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A Fully Unleashed Luka Is Terrifying. But Is It Sustainable?

With a certain 7-foot-3 impediment out of the way, Doncic has turned into a one-man wrecking crew in Dallas. The formula isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it also might be too effective to stray from.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Mavericks decided to move on from Kristaps Porzingis at the 2022 NBA trade deadline for a number of reasons: the frequent injuries that led him to miss 72 regular-season and playoff games during his two and a half seasons as a Maverick; the fact that his hoped-for synergy with Luka Doncic in the two-man game never quite materialized; the desire to turn the final two years of his difficult-to-maneuver-around maximum contract into smaller (though still difficult-to-maneuver-around) pieces. Maybe the biggest reason, though? For all intents and purposes, they already had moved on.

Dallas went 13-8 in the last 21 games Porzingis missed before the trade deadline, outscoring opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions with the 7-foot-3 Latvian off the court. The Mavs’ surge toward the top of the defensive rankings came between New Year’s and the deadline, a period during which Porzingis missed a baker’s dozen games with knee trouble. More importantly, the team’s offense began to come online in earnest, as an in-shape-and-newly-motivated Luka feasted when surrounded by lower-usage, more complementary teammates.

It wasn’t rocket science or revolution as much as it was a variation on a tried-and-true theme, one played with much fanfare over the years by similarly styled playmakers like LeBron James and James Harden: Give Luka the ball, give him three shooters and a rim runner, and let God sort ’em out.

“You adapt to your best player,” Mavs assistant coach Igor Kokoskov told D Magazine last month. “Your best player defines how you play, the style of play.”

It worked then—Dallas scored at a league-best clip during that pre-deadline span in the minutes Doncic played without Porzingis—and it’s worked since, as the Mavs have won 10 of their past 13 to tie for fourth place in the West. (They have a significantly friendlier remaining schedule than the no. 4 Jazz, too.) That rise has been fueled by an offense that’s scoring nearly four more points-per-100 than it was before the deadline, thanks to a fully unleashed—and, frankly, terrifying—version of Luka.

Since the Porzingis trade, Doncic is averaging 34.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in 37.6 minutes per game. He’s shooting 53.7 percent inside the arc, 39.5 percent beyond it (on more than 10 attempts per game), and 75.2 percent at the foul line (on nearly 10 attempts per game)—good for a .605 true shooting percentage, which would comfortably be the best of his career. If those sound like MVP-caliber numbers, that’s because they are: The only players who’ve ever scored and distributed that much while shooting that efficiently over a full season are Harden, Michael Jordan, and Stephen Curry.

The early-season tug-of-war over Dallas’s offense, with first-year head coach Jason Kidd seeking ways to democratize the attack and better feature Porzingis, has ended—and, for the most part, so has Kidd’s experiment with playing two big men. Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber have shared the floor for just 24 minutes since the trade deadline; newcomer Davis Bertans has logged more minutes alongside Powell and Kleber, but in terms of the role he occupies in the Mavericks attack, he functions more like a 6-foot-10 shooting guard than a second “big.”

Fewer bigs, more wings, and more shooters on the floor has produced better overall spacing, drawing opposing centers out of the paint and opening a path to a supercharged drive-and-kick game. “There’s a lot of spot-up capabilities on this team,” new Mavs guard Spencer Dinwiddie recently told reporters. “We’re taught to stay spaced, and that makes pretty big gaps for somebody like me who likes to get into the paint.”

And for someone like Luka. Kidd has looked to get Doncic on the move, frequently having him cut out of the corner and rocket into a dribble handoff, aiming to give him a head start on turning the corner into the teeth of the defense. Once he gets going, he’s awfully tough to stop: Luka’s averaging 23.9 drives to the basket and 14.8 points on those drives per game since the Porzingis deal—both increases over his pre-trade output, and both no. 1 in the league since the deadline—and shooting a scorching 81 percent at the cup.

With untrammeled power, though, has come even greater playmaking responsibility. Doncic’s already-high average time of possession has risen by nearly a minute per game since the deadline—and, in fact, has cracked double digits at 10 minutes on the ball per contest, a level of ball dominance that no player has managed over a full season in the nine years for which the NBA has published possession data. He has finished an eye-popping 41 percent of Dallas’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover since the trade—nearly on par with the all-consuming campaign that Russell Westbrook authored in 2016-17, in which he posted the highest usage rate of all time.

Westbrook won MVP during his historic-usage season, in a vote that launched a thousand ships, but he didn’t win a playoff series. Putting everything on Doncic’s shoulders has worked for Dallas over the past month, but it seems impossible that it can be a sustainable recipe for success come the postseason. (Especially considering we’ve seen two previous iterations of the “all Luka, all the time” approach fall short in Round 1.) In fact, of the 25 highest-usage seasons in NBA history, only two belong to a player who reached the conference finals in the same campaign: Allen Iverson in 2000-01, and Harden in 2017-18. Iverson had an elite defense at his back; Harden had Chris Paul by his side. If you’re going to try to do it alone, you can’t actually be alone.

But then, maybe Doncic isn’t. After all, the Mavericks have improved significantly on defense during Kidd’s first season in Dallas—sixth in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass—and now boast the combination of Jalen Brunson and the resurgent Dinwiddie. That pair might not add up to be a Point God, but they’ve been dynamite over the past month, combining to chip in 33.1 points and 8.3 assists per game since the deadline, with both drilling well over 40 percent of their 3-pointers.

On paper, essentially swapping their best offensive big man for another guard who needed the ball in his hands seemed like a move that made the Mavericks less balanced and more redundant. But while Dinwiddie struggled to find the right fit next to Bradley Beal in Washington, and played his best ball in Brooklyn when Kyrie Irving’s injuries opened up the starting point guard spot, he’s looked awfully comfortable in a complementary role in Dallas—and both Doncic and Brunson seem to have welcomed the arrival of another shot creator capable of pressuring opposing defenses.

Having two non-Luka ball handlers and perimeter scorers has helped keep the Mavs afloat when their superstar needs a rest. Dallas has outscored opponents by 18 points in 100 minutes when Dinwiddie and Brunson play without Doncic, and even when Luka still does damn near everything, being flanked by a pair of credible offensive threats just makes the process a lot easier: Dallas has scored a blistering 121.4 points-per-100 with Doncic, Brunson, and Dinwiddie on the court, generating a ton of good looks from 3-point land. (Dorian Finney-Smith, in particular, is just playing Pop-a-Shot off their drive-and-kick creation, shooting 8-for-10 from deep and 13-for-17 overall when sharing the floor with the three playmakers.)

That’s important, because when it really matters in the postseason, opponents aren’t just going to let Luka cook; they’re going to do everything in their power to force the ball out of his hands. It’s already starting: Teams have blitzed Doncic on 7.7 percent of Dallas’s picks for him since the trade deadline, up from 4.7 percent before it, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. (This, perhaps, is why Kidd told reporters last month that he wants to “make sure we always have two ball handlers” on the floor.)

As willing as he is to take on triple-teams and force the issue, Doncic will also make the right play, get off the ball, and put his teammates in position to attack with the advantage; when that happens, it’ll be up to the other Mavericks to make enough plays to make them pay. Sometimes, they’ll nail it, moving the ball ahead of the rotating defense to find either a wide-open catch-and-shoot 3 or a chance to drive past a closeout to pay dirt:

Sometimes, if one pass is off-target, one catch is bobbled, or one would-be driver realizes he probably shouldn’t be trying to dig that deep in his bag, the whole possession gets short-circuited:

And sometimes, it all winds up somewhere in the middle—with a process that produces a good look but not any points, thanks to the fickle nature of a make-or-miss league.

Doncic, Kidd, and the rest of the Mavericks are banking on that process, and on the reps they’re getting now, paying off come the postseason. If they can leverage Luka’s ability to draw two to the ball, and if Brunson, Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, and Co. can continue to make the right play and knock down open shots, then Dallas might have what it takes to advance past Round 1 for the first time since winning it all in 2011.

If the Mavs can’t, though—if Dinwiddie and Brunson can’t keep the offense humming while Doncic rests; if hoped-for long-range marksmen Bertans, Kleber, and Reggie Bullock can’t rediscover their 40 percent strokes; if a defense that’s been solid springs a leak—then they could find themselves right back where they started, needing Luka to perform miracles just to give them a chance to win in the springtime. We know he can do it. Doing it while operating at all-time-high levels of usage, ball dominance, and shot creation for 40-plus minutes a night in the playoffs, though, is an awfully big ask—the kind of workload that can leave even offensive dynamos gassed and misfiring come crunch time.

That, of course, was the idea behind the Porzingis trade in the first place: to make Doncic’s life easier, to ensure he didn’t have to be the be-all and end-all. Dallas knew Luka alone couldn’t be the answer; after three years, it realized Porzingis couldn’t be, either. The search for a better solution will begin again when the offseason does. For now, though, the Mavs will go back to the only one they have, hoping that it won’t really matter how shaky Plan B is if you’ve got one hell of a Plan A.