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The 4 biggest questions: Can Kristaps Porzingis finally put it all together?

Porzingis once again has to prove himself as a reliable second star.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It’s that time of year where once again we take a look at the Mavericks new-ish roster, look at all the pieces and see how they fit together. This is becoming something of an annual tradition for me, as I love getting past the news, rumors and speculation and dive into the actual basketball and what it could look like.

You can read my previous installments on the 2021, 2020 and 2017 rosters and see how dumb or smart I am. Boy, I really liked Josh Richardson and Delon Wright, huh? Time to forget all that and focus on this current group of Mavericks, who thankfully will be playing a normal basketball schedule as last season’s cramped, pandemic outing zapped them harder than almost any other team in the league.

How will these Dallas Mavericks fit together? We’re asking and trying to answer the four biggest questions in a series of posts throughout training camp and preseason. Previously, we discussed Jason Kidd as Mavericks coach and if the Mavericks will set the offensive efficiency record again.

Can Kristaps Porzingis finally put it all together?

It’s a bit concerning that this question has been asked every time this piece has been written since Porzingis joined the Mavericks, but here we are. We’re entering season three of Porzingis has a Maverick and the question remains if he can ever put together an All-Star caliber season, which the Mavericks desperately need from him.

Each season has had its own problems — season one saw Porzingis in a vastly different role and system, making major adjustments to his game while also coming back from a knee injury that kept him on the shelf for over 20 months. Porzingis went from doing whatever he wanted in New York to have a strict role in Rick Carlisle’s structured offense. Things finally clicked after Dwight Powell’s Achilles injury and Porzingis was the full time five, running tons of pick and roll with Luka Doncic and getting non-shot touches that helped keep him engaged and comfortable throughout a possession. That culminated with his monster performance in the NBA bubble later that season. Unfortunately another knee injury and ensuing surgery detailed that season in the playoffs. That compounded into last season, where Porzingis had to rehab again but this time manage the comeback in one of the most condensed NBA seasons ever, with COVID restrictions causing further problems to chemistry and lineup structure.

So now we’re at this season, where seemingly all the excuses are gone. Porzingis is healthy, with no rehab needed this past offseason. The season is now back to normal, with less back to backs and less three games in four nights. If there was ever a time for Porzingis to live up to his contract, it’s now. So can he?

Sure! Maybe.

When talking Porzingis, both sides of his game — offense and defense — are crucial. The Mavericks can’t just get the good stuff from Porzingis from one side of the ball, they need both. For the Mavericks to reach their full potential, Porzingis has to guard the rim near elite levels while also providing secondary scoring at an All-Star level. The Mavericks can still be good without that, as they’ve shown the last two seasons, but they can’t make the leap they want to make without it.

So what needs to change? Depending on what side of the ball, the complexity changes. On defense, it’s quite clear — Porzingis just has to be better. Last season was not good for Porzingis on defense, no matter which way you looked at it. The meniscus surgery and the compact schedule wrecked Porzingis’ mobility and it showed on the defensive end in just about all categories.

Porzingis had significant career lows in both steal and block rate. When he was on the floor, the Mavericks defense gave up 115.3 point per 100 possessions, by far the worst number of any of the Mavericks rotation players. While all of this isn’t Porzingis fault (Dallas perimeter defenders certainly offered Porzingis zero relief in terms of uncontested line drives to the basket), enough of it was.

This showcased in the playoffs, where the Los Angeles Clippers practically had a layup line in the first half of the series. Paul George even commented on Porzingis being a ghost at the rim, saying “they don’t have a rim protector, so just try to get there and put pressure at the basket.”

Porzingis mobility was just non-existent. The Mavericks defense finished in the bottom half of the league again, and the offense was still good, but not good enough.

Thankfully, things look much better in the preseason so far, although giant qualifier that this is just the preseason. In the seven game playoff series earlier this season, Porzingis had a total of 14 blocks and steals in 233 minutes. In the final month of the season, in 10 games and 330 minutes played, Porzingis had a total of 13 blocks and steals.

In three preseason games and 58 total minutes played? Porzingis has a combined nine blocks and steals. To say he’s looking more spry is an understatement. Porzingis is making plays he never could have dreamed of making last season.

The best part about two of these three plays is that they are help defense. This is where Porzingis needs to thrive, since he’ll be sharing the floor with sub-par defenders like Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell.

Offensively, things are a bit murkier. Porzingis posted his most efficient offense ever last season, averaging just over 20 points per game on 58.2 percent true shooting, easily a career high. So the numbers looked good from a distance, but taking a closer looked revealed some cracks.

Throughout last season, something just felt “off” about Porzingis’ offense. The final numbers were good, yes, but the impact didn’t always seem there, especially compared to how Porzingis played at the tail-end of his first healthy season in Dallas, the bubble and that first playoff run. Here’s why it felt weird watching: Porzingis’ ability to create offense practically vanished.

Porzingis was assisted on 78.8 percent of his made field goals last season, while the season before was 81.4 percent. Now being a finisher on a team with a passer as talented as Doncic isn’t a bad thing at all (Anthony Davis plays a similar role next to LeBron James in Los Angeles), but the Mavericks roster simply requires a bit more from Porzingis. While the percentage of assisted field goals dropped slightly compared to 2019-2020, the biggest indicator of Porzingis’ lack of offensive creation was his free throw rate — a career low 20.2 percent last season. That number is boosted a bit too because of a good final month for Porzingis, he was around 17 to 18 percent for most of the season. Porzingis’ lack of mobility and explosion carried over to his offensive game and Porzingis was purely a jumper-or-bust player last season.

We’re seeing a bit of that renewed mobility in the preseason, where Porzingis had a seven-attempt performance against the Clippers back on Oct. 8. To put that into perspective, Porzingis had three games all of last season with at least seven free throw attempts. Again, huge grain of salt with how tricky the preseason can be in projections, but it’s clear that Porzingis is at least moving better now than at any point last season.

This will be the key. Can Porzingis stay healthy for a full season? He’s missed significant chunks of games every season he’s been in Dallas. The trends don’t look good, but if Porzingis can stay right and this mobility isn’t a mirage, Dallas can do some serious damage this season and Doncic will finally have a worthy All-Star running buddy.