By the way Luka Dončić has been talked about this year, you’d think the Dallas Mavericks would be undefeated — or at least near the top of the Western Conference standings. The Slovenian superstar is the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to start a season with seven straight 30-point games — which, like most Wilt records, features a bit of hollowness to it.
At 4-3, the Mavs are ninth in the West. I know it’s early, and they’ll probably finish in the top six much like they did a year ago when I questioned Jason Kidd’s hiring at pretty much this exact point of the NBA season. The team ended 2021-22 fourth in the West, made it to the conference finals, and got dusted by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
As currently constructed and operating, the WCF is probably Dallas’ best-case outcome for this year. Complain about it being too early and letting the standings, seedings, and playoffs pan out all you want, but this team still goes as Luka goes. He has the ball in his hands as much as any player in the league, and averages an NBA-leading 6.77 seconds per touch among guys getting 30-plus minutes.
There’s nothing wrong with your best option getting the lion’s share of the ball. Honestly, your coach is probably doing something wrong if that’s not the case. Yet, and it pains me to say it because I hate watching this player, I’m getting a little James Harden vibes from Luka.
We’ve seen one-man shows before, and even though I think Dončić is better at it than the Beard, we know how they end. Last season, the Mavs were 24th in points per game despite their leader going for 28, 9, and 9 a night. We’ve also seen more efficient offenses during Luka’s tenure. They had the kinds of offensive numbers under Rick Carlisle that analytics nerds think about right before going to sleep.
The defense last year helped get them to the penultimate round of the playoffs, which is further than the offense ever got them, and it didn’t matter. Either Dončić needs a running mate worthy of all-time sidekick status — like Scottie Pippen or Klay Thompson — that he’s willing to trust to carry the team when he’s off, or he needs to adjust his play style to elevate the Mavs above the sum of their parts.
If I was Jalen Brunson and averaged 30 points per game in the playoffs before Dončić returned from injury, I’d be tempted to go to New York, as well. The current Knick had outputs of 24, 40, and 31 in the three games that Dončić missed against Utah in the opening round, and didn’t break 30 again until Game 2 of the WCF against Golden State.
So what happened to the guy that got 28 a game in round one, but 18 every subsequent series?
Did he just forget how to score? I know Jerry from “Hoop It Up” could’ve tallied 20 against Utah’s perimeter defense last season, but damn, Luka, pass the ball. Dončić attempted nine more shots total than Brunson in the three Round 1 games, 54 more in the Phoenix series, and nearly lapped his No. 2’s shots in the WCF, 118-69.
This season, Dončić is jacking up 24.7 shots per game, which, you guessed it, leads the league. The next feistiest Mav is Spencer Dinwiddie at 13 attempts per.
Their big offseason acquisition — who was going to be exactly what they needed — doesn’t even start. Say what you want about Christian Wood, he’s been waiting to thrive next to a pick-and-roll maestro since he got to Houston the same year that Harden decided he wanted out, and he’s been empowered as much as a parent letting a child control a fake steering wheel.
The your-turn-my-turn stand-around until the superstar wants to share offense might work, but nobody enjoys it. That’s why Chris Paul was done as a Rocket after two seasons next to Harden. Brunson averaged 16, 5, and 4 in ’21, which isn’t too far from CP3’s 18, 8, and 5 during the 2017 Rockets’ year when they almost unseated Golden State.
Kristaps Porziņģis saw his attempts drop every year in Dallas before he got too surly (and injury prone) for the organization. Brunson got a bag and jumped at the chance to see if he could reach his full potential in New York. By my estimation, both left, in part, because they weren’t even being trusted to be sidekicks. It was more of a Paul McCartney & Wings, or The Jimi Hendrix Experience situation where you play bass and maybe get a shoutout or a small solo during the show.
Dončić has likely been the best player on his team since he could dribble a basketball, and his totalitarianism worked at Real Madrid and it got him a round away from the NBA Finals. That said, in the history of the league, one-man shows are far less effective than a balanced team approach. When he figures that out and forgoes the dribble-dribble-dribble stepback 3s as his signature offense, that’s when Dallas will go further than he alone can carry them.