Maybe it’s the new year, maybe it’s the return of beloved genius-child Luka Doncic, but things around the Mavericks feel...dare I say...fresh? Hard to imagine as the Mavericks still sit at .500 and limped their way through December.
But players have started to return, it looks like the Mavericks might have stumbled on a new permanent contributor in Marquese Chriss, and thanks to a bumbling Western Conference they haven’t lost much ground in the playoff hunt.
The Power Rankings landscape hasn’t shifted much. The Mavericks only went backward on one list. What is clear is that all eyes will now be on Doncic, who clearly needs to show he has returned to game shape. If he has, all bets are off.
Last week: 17
The Mavericks managed to go 5-5 during Luka Doncic’s extended absence in large part due to Jalen Brunson’s performance as the fill-in starting point guard. In the 10 games, Brunson averaged 21.0 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 51.3% from the floor and 37.5% from 3-point range. Brunson, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, remained in the starting lineup alongside Doncic on Sunday, recording 12 points and seven assists in a road win over the Thunder. — MacMahon
Rank: 14 (Playoff Hopeful)
Last week: 15
New Year’s resolution: Get Luka Doncic back to being Luka Doncic.
Luka Doncic has been out of shape all season long, and now that he’s back from his stint with health and safety protocols, it’s time for the Dallas Mavericks to get the best version of him. If Doncic is healthy the rest of the season, there’s no reason the Mavericks should end up in the Play-In Tournament. Not with how mediocre the Lakers have been. Not with how injured the Clippers currently are. Luka has to make this happen for his team. He rarely gets to the basket, so we’ll know if he’s in shape with where his shot profile is the rest of the season. He’s not even making his free throws, and there’s no excuse for Doncic to be below 70 percent. If he’s in better shape, none of this ends up being a concern for him and the Mavs. His lack of conditioning at this point is far more egregious than what people were killing Zion Williamson for. At least Zion broke his foot.
Rank: 15 (as of 12.31.21)
Last week: 17
The Dallas Mavericks are minus-5.3 points per 100 possessions with Luka Doncic on the floor and plus-4.0 with him off. Among players with at least as many minutes as Luka, that minus-9.3-point swing is the 10th worst in the league.
Not having him at all certainly isn’t the answer, though. Doncic is in the health and safety protocols and has missed the Mavs’ last nine games. And following Wednesday’s loss at the buzzer to the Sacramento Kings, Dallas is 4-9 when Luka doesn’t play.
Jalen Brunson is averaging 20.8 points and 7.3 assists during the latest string of Doncic absences, which is encouraging, but he needs someone to come along with him.
Kristaps Porzingis seems like a prime candidate, and 22.6 points over this stretch suggests he’s willing, but his shooting efficiency remains atrocious. Over the Mavs’ last nine games, Porzingis is shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from three, dropping his season-long marks to 44.4 and 27.5.
Last week: 15
That the Mavs were able to tread water over Luka Doncic’s 10-game absence is probably more impressive than anything they’ve done with Doncic in the lineup. They didn’t beat any good teams, but they were 5-5 with a top-five offense over the 10 games, even though Jalen Brunson (21 points per game on 51% shooting), Dwight Powell and Moses Brown were the only guys that played in all 10. They managed to share the ball (recording assists on 67% of their buckets) while keeping turnovers down. And while Kristaps Porzingis didn’t shoot particularly well from the field, he got to the line and made 87% of his free throws. Among players who’ve averaged at least five attempts per game this season, only Trae Young has shot better at the stripe.
Now the Mavs have to see what they can do with Doncic, who made his return on Sunday. Starting alongside Brunson and playing without Porzingis, he was one rebound away from a triple-double in Oklahoma City. But he had seven turnovers along with his 10 assists and didn’t get to the line at all. The Mavs won ugly (barely cracking a point per possession) against the league’s 29th-ranked offense missing its two leading scorers.
A win is a win, and a road win is a good win. The Mavs will play three of their next four (and 15 of their next 21) games at home, where they’re just 2-7 since Thanksgiving. The most important game in that stretch could be a visit from the fifth-place Nuggets on Monday.
Last week: 16
Luka Dončić’s return on Sunday restored some sense of normalcy to Dallas, which has been battered by the NBA’s COVID protocols lately. A recent victim was Isaiah Thomas, the now well-traveled guard who scored six points in his Mavs debut last week … and joined the protocol list soon after.