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Why Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are a perfect match

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The NBA has no answer for a Luka-Kristaps pick-and-roll.

Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis on the court.
Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are a perfect match.

Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be a duo for the ages. The Dallas Mavericks generate 114.1 points per 100 possessions when both share the floor, and of the 102 pairings that have played at least 600 minutes this season, only four are more efficient.

This is due to a variety of factors, but boils down to how their individual, once-in-a-generation talents are inherently harmonious. They possess vision, anticipation, appalling range, and are starting to trust one another in a free-flowing, spacious system. We’re still at the ground floor of what they can do together, and already they’ve assisted each other’s baskets more than any other teammates on the roster have. They cut, spot up, and curl off screens along the same wavelength.

But there’s one critical element of their partnership that’s yet to blossom, even though we’ve seen glimpses here and there: The pick-and-roll. It’s the sport’s most basic and prevalent two-man action. It’s also its most fertile. Eventually, Doncic and Porzingis will have more illuminating possibilities working it than any other tandem in the league.

Doncic, a 20-year-old MVP candidate who rewrites history every time he steps on a basketball court, is already one of the league’s most assertive and clever passers. He understands when to move it and when to shoot. Open teammates aren’t open very long when he has the ball, and all Dallas’ aspirations — big picture and small — begin with the dread that ripples through opponents whenever he calls for a ball screen.

More often than not, his partner will be an athletic roll man like Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber, with Porzingis spotting up in the corner, either ready for an open three or jaunt along the baseline to make himself available for drop off. But when Doncic’s screener is a 7’3 marksman with 30-foot range and a deadly first step, fear melts into futility. On paper, it’s hard to think of a more ideal pick-and-roll partner for someone with Doncic’s instincts. Porzingis can stroke threes and reach higher than whoever’s guarding him to cram home a lob. It’s hard enough to stop Doncic alone, let alone in a situation like the one you’re about to see:

Watch PJ Tucker’s head. He’s worried about Doncic getting downhill, but also knows Porzingis (his original assignment) is galloping through open space towards the paint. It’s either a lob or a layup. There’s no time to think, let alone box out a giant. The options to slow them both down at the same time are few and far between.

Their collective menace can also be subtle, which is when it becomes even more potent. Even the most prodigious talent needs space in order to find its ceiling, and Porzingis gives Doncic exactly that.

Here’s the start of a stagger screen against the Los Angeles Lakers, with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee hugged up on Porzingis and Powell. Everyone expects Doncic to start the possession by using both screens, but instead he explodes the other way. Davis (maybe the best defender alive right now) is out of position because of Porzingis’ gravity.

Leaning on any one action when so many are available isn’t smart, regardless of who’s involved. And as Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle explained on a recent episode of The Lowe Post, having Doncic and Porzingis join forces in a pick-and-roll might bog down an offense that’s been pretty much the best in NBA history without it. Defenses can switch and then force Dallas to isolate, which breeds relatively inefficient shots, like the one seen below:

The 24-year-old Porzingis isn’t a monster in the post right now, and shooting a contested two over the top is a win for the defense. But once he’s healthier, more comfortable, and a bit more willing to dole punishment on the block, a new dimension will be added to Dallas’ offense. For a sneak peak of what that may eventually look like, watch how the Minnesota Timberwolves react after switching in the play below. Kleber gets a wide-open three because Jordan Bell is pressured to help on Porzingis’ post-up across the paint.

Also, there are only so many defenders alive (like, maybe two or three) who can credibly bother Porzingis and Doncic on the same possession. Both — as very large, impossibly skilled human beings — can shoot, drive, and pass. Switch at your own peril. If you’d prefer to have a big man guard Doncic in space instead of blitzing him to force a pass, have at it. But Porzingis fool proofs that latter option with his shot.

On switches, well, Doncic will be Doncic. (Defense 101: Never turn your back on a top-five player, as Rondo does below.)

In a half-court setting, a Luka-Kristaps pick-and-roll will inevitably put the defense in check. In transition, when Porzingis sets a drag screen, it’s checkmate. Whether he rolls:

Or stands still:

Doncic can dominate in just about any setting, and doesn’t need this particular action to look like the second coming. But what it will eventually do, particularly in the playoffs, is give the Mavs a sequence they can lean on to guide them against just about any defensive strategy that’s currently in practice. (Imagine how unstoppable it will be once Porzingis starts setting screens 40 feet from the rim, unfurling a red carpet for Doncic to dance on in a 4-on-3 situation. The options are endless.)

Dallas’ offense is already a juggernaut, but whatever ceiling still exists will be shattered once they find ways to place their two best players in a pick-and-roll. It’s the absolute last thing their opponent wants to see.