The Dallas Mavericks set out to fortify their defense around Luka Doncic and their historic scoring attack this offseason.
Yet here the Mavericks stand, ninth in the Western Conference, ranking 27th in overall defense, and Kristaps Porzingis' steady decline on that end of the floor appears to be the biggest dilemma this front office is now facing.
In fact, Dallas has quietly gauged the trade market for Porzingis, according to league sources, as the Mavericks have begun reevaluating whether the 25-year-old center can truly support Doncic as the second option on a contender. "They've kicked the tires on everybody on their roster that's not named Luka," one person with knowledge of Dallas' thinking said. "You know [president of basketball operations] Donnie [Nelson]; they're always tinkering."
"They've definitely sniffed around on him," an assistant general manager told B/R. "They're taking the temperature, because they know at some point it's gonna come around."
Porzingis was billed as Doncic's ideal running mate just six months ago when he earned second-team All-Bubble honors after averaging 30.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from distance. He was then nothing short of a force in the opening round against the Clippers—that is, until a torn meniscus ended his season, and October surgery then sidelined him until Jan. 13.
His shooting has remained effective as he's connected on 35.2 percent of his triples, right around his career average. He's 14th among centers in PER, but the numbers paint a dire picture defensively—especially after Dallas' beatdown over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night as Porzingis sat with lower back tightness. The Mavs have a minus-4.7 net rating when he's on the floor.
In those 509 minutes, Dallas has allowed 119.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would leave the Mavericks nearly two full points worse than the 30th-ranked Sacramento Kings. When he's been off the court, Dallas' defense had surged to a stingy 108.7 rating in 840 minutes entering Monday, good for a top-five figure in the league. And for all the rightful criticism Doncic has previously drawn, the Mavericks defense holds foes to 111.0 points per 100 possessions when Doncic is on the court and Porzingis is out.
The ship may right itself as Porzingis regains strength in his right knee. It was only Dec. 29 when he first fully participated in a practice. But the early returns have been troubling, especially as Dallas was designed to rely on its 7'3" giant stalking the back line. He's been far more of a bystander than an enforcer at the rim, and he also has a mounting history of injuries.
"It looks like it's impossible for him to get in a stance. He looks like a scarecrow out there," one Western Conference executive said. "You don't expect him to necessarily be great from the jump, but I've watched Porzingis a couple of times this year, and I'm not sure the guy can guard anybody."
For now, Dallas appears first interested in adding a center to help supplement Porzingis, sources said. The Mavericks have circled Andre Drummond as the Cleveland Cavaliers look to move in a different frontcourt direction of their own, but Dallas has expressed no interest in parting with Porzingis in those particular talks. "They want a big to pair with him," one league source said. "Obviously with physicality, rebounding, toughness."
The Mavericks have been described as one of the more active teams in these exploratory, early trade discussions around the league. After acquiring Josh Richardson in the offseason and drafting Josh Green and Tyler Bey (via the Philadelphia 76ers), Dallas has continued searching for more shooting and perimeter defense around Doncic as well, sources said.
It's important to remember that injuries and COVID-19 protocols have stunted the Mavericks. Maxi Kleber and Richardson have each missed a handful of games. But the latter was converting just 29.6 percent of his looks from deep before Monday's 3-of-7 performance, and Dallas' juggernaut attack that posted the most efficient offense in NBA history last season now ranks just 26th in three-point percentage.
Further clouding these Porzingis developments is his close relationship with Doncic. The Mavericks swung on Porzingis hoping he'd create a decadelong pairing with their All-NBA floor general, and the two in turn developed a strong connection off the court. They were frequently spotted together at the pool during the Orlando bubble, and whenever there's been friction pertaining to Doncic's own accountability during film sessions, Porzingis has remained loyal to his co-star. "He almost defends Luka," one person with knowledge of the situation said.
There's also the matter of what Porzingis would bring back in return. "Who are teams you could in theory see going after him?" the Western Conference executive wondered. "I can't say that's a contract I'd pay to take on."
After this season, three more remain on Porzingis' five-year, $158 million deal.
"I think maybe you could squeak out a lottery-protected first from somebody," one capologist said, but that would likely only happen if Dallas took back other unwanted salaries. If the Mavericks are searching for contributing players, perhaps Dallas could engage a team like Chicago or Charlotte—with a mix of young players and veterans on sizable contracts—that could be looking to take the same swing Dallas once did.
For now, the Mavericks' Porzingis discussions remain preliminary. But for Dallas to bridge this gap—between its current standing and the team's preseason expectations of competing for home-court advantage in the playoffs—league executives expect these early conversations to continue. Finding a bona fide second option for Doncic is paramount to optimizing the young superstar, and Dallas can still clear max cap space this upcoming offseason. If John Collins were to reach restricted free agency, expect the Mavericks to make a significant offer, according to league sources.
Dallas once hoped to use that room for Giannis Antetokounmpo, forming a triumvirate that would have made the Western Conference shudder. Porzingis now needs a sharp turnaround to reclaim any bit of his previous reputation. "I get why the Mavericks might be having buyer's remorse," an Eastern Conference official said.
*All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. This story has been updated to reflect Mark Cuban's denial of this report.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.