BOSTON – Kristaps Porzingis will tell you:
He’s not Kristaps Porzingis yet.
He’s healthy, capable of averaging 31.4 minutes per game after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
He’s productive, scoring 18.3 points, pulling down a career-high 7.9 rebounds, connecting on 37.5% of his three’s. Monday’s four-point stinker in Boston was his first single-digit scoring night.
He’s just not … there.
“Just the feel for the game,” Porzingis told SI.com. “I played a lot of pickup in the off season and I was trying to find my rhythm and then all the little details about the game, the contact, where the contact is going to come and game feel, decision making and the speed is different in the game. That's the thing that I have to still keep getting used to.”
Mark Cuban will confirm: Porzingis isn’t there yet. Cuban, though, says it through a toothy grin. It’s been a tough stretch for the Mavs owner. Eight years ago, he won a championship. The last three years, he has sent representatives to the lottery. In 2018, Dallas hit on Luka Doncic, a bona fide future MVP candidate. And last January, the Mavericks swiped Porzingis from New York.
Dallas is 6-4 to start the season, good enough to put them in the playoff mix early in a loaded west.
More importantly, for the first time in a long time, it feels like the Mavericks have a future.
“He's a lot further along than I thought he would be at this point,” Cuban said. “A lot less rusty than I thought, and the rust is disappearing very, very quickly.”
The Porzingis/Doncic pairing oozes potential. The Mavs own the NBA’s No. 1 offense. Even as the league has evolved, the pick-and-roll remains a staple. Doncic runs the play brilliantly. His vision and passing ability in those situations, says Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “is a problem … he’s as good as I’ve seen on pick-and-roles at his age.” Enter Porzingis, a 7'3" phenomena, a rim runner with a three-point stroke. No NBA play is unguardable. A Porzinigis-Donic pick-and-roll in a few months could be close to it.
“There’s only so many ways to guard a guy who is [7'3"] and can pop and shoot,” says Stevens. “Unless you just cross your fingers and hope … you have to take away the pick-and-roll and stay in Porzingis’s airspace. That’s tough.”
Rick Carlisle gets it. For years, the Mavs coach had a unique screen setter in Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-footer and one of the NBA’s premiere three-point shooters. Carlisle didn’t cut and paste Porzingis’s name over Nowitzki’s in his playbook. “Our style of play has changed a lot,” Carlisle said. The pick-and-roll was different when Nowitzki was rubbing shoulders with Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Defended different. Putting top players in simple plays though, says Carlisle, “is a good situation for us.”
“The way teams cover pick and roll has changed a lot and evolved a lot to a point where it's quite different than when Dirk, Terry and Kidd were running it,” Carlisle said. “But it's still the same basic concept: Get the best players and involve them and generally good things are going to happen.”
They have. And they will only get better. Watch Porzingis, and you can see the limitations. The mobility isn’t there. The ability to power through defenders in the post is missing. He knows how good a Porzingis/Doncic two-man game can be (“We want to be the best in the league,” says Porzingis). And he badly wants to get his game there.
“I want it now,” Porzingis said. “I know it's going to come, but I want it now. I want to play well now and make all the right decisions. Even when you're in rhythm and even when you've been playing you don't always make the right decision on the court. It's normal that I make mistakes, but I'm happy the last game [against New York] I felt far more comfortable out there. I'll let the game come to me more and I was aggressive, but I was relaxed at the same time. So I think it's coming, it's coming. It's only a matter of time.”
And he has time. He has this season, a year free of any team expectations. And he has five more. The Knicks, who Porzingis will see again on Thursday, when he makes an anticipated return to New York, were convinced Porzingis would take the qualifying offer last summer. They feared he would walk in 2020. In Dallas, Porzingis agreed to a five-year, max-level contract—without ever playing a game.
Porzingis says he was excited to sign with the Mavericks. He pointed to Carlisle, a Hall of Fame caliber coach, as a reason. He cited the organization, the city. How the team treated Nowitzki, a legend who hobbled through the final years of his career, “was an important thing.” He called Dallas “a perfect match.”
Cuban agrees. The Mavericks have had a tough time luring top tier players to Dallas. Free agency had been a series of high profile misses. The Mavs desperately needed Porzingis to believe in a long term future.
“I think we just showed him we can get him ready,” Cuban said. “We’ve got a great culture. He's going to get the ball where he wants it, how he wants it. He's going to get more threes up. He's going to be closer to the basket. Things that are enticing to any great player. The guy is a bona fide superstar. He's putting up ungodly numbers and he's still rusty. Can you imagine where he's going to get to?”
Just weeks removed from a 20-month layoff, there will be some rough nights. Against the Celtics, Porzingis struggled. He was pushed around in the post by Marcus Smart on the Mavs first offensive play; two plays later, he got caught in the air and tossed the ball out of bounds. He missed ten of his 11 shots. He was benched in the fourth quarter. But Porzingis’s mere presence on the floor can be impactful. Before the game, Cuban cited Dwight Powell, a strong rim runner, as a player who had benefited from Porzingis’s floor spacing. Against Boston, Powell had 12 points on 6-7 shooting.
As Cuban spoke, Porzingis crossed in front of him, bringing the smile back to his face.
“Those [were] three painful years,” Cuban said. “Hopefully it stops there. You never know until you know, but so far so good. There's only so many guys in this league that are game time players, and Luka, KP, we've got two of them.”