Luka Dončić scored an even 30 points on the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night. It was the 31st time he'd reached that plateau this season, meaning he's gotten there in just over 75 percent of his appearances.
The problem is that those 30 points came in a loss, bringing the Dallas Mavericks' record to 3-15 when Luka doesn't play or scores 30 or fewer points (they're 21-7 in all other games).
In a showcase game against Trae Young, the player Dončić was traded for on 2018's draft night, Dallas mostly gave (and got) a reminder that the Mavs' roster just isn't good enough around Luka.
On an individual level, the debate might be over already. Dončić doesn't just lead his draft class in career wins over a replacement player—he darn near doubles up second place (who is, unsurprisingly, Trae).
But Young plays with another All-Star in Dejounte Murray (who had 30 points on Wednesday). He's having a down year, but John Collins isn't far removed from a 20-and-10 season. Bogdan Bogdanović and De'Andre Hunter are both averaging over 15 points this season.
With apologies to Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie, both of whom have had their moments, the most notable recent story about a Luka teammate might still be the departure of Jalen Brunson, who's putting up 22.6 points this season.
Luka's phenomenal, as evidenced by averages of 33.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists that would've seemed impossible in earlier eras, but he needs some help.
And with the level of parity in the NBA this season (FiveThirtyEight's projection system currently gives 12 teams a two-percent-or-better chance to win the title), there's an argument to go get that help in the next few weeks, especially if Luka himself is pushing for it (something Dallas owner Mark Cuban has denied).
On Wednesday, ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote, "Sources said Dončić, who hasn't shown a desire to be involved in personnel matters in the past, has strongly indicated he wants the Mavs to upgrade before the Feb. 9 trade deadline."
Four years ago, Dallas thought it got that help and Luka's longtime No. 2 when it traded for Kristaps Porziņģis, but he's already gone. Now, there's just one more outgoing pick from that deal. It'll likely convey to the New York Knicks this summer, unless Dallas has a massive collapse and winds up in the top 10 of the 2023 draft. And after that, the Mavs have a ton of draft capital to play with.
For teams looking to unload talent and steer into a rebuild, that and salary filler, which Dallas has plenty of, might be enough to get a deal done.
Over the last several months, the rumor mill has given us tidbits on...
- Bradley Beal;
- Indiana Pacers veterans Myles Turner and Buddy Hield;
- Chicago Bulls core players DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević;
- D'Angelo Russell;
- Bojan Bogdanović;
- O.G. Anunoby;
- Jordan Clarkson; and
- Alec Burks.
According to Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes, there's even some buzz that the player Luka was once traded for could ask for a move.
"Rival executives in attendance at the NBA's annual G League Winter Showcase are of the belief that Atlanta Hawks star point guard Trae Young could be the next player on a rookie max extension to request a trade if the team doesn't make inroads come postseason time," Haynes wrote.
The last name seems outlandish, but there's been plenty of drama during Young's tenure in Atlanta. Would the new front office honor a trade request, accept a fresh start and trade Trae for salary filler (like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dāvis Bertāns), an interesting young player (Jaden Hardy), three first-round picks and a pick swap or two?
Could a package like that coax the Portland Trail Blazers or Los Angeles Clippers into blowing it up and unloading Damian Lillard or Paul George?
Dallas should at least be asking, even if the executives on the other end of the line just laugh and hang up.
The list of teams that have won an NBA title without at least two stars is minuscule. Just look at recent history. The second-best player on each of the last several champions (the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers) was better than the Mavs' current No. 2.
Further back, you have the San Antonio Spurs' Big Three, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat, the Shaq-and-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the Chicago Bulls, the star-laden Lakers and Boston Celtics of the 1980s.
And the list could go on.
League history is instructive, and the lesson there is that the Mavericks aren't good enough to win it all. At least not as currently constructed.
An all-in deal for a superstar may not be in the cards, but plenty of the bullet-pointed players above can help, too (to varying degrees, of course), and most would cost less.
Last season, when Brunson was still around, the Mavericks were plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions when Luka was off the floor. This season, they're minus-8.6 without their All-NBA point guard.
Trade season and the time that's elapsed since the last blockbuster gives Dallas a chance to get Dončić some help.