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Can Kristaps Porzingis be a legit second scoring option on a title contending team?

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A deep-dive comparison to 10 other complimentary stars

Dallas Mavericks v Toronto Raptors

The Dallas Mavericks are a sinking ship with many holes. Dallas just lost a fifth straight game, a frustrating clutch loss against the Phoenix Suns. The Mavericks are now 13th in the Western record with an 8-12 record.

There are many problems on this team and they’re experiencing their first real adversity in the Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis era.

Covid-19 absences flushed everything the Mavericks built in the first ten games down the toilet and exposed structural problems with the roster. Of all the holes in the Mavericks sinking ship, there is one that is the most concerning in the big-picture.

Through game 20 of the season (or 27%) and the team has not gotten much, if anything, in terms of production out of their second star, Kristaps Porzingis. Porzinigs started the second consecutive season, recovering from knee surgery. He is off to another slow start, currently, per Cleaning the Glass data, the team has a differential of -7.2 points per 100 possessions when Porzingis is on the floor. Even worse when Porzinigis is on the floor without Dončić point differential is almost doubled, to -14.2.

In year two of the Dončić-Porzingis duo, it’s time for the Mavericks to ask themselves a key question, a question that will define this team going forward: Can the Mavericks ever be a contender with Porzings as the second star, as the second scoring option?

Ranking Porzingis compared to the 10 other secondary stars in the NBA

This article was long in the making even before the latest Porzingis struggles. Dallas will reach their full potential only if Porzinigs can perform like the best complementary stars in the league do.

Apart from Brooklyn, the best teams in the league still seem to be the ones with the best star duos. Every contending team has at least one star to complement their superstar. Lebron James has Anthony Davis, the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George duo, the Sixers have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has Khris Middleton as his sidekick.

Methodology and data sources

I used 2019-20 data for all comparisons on purpose. I did it because Porzingis is struggling right now and we still don’t have enough of a sample size this season. Using the current season’s data would be a masochistic exercise that would only add to the current frustrations.

Before diving into the analysis it’s important to understand the data points used. I compared Porzingis to 10 other stars across six categories. Porzingis is such a unique player that it’s hard to define a position for him. He plays like a wing on offense and a big man on defense. This is why I compared him to five big men and five wing players. I selected big men who have a similar ability to shoot the ball from long range.

The six stat categories I analyzed were: traditional stats, scoring efficiency, shot creation, shot type, shot accuracy, and defense & rebounding.

I used Basketball-Reference for traditional stats and true shooting (TS%), I used NBA.com stats to calculate the share of open three-point shots, and Cleaning the Glass for all other data.

Traditional stats

Looking at the traditional stats only, there is no doubt Porzingis is a legit second scoring option.

Porzingis averaged 20.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots per game last season. These are good enough numbers for a second scorer on a contending team. The concerning part is that Porzinigs was worst among bigs in two-point field goal percentage (second-worst among all 10 players) and second-worst in three-point percentage.

This brings us to the next category.

Scoring efficiency

This is where things get dicey for Porzingis.

Low field goal percentage indicated there is trouble, but a deep-dive into Porzingis’ scoring efficiency exposed real flaws.

Porzingis ranked last among all 11 players in PSA (total points scored per hundred shot attempts), eFG (effective field goal percentage), and TS% (true shooting percentage). PSA, eFG, and TS% are three indicators we typically use to evaluate player’s scoring efficiency.

Porzingis was not an efficient scorer last season. His relatively high usage rate (24%) means he was a high-usage, but low-efficiency second option last year.

Shot creation

Shot creation is another category where Porzingis really struggled. He ranked last among all 11 players in both stats I analyzed in this category.

His 81% ASTD% rate means Porzingis created only 19% of his shots by himself. Porzingis is not a player who will demand the ball and create something when the team needs a bucket. His scoring opportunities are created for him within the offense by his teammates.

Creating your own shot is difficult when you are not comfortable at handling the ball. Porzingis rarely dribbles, most of his field goals last season were shots where he didn’t dribble the ball at all (68% of all shots), or where he did one dribble (10% of all shots). His efficiency dropped significantly on shots where he did more than one dribble, he shot below 34% on those shots. His assist rate was the lowest among all 11 players I analyzed, meaning he isn’t much of a creator for others in the offense.

A big part of the shot creation problem for Porzingis is that he has a limited repertoire of offensive moves.

The most frequently used option is to catch and shoot or take any other shot from behind the three-point line (see next section for Porzinigs’s shot diet data). The second option is playing in a pick and roll with a ball-handler, and either roll to the basket or pop out for a three. The third option, and the least efficient one, is to post-up. His post-ups usually end with Porzinigs shooting over smaller defenders. Porzingis would also occasionally do a pump fake, followed by a straight drive to the rim.

Porzingis is a very tall human being so dribbling the ball will never be natural for him. This limits his shot creation possibilities. Because of his body type, he has a long, thin body with a high center of gravity, he will never bully people in the post. But he is very good at cutting to the basket and can become better in off-screen situations, screening for others, and passing.

Shot diet (shot frequency)

Porzingis’s shot diet is closer to an NBA wing player shot profile than to a typical big man. The closest comparison for Porzingis in shot frequency distribution among our 11 players was Paul George. LaMarcus Aldridge was the only big man in my analysis that shot less at the rim than Porzingis did last season.

His shot distribution is a byproduct of Dallas's five-out offense, where he plays a crucial role in spacing the floor for Dončić’s paint attacks. When he played in New York, he shot the same amount of shots at the rim as he does in Dallas, but took way more mid-range shots. In Dallas, some of the mid-range shots were replaced by three-pointers. 39% of Porzingis’s shots last season were threes which ranked him 4th among all 11 players I analyzed.

Shot accuracy

Porzingis has a reputation of being an excellent shooter, yet his shooting accuracy data doesn’t justify that.

His three-point field goal percentage was the second-worst among all 11 players analyzed. Only Anthony Davis shot worse from behind the arc last season. But Davis’s three-point frequency was among the lowest, while Porzingis’s was among the highest. In his career, Porzingis only had one good three-point shooting season (he shot 41% in 2017-18). In all other seasons, he was in the 34% to 35% range, which is a sign of an average three-point shooter.

Porzingis had the lowest accuracy on mid-range shots among all 11 analyzed players. His 36% on mid-range shots was a career-low, in prior seasons he was in the 40%-43% range. Porzingis started last season shooting poorly from mid-range and improved as the year progressed. This season he is at 43% which is a good sign.

Defense and rebounding

Defense and rebounding are not scoring categories, but I included them here to see if these are areas where Porzingis makes up for the lack of his scoring efficiency

Porzingis is a good rim protector, especially as a help defender. His 3.1% block rate was 2nd highest among all analyzed players. His rim-protection combined with his three-point shooting is what got him the unicorn nickname after all. But, the NBA evolved and now many big men are excellent three-point shooters. An NBA big shooting 35% from beyond the arc is not unique anymore. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jaren Jackson Jr. for example are much better long-range shooters than Porzingis is.

Porzingis is not a great individual defender. He struggles to defend aggressive post scorers and his limited mobility can get him exposed in certain pick and roll situations. We saw this recently in the two matchups against Utah, where the Jazz attacked and punished Porzingis repeatedly. This also happened last season when Damian Lillard scored 61 points against Dallas in the bubble, exposing Mavericks’s drop coverage with Porzinigis planted in the paint.

Rebounding is one area where Porzingis had a good year last season, but he isn’t as dominant of a rebounder as some other elite big man in the league. His defensive rebound share (fgDR%) record in prior years suggests we should still keep an eye on his performance on the glass. Porzinigs had a high defensive free-throw rate (ftDR%) which means he got a lot of easy non-contested rebounds that inflated his numbers last season.

Final verdict

Based on this analysis Porzingis is the least efficient scorer of all analyzed players. Many fans question if Khris Middleton, Pascal Siakam, or even Paul George are good enough to be a second option on a title-contending team. This analysis shows they were much more efficient scorers than Porzingis was last season.

But, there is hope for Mavericks fans. Porzingis played at a high level in the second part of last season, before going down with a meniscus injury. In a 15-game stretch post-All-Star (including the bubble), Porzingis averaged 26.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. He shot 45.1% from the field, and 35.7% from three.

Not only did his scoring volume increase, but his efficiency increased as well. Porzingis had an effective field goal percentage of 52.7% and 58.2% true shooting percentage in the post-All-Star period. That would still put him at the bottom half of the players analyzed, but much closer to a profile of an efficient high-volume scorer. His shot creation and playmaking stats didn’t change much, so that remains a concern.

The big question with Porzingis is whether he can ever sustain his last year’s post-All-Star production for a full season. It seems that his high-performance bursts are always squeezed between periods of injury recovery and months of him playing himself into full rhythm and form. Spending every off-season recovering from injury has another huge downside. It prevents Porzingis from working on his game. At 25 he is still relatively young, but he looks like the same player we saw when he first came to Dallas and really, he’s the same player he appeared by the end of his rookie campaign.

Before this season many of us thought that Mavericks might not need Porzingis to be at his peak efficiency for a full season. Perhaps Luka Dončić and the roster around him could be good enough to get Dallas in the playoffs.

This season thus far showed how ruthless the NBA can be and why having a dependable second star is what enables the best teams to survive the storms.

Porzingis’s injury history and his past performance suggest that pacing him throughout the season and hoping he’ll hit his peak in the playoffs might be the best approach for him going forward.

However, the sinking Mavericks’ ship as currently constructed might not have that luxury anymore. There are just too many holes and too many questions.