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Kristaps Porzingis’ return to action is the Mavericks’ biggest question mark

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The Mavericks made a franchise-altering trade acquiring Porzingis in February, and his return after a season away has Dallas buzzing with excitement.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

By the time Kristaps Porzingis suits up for the regular season opener on October 23, 622 days will have passed since he last played a meaningful game. His rocky tenure with the New York Knicks is behind him, and a fresh start awaits him with the Dallas Mavericks.

The last time we saw Porzingis, he earned an all-star berth at 23 and was emerging as one of the NBA’s premier young talents. While he only played 48 games in the 2017-18 campaign, Porzingis notched per game averages of 23 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks while shooting 44 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. The Latvian fired triples at a .256 rate while registering a 6.4 block percentage, putting him in unprecedented territory. Per Basketball-Reference, Porzingis is the only player in history to shoot 39 percent or better from three at a .256 rate while maintaining a 6.4 block percentage through the course of 40-plus games

At 24 and entering his fifth season in the NBA (fourth season of play), Porzingis could be scratching the surface of already one of the most unique skill sets in the NBA. The Unicorn’s return to the court, paired with Luka Doncic’s surge to stardom makes this one of the most anticipated Mavericks’ season in recent memory.

Biggest question

Indisputably the biggest question surrounding Porzingis is his availability. Having not played competitive basketball for over a season and a half and having a checkered injury history, health will be a major question mark for the former fourth overall pick. Speaking on SiriusXM radio, Mark Cuban stated Porzingis would be load managed, so it’s fair to wonder how much of the 82 game season the big man will even play.

The Ringer published an interesting article in the thick of Porzingis’ monster third season that shed light on his ability to stay healthy, be the focal point of an offense and play at an all-star caliber level for an entire season.

It’s no secret Porzingis has had a myriad of lower body injuries which is why he opted to sit out all of last season to work on his biomechanics. But what was interesting was how Porzingis’ play tailed off as the season progressed. His points per game, effective field goal percentage, defensive rebound percentage and usage percentage all plummeted by January of the 2017-18 season.

Porzingis is in an entirely different situation in Dallas with a championship-tested coach and a budding superstar running mate, but the piece highlighted a major reason (aside from the Knicks’ front office blunders) why the tantalizing big man was on the trading block last February.

In addition, what Porzingis looks like after not playing since February of 2018 is uncertain. He will surely need to knock off rust as live game action can’t be simulated, and it’s a guarantee he’ll miss a handful of games. So how much (if any) of the 23-year-old all-star Porzingis will the Mavericks get?

Best case scenario

The best case scenario undoubtedly involves Porzingis returning to all-star form, displaying all the attributes that earned him the “Unicorn” moniker, while elevating Dallas from a bottom-tier club with one blue-chip prospect to a playoff squad with a fearsome dynamic duo. With the Knicks, Porzingis couldn’t quite tote the alpha status, but with the Mavericks, he can seamlessly play Robin to Doncic’s Batman.

Since Porzingis entered the league his three-point percentage has ballooned from 33 to 39.5 percent. His ability to stretch the floor at his size is reminiscent of our Lord and Savior Dirk Nowitzki who canned triples at a similar rate his third season in the league. Dallas desperately lacked perimeter shooting, so Porzingis continuing his shooting trend is a must for the Mavericks to take another step this season.

Worst case scenario

The nightmare scenario is one that has played in even the biggest optimist’s head and involved Porzingis suffering any type of injury that forces him to miss extended time. After locking up the former Knick to a five-year, $158 million deal this summer, Dallas needs Porzingis to perform to quell any concerns about mortgaging the future around a Doncic-KP duo.

Expectations should be tempered, however. It’s a fact that Porzingis will miss time, and it’s likely it will take him weeks to shake off the rust of missing 20 months of basketball. With 13 back-to-backs on the schedule, my best guess says Porzingis misses all of them, and it’s almost a certainty he’ll nurse a few bumps and bruises throughout the year. Anything less than 60 games played would be a concern for me, but hitting 65 contests would be the goal.

On paper, the fit with Doncic is flawless. Porzingis’ pick-and-pop prowess paired with Doncic’s surgeon-like control of the game could take the NBA by storm. With both players locked up for the next four years, Dallas has the opportunity to build a core the league hasn’t seen. But as Porzingis re-acclimates to the rigors of the NBA grind, the Mavericks will need to exercise patience knowing a healthy return for the Unicorn is part of a much grander plan.