DALLAS - Many considered Kristaps Porzingis as being a top “X-Factor” for the Dallas Mavericks' first-round series against the LA Clippers before it began.
That's a reasonable assertion when considering Porzingis is signed to a 5-year, $158.3 million contract. He was acquired from the New York Knicks and paid to be the co-star to Luka Doncic. That didn't quite happen.
Instead, Porzingis found himself averaging just 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while shooting 29.6% from beyond the arc in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Those numbers are not going to cut it... Ultimately, questions have been raised about his long-term fit with the Mavericks as a result. He made it clear he's just listening to the coaches when asked about it.
“Good question,” Porzingis said, followed by a pause. “How do I feel? I mean, I’m good. I tried to put in the work, tried to work hard. I do my part, listen to the coaches, what I’m asked to do, and that’s it."
“I try to keep it simple for myself, so I’m not overthinking, and I try to focus on what I can control. That’s being a better basketball player, going into the offseason hungry. I want to get better physically [and] on the basketball court. I’m going to put that work in to get better, and then the rest of the stuff will resolve itself.”
Porzingis has given some questionable answers at times when asked questions during postgame media sessions throughout his tenure with the Mavericks.
As ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported, Porzingis has been 'frustrated' with the situation and feels like an 'afterthought.'
But Porzingis has been frustrated, often feeling more like an afterthought than a co-star as Doncic dominates the ball and the spotlight, sources told ESPN. Porzingis frequently made thinly veiled references during his postgame media availabilities, such as saying the "ball actually moved tonight" after high-scoring performances or stating that the offense didn't involve him on low-scoring nights.
While there certainly are times when Doncic has looked off an open Porzingis on the perimeter in favor of taking a tough shot, the majority of this situation is an indictment on Porzingis' own limitations.
The Clippers were the worst matchup for the Mavericks to have faced even though Porzingis averaged 23.7 points on extremely high efficiency in his three playoff performances against them in the NBA Bubble.
Porzingis is reliant on using his shooting ability as a foundation of his impact and it requires facing a defense with a drop coverage big man. He needs that space to catch-and-shoot, but also to shot fake and drive against the hard run out by a slower-footed player.
During last year's playoffs, Porzingis was taking advantage of Ivica Zubac repeatedly. However, that was no longer an option this go around when the Clippers opted to go small with 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum at the five spot.
The Clippers often switched ball screens aggressively when they went small since Doncic was ripping them apart using them in the traditional sense. That played an impactful wing defender like Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum, or Paul George on Porzingis to begin possessions at times in order to be able to switch the screen.
Porzingis ended up shooting 6-of-15 (40%) on his post-up attempts during the playoffs. He had bad misses even when he had a major height advantage over guards like Rajon Rondo and Reggie Jackson. That's just not going to justify getting the ball.
The Mavericks had to turn to using Tim Hardaway Jr. as a ball screener frequently in this series since Porzingis was a non-factor and was just inviting a tough switching assignment. The Clippers had a counter for that by using a 'show-and-recover' coverage. Porzingis' limitations made it supremely more difficult on Doncic and the Mavericks' offense than it needed to be due to his limitations.
A key factor that benefited the Clippers in this series was that Paul George led the team's bench unit while Kawhi Leonard was able to rest on the sidelines. That wasn't the case for the Mavericks when Doncic wasn't playing.
During the 31 minutes that Porzingis was on the court without Doncic, the Mavericks posted a horrendous -48.3 net rating compared to the 3.5 net rating they had in the 202 minutes both players shared the floor. When it was time to be the top star, Porzingis failed.
A player who wants more touches needs to have multiple dimensions to their game in order to survive the adjustments made throughout a playoff series. Porzingis couldn't even get past the first layer due to his own limitations as a scorer. That's why he was tasked with being a complementary player who primarily spaced the floor.
“This comes down to what’s best for our team,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with KP during this series. Going into Game 4 we had one strategy that was completely different than what we had going into Game 5. He’s been great, accepting what our strategy was as a team, locking into it, and being professional about it.”
Aside from taking advantage of the defense blitzing Doncic by cutting and getting some transition buckets, Porzingis was too inconsistent to be featured. Simply put, he currently lacks the skill to be involved in many half-court actions against the style of defense the Clippers play.
All of this is problematic in its own right. However, the fact that Dallas had to run a 2-3 zone because Porzingis was unable to guard out in space or provide resistance at the rim due to his lack of strength is concerning, too.
Of course, when Kristaps Porzingis is open from beyond the arc, getting him the ball is a logical proposition. Beyond that, he has a lot of work to do if he wants to be a fit with the Mavericks. Otherwise...change is needed for both sides.