stops he creates. Porzingis is too talented a player, and the Mavericks have too many quality pieces to go along with their top-tier coaching.

Playing a new role on a new franchise after sitting for 20 months with a bum knee is no cinch. Porzingis and the Mavericks must do a better job of minimizing his deficiencies and accentuating his strengths, but there is time for them to do so. They’re already a playoff contender despite having their second-best player feeling things out.

Come springtime, we might look back at his early-season turbulence as the growing pains that helped KP and the Mavs become more potent than ever.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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