- Luka Doncic thrived while Kristaps Porzingis struggled in the Mavs’ first-round playoff loss.
- Porzingis has reportedly been frustrated with his role, and he and Doncic aren’t close.
- To improve, the Mavs will need to explore trading Porzingis or make things work between him and Doncic.
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It may be time for the Dallas Mavericks to re-examine the pairing of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
The Mavericks lost to the LA Clippers in Game 7 on Sunday, failing to get out of the first round for a second consecutive season. The loss especially stung given that the Mavs took the series lead by winning the first two games in Los Angeles, then failed to win any games in Dallas.
Doncic was brilliant in the series, averaging 35 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists per game on 49% shooting – and posting a 46-point, 14-assist Game 7. But he did not get the support he needed from Porzingis.
The 25-year-old averaged just 13 points and 5 rebounds per game, while shooting 29% from three in the first round.
That disappointing performance from Porzingis – who was brought in and paid to be the No. 2 star on the team – has shined a spotlight on what has turned into an awkward pairing with Doncic. The two players do not appear to be close.
Now, with Doncic eligible for a max contract this offseason, the clock is ticking for the Mavs to find the right mix of players to surround him.
Porzingis may be unhappy
The Mavs’ offensive game-plan against the Clippers largely put the ball in Doncic’s hands, with the floor spread, and let him create a shot. That often left the 2.13m-3 Porzingis languishing on the perimeter, unable to take advantage of the size differential between himself and his generally smaller defenders.
After Game 7, Porzingis admitted that although his role in the series was not what he was used to, he tried to do what coaches asked.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported on Monday that Porzingis has been frustrated, though, and left feeling like an “afterthought” in the Mavs’ offense.Porzingis had a good regular season, averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds per game with a career-best effective field goal percentage. However, Doncic’s rise to an MVP-caliber player has diminished Porzingis’ role to more of a spot-up shooter.
Porzingis also said on Sunday that the Mavs offense doesn’t feature many post-ups and face-ups – the kinds of plays he previously thrived on with the New York Knicks.
Doncic and Porzingis aren’t very close
Throughout the season, fans and analysts wondered about the awkward relationship between Porzingis and Doncic, noting their lack of on-court interactions, like high-fives.
The Mavs haven’t done much to dispel the notion that the two players aren’t close.
During the season, team owner Mark Cuban said there had been “dust-ups” between the two. He compared the pairing to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki and former teammate Jason Terry, who did not get along early in their careers but later won a championship together.
“I mean, KP and Luka get along fine,” Cuban told “The K&C Masterpiece” show. “It’s just that they’re different people. They like to do different things.”
Cuban added: “That’s just part of the process when you’ve got young kids who are growing up.”
It is, of course, possible for stars to be successful on the court even if they aren’t friends off of it. But that’s tougher when a player is unhappy with his role and not thriving, especially in the postseason.
The Mavs need roster upgrades but don’t have an easy path
The Mavs’ salary sheet will soon get complicated.
This offseason, Doncic is eligible for a five-year, $200 million extension. Once that kicks in, the Mavs will have less cap space to fill out the roster with good players.
Meanwhile, key wing Tim Hardaway Jr. – who finished second on the team in postseason scoring – is a free agent and likely to command an eight-figure salary. And Porzingis still has three years and $101 million remaining on the five-year, $153 million contract he signed in 2019.
According to MacMahon, scouts and executives around the NBA view Porzingis’ contract as an “albatross.” He’s not un-tradeable, but he’s unlikely to return a better player in any kind of deal.
The Mavs also owe the Knicks two first-round draft picks, including their 2021 selection, because of the deal to acquire Porzingis.
So the Mavs are left choosing between less-than-ideal options. They could trade Porzingis by attaching draft picks in a deal, but that would likely be a lateral move – and cost them more assets. Alternatively, they could clear some salary-cap space by trading away players on the roster who are locked into long-term deals. But this summer’s free agent class is weaker than it once looked, with many big-name stars signing extensions over the last year.
The Mavs’ best option, then, may be to simply figure out how to make this talented but awkward pairing work. After all, the Mavs posted elite offensive numbers when Doncic and Porzingis shared the court this season – even if one party wasn’t always happy.
Porzingis may also benefit from a true offseason. After Game 7, he said that the combination of last year’s NBA bubble, a knee surgery that caused him to miss time early this season, the abbreviated offseason, and the compacted regular season all made this feel like one long year of basketball. An extended period to recover could help him become more consistent.
The Mavs can’t afford to waste another year of Doncic’s generational talent with an early playoff exit. Any conversation about how to improve the roster around him will likely begin with confronting his relationship with Porzingis.