Unicorns have roamed the NBA for years, stretching our imaginations with their unique blend of size, skill, and athleticism. But after waiting and wondering what Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns could become, the blessing is now ready to take over the league. As part of our 2019-20 NBA season preview, we’re taking a long, hard look at the impact of the six generational bigs. This is the Year of the Unicorn.
“Drinking early this weekend?” That’s what my Uber driver asked as she dropped me off at Community Beer Company in Dallas on a Friday morning in October. I had to explain myself: No beer would be consumed by me. It just so happens that you have to walk through a brewery entrance to get to the Dallas Mavericks practice facility, where I had some meetings that day. She laughed and said, “The Mavs? Oh. My son loves Luka.” As I would soon find out, so does everyone in Dallas, from the fans drinking beer inside the taproom to the employees working down the hallway at the Mavericks headquarters.
“We are as excited as we were 20 years ago. The hope is that over time this builds into a 2011-type run,” Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said from his office. A big American flag hangs behind his desk, but when it comes to looking for good players in far-off places, the Mavericks are well traveled. Today, it’s Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis; 20 years ago, it was Dirk Nowitzki, then a 21-year-old German entering his second NBA season. Dirk’s emergence in the 1999-00 season injected hope into a franchise with the NBA’s second-worst record in the 1990s. Since that year, the Mavs have the second-best record, have made many deep playoff runs, and in 2011, finally won a title.
Now, Dallas is following a blueprint similar to the one it followed with Dirk and Steve Nash at the turn of the century, or Dirk and Jason Kidd from 2007 through 2012. Doncic and Porzingis alone give the Mavs a shot to be good now, and someday, a chance to be special. If you’re looking for the next young team to enter the championship chase, look no further than the Mavericks.
Dirk’s jersey no longer hangs in the locker room, but soon it will hang in the rafters. Throughout his influential 21-year career, Nowitzki helped shape the league by making it cool for tall guys to shoot 3s, and changed the perception that international players would wilt in the face of the NBA’s physicality. It’s appropriate the baton was handed to a pair of European stars in Doncic, born in Slovenia, and Porzingis, who hails from Latvia.
Expectations are high in Dallas, but before Nowitzki won a championship, the Mavs went through heartbreaker after heartbreaker. Doncic and Porzingis “haven’t been through that, yet the light shines white-hot on the both of them,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said at the team’s 2019-20 media day. “We got to help them navigate through all that. It’s a challenging thing. It takes love. It takes understanding. It takes empathy.”
No, Carlisle has not been body-snatched by a self-care guru, he’s just adapting to a new generation of players. “Rick is a lot more touchy-feely … just a lot lower key,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told me. “He’s always demanding and detail oriented, but Rick is smart. He recognizes where the Mavs are in our life cycle. We’re the Gen Z Mavs.”
Dallas’s core is young, so patience is required. Doncic is only 20 and entering his second season. Porzingis is 24 and the last time he played competitive basketball, LeBron James was a Cavalier and Kawhi Leonard was a Spur. Porzingis returns to the court this season following time away from the game. Porzingis was traded from the Knicks to the Mavericks in January. In March, a woman reported to the New York Police Department that Porzingis raped her in February 2018. The department’s Special Victims Division is investigating the case, and Porzingis has not been charged with a crime. The player’s legal representative has said the account is untrue and is part of an extortion attempt that, according to the lawyer, was being investigated by the FBI. In late March, Cuban told the New York Post, “We have been instructed by federal authorities not to comment.” Since then there has been no public comment by Porzingis or Mavericks officials on the matter.
The Mavs aren’t ready to compete against the pair of teams in Los Angeles (headlined, respectively, by LeBron and Kawhi), but they feel they’re at least ready to speak up in the Western Conference playoff conversation. Dallas has paired a 6-foot-7 playmaking savant who averaged 21-8-6 as a rookie with a 7-foot-3 shot blocker who can launch 3s from anywhere and averaged 23 points when he was last healthy. And the roster is deep and full of versatile bigs who can shoot 3s, switchable wings, and guards of different styles. “It’s a step-by-step process,” Nelson said. “We know what we’re up against in the West, but we’re all internally hoping for the playoffs.”
A collegiate vibe surrounds the Mavs. You can feel it after practices when Luka and Porzingis compete in laughter-filled shoot-outs against Dwight Powell and Justin Jackson. You can feel it with every word Boban Marjanovic speaks. It’s on sports radio and message boards. It’s on billboards plastered to the sides of freeways and high on buildings. In downtown Dallas, there’s a massive image of Doncic with spotlights shining from the top and bottom that keep him visible at all hours. At the top, it reads “HALLELUKA!” The Mavs themselves have a heartwarming affection for Doncic, too. After all, he’s been their basketball crush for many years now.
Nelson described scouting Luka as “love at first sight,” just like when he first saw Dirk at the Nike Hoop Summit in 1998. Cuban said the Mavericks knew two years before picking Doncic that they wanted him, but the only question was whether they’d ever be in a position to get him. So the Mavs tanked the 2017-18 season and Cuban got fined $600,000 after publicly admitting losing was their best option. “We worked hard to try and put ourselves in position,” Cuban said. “It was expensive for me.” After the lottery, Dallas was left with the fifth pick. They were crushed. Nelson never thought there’d be a way to trade up for Doncic. But they eventually did, by sending the fifth pick (Trae Young) and a future first (which would eventually become Duke forward Cam Reddish) to Atlanta. “When we were knocked down a couple spots in the lottery, I was absolutely sick,” Nelson said. “No disrespect to anyone else, it’s not that we wouldn’t have been happy, but guys that are 6-foot-7 with those skills are special.”
The Mavericks sacrificed to land Doncic because of the player he can become. “What’s Luka’s gift?” Nelson asked me. I said playmaking. “That’s why we’re so excited about him,” he continued. “The ability to make his teammates better is not only his greatest strength but also where he gets his greatest joy.” Nelson said Doncic has DNA like Kidd or Magic Johnson because of his blend of vision and mind-set. Doncic is a transcendent playmaker who manipulates defenders with his eyes and body, and then delivers passes in every direction all over the court with precision. There’s a Larry Bird–like quality to him: He’s not overly athletic, but his passing skills and instincts are already elite and could someday reach an all-time level.
Having a target like Porzingis can help Doncic reach his potential. Doncic will serve as the primary shot creator, and Porzingis as the finisher who stabilizes the defense. “They complement each other,” Carlisle said at media day. “Both of these guys can create problems on their own. When you get them together, we feel like they can create even bigger problems for opponents.”
Those problems will be created using the pick-and-roll: Carlisle’s offenses regularly rank near the top of the league in pick-and-roll frequency. Last season, Doncic was throwing lobs to Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber—both high-level finishers on the roll—and now KP can join in. Porzingis will be a major alley-oop threat whether he’s finishing with loud slams or with volleyball touch tap-ins.
Doncic puts passes where only his intended target can get it. Notice above how Doncic floats the ball, giving Porzingis time to elevate for the finish. In the past, Porzingis might not finish here. But during his time away he added 16 pounds of muscle, according to Mavs director of athletic performance Jeremy Holsopple, which should help him absorb bumps like the one here to score through contact.
Of course, Porzingis’s bread and butter is, and will always be, his jumper. Ever since he was a teenager playing for Sevilla, he’s been an effective shooter off movement, not just from a standstill. In the NBA, he’s hit a career 37.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and his 80.4 percent from the line is a positive indicator for his jumper. So far in the preseason, KP is clearly shaking off nearly two years of rust, but at least he’s receiving open looks.
All three of Porzingis’s 3s clank off the rim in the clips above, but who cares? He’s open, and Doncic’s passes are mouthwatering. There’s a behind-the-back pass, an over-the-head pass, and a leaning dart pass, all straight into Porzingis’s shot pocket. If there’s any doubt about KP’s shooting ability, watch this after-timeout play that Carlisle called:
Porzingis has notoriously gotten off to fast starts, and then seen his production fade fast through his first three NBA seasons because of fatigue and nagging injuries, particularly to his left leg. Playing with Doncic should help maintain his scoring efficiency with easier looks and simply less responsibility. “No disrespect to the Knicks, but KP hasn’t had a real point guard,” Cuban said. Porzingis’s three best point guards in New York were arguably Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, and Derrick Rose. Oof. What an upgrade in Dallas.
Doncic’s rookie year in Dallas was smoother than Porzingis’s time in New York. Porzingis got booed on draft night as an unknown to many Knicks fans fed up with a franchise that hadn’t won for decades. While with the Knicks, he had to deal with James Dolan, Phil Jackson, four different head coaches, and a deteriorating hero-ball aficionado in Carmelo Anthony. Meanwhile, Doncic has been the golden boy ever since he signed his first professional contract with Real Madrid at just 13 years old. He had the benefit of being drafted to an organization with stability and continuity, and a living legend in Dirk ready to teach him the Force.
Doncic has long been the knight in shining armor. The comparisons to Bird or Magic or Kidd don’t really affect him. “I had pressure since I was 15, so I don’t care about pressure,” he told me after a practice. It shows on the court: Doncic posted an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent in clutch situations, which ranks seventh best in the NBA for players to attempt at least 25 shots in the final three minutes. Doncic makes his team better not just with his passing, but his timely scoring.
He can attack the rim and unleash nifty floaters and layups, or pull up or step back like in the clips above. Doncic shot 31.3 percent on 380 dribble-jumper 3s last season—only James Harden, Kemba Walker, and Damian Lillard attempted more—but should develop into a better shooter. Carlisle said that Doncic worked hard on his shot this summer. When I asked Doncic about what he did, he said it was mostly about consistency, though one tweak was made to his form: Last season, he flared his right hand away from his body as he’d release the ball. So he worked on having his fingers follow through and down to create a straighter release that led to even better results. Doncic shot 37.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and a surprisingly low 71.3 percent from the line.
Better mechanics should help, too. So should improved conditioning. This summer he got a dietician and a chef, and according to Cuban, “his girlfriend was on him about it.” Doncic has more muscle definition now; cutting pasta from his diet every day seemed to have helped. In the same way that Doncic’s presence will take pressure off KP, the inverse is true. Luka won’t need to always create shots now that he has Porzingis.
Shot creation wasn’t KP’s forte before entering the league, but he’s gotten much better. In the clip above, he used a tight crossover to create space against Andre Drummond. Porzingis says he works to perfect one- and two-dribble pull-ups, and any improvement since the last time we saw him would raise his ceiling. Porzingis was once dubbed a “unicorn,” but bigs with perimeter skills are common today; the differentiator at the position is the ability to generate shots off the dribble.
The post still has value though, especially as a playmaking hub. The Mavs will run a lot of pick-and-roll, which will naturally lead to a lot of defenses switching screens. Mismatches will occur when putting a bigger, slower dude on Luka. There’s no question Luka can roast them, but Kristaps will need to beat the smaller guys, too. For years, Nowitzki made defenses pay with moves to the rim or shots over the top with his one-legged fadeaway.
KP has gotten better on the post, but opponents still succeeded when putting smaller players on him to start possessions. I asked Porzingis whether he’s dedicated time to improving the post. “Earlier in my career, smaller guys like Marcus Smart would get me off balance,” Porzingis said. “But now I feel comfortable playing against a smaller guy. A lot of times what works is a quick move with one bump or just turn into his face and shoot over him. I’ve gotten a lot better at reading those situations. It’s a lot of film study, but also just playing, knowing how to play against a smaller guy instead of a bigger guy.”
Porzingis hasn’t had a possession on a smaller player yet, but the importance of his post potency was on display against Blake Griffin.
It’s late in the clock, so the Pistons doubled but Porzingis immediately recognized there was enough time to kick the ball out to Doncic. If KP is a post threat worthy of attention, the Mavs will be significantly more difficult to defend in the half court since they’ll be able to pick the best matchup available to attack.
Doncic spots up from outer space in the last clip, just like Porzingis was in prior attempts above. That’s all by design, as Cuban explained to me. “See these blue lines?” Cuban asked. He was pointing at the two lines behind the traditional 23.75-foot 3-point arc: one 28 feet from the rim, and another two feet farther back. Here’s what they look like:
There are also four blue squares, two at the wings and two in the corners. These are meant to signify where they want their players spacing the floor as part of their five-out offensive lineups. “Seven years ago, we tried to show Dirk and Vince [Carter] that they shot better two feet behind the line than they did on the line because nobody was guarding them,” Cuban said. “Now we’re forcing guys to do it. And we actually track all of it, both guarded and unguarded. If you’re shooting back at 30 feet, all the space that’s created, you can’t guard all the way out there. Even if it’s Boban.”
Yes. Even Boban Marjanovic, the star of John Wick 3, will shoot 3s. At media day, Boban was asked about the idea of him launching from downtown and said, “When I hear that news, I was like ‘Yeahhhhhhhh.’ Maybe I’m the best shooter. You never know.” The Mavs tried the second-highest share of 3s last season with 42.2 percent of their shots coming from beyond the arc. The number should rise for a seventh consecutive year. “We’ll be a better shooting team. We’ll be a better spacing team,” Cuban said. “While some people were asking, ‘Can they compete for playoffs?’ I’m like, ‘If we stay healthy, we’ll do more than just compete for a playoff spot.’”
Cuban might be too high on his own team, but Dallas has two rising stars, plays an analytics-happy style, and one of the absolute best X’s and O’s coaches in the league. They also have the personnel to play different styles. They can utilize jumbo-sized lineups with a KP–Kleber frontcourt, Dorian Finney-Smith at wing, and two jumbo guards in Delon Wright and Luka. Or they can go small with Powell at the 5, Finney-Smith, Doncic, and two guards in Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson. Dallas can match up against any team, and maybe even dictate matchups.
Maybe Dallas doesn’t have the role players of a Raptors or Clippers, but if the Mavs can improve this season, don’t be surprised if “Brunson” or “Kleber” gain some notoriety around the league. Nelson went as far to say he would “love for this to be the core moving forward,” which is exactly what he should say to a media member. But the Mavs did sign most of these players to contracts through the 2022-23 season. They are enamored of their current group.
One obvious thing these players share: the ability to shoot. “In the old days, if a big couldn’t shoot it, it was like, ‘OK, at least he’s a great defender, and this and that,’” Nelson said. “Now you have to look real hard at guys that can’t shoot, and it’s almost to the point where those guys are almost not draftable.”
Dallas’s roster largely reflects Nelson’s comment. Gone are the days of Tyson Chandler throwing down lobs but unable to space the floor. Now, Powell and Kleber are emblematic of the changing nature of the position. “We have a great mix. Luka and KP are two amazing talents that can create different scenarios for us on offense,” Kleber said. “But obviously we can help them.” How exactly? Kleber can shoot 3s and roll to the rim, and on defense, he’s both an excellent shot blocker and perimeter defender. Defensive versatility is vital since Porzingis will stay closer to the rim, and Doncic is best served hiding against inferior threats.
Kleber will share minutes with Powell, who Porzingis told me is “an animal.” Powell isn’t as productive as a shooter or defender but he is one of the league’s best lob threats: He made 78.6 percent of his shots on rolls to the rim, per Synergy. If Powell and Kleber could do a fusion dance to combine their best traits, Dallas would have the perfect frontcourt partner for Porzingis. Both players are signed through 2022-23 for a combined $19.4 million annually. What a bargain.
Dallas could do better at wing. Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson are versatile, switchable defenders, but they aren’t consistent shooters. They will need to have hot shooting seasons for the Mavs to excel against top defenses, otherwise opponents will help off of the both of them. Dallas acquired shooting elsewhere though. Tim Hardaway Jr. is the inverse of Finney-Smith and Jackson as a limited defender but a microwave scorer. If he buys into his complementary role, he could end up being another player who takes shot creation pressure off of Doncic. Dallas actually has plenty of options in that department, though.
“When you have a 6-foot-7 ball handler, you can mix and match,” Nelson said. “You can go switchable or stretchable, so it depends on the emphasis, it depends on the opponent, it depends on how Rick wants to attack.” Last year, the Mavs drafted Brunson, a gritty, unselfish guard with savvy playmaking skill. This summer, Delon Wright and Seth Curry were added. Wright will start next to Doncic; he said after a practice that Carlisle wants him defending the opposing guards, but at 6-foot-5 and 183 pounds with long arms, he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the league. Then there’s Curry, an elite shooter who can serve as a spark plug off the bench.
“We have an opportunity to be very good. We have a lot of great talent,” Brunson said. “Luka and KP have a lot on their shoulders, but everyone else will have to step up and help those guys out.” For all he can do, it’s not ideal for Doncic to be the team’s sole source of shot creation. After the trade deadline, Doncic averaged 97.1 touches per game. That’s more than Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, and LeBron James. It was more than everyone—as a rookie! Many primary ball handlers, such as Westbrook, aren’t as effective off the ball. So it becomes necessary to keep the ball in their hands. That’s not the case with Doncic, so Nelson constructed a roster with multiple ball handlers to take the burden off Doncic, minimize any wear and tear, and allow Carlisle to get creative.
Doncic could be used as a screener, he could take pick-and-pop for 3s and attack off the dribble, or he could even roll to the rim to make use of his greatest gift: playmaking. Nelson said in the long term, he sees a world in which Doncic is used more like the Warriors use Draymond Green. Makes sense. Luka is large, smart, and can pick apart defenses with the pass. I asked Doncic about whether this role would work for him and he smiled as he said, “You gotta ask coach. He makes decisions.” The better person to ask is Nelson since he configures the roster, and the proper personnel is required to make that vision a reality.
What Dallas needs is the Splash Brothers—just one would suffice. Maybe even a distant cousin. But Dallas doesn’t have anyone who can even approach the floor-stretching brilliance of Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. Maybe Carlisle will experiment by utilizing Steph’s brother. Dallas’s next big acquisition should be a perimeter-oriented player who can unlock a new dimension of Doncic.
Nelson said the goal this year is to make the playoffs, then draft a player in 2020 and take the next step on the court, and then add more talent in 2021 when they could create tens of millions of cap space. “It’s a good draft in 2020, and then we have [free agency] the following year, so I think you can see a nice little … ” Nelson said as his voice trailed off and he gestured with his hands as if he were building steps.
The Mavericks sent their 2021 and 2023 firsts to the Knicks for Porzingis, but they still own their firsts in every other year. The 2020 draft is rich with talent, and then they could create max cap space in 2021 to pursue a player like Bradley Beal or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even if the cap drops, they’ll still have enough to splurge on second-tier or third-tier free agents to build around their Big Two—that’s one of the big benefits of having your best player still on his rookie contract.
For now, the Mavericks are focused on their present. “You go through this transition and guys are excited for that to happen,” Cuban said. “The rise, right? The growth into becoming a winning team that can compete for a championship, that’s fun.” In the next two years, Doncic and Porzingis need to grow as leaders much like Nowitzki did many years ago. Dallas has organizational goals, and they aren’t shy about sharing them. “We liked the parade we had here in 2011,” Nelson said. “We want another one—well, everything but Dirk’s rendition of ‘We Are the Champions.’”