LOS ANGELES — It’s been clear this is the case for a while, but the playoffs have a way of magnifying and crystalizing situations, making them impossible to ignore.
Dallas needs a No. 2 star. Or a 1B to go with the guy they have.
The Mavericks have a franchise cornerstone superstar in Luka Doncic. He averaged 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, and shot 40.8% from 3 in the Mavs’ seven-game series against the Clippers, and had 46 points in Game 7 despite Kawhi Leonard guarding him much of the day.
Kristaps Porzingis is not the No. 2 star that fits next to him for the Mavs. Dallas thought he would be when they traded for Porzingis in 2019, but it’s clear now he’s a No. 3 option on a contending team, at best. At least on this team where Doncic will dominate the ball. Even Porzingis is not sure of his fit.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Porzingis said after Game 7 about his role with the team going forward. “I haven’t really been thinking about that. I’ve been so in the moment…
“Of course, there’s a little bit of mental battle because [how he was used this series is] not what I’m used to doing and where I’m most comfortable at. But I kind of went back a little bit to my mind, in my rookie year where just offensive rebound, play hard on defense, run the court, and do all the little things that how I can affect the game. And that’s what I do in this series.”
Porzingis sees himself in a bigger role with the Mavs, with the ball in his hands more than happened in this series, and that is part of his ongoing frustration, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.
But Porzingis has been frustrated, often feeling more like an afterthought than a co-star as Doncic dominates the ball and the spotlight, sources told ESPN. Porzingis frequently made thinly veiled references during his postgame media availabilities, such as saying the “ball actually moved tonight” after high-scoring performances or stating that the offense didn’t involve him on low-scoring nights.
Porzingis may want a bigger role, but he hasn’t earned it. He has struggled to stay healthy — he missed 29 games this season and 18 last season, mostly due to a torn meniscus, and he was out the entire season he was traded to Dallas with a torn ACL — and those injuries have led to reduced mobility. He is not a 7’3″ defensive anchor in the paint, which is part of the reason Rick Carlisle went to Boban Marjanovic as a starter in the final games of the series against the Clippers (although that was mostly about offensive size to counter Clippers small ball).
Porzingis can put up numbers, he averaged 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds a game this season. He just doesn’t have much chemistry with Doncic, doesn’t play great defense, and does not look like the No. 2 option Dallas needs. The Clippers went small this series and defended Porzingis with wing players, and he could not make them pay and switch out of it.
The Mavericks front office seemed to realize the issue and hoarded cap space to chase a second star this offseason in free agency. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, and others signing extensions to stay with their current team, this superstar-level talent in this free agency class dried up (Kawhi Leonard is technically going to be a free agent, but nobody around the league thinks he is leaving the Clippers).
Dallas will also find it difficult to trade Porzingis for another star. He has three years, $101.5 million remaining on his contract (the final year is a player option), not a deal other teams will take on for a big who has an injury history. Unless the Mavericks want to throw in a sweetener, but that defeats the purpose.
The Mavericks front office is going to have to be both creative and aggressive when the next disgruntled superstar player becomes available. Like a number of teams — think a team in orange in blue that plays in New York — they will monitor the situation with Bradley Beal in Washington, Damian Lillard in Portland, and everywhere else there is smoke around an unhappy superstar. But it’s not easy to construct a trade or get to a scenario for Dallas to reel in that next star.
Easy or not, it’s now the job of the front office for the Mavericks. They have one of the top five players in the world, but it’s clear they need a second star to go with him — and more depth around them on the roster — to compete with the true contenders.