Luka Doncic Made History, Proved Mavericks Are Contenders in Second Season

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2020

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic celebrates after making a game-winning 3-point basket against the Los Angeles Clippers during overtime of an NBA basketball first round playoff game Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Mavericks won 135-133 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Following the Dallas Mavericks' 111-97 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, in which he put up 38 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, Luka Doncic's epic sophomore campaign is officially over.

We've never witnessed anything like it.

During the regular season, he put up an absurd 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. And for those echoing the common "his numbers are just up because of the pace" refrain, here's the list of every player in league history who has matched his per-possession averages from 2019-20:

Yes, Westbrook's MVP campaign, when he was 28, is the only entry. Right now, Luka is just 21 years old. And there are easily identifiable areas of improvement for his game.

For one, his 31.6 three-point percentage was well shy of the league average (35.8). And after shooting a slightly below-average 75.8 percent from the line in the regular season, he dropped to 65.6 percent against the Clippers.

His defense can certainly improve, too, but this all feels nitpicky at the moment. Luka is already putting up all-time-great numbers as the leader of an NBA all-time-great offense.

And when the pressure and intensity of the playoffs ratcheted up, the only thing that seemed to suffer was his free-throw shooting.

After another massive performance in Game 6, Luka finished the series with averages of 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists. 

The climax came in Game 4, though. Less than 48 hours after suffering a sprained ankle in Game 3, Doncic drilled a game-winning, buzzer-beating three to cap off a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist performance that rivals Michael Jordan's 63-point breakout in his second postseason.

And all this came against the team that may be best tailored to stop him.

The Clippers roster boasts Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. The former two have both made multiple All-Defensive teams, and Morris seemed intent on physically punishing Luka throughout the series, all the way through a Game 6 ejection that followed his double knife edge chops to the head and neck.

They all had their chances against the rising superstar, and he still averaged a 23.4 game score over his first six playoff games and had moments like this peppered throughout the series:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Luka on PG. Filthy 😤 (via @dallasmavs) https://t.co/y1MDQ9qSxN

Regardless of who was on him, Doncic seemed cool and collected on every possession. His vision was almost always unbothered thanks to his 6'7" frame. His finishing was about as effective as it was in the regular season because he refused to be sped up by L.A.'s perimeter defenders.

Whenever Doncic turns the corner on a pick-and-roll or in isolation, he's in control. He has an innate sense of when to slow down and when to explode. He knows when, and to what direction, his defenders are leaning or cheating. And he almost always exploits the slightest mistake, whether with the pass, his stepback or a drive.

"He's a great player," Kawhi said after the game. "... battled every minute he was out there on the floor, didn't back down. Led his team every game, and he did a hell of a job out there."

Ready for a little more historical context?

Michael Jordan, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Kevin Johnson, David Robinson and LeBron James are the only players since 1983-84 (as far back as complete box scores go) to average a higher game score over their first six postseason contests. As was the case with our last historical comparison, the average age of the rest of the list is older than Luka is now.

To call the future bright for him and the Mavericks would be a gross understatement.

Natural development for the superstar and his No. 2, Kristaps Porzingis, could mean legit contention before long. But Dallas could also speed the process up in a couple of ways.

Of course, trades are an omnipresent option in today's NBA. The Mavs have a handful of movable salary-matching deals for 2020-21 that could add up to the money necessary to get a disgruntled star.

Long-term assets may be harder to come by given the picks they surrendered to the New York Knicks to get Porzingis, but it's difficult to rule anything out in today's transaction-heavy league.

If the team isn't interested in the three-star model, it could continue to build with smaller moves that supplement Doncic and KP.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

With Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry and Porzingis, they already have a lot of shooting deployed around Luka's drives, but a bigger Curry-level spacer would go a long way. (I know, much easier said than done.)

Consider the 2019-20 Washington Wizards, who scored 121.7 points per 100 possessions when Bradley Beal played with Davis Bertans and 106.2 points per 100 possessions when Beal played without Bertans. You can find similar impacts for players like Joe Harris on the Brooklyn Nets or JJ Redick before he left the Philadelphia 76ers.

If Dallas feels content on that front, especially if it's counting on improvement from Luka's outside shot, more perimeter defenders could be the ticket to the next tier.

Maxi Kleber is probably one of the league's more underrated players, but that doesn't make him a great option for a superstar like Kawhi. Kleber defended him for more possessions than any other Maverick, and the Clippers posted a blistering 158.7 offensive rating on those possessions.

More positionless defenders to spare Luka from those matchups wouldn't hurt.

Regardless of how it chooses to move forward, Dallas already has the most important aspect of team-building taken care of: It has a superstar.

Few organizations are spoiled quite like this one. After two decades with legendary power forward Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas landed Doncic just one season before the future Hall of Famer's retirement.

The Mavs went from one all-time top-15-20 player to one who has the potential to rise even higher.

"I expect that he'll come back next year even better with something new in his game," Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. "The same way that [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] and Jordan, all those great players did every summer."

LeBron is the only player since 1973-74 who totaled more wins over replacement player than Luka through his age-20 season, and the King played 26 more games and averaged 8.1 more minutes per contest than Doncic did through his own age-20 campaign.

It'd be absurd to confidently predict he'll reach the same level. But after what we've seen, we might not be able to rule it out, either.


All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of NBA.com, Stathead, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.