The Latvian big man is an outlier. And, fair or not, outliers come with outsized expectations. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

Ready to Start: Setting the Table for the 2021-22 Dallas Mavericks Season

An essay about Kristaps Porzingis ... because, fairly or not, it all comes back to Kristaps Porzingis.

When do we become who we are?

The answer is unknowable, especially so in professional basketball, because for however much we understand about skills and health and athletic primes, there are always outliers. LeBron James reinvented himself as a point guard and led the league in assists for the first time at age 35. Nikola Jokic unearthed a deadly three-point stroke at 22, then saw it evaporate for two years before it suddenly reappeared last year during his MVP season. Chris Paul is playing some of the most measured basketball of his career at 36 years old, pacing a Finals runner-up in Phoenix after his body seemed on the verge of splintering in his early 30s. There are no maxims when you’re special, at least none too rigid to disregard at a moment’s notice.

Kristaps Porzingis is an outlier. You know this. So do I. He has been from the moment he entered the NBA, and heading into the most pivotal season of his career, which tips off this evening in Atlanta against Trae Young and the Hawks, it’s the main reason why everyone remains so invested. The idea of him—a shooting guard crossbred with a low-post stopper, packaged in a hysterically long frame—remains irresistible. Expectations mushroom: Porzingis shooting 50 percent from the field on the year when he’s never mustered 48; scoring 25 a night when his highest season average is a hair under 23; pulling down 11 boards per game when he’s yet to average double digits. One look at that gargantuan frame in action, the way his 7-foot-3 body lopes instead of lumbers, is all it takes to believe that there’s always room for more. Porzingis has seemingly transcended the laws of genetics, after all. Why not his basketball contemporaries, too?

Which, on a roster that’s otherwise so clearly defined, makes him another sort of outlier. It would be unfair to pin the Mavericks’ contention hopes entirely on him, both because this is a team sport and because any team starring Luka Doncic inevitably becomes mostly about Luka Doncic.

Yet Dallas’ roster, as presently constructed, falls into three camps. There is Doncic, already a generational talent at 22 and verging on being the next face of his sport. There is plenty of growth still in the offing here, but barring catastrophic injury, we’re splitting hairs with whatever comes next. It isn’t how many more times he’s named All-NBA but how many first teams; not if he makes the Hall of Fame but how few players go down as legitimate equals. He’s been capable of leading a championship team for at least a calendar year now. Whether he does so in Dallas is more about everyone else in his orbit.

The second camp is the team’s role players, which more or less includes everyone after Doncic and Porzingis. They are finished products who play their parts well—important but mostly immutable, give or take a moderate climb from Jalen Brunson here or an unlikely Josh Green leap there. Great teams need Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Reggie Bullock. But they do so for scaffolding: to support the focal points of the roster, not become them. There’s a reason the Mavericks haven’t advanced past the first round leaning on Hardaway Jr. and Brunson as Doncic’s offensive support system.

Porzingis is the third camp, and how much you expect the 2021-2022 Dallas Mavericks to succeed overwhelmingly depends on your capacity to believe that, at 26, he still isn’t fully realized. That, although his growth plates have firmly snapped into place and the branding machine long ago slapped him with that Unicorn nickname which will outlast his playing career, he can graduate from what he mostly has been—a very good basketball player with sparks of absolute brilliance—to the court-breaking one he could be. No one else on this roster could take such a meaningful step forward and, in so doing, elevate the team as a whole.

Only one person in the whole organization comes close: Jason Kidd, who also faces a burden to blossom into something greater than he has been. Much of that is ineffable: communication and relationships, neither of which were his strong suit in his last two head coaching stops. But on the court, his loudest talking points so far have been unleashing Porzingis on offense and a renewed, team-wide emphasis on defense … which will only go as far as the Latvian’s rim protection takes it.

One way or another, it all comes back to Porzingis. Iztok has written about it, and Jake has written about it, and Zac has written about it, and Brian has told us about it, and now here I am doing it, too. But so often, the discourse centers on the idea of him returning to something: his pre-MCL injury form in the 2020 NBA bubble or his pre-ACL injury form as an All-Star in New York. What Dallas needs is for him to carry it a step further—to blend his inside game as a Knick with his perimeter spacing as a Maverick, and to extend that over 70 some-odd healthy regular-season games, then one full playoff series, and then hopefully several more. He must be spectacular and dependable after never truly being either to date.

Porzingis is capable of this—at least in the abstract. We have seen him dominate games, playing pop-a-shot five feet beyond the arc on offense and scarfing up all the breathing room at the rim on defense. Even now, seven years and several surgeries into his pro career, there is still so much to dream on, to hope on.

But these Mavericks will only be great if he becomes someone to count on: to aid Doncic when things are going well and, every now and then, to pick him up on nights when they aren’t. It is on Porzingis and Porzingis alone to do this, because only he can. Such is the burden of life as the outlier.

The truth is Kristaps Porzingis’ final form will only be recognized someday well down the road, in retrospect, when we can compare the sum total of his box scores and game footage and moments. Even if he’s already peaked, and we knew it, no one would accept it. We have seen just enough flickers of what Porzingis can be to let us always extrapolate that there’s more on the horizon, some new milestone to attain or fresh skill to master. We refuse to impose limits on him because he appears so limitless.

There’s every reason to believe there’s more coming. That some or all of renewed health, a new role, a new coach, and a full offseason of work can catapult him well beyond his rocky 2020-2021 season. His preseason appearances seemed to confirm as much—the actions themselves, yes, but more so how nimble he appeared executing them. Yet no matter what Porzingis does this season, we won’t know if it’s as good as he can do. His play will be best judged in the context of how well the Mavericks play and how far they go. It’s not all about him. But it’s not much bigger than him, either.

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