Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ offense is still a work in progress

The Dallas Mavericks are still figuring out how their two stars fit together, which could be a terrifying prospect for the rest of the NBA.

Integrating a second star, even one as unique as Kristaps Porzingis, into a system already so firmly tied to one player presents challenges skill alone can’t resolve. Featuring a big man in an offense requires more creativity than simply handing the keys to a primary ball-handler, and when a team already has the latter, making room for the former becomes all the more complex.

Luka Doncic is the undisputed catalyst of the Dallas Mavericks‘ offense and, in many ways, an offense unto himself. He ranks in the 99th percentile in both usage and assist rate, per Cleaning the Glass, and needs little more than a ball screen to inflict maximum pain on opponents – all while maintaining elite scoring efficiency. In an age of the spread pick-and-roll and supersized primary ball-handlers, the Mavericks are in good hands.

Porzingis still feeling out his place within that context. His season, in marked contrast to Doncic’s, has begun slowly and uneventfully. He has been one of the least efficient high-usage players in the NBA and remains a better theoretical fit in the Mavericks’ offense than a practical one. Doncic, one of the NBA’s preeminent pick-and-roll passers, is at his best with three shooters around him and a roll man barreling downhill:

Porzingis just doesn’t play that way. That’s no indictment of his game, but it could limit the capacity in which the two can work directly off of one another. Less than a fifth of Porzingis’ touches have come as a roll man; even fewer have involved setting screens for Doncic. Instead, the Mavs have used him as a means of creating space and capitalizing when defenders collapse on the two-man game:

In a pure pick-and-roll context, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell might be a better fit with Doncic because of their ability to spring off the ground and finish at the rim. Porzingis can be a highly effective complement to that, but confining him strictly to spacing the floor isn’t the way to bring out all that a 7-foot-3 unicorn offers an offense.

That leaves him in the delicate space between star and accessory. He needs to be involved on offense, but in a manner that doesn’t diminish Doncic’s ability to create, and the Mavericks have struggled to figure out where that middle ground lies. Rick Carlisle has tried to give Porzingis room to post up when he has a height advantage, but those possessions often end in static backdowns and gauche jumpers:

He is scoring just 0.61 points per possession on post-ups, which account for roughly 15 percent of his offense. He doesn’t pass well enough to act as a hub out of the post, nor does he have the physicality to overpower defenders for easy looks at the rim. That isn’t the sort of player a team can tether an offense to and it makes switching smaller defenders onto Porzingis a more viable proposition for opponents.

It’s no wonder, given his lack of involvement in pick-and-roll and struggles in the post, that Porzingis takes just 20 percent of his shots at the rim despite shooting an astonishing 76 percent there. His overall shot distribution runs directly counter to his accuracy from each zone of the floor. Using him as a screener for Doncic could help him find more efficient looks, but Porzingis has never been a particularly physical screener or eager roll man. Their two-man chemistry is still a work in progress:

Occasionally, the two offer glimpses of the damage they might inflict once they grow more comfortable with one another:

Porzingis’ shooting struggles could be, in part, a product of the fact that he missed 18 months prior to this season. It takes time to shake off that much rust and get reacquainted with the NBA game. The fact that Dallas still leads the NBA in offensive efficiency in spite of that makes the prospect of a fully-functioning attack even more terrifying for the rest of the league.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

Porzingis has plenty to figure out to reach that point, but he’s worth the investment the Mavericks made in him and the effort required to get him up to speed. It just may take more of it than they anticipated.

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