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Figuring out the different versions of Kristaps Porzingis

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The unicorn is hitting his stride on offense, but the Mavericks need more

Dallas Mavericks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Kristaps Porzingis is the most fascinating player on the Mavericks roster. He can be an elite scorer, a 7’3 unicorn that teams don’t know how to deal with. Or he can look out of place, parked behind the three-point line, and not involved in the offense. Sometimes both can happen during the same game. Then there is the dynamic with Luka Dončić.

The young star-duo of Dončić and Porzingis are sometimes polar opposites.

Dončić is very emotional on the court, goofy off the court, and it seems like he doesn’t put much thought into what he tells the media. Unlike his emotions, his play is unbelievably steady. He’s like a diesel engine that will perform in any circumstances and in any environment.

Porzingis is the opposite. He is calm, doesn’t show many emotions on the court, is always composed. When he talks to the media he is very deliberate, very rational. He goes out of his way to explain his play and thought process on the court. On the court Porzingis is like an expensive violin that can produce incredible music, but only if tuned right. If he’s in the right rhythm, in the right environment, he is an amazing player. A true unicorn. But if something disrupts that rhythm, he gets uncomfortable fast. He’s forcing shots, struggling to post smaller defenders, and things get bad in a hurry.

We’re going to look at these two versions of Porzingis to paint a picture of his season on the offensive side of the ball.

Last season Porzingis was great without Dončić on the floor

Last season Porzingis played some of his best basketball when Luka Dončić was out with an ankle injury. Porzingis seemed more assertive and more efficient without Dončić on the floor. Last season Dallas was plus-5.4 points per 100 possessions when Dončić and Porzingis played together, and plus-8.5 when Porzingis was on the floor without Dončić. Yes, Porzingis played most of the non-Dončić minutes with the rest of the starting lineup, but him playing well as the key cog in the offense was still an important development for Dallas.

This season it’s the complete opposite. When Porzingis plays with Dončić he is one of the most efficient players in the NBA — at least on offense. When Dončić and Porzingis play together, Dallas has an elite offense again (defense is another story). Things get brutal when Porzingis plays without Dončić, as Dallas is minus-16.8 per 100 possessions.

This season Porzingis is an elite 2nd option when playing with Dončić, and an inefficient scorer without him

So far this season, Porzingis is one of the most efficient scorers in the league when he plays with Dončić. Porzingis’s efficiency is at career-high levels when the two stars are on the court together. Without Dončič, Porzingis’s efficiency falls off the cliff.

So, what is so different in Porzingis’s game when he plays without Dončić this season?

I did a deep-dive into the numbers and film to find some answers.

When Porzingis is playing with Dončić, he scores a lot at the rim, hits his three-point shots at an elite rate, and scores more on second-chance points and putbacks. Without Dončić, Porzingis becomes a high-usage, high-volume, but inefficient scorer. He can’t get to the rim and shoots tons of long three-pointers, which he makes at a low rate. Data also shows that in the non-Dončić minutes Porzingis shoots both two-point and three-point shots from a longer distance and earlier in the shot-clock.

Film analysis of more than 100 of Porzingis’s three-point shots

I was so intrigued by Porizngis’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ offense, especially with his shooting from deep, that I watched the film of all three-pointers Porzingis shot this season. The first thing that jumps out is, that in non-Dončić minutes, Porzingis becomes trigger happy. This season Porzingis talked a lot about the balance between staying patient and being aggressive. Yet it seems that as soon as Dončić is out, he starts hunting for his shot, especially in early offense. By my film analysis, around 30 percent of Porzingis’s three-point attempts in non-Dončić minutes come early in the shot clock (in the 17-24 second range). They are from long-range, often more than 28 feet out.

It seems that for Porzingis these early three-point shots are like Dončić’s step-back three-pointers. They look good when they go in, he can make them, opponents fear them, but they are not efficient shots.

When playing with Dončić, Porzingis takes less of these long three-point shots, and they usually come from a much shorter range. The first reason is probably that the ball is in Dončić’s hands and Porzingis is less aggressive calling for the ball, early in the possessions. The second difference in Porzingis' three-point shooting is that he gets way more open looks when he plays with Dončić. It’s difficult to define what is a contested and what is an open shot for Porzingis because he is so tall and his release is so high. By my count when watching the film, 50 percent of Porzingis’s three-point shots were open when he plays with Dončić, while this share is around 25 percent in the non-Dončič minutes. Dončić puts a lot of pressure on defenses with his paint attacks. When defenses collapse around Dončić, he is very good at kicking it out to the perimeter which creates many open looks for Porizngis and other shooters.

The effect of getting better catch and shoot looks is evident in Porzingis’s three-point shooting accuracy. He shoots 42 percent from three with Dončić on the floor, and just 27 percent when playing in non-Dončić lineups.

The challenge for Porzingis, Dončić, and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is how to keep Porzingis involved, patient, and creating open looks for him on a consistent basis.

Dončić spacing the floor for Porzingis

It’s not only three-point shots, Porzingis gets better and closer looks on his two-point shots when playing alongside Dončić. Dončić assisted Porzingis 44 times this season, Richardson and Brunson are second with 16 assists each. When playing with Dončić, 31 percent of Porzingis’s shot come at the rim, and he’s making them at a career-high 71 percent clip. These are highly efficient shots.

In non-Dončić lineups, Porzingis basically becomes a 7’3 shooting guard. 45 percent of his shots in non-Dončić lineups are three-pointers and only 16 percent of his shots are at the rim. This season Porzingis has 22 dunks while playing with Dončić, and only two in non-Dončić lineups. In their second season playing together, Dončić looks even more comfortable creating easy buckets for Porzingis. When Porzingis is on the move, cutting or rolling to the rim out of a pick and roll, good things usually happen.

When Dončić is on the floor Porzingis shoots 59 percent on two pointers, when Dončić is off this drops to 46 percent.

Now, Carlisle needs to figure out how to get similar easy looks for Porzingis with Brunson running the point and Dončić on the bench. Brunson is having a great individual season, but he’s not scaring defenses on his drives and creating for Porzingis the way Dončić is. Porzingis shoots two-point shots from longer distance and makes them at a lower percentage with Jalen Brunson on the floor. Porzingis’s rim shot frequency decreases from 28 percent to 21 percent in Brunson lineups.

One thing that Carlisle started doing is having secondary ballhandler run some actions for Porzingis and use Dončić off-ball, almost as a decoy. Even without the ball, defenses are focused on Dončić, and this allows Dallas to run 4-on-4 basketball in the half-court. Porzingis is great on cuts to the basket and per Synergy, he creates 1.444 points per possession on cuts this season. Especially with Richardson, it seems that Porzingis found a nice two-man game lately.

If Carlise can replicate more of these actions in non-Dončić minutes it would help increase Porzingis’s efficiency and balance his three-point heavy shot diet.

Carlisle trying to figure out the best Porzingis-Dončić minutes mix

Figuring out how to get non-Dončić lineups to work on offense was one of the key problems during Dallas’ six-game losing streak earlier in the season. Carlisle experimented with a lot of different substitution patterns for both Porzingis and Dončić. Porzingis talked about how playing longer stretches helps him find the rhythm that is so important for him. Porzingis said that playing those longer chunks allows him to be more patient and not forcing shots.

However, the long non-Dončić minutes, especially the ones at beginning of the fourth quarters, were hurting Dallas earlier in the season. Carlisle adapted Dončić substitution patterns by having Dončić take shorter breaks in the quarter. You can see how ‘Porzingis non-Dončić’ minutes (green in the chart) evolved since Porzingis came back from his meniscus injury. The ‘green’ patches in the fourth quarter were bigger early in the season, then Carlisle almost eliminated them over the last eight games.

Source: pbp data

Last season Porzingis played 36 percent of his minutes in non-Dončić lineups. This season this share shrank to 31 percent. One reason for that is that Dončić is playing a career-high 35.3 minutes per game. After losing six straight games Carlisle reduced his rotation to eight players and lowered the non-Dončić Porzingis minutes. It was a good short-term adjustment and at least on offense, Dallas is back where it was last year. In the last 14 days, Dallas had the number one ranked offense in the league. During this period Dončić and Porzingis looked like the unstoppable scoring duo that we’ve seen at the end of the last season.

Long-term Dončić can not play this volume of minutes and continue carrying the heavy load. Carlisle will have to figure out how to get Porzingis going when he’s not playing with Dončić. So far this season, it seems that Porzingis was forcing things, being too aggressive with his shot, when Dončić was taking a breather. Porzingis is much more efficient when he’s patient and not trying to do too much. His play in the minutes with Dončić shows that Porzingis can be one of the most efficient scorers in the right setup.

Now it’s up to Carlisle to fine-tune his sensitive violin to produce a melody that will make Maverick’s fans happy.