Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle rarely makes excuses, so instead he’s giving an explanation.
Kristaps Porzingis has struggled on defense this season. Almost every statistical category supports that.
It’s not for lack of effort or attention, Carlisle said, but more likely because the 25-year-old center missed training camp after October meniscus surgery in his right knee. He’s had to build his base fitness and strength during games, rather than through a formal offseason regimen.
“He’s had to play his way into shape, and it just hasn’t quite been the same,” Carlisle said. “It’s not an excuse thing in my mind. These are just the true facts of what’s happened.”
That’s what’s made this past week, at least on the court, so valuable for Porzingis.
The historic winter storms and power outages, which prompted the NBA to postpone two Mavericks games, created a pseudo training camp for Dallas. When the Mavericks return to American Airlines Center on Monday night against Memphis, they will have practiced four times in the last five days, a mid-season rarity.
The Mavericks hope the unexpected hiatus will serve as a spark for Porzingis’ defensive form.
“It’s conditioning, it’s mind-set, and this week has offered the opportunity for him to dive into that and to work on it,” Carlisle said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing. He’s got to keep sitting down in his stance.”
Porzingis’ defensive lapses, much like the Mavericks’, have been glaring at times this season.
He’s allowing an average of 119.5 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-worst defensive rating among anyone who’s played in at least 10 games this season. That’s more than 10 points per 100 possessions higher than his 109.3 defensive rating in 2019-20, which was higher than any of his three seasons with the Knicks.
His game averages in rebounds, steals and blocks are also down from a year ago. Porzingis hasn’t served as the rim-protecting, agile “unicorn” of a center that made his fit with 6-7 point guard Luka Doncic appear so natural at times last summer in the NBA’s Disney World bubble.
Behind the scenes, Porzingis has tried to still replicate foundational training.
In non-pandemic, healthy offseasons, NBA players workout throughout the summer, return to their markets about a month before training camps to condition with the strength staff, play pick-up games with teammates for a few weeks and then build stamina through a full preseason period.
Ahead of the NBA’s restart last summer, the Mavericks practiced for three weeks before their first seeding game, with Porzingis a fully healthy participant.
“Even though he had a couple of moderate stretches [last season] where he didn’t play games because he had a couple of aches and pains and things like that, he never lost that much momentum,” Carlisle said. “When he came back after an eight- or 10-game absence, he’d come back fresh and he still had the base.
“This year, it was very difficult to build a base.”
Since debuting Jan. 13 during the Mavericks’ COVID-19 outbreak, Porzingis has continued what Carlisle called “functional” strength work and balance-based exercises to improve his movement on the floor.
This week’s workouts have helped, too, because the Mavericks’ starters — Doncic, Porzingis, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber — had practiced all together just three other times because of injuries and illnesses throughout the season.
They’ve emphasized defense while scrimmaging and simulating game situations — typically high-intensity luxuries in the middle of February.
Porzingis’ individual shortcomings aside, the Mavericks’ defensive rating (114.6) is fourth-worst in the NBA.
Carlisle’s doesn’t want Dallas to make excuses for that, either.
“We used this time to analyze a lot of stuff and put a lot of [focus] on defense,” Kleber said. “Work specifically on defensive stuff, communication, just getting better overall. We didn’t have this amount of practice time yet, so it was good for us.”
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