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NBA Saturday: “Jump Shooting” Teams Can Win

This postseason seems to disprove the argument that “jump shooting teams” can’t win championships.

Jesse Blancarte

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There is an ongoing debate in the NBA between those who believe “jump shooting” teams can’t win a championship and those who do. Charles Barkley serves as the most vocal spokesperson for skeptics, constantly voicing his doubts during TNT’s pregame and post-game coverage of NBA games. Also in Barkley’s camp is New York Knicks president Phil Jackson, who also just so happens to be arguably the greatest coach in NBA history.

On May 10, Jackson took to Twitter to get an update on the state of three-point shooting in the playoffs. Jackson’s tweet was written when the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks were both down 2-1 in their second round matchups. The point he was making is that three-point shooting isn’t the “be all end all of basketball” and that teams should not “disvalue the 2pt shot.”

Another vocal skeptic is Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott. Before the season started, Scott told reporters that he didn’t believe shooting three-pointers was a formula for winning a championship.

“I don’t believe it wins championships,” said Scott to Baxter Holmes of ESPN Los Angeles. “(It) gets you to the playoffs.”

Scott’s comment started this discussion, which has dragged on throughout the season. So, as we wait for the beginning of the NBA Finals (which starts on June 4), let’s take a look at some of the numbers from these playoffs, as well as the regular season, and try to determine which side, if any, is right.

First, we need to be clear about what constitutes a jump shooting team. There seems to be ambiguity here as some people refer to teams that shoot a lot of three-pointers when they say jump shooting teams, while others refer to teams that simply shoot a low number of shots at or near the rim. According to SportsVU, the NBA’s advanced camera system that tracks and collects a ton of data from each game, a jump shot is any shot outside of 10 feet from the rim.

Well, that definition certainly isn’t what people like Barkley and Jackson have in mind when they refer to jump shooting teams. Instead, in general, they are referring to teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, who averaged the first and fourth most three-point attempts per game during the regular season. Otherwise we would need to talk about the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets as jump shooting teams considering the fact that the Grizzlies took the most shots from 10-14 feet (8.6), while the Hornets took the most shots from 15-19 feet during the regular season (18.4).

The teams that shot the most three-pointers per game during the regular season, in descending order, were the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns. Among this group of teams, eight made the playoffs (Scott was right), five advanced past the first round, four made it past the second round and both teams that made it to the Finals are in the top five in three-point attempts.

But, as we hear so often, the postseason is a lot different than the regular season. And that is where the point of contention usually arises. Pundits like Barkley say that the game slows down, shooters go cold at some point, that jump shooting teams can’t be trusted to win a seven-game series against equally talented, non-jump shooting teams and that teams need a dominant post player to get a basket in crucial moments to win a championship.

Nevertheless, the Warriors are 12-3 in the postseason and have in fact increased their three-point attempts per game in the postseason to 30.3, which leads all playoff teams. Similarly, the Cavaliers are up to 29.1 three-point attempts per game, and are 12-2 in the postseason. Here is a graph to help illustrate which teams have been taking the most three-pointers per game during the postseason.

2014-15 Postseason Three-Point Attempts

Graph courtesy of Statmuse.com/nba

What should stand out from this graph is the fact that the top four teams in three-point attempts during the postseason are the same four teams that made it to the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. What is less obvious, but similarly true, is that three of the four Conference Finalists increased their three-point attempts per game from their regular season average. The Rockets were the one exception, taking a whopping 5.2 fewer three-point attempts in the postseason, which has a lot to do with the return of a healthy Dwight Howard and the loss of Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejūnas to season-ending injuries.

While the top four teams all happen to shoot the most three-point field goals per game, that does not mean that shooting a barrage of three-pointers will necessarily result in postseason success. There is correlation here, but not exactly causation. The main point that is being made, however, is that relying heavily on three-pointers is not fatal to a team’s championship aspirations, as some would have you believe.

In fact, shooting a lot of three-pointers isn’t what really matters. What matters is the way in which a team generates those three-pointers, and where the rest of that team’s shots are coming from.

Phil Jackson followed up his rhetorical question about three-point shooting by stating that three-pointers are fine, but they can’t be the shot that an offense is primarily looking to generate and that penetration is the first principal of offense. Jackson is in large part right, though the idea that teams should not look to create three-point shots as a primary offensive weapon is, at least somewhat, off base.

Pick and rolls are often used as a way of creating a two-man game with the target being an open shot at the rim, a mismatch on a switch, or perhaps an open pull-up jumper. For example, with this year’s Clippers, the high pick and roll between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin usually created a devastating scenario where, often times, Griffin would charge to the basket for an athletic finish at the rim, or Paul would pull for a jumper from the right elbow (a spot where he is lethal), or Griffin would be open for a jumper right above the free throw line, or Paul would pass to an open shooter like J.J. Redick at the three-point line.

Out of the pick and roll, the three-pointer was likely the third, maybe even fourth option, which should please Jackson. But the Clippers also ran Redick through a lot of backdoor screens to specifically get him space to launch three-pointers, especially early in games. On these sets, the three-pointer was the intended result. But that isn’t really a bad thing, especially in the case of the Clippers. Anyone who has watched them closely since last season knows that the Clippers’ offense goes from good to great when Redick is on the floor, running opponents through screens and launching three-pointers. Doing so creates spacing, generates ball movement and forces defenses to shift accordingly. It was the loss of this element, among a lot of other things, which stifled the Clippers in the postseason.

The point is, however, that whether a team purposely tries to generate open three-pointers, or they are a contingency plan when an offense’s first action is disrupted, they are a necessary and lethal part of an efficient offense in today’s NBA.

This is especially true when we consider how teams have learned the importance of efficient shot distribution. The notion that the Warriors are a jump shooting team does a disservice to the fact that, during the regular season, they were tied for second in the NBA in point scored in the paint per game. And guess who was second? The Houston Rockets, another team considered a jump shooting team.

Both the Warriors and Rockets understand that the best shots a team can take (other than free throws) are at the rim and open looks from beyond-the-arc. And neither team abandoned this formula after the regular season, which you might expect to happen considering how often analysts talk about the differences between regular season and postseason play.

In addition, the Cavaliers have also adopted this sort of approach to shot distribution during the postseason. Though the Cavaliers rely on a heavy dose of isolation brilliance from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Cleveland is still getting a nice amount of shots at the rim and from beyond-the-arc.

Here are some shooting charts to illustrate where each of these teams’ shots have been coming from throughout the postseason.

Golden State Warriors Playoffs Shooting Chart

Cleveland Cavaliers Playoffs Shooting Chart

As you can see, there is an eerie similarity in the shooting characteristics of both of these teams. Both teams, by definition, are jump shooting teams, but are both creating a significant amount of scoring opportunities at the basket instead of from midrange.

Now let’s compare the charts above to the Memphis Grizzlies’ postseason shooting chart.

Memphis Grizzlies Playoffs Shooting Chart

Shot charts courtesy of austinclemens.com/shotcharts/

The Grizzlies have two of the best post-up big men in the league in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Yet the Warriors and Rockets were able to shoot almost as much, or more, of their shots at or near the rim than the Grizzlies and both teams hit a much higher percentage in that area. This has a lot to do with LeBron James and Stephen Curry slicing through defenses and finding teammates at the rim, or finishing on their own. But however the shot is generated, whether out of the post or not, these teams show that shooting a lot of three-pointers and not having a dominant post player doesn’t mean a team has to be inept at taking and making shots at the rim. Part of it has to do with having a superstar attacking the rim, another part of it is having lethal three-point shooters spacing the court, keeping opposing defenses honest.

One of the biggest differences between the two teams in the Finals and the Grizzlies is that Memphis was shooting nearly 15 percent more from midrange, while taking roughly 19 percent less from beyond-the-arc. Despite making these two-point field goals at a high percentage, the Grizzlies’ offense, both because of pace and lack of three-point shooting, simply can’t compare to the offensive firepower of the Warriors and Cavs.

All of this is to say that you can be a three-point shooting team and still win at a championship level. More important than having a dominant big man to dump the ball into 40 times or more a game is generating efficient shots, which inherently includes three-pointers. As Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus pointed out recently, as the rate of three-point shots per game has increased since the 1997-98 season, so too have the shots taken at and near the rim. The shots that are being replaced are those long two-pointers that teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks have taken a heavy dose of this season (which partially explains why the Lakers and Knicks finished 23rd and 29th in offensive efficiency this season).

Most of this should be readily apparent to anyone that is willing to recognize that the NBA has changed since the days where Barkley was dominating teams in the post. But that recognition should go both ways. Zach Lowe of Grantland explained recently that the post-up game is still alive and can be a major weapon for modern NBA offenses, especially as a way to offset the aggressive switching that teams employ against pick and rolls. In fact, Lowe states that front-office “gurus” believe that the ability to make effective passes out of the post could “become the NBA’s next great undervalued skill, even as the league appears to veer away from post-ups.” And with a new crop of promising centers entering, or already in the league, such as Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Jusuf Nurkic and so on, a shift back to the post seems even less far-fetched.

But until that shift happens, the three-point shot is, at the very least, correlated with championship teams.

Perhaps the simplest and best evidence of that is the fact that the two teams meeting each other in the Finals shot the most three-pointers per game in the postseason. Sure, having Stephen Curry, LeBron James and strong supporting casts helps get you to this point. And these teams certainly aren’t in the Finals as a direct result of shooting more three-pointers than all of their opponents this offseason. But one of these teams will win this series, so no matter what, a jump shooting team will win the championship this season. With that in mind, how can we still say that jump shooting teams can’t win championships?

 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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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