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It’s a make or break year for Kristaps Porzingis

Consistency will be key

2021 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

The idea of Kristaps Porzingis is so bloody appealing. He’s 7’3”, athletic in a useful NBA way, and has the confidence of a scoring guard. He has shot-blocking chops and understands basketball at a high level. And yet, he’s never lived up to the idea in a meaningful way.

Injuries have robbed Porzingis of years of his career; he’s missed 40 percent of his total possible games in his six years as a member of the National Basketball Association. After slowly gaining steam at the beginning of 2019-20, he put on an offensive clinic for 15 or so games in February and March of that season. The onset of a global pandemic shut the season down only to see Porzingis resume his torrid pace in the Bubble... until he tore his meniscus against the Clippers.

The decision to postpone surgery paired with a shortened off-season likely left Porzingis without the time to rehab properly. COVID-19 and team injury issues pushed him back onto the floor just nine games into the 2020-21 season. He posted a 20 point, 9 rebound season — the most efficient of his career. And yet he left much to be desired. He was remarkably poor on defense, allowing 58.6 percent at the rim (up from 50.5 percent the year prior), and his defensive RAPTOR rating has only declined with each passing year. While it’s worth noting that his teammates were all very bad on defense, Porzingis’ defense was a key part of his successful ‘19-’20 run. We all saw it; he couldn’t move laterally.

The sheer volume of games packed into a shortened season likely did nothing to help speed his recovery. The Mavericks were forced to choose between playing one of their stars at less than 100 percent and holding him out, which would’ve required winning games solely on offense. His usage rate shrank with each month. By the playoffs, Rick Carlisle elected to marginalize Porzingis, lest he get taken advantage of by the swarming, switching defense of the Los Angeles Clippers. It was the worst possible match up for a player who truly needed to get something going. He averaged just 13 points and five rebounds in a dejecting series. Yet he went into the off-season with no actual injuries of note.

Biggest Question

Every year, there is going to be a question about his health. Frankly, the history of the tallest of the tall players in the NBA isn’t very good after year five or six. At this point, it’s a question of how many games he’ll miss, not whether he’ll miss games at all. In an 82 game season, can he play 60 games? He played 57 of 75 regular season contests in 2019-20, which was 76 percent of games. The last time he played that high a percentage of games prior to that season was 2016-17.

The Mavericks have a plan for Porzingis. It’s a matter of that plan surviving the reality of a NBA season. He finished last year “healthy,” but in reality, he wasn’t healthy the entire season.

Best Case Scenario

The Mavericks and Porzingis manage to marry his moderately improved mobility on defense with his excellent efficiency on offense. New head coach Jason Kidd manages to work with both Porzingis and Luka Doncic to maximize their highly effective pick and roll possessions, encouraging Porzingis to dive at the basket while also reminding Jalen Brunson and other ball handlers to get Porzingis the ball when he’s wide open.

Meanwhile, the Dallas training staff establishes a consistent rest/rehab schedule for Porzingis, and he and Doncic do not miss games at the same time. Dallas leverages their luck in back-to-backs, taking advantage of playing the fewest in the league, en route to a dominating regular season where they finish as a top four seed in the Western conference.

Porzingis anchors a league average defense, while filling in as the secondary scorer on offense. He takes a career high average in three point attempts, gunning eight a game. He also cuts dribbling out of his regular offensive repertoire, instead opting to shoot or move the ball quickly during each possession. A happy byproduct of this increased ball movement is a new career high in assists at just over two per contest.

Worst Case Scenario

A sluggish start transforms into the new normal for Porzingis. Despite another off season of rehab and strength training, Porzingis is unable to move laterally like he did in his early days in New York, and the Dallas defense continues to suffer. His offensive role is similar to last season and he grows disgruntled, to the point that he and Jason Kidd clash and the business relationship between him and Luka Doncic deteriorates both on and off the floor. An injury a third of the way through the season further sets Porzingis back, resulting in him forcing offensive looks and over committing on defense once he returns, exposing his body as beyond recoverability. The Mavericks tumble somewhat in the standings as a result, start the playoffs as a seven seed, and lose in the first round for the third straight season.

Overall

I’ve been as brutal about Porzingis as any member of the Dallas media, but the simple fact remains that with the current roster, the duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis represents the best chance for the Mavericks to win a championship. Last year could either be a blip on his road to being a consistent player or a harbinger of what’s to come.

I want to lean into some positivity for once. There are real, explainable reasons why Porzingis wasn’t great last year, and those reasons are either minimized this season (he’s had more recovery and rehab time) or gone all together (there won’t be 4.5 games a week for months on end).

Living up to a max deal is very difficult in the NBA, whether dealing with injuries or not. It’s hard to be one of the best players on a very good team. Porzingis has a chance to flip his established narrative. With a new coach, a longer off-season, and a plan for success, this could be the year that Porzingis becomes the player he believes he is.