Why Kristaps Porzingis is key to Dallas Mavericks’ second-half hopes

– The first half of the season hasn’t exactly been fun for Kristaps Porzingis.

He missed the Dallas Mavericks’ first nine games while recovering from surgery to repair a meniscus injury in his left knee, forcing him to miss the final games of his first NBA playoffs. Porzingis’ struggles, especially defensively, were perhaps the second most important factor (after the COWID-19 blowout that affected half the rotation) for Dallas, perhaps the most disappointing team in the league after six weeks of the season.

And Porzingis has heard his name pop up in trade rumors. Although Mavs owner Mark Cuban and coach Rick Carlisle have openly stated that the team is not involved in trade talks regarding Porzingis, the perception within league management is that he is available.

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The reality is that a departure from Porzingis would likely be a big step back for the Mavs, who saw him as Luka Doncic’s long-term co-star when they acquired him two years ago. Dallas needs Porzingis, who is entering his second season under a five-year, $158 million max contract, to live up to his unicorn potential to be a threat in the competitive Western Conference.

Good news: Lately, Porzingis has given us that opportunity again. His first performance since the All-Star break – 28 points and 14 rebound in Wednesday’s 115-104 victory over the San Antonio Spurs – was certainly encouraging.

I feel like I’m getting there, Porzingis said. I have to keep working. Your leg will not be the same after surgery. So you have to keep working on the strength and make sure it’s solid and stable and that you feel confident at the end. It’s a job with no end in sight, but I feel like I’m getting better every day and every game, and working hard. It gives me the confidence to go out and play free.

I am looking forward to the second half of the season.

Kristaps Porzingis answers on a big night to start his second half of the season with a Mavericks victory. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Porzingis’ health will always be a concern, and the Mavs will need to carefully manage their workload during a compressed second half of the season. In his more than four years in the NBA, he has yet to finish a campaign healthy, and there are complications that come with a 6-foot-7 body that has already required surgery on both knees.

Coach Rick Carlisle repeatedly cited the physical challenges of his return from knee surgery – and the rehab process that forced him to miss training camp – as the reason Porzingis often looked like the world’s biggest traffic cone on defense in late seasons.

I feel like he’s making steady progress, Carlisle said Wednesday, thanking Porzingis for the work it takes to make such strides. There will be more evidence tonight.

There are also some compelling statistics from Porzingis, who was a two-way force last season. In two months this season, Porzingis ranked second among rotation players in the league on the defensive side, as the Mavs allowed 119.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court – an embarrassment for a player who provided protection on the perimeter. Be careful, though, since Porzingis returned from a brief absence due to a lower back injury, his defensive rating is 103.1 in four games, all of which the Mavs have won, matching their longest winning streak of the season and moving to 19-16.

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Porzingis has played well offensively this season, averaging 20.5 points per game and a field goal percentage of 54.6%. He was extremely effective in pulling the Mavs from a five game sub-.500 scoring range by shooting 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. Dallas has won 10 of the last 12 games in which Porzingis has played.

Carlisle pointed out that Porzingis faced all kinds of defenses from teams that often guarded him with a much smaller player and essentially challenged Dallas to disrupt his offense by feeding him in the post. Porzingis made 11 of his 17 field goals against the Spurs and scored in a variety of ways, including a pair of cuts in the second half when he was fed by Doncic – exactly the kind of chemistry the Mavs need from their franchise cornerbacks.

We’re all moving forward as a team, said Doncic, who had a triple-double of 22 points, 12 rebounds and 12 boards against the Spurs. KP was so much better. He is getting his confidence back after his injury, and I think he will continue to gain confidence and get better.

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