Was the Kristaps Porzingis Trade a Mistake?

With the Mavs falling in the playoffs, I review their last major move.

In 2019 the Mavericks made a “blockbuster” trade by sending DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews out the door for Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. The Mavericks also threw in two first-round picks!

This move is now, rightfully so, getting a lot of flack. At the time, it was perceived a little differently. A very succinct RealGM article on the subject noted two important things. The first was a funny quote from a Mavericks employee: “We didn’t even use a gun and a mask.” The second was an observation from RealGM: “The Mavericks will need to re-sign Porzingis and then hope he stays healthy.”

For those that forget, Porzingis tore his ACL in 2018 and hadn’t played a game in almost a year when the Mavericks traded for him in 2019. The timing was extra bad in that Kristaps Porzingis was not slated to return for the 2019 season, and he was up for a contract renewal.

Porzingis has not looked healthy, and “with the benefit of hindsight,” it’s being looked at like a mistake. But the reality is the Porzingis trade was a mistake the second the ink was dry, and I want to talk about that using past Mavericks players.

Kristaps Porzingis vs. Chris Kaman

Many years ago, I briefly got some extra notoriety when a forum dispute at the Wages of Wins made it to an ESPN True Hoop article. I criticized the Mavericks for acquiring Chris Kaman, a below-average big years away from being productive. Mark Cuban’s defense was basically that the Mavericks coaching staff could improve Chris Kaman. Chris Kaman cost $8,000,000 that season, roughly 11% of the average NBA payroll. He played a little under 1,400 minutes, roughly 7% of an average NBA team playing time. And he produced 0 wins. I’ll let you do the math on that last one.

There’s a fun reality. Chris Kaman did actually improve from the previous season. However, he was so bad to start that it was a ludicrous assumption ever to think he’d be worth the contract he got. Luckily, it was a one-year deal, and the Mavericks didn’t re-sign him. But Chris Kaman provides an interesting point. Does it make sense to risk a lot of money and playing time on a player that has been below average? We argue no. Twice now, the Mavericks have done just that. We’ll see if they keep trying.

A reminder, Kristaps Porzingis’ numbers were below average, except for blocks, across the board on the Knicks. His True Shooting % peaked at 54.6%, well below league average. He was a decent three-point shooter his last season with the Knicks, but that’s not a skill I’d have looked to acquire him for. And the reality is he did improve on the Mavericks! But like Chris Kaman, the improvement required to make Porzingis worth a max contract was far greater than could reasonably be expected. The Mavericks appear to have a good coaching staff. I wish they’d give it good players. On that note …

Kristaps Porzingis vs. Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes was a promising young player for the Golden State Warriors. In the 2015-2016 NBA season, he missed sixteen games to injury and didn’t look quite right for the remainder of the season. It was a tough spot for the Warriors. Should they gamble on a young player with injuries or move on? Luckily, Kevin Durant swooped in and took that problem off the table. The Mavericks, though, decided to gamble. They offered Barnes a three-year deal paying around $23,000,000 a season (a little over 20% of an average team payroll). Barnes never quite returned to his form, and the Mavericks shipped him out after two seasons! I don’t know if any teams will bite on Porzingis in upcoming trades, though!

The rough part of running an NBA team is personnel decisions. The Mavericks are fortunate as follows: they have a star player and what appears to be a good coaching staff. Any team starting from that position is not far from being a contender, provided they make good moves otherwise. The Mavericks, for some reason, seem intent on gambling on below-average players that they think have upside or offering big contracts to players with injury issues. And sadly, I feel these are needless risks. Here’s hoping the Mavericks turn it around next season. They’ve lost precious time in Luka Doncic’s career to the Porzingis experiment. But, Luka is still young, and the Mavericks can easily do the straightforward strategy of acquiring good players that are priced well. You know, the strategy that got them a title in 2011.