The Dallas Mavericks have stumbled out of the gate during the 2020-21 NBA season. They currently sit at 14-15, only ninth in the Western Conference. Luka Doncic has been excellent statistically (as expected), but the team as a whole has struggled. This is due to numerous factors, not the least of which being that the Mavs have been hit particularly hard by COVID absences this season.
There's also the small matter of Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has only appeared in 17 games so far this year, missing the first chunk of the season while recovering from surgery for a torn meniscus suffered during the bubble playoffs in Orlando. He has been solid offensively, averaging 20 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three. It is the other half of the game where Porzingis has struggled immensely. Once considered a good-to-great rim protector, Porzingis' game has come apart at the seams defensively; his net rating is -4.7, meaning the Mavs are a worse team when he's on the court, and it's due to his defensive rating, which comes in at 119.5. For reference, the Sacramento Kings currently have the worst defensive rating in the NBA at 118.
In short, Porzingis has been so horrific defensively that he's become an active detriment to success on that end of the court. He's been a turnstyle in the pick-and-roll that even his natural shot-blocking abilities can't compensate for. This is probably why the Mavs are reportedly checking what his trade value looks like on the open market, according to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report:
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."
As you can see from the wording above, Dallas is more exploring different paths through which they can improve the roster rather than being dead-set on moving Porzingis. But he would be the most attractive trade chip to help mold the team around Doncic. Owner Mark Cuban denied these rumors on Tuesday morning, but it's not like he's going to come out and say they're trying to trade him without a deal in place, so take it with a grain of salt.
Regardless, Dallas clearly isn't in a rush and won't ship him off for nothing. But a deal could be made that would benefit all parties involved. Porzingis' $29 million salary will be tough to match and Dallas doesn't have a first-round pick this season. And they can't trade next season's pick because of what they gave up for Porzingis. They'd be looking for three-and-D help and/or a good rotational defensive big to take up some of the forward minutes in Porzingis' absence.
Here are four potential trade partners for Dallas and Porzingis.
Here's the proposed deal: Porzingis for Harrison Barnes and Jabari Parker. Parker is on an expiring contract worth $6.5 million and is included for salary-matching purposes. Barnes would be the real prize here (prize being relative, of course). He'd make his return to Dallas as an ideal match next to Doncic, a SF who can also play PF and a solid defender to boot. Barnes can also shoot, hitting 38 percent of his tries from beyond the arc this season, and is under contract for a reasonable sum for the next three seasons.
This would ultimately be a disappointing return for a guy Dallas believed to be the player fit to be Doncic's No. 2 for the next decade. Maybe they could squeeze a top-10 protected first-round pick from Sacramento to make it a bit more palatable, but there aren't many guys in the league who are available, a good fit for Doncic, and come with the right price tag to trade for Porzingis. Barnes checks all those boxes and the Kings have to love Porzingis' fit next to De'Aaron Fox.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs do love their European superstars (arguably more than even the Mavs!) and are currently rather adrift as a franchise, with no clear-cut star on a roster filled with a bunch of good players, few of whom have the potential to be great. They fix that in this theoretical scenario by acquiring Porzingis in exchange for DeMar DeRozan. The trade can be executed straight-up thanks to DeRozan's $27 million expiring contract.
Why would Dallas do this? Well, DeRozan isn't a perfect fit next to Doncic, but he's better than any wing they have right now as both a solid defender and a player who can score without needing Doncic to initiate. He'd be invaluable as an offensive creator at the very least. Trading Porzingis for an expiring deal would also allow Dallas to free up some money for free agency. This year's FA class doesn't look particularly deep, but things change very quickly in this league and having the cap flexibility to pounce if a star like Bradley Beal decides he wants out can be very useful indeed. This is probably a last resort for Dallas, though, given that the Spurs are perennially decent and a draft pick wouldn't go a long way towards sweetening this deal.
Oklahoma City Thunder
If Dallas (or any team, for that matter) decides that adding to the draft pick cupboard to either use or trade is a worthwhile endeavor, then OKC is the team to deal with. They have more first-rounders than most of the other teams in the NBA combined over the next few years. They have Al Horford to offer as a salary match, and while Horford is not as good as he was, he's been better this year than he was in Philly. He could fill in nicely as a defensive center who can run the offense at an adequate level when Doncic needs a break.
Dallas would have to take on the final two years of Horford's onerous contract, but getting a pair of first-rounders from OKC's horde could make it worthwhile. On the Thunder's end, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be the only untouchable part of that roster and sacrificing a few picks is definitely worth the chance that Porzingis turns it around and becomes SGA's right-hand man for the next five or so years.
The idea here is that the Wendell Carter Jr./Lauri Markkanen experiment is coming to an end in Chicago. Whether it's due to injury, poor play, or a combination of the two, the pair of lottery picks just don't work well together on the court. So, Chicago sends Otto Porter Jr. and Carter Jr. to Dallas in exchange for Porzingis. The numbers work. The Mavs get a solid three-and-D wing on an expiring contract and a young center with a lot of defensive potential, even if it'll take some time for that potential to be realized.
The issue would come in the form of the fact that Markkanen is basically a worse version of Porzingis, capable of shooting at a slightly lower percentage while being bad defensively. He is a restricted free agent after this year, Chicago would likely try to move Markkanen either before or at the same time they theoretically bring in Porzingis. If they can accomplish that, they find an offensive running mate for Zach LaVine, who has been a monster this year, and prove to him that they're committed to building around his game on the perimeter. It's a stretch, I'll admit, but not completely unrealistic.