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Kristaps Porzingis’ passing could unlock another level to the Mavericks offense

Never thought of to be a playmaker, Porzingis is subtly showing off some nice passing so far this season.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

There aren’t a ton of expectations for Kristaps Porzingis to be a passer. Throughout his career, he’s mostly been a gunner — either on a bad team that allowed him to fester bad habits (New York) or fitting in to space and provide complimentary scoring next to an all world superstar (Dallas). When you go down the list of issues with the Mavericks, “Kristaps Porzingis’ passing” isn’t even on the list, because it’s not something you expect.

This season, however, Porzingis is passing better than he ever has. That’s not a hard bar to clear, to be fair, but Porzingis doing some of the things he’s been doing for the last handful of games could unlock some things the Mavericks offense hasn’t had in the Luka Doncic era.

Porzingis had seven assists in a loss to the Suns last week, a season high. Some were standard swing passes to open shooters, but a few plays in particular stood out — Porzingis as a dribble handoff hub, letting the Mavericks shooters and ball handlers scurry around the court before taking a handoff from Porzingis and shooting or driving. This was particularly important in that game against the Suns, as the Mavericks were missing Luka Doncic and needed some help on offense.

The Mavericks roster is filled with extremely limited offensive players. Outside of Doncic and Jalen Brunson, none of the regular rotation players can dribble their way into a quality shot on a consistent basis. The Mavericks do, theoretically right now, have a roster of reliable shooters. Using Porzingis as a handoff hub can alleviate some of those dribbling and creation issues by leaning on Porzingis to provide the space to create a good shot. Instead of trying to make Tim Hardaway Jr. dribble into a good look, why not have him dance around Porzingis and allow Porzingis’ ability as a scorer to spook defenses into making a very hard choice.

When Porzingis is shooting and scoring well, like he is right now, this play becomes brutal for defenses to handle. The Mavericks in the past have run a lot of dribble handoffs with Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber, but they aren’t nearly as effective because the defense isn’t too concerned when one of Kleber or Powell have the ball in their hands. A productive and springy Porzingis is a completely different story.

This method also shouldn’t just be a stop-gap for whenever Doncic is out — Doncic could use the extra help as well. His shooting numbers have been a little wobbly this season and his attempts at the rim have decreased since his second season. With the Mavericks roster basically unchanged for the last three years, defenses are growing more comfortable and aware of how to guard this group of players. That has meant less space for Doncic, in addition to some of the spacing issues caused by a team learning a new system under a new coaching staff.

Hardaway and Doncic have the most dribble handoff possessions finished on the team, according to NBA.com/stats. Both are excellent on the play type — Hardaway has an effective field goal percentage of 72 on dribble hand offs, scoring 1.46 points per possession, good for the 96.5 percentile. Doncic isn’t too far behind, scoring 1.21 points per possession on the dribble handoff, posting a 70 percent effective field goal percentage and in the 83.5 percentile. The only nitpick with Doncic’s numbers is that the dribble handoff is only used for 4.8 percent of his total possessions. What if the Mavericks bumped that up a bit? That could help with some of his stagnant shooting numbers this season.

It’s not just the dribble handoff that Porzingis is playing well out of — he’s just generally passing better than at any point of his career. His 12.1 percent assist percentage, according to cleaningtheglass.com, is far and away a career high and that comes with an increased usage rate, the highest he’s had since arriving in Dallas. He’s also keeping his turnover numbers lower than his more unrefined early seasons in New York, so the increased passing isn’t leading to career high turnover numbers.

In the win against the Clippers on Tuesday night, Porzingis made good passes that he just hasn’t consistently made previously in his career. He’s passing a smidge higher on his drives this season. Not a huge increase, but an increase nonetheless.

Of course, there are still bumps to be ironed out. Dallas lost all three games with Porzingis as its leading scoring without Doncic and the Mavericks offense is still, statistically, over eight points worse per 100 possessions when Porzingis is on the floor. The Mavericks offense as a team still can’t seem the shake some chunkiness and shooting woes. However the team was better on offense with Porzingis on the floor than off it during Doncic’s absence, so things are trending better. A fair share of negative team data around Porzingis can be tied to his horrific start to the season, where he shot 30 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from three in October before injuring his back. Against the Clippers Tuesday night, Doncic didn’t score one basket from a Porzingis dribble handoff and his season-long usage rating is a staggering 40 percent. Perhaps using Porzingis as this handoff hub can give Doncic a break.

The Mavericks have played 17 games now, but unfortunately Porzingis and Doncic have missed a combined eight. That means that while we’re nearing the point where small sample size turns into season trends, the Mavericks still have some work left to tinker and figure things out. Porzingis’ passing is a welcome development and the Mavericks will need to try to take advantage of it and keep it going throughout the season.