The Dallas Mavericks finally got its unicorn back last week when Kristaps Porzingis took the floor for the first time this season against the Charlotte Hornets after undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus he suffered in the playoffs last year. It was evident in Dallas' first nine games of the season that this team severely missed Porzingis' ability to spread the floor on offense, as well as his rim protection and length on the other end of floor.
However, in his five games back, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for Porzingis or the Mavs. Dallas has gone 2-4 since his return, but that has more to do with Dallas being down five key players -- and at one point six -- due to NBA health and safety protocols. Porzingis still hasn't played with new addition Josh Richardson, who has been quarantining since Jan. 7, as well as other teammates, so it's far too early to pass judgment on the team's performance in K.P.'s return.
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However, we can still assess how he's looked in his first week back, and break down the three things that stood out most from his first handful of games of the 2020-21 season.
3-point shooting is a little rocky
Through five games, Porzingis is shooting 29 percent from 3-point territory on six attempts per contest. On his bread-and-butter shot -- the above the break 3-pointer -- he's shooting just 20 percent on 25 attempts to start the season. This was his most common shot type a season ago, where he shot 35.6 percent, and it is one of his greatest assets to the Mavericks offense.
So far, though, he's been missing quite a handful of them short off the front of the rim:
It's not incredibly surprising that Porzingis isn't getting enough lift on his shot to get the ball all the way there, considering he just came off knee surgery and has had a lengthy list of injuries to his legs in general. But for as often as the Mavericks go to him on this look, whether it be out of a pick-and-pop situation with Luka Doncic, or he's trailing behind for the open look, it's crucial that Porzingis can knock down those shots.
It's far too early to sound the alarm on him with his 3-point shooting -- he still needs to get his legs under him which will take some time. But if his shooting woes from deep continue, that would certainly be worrisome for the Mavericks going forward.
Shots falling from pretty much everywhere else
K.P.'s 3-pointer may not be falling, but he's making up for it in other areas on offense. He's shooting 50 percent from mid range, and in the paint he's even better, converting on 80 percent of his looks in the restricted area. Porzingis is getting it done in a variety of ways: tough layups, dunks either from cuts to the rim or off an alley-oop pass, as well as putback shots after an offensive rebound.
The putback buckets are nothing new for the 7-foot-3 big man, but so far Porzingis is averaging a career-high 2.6 offensive boards a game, and is generating 1.25 points per possession off putback shots, per Synergy Sports Technology. He's being more aggressive in crashing the offensive glass, and so far its worked well for him and Dallas.
Another area of note, is Porzingis' scoring in the post. Dallas has been feeding it to him a couple times a game in the paint, and he ranks in the 86th percentile in points per possession down low.
But this is more circumstantial at best, given how many players the Mavericks are down. Porzingis has often been left in with the second unit, so he's given more freedom to go to those post-up moves. It's unlikely he'll get those same looks once the Mavericks regain the rest of their roster, especially considering head coach Rick Carlisle's position on post-up plays, saying last season, "it's just not a good play anymore."
It may not be a "good play" anymore by Carlisle's standards or the analytic department, but Porzingis is a skilled post-up scorer. That's what he feasted on during his All-Star season with the Knicks, with nearly 25 percent of his shots coming from there. It may be worth running a few more of those plays for K.P. every game, just to add another wrinkle to this offense.
No minutes restriction
Instead of easing Porzingis back into the lineup, the Mavericks have surprisingly let him play without any sort of minutes restriction, and he's already played in both games of a back-to-back. That's a stark difference from a season ago, where K.P. sat out at least one game in seven of Dallas' nine back-to-backs.
After the Mavs' loss to the Raptors on Monday -- the second game of their back-to-back -- Porzingis said there was more bubble wrap around him last season because of the injury he was recovering from. Now, there's a bit more leeway when he wants to play in a back-to-back.
"The medical staff, they know that I'm eager to play, always, and that was the same case last year," Porzingis told reporters. "Last year we were maybe more careful because I was coming back from the ACL injury. This year, I believe that I'm allowed to play back-to-backs, and we'll see how it works going forward."
In both of those games, Porzingis put up 20-plus points in two efficient outings from the floor. He's played well over 30 minutes in three of his five games, and has shown no hesitation in coming into contact with other players. Just look at this poster on the Daniel Gafford for evidence:
Porzingis' health has been the major drawback surrounding him for the past three years. He's one of the most unique talents in the league as a 7-3 guy who can knock down 26-foot bombs, and put the ball on the floor and create for himself a little bit. But that's when he's healthy.
He's already had two major surgeries as well as a handful of other ailments to his legs, and Dallas' short-term success hinges on his ability to stay on the floor. That he played in the Mavs' first back-to-back of the season, in just his third and fourth game of the year, shows that this team has great optimism that he's fully healthy and ready to play every night.