In the 2022-23 season, Luka Doncic averaged 32.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 8 assists en route to his fourth straight All-NBA First Team selection. And yet, the Dallas Mavericks failed to make the playoffs, finishing a putrid 38-44. After a truly otherworldly seven-game run in December, Doncic never looked quite right the rest of the season.
He injured his heel after a drive against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 2 and hurt his thigh again against New Orleans in early March. Pair those issues with a talent-sapped Dallas team following the trade for Kyrie Irving and the 2023-23 campaign goes down as one of the most frustrating in recent Maverick memory.
Before last season, our preview for Doncic was titled “What if we made the whole plane out of Luka Doncic?”, a reference to why airplanes aren’t entirely made out of the material that makes up the flight recorder. A plane made out of black box material couldn’t efficiently fly and Doncic alone isn’t enough to guarantee a playoff spot.
For a player that’s on a first ballot Hall of Fame track, Luka Doncic has a remarkable number of questions facing him in his sixth season. He’s going to put up points, he’s going to make remarkable passes, and Dallas is going to play an exciting brand of basketball with Kyrie Irving as his costar.
Every other question falls under the general banner of maturity. Is Doncic ready to take the next step toward becoming a true MVP candidate? The aforementioned second-half struggles for both him and Dallas nixed that conversation last year, despite how he finished in MVP voting. How does Doncic marry his incredible game with his aspiration of winning a championship and being the best player in the world?
The first step is ending his war with officials. It’s the likely source for nearly all of his in-game struggles. A complaint after a missed call becomes a missed defensive assignment which turns into a forced shot or missed free throws. He has to find his own version of the opening of the Serenity Prayer, because his inability to understand the things he can change (scoring, defense, effort) and what he cannot (a referee’s mind after a play has moved on) hurts Dallas every time he does it.
If he can take any step towards controlling his frustration, perhaps other elements of his game that need improving might click into place. For Doncic now, it’s a matter of what he wants to do.
Best Case Scenario
A terrible 2022-23 NBA season bookended by a pair of international disappointments fuels Doncic to get his impulse to argue under control. He then channels any frustration he feels toward the defensive end of the floor. Despite pre-season concerns about his quad and thighs, Doncic plays 74 regular season games and leads Dallas to over 50 wins. The volume of games, paired with his improved defense and stellar offense leads to a race-to-the-finish MVP campaign where Doncic narrowly edges out Nikola Jokic for his first Most Valuable Player award.
Worst Case Scenario
A lingering thigh issue for Doncic results in early missed games. The Mavericks fall behind in the standings early, prompting the narrative from the national media that Doncic and Irving “can’t play together” despite them literally not being able to share the floor due to injuries. Doncic’s frustration with his body leads to continued frustration on the court where he manages to receive a higher technical foul pace than at any point in his career prior. The Mavericks can’t defend, Doncic is frustrated with the win-loss total, and despite Dallas sneaking into the play in as an 8th seed, the Mavericks lose both chances to get into the first round and miss the playoffs for the second straight year.
Making the NBA Finals has to be the next goal for Luka Doncic. If the Most Valuable Player award comes with that journey, so be it. But after four straight years of All-NBA First team honors, the individual goals likely don’t matter to Doncic. He wants a shot at the championship as early and as often as possible.
Oh, and while we are wishcasting, how about 10 technical fouls or fewer in the regular season.
This is Luka Doncic we’re talking about. He’s been one of the five best players in the league in every season he’s been in the NBA save his first, where he won Rookie of the Year. The Mavericks sink or swim on what he’s capable of and the best we can do is hope a revamped cast and a true superstar as a backcourt mate can propel Doncic ever higher and the Mavericks work towards winning a championship.