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The Kristaps Porzingis era could not have ended any other way

Dallas had to make the best of a bad deal at the 2022 NBA trade deadline.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re embedded with a team, whether as a fan, analyst, media, employee, etc., it can be hard sometimes to lift your head out of the sand and give perspective on the league as a whole. You watch 82 games of this group of players and maybe a handful of games from everyone else. Naturally, the emotions you feel for the guys you watch every night are going to be stronger — whether positive or negative — than someone casually strolling by.

Case in point: it wasn’t that long ago that there was a debate within the Mavericks community about whether or not the Mavericks should try and trade Kristaps Porzingis for Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. Even The Dallas Morning News’ lead sports columnist Tim Cowlishaw wrote about the possibility. Arguments raged on and there was legitimate debate on both sides. This was only five months ago.

Today, on the NBA’s trade deadline of Feb. 11, 2022, Ben Simmons was traded for perennial MVP candidate James Harden.

Kristaps Porzingis was traded for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, two players the 25-29 Washington Wizards couldn’t wait to get rid of. How’s that for perspective?

The cold, harsh reality of the Mavericks situation fully settled in Wednesday, as reports announcing the trade happened early in the afternoon, before the team finally confirmed and completed the trade by the evening. Porzingis was traded to the Mavericks three years ago at the 2019 deadline. This was what Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said at the time.

“It was my mistake not to keep Dirk (Nowitzki) and Steve (Nash) together longer,” Cuban told NBA reporter Marc Stein. “I won’t make the same mistake with Luka and KP.”

Fast forward three years and seven days from the moment Cuban said those words and here is what the Mavericks owner had to say when trading his once potential franchise cornerstone for, seemingly, an expensive box of scraps.

“I think KP’s an incredible talent,” Cuban told The Dallas Morning News. “But we needed that shooter [Bertans] and we needed another ball handler [Dinwiddie] who could create a shot, and unfortunately that was the only way we were going to get them.”

Steve Nash played 408 games in his time with Dallas, a total six seasons with Dirk Nowitzki. Porzingis played 134 games in Dallas, a total of three seasons with Luka Doncic. Before Porzingis could play his 135th game, Cuban’s tone about him went from All-Star to expendable role player. A guy the Mavericks hoped and sold as the co-star that could give Doncic what he needed as an offensive and defensive dynamo was now being shipped off so the Mavericks could get shooting and offensive creation. Weren’t those exactly the things Porzingis was supposed to help provide? Now, the Mavericks are starting the search — again.

The worst part? It was the right call.

Look across the NBA landscape and you’ll see plenty of prominent NBA analysts, writers, and reporters mostly pan the Mavericks deadline deal with the Wizards. On paper, in a vacuum, it’s hard to argue otherwise — Dinwiddie and Bertans are two exceptionally broken players and Porzingis, for all his health question marks, was a productive enough two-way big this season.

Dinwiddie is the biggest “prize” for the Mavericks, but he has seemingly missed every shot since moving to the nation’s capital and can’t even drive past Miami’s Duncan Robinson. Dinwiddie is shooting a ghastly 43.2 percent on just two pointers, while his anemic three point percentage from his career continues to follow him, this time at 31 percent. He’s averaging 12.6 points per game, the worst number of his career since 2017, when he was still a backup. What’s worse is he’s only getting to those points from sheer attrition — the Wizards are awful and someone has to take some of the shots. Take a look through Dinwiddie’s recent game log and you’ll likely shriek at the house of horrors its become. Dinwiddie’s season is bad on its own, but it’s somehow getting worse. He’s shooting 25 percent from the floor in the month of February, averaging 7.3 points per game. Oh and don’t forget he’s coming back from his second ACL injury.

Bertans was lost in the woods 18 months ago and returned with a calamity of injures and a busted game. After a career year in 2020 where he averaged over 15 points per game, shot 42.4 percent from three on almost nine attempts per game, Bertans basically fell off the NBA map. He didn’t participate in the NBA bubble to help his free agent value and after signing a large 5-year, $80 million deal in the 2020 offseason, Bertains hasn’t had much NBA use since. He played 57 games the following season, all off the bench, as his three point shot struggled a bit and delt with nagging injuries. This season, the injuries, specifically to his foot, got worse and have kept him in and out of the lineup. In just a couple years Bertans went from NBA sharpshooter to struggling to find minutes on an awful Wizards team — Bertans is averaging only 14.7 minutes per game, shooting a career worst 31.9 percent from three.

This all contrasts against Porzingis, enjoying a bounce back year. The Mavericks have a top-10 defense, which Porzingis has helped anchor as a quality rim defender. He’s getting to the free throw line more and has had moments where you can squint and see “Bubble Porzingis.” So why now? Why for this package of subpar players with zero picks? The answer feels simple: the Mavericks had enough of the Kristaps Porzingis experience.

That experience includes a lot. It’s maintaining Porzingis’ body with delicate care. It’s appeasing him on the court, doing everything possible to maximize his possessions. It also includes a lot — a lot — of missed games. Porzingis missed 21 of the Mavericks 55 games he could have played in this season. Only seven were due to healthy and safety protocols, which leaves the remaining to injuries and rest to prevent such injuries. Despite the Mavericks doing everything they could to keep Porzingis upright and in games for as long as possible, Porzingis missed 68 of 202 games in just a shade under three total seasons with the Mavericks. That’s a significant number, a big enough number to make you want to reevaluate if this is the guy you want to hitch Luka Doncic’s wagon to. The league knows this as well, so it’s not hard to imagine Porzingis’ value across the NBA being at rock bottom. Porzingis was coming off his “healthiest offseason in years” yet couldn’t stay on the court without multiple bouts of knee soreness and a bone bruise. If this is what Porzingis looks like after a healthy offseason, you can see why the league wasn’t foaming at the mouth to acquire him. While this is pure speculation, it feels the Mavericks did this deal at the time they did it and for the package they received simply because keeping Porzingis on this roster past the NBA trade deadline was simply untenable. If Porzingis suffers another major knee injury, the Mavericks would be toast with no where to go. So instead of no where, they went somewhere. It’s not necessary a better path, but it is a path and one that they have more control over.

A theory on when the straw finally broke the camel's back, if you can entertain it: Porzingis played exceptionally well in the final four games of 2021. He averaged a little over 27 points per game, but it wasn't the raw production that impressed, but it was how he did it — Porzingis was getting to the free throw line at ease, self-creating offense from the mid-post and finally knocking down some threes. It was the closest Porzingis has ever looked to the dominant showing he had at the end of the 2020 season, where he was named to the "All-Bubble" team. This was the Porzingis the Mavericks wanted. Then, and not his fault, he went into health and safety protocols for seven days. When Porzingis returned, he looked off — he only averaged 14.9 points in seven January games, shooting 45 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three. His free throw attempts plummeted and while his defense was still strong, the dominant offensive player showcased at the end of the year was MIA. It didn't take long for Porzingis to exit the lineup again with another knee injury. That was the curse of Porzingis in Dallas — he would dominate for a five or 10 game stretch, only to then be held out for another injury. When he returned, it was almost like a reset and Porzingis would take another five to 10 games to ease back into the lineup as the Mavericks bent and twisted around the desires to placate his game. It's easy to imagine that at a certain point, this recurring cycle wasn't worth it to the Mavericks anymore and this recent bone bruise in Porzingis' knee was the final straw.

The Mavericks front office has taken a beating in the public eye the last three years, but even then there has to be some reasonable benefit of the doubt in this situation. This had to be the best they could get, making the best of a bad situation. If there was a magical trade where Porzingis could be exchanged for a high-quality starter or a high draft pick, or even a talented prospect, you’d assume that’s the deal they make. The dark alternative is that the Mavericks did pass on a deal like that and Mark Cuban just wanted a crypto-bro to talk shop with. I simply refuse to believe that at this moment, as considering such a scenario makes my ears bleed.

Trading Porzingis doesn’t guarantee the Mavericks anything other then getting off this current ride. The Dallas roster has been almost infamously stagnant in recent years and trading Porzingis represents the real shake up most have clamored for. It’s hard to imagine the Mavericks reimagining their roster with Porzingis still on it and now that road block has been cleared. This isn’t a good situation to be in, but the Mavericks did the math on the possible alternatives and it’s clear they prefer to wash their hands clean (well, somewhat clean) and try again.

Despite the need to move on, this doesn’t excuse the Mavericks in a macro sense — trading Porzingis three years after acquiring him for a bad team’s rich cast offs is not a success. Dallas spent considerable resources, both in players and in picks, to get Porzingis to Dallas and three years later those assets have now been pissed into the wind. Gone are two valuable first round picks with nothing to show for it but two expensive, potentially cooked players. That is a failure, a somewhat colossal one at that. The hope now is that splitting Porzingis’ rather large and toxic contract into two more digestible parts allows the Mavericks to get more creative in the trade market, as they now own a gaggle of contracts in the $10-$20 million range, the types of contracts that can make the money work in larger, more blockbuster-like acquisitions. This doesn’t mean the Mavericks are flipping Dinwiddie and Bertans for Damian Lillard, but it does mean the problems with trying to trade the Mavericks cheaper but more valuable assets are somewhat subdued. If Dallas wants to make a big move, it’ll be easier for them to attach one of these two new contracts to something legitimately desirable and perhaps make a splashier trade than previously thought of. To be fair, that is also a pipe dream — there is a realistic chance the Mavericks might have to find a way to dump the Dinwiddie and Bertans contracts much in the same way they did with Porzingis.

In the interim, the Mavericks will keep plugging away. Doncic playing at the level we’re seeing means the Mavericks are a lock to keep up their winning ways, even if Dinwiddie and Bertans continue their Washington funks. But this trade wasn’t about winning regular season games. Playoff basketball and regular season basketball might as well be two different sports. We’ve seen Doncic drag this roster into regular season success, only for Doncic’s brilliance to not be enough in the postseason. You need at least two All-Stars before becoming a serious contender in this age of NBA basketball. That’s why this trade was made: the Mavericks finally threw in the towel on Porzingis reaching that somewhat lofty standard. Now the only problem is the Mavericks have to rebuild their treasure chest and eventually make another Porzingis-level move. Only this time, the clock on Doncic’s future is ticking faster than before.

Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.