Back in 2008, a 23-year-old LeBron James carried an extremely shallow Cavs team into the second round only to not get much help against the Celtics. He tallied 45 points, six assists, five rebounds, and two steals in Game 7, only to fall short. That series has been on my mind this month while watching 23-year-old Luka Doncic lead the Mavericks. History didn’t exactly repeat itself 14 years later. The Luka Mavs had never made it past the first round until this season. And rather than lose in the second round, they defeated a 64-win team with a Game 7 win over the Suns. But now in the Western Conference finals, the Warriors have exposed their flaws with a whirling motion offense that gets to the rim at will and a defense that bothers Doncic enough to limit his scoring efficiency. The Mavericks are trailing 3-0. It appears this is where their season will end.
“The first two quarters, I played very bad. That’s on me,” said Doncic, who finished with 40 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists in Sunday’s 109-100 defeat. “I’m still learning. I think after this season is done, whenever we are, I’m going to look back and learn a lot of things. It’s my first time in the conference finals in the NBA. I’m 23, man. I’m still learning a lot.”
Luka has the mind and talents of LeBron, but his body needs to catch up. It will be clear on Day 1 of training camp this fall whether Doncic worked hard on his body this summer to get into the best shape of his life.
It’s encouraging to hear Doncic openly blame himself rather than point the finger. That statement shows a willingness to take accountability, be introspective, and improve weaknesses. Next, he’ll need to act on it. Mostly, Luka needs to improve enough defensively so he’s not a liability when targeted, which Golden State has exploited with repeated success.
Second Spectrum says Doncic has been brought into the pick-and-roll as a screen defender 21.6 times per game this postseason. Sometimes he needs to hedge the screen, sometimes he needs to switch. The Jazz scored a pedestrian 0.89 points per chance in the first round when bringing Doncic into the pick-and-roll. But their weapons weren’t good enough to exploit him like the Suns began to do in the second round. And now the vaunted Warriors are shredding Doncic, scoring 1.16 points per chance when he is involved as the screen defender.
As great as Doncic is on offense—and he’s great, averaging 32.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists in his 26-game postseason career—the Mavs can’t hide him on defense in the playoffs. He’ll need to round out his game to be the best player on the last team standing.
It’s scary to even imagine what Ripped Luka would perform like. If he does his job this summer, then Jason Kidd, Nico Harrison, and Mark Cuban need to be ready to do theirs to compete for championships. Let’s take a look at a critical offseason ahead in Dallas.
What the Mavericks Are Missing
Dwight Powell, the Mavericks’ starting center, and Maxi Kleber, a backup forward turned big by necessity, have been unable to stop Golden State from attacking the basket. Dallas absolutely needs an upgrade at center.
Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson are key figures for the Mavs’ offense, but they don’t solve the team’s problems at the rim. And neither of them are as good as the second-best player on the other conference finals teams (or many other teams across the league for that matter). The Mavs also need a better second-best player.
Reggie Bullock and Kleber, two key role players, were a combined 0-for-15 from the floor in Game 3. Add in Dorian Finney-Smith, a good-but-not-great shooter, and the Mavericks lack consistent marksmen around Luka. Bullock and DFS are playing 40-plus minutes every night, chasing around Golden State’s scoring threats. The Mavs could also use more help on the wing.
That’s a lot of holes to address, but the pressure is on the Mavericks to come through. After LeBron’s age-23 season, Cleveland upgraded at point guard from Boobie Gibson to Mo Williams. But that wasn’t enough against Orlando in the playoffs. The following year, new imports like Shaq and Antawn Jamison weren’t enough to get over the hump either. LeBron then took his talents to South Beach. If Dallas can’t build a better contender, there’s the threat that Luka will one day leave too.
Upgrading the center position, finding wings, and hopefully landing a better second star behind Doncic is a lot to ask in one offseason. Odds are, it’ll be a multiyear project for the Mavericks. But this team is in good shape, as evidenced by its conference finals run. The bones of a title team are there.
Doncic is about to enter the first year of a five-year max contract extension, and his supporting cast is better than what LeBron had at this point. But Dallas doesn’t want to sweat the possibility of Luka leaving in a few years. So what can the Mavs do?
Should the Mavs Pursue Gobert?
Many NBA fans don’t like Rudy Gobert. I get it. But Dallas should think about giving up what it takes to get him. Two firsts? Three firsts … with one protected? Negotiate with me on that if you wish, but sign me up if the only other pieces involved are salary-fillers (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Davis Bertans) and maybe an expendable young player (Josh Green).
Love him or not, Gobert is the NBA’s best interior defender. Over the past five seasons including the playoffs, Second Spectrum says only 42 players have defended at least 5,000 pick-and-rolls. Gobert has defended the second most behind Nikola Jokic. But Gobert is allowing only 0.88 points per pick-and-roll, by far the best in the NBA. No one else is under 0.9. The Mavs shouldn’t settle for a knock-off. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is precisely what they need.
Finney-Smith, Kleber, and Bullock would be the best wing support Gobert’s had in his career. If Doncic can improve defensively, there truly wouldn’t be any player to target. Even if Gobert got pulled to the perimeter on a switch, all of those players have the size to help inside. The Mavs could be massive and provide Doncic with the best screener and lob threat he’s ever played with.
They should at least find out whether the price is right for Gobert. And it might not be. Maybe the Jazz get a better offer, or decide to keep their All-Star center. Maybe the Mavs decide Gobert is too expensive. Gobert will make $42.4 million annually over the next four seasons. There are cheaper options available, which would allow Dallas to spend more elsewhere.
Jusuf Nurkic makes sense as a target in a sign-and-trade with Portland. How about Deandre Ayton? Or maybe Ayton’s backup, JaVale McGee, at a much lower cost? I’d love to see Mo Bamba with Doncic. Younger options like Isaiah Hartenstein or Mitchell Robinson probably will get paid more than the taxpayer midlevel exception, but trades are always possible. Dallas has also always fancied Atlanta’s John Collins. Is there a price Indiana would accept for Myles Turner? There are a number of names that make sense to target.
But the Mavs don’t have a ton of assets to work with. They have a taxpayer midlevel exception worth $6.4 million. They also have a $10.9 million trade exception from the Josh Richardson deal. A big could fit into that. Or perhaps a wing making less than that, such as Alec Burks or Royce O’Neale, could be absorbed. There’s no shortage of options to consider.
The Brunson Dilemma
Dallas’s other big story line this summer: Jalen Brunson will be an unrestricted free agent. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported last month that Brunson could receive $20 million to $25 million annually, which is around the same ballpark that I’m hearing too. MacMahon also said the Knicks and Pistons are expected to pursue him, and why wouldn’t they? Brunson has done nothing but raise his stock during the playoffs, averaging 22.7 points, 3.6 assists, and only 1.2 turnovers. Everything that worked during the regular season is translating now.
Teams around the league wonder what he could do with even higher usage. Brunson is running only 20.0 pick-and-rolls per game in the postseason (compared to 46.5 for Luka). But Brunson has performed well, generating 1.03 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. When he isolates, he’s generating an excellent 1.1 points per chance in the postseason. All it takes is one team to overpay, and Brunson is a pretty good guy to bet on.
Re-signing Brunson might be in the Mavs’ best interest. He’s a terrific player, and he embraces a secondary role behind Doncic while still making significant contributions. Brunson is also just 25 years old, so he’s still growing into himself as a player. But he’s also only 6-foot-1, and as mentioned before, he isn’t a stopper on defense.
MacMahon reported that the Mavs will not consider any sign-and-trade scenarios involving Brunson. But considering Brunson’s sustained play and increased price tag, they might have to consider them. But that’s a two-way street. Why not pursue Zach LaVine, another unrestricted free agent? A double sign-and-trade isn’t out of the question if he says he wants to go to Dallas, and if Chicago wants to replace him rather than risk losing him for nothing.
LaVine is a lethal on-ball scorer, and also a far better off-ball threat than Brunson. He’s a constant lob threat and a near 40 percent shooter from 3 who can hit shots off movement or off the dribble. The only problem is LaVine may want a bigger role after sharing the rock with DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, not a smaller one.
For now, that’s fantasyland stuff anyway. Brunson walking for nothing is the absolute worst-case scenario. There’s no guarantee he’ll want to stay if he’s tempted by a bigger role on another playoff team.
The Mavs need to take swings. They need to create as many pathways to the Finals as possible because ultimately Brunson is in control of his own destiny as an unrestricted free agent.
What’s at Stake
The Mavs making the West finals is a major step forward for the franchise. But Luka alone doesn’t guarantee future success. The Mavs might run into the Warriors in an earlier round next season. The Suns could reload. So could the Lakers, for that matter. What if Zion Williamson gets healthy and the Pelicans turn into a force? The Mavs aren’t the only team trying to get better this summer.
The NBA is a lot deeper now than it was at the time LeBron was dragging those Cavaliers teams through the East playoffs. There are more great players nowadays. The bar is higher to sustain success, which speaks to the difference between Golden State and the rest of the West. The Warriors are on the verge of making their sixth NBA Finals in the past 10 years. Steph, Klay, and Draymond remain the core. But the Warriors have adapted, tweaking the supporting cast and infusing the roster with youth.
Golden State owner Joe Lacob might’ve been right about the Warriors being light-years ahead. The question now is how everyone else can close the gap. The Mavericks aren’t there yet, and Luka’s status only heightens the pressure to construct the ideal roster. Young LeBron showed Cleveland what happens when a team doesn’t. But things could be worse. Luka is a potential MVP on a Hall of Fame trajectory signed for five more years, still yet to reach his prime.