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LeBron and Luka Have What They Need to Succeed After the All-Star Break

The Lakers didn’t strike gold with Anthony Davis, but their deadline moves gave them a proven structure around James. The Mavs, on the other hand, handed the reins to their Wonder Boy. Will their plans work?

LeBron James and Luca Doncic Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA may need All-Star Weekend just to recover from the trade deadline. Fifty-seven players were traded in the week before the deadline, the most ever over that time period, and the one everyone was talking about (Anthony Davis to the Lakers) didn’t even happen. With so much going on, some important story lines slipped under the radar. Here are two that could have big consequences, both now and down the road:

The Lakers are struggling, but at least they look like a LeBron-led team now.

The deadline wasn’t a complete bust. While the Lakers are still no closer to a resolution on the AD saga, they pulled off some smaller moves that could dramatically raise their ceiling. The two trades (Svi Mykhailiuk to the Pistons for Reggie Bullock, and Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala) give head coach Luke Walton the option to call an audible on L.A.’s galaxy-brain offseason scheme. Instead of being surrounded by ball-dominant players who can’t space the floor, LeBron now has the shooters to go back to the spread pick-and-roll formula that he mastered with the Cavs.

There’s no time to waste. The Lakers’ loss to the Hawks in their final game before the All-Star break dropped them to the no. 10 seed in the Western Conference with a 28-29 record and only 25 games left in the season. They are currently three games behind the Clippers for the no. 8 seed and two behind the ninth-place Kings. LeBron has been to eight straight NBA Finals. It will be DEFCON 1 if L.A. doesn’t get back into the playoff mix. There should be a lot of soul-searching over the next week. Walton may be coaching for his job.

The Lakers’ biggest problem is the one everyone anticipated coming into the season: they are no. 16 in 3-point attempts per game (30.5) and no. 26 in 3-point percentage (33.9). Bullock, a 3-and-D swingman straight out of central casting, and Muscala, a stretch big man, will instantly become the best two shooters on their roster. The former was having a career season with the Pistons, shooting 38.8 percent from 3 on 6.7 attempts per game, while the latter had carved out an important role for himself with the 76ers, shooting 34.2 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game.

The question for Walton is where to put them in the rotation. Bullock, who started and averaged 33 minutes in his first two games with the Lakers, is an easy fit next to LeBron: a volume 3-point shooter with the size (6-foot-7 and 205 pounds) and athleticism to match up with multiple positions on defense. They don’t have anyone else like him. L.A.’s other secondary options on the perimeter are either inconsistent shooters (Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lonzo Ball, and Lance Stephenson) or unwilling ones (Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram). The latter two might need to spend more time anchoring the second-unit offense and less time getting in the way of LeBron. The Lakers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Putting a roll man and three shooters around LeBron should still work.

Finding room for Muscala means taking one of their two centers (JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler) out of the rotation, since his shooting ability will be most valuable in lineups without another traditional big man. Splitting the load between McGee and Chandler has allowed both to stay fresh over the course of the season, but Walton needs to ride his best players down the stretch. Choosing between the two shouldn’t be hard: The Lakers have been far more effective with Chandler (plus-3.6 in 724 minutes) than McGee (minus-4.0 in 1,083 minutes), even though the latter has played more often with LeBron.

There are a lot of players in Los Angeles who need to sacrifice. It all comes back to Walton. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson may not have given him the easiest roster to manage, but he still needs to play his best possible lineups. Tyronn Lue, for as much grief as he received in Cleveland, always pressed the right buttons in the playoffs. It wasn’t quite as simple as letting LeBron do everything. Lue closed out each of the Cavs’ three series in last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs with a different lineup. Not only was he able to quickly identify the correct matchups to exploit against three opponents, but he had the credibility in the locker room to get everyone to buy into a constantly shifting series of roles. There’s no reason to keep Walton around if he can’t do both.

The stakes are too high. The Lakers, for as hapless as they have looked at times over the past few months, still have reason for optimism. They are four games out of the no. 6 seed, and they will be dangerous if they can get into the non-Warriors side of the playoff bracket. No one else in the West should scare LeBron, and a lot can happen before the conference finals. Steph Curry has been seriously injured in two of the past four postseasons. A team with enough shooters around LeBron always has a chance. It isn’t too late to unleash him.

Dallas is putting all its eggs in Luka Doncic’s basket.

The Mavs will be essentially holding open tryouts around their rookie sensation for the next two months. They remade their team at the deadline, shipping out their other four starters from opening night (Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, and DeAndre Jordan) in two deals. The moves were both long-term: acquiring a second star (Kristaps Porzingis) to pair with Doncic and opening up enough salary cap space to chase a third this summer. The franchise is in a holding pattern until then, since Porzingis, who is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last February, has been ruled out for the rest of the season. With so much in flux, there are plenty of opportunities available in the meantime for the players left on the roster.

It all starts with Doncic, a 19-year-old who has as much offensive responsibility as any player in the league. According to the tracking numbers at NBA.com/Stats, he has averaged 100 touches in four games since the deadline, second most in that span behind Nikola Jokic. No other Dallas player is averaging even 50. It’s a far cry from the more balanced offense the Mavs had before the trades, with Doncic averaging 78.3 touches per game, Smith right behind him at 71.4, and two others (Barnes and backup point guard J.J. Barea, who tore his Achilles in January) in the upper 50s.

The on-court results have been mixed. The Mavs are 1-3 against a tough schedule (Bucks, Blazers, Rockets, and Heat), while Doncic is putting up numbers (21.5 points on 41.8 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game) in line with his season averages. The team is still searching for an identity beyond giving him the ball and getting out of the way. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle has already used his star rookie in 58 different lineup combinations, splitting him between the first and second units in an effort to jump-start the offense.

It’s a new challenge for Doncic, who spent the first part of the season trying to find a balance between establishing himself in the NBA and placating a locker room with competing agendas. Turning over the roster has clarified the pecking order in Dallas. Everyone is playing off Doncic. He can no longer pick his spots over the course of the game. He has to stay in attack mode while creating structure for the other four players on the floor. If someone is having an off night, Doncic has to find a way to get him going. There isn’t anyone else who can. If nothing else, this trial by fire should get a young player in peak condition.

The most established player in Doncic’s new-look supporting cast is Tim Hardaway Jr., who was packaged with Porzingis primarily so the Knicks could dump his contract, which has a player option for $18.9 million in the 2020-21 season. Hardaway, an athletic 6-foot-7 slasher, makes sense next to Doncic, but the two are still figuring out how to play together. He is averaging 15.6 points on 40.3 percent shooting and 1.8 assists per game in Dallas. Hardaway will always be a fairly one-dimensional scorer. The hope is that playing off Doncic will at least allow him to score efficiently.

Almost everyone else in the rotation is either a young player trying to stick in the league or an older one with one foot out the door. The Mavs are trying to unearth a few cheap contributors out of a motley group: Dorian Finney-Smith, a 6-foot-8 wing who needs to be a more consistent shooter to become a 3-and-D player; Jalen Brunson, the reigning Naismith Player of the Year who was taken with the no. 33 overall pick in this year’s draft; Justin Jackson, a second-year swingman from North Carolina whom the Mavs acquired for Barnes; Maxi Kleber, an athletic 26-year-old big man from Dirk Nowitzki’s hometown of Wurzburg; and Trey Burke, a former lottery pick who has showed moments of brilliance in his second NBA stint.

There isn’t much downside for Dallas. If the team has an extended skid over the next few months, it will have a better chance of keeping its first-round pick, which is only top-five protected. No matter what happens, this will be an important step in the basketball education of Doncic. He has never been in a situation like this before. He spent his teenage years playing for Real Madrid, one of the most storied clubs in Europe. Teams like that don’t have youth movements. Doncic has always been the lone young player on older teams with the talent to contend for championships, without the opportunity to lead a team made up of players his own age or to get any offensive freedom. This is the closest he will ever get to playing college basketball.