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Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic are on the verge of a breakthrough

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The Mavericks two young stars had opposite starts to the season but have shown signs recently of putting it all together.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Try to place yourself in August of 2019.

I know that is about a thousand internet years ago, but put your mind back then, when the Mavericks were about to start training camp and visions of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis ripping up the league were dancing through our heads.

At the time, you likely thought Porzingis needed to have a huge season for the Mavericks to be competitive. Hell, everyone thought that. Every NBA analyst, writer, podcaster and dog-walker figured Porzingis needed to have one of his best seasons for the Mavericks to take the leap from lottery-bound 33-wins to the playoffs.

Here is Porzingis’ current box score stat line with his shooting numbers: 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks per game on 41.6 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent shooting from three. If you were told these numbers in August, you’d probably take a five hour nap and reconsider your place in life. Yet, the Mavericks are good! They’re going to make the playoffs!

Thanks to Doncic’s historic sophomore season and the role players doing more than expected, Porzingis’ struggles haven’t been felt too much. Plus, it’s not like Porzingis isn’t doing anything — he’s warping the Mavericks’ spacing on offense, dragging rim protectors out of the paint, rebounding at a career-high rate and guarding the rim at an elite level.

Even then, the fact that Porzingis and Doncic haven’t been hitting on all cylinders at the same time for most of this season was disappointing. If the Mavericks want to take another leap, this time from playoff bound to contender, Porzingis would have to join Doncic as a top-20 player in the league.

We might be seeing that very shortly.

First, it’s good to talk about why Porzingis and Doncic haven’t clicked for most of this season. Obviously the health of the duo is the number one culprit — Porzingis has played 42 of the Mavericks 55 games this season and Doncic has played 44. To make matters worse, their injuries didn’t overlap. Doncic hurt his ankle in December and missed five games, including the one he was hurt in. He returned and only played three games with Porzingis before Porzingis went on the shelf with a knee injury. After Porzingis came back after a 10-game absence, the duo played just five games together before Doncic hurt his ankle again and missed seven games. The back and forth nature of those injuries really took a chunk out of the chemistry Doncic and Porzingis were trying to build.

Second, when Doncic and Porzingis did play together, it was clear Porzingis was working through a lot. Think about it: Porzingis was returning to NBA action after a 20-month layoff from a bad knee injury. That alone would cause any player to have to work through some things on the court. Add to that the fact that Porzingis was playing on a new team, in a new system and with a drastically different role and to be frank, we should have anticipated Porzingis looking shaky for most of this season. It took Gordon Hayward a full season to get right after his devastating leg injury in Boston — these things take time.

The new role might have been the hardest adjustment for Porzingis. He went from ball-dominant in New York to second fiddle in Dallas. Not only did his shots go down, but his ability to touch and handle the ball did too. Dallas wanted to use Porzingis like a 7’3 shooting guard, moving off the ball and spacing the floor for Doncic rim attacks with Dwight Powell as a rim runner. For long stretches in most of the early games Doncic and Porzingis played together, Porzingis would often stand outside the three point line and watch, with his touches expected to be immediate shots. He’s taking fewer post-up and isolation shots and shooting more threes, averaging 6.6 threes per game. That’s up from the 4.8 per game he took in his last season in New York.

Consider this: In his last season in New York, Porzingis averaged 61 touches per game, according to NBA.com’s stats page. So far this season in Dallas? It’s 55.5. That’s not a huge drop, but it’s enough combined with his new role and usage to throw any player off.

It’s hard to just plug and play players into new systems and roles and expect everything to transfer over. NBA players aren’t robots, as much as we’d like them to be. Porzingis went from doing basically whatever he wanted in New York to having a more strict structure in Dallas behind a ball-dominant superstar. That’s tough! We saw Chris Bosh go through similar struggles in his first season with the Heat back in 2010-2011. Bosh eventually settled into that role, but the Mavericks don’t have a Dwyane Wade on the perimeter next to Doncic’s LeBron — Dallas needs more from Porzingis than spacing and shot-blocking. They need a bit more dynamism to handle defenses that do everything they can to take the ball out of Doncic’s hands.

That’s why it was so refreshing to see what Porzingis did in Doncic’s latest absence. Porzingis put up three 30+ point games without Doncic, looking much like his New York-self but with fewer bad mid-rangers and more free throws. He averaged a little more than 10 frees throws per game in his 30 point outbursts.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of watching those games and think “well, he just needs to hit his shots when Luka’s back.” There’s some truth to that, sure, but watching the games it felt obvious there were tangible things the Mavericks could take and apply when Doncic returned. It happened in the final game before the All-Star break in Doncic’s first game back from the second ankle injury.

In the last seven games, which includes the one game Doncic played, Porzingis’ touches are up to 66.4 per game. Against Sacramento, Doncic’s return? Porzingis had 62. With Doncic and Porzingis, it’s less about just feeding Porzingis more shots but having him be more involved in the offense throughout a possession, compared to being a bystander. If you’ve ever played basketball at any level, you know how this feels — it’s so much harder to shoot when you only touch the ball when you’re expected to shoot. The pressure is up to make your limited touches count and you force things. By keeping Porzingis involved throughout a possession, he can gain more confidence and have more rhythm for when he does end up with a shot. This can be as simple as more elbow touch dribble hand-offs to more complex pick and rolls directly involved with Doncic. Without Powell, down with his season-ending Achilles injury, Porzingis is setting more on-ball screens for Doncic and diversifying his rolls, whether they’re pops or rim-runs.

Against the Kings, Porzingis had three elbow touches, eight post-ups and six paint touches. On the season those numbers per game are 2.1, 3.3 and 4.0, respectively. Now, nobody wants Porzingis to back up defenders eight times a night as we saw earlier in the season to disastrous results, but facing up smaller players and shooting short jumpers? That will work. It works even better when Porzingis is feeling good with consistent touches.

This is what a confident, featured Porzingis looks like. In November and December, this would have been an awkwardly forced jumper as Porzingis tries to take advantage of a precious opportunity with the ball.

Basketball and sports in general are as much as a mental challenge as they are physical. It’s almost impossible to expect Porzingis to change who he is after one off-season of rehab and with less touches than he’s used to. The last two weeks for Porzingis have been a night and day difference, and sometimes it’s just as simple as letting him handle the ball at the top of the key to initiate an action or run a quick side pick and roll. This doesn’t mean the Mavericks need to throw Porizngis the ball and watch him pound it into dust, they just need to balance Porzingis the role-playing shooting guard with Porzingis the superstar. Anything is better than Porzingis the bystander. He’s more talented than that.

Coincidentally, Doncic had a fantastic game against the Kings as well. He only shot it 18 times but still scored 30 points. Utilizing Porzingis more in the offense will help him too, easing the burden of having to do everything on offense, which has often resulted in the Mavericks clutch-time offense being predictable and stale. Imagine that offense with a fully-engaged and comfortable Porzingis, who can handle a switch because he’s been handling it throughout the game, not just being thrown it during the final five minutes of a tight game.

This is a formula that can work and sustain. The Mavericks will need it if they want to win some playoff games or even a series.

Porzingis hasn’t lost what had us drooling over his highlights in New York, it just needed to be nurtured in a new system and playing alongside another superstar. Dallas already has the league’s best offense and it might be getting even better.