Does Kristaps Porzingis Only Play Well Against Bad Teams? Here’s The Answer and Why It Matters

Kristaps Porzingis has made it clear that he wants a larger role on the Dallas Mavericks. In the past four months, he’s made public statements saying as much. He asked to play longer stretches during games, forcing Rick Carlisle to adjust his rotations. There were grumblings about where his shots come from, the solution to which required a shift in the Mavs’ offensive philosophy. Most recently, he showed clear frustration with how few shots he was getting in the fourth quarter of close games.

Kristaps was given the nickname The Unicorn for a reason – his skillset is rare for a player his size. A 7’3 guy who can shoot from the perimeter, pull up on a dime, and soar for alley-oops is worthy of a dozen surpassing nicknames.

But has Kristaps Porzingis performed at a level that justifies demands and ideological shifts in an offense?

The idea has floated around that Porzingis only plays well in minor games – games against bad teams. Is that true?

Yes, it is.

Kristaps’ scoring average against teams whose record is currently above .500 is 5.5 points lower than his scoring average against sub-.500 teams. His shooting percentage also drops 6.7 percentage points against those winning teams.

Kristaps is a star when playing sub-.500 teams – averaging 23.2 points and 10 rebounds while making over 50 percent of his shots. Against winning teams, however, Kristaps reverts to a good role-player who averages less than 18 points and less than 8 rebounds and makes less than 44 percent of his shots.

His highest-scoring games this season have come against losing teams. Every game where he scored 27 points or more came against sub-.500 teams – the Pelicans, the Pacers (twice), the Timberwolves (twice), and the Spurs.

If you want some context for these numbers, take a look at how they compare to Luka Doncic’s performance in these scenarios:

Kristaps Porzingis vs. Above-.500 Teams and Below-.500 Teams – 2021

Opponent RecordPTSTRBBLKFG%3PT%
At or above .50017.
Below .50023.2101.450.2%37.3%

AS OF 4/10/21

Luka Doncic vs. Above-.500 Teams and Below-.500 Teams – 2021

Opponent RecordPTSTRBASTFG%3PT%
At or above .50027.97.7849.5%37.6%
Below .50027.

AS OF 4/10/21

Luka Doncic plays better against better competition. His shooting percentage increases over 4 percentage points and his 3-point shooting increases from 30 percent to nearly 38 percent. That’s what stars do.

Kristaps is not a perennial MVP candidate like Luka Doncic, but if he wants to be considered a star at Luka’s side, he needs to show up when his team needs him the most.

Speaking of showing up, you could take that demand literally with Kristaps.

He’s played only 33 out of 51 possible games so far this season. That’s not because of anything he’s doing wrong, but it is a factor. How can the Mavericks build their offense around a player that isn’t consistently available?

In some respects, Kristaps has a point. He shouldn’t go the entire fourth quarter without a shot. His teammates should look for him more often. But if he wants to be trusted, he has to earn it, not just force Rick Carlisle’s hand by making a public statement.

Kristaps’ lowest scoring games this season have come in his team’s biggest matchups. In games versus the Jazz, Knicks, Bucks, and Blazers, he scored 15 or fewer points.

Is it possible for a player to transform into someone who flourishes under pressure? We have an example of that happening in Luka Doncic.

In the 2020 season, Luka’s scoring average versus above-.500 teams was over three points lower than versus sub-.500 opponents. His shooting percentage dropped 5.6 percentage points and his 3-point shooting percentage dropped a whopping thirteen percentage points against winning teams.

Remember when those elite teams would bully Luka physically and mentally? They would do everything they could to get under his skin.

And it worked.

Luka Doncic vs. Above-.500 Teams and Below-.500 Teams – 2020

Opponent RecordPTSTRBASTFG%3PT%
At or above .50027.78.7942.6%24.9%
Below .50030.810.28.848.1%37.9%

Luka’s worst performances came against the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, and Sixers. This season, some of Luka’s best games have come against those very same teams.

But we also saw moments of Luka making big-time plays. Eleven straight points against the Houston Rockets. A game-tying buzzer-beater against the Portland Trail Blazers. Averaging a 30-point triple-double for an entire month. Game-tying and game-winning shots versus the Lakers, Timberwolves, and Clippers. 

Kristaps took a step in this direction with his performance in Thursday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. He scored 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. But do it again. And again. And again. Night in and night out. Every game. Make the bad ones a rarity, not an inevitability based on the opponent’s record.

When Kristaps does that – when he earns that reputation – then he won’t have to beg for shots. His teammates will want to find him. He’ll be a unicorn because of his rare ability, not rare appearance.