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Luka Dončić and the Mavericks are the NBA's mystery contender

At its core, Luka Dončić’s game is built on deception — an unparalleled gift for keeping those tasked with tracking him uncertain and unmoored.

Think you’ve got him contained on the drive? Whoops: He just slow-stepped you into the stanchion and dropped in an easy layup. Think you know which teammate he’s going to pass to — like, maybe, the one he’s looking at? Oh, my sweet summer child. Nope.

Think you’re in good guarding position, close enough to contest a pull-up but balanced enough to avoid the blow-by? Well, friend, I’m afraid the only position you’ve qualified for is Guy Who Just Got Added to Luka’s Stepback Highlight Reel. If it’s any consolation, you’ve got plenty of company: Last season’s compilation was nearly 19 minutes long.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the team Dončić leads is one it seems nearly impossible to draw a bead on. So often, the Mavericks feel like a corporeal collective stepback: looking like they’re leaning in one direction, only to suddenly shift into reverse and launch in another. Whatever confidence you had in what might be coming next gets snatched away in a heartbeat, replaced with the realization that all you can do is just turn, watch the shot in the air and brace for an outcome you never could quite peg.

The story of the Mavericks’ season has unfolded in those sorts of staccato reversals, sprinting and deceleration paired in nearly equal measure: an 8-2 start followed by a 3-6 run, Morse code sequences of brief winning streaks interspersed with brief skids.

(Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

“I feel like every time we take our foot off the gas pedal and we start […] celebrating wins like this, then next game we drop a dud,” star guard Kyrie Irving told reporters in January.

A lot of that inconsistency has stemmed from waves of injury absences. Five members of Dallas’ rotation — second-in-command Irving, electric rookie center Dereck Lively II, athletic swingman Josh Green, security-blanket stretch big Maxi Kleber and pleasant-surprise reclamation project Dante Exum — have all missed significant chunks of time. That’s led head coach Jason Kidd to shuffle his deck as much as any bench boss in the league.

The Mavericks have cycled through 32 different starting lineups this season, third-most in the league behind cellar-dwelling Memphis and Portland, with none of those units lasting more than 10 games or even logging so much as 100 shared minutes. (Dallas’ most frequently used five-man lineup this season, still, features Grant Williams, whom the Mavs shipped off to Charlotte five weeks ago.) The lineup that Kidd told reporters on Christmas that he’d like to start when everyone’s healthy — Dončić, Irving, Lively, Exum and long-limbed athletic wing Derrick Jones Jr. — has played a grand total of 26 minutes across four appearances.

The reason why Dallas is even in postseason position amid all those injuries, of course, is Dončić. With all the moving parts and pieces around him, he has remained a constant, playing in all but eight games, playing 37.4 minutes a night (more than anybody but DeMar DeRozan and Mikal Bridges) and playing at a level that few players in the history of the sport have ever reached:

The 25-year-old leads the NBA in scoring, averaging 34.3 points per game while shooting 37.8% from 3-point range on more than 10 attempts a contest and 78.8% from the free-throw line, all career highs. He’s third in the NBA in assists per game (9.8 dimes, also a career high) and points created per game via assist … and, considering how many of his best feeds wind up resulting in misses or free throws, that actually under-sells how remarkable his passing has been. (He’s been the concierge behind the five-star-resort-level service Dallas’ centers are getting right now. Daniel Gafford, famously, has now made 33 straight shots; Lively, for his part, has made 36 of his last 43. Dončić has assisted on 37 of those 69 makes.)

Dončić has been, by the reckoning of several advanced statistics — estimated plus-minus, box plus-minus, Kostya Medvedovsky’s DARKO projection system, The BBall Index’s LEBRON metric, etc. — either the best or second-best offensive player in the league this season. He’s the driving force behind a Dallas offense that ranks sixth in the NBA in points scored per possession for the full season, and second since the trade deadline roster shake-up, behind only the league-leading Celtics — the biggest difference between the Mavericks scoring at like one of the league’s most efficient attacks and producing like a bottom-10 unit.

Biggest, but not only; Irving has proven a hand-in-glove offensive fit next to Dončić. (I loved the way Zac Crain described their partnership last month: “They see the game the same way, but play it at different speeds and from different angles.”) The Mavs are 24-15 when they both play this season, outscoring opponents by 126 points in their 958 shared minutes and scoring a scorching 122.7 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Irving has been integral in introducing some constructive chaos into what’s long been a staid, methodical, glacially paced Dallas attack under Dončić, forever looking for chances to expedite the process by sprinting end-to-end off a defensive rebound, looking for hit-ahead passes and rewarding the Mavericks’ stable of athletic youngsters for running with him. After years as the league’s most transition-averse outfit, Dallas this season sits in the middle of the pack in transition frequency and third in points scored per transition possession, with Irving the player most individually responsible for stomping the pedal to the metal; he all but finished off the Warriors on Wednesday by hammering them on the break again and again and again:

The Mavericks have outscored opponents by 7.0 points-per-100 in Luka-Kyrie minutes — very good, but not dominant on the order of some of the other big-minutes partnerships around the league. Perhaps as importantly, though: Dallas is winning the minutes it plays when only one of its two star guards plays. The Mavs aren’t blowing anybody’s doors off in those stints — plus-2.1 points-per-100 when Luka plays without Kyrie, plus 1.2 points-per-100 when Kyrie plays without Luka, according to PBP Stats — but just Not Hemorrhaging Points When Luka Sits is a pretty huge development in and of itself, and a major part of Dallas’ calculus in both last trade deadline’s blockbuster for Irving and last month’s wheeling and dealing in the frontcourt.

Now, as Kidd recently told reporters, “We’ve got the personnel.” In Gafford and Lively, 48 minutes’ worth of vertical spacing, rim protection and high-efficiency screen-and-dive finishing. Both bigs are averaging at least 1.4 points per possession as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology — elite marks among high-volume finishers — and both rank in the top 25 among high-volume interior defenders in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim since the deadline, according to Second Spectrum.

In Exum, Jones and Green, athletic perimeter defenders capable of handling multiple assignments across positions, making connective-tissue passes, finishing on the move and knocking down spot-up 3s. (Exum and Jones, in particular, have been revelations — they boast two of Dallas’ three best non-Luka on-court/off-court splits since the trade deadline.) Their play has helped mitigate the declining effectiveness of veteran wing Tim Hardaway Jr., long an important source of complementary offense and shot-making who was on the short list of Sixth Man of the Year candidates midway through the season, but who has been battling through a pretty brutal shooting slump over the past six weeks — just 34% from the field and 32% from 3-point range on more than six attempts per game.

In Kleber, they’ve got a sort of minor-key unicorn — a switchable small-ball 5 who can also slide to power forward and offer some interior deterrence, and whose reputation as a floor-spacer and chemistry with Dončić pay dividends even when he isn’t actually making shots. Case in point: Kleber’s in a dreadful slump, shooting just 31% from the field and 27% from 3-point range since the trade deadline … and he still has the other one of the top recent on/off splits, alongside Exum and Jones.

He’s also started to develop an encouraging partnership with new arrival PJ Washington, pairing in a small-ball frontcourt that has outscored opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions in its first 117 minutes together. As noted by Iztok Franko of D Magazine, the success of the tandem points toward Washington’s most comfortable role with the Mavericks — not as a stretch big himself (he’s shooting just 28.9% from deep in Dallas on more than five attempts per game) but rather as sort of a complementary big wing playing off of a floor spacer and primary playmaker, who can attack shifted defenses off the dribble or run the lane hard on the break:

… and yet.

Even with Dončić and Irving making magic, and even as Dallas has gotten healthier, the fits-and-starts pattern has largely continued. A seven-game February surge, marked by the trade-deadline acquisitions of Gafford and Washington, marked Dallas as a team demanding our attention. Once the Mavs had it, they promptly dropped five of the next six, including defeats at the hands of the injury-decimated 76ers and a pair of blowouts by the Pacers.

It was a turn of events dispiriting enough to prompt questions about whether Kidd — whose tenure has featured one Western Conference finals, one spring without postseason play of any kind and this decidedly up-and-down third season — had run his course. And it was enraging enough to leave you rending your garments … or, at least, whipping around a few water bottles:

The frustration boiled over in the locker room, leading to an extended skull session picking through the sort of lapses in effort and inconsistent communication that can undercut even a team headlined by top-end talent like Dončić, once again on the short list of MVP candidates, and Irving, who’s been superbly productive in a complementary role ever since landing in Dallas 13 months ago. The Mavs responded by relieving the pressure with four straight wins, beating the Heat, Pistons, Bulls and Warriors by a combined 69 points.

Dallas now sits in eighth place at 38-28 — 2.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Lakers, 1.5 games behind the fifth-place Kings — heading into a pair of marquee nationally televised matchups against the best in the West: in Oklahoma City on Thursday, before returning home to face the surging Nuggets on Sunday.

The Mavs didn't exactly cover themselves in glory against the Warriors on Wednesday, shooting just 6-for-27 from 3-point land and letting the undermanned visitors hang around. But the burgeoning partnership of Gafford and Lively II continued to dominate the interior on both ends. The much-derided defense held the Warriors — basically drawing dead without Stephen Curry or Draymond Green, but still — below a point per possession in the competitive portion of the game. (Dallas is now up to 16th in defensive efficiency since the trade deadline, according to Cleaning the Glass, and second in transition defense — nudging into the “just good enough” range that, combined with an elite offense, confers postseason legitimacy.)

DALLAS, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 12: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks is congratulated by Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half against the Washington Wizards at American Airlines Center on February 12, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
When Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving share the floor, the Mavericks have been very good. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images) (Sam Hodde via Getty Images)

The early returns for the most recent edition of Dallas’ starting lineup — Dončić and Irving in the backcourt, Gafford, Washington and Jones up front — remained promising even in a frigid outside shooting night, with that fivesome running its tab up to plus-28 in 42 minutes over five games. Irving continued his strong run of form, shepherding that 16-2 early-fourth run to effectively put the game away. And on the other side of the matchups with the Thunder and Nuggets? The friendliest remaining schedule of any Western playoff team besides Denver.

“We got the team,” Kidd said after that recent loss to the Pacers. “This is actually a great test for us to be able to go through a hard time in March, because it only gets harder in April and May and June.”

That’s the proving ground — the crucible where a Mavericks team that has gone 21-5 against teams below .500 and just 17-23 against teams that have won at least half of their games, with a 9-17 mark against teams in the top 10 in net rating, will declare once and for all what it is.

Provided, of course, it gets there in one piece.

There was plenty for the Mavericks and their fans to feel good about midway through Wednesday’s fourth quarter, as they started to look toward OKC and Denver … right up until Dončić felt a hitch in his giddy-up after lofting another lob to new battery-mate Gafford:

Dončić went straight to the bench, told Kidd he needed to exit the game, and proceeded directly back to Dallas’ locker room. Moments later, the word came down from Mavericks PR: left hamstring soreness, done for the night. His string of seven consecutive triple-doubles, tied for the third-longest streak in NBA history, behind only Russell Westbrook and Wilt Chamberlain, was over. He reportedly will not travel to Oklahoma City for Thursday's game, and his status for Sunday’s duel with Nikola Jokić is unclear.

“We'll see,” Kidd told reporters after the game. “This is a fluid thing.”

It always seems to be for the Mavericks, for one reason or another. Lean in one direction, then suddenly shift into reverse; all you can do is brace.