The future of Kristaps Porzingis was the topic of conversation heading into this offseason. Rumors swirled that the Mavericks might look to move off of their embattled big man around draft time. Would the Spurs look at taking him into their cap space? Doing so would have opened up significantly more room under the cap for the Mavericks. Would the Mavs trade Porzingis for spare parts hoping that the smaller contracts would provide them the flexibility to make a move elsewhere? Despite the fact Porzingis is rumored to be readily available, no move occurred.
Off the court, Porzingis’ contract makes any move difficult, but not impossible, to pull off. On the court, there have been questions about whether Luka Doncic and Porzingis have the chemistry needed to take this Maverick team to the next level. We’ve all seen Porzingis’ body language deteriorate with each passing possession where he doesn’t touch the ball. The assumption has been that Luka and Porzingis simply cannot co-exist on the offensive side of the ball. Fans have blamed now-former coach Rick Carlisle. Perhaps Carlisle should have found more innovative ways to employ Porzingis. Yes, Porzingis was often used as a decoy due to his gravity on the perimeter. The reason for that, however, is not what you might expect.
All of the Porzingis fit issues can be traced to one thing: his defense. Porzingis was labeled a unicorn because he was the rare big man that could shoot from 30 feet AND protect the rim. He hasn’t lost the ability to shoot the ball but he has lost the ability to protect the rim. In the bubble, Porzingis was a monster on both sides of the ball. He could swat an opponent’s shot on one end then come down and hit a 3 point shot from the logo on the other. It gave fans hope. It led us to believe that the decision to trade for him was the correct one. It’s also the reason why this season was so disappointing. For those of us who still believe in what Porzingis can be, the bubble is the example we hold up whenever someone suggests we would be better off without him.
Rim protection is a skill. Being tall and long is simply not enough to make you an elite rim protector. It takes instincts and basketball IQ. That’s the reason someone like Draymond Green can be an elite defender despite being undersized for a center. Rudy Gobert turned himself into a max player by pairing his size with instincts and IQ. Porzingis has lost neither the instincts nor the basketball IQ. While his interviews can be honest to a fault, they do give you some insight into how he views the game. For him, the game is as important in the six inches between his ears as it is on the court. What he has lost, however, is his lateral quickness and ability to trust his body. If he’s a step slow making a rotation, it isn’t because he doesn’t recognize it in time, it’s because he doesn’t trust his body enough to make the sudden cut needed to get there. Even if he is fortunate enough to make the rotation on time, his body lacks the explosiveness needed to erase his opponent’s shots the way he could in years prior.
Injuries have robbed Porzingis of his athleticism but we should remember that this is his first healthy offseason in a long time. No one anticipated this past season starting as soon as it did. Porzingis and his team delayed surgery on his meniscus with the thought that he would have significantly more time to rehab. It’s entirely possible the Mavericks rushed him back too soon. Would Porzingis have looked differently had the season started two months later? For optimists such as myself, we hope the answer is yes. If Porzingis can protect the rim, it allows new coach Jason Kidd to play him at the five, where he can be most effective. Even at full strength, Porzingis cannot guard most fours out on the perimeter. He is best suited around the rim where he can rotate over and provide valuable weakside defense. Reggie Bullock will help our perimeter defense but he alone will not raise the ceiling on the defensive end. Having a capable rim protector can and will.
The stats for Luka/Porzingis pick and rolls are really quite good. Despite all of the negative talk surrounding Porzingis’s fit next to Luka, the numbers are encouraging but those numbers, are predicated on Porzingis being the five. You can’t run a Luka/Porzingis pick and pop if a center is out there. Teams can disrupt the action by shading a third defender over and banking on their ability to rotate on the back end. Surround Luka and Porzingis with three wings capable of hitting an open shot and things become much testier for opposing defenses. Porzingis does not beat defenses in isolation. Despite his height, a Porzingis post-up is a win for the other team. Even if he gets the ball at the elbow, he lacks the explosiveness and handle necessary to beat defenders off the dribble. Oftentimes, those possessions end after a series of jab steps and a predictably contested jumper. So, what was Carlisle to do? Dallas shouldn’t dump the ball to Porzingis in the post and they can’t count on him to be effective at the elbows. Because a non-shooting big is out on the court, you can’t run a pick and roll with Porzingis. The only thing left to do was tell Porzingis to stand in the corner and operate as a spot-up shooter.
As frustrating as it was for Porzingis, it had to be even more frustrating for Carlisle. Faster wings were blowing by Porzingis with ease and he allowed a layup line anytime he was asked to play the five. On offense, his height was neutered by his lack of lower body strength and explosiveness. It was a frustrating situation for both the player and team.
If this team is going to take the next step, it won’t be because of Bullock or Sterling Brown, it will be because Porzingis has regained the ability to play the center position. That alone raises this team’s ceiling more than any trade package that’s currently available will. That’s the reason Porzingis is still on this team and the reason he will continue to be for the foreseeable future.