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Kristaps Porzingis and struggle of rim protection

Is Porzingis still capable of being a good defender?

NBA: New York Knicks at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most important question regarding the future of the Dallas Mavericks: can Kristaps Porzingis return to being an elite defensive player? That will depend on if Porzingis has lost the physical ability to be a good defender.

Porzingis is a massive human being. He also is, or was, a gifted athlete for someone of his size. Players of similar height or length generally have athletic shortcomings. The only people listed at least 7-foot-3 in NBA history who come close to matching Porzingis athletically are Ralph Sampson and potentially a Pre-NBA Arvydas Sabonis.

Historically, Porzingis was able to leverage this incredible height and length to great effect as a rim protector. Unfortunately, Porzingis’ is averaging career lows in both blocks and steals as well as all of the assorted block and steal rate stats.

Porzingis Blocks Stats

Season Blocks Per Game Block% Blocks Per 36 Blocks Per 100 Poss.
Season Blocks Per Game Block% Blocks Per 36 Blocks Per 100 Poss.
2015-16 1.9 5.0 2.4 3.4
2016-17 2.0 4.9 2.1 3.0
2017-18 2.4 6.4 2.7 3.7
2019-20 2.0 5.4 2.3 3.1
2020-21 1.3 4.1 1.6 2.2

Porzingis Steals Stats

Season Steals Per Game Steal % Steals Per 36 Steals Per 100 Poss.
Season Steals Per Game Steal % Steals Per 36 Steals Per 100 Poss.
2015-16 0.7 1.3 0.9 1.3
2016-17 0.7 1.1 0.8 1.1
2017-18 0.8 1.1 0.8 1.1
2019-20 0.7 1.1 0.8 1.1
2020-21 0.5 0.7 0.5 0.7

When a player has fewer raw blocks and steals, the assorted rate stats will likely also be worse. Porzingis is not just affected by fewer minutes or possessions, he is making defensive plays less frequently. Porzingis’ previous career-low combined block and steal rate was 6.0 percent, while his career high combined rate was 7.5 percent. His combined rate has declined to a current combined rate of 4.8 percent.

Making fewer plays that show up in a box score does not always denote a major decline in defensive play because the majority of defensive plays do not show up in a box score. It’s important to note that quantifying defense analytically is far behind quantifying offense.

Porzingis’ field goal percentage allowed at the rim declined compared to past seasons. To put these numbers in context, Rudy Gobert is giving up a field goal percentage allowed of 48.0 percent on 8.8 field goal attempts contested at the rim this season.

Porzingis Field Goal Percentage Allowed At the Rim

Season FG% Allowed At Rim FGA Contested At Rim
Season FG% Allowed At Rim FGA Contested At Rim
2015-16 50.8 6.1
2016-17 51.7 7.3
2017-18 48.7 5.9
2019-20 50.5 7.5
2020-21 58.6 7.6

A cursory look at the numbers or watching games makes it clear that Porzingis has become a much worse defender.

Being a massive human is also his greatest weakness. It is harder to move a 7-foor-3 frame as quickly and with the same amount of agility as a 6-foot-6 wing, a 6-foot-2 guard, or even a 6-foot-10 big. It is harder to stay healthy with such a gigantic frame. This results in a ton of time off for either injuries or “maintenance”. Diminished playing time can lead to a loss of team cohesion as well as a loss of confidence.

Porzingis will likely always be a liability in space, which makes his capabilities as a rim protector so important. An elite rim protector who has to be protected in space can still be a defensive weapon. A poor rim protector who has to be protected in space is a gigantic liability.

Is the decline in rim protection due solely to his loss of athleticism and unrecoverable? NO! It is a combination of factors including the loss of athleticism, the putrid defense of the guards in front of him, and most importantly, the loss of timing which has accompanied his lost athleticism.

There have long been effective rim protectors who were not wild vertical athletes. Tim Duncan was an elite rim protector for his whole career despite not exactly being a paragon of athleticism at the end. Brook Lopez is currently an excellent rim protector for the Bucks and Porzingis is much more athletic than him. These players have fantastic length and great timing. Timing is an incredibly important part of shot-blocking. Virtually any scouting report of a potential shot-blocker will mention either that the player has great timing or needs to improve his timing.

For his entire NBA career, Porzingis had a certain level of explosiveness. All of his shot-blocking habits and tendencies are based on that level of explosiveness. Now it's worse. How much worse? That’s hard to say, but it’s enough to matter in the aforementioned block rates. That decline isn’t insurmountable, it simply requires adjustment. Porzingis is a very smart player when he chooses to be. He has to learn what his body is capable of and adjust his tendencies to match. Rotating quicker, blocking shots closer to the shooter's hand rather than at their apex, and relying on fundamental positioning instead of being a physical outlier are all means by which Porzingis can reverse this decline.

Kirk Henderson recently said that, “... Porzingis is no longer a unicorn but has turned into a horse.” This may be true, but a horse can still be useful! The horse will have a rough time, and probably a concussion, if it continues to attempt to ram things with the horn it no longer has. Adjusting his rim protection will be a difficult but attainable goal. More importantly, it is necessary in order for the current version of the Dallas Mavericks to reach the lofty heights they are so desperate to achieve.

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