The Dallas Mavericks’ Kristaps Porzingis had been back for nine games before missing Saturday’s contest against the Phoenix Suns. He’s struggled since returning from knee surgery earlier this month; so much so that he neglected to speak to the media following Friday’s loss – an unusual occurrence for Porzingis, who usually accommodates the media.
While Porzingis has only been back for a short while, there is almost certainly residual rust. Yes, he’s still making his way back from knee surgery to repair his right lateral meniscus, but he also tore his left ACL in February 2018, costing him the remainder of 2017-18 and the entirety of 2018-19. Porzingis definitely regained most of his pre-injury form last season, but he never quite reached his pre-injury career-highs, falling short in points, blocks and three-point percentage.
Having said that, Porzingis is averaging 30 minutes per game through his first 10 games this season, an obvious vote of confidence in his health from coach Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks’ training staff.
Before we go too far, though, let’s get this out of the way – Porzingis’ numbers are mostly fine. He’s posting 18.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, down from the 20.4 points and 9.5 rebounds he averaged last season. He is logging a career-low 1.6 blocks per game – but again, it’s early in his comeback. It’s easy to look past that, although not for too much longer.
But there are more troubling things at play pertaining to Porzingis and his return from injury – and it’s mostly rooted squarely in his long-ranged shooting. Porzingis is shooting just 28.6 percent on three-point attempts. He shot 35.2 percent last season and is a 35.5 percent three-point shooter for his career.
Comparatively, here’s a look at some other shooting big men: Joel Embiid is shooting 40.4 percent on three-point attempts this season. Karl-Anthony Towns is shooting 37.5 percent from deep. Anthony Davis, who’s never been the best shooting big man, is connecting on 33.3 percent — below average, but still better than Porzingis. Nikola Jokic is making 34.8 percent of his attempts. Brook Lopez is shooting 36.4 percent. And the list goes on. Worth mentioning: all of the aforementioned bigs except for Towns played in the 2020 NBA Playoffs and, therefore, have reason to be fatigued, too.
But despite his inefficiency, Porzingis is still firing away. He’s shooting 6.2 three-point attempts per game, the second most of his career – and what would be good for 44th in the league, just behind Trae Young. Not to belabor the point, but much of Porzingis’ offensive appeal is his ability to stretch the floor and connect on three-pointers. Slumping is one thing, continuing to jack up shot attempts is another. And that’s a shooter’s paradox – the only way out of a slump is to shoot through it, but how much damage can be done in the interim?
Regardless if Porzingis is to blame, Dallas’ chemistry is clearly off – and losing is not helping. The Mavericks are 3-8 since Porzingis returned, going 3-6 with him in the lineup; Porzingis sat out two games since returning, including that Saturday night loss to Phoenix. Dallas also lost their last three games in which Porzingis played by a combined 35 points.
While working an All-Star back into your lineup is obviously a priority, the degree to which Porzingis has seemingly hurt the team is perplexing. While that may be a tad harsh, it’s becoming hard to avoid. After all, Dallas (just barely) had a winning record prior to getting Porzingis back. Now, not so much.
Getting back to the idea of continuity and chemistry, it sounds like both are missing. And that rests squarely with Mavericks’ star Luka Doncic, Porzingis and Carlisle.
Speaking of Doncic, the usually upbeat 21-year-old sounded borderline despondent following the team’s loss to the Utah Jazz on Friday, a game in which Porzingis played.
“I never felt like this,” Doncic said in his media availability after Friday’s game. “We’ve got to do something because this is not looking good. Got to step up and just talk to each other and play way better than this. It’s mostly effort.”
And while Porzingis neglected to speak to the media on Friday, he alluded to a lack of chemistry in his media availability on Wednesday, as well.
Fast forward to Saturday night. Despite losing the game, Doncic said the team’s effort was “way, way, way better” than the last few games in his media availability. There is one notable difference between Saturday and the last few games – no Porzingis.
The series of injuries Porzingis has suffered are serious. Let’s consider, for a moment, the ramifications of rehabbing a knee injury and failing to build strength and endurance due to a missed training camp and preseason. It’s fairly intuitive, then, that Porzingis’ legs wouldn’t be under him, so to speak. He’s probably fighting through fatigue and soreness, and trying his best to meet the fans, the teams and his own expectations.
After all, everyone expects the world from him after signing a five-year deal worth $158 million in 2019 that features no injury protections for the Mavericks. So it’s entirely possible that Porzingis may not be entirely ready to play, but feels obligated to do so.
The Mavericks’ former team doctor, Dr. T.O. Souryal, told the Dallas Morning News last Fall that Porzingis’ injury history is concerning.
“Anytime you have a star player with multiple injuries, especially to both knees, it’s a little troubling,” Souryal said. “But he seems to have come back from his ACL stronger than ever, so that injury’s behind us now. Each one of these injuries should be taken on its own merit.”
We are noticing more injuries in the bigs than we have before, but it’s not so much because there are more injuries,” Souryal continued. “It’s because the position has evolved and the player playing in that position has evolved.”
You’re seeing many, many more bigs than you did decades ago, and they’re far more athletic than they were decades ago. Two plus two equals four, so you’re seeing more bigs, seeing more athleticism, and therefore you’re seeing more of the common basketball injuries.”
Ultimately, it’s entirely possible that Porzingis returns to form in the near future and exceeds all of our original expectations. He could also fall victim to injuries time and again. There is another course of action, though, in which he remains healthy and fails to meet expectations. And we could be on our way there.
It’s still relatively early in the career of the 7-foot-3, 25-year-old Latvian, but the noise never stops. Whether the talented big man can eliminate the growing criticism and find the early-career footing that made him a can’t-miss prospect remains to be seen.
But for Dallas’ sake – and with so many expensive years left invested in him – the only way out is through.