There are a lot of ways to describe why the Dallas Mavericks acquisition of Luka Doncic is such a grand and important moment for the franchise. There’s the talent he brings, the potential he has and the glimmering hope he offers for a winning team after Dirk Nowitzki is long gone.
Really though, you can boil down why Doncic matters so much to the Mavericks with one thought — he provides answers. For this Mavericks team, that’s a sweet relief.
Imagine the general feeling about the team just six hours before Thursday nights draft. There was the expectation that Doncic, who many consider the best player of this draft, was going to be off the board by the time the Mavericks picked at five. At five, the options for Dallas were good, but each one had question marks.
Mohamed Bamba is a long-armed shot blocker with dreams of a jumpshot and something more. Michael Porter Jr. seemed, theoretically, like the prototypical foundation for a current NBA wing. Wendell Carter Jr. isn’t flashy but he had a seemingly full toolbox with a broad game to match whatever the Mavericks put on the court. Those options were OK, fine even — they just had questions.
Bamba’s upside relies on him turning into a three-point shooter that he never was in college. Carter’s high floor was negated by the fact that his floorbound game might catch up to whichever team drafts him on the defensive end. Porter had recently recovered from back surgery and even when he did play, never displayed any sort of playmaking chops you’d expect from a player of his prestige and hype.
The ultimate paradox of this draft was that a majority of the top-10 picks were centers, the exact position the league is increasingly playing off the floor in high-pressure situations. It’s not that centers aren’t valuable anymore, it’s just that their rate of combustion has never been higher. You have to really hit on a center now or face the consequences of your lottery pick sitting on the bench in a future playoff game.
Bamba looks excellent but the questions of a rebuild still fully linger — it’s hard to be excited about a future when you’re not even sure if the player you’re picking will still have a true place with his position when his prime arrives. Bigs might come back in a big way in a few years, but there’s no doubt that the risk has never been higher.
With Doncic, none of these questions exist.
A playmaker for years to come
Instead of wondering how the Mavericks find the playmaking they need outside of Dennis Smith Jr., they have one of the best playmakers coming out of the draft in years. Instead of trying to fit the square peg of Harrison Barnes shotmaking game into a playmaking round hole, Doncic is there to let Barnes excel at who he is and not struggle to be something he’s not. When there used to be groaning and worries when the Mavericks had to juice their struggling offense with a small, point guard heavy lineup, Doncic allows the Mavericks to operate at their final form without sacrificing length and size on the perimeter.
“He’s going to be a great guy to play with Dennis Smith and Harrison Barnes,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said on Thursday. “They’re going to enhance his game, he’s going to enhance theirs.
“He’s the kind of player that is going to be able to play with virtually anybody. He has a skill-set and an understanding, feel for the game. He’s a great shooter so he creates space for other players, which is really going to help Dennis.”
The piece that brings it all together
When you watch Doncic’s tape and envision his fit on the Mavericks, he feels like a cheat code.
Standing at about 6’8 with a sturdy frame, Doncic runs offenses not like just a playmaking wing, but a true point guard. He runs pick and rolls like he’s been doing them for decades and displays a shocking level of advanced skill for having a variety of passes at different angles, coming off screens and in transition.
Perhaps the best of his many passes is one that is crucial for any high-level playmaker — the quick cross-court pass to the weakside right out of a pick and roll. This is something that usually takes players years to master, and Doncic has it in his bag at 19 years old.
It’s the passing that really sets Doncic apart and allows him to play in any lineup on any team. The swag-filled clutch jumpers are fun, along with his assortment of floaters in the lane, but it’s the ability to seemingly make any pass in any situation that sets Doncic apart and allows the Mavericks to morph into a team that is unpredictable in its attack and varied throughout the lineup. With Bamba or any other player, the pressure would have been on Smith to live up to extraordinary expectations or for the Mavs to continue tinkering with the Barnes-as-playmaker experiment that — let’s be honest — didn’t seem like a fool-proof plan.
Smith and Barnes can now be complimentary pieces while they continue to improve their individual games and go to the next level. This isn’t an insult — Smith still has star potential. Only now he has a running mate that allows him to not have to be That Guy for 82 nights at 20 years old.
The worries about Doncic and Smith playing together and taking the ball from each other is overblown. Carlisle on Thursday gushed about how both Doncic and Smith would feed off each other with their own unique talents.
“Dennis’ speed and rim-attacking ability is going to compliment Doncic’s spacing ability and playmaking ability,” he said.
Picture it now — Smith darting toward the bucket off a high-screen from Dirk Nowitzki or whatever rim-runner the Mavericks have on the floor. Doncic is on the weakside wing, waiting for the defense to collapse to prevent Smith from soaring with a highlight jam. Doncic then gets the ball in probably the situation he’s most deadly, a scattered and out-of-sorts defense. Doncic’s high-level feel for the game allows him to thrive in these situations and it almost seems like the game slows down for him when he’s attacking a defense that isn’t set.
The above scenario isn’t the only tantalizing one. Imagine Doncic and Dirk unleashing a two-man game, with Doncic playing the part of a 6’8 Jason Terry. What about Smith getting a head start on his thunderous drives thanks to Doncic’s presence as a lead ball handler? Or Smith and Doncic themselves running their own pick and roll, with Doncic operating in 4-on-3 situations as the roll man? The possibilities feel endless.
With Bamba or Porter or another big man, it instead feels like we’re having to answer more questions. Can a big stay on the floor? Can Barnes learn to pass? Will Smith be the All-Star the Mavs desperately need him to be? While the Mavericks were perfectly fine picking fifth and confident in the choices available, the level of talent and flexibility Doncic brings is simply unmatched. He’s the aspirin to a nagging headache.
Some questions do still remain
Doncic provides answers but that isn’t to say he doesn’t have any questions. Doubts about how his athleticism will translate to the NBA were reasons Doncic was probably available at three in the first place, and there are concerns about how his body will keep up with the rigorous schedule the NBA demands.
Those are real questions too, when you separate that from the typical ignorant noise about European players. Doncic’s most mortal moments in Europe usually coincided with whenever he came across a rangy, NBA-level athlete. The Mavericks have plans to get him up to speed and shed some of his unnecessary weight while maintaining the strength that makes him so unique compared to so many string-bean wings that come out of college at his height.
Hopefully Doncic has answers for those times when he’s not able to scoot by a flat-footed defender. He might not have prototypical explosion or athleticism, but he has something almost just as hard to attain — elite skill.
Carlisle said after the draft that while Doncic won’t be able to blow by defenders with pure speed, his skill will create the separation he needs to get off his shot or find an open teammate. He can work angles unlike most players his age and Carlisle said Doncic’s ability as a passer and shotmaker will cause defenses to shift and move in a way he can take advantage of.
“Guys that have his level of skill become more athletic because of how you have to run at him at the three-point line and beyond because of his shooting ability,” Carlisle said.
Dallas now has a clear direction
About a week ago, the most pressing question about the Mavericks had to be “where are they going?”
The roster was a mess, featuring an odd assortment of undrafted players and 30-year-old role players — not exactly the type of core you can truly stop and look at and think the 24 wins last season was just the beginning. Smith was and still is a great piece but the hard truth was that for a team as bad as the Mavericks were for the last two years and how meandering they were the previous four, entering this draft with Smith being the only first round pick the Mavericks drafted this decade seemed alarming. It made you question who was even going to be on this roster when Smith hits his prime during his second contract.
Doncic is just one player, he doesn’t finish the roster. What’s important though is that his talent can certainly start one. In the span of a few weeks the Mavericks went from meandering to purposeful. Doncic fills so many holes, connects so many dots, it’s hard not to be excited about what’s next. With no disrespect to Bamba, Carter or any other player the Mavericks might have considered at five, those guys were never going to do that.
“He’s a joyful passer, that’s how I would describe him,” Carlisle said. “He plays with a pass-first view of the game. Guys like that are a blast to play with.”
It seems weird to say it about the Mavericks, but it’s true: Dallas just drafted the most decorated teenager in NBA Draft history. Yes, the Mavericks — the win now, ignore the draft for two decades Mavericks — that have this guy.
Now it seems like the only question with Doncic on board is: how soon do the Mavericks start winning games like they used to?