Watching the Mavericks drop a second consecutive game against a Hornets team that hasn’t cared about winning basketball games since Christmas, admittedly my mind started to wander a bit.
I thought about how so far in Luka Doncic’s first four seasons, how so often whenever he accomplished something crazy, there’d be a stat talking about how he was the first player to do this in a long time, or ever. Usually it was associated with his age. “Doncic records most points as a 21-year-old since BLANK.” There have been a ton of those the last few years. A lot of firsts, which is natural with a young, phenom athlete.
So I thought about what is probably his most impressive feat: Making first team All-NBA in his second, third, and fourth season. Not too many players have made first team three times before the age of 24. In fact, it was just three people, before Doncic: Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, and Max Zaslofsky
For players to get three first teams within their first four seasons, that list was equally small before Doncic joined it: Larry Bird, George Gervin, and Duncan. Duncan and Doncic are the only names that appear on both lists, so yes, Doncic is a special talent. But we knew that already.
What I wanted to know was how those guys did in their age 24 season. More specifically, how their teams did. Durant’s Thunder won 60 games and made it to the second round, after making it to the Finals a season earlier. Duncan’s Spurs won 58 games and made it to the conference finals, of course this after winning a title two seasons prior. Larry Bird and the Celtics won the title when Bird was 24.
Heck, let’s talk about some other all-time greats that Doncic has been compared to with his insane production so far. Michael Jordan and the Bulls won 50 games and went to the second round. Kobe Bryant at 24 also did the same, after winning three straight titles. Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves only won 47 games, but they made the playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo won 60 games as a 24-year-old in coincidently the first season after Jason Kidd was fired. LeBron James, the player Doncic’s game has been most compared to other than James Harden, had the Cleveland Cavaliers at 66 wins when he was 24.
Dirk Nowitzki also won 60 games at 24 and made it to the conference finals. I bring all this up to mainly make one point: this never happens. In the history of the NBA it is almost impossible to find young, MVP-level talents puttering below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs entirely. The Mavericks, after another loss to the Hornets, are 36-39. There are seven games left in the NBA season and the team is in 11th place, one game back of 10th place and a play-in spot. Simply put, what’s happening to the Mavericks right now should never happen.
The NBA has been around a fairly long time and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another all-time great failing to make the playoffs at age 24. In the NBA and basketball, talent is like the tide that lifts all boats — with only five players on the court at once, basketball is uniquely a team sport dominated by individual talents that sway the course of a team or season in a way almost no other professional team sport can do, aside from quarterbacks in football. Historic, generational talents can single-handedly change the direction of a team and organization forever, regardless of the roster around them or the people in charge. Just look at Dirk and the Mavericks, or more recently Giannis and the Bucks. LeBron James was drafted by one of the most tortured teams in pro sports and had them as a playoff lock by year three.
Instead of the Mavericks continuing their ascension within the Western Conference, the team has hit rock bottom. Every season since Doncic has been drafted, the Mavericks had posted a steadily climbing win percentage, resulting in last season’s terrific Western Conference Finals run. While no one expected the Mavericks to be a Finals favorite this season and plenty of stars have had their share of playoff disappointment in seasons following their big success, almost none of them fall as low as the Mavericks have this season. Usually it’s make the Finals and then lose in the second round. Or make the conference finals but then get bounced in the first. Rarely does a team with an ascending star get dropped all the way this far behind the pack during that star’s prime. It’s hard to believe it’s really happening.
This is not to say the blame rests on Doncic’s shoulders — ironically Doncic is having perhaps his best statistical season ever. No Maverick has ever averaged 30 or more points per game in the regular season and Doncic will beat that with room to spare at almost 33 per game. He’s posting a career-high true shooting percentage, a career-high percentage on twos, and he’s turning the ball over less while using it more than at any other point in his career. Even with Doncic’s maturity issues and defensive meltdowns, it still doesn’t really compare to how great his season has been in totality. What’s happening is that the Mavericks are finally paying for years of roster building mistakes.
We’ve rehashed it plenty of times here before, so let’s be brief: the bungling of max cap space in 2019 free agency, the Kristaps Porzingis trade, losing Jalen Brunson for nothing. Those are the big hitters, without even getting into the more detailed blunders like the Josh Richardson trade, missing out on drafting Desmond Bane or Tyrese Maxey, signing 34-year-old-JaVale McGee to start. Even with some of the recent wins the Mavericks have made (dumping Porzingis at the right time, signing Reggie Bullock, drafting Jaden Hardy, trading for Kyrie Irving) those still haven’t equaled out all the losses the Mavericks have taken on bad trades, poor signings, and disappointing draft picks.
It all leads into a team that despite having one of the five best players in the league on it grasping for straws in figuring out how to fill out the rest of the roster behind him. Irving’s arrival was huge in terms of finally giving Doncic a true All-Star teammate, but the depth behind the duo is absolutely shot from years of horrific mismanagement. Just glance at the box scores from the Mavericks two embarrassing losses to the Hornets and you’ll see the same thing that has plagued the Mavericks since Doncic has been drafted — a lineup of players overmatched and barely producing. Maxi Kleber had four points and two rebounds in the first loss, while Dwight Powell put up a goose egg in his four starter minutes on Sunday before getting benched. Reggie Bullock and Josh Green, the other two starters on Sunday, combined for five points on 2-of-7 shooting. Despite the Mavericks having a 40-point scorer in their starting lineup with Doncic’s big game, the Hornets starters outscored the Mavericks starters 79-63. Against the Hornets on Friday, the starters got outscored 89-76. Blame the various injuries Dallas has suffered this season, but Doncic has played 59 of the team’s 75 games — that’s enough to make the playoffs, as Denver showed last season making the playoffs while missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for the entire season but still having Nikola Jokic. You almost have to try to build a roster as rudderless as this Mavericks one.
The Mavericks for years have been getting by with Doncic papering over the talent deficit thanks to solid coaching (from both Rick Carlisle and yes, even Jason Kidd in 2022), and career years from role players shining next to Doncic’s elite passing. But it’s hard for a talent-poor team to recover from losing its second best player, Brunson, for nothing. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, revealing that the roster and the coach wasn’t good enough to prop it back up.
Almost every NBA superstar battles adversity at some point of their career. This fan base has seen it first hand with Dirk. What almost never happens is an implosion of a season so early in that star’s career. The Mavericks have somehow done the impossible, another first for Luka’s resume — they made a bad team with 24-year-old superstar.