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The long term fit of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis has nothing to do with offense

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The other side of the ball is the real factor in determining the success of the Dallas star duo

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The relationship between Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis has been one of the biggest storylines of the Mavericks season. Questions about the star duo’s fit have gained enough traction that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban felt the need to address the topic in a recent interview:

“On the court they are fine. That’s not to say there aren’t dust-ups, because there are. I’d compare it to Jet and Dirk.’’ Cuban said in his recent talk on the 105.3 The Fan “K&C Masterpiece”.

It might be that the lack of off-court interaction between Dončić and Porzingis is exaggerated by the Mavericks fans. Maybe they are just “different people that like to do different things”, as Cuban described them. But there is a part of the on-court fit that is a problem. And it’s not the part you might expect.

Most of the talk surrounding the Dončić and Porzingis on-court fit revolves around offense. Is the offense too heliocentric? Should Porzingis have a bigger role? Can Porzingis be a true second option on a title-contending team?

While these questions are legitimate, we have enough evidence to say that the offense is really good whenever Dončić and Poriznigis are on the floor together. This season, the lineups that feature both Dončić and Porzingis score 120.9 points per 100 possessions. That ranks in the top 95th percentile of all NBA lineups, per Cleaning the Glass data.

Even if you don’t see Porizingis as a true second star that can create his own shot, his value in the Mavericks offense is undeniable. Porzingis is the force that stretches the opposing defenses an extra foot behind the three-point line and gives Dončić more space to shine. Porzingis did offer clues that he is not happy being the ultimate system player in an offense centered around Dončić, but the Mavericks offense is still clicking.

The most critical part of the Dončić-Porzingis paring is actually on the other side of the ball. It’s the fit on defense that’s becoming problematic, and it could make or break the long-term partnership.

Why is defense a concern?

For all the pre-season talk about defense, the Mavericks are still a bottom ten defensive team this season. And it’s not like the team and the coaching staff doesn’t care. This is a team that gives out a defensive belt after every win in the locker room. Dallas currently ranks 20th in the league, allowing 113.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. For comparison, last season the Mavericks ranked two spots higher at 18th even with much less talk about defense and zero defensive belts handed out.

The confusing part is that Mavericks have had stretches where they actually played very good defense. Unfortunately, for every good stretch, there is a bad streak where Mavericks defend like the worst defensive teams in the league. If you look at the Mavericks defense on a per-game level, it’s like a wild roller-coaster ride.

Dallas Mavericks - defense rankings per game in percentiles (source: Cleaning the Glass data)

There is a good argument to be made for the first stretch of games where the Mavericks were the worst defensive team in the league. COVID-19 absences wrecked the team in January and February, where they missed their best defensive players. Part of the reason for big swings in defensive performances is the impact of the league-wide increase in three-point shooting. Opponent three-point shooting accuracy is becoming one of the most important factors determining what kind of game a team will have on defense. The Mavericks had stretches of games where they were on both sides of the defensive three-point shooting luck spectrum this season.

Yet, if we look at the four factors on defense, we can see that bad opponent shooting luck is not the only reason why Dallas is struggling on defense.

Dallas Mavericks - Four Factors on Defense, league rankings (Source: Cleaning the Glass)

During the bad defensive stretches, the Mavericks fouled a lot and didn’t protect the rim well. Dallas struggled to defend the pick and roll all season. Mavericks currently rank 26th in the NBA in pick-and-roll ball-handler defense. If we look at the numbers in more detail, you can see there is one thing that is even more concerning than the team's inconsistent defensive performances.

Dallas can’t stop anyone with both of its stars on the floor.

Can Dončić and Porzingis play competent defense together?

As good as the lineups with both Dončić and Porzingis are on offense, they are equally bad on defense this season. The team has a defensive rating of 120.83 when Dončić and Porzingis play together, which ranks in the bottom 7 percentile of all lineups in the league. Interestingly, the Mavericks defend at a pretty high level when none or only one of them is on the floor.

Dončić and Porzingis Defensive Rating (Source: pbp data)

These are perplexing numbers. Why can the Mavericks only play good defense with one of their stars on the floor, but not when they are on the floor together?

The first reason is Porzingis's regression on defense this season. Porzingis has been a plus defender for each of his first four seasons in the league. Because of his size and rim protection, opponents shot fewer shots at the rim and made them at a much lower clip when Porzingis was on the floor. This season, because of limited mobility and the league’s evolution towards more shooting, more space, and faster pace, Porzingis has become a negative defender.

Dončić is still not a positive defender on the game per-game basis, despite the improvements he’s made. Dončić showed he can defend well in stretches and in certain matchups when he’s fully locked in. But the effort and focus are not always there. He often loses his man after initial rotations or by chasing rebounds, and can sometimes fall victim to faster players blowing by him on drives when he’s not focused.

Pairing Dončić with another defender that struggles to stay in front of players on offense is not ideal. There were many games this season when opposing teams attacked Porzingis more than Dončić. To add to the Mavericks’ defensive woes, the team’s third-best player, Tim Hardaway Jr. is one of the worst defenders on the team by defensive on/off numbers. It’s a problem when your three best players are also your three worst defensive players.

This is why the Mavericks moved Hardaway Jr. to a bench role, then surrounded Dončić and Porzingis with three good defenders in the starting lineup in Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith. It seems that this trio can cover for one of their stars on defense, but not for both. The rules and the level of offense in the current NBA require focus and effort from all five players on the floor.

Different Mavericks’ defensive coverages and fit with Dončić and Porzingis

There isn’t a defensive scheme that fits both Doncic and Porzingis well. Neither is a good pick-and-roll defender, for example. Per Synergy, the Mavericks rank 26th in the league in pick-and-roll ball-handler defense, allowing 0.927 points per possession. With Dončić and Porzingis on the floor together this number swells to 1.051 points per possession.

Dallas mostly defends the pick-and-roll with a drop coverage when Porzingis is on the floor. The idea of drop coverage is having Porzingis protect the paint, and forcing less efficient mid-range shots.

However, with the league-wide increase in shooting accuracy and more players mastering hostage dribbles, snake dribbles, and other tricks to get to their spots, drop coverage is becoming less efficient.

Porzingis's limited mobility is a poor fit for coverages that require him to show at the level of the screen, hedge, or a switching defense. Against the drop coverage, good shooters can pull up for an open three-point shot. For players like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard, this is like a layup. Dallas tried to have Porzingis defend higher against the Blazers and the Warriors, but it resulted in no real success. Fast guards with long shooting range are just too difficult to defend on a spaced-out floor for a 7-foot-3 Porzingis.

Dončić on the other hand struggles fighting over screens and chasing defenders for a rear-view contest, which is crucial in a drop coverage.

Apart from Josh Richardson, the Mavericks don’t have a player who is aggressive enough to fight over screens, as well as someone who is quick and long enough to contest shots from behind. It’s puzzling why the Mavericks mostly use Finney-Smith as the primary on-ball pick-and-roll defender, usually against guards. The other confusing aspect of the Dallas defense is why they stick to the same conservative drop coverage, even when good pick-and-roll teams like Utah and Phoenix, and good mid-range teams like San Antonio and New York exposed their flaws.

The recent stretch of games in April, that Porzingis sat out due to rest or injury, provided us the answer. In these games Porzingis didn’t play, the Mavericks experimented with a switching defense and coverages where bigs would show high at the level of the screen.

On Tuesday, in a matchup against Steph Curry and Golden State, the Mavericks blitzed the Warriors with a mix of aggressive switching and trapping defense. You can see the Mavericks showing high on all ball-screen actions and switching on the Warriors guards.

This was probably the best defensive game of the season for the Mavericks.

Playing more aggressive defensive schemes requires repetitions and execution by all players on the floor. Dallas tried a similar scheme in a prior game against Sacramento and it resulted in much less success. In the playoffs, the Mavericks will need to be able to play different kinds of coverages. Dončić’s size is a better fit for switching defense, where he can switch on a bigger player in the pick-and-roll. Richardson, Finney-Smith, and Kleber are all long, mobile defenders that can switch and play in more aggressive coverages. The challenge is at the center position. Cauley-Stein and Dwight Powell provide more mobility than Porzingis but are a downgrade on offense.

Switching has its downsides as well, as Dončić is not a good defender in isolation. Teams will hunt him in isolation mismatches during the playoffs, so Dallas will need to have mobile and active defenders around him to provide help. The challenge is how to find the best defensive coverage that fits both Dončić and Porzingis, without exposing their flaws on defense.

What are the playoff and long-term implications?

Porzingis improved his defense in March when the Mavericks were one of the best defensive teams in the league. But his numbers declined in April, where Porzingis again has the worst defensive rating on the team. Porzingis’s decline on defense presents difficult challenges for the team heading into the playoffs. Coach Rick Carlisle can’t afford to scheme for covering both of his stars on defense. This is not a knock on Porzingis only, Dončić’s defense is a problem as well.

However, Dončić is the centerpiece of the offense and we can’t imagine Carlisle benching him. Teams tend to play smaller lineups in the playoffs, another thing that makes things harder for Porzingis. Carlisle benched Porzingis in the final minutes of the game against the Golden State Warriors earlier in the season when the Mavericks struggled to defend Steph Curry. He did it again in a game against the Boston Celtics when Porzingis sat out almost the entire fourth quarter.

“They were very small. It would be a tough defensive thing for him to guard Marcus Smart, that was the guy he was going to have to guard. I did put him in with a little over four minutes left, as I did want to get him back into the game. But the matchups were extremely difficult,” Carlisle said after the game. “He did OK for a minute or so, but they kept coming at us so quickly it would have been unfair to him to have to guard different guys in cross-matches at the three-point line with those guys coming at you a hundred miles an hour.”

This kind of situation will happen again in the playoffs. How Porzingis will handle them could determine the Mavericks' long-term plans. Dončić and Porzingis can become best friends off the court, but if they can’t figure out how to defend well together, it won’t matter.