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Luka Is in a League of His Own, for Better or Worse

Doncic nearly single-handedly took down the Clippers. But for the Mavericks to get much further, he’ll need to get others involved.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With 40 seconds left in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Clippers, Luka Doncic pushed the ball up the court, looking for a two-for-one opportunity. So he pulled up from 3 feet behind the 3-point line and took a one-legged fadeaway across his body with Rajon Rondo draped over him:

The shot wasn’t necessarily impossible. It’s that Luka had the audacity to even attempt it in the first place. A two-for-one is essentially a free shot for the offense; JJ Redick called this one the “freest” shot he had ever seen.

Luka always plays with that kind of confidence. Some might call it arrogance. It didn’t matter that he was in the middle of a tight playoff series. He looked like he might as well have been putting up circus shots after practice. Only a player as accomplished as Luka would expect some of the shots that he takes to go in. Ask him about his early success in the NBA and his answer will always come back to how long he has been a pro. He signed his first contract with Real Madrid at 13, made their senior team at 16, was the best player in Europe at 18, and earned first-team All-NBA at 20. Doncic has succeeded his entire career. Until now.

The Clippers eliminated the Mavs in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season with a 126-111 victory in Game 7 on Sunday. It was the first win for the home team in a wild series with dramatic swings of momentum. Luka was even better than he was last time around, when he made his grand debut on the playoff stage with an overtime buzzer-beater. His numbers don’t even seem real: 35.7 points on 49.0 percent shooting, 10.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds per game. There was nothing that Los Angeles could do to stop him for most of the series. He orchestrated the Dallas offense every time down the floor, almost always creating a high-percentage shot for himself or one of his teammates.

The incredible part is that there may not be a defense in the NBA better suited to guarding him. The Clippers have two elite perimeter defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as waves of long and switchable wings around them in Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, and Terance Mann. But it doesn’t matter how many good defenders are on the floor. Luka needs only one weak link to attack, regardless of position. He ran both smaller guards like Patrick Beverley and slower big men like Ivica Zubac off the floor.

Doncic is the closest thing we have seen to a prime LeBron James on offense. Both are supersized point guards who double as one of the best scorers and passers in the league. They use the pick-and-roll to play like seek-and-destroy submarines. They can always find the mismatch, as well as the open man once the defense sends help.

The difference comes in how they attack. Prime LeBron was one of the best athletes in NBA history, with an awe-inspiring combination of size, speed, and leaping ability. Luka makes up for what he lacks in those categories with incredible shotmaking and touch. He shot 57.0 percent from 2-point range over the last two seasons, the type of efficiency usually seen from big men who catch lobs at the rim, not guards who create most of their own offense.

Three things happened in the Clippers series that pushed him to an even higher level. The first actually began in the last week of the regular season, when the Mavs inserted Tim Hardaway Jr. into the starting lineup for Josh Richardson. The latter had been acquired to help their defense, but couldn’t space the floor for Luka, allowing defenses to overload against him. Doncic had a net rating of plus-0.3 with Richardson in the regular season and plus-8.9 without him. Replacing him with a shooter like Hardaway opened up the floodgates for the Dallas offense.

The second is that Luka got hot from deep. He has always been a good-but-not-great outside shooter, largely because of the difficulty of his attempts. But he shot 41 percent from 3 against the Clippers, a huge improvement on his mark (35.0 percent) from the regular season.

He also shot incredibly well from midrange, a weapon that he didn’t have in his game last season. Luka was 25-for-47 (53.2 percent) on shots between 10 and 19 feet from the rim against Los Angeles, compared to only 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) when he faced them in the bubble. He pulled up when bigger defenders sagged off him, and posted up smaller defenders at will. His ability to score from every area of the floor is why Zubac, who was surprisingly effective against him on switches last season, became unplayable this time around.

What Doncic did to the Clippers was the closest thing to a one-man offense you will ever see in the playoffs. He had the most total points either scored or assisted (77) in a Game 7, as well as the highest percentage of his team’s baskets (84) in any playoff game in Game 5. No. 2? LeBron (81 percent) in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against Golden State in 2015, when he was without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and nearly won a title single-handedly.

But there are downsides to being a one-man offense. Basketball is a zero-sum game. There are only so many points, rebounds, and assists to go around. The more Luka gets, the fewer there are for everyone else. He’s so good that he inevitably turns the players around him into bystanders. That was always LeBron’s issue, too. It never made sense for him to give up control of the offense, even for a moment.

There have been rumblings all season in Dallas about the strained relationship between Luka and Kristaps Porzingis. Mavs owner Mark Cuban even acknowledged them in an interview. Playing in such a Luka-centric offense can be difficult for a former All-Star like Porzingis. The initial idea when the Mavs traded for him was that he would be the 1B to Luka’s 1A. But Porzingis’s average time of possession was a sixth of Luka’s during the regular season. He became more like a fourth or fifth option because Luka was options 1, 2, and 3.

The counterpoint to his frustration is that Porzingis hasn’t been good enough to justify a bigger role in the offense. He has never seemed healthy after returning from offseason knee surgery, a decline that has been glaring on both ends of the floor. Taking the ball out of Luka’s hands to allow Porzingis to post up and isolate from the mid-post doesn’t make a ton of sense. But it’s also a vicious cycle. The more that Porzingis is used as a spot-up shooter, the less rhythm he has in the rare chances that he does get to create his own offense.

Basketball is a rhythm game. Most players need to touch the ball and be involved in the offense to feel comfortable. That becomes difficult when one player dribbles it into the ground on every possession. Talent isn’t the only reason that Luka is putting up historic individual numbers. He’s in a league of his own when it comes to dominating the ball in the playoffs:

Hold, Please

Player Average time of possession (minutes) Touches Average seconds per touch
Player Average time of possession (minutes) Touches Average seconds per touch
Luka Doncic 11.7 99.2 6.86
Trae Young 9.6 86.8 6.63
Damian Lillard 9.3 89.7 6.24
Ja Morant 9.3 86.4 6.44
Russell Westbrook 8.1 95.2 5.1

NBA Advanced Stats has been tracking average time of possession going back to the 2013-14 season. The only two players to average more than 11 minutes per game in the playoffs are Luka in 2021 and Russell Wesbrook in 2017, his MVP season and first without Kevin Durant.

The dispute between Luka and Porzingis sounds similar to what happened multiple times with James Harden in Houston. Harden, like Luka, was a one-man offense who shattered NBA records in eight seasons with the Rockets. But the front office could never find a long-term costar. Everyone they brought in eventually asked out. Dwight Howard lasted three seasons. Chris Paul lasted two. Westbrook lasted one. There were valid reasons for each to be relegated in the offense, just like there are for Porzingis. Howard was too unskilled. Paul was slowing down. Westbrook was too inefficient. None were anywhere as good as Harden. But that didn’t make it any easier for them to take a back seat.

All three had spent their whole lives being the centerpieces of an offense. It’s hard to give that up, especially on a team that doesn’t win a title. Sacrifice has to be a two-way road. You have to give to get.

That’s what separates LeBron from everyone who has tried to follow his path. Playing with LeBron was almost a guarantee of a trip to the NBA Finals, if not a title; but prime LeBron could guard players at all five positions, protect the rim, and quarterback the defense. He was more than a one-man offense. He was a one-man team. All a front office had to do with LeBron was surround him with shooters to space the floor for him. Luka needs more versatile players around him who can both shoot and defend at a high level.

It goes back to the problem with Hardaway and Richardson. The Mavs acquired the latter in a draft-night deal for Seth Curry to improve their defense. It didn’t work out because Richardson shot only 33 percent from 3 as he struggled after contracting COVID-19 and lost confidence. But the need he was brought in to address was real. Dallas spent huge chunks of games 5, 6, and 7 playing zone defense in a doomed attempt to slow down the Clippers. They couldn’t guard them in man. The same problem would have reared its head if they had advanced to face the Jazz in the second round. Dallas needs someone who has Hardaway’s offense and Richardson’s defense in one package. But those players are few and far between in the league.

The more likely scenario is that the Mavs will bring most of their team back next season. They had been hoarding cap space for this summer to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo, and there’s not much of a Plan B available now that he signed an extension with the Bucks. Dallas might be better off re-signing Hardaway, a free agent who made himself a lot of money by averaging 17.0 points per game against the Clippers, rather than chasing an upgrade that isn’t there. The only other avenue to improve the team is trading Porzingis. But moving him will be difficult considering his lengthy contract, injury history, and struggles in Dallas.

They may have no choice but to try and make it work with Porzingis. Dallas has never been much of a free agent destination. There’s no guarantee that Luka will change that. He has to convince another star to want to play with him. And that means giving up some control of the offense.

It wouldn’t be easy for him. The best version of Luka, the one that looks like the best player in the world on many nights, is in charge of everything. It’s not even selfish of him to not want to give that up. He has good reason to trust what he has been doing. The Mavs had the no. 1 offensive rating of all time last season before that record was broken this season. And he just put together a historically great first-round series against the Clippers.

There’s still plenty more for Luka to accomplish as an individual. He hasn’t won an MVP award, which is typically given to the player who posts the most outrageous stats. Luka has been a pro for a long time, but he’s still fairly early in the life cycle of an NBA superstar. The typical pattern is that they come into the league with boundless confidence in themselves and learn to play a more team-oriented game over time. Even if they start on a superteam, like Kobe Bryant, they still need a period of their career when they do everything, so they can push their game to the limit and see what happens.

That’s where Luka is right now. These are his young and wild years when he takes on the world by himself. There are more mountains to climb, more stats to rack up, and more impossible shots to take. He’s not ready to take a step back. But the Mavs won’t move forward until he does.