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The Mavericks are short on experience, but learning to win

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On a team without many veterans, Luka Doncic is learning to lead

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

To say the Mavericks have had a rough season would be an understatement. They’ve had the NBA’s toughest schedule so far. Core members of the rotation have missed games due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols. It seems like nothing has gone their way.

And yet, things seem to be turning around. The Mavericks are 5-2 since the calendar turned to February. The offense is finally clicking, though the defense is still suspect. Dallas is doing what they need to do to win games and move into playoff contention.

As the Mavericks stumble and struggle through this year, fighting to climb the standings, it’s important to remember that no one on this team has been through anything like this before. Dallas isn’t exactly a young team, but they’re definitely inexperienced.

Luka Doncic is only 21-years-old, and has honestly never had a bad time playing basketball until January of this year. All he did was win in Europe, leading Real Madrid to three championships in Liga ACB and one in Euroleague. The Mavericks floundered his rookie season, but Doncic was finding his place on a team full of veterans and navigating the roster chaos caused by trading for Kristaps Porzingis. Last season, Doncic took a leap and the Mavericks played much better than anyone expected. It’s easy to imagine them upsetting the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs if not for injuries to Doncic and Porzingis. It was a fun season with nothing to lose.

But this year the expectations were high, and Doncic had to endure a month-long stretch of basketball where nothing went right and the losses mounted. The honeymoon is over, and now everyone expects wins. In Europe, Doncic was always the young star on a team of veterans, free to just play basketball. But on the Mavericks, he’s the star and the leader. The rest of the team will follow his example, good or bad. Doncic is learning how to do this in real time. There’s no other way.

The rest of the Mavericks’ roster doesn’t have much experience in meaningful games, either. Porzingis never faced a season like this in New York. The Knicks were never in contention or expected to succeed while he played there. Last season was his first taste of a playoff race and postseason play. This is all new to him, just like it is for the rest of the Mavericks.

Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Dwight Powell developed into rotation players during the Mavericks’ rebuild, so they know nothing about playoff race struggles. Jalen Brunson was drafted the same year as Doncic, so they have been on this journey together, though Brunson does have significant postseason experience from his time at Villanova. Willie Cauley-Stein has never played a playoff game or even competed for a postseason slot beyond his short time in Dallas last year.

Tim Hardaway Jr. played for a couple of Hawks teams that made the playoffs, advancing to the second round once in 2016, where they were swept by LeBron James’ Cavaliers. Trey Burke played spot minutes for a Wizards team that made the playoffs in 2017. Boban Marjanovic has made the second round a couple times with the Spurs and the 76ers. He at least has seen some playoff battles, though pretty much always from the bench. Wes Iwundu has seen 10 playoff games with the Magic, two first round losses in five games.

Josh Richardson played in three playoff runs, two with the Heat, one of which included a second round series against the Raptors that went seven games. The only player on the Mavericks with significant playoff experience is James Johnson, who has been a part of five postseason runs, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals with Toronto in 2016.

All told, the Mavericks’ core has only played 74 combined playoff games. Compare that to the Nuggets, for instance. Paul Milsap, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray alone have 186 playoff games combined between the three of them. There’s talent on the Mavericks, but not much experience. You’re watching this team grow up before your eyes.

There’ll be mistakes, but also breakthroughs. The Mavericks might run into another tough stretch in the second half of the season. You might get frustrated watching them. But keep in mind that you’re witnessing growing pains as Doncic and the rest of the team learn what it means to be in a playoff race.