We’ve said it many times on StrongSide, but after this recent stretch of Dallas Mavericks basketball, I’m going to repeat it: Kristaps Porzingis is the most pivotal player on this roster. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he is the most pivotal player in the league. I’m not sure that there is another player in the NBA whose health and performance can swing their team’s status between “contender” and “oh, they’re kind of a fun team” the way Porzingis can.
Porzingis has been back for six games following a concerning early-season stretch of missing five with back soreness. In those six games, Dallas has posted four of their best offensive outputs of the season and three of their best defensive performances, per CleaningTheGlass.com. Teams with two bona fide stars and rosters full of supercharged role players can afford to miss a couple of bodies. A team with one all-Earth player and role players who top out as mostly decent cannot afford to miss their only other player with All-Star potential.
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless: this season, and this era, of Mavericks basketball will be defined by how often Porzingis can play and how often he can play like he has in the last six games. Since his return, he is averaging 22.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.3 blocks per game, and 2.7 (!!!) assists while shooting 39.5 percent from deep. It’s a small sample size, but these are numbers that basically no one not named Dirk or Karl Anthony-Towns is capable of putting up over a season if you factor in the volume of three-point attempts.
My intention is not to simply point out that Porzingis is playing well every time he does, in fact, play well. But, unfortunately, we already have a pretty stark contrast of what this team is with him and without him. NBA tracking data provide us with a metric called quantified shot quality (qSQ), which, while the formula may be complicated, is exactly what it sounds like: an index of your offensive chances, independent of outcome. It tracks shot location, distance of closest defender, shot clock at the time of an attempt — everything that you intuitively know as a fan in the moment that results in you thinking “good look” or groaning in disgust. The Mavericks’ three best games by qSQ have come since Porzingis’ return. Our collective complaints about Jason Kidd’s stubbornness regarding the starting lineup have some merit, but when Porzingis is healthy and playing like this, the names read by the public address announcer take on less and less importance.
Here’s where things get tricky. Porzingis has played 53 percent of his minutes this season as Dallas’ lone big, and that number has trended upward since his return. In those minutes, the Mavericks have an offensive rating of 112.4, which would rank sixth-best in the league. When Porzingis has shared the floor with another traditional frontcourt player, Dallas has posted an offensive rating of 93.5, which would be the worst offensive rating since … this stat was a stat? Conversely, the Mavericks would rank as one of the worst teams in the league defensively with KP as the only big versus middle of the pack when he plays with another big. It’s a choice between elite offense and bad defense, or bad offense and average defense.
Again, we are talking about 253 total (non garbage-time) minutes, with a 53/47 split this season. So there is some small sample-size warning to be issued. But I think it’s pretty clear this team is, on aggregate, better with Porzingis at the five. I also understand the logic of not having him occupy that spot full time. The Mavericks’ public statements on the matter have essentially been “We want to protect Kristaps’ body from the wear and tear of playing center full-time.” I don’t have data to back up the probability of injury, but it does make sense. I’m much more interested in how Dallas closes games or elects to play in crunch time. Wednesday night against the Suns, Dwight Powell played for two and a half minutes in the middle of the fourth quarter, which happened to be the only stretch of the quarter Porzingis sat. In the previous game against Denver, Powell didn’t play in the fourth quarter at all.
My intention is not to drag Powell. He is a solid role player, and as the longest-tenured Maverick, a very important voice in the room. (Although somehow he is not on the leadership council? We digress.) His energy to start games has an unquantifiable impact I am comfortable with. But as the game progresses, Dallas should do everything it can to keep him from sharing the floor with Porzingis. When Maxi Kleber returns from his oblique strain, it would be criminal not to start him next to KP.
Much has been rightfully made of the season Jalen Brunson is having. I think a massive part of Brunson’s ascendance can be attributed to the increased time he spends with Porzingis at the five. Brunson has played roughly 35 percent of his minutes with Porzingis on the floor, the same share as last year. In both seasons, no Maverick (discounting players with only a handful of minutes) has increased his percentage of shots at the rim more when Porzingis is on the floor versus off. To a degree, this is a product of style of play: without another big on the court, Brunson takes advantage of the spacing Porzingis provides and the absence of another big mucking up the paint. However, the coaching staff deserves some credit for staggering minutes in such a way that keeps Brunson and Porzingis on the floor together even as Brunson’s overall playing time ticks up.
The Mavericks just play differently when Porzinigs is on the court, whether in the middle of a five-out offensive attack or not. Case in point, they are far more likely to get out in transition: off of live rebounds and steals, the Mavericks are in the 97th percentile of the NBA in offense generated with KP on the floor. This is a clear Jason Kidd coaching point derived from his time in Los Angeles with Anthony Davis, perhaps the game’s most versatile big and, like Porzingis, fast for his size. It was not always this way. Last year, under Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks were far below league average in transition frequency with Porzingis on the floor. Kidd wants KP to run off of misses, get deep position, and get easy buckets. So far, that has been happening. As a finisher in transition, Porzingis has generated 1.348 PPP (points per possession) per Synergy, good for 19th out of 162 qualified players.
When the Mavericks don’t run with Porzingis on the floor, he has been a capable pick-and-roll partner. Of 56 qualified bigs, KP ranks 11th in PPP as the roller, per Synergy.
Simply put, the Mavericks play a better brand of offense with Porzingis in a groove. They get out in transition and finish more often, their pick-and-roll runs more smoothly, and their backup point guard has an easier time navigating his minutes — all because Porzingis, when right, is that good.
After finishing last season 22nd in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning The Glass, Dallas is currently ranked 18th. But I believe they’re better than that distinction. By opponents’ shot quality, Dallas ranks third-best for the season. If we narrow this down to the last six games, Dallas remains third-best. On this end, they’ve simply had some bad luck. That isn’t to say that Porzingis isn’t a factor in the Mavericks’ overall quality and improvement defensively. It’s that, up to this point, he has not been a liability. We could not always confidently say that in the past.
Here’s what we have this season: Porzingis played for three games, missed five, and has played for six. And now Luka Doncic is out; he’s listed as doubtful for tonight’s game in Phoenix. That makes it very hard to evaluate this team, especially with a new coaching staff.
But I think the small-sample results are pretty obvious. With Kristaps Porzingis healthy, this team is a contender. Even without Luka, Porzingis’ dynamic offense elevates everyone on the floor — particularly Brunson, who is playing the best basketball of his NBA career — to an unparalleled degree. A healthy Porzingis is the second-best shooter on the team, taking a backseat to only Tim Hardaway Jr. He is the determinative factor in easy transition offense. He is a plus defensively. Without question, the team is better with him at the five. But if they can mix and match lineups in a way that limits his physical exposure and maximizes his productivity, the starting lineup concerns are overblown. With Kristaps Porzingis playing the way he is playing right now, the Dallas Mavericks can beat anyone in the NBA.