Before Kristaps Porzingis returned to the Dallas Mavericks’ rotation, there was a serious problem facing the defense.
It wouldn't have been obvious what the issue was with a quick scan of the stats. The Mavericks had the fourth-best defensive rating in the league through the nine games they played without Porzingis. They also were allowing the ninth-lowest opponent field goal percentage.
By most accounts, the Mavericks looked like a top-10 defense — and they were. There was just one problem: they weren’t defending the paint well.
Through those first name games, Dallas’s opponents led the league in restricted area field goal percentage at an astonishing 71.4 percent efficiency. The Mavericks were also just 25th in total blocks over that stretch.
So when Porzingis was finally healthy enough to return to the floor, the Mavericks had an interesting decision in front of them. They could run him as the sole big-man — or the “five” — where he looked his best at times last season. Or, the Mavericks could use him as a “four”, and play him with another big.
In four of five games that Porzingis has played in this season, he’s started at that power forward slot — playing alongside Willie Cauley-Stein.
When Porzingis and Cauley-Stein have been on the floor together this season, Dallas has allowed just 97.1 points per 100 possessions, the tenth-lowest among Mavericks’ two-man lineups that have played more than 50 minutes together. They’re also averaging a combined 6.2 blocks per 100 possessions together.
However, the offense isn’t as pungent as Dallas may like. When both Cauley-Stein and Porzingis are on the floor together, the Mavericks have an offensive rating of 101.4 points.
The offensive sacrifice may seem like one the Mavericks should take, given their newfound commitment on the defensive end of the floor. However, when the Mavericks run Porzingis as the lone big, things get very interesting.
With Porzingis on the floor and Cauley-Stein off, the Mavericks offensive rating shoots up to 110.2 points per 100 possessions.
“Just rolling to the basket, there’s more space,” Porzingis said on his offensive success playing center after a season-high 27 points against the Indiana Pacers.
The increase in offensive production, unfortunately, comes at a serious cost. When Porzingis is on the floor while Cauley-Stein is off, the Mavericks defensive rating skyrockets to 119.3 points allowed per 100 possessions — that’s 22 points higher than when both bigs are on!
Despite his abysmal 67.9 percent shooting on dunks, Cauley-Stein has been pretty good for the Mavericks this season. Dallas has a NET rating of plus-18.7 in the 200 minutes he’s been on the floor this season. His defensive assistance has proved pivotal when placed alongside Porzinigs, despite the lackluster offensive performance.
Perhaps when Maxi Kleber returns — who Porzingis has not played with yet this season — Dallas can have both of best worlds. Kleber is a versatile, disciplined defender. He doesn’t quite offer the rim-protection Cauley-Stein does, but he does have the ability to defend multiple positions. He’s also an exceptional shooter, allowing your offense to space out a bit more.
Or maybe Dallas remains committed to their jumbo frontcourt. It’s not a matter of fixing something broken, but rather tapping into something that could have potential. Perhaps the offensive numbers between Cauley-Stein and Porzingis will balance out as the sample size gets larger. It could also prove the Porzingis thrives spacing the floor and that his defense will come around. Only time will tell. For now, head coach Rick Carlisle remains pretty confident in his larger-than-life lineup.
“I think KP and Willie proved down the stretch of the game that you can still score points and get stops [while] playing with two bigs,” Rick Carlisle said after a win against the Pacers.
How should the Mavericks position their frontcourt?
This poll is closed
Start just Porzingis as only big
Start Porzingis next to Willie Cauley-Stein
Start Porzingis next to Maxi Kleber