Dallas Mavericks big man Kristaps Porzingis is in the midst of a solid campaign so far this season. But the general mood of the 25-year-old center has seemingly soured during his time with the team.
Porzingis is still one of the most unique players, setting the precedent as a 3-and-D big man. He is currently averaging 2.3 three-pointers and 1.6 blocks per game so far this season. Before this season, there are only three other players (Kevin Durant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brook Lopez) in league history who have accomplished such a feat.
His scoring (20.4 ppg) is the second-highest mark in his career while his field-goal percentage (47.7 percent) ranks as a career-best. He is turning the ball over less often than ever before, too, as his career turnover percentage before this season was 9.3 percent while this year it sits at 7.0 percent.
Further, he has also recorded a career-best mark in catch-all stats including win shares per 48 minutes and offensive box plus-minus, via Basketball-Reference.
They are a team that will presumably only go as far as Porzingis can take them. That could be pretty far considering when he scores at least 24 points, the Mavericks are 7-2 on the season.
Kristaps Porzingis has now posted a double-figure scoring first quarter in each of his last 3 games, after he started the season with 3 such opening quarters in his first 26 games combined.
12 in 1st Q at MIN (3/24/21)
13 in 1st Q vs. IND (3/26/21)
12 in 1st Q at OKC (3/29/21) pic.twitter.com/l817PK6js7
— Mavs PR (@MavsPR) March 30, 2021
One would assume that people would perceive this to be a good year for the former No. 4 overall pick. Yet, as ESPN’s Tim MacMahon explained earlier this month, “the first half of the season wasn’t much fun” for the 25-year-old big man.
As he recovered from an injured meniscus and the Mavericks struggled to find a rhythm due to the ongoing pandemic, Porzingis ended up hearing his name in trade rumors and his future in Dallas briefly appeared murkier than ever.
The front office opted to hold on to their unicorn and ownership came to his defense. But why isn’t the consensus opinion about him more positive?
One reason critics may be louder than usual is that his defensive playmaking has taken a huge step back. After averaging 2.0 blocks per game through his first four seasons in the NBA, with as many as 2.4 bpg during his All-Star campaign in 2017-18, he is now swatting away a lower rate of 1.6 blocks per game.
Porzingis is so big pic.twitter.com/CV3Cntk0gE
— Off the Glass (@otgbasketball) March 25, 2021
He is still an above-average rim protector. Just look at the size advantage that he has over even large NBA players! But he has not exactly performed as the elite player who had the league’s best block percentage just three seasons ago.
Similarly, after averaging 0.7 steals per game before this season, he has recorded just 0.4 spg in 2020-21. To fully put that in perspective, his steal percentage (0.6 percent) ranks in the 5th percentile among all big men, per Cleaning the Glass.
It should be concerning that Dallas is allowing 119.3 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor but their defensive rating is more than eight points better (111.1) during minutes that he is not playing.
cj easily breaking down and exposing porzingis—no speed or physicality in his defense. pic.twitter.com/h9MDp2w4Wc
— justin block* (@JBlock49) March 22, 2021
As always, these figures have a lot of noise, but such a big swing will raise some eyebrows, especially when he lacks burst and athleticism.
Extrapolating on that, during each of his previous four campaigns, teams with Porzingis have always had a better net rating when he is on the court. This year, for the first time in his NBA career, that is no longer the case.
Advanced metrics illustrate how poor he has been considering that his defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus (dRAPM) currently ranks No. 459 out of the 505 players who have made an appearance in the league so far this season.
Any team trotting out a 7-foot-3 player in their frontcourt would hope for a bigger defensive impact than what Dallas has gotten from Porzingus thus far.
A chunk of the Warriors' small-ball success last night was targeting Kristaps Porzingis. He just has so little chance in space guarding wings like Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins. pic.twitter.com/l1CGADtIhK
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 5, 2021
However, even though his defense may be the biggest concern, his offense may not be as multidimensional as the Mavericks may have hoped for when they traded for him back in Jan. 2019.
We all remember when Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle had an infamous rant about why the post-up is no longer a good play in the NBA. That is one of the reasons why Porzingis is so reliant on jump shots for his scoring.
But while his jumper has separated Porzingis from other frontcourt players in the past, he has not been overwhelmingly accurate.
He is shooting 35 percent on non-corner three-pointers, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in just the 51st percentile among all players at his position. He is also averaging 1.06 points per possession on his catch-and-shoot jumpers, via Synergy, which is slightly below average (47th percentile) among all NBA players.
Because he is typically spotting up beyond the arc to hit those looks, he is not often able to use his size for easy putbacks after offensive rebounds. Of course, that is a tradeoff that Dallas is willing to make because he is a big man with ridiculous range.
Look how far his man has to guard him far beyond the arc if he hits ridiculous shots like these, where he was able to connect from 32 feet.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) March 14, 2021
But if his jumper is otherwise about on-par with other players at his position, opposing defenses may soon become more willing to solely focus on Luka Doncic. Porzingis still needs to increase his efficiency as a shooter, even if his output hasn’t bad, to maximize his role with Dallas.
If he can do that, the best-case scenario would be increased effectiveness on his pick-and-pop opportunities with Doncic when they break into two-man actions. This has long been considered the best version of these two players.
Meanwhile, as there are with every player in any sport, there are other smaller elements of his game that may be alarming for some folks who are seeking perfection.
For example, when he is the last man down the floor in transition, Dallas has not shied away from giving him the ball as a trailer. Yet according to Synergy, he is only 5-for-22 (22.7 percent) on these opportunities. This has limited what the Mavericks have been able to do in the open court. Their transition scoring (15.6 ppg) ranks third-worst in the Western Conference.
Overall, people may be down on Porzingis because of his defense and perhaps some of his offensive shortcomings. But ultimately, as he keeps getting healthier and more dominant, it might be time to start giving Porzingis his flowers and credit for good play where it’s due.
Note: Statistics are accurate as of games before March 29, 2021. Data is pulled from Synergy Sports, Cleaning the Glass, PBP Stats and Basketball-Reference.