LOS ANGELES — After spending significant time in the trainer’s room in the past four years, Dallas Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis looked refreshed as he sat on a bench following Monday’s practice.
“I feel great,” Porzingis told NBA.com. “My body is feeling the best that it’s felt in a long time.”
After experiencing hiccups in his first two seasons with the Mavericks both with accepting and excelling in his role under coach Rick Carlisle, Porzingis sounded more excited about playing his first year under former NBA Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd.
“This coaching staff and how they see me out there on the court, it fits more to what I have in mind,” Porzingis said. “It’s in everybody’s interest to bring the best out of me.”
And after experiencing mixed chemistry with Mavericks star Luka Doncic during their first three years together, Porzingis expressed confidence on what the pair will become.
“I think we can be one of the best duos in the league,” Porzingis said. “I truly believe that.”
Poor play never put Porzingis on trade block
Amid the Mavericks’ two consecutive first-round exits, Porzingis’ injuries and his mixed play, the 7-foot-3 Latvian soon saw his names linked in trade rumors last year that suggested the Mavericks shopped him around.
Cuban thoroughly denies such talks ever took place.
“That’s not true. Why would I do that at all?” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told NBA.com. “Trades like that, you always end up further behind. When you trade a superstar, you never get the best end of it.”
Since then, Cuban sounds vindicated of the Mavs’ inaction, so much so that he described Porzingis as “playing at an All-Star level.”
“This is the unicorn and he’s doing more and more unicorn things,” Cuban added.
The Mavericks (9-7) enter Tuesday’s game against the L.A. Clippers (10-7) with Porzingis averaging 20.3 points on 45.5% shooting and 8.3 rebounds. Though Dallas has lost three consecutive games while Doncic remains sidelined with an injured left knee and left ankle, the Mavericks have lauded Porzingis for helping them stay competitive in all three contests.
“I’ve always believed that KP hasn’t played his best basketball yet. Now you’re seeing why we didn’t trade him,” Cuban said. “He’s a great player. He’s a good dude. All of my experiences with him have been positive. So why would we do that? But that’s NBA Twitter and that’s Mavs Twitter. That’s what they do. They’re probably trying to trade Luka right now.”
The Mavericks have no plans to deal Doncic, obviously. But Cuban spoke in hyperbolic terms to make a point. In today’s NBA, it does not take long for a touted prospect to turn into damaged goods. Dallas had acquired Porzingis as the centerpiece of a multi-player trade from the New York Knicks two and a half years ago. Four months later, the Mavs and Porzingis agreed to a four-year, $158 million max extension.
“It’s the NBA, and it’s a business at the end of the day,” Porzingis said. “It’s not in your hands as players. I didn’t really put too much focus on that. I just kept playing. I tried to focus on doing the best job I can, whether I’m here or somewhere else.”
Can Porzingis stay healthy?
Porzingis remains aware that his ability to fulfill that job description mostly traces back to his health.
He had missed the entire 2018-19 season in New York and Dallas to recover from ACL surgery in his left knee. In 2019-20, Porzingis then missed a combined 18 games mostly for various ailments involving both of his knees. In 2020-21? Similar story. Porzingis missed the first nine games of the season to recover from right knee surgery. He then missed 17 more because of reasons involving his surgically repaired knee, his back, his left ankle and right wrist.
“There’s nobody that gets hurt that doesn’t have it in the back of their mind,” Cuban said. “I don’t care what you do. If you had gotten sick and you feel something hurts a little bit, you’re wondering, ‘Are you sick again?’”
Porzingis conceded as such. He observed those various injuries affected his balance, how he shot the ball and how aggressively he attacked the basket. It did not help that the 26-year-old big man has a 7-foot-3, 240-pound frame.
“For a guard, it’s easier because you have the ball in your hand more,” Porzingis said. “For a big, it’s a bit harder.”
Therefore, Porzingis said he spent most of this past offseason devoted to “a lot of physical work.”
Granted, the former No. 4 overall pick has also missed five games this season because of lower back tightness. But Porzingis maintained he has “no limitations” and has since felt fully healthy. Though he did not share specifics of his offseason regimen, he largely credited it for his strong play since his initial absence. In the past eight games, Porzingis has averaged 23.1 points on 50.4% shooting along with 9.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
“I feel like my body has matured,” Porzingis said. “I feel strong on the court. It’s translating into my game.”
Why Porzingis enjoys playing for Kidd
For better and for worse, Porzingis’ effectiveness has not just been predicated on his health. He admitted not feeling comfortable with his role during his seasons in Dallas under Carlisle.
“It was different than when I played in New York,” Porzingis said. “I was being used differently. Playing alongside a great player like Luka, that changes the game. There were adjustments that I had to go through and figure out.”
Carlisle resisted featuring Porzingis in post-ups in hopes to take advantage of his floor spacing and outside shooting. During the Mavs’ first-round playoff series loss last season to the Clippers, Porzingis averaged only 13.1 points while shooting 47.2% from the field and just 29.6% from 3-point range. After scoring six of Dallas’ final eight points in the paint during Sunday’s loss to the Clippers, Porzingis recognized the drastic difference in how much his role changed since the last time he played in L.A.
“My teammates have been trusting me,” Porzingis said. “The coaching staff is trusting me and putting me in my most comfortable situations.”
Porzingis observed he has also felt comfortable because of how Kidd has related to his players. Dallas praised Kidd’s playing credentials that entailed helping the Mavs win the 2011 NBA title and finishing at No. 2 on the league’s all-time assists list (12,091). Porzingis said Kidd has become collaborative and communicative with players.
“KP has really been able to use J-Kidd’s approach to really build his confidence,” Cuban said. “When guys have confidence and they feel like they’re able to be themselves, they play harder.”
None of this surprises the Mavericks. They projected this would happen before the 2021-22 season started.
“He’s played extremely well for us on both sides of the ball,” Kidd said of Porzingis. “Even with the injury early, coming back from that. I think he picked up right where he was in training camp.”
How will Porzingis’ chemistry with Doncic develop?
Nonetheless, Porzingis believes he still needs to improve offensively and defensively by building a stronger rhythm. Then perhaps more wins will follow. But that also depends on Doncic, who is listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Clippers.
Porzingis reported the two have made a significant step toward bringing the best out of each other.
“We’re communicating more. That’s extremely important,” Porzingis said. “We’re off to a good start. I love playing with Luka. It’s hard to find that type of talent to play with, so you have to appreciate that. He makes the game easier for everybody. He does take a lot of the attention off of everybody.”
What sparked the two to communicate more?
“You just have to do it. Somebody has to take the first step,” Porzingis said. “It’s all in the communication. It’s as simple as that. Problems arise when you don’t communicate about things, and you don’t talk about it. So, we’re learning those things.”
The Mavericks have praised Porzingis’ leadership with how he communicates with teammates both with and without Doncic. Because of the increased dialogue he has had with Doncic, Porzingis projects that “we can be one of the hardest duos to guard in the pick-and-roll and many other situations.”
“They complement each other,” Cuban said. “KP can create space. When Luka is not in there, KP can get closer to the basket and score for us. Defensively, he’s been amazing with blocking shots and running and cutting and we’re doing a lot more back-screen cutting. But I still don’t think KP has played his best basketball yet. I think he’s still getting comfortable.”
Porzingis has at least become comfortable enough to express optimism about his health, Kidd’s coaching, his chemistry with Doncic as well as the Mavs’ playoff fortunes.
“I just work my ass off,” Porzingis said. “I work really, really hard. Whenever you start to feel good on a court and start to feel healthy, it brings out the joy in you again. You enjoy the game much more.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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