The Dallas Mavericks have been a subpar defensive team over the last two years. They ranked 22nd in defensive rating last season and 18th in 2020. Last year, there was a lack of consistency for the Mavericks' defense as they were the worst defensive team in basketball for the first two months. Then for the next two, they were one of the best, followed by moments in the playoffs where they looked downright awful.
Part of the problem is that the Mavericks do not have many good individual defenders. Dorian Finney Smith and Maxi Kleber are both serviceable, but neither will go lockdown superstars. Throughout the Clippers series, Kawhi Leonard had his way with both Kleber and Finney-Smith.
The additions of Sterling Brown and Reggie Bullock this offseason should help with the lack of defensive talent on the wings, but Kristaps Porzingis will be this team's measuring stick for defensive success.
Why Kristaps Porzingis is the key to the Dallas Mavericks defense
Before Porzingis tore his ACL in February of 2018, one of his biggest strengths was his ability to protect the rim. In his three years in New York, he averaged 2.1 blocks per game and made it difficult for opposing teams around the basket. Last season, KP averaged a career-low 1.3 blocks and saw big falloffs in his block percentage, blocks per 36 minutes, and blocks per 100 possessions. The less active he was around the rim defensively, the worse the Mavericks were as a whole.
The devastating knee injuries Porzingis has dealt with in his career have hampered his athleticism. It is part of the reason he hasn't been as effective defensively, but Porzingis does not need to be the same athlete he was earlier in his career to be a good defender. Remember, Porzingis spent a lot of time playing power forward in New York. He had to be mobile and fluid to guard many of the league's better athletes, and he did an outstanding job of it.
With the Mavericks, he is strictly a center, so he doesn't need all that athleticism. Sure the added ability to run and jump as well as he did pre-knee injuries would be a significant boost, but it doesn't mean he can't be successful. Rudy Gobert has won 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and he's no better athlete than Porzingis is currently.
A reliable defensive anchor at the center position is typically an excellent indication for the team's defense. The Mavericks can add as much defensive talent as they want on the perimeter. Still, if Porzingis is starting as the five and he's a negative on that side of the ball, it will be hard for them to consistently get stops and be good or even above average defensively.
The problem that guys with the size of Porzingis have is getting switched on to guards. Defending in space is difficult for big men, and Porzingis has struggled with it. He will never be able to guard these players, so new head coach Jason Kidd needs to figure out a way to fix it schematically.
With Luka Doncic also being on the court with Kristaps Porzingis, it is even more crucial that the Unicorn improve his defensive level. Fans have seen improvement from Luka defensively, but he's initiating the offense and accounting for a significant amount of the team's points. With him having a gigantic offensive responsibility, he's probably never going to be anything above an average defender.
The defense big men play in the NBA is paramount to their team's success. For the Dallas Mavericks to max out their potential and become a problem in the Western Conference, Kristaps Porzingis needs to step it up on the defensive end of the floor.