Kristaps Porzingis is the Newest Test Case in the NBA’s Evolution

Kristaps Porzingis may have found a home in Dallas alongside Luka Doncic, but he's still trying to find his way.
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Kristaps Porzingis’ role in the Mavericks’ offense would be unthinkable just a decade ago. Standing 7’3” with an even longer wingspan, Porzingis would have spent much of the aughts on the low block, banging bodies with the behemoths of a previous era. And even as the game has spaced beyond the three-point line over the last ten years, it would have felt criminal not to give Porzingis at least a few post touches per game early in the 2010s. Will the former Knicks’ star punish defenses down low in the 2020s? Not if Rick Carlisle has anything to say about it.

The Mavericks head coach delivered perhaps the rant of the year on Dec. 26. After weeks of murmurs regarding Porzingis’ deployment in the Mavericks’ offense, Carlisle broke, going on a multiple-minute analytics lesson. Porzingis’ lack of post touches isn’t an indictment on the Latvian forward. No player will feast in the post in Carlisle’s system.

“The post-up just isn’t a good play anymore. It just isn’t a good play. It’s not a good play for a 7’3” guy. It’s a low-value situation,” Carlisle said after the Mavericks defeated the Spurs. “Let’s get off of all this stuff that KP needs to go in the post. He doesn’t. He doesn’t. I’m OK with him going in there once in a while, but we don’t post anybody.”

Carlisle’s comments are backed by the data. Porzingis averages a 0.91 points per possession on spot-up attempts, and 0.99 points per possession as a roll man. Neither metric is dominant (largely thanks to a shooting slump in his first ten games) but it’s far better than Porzingis’ post-up numbers. He’s averaging 0.57 points per post-up possessions this season, the worst mark of 30 players with at least 75 post-ups.

So how does Porzingis function in the Mavericks offense without a steady diet of post-ups? His role is slowly but surely becoming more well defined. Luka Doncic (rightfully) hoards possessions in Dallas, designating Porzingis as an overqualified second option. Porzingis and Doncic are still finding their rhythm in the pick-and-roll, a dance that should become more graceful as we head toward the 2020 postseason. Dallas’ big man may also see more time as a pure five through the rest of the season after Dwight Powell’s season-ending injury. Porzingis remains an elite vertical spacer. Expect his share of roll opportunities to increase with Powell out of commission.

Porzingis is presently more comfortable popping to the three-point line in two-man games with Doncic. His spacing in that role has proved critical. Not only can Porzingis connect beyond the arc, he stretches the floor well outside 25 feet. Porzingis is a unicorn of the highest caliber. He may be the most versatile big in basketball.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Porzingis got a brief taste at running the show in December as Doncic missed four games due to a sprained ankle. The 24-year-old big man acquitted himself well as the star of the show. He averaged 22.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game on 36.7% from three, leading the Mavericks to victories over the Bucks and 76ers. Porzingis is good enough to lead a functional attack as a one-man band. But Carlisle would likely rather limit Porzingis’ nights as the Mavericks’ leading man, especially amid consistent concerns regarding his knee. Patience remains paramount as Dallas looks to lead the Western Conference for the next decade.

Porzingis’ role in Dallas’ offense may be a frustrating one. Once the focal point of the Knicks’ offense, Porzingis will now spend portions of games as little more than a spot-up shooter. But don’t expect Carlisle and Co. to be static with their deployment of Porzingis moving forward.

The Mavericks could experiment with inverted pick-and-rolls in which Doncic screens for Porzingis, and Dallas has a slate of sets designed to create open jumpers for its talented big man. Carlisle is too smart to let such a unique asset go to waste. The Mavericks will continue to develop their playbook in the second half of 2020, attempting to wring the best out of Porzingis in April and May. Porzingis will make his presence felt in the 2020 playoffs. By 2021, he could be battling the Western Conference’s elite for a shot at the Finals.