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NBA Sunday: Seeding Rules Change Needed

As it did in 2006, the NBA needs to revisit its playoff seeding rules, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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With Game 7 tied, his heart racing and his team facing the prospect of elimination, Chris Paul summoned everything he had left in his body. He had given everything to this endeavor and, even with one good hamstring, knew he had come too far to walk away defeated. Over the outstretched arms of Danny Green and Tim Duncan, Paul, somehow, managed to sink the shot that sunk the San Antonio Spurs.

Their hopes of a repeat once again dashed, the Clippers head to Houston while the Spurs head home.

Now, the question is whether the subsequent playoff series that we will take in will be able to live up to the entertainment value of what we just witnessed.

In all likelihood, it will not, but the bigger and most important issue is that the NBA should never find itself in such a predicament in the first place.

Rest assured, this is something that Adam Silver will look at closely, as soon as this summer. Especially with the Southwest Division becoming, far and away, the most competitive division in the entire league.

* * *

The Charlotte Bobcats became the NBA’s 30th franchise back in 2004 and with their inclusion came realignment. At that time, the NBA opted to realign from four divisions to six, adding the Southeast Division to the Eastern Conference and the Northwest Division to the Western Conference. The Midwest Division was renamed the Southwest Division and teams were more or less geographically aligned.

At the time, the league implemented a simple rule to award division winning teams. The winners of each of the three divisions would receive the top three seeds for the purpose of playoff bracketing. On its face, the decision seemed to make sense, but what the practice did, unfortunately, was overlook the issues related to competitive balance.

By virtue of the NBA’s scheduling practices, each team (“Team X”) plays the other teams in their division four times. Of the remaining 10 teams in their conference, Team X plays six of them four times, and the other four only three times. In effect, teams will play 52 games against the teams in their own conference and the other 30 games against teams in the other conference.

Those 52 intra-conference games, though, are not all created equal.

For example, this past season, the Spurs played four games against every other team in the Western Conference except except for the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

The Memphis Grizzlies played three games each against the Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns. In other words, by virtue of that scheduling rule and the fact that there are four teams which will only play against Team X three times (and not four) inherently creates scheduling imbalance.

The league works hard to distribute games in such a way that maintains competitive balance, but it is an imperfect science that will always be open to ridicule in some shape or form. The Clippers, for example, only played the Pelicans three times this past season, as well as the Mavericks. In a season where second and third seeds and fifth and sixth seeds in the Western Conference were each determined by tie-breakers and the two couples were each separated by one game, it is fair to say that each and every game counts.

Had the Clippers played the Pelicans four times and, say, the Jazz only three times, they may have lost another game and that one game could have made all the difference.

For the league, again, this is an imperfect science. Any system will have flaws that an intelligent mind can ponder and expose. The most that one can hope for in building out such a complicated competition structure is to find a system whose flaws are not detrimental to the product, at large. In other words, for the NBA, having playoff seeds determined by an imbalanced scheduling scheme is a practice that has made sense for quite some time.

At this point, though, it may have outlived its usefulness. As it relates to playoff seeding, when the league drew the conclusion that it needed to revisit something the last time, it also happened to involve the Spurs.

Even back then, the league acted quickly and swiftly.

* * *

Beginning with the 2003-04 season, the NBA implemented its six-division system. Since then, the Southwest Division has featured the three Texas teams, along with the Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans.

Traditionally, the Southwest Division has been the league’s most competitive, very often featuring at least four teams with at least a 45 percent win rate. This past season, the fifth placed team in the Division was the Pelicans, who finished the season with a 45-37 record.

For the first time since the league went to a six-division system, all five teams from one division qualified for the postseason. To say that the Southwest is “competitive,” all things considered, would be an understatement.

Traditionally, the Spurs and Mavericks have been the top two teams in the division, routinely winning in the neighborhood of 60 games. The seeding rules, however, have always adversely affected their playoff bracketing.

In the 2005 playoffs, the Phoenix Suns were the rightful top seed with 62 wins. The Spurs ended the season 59-23 while the Mavericks were 58-24. With a 52-30 record, the Seattle Supersonics won the Northwest Division, earning the third seed despite having the fourth-best record. It didn’t seem to make much sense at the time and immediately caught the attention of the focused observer.

Over the course of the 2005-06 season, though, with the Spurs and Mavericks both dominating, there were whispers of what transpired the year before, and the concerns were eventually proved valid: things were much worse in the 2006 playoffs.

That year, the Spurs completed the season 63-19, while the Mavericks finished 60-22. By virtue of their winning their divisions, though, the Suns (54-28) and the Denver Nuggets (44-38) were awarded the second and third seeds, respectively. The end result was the Mavericks being seeded fourth, despite having the conference’s second best record. That they were seeded behind the Nuggets—a team they were 16 games better than during the regular season—was laughably bad.

As the first and fourth seeds, the Spurs and Mavericks were matched up in the second round and engaged in a phenomenal seven-game series that should have been preserved for the Western Conference Finals. The league saw the flaw in its seeding methodology and, after these two years, changed the rule.

Since then, the league no longer awards the top three seeds to the division winners. Instead, the division winners are guaranteed a top-four seed, meaning that if a team that does not win its division has a better record than a team that does win its division, the non-division-winner can leapfrog the division winner in the standings.

We may as well call that “the Mavericks Rule.”

Now, however, with the Southwest Division clearly the most competitive in the league, it is time to readdress this issue and ask an important question…

Why reserve a seed for a division winner, at all?

While it is understandable that there should be an award for winning a division, teams endure a seven-month regular season while most fans struggle to stay engaged during its entirety. The entire struggle—from training camp, to preseason to the dog days of the regular season—are all done with an eye toward the postseason.

And once there, something as important as playoff seeding and bracketing should not be determined by arbitrary rules that have outlived their usefulness.

It is safe to say we have reached that point.

* * *

This past season, despite having the sixth-best record in the conference, the Portland Trail Blazers were awarded with the fourth seed and matched with the Memphis Grizzlies. Although the Blazers were not at full-strength from a health standpoint, the overall quality of play and competition over the course of the five-game series was pitiful.

The Spurs and Clippers being cross-matched in the first round was a natural byproduct of the Blazers being awarded the fourth seed and it has caused the league to fully examine and address the issue, with Commissioner Silver likely offering insight as to the internal discussions being had when he addresses the media during the 2015 NBA Finals.

Had the Blazers been rightfully seeded sixth and the conference ranked based solely on win-loss record, the Warriors and Pelicans and Rockets and Mavericks would have still been cross-matched.

The major difference is that the Grizzlies and Spurs would have engaged as the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively, while the Clippers (as third) would have drawn the Blazers (as sixth).

Of course, with their age catching up to them and attrition taking its toll, the Spurs may have lost to the Grizzlies in the first round, ultimately meeting the same fate. At least if they had, though, the only questions that would have been asked would have been whether or not the Grizzlies are capable of winning the conference. There would, at the very least, not be any questions related to how it is that two of the top three teams (at least, arguably) were cross-matched in the first round.

The potential of similar occurrences in the future make this something impossible to ignore. Keep in mind, even the seventh-seeded Mavericks (50-32) finished the regular season just one game worse than that Blazers. The team with the seventh-best record being awarded the fourth seed would be an even bigger travesty than the one we just witnessed. But as the Pelicans continue to improve, the Northwest Division may very likely produce a division winner that is far inferior to even the fourth-best team in the Southwest. And this would certainly be true if LaMarcus Aldridge bolts Portland and/or Kevin Durant opts to flee Oklahoma City.

* * *

What is most amazing to consider about the Spurs is how much it took to eliminate them from the postseason in two of the last three seasons. It took a miraculous shot from Ray Allen in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, followed by a miraculous performance by LeBron James in Game 7.

In 2015, it took Chris Paul playing the entire series as a man possessed and, even with one hamstring, willing his team to victory in a hard-fought Game 7.

Overcome with emotion afterward, now in his third time against Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovic, Paul had finally emerged victorious. It was a series that would negatively impact his legacy if he lost, and he simply refused to allow that to happen.

As his Clippers get set to do battle with the Houston Rockets, as NBA fans, we can only hope that the next series lives up to its first round predecessor.

And as we keep our fingers crossed, hope for something else—pray that the NBA uses its noggin and addresses one of the weaker points of its competitive scheme and does away with a rule that has outgrown its usefulness.

In the end, everyone—except the team that does not deserve its high seed—will win.

That may be upsetting to teams in the Northwest Division, but I’m sure we can all live with that.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success

Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.

Spencer Davies

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It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.

The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.

But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.

“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”

Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.

“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.

“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”

Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.

“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.

Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.

In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”

“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.

“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”

Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.

Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.

Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.

“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”

Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.

All-Star Weekend proved it.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division

In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.

Chad Smith

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The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.

As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.

The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.

Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.

At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.

The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.

Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.

The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.

With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.

The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.

Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.

Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.

Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.

The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.

A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.

Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists  — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.

The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.

The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.

Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.

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Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form

After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?

Jack Winter

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The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.

Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.

But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.

Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.

Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.

It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.

Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.

Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.

The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.

With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.

A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.

But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.

Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.

Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?

The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.

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