Oft-injured Kristaps Porzingis has struggled in his return to the Dallas lineup, and the Mavericks have fallen off the playoff pace, languishing at .500. Could the franchise consider switching things up, or will their Latvian sniper justify his place at Luka Doncic’s right hand?
Last season’s Dallas Mavericks had the look of a team entering an endless summer. Paced by sophomore sensation Luka Doncic, the team boasted an impressive array of role players and stars under the veteran stewardship of head coach Rick Carlisle.
This season has proven to be something of a false dawn, with the Mavericks mired near the bottom of the Western Conference at 13–15.
Doncic — the rising tide that lifts all boats — is producing a characteristically brilliant season, except the boats aren’t lifting. Doncic is putting up 29 points per game, 8.6 rebounds and 9.4 assists with improved efficiency and defence, but his surrounding cast is faltering.
Dallas engineered a minor roster reconstruction over the offseason, trading sharpshooting two-guard Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson and a second-round pick. This move, executed on draft night and combined with the selection of Australian wing Josh Green in the first round, was designed to surround Luka with big-bodied, versatile wings. Tim Hardaway and Dorian Finney-Smith round out the Mavs’ group of wings that has, so far and with the exception of Hardaway, struggled mightily.
The stylistic shift was intended to surround Doncic with similar-sized athletes with overlapping skill sets, but ultimately united by their matchup flexibility and offensive versatility.
In Richardson, Dallas would have a secondary-ball handler and slasher; in Hardaway, a microwave gunner, and in Finney-Smith, a big wing ready to do all the dirty work on both ends. None of this has quite materialised, and in committing so many resources to the wing positions, Dallas has been thin in the frontcourt.
Last season’s solid and versatile rotation of bigs hasn’t panned out this year. While Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell were three of the Mavericks’ six most-used players on a per-game basis, this year, that rotation has been an issue.
Powell, the Mavericks’ most prolific pick-and-roll screener, shot 79 percent at the rim last season, per Cleaning the Glass. After an unfortunate Achilles tendon injury in early 2020, his finishing has plummeted, converting on just 57 percent of his attempts at the rim. Powell has no impact on offence outside the paint, so his lack of burst has rendered him borderline unplayable this season.
Kleber has been even worse, shooting just 35.8 percent on two-point attempts. Willie Cauley-Stein and James Johnson have both played a larger role than the Mavericks would like, and neither has proven better than replacement level.
The elephant in the room is Kristaps Porzingis, the original NBA Unicorn who hasn’t quite done enough to convince Dallas that he’s a bona fide second star. That’s mainly due to his availability, which was a concern in New York and hasn’t been any better in Dallas. The list of lower-body injuries he’s suffered in his short career is staggering, especially for a player standing seven foot three.
At his best, it is clear why Porzingis was the first to be labelled a unicorn. He’s a dominant interior defensive presence and an elite-level floor spacer from the big positions. He finished last season on an absolute tear and continued his form into the Bubble before falling injured yet again, this time with a partially torn meniscus that required surgery and kept him out of the lineup until January this year.
Since his return, he hasn’t assuaged any fears about his prompt return to form. The Mavericks are 10.8 points per one hundred possessions worse defensively with him on the floor, an awful number for an interior enforcer.
Part of the reason that number is so bad is that Porzingis looks like he’s walking on stilts trying to get around the floor. His ability has never been a concern, but his health and ability to play game in and game out is a major issue, particularly now, when the Mavericks seem to be experimenting with the best types of players to surround Doncic with. If Porzingis can’t be his wingman, it might be time to wonder who can be.
Dallas has been linked with smaller ball handlers in the past like Kemba Walker, and more recently, Victor Oladipo. The theory behind that is to allow a more even distribution of ball handling responsibilities between Doncic and another guard.
Doncic is clearly at his best with the ball in his hands, however, and hasn’t made enough progress as a spot-up shooter to be a serious floor-spacing threat. The Mavericks tried to address this line of thinking by bringing Richardson in from Philadelphia over the offseason. In his final season in Miami, Richardson proved to be a reliable ball-handler, posting an elite assist percentage and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6 to 1. Those numbers nosedived in Philly, and the Mavericks’ bet that they would recover hasn’t paid off.
If adding a ball-handler to the lineup hasn’t worked out so far, the Mavericks might need to consider adjusting the other end of the positional scale.
A player like Atlanta’s Clint Capela would be a perfect fit in a lineup featuring Luka and three wings. Capela has stabilised the Hawks’ defence this year, providing an interior presence and lifting the Hawks from second-to-last in defence last season to 22nd this season. It is a modest improvement, but imagine what he could do in Dallas, with competent perimeter defenders around him rather than whatever Trae Young is doing.
On offence, Capela can be a genuine rim-running lob threat. Last season, it was a healthy Dwight Powell that unlocked the Doncic pick-and-roll, and Capela would fill a similar role, providing a vertical threat with shooters spaced around the floor.
Porzingis isn’t much of a roll-man, instead spacing the floor from the perimeter. On offence, playing him next to a traditional big isn’t an issue, since he’s essentially just a jumbo shooting guard. On defence, however, Porzingis is at his best around the rim, offering a redundant skillset were he to play alongside another traditional big. Capela’s introduction to the team would simplify everything on both offence and defence.
Porzingis’ trade value has never been lower, so a move in the immediate future seems unlikely. Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported last week that the Mavs are quietly gauging the trade market for their big man. A potential trade partner would be getting a player with genuine All-Star upside, but if he can’t stay healthy, he’s not the man to ride shotgun with Doncic.
A trade with Atlanta involving Porzingis and a sweetener in exchange for Capela and Kevin Huerter — another bigger wing who can shoot and defend — might make sense for both teams, especially if the playoff-desperate Hawks decide the status quo isn’t cutting it and decide to shake things up sooner rather than later.
It’s unlikely Porzingis will be moved this season, and if he returns to form, the Mavericks might choose to look the other way and hope his injury issues don’t bubble back up to the surface. The wiser course might be to part ways when his value is recuperated a bit, and swapping him for a player like Capela would provide cap flexibility for future pursuits and more stability on both sides of the floor.
The Mavericks have time on their side with the youthful Doncic, but it’s never too early to start thinking about what the next great Mavericks team might look like.