Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
The Dallas Mavericks set out to build their defense around Luka Doncic and his historic scoring attack this offseason.
Yet here are the Mavericks, ninth in the Western Conference, ranked 27th in overall defense, and Kristaps Porzingis’ steady decline on that end of the floor appears to be the biggest dilemma facing this office.
In fact, Dallas has quietly assessed the trading market for Porzingis, according to league sources, as the Mavericks have begun to re-evaluate whether the 25-year-old center can truly support Doncic as the second choice in a contender. “They’ve kicked everyone on their list who’s not named Luka,” said a person with knowledge of Dallas thinking. “Know [president of basketball operations] Donnie [Nelson]; they are always playing. “
“They’ve definitely sniffed him out,” an assistant general manager told B / R. “They’re taking his temperature, because they know he’ll recover at some point.”
Porzingis was listed as Doncic’s ideal running mate just six months ago when he won the All-Bubble second team honors after averaging 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from distance. So he was nothing less than a force in the first round against the Clippers, that is, until a torn meniscus ended his season, and October surgery left him out until January 13.
His shot has remained effective as he is connected on 35.2 percent of his 3s, right around his career average. He is 14 between centers in PERBut the numbers paint a dire picture defensively, especially after Dallas beat up the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night when Porzingis sat down with lower back strain. The Mavs have a minus-4.7 net rating when on the ground.
In those 509 minutes, Dallas has allowed 119.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would leave the Mavericks almost two points worse than the Sacramento Kings, 30 in the rankings. When he was off the court, Dallas’ defense had climbed to a stingy rate of 108.7 in 840 minutes coming into Monday, good for a top-five figure in the league. And despite all the legitimate criticism Doncic has received previously, the Mavericks defense has enemies at 111.0 points per 100 possessions when Doncic is on the floor and Porzingis is out.
Nick Wass / Associated Press
The ship may straighten when Porzingis regains strength in his right knee. It was only on December 29 that he participated in a practice for the first time. But early results have been troubling, especially as Dallas was designed to rely on its 7’3 “behemoth stalking the baseline. He has been much more of a spectator than an executor at the rim, and also has a growing history of injuries. ..
“It seems like it’s impossible for him to get into position. He looks like a scarecrow,” said a Western Conference executive. “You don’t expect him to be necessarily great from the jump, but I’ve seen Porzingis a couple of times this year and I’m not sure he can score anyone.”
For now, Dallas appears to be interested first in adding a hub to help supplement Porzingis, the sources said. The Mavericks have surrounded Andre Drummond as the Cleveland Cavaliers look to move in a different direction on the front court, but Dallas has expressed no interest in parting ways with Porzingis in those particular talks. “They want a big one to pair up with,” said a league source. “Obviously with physicality, rebounding, hardness.”
The Mavericks have been described as one of the most active teams in these early exploratory business discussions surrounding the league. After acquiring Josh Richardson in the offseason and drafting Josh Green and Tyler Bey (through the Philadelphia 76ers), Dallas has also continued to look for more shooting and perimeter defense around Doncic, sources said.
It’s important to remember that injuries and COVID-19 protocols have stunted the Mavericks. Maxi Kleber and Richardson have missed a handful of games. But the latter was converting just 29.6 percent of his appearance from deep before Monday’s 3-7 performance, and Dallas’ mammoth attack that recorded the most efficient offense in NBA history last season now occupies 26th in three-point percentage.
What further clouds these Porzingis developments is his close relationship with Doncic. The Mavericks attacked Porzingis in hopes that he would create a decade-long partnership with their All-NBA floor general, and the two in turn developed a strong connection off the court. They were frequently seen in the pool together during the Orlando bubble, and whenever there have been frictions related to Doncic’s own responsibility during the film sessions, Porzingis has remained loyal to his co-star. “He almost defended Luka,” said a person with knowledge of the situation.
Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press
There is also the question of what Porzingis would bring in return. “Who are the teams that you could theoretically see chasing him?” wondered the executive of the Western Conference. “I can’t say it’s a contract that I would pay for.”
After this season, there are three more left on Porzingis’ five-year, $ 158 million deal.
“I think maybe you could win someone a protected lottery first,” said one capologist, but that would probably only happen if Dallas recovered other unwanted wages. If the Mavericks are looking for contributing players, perhaps Dallas could involve a team like Chicago or Charlotte, with a mix of young and veteran players with big contracts, who could be looking to swing the same swing Dallas once did.
For now, the Mavericks’ Porzingis discussions remain preliminary. But for Dallas to fill this gap between its current position and the team’s preseason expectations of competing for home-court advantage in the playoffs, league executives hope these early conversations will continue. Finding a bona fide second option for Doncic is paramount to optimizing the young superstar, and Dallas can still clear the maximum salary cap space this upcoming offseason. If John Collins makes it to restricted free agency, the Mavericks are expected to make a significant offer, according to league sources.
Dallas once hoped to use that space for Giannis Antetokounmpo, forming a triumvirate that would have shaken the Western Conference. Porzingis now needs a radical makeover to regain some of its former reputation. “I understand why the Mavericks might have buyers’ remorse,” said an Eastern Conference official.
* All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.