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Was Kristaps Porzingis’ role one of the reasons for the Mavericks’ front office rift?

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A deep-dive into advanced analytics data brings some new light

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks 2020-21 season ended after a disappointing loss in game seven against the Clippers in the first round of the Playoffs. The next day, skeletons quickly started to fall out of the closet. We heard strange exit interviews quotes. Then there was the story about the front office power struggles. Donnie Nelson, long-time General Manager, was fired. Rick Carlisle resigned, and burned bridges on his way out. Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison were appointed as the new head coach and General Manager duo.

The drama and news cycle came so fast that one question from last season remained unanswered. The biggest story of the past season, and the one that will determine a lot about the next season, is what happened to Kristaps Porzingis. A lot of ink has been spilled about Porzingis’ struggles last season. Porzingis’ struggles got magnified in the Playoffs. The Clippers were probably the worst matchup for him, and Porzingis ended the series with pedestrian averages of 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

Porzingis didn’t look physically right the whole season. But some of the ‘skeletons’ brought new light to the things that happened behind the scenes. We know different power brokers in the Mavericks’ organization were fighting for Mark Cuban’s ear. Was Porzingis’ role, and how different people in the Mavericks’ front office perceived it, one of the reasons that convinced Cuban to clean the house?

From a bonafide superstar to 7-3 floor spacer

We know Donnie Nelson liked and wanted Porzingis on the Mavericks roster for a long time. The trade for Porzingis was one of the last big moves Nelson pulled out. At the time when Nelson pulled the trigger, Cuban was all-in on Porzingis. Just 19 months ago, there was no doubt in Cuban’s mind that Porzingis was the second super-star to build around Luka Dončić.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, and here’s Cuban talking about the need for a second scorer.

Cuban said Porzingis is who he is. This sounds like he’s just one of the guys, a role player. Definitely not a bonafide superstar.

So, what made Cuban change his tune on Porzingis? Shouldn’t he give his max player a second chance to prove himself? This will be the first time the Latvian big man will head into the offseason healthy, which should enable him to work on his body and skills. Couldn’t Jason Kidd convince Dončić to find better ways to utilize Porzingis? Donnie Nelson definitely thought so. On his exit interview, Nelson didn’t talk about the need for a second scorer. The key theme of Nelson’s exit interviews was how Dončić will mature and get better at involving his teammates.

Based on his comments it’s easy to assume Nelson thought that Dončić could and should help Porzingis become the second scorer the Mavericks missed so badly in the playoffs.

With Nelson out of the picture and Cuban’s latest stance on Porzingis, it’s not difficult to see who got Cuban’s ear on this topic at the end. But looking back on the things that happened during the regular season, with the information we have now, we could envision Porzingis’ role as one of the key reasons for the clash between Donnie Nelson and Haralabos Voulgaris. Was there something that the Mavericks’ analytical department found that suggested how Porzingis should be used in the offense? What made Cuban change his view and eventually changed Porzingis’ role?

I tried to dig in the numbers and interpret them in the context of the recent events to understand what happened.

Porzingis’ most efficient offensive season

First, the good news. Scoring wise, Porzingis had the most efficient season of his career. That was a big thing for the Mavericks, because in previous seasons Porzingis was not an efficient scorer if you compared his numbers to those of the better second options around the league.

Kristaps Porzingis - Scoring efficiency by year

Compared to the previous season, Porzingis averaged almost the same points per game, but at a higher efficiency and lower usage rate. The latter was something Porzingis was not happy with. Porzingis complained about his role in the offense and touches at different points throughout the season. On nights when his usage was high, Porzingis would make sure to comment that ball movement was good. But addressing his role with the coaching staff and the media didn’t improve things for Porzingis. His role in the offense didn’t expand as the season progressed. On the contrary, Porzingis’ usage rate decreased in each of the last three months of the season, and ended up at an extremely low rate in the playoffs. In the playoffs, Porzingis had the seventh-highest usage rate among all Mavericks players. Even the disappointing Josh Richardson was more involved in the offense than Porzingis in his rare playoff minutes.

Kristaps Porzingis - Usage rate by month 2020-21 Season

There is more to the story on Porzingis’ usage rate numbers. If we dig into the numbers and plot Porzingis’ usage rate versus his scoring efficiency (true shooting percentage) we can see an interesting pattern. It seems that Porzingis was most efficient when his usage rate was in the 20 to 23 percent range. On most nights, when Porzingis’ usage rate increased, his efficiency dipped.

Kristaps Porzingis - Usage Rate % vs True Shooting %
Kristaps Porzingis - Usage Rate % vs True Shooting % with opponent data

The playoffs exposed Porzingis’ inability to create his own shot. This is why Cuban’s comments about the need for a second scorer probably had some recency bias in them. But Porzingis was always a player with a high assisted rate (how often a player is assisted on his made shots). Porzingis finished the season at a 79 percent assisted rate, and this number skyrocketed to 94 percent in the playoffs. As was the case with increased usage, we can see a similar pattern when the share of unassisted shots increased for Porzingis. The higher the share of self-created shots, the lower the efficiency. Or, if we put it in simpler terms, when Porzingis tried to do more on his own, it resulted in a less efficient offense.

Kristaps Porzingis - True Shooting % vs UnAssisted Share %

To be fair, the sample sizes for our analysis are small. Porzingis’ played in only 43 regular season and 7 playoff games. We can not talk about a clear cause-and-effect here, as there are not enough data points to prove that real causation exists. In 2019-20, Porzingis’ efficiency didn’t drop with increased usage. But it’s also true that Porzingis was a way less efficient scorer to begin with.

The Mavericks’ analytical staff is much smarter than me, and they have access to much more data. They had to see some of these trends. Could it be they tried to “cherry-pick” Porzingis’ best looks on offense and reduce the non-efficient ones? Did the analytics suggest that Porzingis is best suited as an efficient role player that shouldn't try to do too much? Was this something that influenced how Porzingis’ role evolved during the season?

Donnie Nelson’s comments on his way out indicate that he didn’t agree with this logic. Cuban, on the other hand, seems convinced that this is who Porzingis is now — a highly efficient role player and a floor spacer.

Did Porzingis regress physically at the end of the season?

There is another thing we need to consider when we try to understand how Porzingis’ role evolved last season. Porzingis mentioned many times how he started the season behind the eight ball, because of his recovery from a meniscus injury. Porzingis never looked 100 percent physically, and his lack of mobility was most evident on defense. But even with his career-high efficiency numbers on offense, there is data that indicates that all things were not well on offense. As with increased usage, it seems that when Porzingis played extended minutes, his efficiency started to drop. The sweet spot seems to be in the 25 to 30 minutes range.

Kristaps Porzingis - True Shooting % vs Minutes Played

Like our other analysis, the sample size is small, so these numbers should be considered with caution. But again, the pattern is not something that we can see in the 2019-20 season data. There are other things that indicate Porzingis was regresssing physically as the season progressed. Porzingis had other minor injuries setbacks at the end of April and never regained his form. Porzingis’ block rate dipped significantly at the end of the season. The same thing happened with his offensive rebound rate. Rick Carlisle talked to the media about Porzinigis’ struggles and said that he finally started to look better at the end of the Clippers series. There is hope that Porzingis can regain some of his mobility and explosiveness with a healthy offseason. But based on Cuban’s comments, it doesn’t seem like the Mavericks’ braintrust sees Porzingis as a reliable second star next to Luka Dončić.

Porzingis-Dončić chemistry

The other thing we learned from all the stuff that was shared in various reporting in the post-season is that Porzingis and Dončić don’t like playing with each other. Cuban tried to downplay this during the regular season, but Tim MacMahon stated clearly that Porzingis wouldn’t mind playing somewhere else. Dončić, who usually doesn’t reveal much in his comments to the media, recently went out of his way to talk about how much he enjoys the teamwork and team play he has with the Slovenian national team. The funny thing is that at least on offense, both Dončić and Porzingis played much better when they were on the floor together last season. Porzingis shot 53 percent from the field and 43 percent from three, and 28 percent of his shots were at the rim with Dončić on the court. Porzingis’ usage rate increased when Dončić was off, but his efficiency plummeted. Porzingis shot just 40 percent from the filed, 31 percent from three, and 20 percent of his shots were at the rim with Dončić on the bench. It worked the other way around too. Dončić had more space and was more efficient with Porzingis spacing the floor. Dončić shot 53 percent from the floor, 41 percent from three, and 26 percent of his shots were at the rim with Porizngis on the floor. These numbers dropped to 45 percent from the field, 32 percent from three, and 18 percent of Dončić’s shots at the rim with Porzingis off the court.

It’s obvious that on offense, a Dončić/Porzingis pairing works well. Lineups that featured both of them were in the top 95 percentile in offensive efficiency last season. The challenge is on defense and in the locker room. Cuban’s comments and Porzingis’ usage data shows that the Mavericks see Porzingis more like Brook Lopez or Myles Turner, than Paul George or Khris Middleton.

Will Porzingis accept this role going forward? If his chemistry with Dončić is beyond repair, that won’t matter. Recent coaching and front office changes showed the Mavericks are doing everything to build around Dončić. People who believed in Porzingis as the second star are gone. Cuban moved on from the idea of Porzingis as the second superstar. Evolution of Porzingis’ role shows he might be one of the reasons why Cuban made the changes. Porzingis was a gamble that didn’t pay off. Now, like many times in the past, the new Mavericks’ front office is in pursuit of their next star.