The allure of Kristaps Porzingis is simple: the rim protection of a traditional center combined with elite 3-point shooting to stretch defenses. It’s why he was dubbed the Unicorn early in his career. With his unique skillset, Porzingis could cause matchup problems with almost any team, pulling opposing centers out to the 3-point line to open up space for Luka Doncic drives. All this without sacrificing defense in the paint on the other end. It’s why the Mavericks traded so many assets to acquire Porzingis.
The reality, though, has been something different. More and more, opposing teams are putting a wing on Porzingis and tasking their center with guarding either Dorian Finney-Smith or Maxi Kleber. The center can then lurk right next to the paint, leaving Finney-Smith or Kleber wide open on the perimeter and clogging the lane for Doncic. It looks like this.
As our own Josh Boweman pointed out, this is how teams will likely guard the Mavericks in the playoffs.
The way the jazz guard the mavericks is a good sneak preview for how they'll likely be guarded in the playoffs -- put a big on DFS, a wing on Kristaps, and dare DFS to make shots. Mavs will have to have some counters, maybe use DFS as the roll man in the pick and roll.— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) April 5, 2021
How can they keep getting away with this? Two simple reasons. First, Finney-Smith and Kleber don’t make teams pay for leaving them wide open. Secondly, Porzingis can’t punish the smaller players assigned to guard him. Because of these two deficiencies, opponents can crowd the paint and make life difficult for Doncic or any other Maverick who tries to drive to the rim.
What can Dallas do to counter this strategy?
The easy answer is Porzingis could annihilate smaller players in the post. Currently, Porzingis is scoring fairly well on post ups. His one point per possession is sixth in the NBA among players who attempt at least four post ups per game. But it’s important to consider a lot of those shots are coming against small wings. Elite centers like Joel Embiid (1.09 PPP) and Nikola Jokic (1.01 PPP) are doing it against bigs. If they were defended by wings as often as Porzingis, who knows what kind of efficiency they’d show. Right now a Porzingis post up is a fifty-fifty chance for the Mavericks to score. Porzingis needs to make it a near certainty when there’s a wing guarding him.
Finney-Smith and Kleber could also hit wide open 3-pointers at a higher rate. They both have respectable shooting percentage from behind the arc, but those numbers are noisy. Finney-Smith and Kleber are shooting about as well on wide open shots as Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. shoot on contested 3-pointers. If they buried their wide open long distance shots at a more consistent rate, opposing centers guarding them would at least have to come out to the perimeter to contest their shots.
Scheme-wise, there are a couple things Rick Carlisle could cook up to combat the defensive matchup. The first idea is already being implemented, and it’s what Josh Bowe presciently mentioned in the tweet above. Pick-and-rolls can solve a lot of problems.
The clip below is a great example. It’s from the Mavericks’ last game against the Jazz. Porzingis was out, but the Jazz played the same way on defense. Rudy Gobert is deep in the lane, giving Finney-Smith plenty of space. When Finney-Smith sets the screen for Doncic, Gobert sinks back into the paint to contain Doncic’s drive until Donovan Mitchell can recover. But Doncic kicks the ball out to Finney-Smith just as Mitchell is recovering, and Gobert doesn’t have the quickness to get out and challenge Finney-Smith’s shot.
Getting Finney-Smith (or Kleber) involved with the pick-and-roll would make opponents’ centers moving. There’s not a lot of big men who have the mobility to defend a Doncic-Finney-Smith action, whether they’re switching or deploying some other strategy. Gobert, featured in the clip above, is one of the best defensive centers in the league. But even he struggles to close space when forced to move around the floor.
Another idea I’d like to see is Porzingis setting a back screen for Finney-Smith or Kleber along the baseline. Much like having them set screens for Doncic, this gets their big man defender moving, which is the idea. If they switch onto Porzingis, even better. Anything beats Doncic trying to penetrate the defense while his teammates stand perfectly still around the perimeter.
Whatever the plan, the Mavericks have to have counterattacks to this strategy by the time the playoffs start. Otherwise Doncic and the rest of the Dallas roster will have a frustrating postseason, and the results from the Orlando bubble may happen again.