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What’s the Best Way to Build Around Luka Doncic?

The Mavericks head back into free agency with a wad of cash and a goal of bringing out the best in their budding star. Here’s what they should be looking for.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The rebuilding process in Dallas is over before it ever got going. Luka Doncic, who won the Rookie of the Year Award on Monday, wasn’t an ordinary rookie point guard. Though only 19 years old at the start of last season, Doncic thrived immediately in the NBA because of his years of experience playing professionally in Europe. As a result, Doncic is now one of the biggest bargains in the league: an All-Star-caliber player on a rookie contract for three more seasons. He is a basketball version of Patrick Mahomes II, a franchise player whose inexpensive contract gives his team flexibility in filling out its roster. The Mavs are trying to win now, and they can open enough cap room (about $36 million) to sign Kristaps Porzingis to a max extension and another player to a max contract. The question is this: What’s the best way to use all that money to bring out the best in Doncic?

Everything in Dallas starts with Luka, who became the face of the franchise once Dirk Nowitzki retired at the end of the 2018-19 season. There is only a handful of players in the world Doncic’s size (6-foot-7 and 218 pounds) with his skill and feel for the game. He was a one-man offense last season, averaging 21.2 points on 42.7 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game, with the highest usage rate (30.5) of any rookie in NBA history. The scary part is he should only get better.

Doncic can change both his body and his game in his 20s. Like many young Europeans, he hadn’t emphasized strength and conditioning before coming to the U.S., so he spent his rookie season playing his way into shape. Doncic is only an average athlete by NBA standards, so he has to take great care of his body. There are some similarities between Luka and James Harden, another big ball handler who makes up for a lack of elite athleticism with an unusual ability to decelerate and create space. Doncic can shoot 3s off the dribble almost as well as Harden. He can shoot a lot more 3s than he did last season. He was no. 2 in the league in attempted stepback 3s as a rookie, per ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, behind only Harden. But he took only a little over half as many total 3s per game (7.1) as this season’s MVP runner-up (13.2). Harden has increased his number of 3-point attempts in each of his 10 seasons. He blazed a trail that Luka can follow.

Doncic isn’t the only building block in Dallas. The Mavs traded for Porzingis at the deadline in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr., salary filler, and two future first-round picks, and will reportedly offer him a five-year, $158 million max contract this offseason. Porzingis is an unknown. There are also concerns about him off the court. The New York Police Department is still investigating a woman’s account that Porzingis raped her in February.

On the court, he’s a freakishly tall shot-blocker (7-foot-3 and 240 pounds) who can create his own shot and shoot from anywhere. The problem for him, like many guys his size, has been staying on the court. Porzingis hasn’t played since tearing his ACL in February 2018. It will take him a while to get back into a rhythm next season, and the Mavs will be holding their breath every time he falls. He was injury-prone even before the ACL tear, missing 26 games in his first two seasons with a variety of issues.

Luka and KP should fit well together on the court. Porzingis averaged 22.7 points on 43.9 percent shooting, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game in 2017-18 with the Knicks before his injury. He should be better now that he no longer has to be the primary option. He has never been much of a passer: He has career averages of 1.3 assists per game and 1.8 turnovers. Porzingis can focus on getting buckets in Dallas, while letting Luka keep everyone else involved in the offense. The pick-and-roll between KP and his European costar should be unstoppable, as long as the Mavs can put enough 3-point shooting around them. This will be Porzingis’s first chance to play with a good point guard in the NBA. The assist leaders in his three seasons with the Knicks were Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Jennings, and Jarrett Jack.

The rest of the team is a blank slate. Tim Hardaway Jr., who has a player option for $19 million in 2020-21, is their only player on a non-rookie deal under contract past next season, although they will reportedly sign Dwight Powell to an extension later this summer. Doncic and Porzingis is an excellent foundation. But the Mavs still have a lot of holes to fill in free agency.

They have three clear needs:

  1. 3-point shooting: The Mavs didn’t have nearly enough shooting around Doncic last season. They were no. 4 in 3-point attempts per game (36.6 per game), but only no. 27 in 3-point percentage (34.0). Their best returning shooter in their supporting cast is Jalen Brunson, a point guard they took with the no. 33 pick in last year’s draft. The problem is Brunson is an even worse athlete than Doncic, so it’s unclear whether a backcourt with those two can survive defensively.
  2. Defense: Doncic was a terrible defender as a rookie, while no one knows how much Porzingis can bring to that end of the floor after his injury. KP is so big that he will always be able to protect the rim, but the Mavs may not want to extend him too far out on the perimeter. Dallas needs a lot of long and athletic players who can switch screens, cover ground, and protect its two young stars. It needs to remember the most important lesson from the Dirk era: His only NBA championship came when he was surrounded by elite defenders (Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd).
  3. Secondary playmaking: The Mavs can’t expect Doncic to create everything on the perimeter. He needs to play with another playmaker who can get into the teeth of the defense and create ball movement. That player doesn’t have to be an elite one-on-one scorer, but he should be able to attack closeouts, finish at the rim, and find the open man when the defense collapses.

But filling out the roster isn’t as simple as finding players who can accomplish those tasks. There are three other considerations the Mavs should keep in mind during free agency if they want to bring out the best in Doncic and Porzingis:

  1. Can this player impact the game without the ball in his hands? Doncic and Porzingis aren’t used to sharing the ball. Porzingis had a usage rate of 31.0 in 2017-18, and Doncic had a usage rate of 30.5 in 2018-19. Only 14 players in the NBA had usage rates higher than 30 last season, and they all played for different teams. Doncic and Porzingis will have enough trouble adjusting to each other, let alone adjusting to the team adding a third ball-dominant star. Someone in a Big Three has to take a step back, and it’s hard to sell sacrifice to young players like Doncic (20) and Porzingis (23) who have already gotten comfortable dominating the ball.
  2. Does this player fit on the same timeline? A team with two under-25 stars should be looking beyond the next season. Doncic and Porzingis have never played in the NBA playoffs before, so it’s not realistic to expect them to contend for a championship in 2019-20. They have a lot of growing up to do, on and off the court. The Mavs should sign someone who can grow with them.
  3. Can this player help set the culture? The Mavs have to walk a thin line. They shouldn’t want an older player who’s in the decline stage of his career, but they also need some veteran leadership in the locker room. They need a perimeter stopper who will grind on defense and demand accountability from his teammates. It’s not going to be Luka.

The Mavs would obviously love to sign Kawhi Leonard. The reality is that they are a young team without any playoff experience in an unattractive market for free agents, as the past few years have shown. But look further down the list of potential targets, and one name stands out: Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon is used to playing off the ball in Milwaukee next to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. He is coming off one of the only 14 seasons in NBA history in which a player shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free throw line. He is an excellent secondary playmaker who averaged 3.2 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game last season. He’s also a versatile defender with the size (6-foot-5 and 229 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan), toughness, and basketball IQ to match up with the biggest wings in the league. Brogdon defended Kawhi as well as anyone in this year’s playoffs, holding the reigning Finals MVP to 16-for-45 shooting (35.6 percent) in 135 possessions as his primary defender, according to NBA.com/Stats. Maybe most importantly, he turns 27 in December, putting him in Dallas’s sweet spot—more mature than Doncic and Porzingis without being old enough to start declining by the end of his contract.

Brogdon is a restricted free agent, but he might be gettable. Milwaukee extended Eric Bledsoe earlier in the season, it has to pay Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez this summer, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will be up for a supermax extension next summer. Brogdon would be their fifth option if everyone comes back: How much can a team in a small market really afford to pay him?

Compare Brogdon with some of the bigger names the Mavs have been linked to, and you will see why he is such a perfect match.

Kemba Walker: Walker would supercharge the offense, but the defense would be terrible, and it would be hard to keep everyone happy. Porzingis would turn into a spot-up shooter in this version of a Big Three, or in any version, à la Chris Bosh or Kevin Love, while Doncic would have to take a backseat. Kemba, 29, is in the prime of his career and has been the best player on his team for a long time. He is Damian Lillard and Luka is CJ McCollum in this scenario. That might work if the Mavs were contending for a championship, but could they sell Doncic on sacrificing just to fight for a playoff berth? A team with Kemba and Luka on the perimeter isn’t guarding anyone, and there would be little money left to sign the multiple wing defenders that Dallas would need to be even average on that end of the floor.

Al Horford: Horford is one of my favorite players in the league, but giving him a max contract would leave a lot of holes on the Dallas roster. Both Horford and KP are best when playing at the 5, and the Mavs would not have much on the wings around their new Big Three. They wouldn’t have a secondary ball handler, or anyone who could defend on the perimeter.

Tobias Harris: Harris, who slipped under the radar in free agency, would be an interesting fallback option for a lot of teams. He would give the Mavs another 20-point per game scorer who could space the floor, while adding more size (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds) and athleticism to their front line. But he still wouldn’t fit as well as Brogdon. He is a better scorer, but he’s not as good as a defender or passer.

Brogdon would be the best fit; the issue with pursuing him is timing. Dallas would have to hold up its cap space for two days while Milwaukee decided whether or not to match, which could take the Mavs out of the running for some of the midtier free agents on the market. Rather than target a restricted free agent like Brogdon, the Mavs could split up their cap space to go after 3-and-D guards like Patrick Beverley and Danny Green, secondary scorers like Terrence Ross and Jeremy Lamb, or a 3-and-D forward like Al-Farouq Aminu. I don’t think those players are good enough to pass up on the chance to put an ideal third option next to Luka and KP.

There is no one else on the market whom the Mavs can realistically acquire that can do all the things that Brogdon can. Luka’s contract means overpaying Brogdon shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. The best way to use the flexibility that contract provides is to aggressively pursue the guys who fit best around him. Brogdon is the one player the Mavs can sign this summer who makes them better immediately and sets them up to be a title contender in a few years. He is the next piece of the puzzle in Dallas. He should be their top priority.