He was always in Luka Dončić’s shadow. Jalen Brunson and Luka Dončić were drafted together in 2018 and started their NBA journey next to each other in Dallas. Luka was always the big one, the star, the future of the franchise and Brunson was the smaller sidekick, both in stature and in talent.
Together they learned how to play in the NBA, the ins and outs of it all and they grew up together, guards of the Mavericks, the dynamic duo of Dallas.
Luka would dominate on the court and Brunson would hold the fort down until he was ready to play again. As a Maverick, Brunson averaged 16,3 points his last season and most notably led Dallas to a win without Luka in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, scoring a career high 41 points against Utah.
From the outside, Brunson was the sidekick in the duo, the not-quite-good-enough-to-be-a-star number two. But what seems almost glaringly obvious now, almost a season away from Brunson’s departure to the New York Knicks, is the man-sized hole he left on the team. Not just because of his on-court abilities, but just as much because of who he was off the court.
The Mavericks’ season has mostly been a disappointment up until now. Despite Luka Dončić starting the season better than ever, beating records and dominating, the team around him never really came together to help get the wins needed.
They looked different from last year, even before the trade deadline when Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie went to the Brooklyn Nets for Kyrie Irving and some picks. There was just no cohesion, the high-performing defense of last spring had mysteriously disappeared and the vibes were just never really there.
What had changed since last season to make this team lose so much cohesion?
Well, for one thing, Jalen Brunson was missing.
Watching this season unfold in Dallas without Brunson, there’s an argument to be made that Brunson had a much bigger leadership role with the team than, at least I, was aware of at the time.
The Mavericks have wobbled along this year, often losing winnable games, miscommunicating in clutch and just not defending to the level they did last year. Luka has seemed lost at times, struggling with bad body language and complaining, something that clearly rubbed off on the rest of the team.
Meanwhile, in New York, Brunson is averaging almost 24 points (compared to 16,3 points in his last season in Dallas) and leading his team to a winning season and what looks like a sure spot in the playoffs. They’re currently at a good place at number five in the East. Dallas go back and forth from 6 to 9 in the open West, hovering around .500.
Knicks haven't lost since the deadline when Brunson has been healthy—and only 3 of 10 New York's remaining games are against teams with winning records. They've got an outside shot at 50 wins, which is bonkers— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) March 18, 2023
Brunson has blossomed after leaving Dallas. Not only because he has more space to play and freedom to lead, but because he’s the number one guy. He was never the number one guy in Dallas and he would never be the number one.
A case could be made that without Jalen Brunson, Luka has been missing help on the leadership front. He’s been missing a co-leader, someone who helped carry the pressure of the superstar, mentally. Brunson’s calming presence, especially under pressure, and the way he affected and encouraged the guys in the locker room has been one of those intangible aspects that helped get Dallas from good to great last season. It made a mediocre team over-perform all the way to the Western Conference Finals, despite not having the talent needed on paper.
And now, without Brunson, Luka has had to shoulder a lot more pressure by himself, and he’s been struggling with that. He’s not always able to encourage the team to the extent that’s needed, while also setting setting records and carrying the offense.
Without Brunson, Dallas seems to be left without an anchor. The guy who helped Luka shoulder the pressure of leading has left, and it seems like the team is without an identity, without direction. Last year, it was immaculate vibes - a phrase coined by Brunson himself. This year, the vibes have barely gone beyond maculate.
Immaculate Vibes right now— Jalen Brunson (@jalenbrunson1) May 5, 2021
This should not be a surprise to anyone though. Brunson has a history of giving much more to a team than skills and talent on the court. He was National Player of the Year as a junior at Villanova and won two championships with that team. Brunson knows how to win, he’s a proven winning player. He understands that it takes more than putting up stats, more than scoring averages, more than flashy plays. He knows that locker room vibes, comradery and chemistry is the intangible factor that makes good teams great. That makes a team able to perform in clutch, under pressure, when it’s all on the line.
The fact that the Mavericks are left without direction and vibes because a secondary guard left a team tells the story, maybe to a bigger extent than anything else this season, of why feelings and chemistry matter.
How there’s more to basketball than on-court superstardom. Brunson is a great basketball player, but he brings more to the table than his on-court skills. He has a lot of stuff figured out that others are struggling with. And if the Mavericks don’t find someone to step in his place, they’re going to continue to look like they have no direction, a headless chicken left to fend for himself.
On a positive note, Kyrie Irving has shown that he has some of the leadership skills that the Mavericks are in need of. If he keeps taking responsibility and keeps being locked in, there’s real hope that he may be able to fill that role. What we’ve seen and heard from the other players about him is significant and it clearly affects the team’s ceiling. But it all depends on whether he stays in Dallas.
Mavericks' Maxi Kleber on the impact of Kyrie Irving's leadership on his play and on the team:— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) March 19, 2023
"He's very experienced, very calm, you know, he knows how to talk to people, where to set up people, sees the strength in players, and knows what he expects them to do. So that helps,… https://t.co/I8NcCfpLI1 pic.twitter.com/ao4f4S8lNq
And if the Mavericks don’t manage to find a leadership replacement for Brunson, it may end up being more costly to the franchise than what anyone inside the organization expected when they let him go.