NBA Daily: Door In Dallas Open For Porzingis

Losing an MVP candidate for a few weeks would be a blow to any team, but Luka Dončić’s ankle injury might be good news for the Dallas Mavericks in the long-run, Douglas Farmer writes.

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Updated 12 months ago on
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When the Dallas Mavericks learned Luka Dončić’s ankle injury Saturday night was only a sprain and he would be sidelined for just a couple of weeks, the word commonly applied to their emotions was “relief.”

That was understandable given the apparent alternative was losing Dončić for months with a break of some degree. Then again, it also may have been a tempered reaction. Perhaps the Mavericks should have been outright glad Dončić rolled onto his right ankle. That would have been a curious thought exiting the weekend, but it gained steam Monday night.

The most obvious aspect of that thought is Dončić missing some time now should keep him fresher as this season expands into May and perhaps even June. His 801 minutes this season, combined with a usage rate of 41.1 percent (per put significant wear and tear on his body. A few weeks of sparing that load could pay off in the spring.

But more pertinently, Dončić’s absence may give Dallas and head coach Rick Carlisle a chance to focus on fixing the team’s biggest problem this season. It’s not just that forward Kristaps Porzingis was averaging a mere 16.8 points per game when Dončić went down, Porzingis’ lowest since his rookie season’s 14.3 points per game in 2015-16. It’s more that those points are coming inefficiently, with career-lows in both field goal percentage at 39.7 and effective field goal percentage at 46.1.

Perhaps the player with the league’s highest release point, Porzingis was shooting a career-low from deep, 32.6 percent, while taking the most threes of his career with six attempts per game.

Those issues go beyond raw rates. With both Dončić and Porzingis on the court, the Mavericks are outscoring their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. With Porzingis playing but without Dončić, that drops to minus-1.5. Frankly, the further you delve into those numbers, the more concern you will find regarding the pairing and Porzingis’ fit in the Lone Star State.

Pairing Net rating Off. rating Def. rating
Dončić +9.1 119.5 110.4
Dončić with Porzingis +7.4 117.3 109.9
Dončić w/o Porzingis +14.1 126.1 112.1
Porzingis +5.8 115.0 109.1
Porzingis w/o Dončić -1.5 104.1 105.6

*all via before Dallas’ first game this week without Dončić.

That last line, of Porzingis playing without Dončić, had been used in only 270 possessions thus far this season before that worrisome sprained ankle, a sample size that should be matched by the end of the week with three games coming in the next six days. In just one game, a 120-116 victory at Milwaukee, Porzingis logged a +20 in 68 possessions.

Like anyone, Porzingis knows this time could be spent with him at the center of the offense, unlike the usual scheme, though he does not necessarily see that as the right move.

“My shot is not falling as I would like it to, and I’m going to keep working on that, but I’m going back to the things I was doing my rookie year,” Porzingis said Saturday. “Offensive rebounding, crashing every time. Stay active, cuts, easy buckets. That’s what I have to go back to.”

He got back to that at the Bucks, keying his way to 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, with 12 rebounds. Every one of those stats marked an improvement on his 2019 standard, and while he handled the ball more often without Dončić, a 29.4 percent usage rate for the night compared to a season average of 25.7, Porzingis did not rely on his own play-making to put Milwaukee on its heels.

Whatever look Carlisle trots out while Dončić is sidelined, if it gets Porzingis into a rhythm like that 50 percent shooting from 3, it will help Dallas in the long run. With only Dončić able to spur what may be the league’s best offense, defenses will eventually adjust, particularly once into May.

However, if Porzingis can take this opportunity to find a way to lead the Mavericks to numbers better than his current rates, then Carlisle may have a whole new array of attacks at his disposal. Frankly, the defense has not been a concern — Dallas is better without Dončić on that end of the floor, something that will not surprise many who have watched the second-year playmaker.

The Mavericks do not need to worry much about their playoff chances while Dončić is injured. Dallas entered the year simply hoping to get a playoff spot, perhaps climbing to the seventh seed, but those expectations have been rendered meager and pessimistic within the first third of the season.

Now at 18-8 and ranked third in the West, the Mavericks have a three-game cushion on the No. 6 seed and a seven-game lead on the lottery. If Dončić is out for two weeks, he will miss six games; another week would cost four more. As long as Dallas picks up a couple wins in that stretch, going 2-4 or even 3-7 should not be that costly in the long run. For that matter, one victory is already in hand, against arguably the toughest opponent.

If this interim includes Porzingis finding his shot and a role within Carlisle’s offense, then a few losses would be a bargain at twice the price.

Time away from the league’s next young star may be exactly what Porzingis and the Mavericks need for greater success this year.

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Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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