The Dallas Mavericks got a welcome Christmas gift on Thursday with Luka Doncic's return from a four-game absence. They held their own while the second-year superstar was out with an ankle injury, and they pulled out a 102-98 win at home over the San Antonio Spurs with him back in the lineup.
Doncic's return has things looking up for the Mavs, who sit just a half-game behind the Houston Rockets for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, continuing a surprising run that has them on pace to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Just how serious a threat the Mavs are to contend, however, remains to be seen.
Thursday night's win over the Spurs displayed all the reasons for optimism around this team, as well as plenty of cause for concern.
Doncic wasn't spectacular, but he looked unaffected by his ankle injury and paced the Mavs with 24 points. Those points came on just 9-of-23 shooting, but he added 10 rebounds and eight assists. That's not close to the remarkable 40-point triple-doubles he's put up at times this season, but it was enough on his first night back from an injury.
Dallas also got a good shooting night from Tim Hardaway Jr. (7-of-14 from the field) and some solid defense from Dwight Powell. Those players' contributions have been key to Dallas' surprising season.
But the tandem of Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, which looked so promising coming into the season, has yet to find a rhythm. Porzingis was excellent in three of the four games Doncic missed, helping Dallas tread water at 2-2. But he shot just 4-of-15 on Thursday, and his offense has failed to get going throughout the year as he works his way back from the torn ACL that caused him to miss the entire 2018-19 season.
Much of the Mavs' success this year will depend on whether Porzingis' hot week with Doncic out can carry over now that he's back. The two of them are still feeling out their fit together, and while there are signs that it's coming along, it's far from a finished product. That was evident early against the Spurs as Porzingis forced up a few bad shots and struggled to get going while Doncic felt his way back into the offense.
Dallas' bench could still be a question mark come playoff time despite early success this season.
Other than Delon Wright (who spent the early part of his career in Toronto) and Seth Curry (who played last season in Portland), the second unit doesn't have much playoff experience and will be asked to produce against the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, all squads deep with veteran postseason performers.
The Mavs' reserves contributed just 24 points Thursday, and Wright was the only backup to score in double figures. Their lack of a reliable shot creator outside of Doncic in the backcourt is a problem that may come back to haunt them in the playoffs. Dallas' guard rotation beyond him—Wright, Curry, Hardaway and Jalen Brunson—features useful players who are limited in different ways.
It won't be difficult for defenses the Mavs might face in the playoffs, particularly either of the two Los Angeles teams they'll have to go through to truly contend, to force the ball out of Doncic's hands and make someone else beat them.
It may be unfair to put expectations of contention on the Mavs in the first place, at least this season. Even by the standard set during his sensational rookie season, Doncic has been spectacular in Year 2, forcing himself into the MVP conversation and pushing skeptics to rethink things. He now belongs on the shortlist of players—you know who they are—who are so good they can make any team competitive.
Doncic's leap, combined with the disappointing bottom of the Western Conference playoff race, has made the Mavs appear closer to contending than they are by virtue of being one of a handful of teams with a winning record.
Dallas' schedule does ease up as the calendar flips to 2020, and with Doncic back in the lineup, it should be able to stay in the thick of the playoff hunt and even challenge for home-court advantage in the first round. Considering the franchise hasn't made the playoffs since 2016 and now has the beginning years of a generational talent with his entire career ahead of him, that should be plenty of reason to celebrate.
Besides Doncic's dominance, Porzingis' improved recent play is a cause for optimism. But it'll likely take the full year before he's fully returned to physical form after he sat out 18 months. At this point, the Mavs' roster is imperfect and not close to the level of cohesion it will reach as Doncic continues to get better, impossible as that may seem given the level at which he's playing right now.
The Mavs may not be ready to contend yet this year, even with Doncic taking over the NBA, but their rebuild is right on schedule.
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