DALLAS — The first half of the season wasn’t much fun for Kristaps Porzingis.
He missed the Dallas Mavericks’ first nine games while recovering from surgery to repair the meniscus injury in his left knee that forced him to sit out the final few games of his first NBA playoff series. Porzingis’ struggles, particularly defensively, ranked as perhaps the second-most significant factor (after a COVID-19 outbreak that hit half the rotation) in Dallas being arguably the league’s most disappointing team six weeks into the season.
And Porzingis heard his name pop up in the trade rumor mill. Although Mavs owner Mark Cuban and coach Rick Carlisle publicly declared that the team had not engaged in trade discussions regarding Porzingis, the perception among executives around the league is that he is available.
The reality is that moving on from Porzingis would probably represent a major step backward for the Mavs, who envisioned him as Luka Doncic’s long-term co-star when they traded for him two years ago. Dallas needs Porzingis, who is in the second season of a five-year, $158 million maximum contract, to play up to his “unicorn” potential with his blend of skills to be any sort of a threat in the competitive Western Conference.
The good news: Porzingis has provided glimpses of that possibility again recently. His first performance coming out of the All-Star break — a 28-point, 14-rebound outing in Wednesday’s 115-104 win over the San Antonio Spurs — was certainly encouraging.
“I feel like I’m getting there,” Porzingis said. “I still have to keep working. After you get the surgery, the leg is not feeling the same, so you have to keep working on that strength and make sure it’s strong and stable and you feel confident at the end. It’s nonstop work, but I’m feeling better each day and each game, and I’m putting in the work. That just gives me the confidence that I can go out there and play and play freely.
“I’m looking forward to the second part of the season.”
Porzingis’ health will always be a primary concern, and the Mavs must manage his workload carefully during the compressed second half of the season. He has yet to finish a campaign healthy during his four-plus-year NBA career, and there are complications that come along with a 7-foot-3 body that has already needed surgeries on both knees.
Coach Rick Carlisle has repeatedly referenced the physical challenges of coming back from a knee surgery — and a rehab process that caused him to miss training camp — as the reason why Porzingis frequently resembled the world’s tallest traffic cone on the defensive end this season.
“My feeling is that he’s trending up all the time,” Carlisle said Wednesday, crediting Porzingis for putting in the work necessary to make such progress. “There’s more evidence of it tonight.”
There’s also convincing statistical evidence from Porzingis, who was a two-way force late last season. Two months into this season, Porzingis had the second-worst defensive rating among the league’s rotation players, as the Mavs had allowed 119.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, an embarrassment for a player relied upon to provide rim protection. Take this with a small sample alert, but since Porzingis returned from a brief absence due to lower back tightness, his defensive rating has been a stingy 103.1 in four games, all wins for the Mavs, who have matched their longest winning streak of the season to improve to 19-16.
Porzingis has been pretty good offensively this season, averaging 20.5 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 54.6%. He has been extremely efficient as the Mavs have dug their way out of a five-games-under-.500 hole, hitting 50% of his shots from the floor and 40% from 3-point range as Dallas has won 10 of the past 12 games Porzingis has played.
Carlisle pointed out that Porzingis is getting a feel for all the different ways teams defend him, which frequently has been guarding him with a much shorter player and essentially daring Dallas to bog down its offense by feeding him in the post. Porzingis was 11-of-17 from the floor against the Spurs, scoring in a variety of ways, including a couple of cuts in the second half when he was fed by Doncic, the kind of chemistry the Mavs need from their franchise cornerstones.
“We are all progressing as a team,” said Doncic, who had a 22-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist triple-double against the Spurs. “KP’s been way better. He’s been getting the confidence [coming back] from his injury, and I think he’s going to still build his confidence, and he’s going to be way better.”