Kristaps Porzingis is the most divisive player on the Dallas Mavericks. There are those who believe he is best used as an expensive decoy who simply spaces the floor while Luka Doncic works his magic. There are fans who still believe he has superstar potential and that using him as just a floor spacer is a tragic waste of potential.
The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle. Porzingis is never going to win a Most Valuable Player award. But there also has never been another player in the history of the NBA to combine his height, length, shooting ability and shot blocking. He is truly a one of one talent in the history of the league which is how he earned his nickname, “Unicorn”.
Shooting big men are no longer a rarity, but simply being able to shoot is never what made Porzingis special. He is a more fluid athlete than should be possible given his size. When healthy, he has used that combination of athleticism and length to be one of the best shot blockers in the league.
He has begun to use the athleticism offensively again this season. Prior to the December 13th game against the Charlotte Hornets, Porzingis had only had one unique seven game span in his career where he averaged at least 8 free throw attempts per game. That stretch was actually an eight game stretch from January 28, 2020 through February 21, 2020. That was a precursor to “Bubble Porzingis” and represents the last time he played at a super star level.
The promise of Porzingis has always been expressed in small samples. The 2017-18 season where he made his only all star game was really just a fantastic 10 game start where he averaged 30 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting 51.2 percent from the floor and 38.8 percent from the three point line, followed by 38 less impressive games where he averaged 20.7 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and shot 41.5 percent from the floor and 39.7 percent from the three point line.
His next stretch of excellence was the six games of the bubble. During that stretch he averaged 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds 2.2 assists, and 1.5 blocks while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, 38.1 percent from three and 89.1 percent from the line on 9.2 attempts per game.
In Porzingis last seven games before leaving for Health and Safety Protocols, he averaged 8.7 free throw attempts per game. This represented a career high and some of the best basketball of his career. Porzingis averaged 24.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.4 blocks per game during this stretch.
Porzingis getting to the free throw line is important for a myriad of reasons. He is a fantastic free throw shooter, shooting 86.9 percent during this stretch and 88.3 percent for the season. More free throws also correlate with more aggression.
Shooting and spacing the floor will always be an important part of Porzingis’ game. But just parking him at the three point line does not engage him. Basketball is not played in a simulator. Keeping your best players happy is a good thing, within reason.
The Mavericks have invested heavily in Porzingis. He has a maximum contract and the team traded two first round picks for the right to give him that contract. The only bad statistic during this most recent stretch of dominant games was his three point shooting percentage. Porzingis shot 25.6 percent from the three point line. Many players have struggled to shoot this season with a new basketball and the return of fans in the stands. Porzingis has a long enough track record of shooting to trust that his shooting will return.
There may be a tendency to dismiss his numbers in these games because the Mavericks only went 3-4 during this stretch. But Porzingis had a positive plus/minus in every game with the Mavericks outscoring their opponents by an average of 10.7 points with Porzingis on the court. Luka also missed all of these games as did several other players due to Health and Safety Protocols.
Because of these previous bursts of excellence, this stretch of excellence cannot be overreacted to. Skeptics will always believe the next injury or stretch of poor play is coming. The same height that makes Porzingis unique in NBA history, reeks havoc on his biomechanics which has led to a slew of lower body injuries. But Porzingis appears to have unlocked a new level with his improved playmaking and aggression. If the Mavericks wish to win their first playoff series since the 2011 season, they will need him to maintain these skills. If he can do that and regain the jumper that originally earned him his nickname, he will truly be a unicorn again.