Reality comes at you fast in the NBA. Less than two years ago, the Dallas Mavericks signed Kristaps Porzingis to a five-year, $158 million max deal. Last season -- his first in a Mavericks uniform -- Porzingis teamed up with Luka Doncic to form the best offense in NBA history heading into the bubble, where he averaged over 30 points and nine rebounds a night in the seeding games and 23 points on 53 percent 3-point shooting in three playoff games before tearing his meniscus.
This season, Dallas reportedly has already looked into trading him.
"They've definitely sniffed around on him," a league assistant general manager told Bleacher Report prior to the All-Star break. "They're taking the temperature, because they know at some point it's gonna come around."
SNY's Ian Begley specifically reported that Dallas gauged the Golden State Warriors' interest in Porzingis. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban angrily denied it all. Said it never happened. Believe who you will, but either way, the honeymoon period is over for Porzingis, who is officially on the clock to prove his worth as a championship-level wingman for Doncic.
Porzingis heard the trade rumors, and gave the professional response. He said he doesn't know what goes on behind the scenes, that he can't worry about things out of his control, that he tries to "focus on being in the moment." The head-down approach worked wonders in Dallas' first game back from the All-Star break, a 115-104 victory over the Spurs in which Porzingis went for 28 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-17 shooting.
Dallas is still playing it safe with Porzingis, who missed the first three weeks of the season recovering from knee surgery and two more weeks in February with lower back stiffness. After the San Antonio win, both Porzingis and Doncic sat out against Oklahoma City the following night. The Mavericks lost. They're perhaps playing with fire sacrificing games for maintenance as they cling to the West's No. 8 seed, up only one game in the loss column over No. 10 Memphis, but the last thing they want is to blow up the good vibes they've been riding with another injury.
After stumbling through the first six weeks, the Mavs have won 12 of their last 15 games, including nine of their last 10 with Porzingis in the lineup. On Saturday, they dominated the Nuggets. Porzingis was awesome again, finishing with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 5 of 7 from 3.
Entering play on Monday, Porzingis is posting career highs in effective field goal percentage, true shooting, points per shot attempt and at rim, midrange and two-point conversion rates. Since the start of February, Porzingis is averaging 22.2 points and 8.8 boards on 51 percent shooting, including 43 percent from 3.
All of which would seem to bely his apparently plunging stock around the league. The reports of Dallas' interest in trading him were quickly drowned out by the talk of no teams being interested in trading for him. It's true, the contract is massive. Porzingis has $95 million guaranteed over the next three years and a $36 million player option in 2023-24. For a 7-foot-3 guy who can feel like he's moving on splintered stilts, that's a potentially crippling bill to assume.
Beyond that, Porzingis' defense, while improving of late, remains an issue. For most of the season, he's had a bullseye on his chest. Teams target him every which way, particularly in pick-and-roll. He has trouble staying with ball-handlers on switches. When he's not getting beat to the rim, it's often because he's dropping so softly that guys walk into easy jumpers.
Also, Porzingis doesn't do well with contact. It's the biggest reason he struggles to post up offensively; his balance and timing are easily thrown off with basic bumps. Even when Porzingis does move his feet and contest shots reasonably well -- he has the lowest blocked-shot percentage of his career, and even that fails to account for the plays on which he's so slow to rotate he doesn't factor into the stat -- smaller guards can overpower him near the basket, as San Antonio's wings did often.
Still, give Porzingis credit. Rick Carlisle recently commented on how well Porzingis has been playing on the defensive end, and while the bar was pretty low to start with, there's evidence to support Carlisle's claim. The Nuggets tried to demoralize Porzingis early and often by posting Nikola Jokic over and over to start the game, and while Jokic got plenty of buckets, Porzingis was physical, held his ground as best he could against Jokic's 290 pounds, and won his share of possessions.
When the Nuggets went the other way, trying to expose Porzingis by making him move his feet away from the basket against ball-handlers, he stayed in front of the likes of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, forcing a pair of contested jumpers before blocking Murray's scoop shot late in the fourth quarter.
If Porzingis can serve as a capable perimeter switcher and, now that he's healthy, regain his shot-blocking element with increased mobility and energy, the Mavericks are going to be a problem in the playoffs. Because offensively, Porzingis is once again playing like a superstar. It begins and ends with his 3-point shooting. The range on these shots -- for anyone, let alone a 7-footer -- is just stupid.
In his two games since the All-Star break, Porzingis is 7 for 12 from 3-point range. Over his last 11 games, he's at 45 percent. They aren't all this deep, but he's almost always at least a foot or two behind the line. Since the start of February, Porzingis is shooting 41 percent from 25-29 feet, and he's 3 for 6 from 30-34 feet.
The problem is when Porzingis falls too in love with his 3-point shooting, using it more as a crutch than a weapon, reducing himself to a somewhat one-dimensional pick-and-pop player, a role plenty of other big men can fulfill in today's game. What makes Porzingis different is his ability to score in so many different ways at his size. When he gets the 3-ball rolling, overzealous closeouts become ripe for show-and-go attacks.
The biggest old-head gripe about Porzingis is that he plays like he's a guard despite being as tall as a small building. The Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal types want him to bang down in the post. Use his size. Carlisle is too smart for that. He knows post-ups are an inefficient option for almost all players these days. That goes double for Porzingis, who, as mentioned, isn't a contact player. But there's a way to play big without posting. Going to the basket like this is one way; crashing the offensive glass is another.
The Spurs tried to guard Porzingis with smaller players, an increasingly common strategy not only because more and more teams are playing smaller five men, but also just to try to bait Porzingis into posting up. It didn't work. Porzingis found other ways to get near the rim, where his height could then be the advantage it's supposed to be without traveling the harder path to get there. In the following clips, it's 6-foot-5 Keldon Johnson who gets back cut twice.
Carlisle deserves a bunch of credit for the way he has gotten Porzingis going, finding different ways to put him in efficient scoring positions -- ways that have become more plentiful as Porzingis has gotten healthier and more mobile. Here Carlisle calls for a Spain pick-and-roll in which Porzingis, after setting a high ball screen, gets his own back-screen that allows for a deep dive into the paint, where all the switching has led to 6-foot-4 Dejounte Murray ending up on Porzingis inside the restricted area.
Again, where Porzingis gets into post-up trouble is when he tries to back guys down with multiple bumps and dribbles. Here the play design has afforded him deep position on a smaller player, so it's just a quick catch and turn before help can arrive. No bumping and grinding necessary.
And now here we go with the counters. When the Spurs switch the other way, from the smaller Derrick White to the bigger Jakob Poeltl, Porzingis chooses the reverse approach, pulling the action away from the hoop and into space, where Poeltl can't keep up with him off the dribble.
Here it's DeMar DeRozan switched onto Porzingis, who again, instead of trying to bully DeRozan deeper toward the basket, simply faces up, clears a bit of space, and shoots right over a smaller defender.
Here Porzingis catches with James Harden on his back. He can try to back him down, but Harden is a brick of a post defender. It's long been a sucker's play to attack him in that position based on the general perception that he's a soft defender. Porzingis doesn't take the bait, instead, again, facing up and beating Harden to the baseline.
You sensing a pattern here? If Porzingis is facing the basket in the kind of groove he's in right now, with his skill and size, you're in trouble.
That shot right there is one of the big additions to Porzingis' game over the years. As mentioned earlier, he's shooting a career-best percentage from mid range (51 percent between 14 feet and the 3-point line and 44 percent on all midrange, per CTG), but digging deeper, he's scoring .949 points per possession on off-the-dribble jumpers, per Synergy, up from .733 last season and .527 in 2017-18, his final season in New York.
There was a lot of fuss about the loss of Seth Curry and the negative impact that had on Dallas' spacing, but when Porzingis is out there firing, and hitting, at 25 feet and beyond, bringing the opposing big man out there with him, the lane is open for Doncic and the Mavericks still have plenty of supporting shooters as they've tapped back into their deadly drive-and-kick game. Since Feb. 1, Dallas is making 3-pointers at a 38.5 percent clip, per CTG, up from 37 percent last season.
All told, with their starting lineup of Doncic, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Porzingis, the Mavericks boast a 131.6 offensive rating, per CTG, which ranks as the most efficient mark in the league among all five-man units who've logged at least 300 possessions together. What's more, that's a better rating than any five-man unit Dallas put on the floor last season, which, again, was a historic season.
The Mavericks are in position to shoot up the Western Conference standings. They're only two games back in the loss column of the No. 4 Clippers, and it just so happens they play the Clippers twice this week (Monday and Wednesday). They finish the week with a Friday-Sunday series with the Blazers, whom they trail by just one game in the loss column entering Monday.
It's a far cry from Dallas' early season struggles. Porzingis brings it all together. He is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now. They say the best trades are often the ones you don't make. If the Mavericks, regardless of whatever they're going to say publicly, were looking into trading Porzingis earlier this season, they're feeling pretty good right now that nobody was willing to take him off their hands.