A typical top-five pick in the NBA will spend the bulk of his rookie season navigating the league’s ups and downs through games without much more than personal development and reputation at stake. Luka Dončić, then, is a particularly notable exception to this trend, having assumed a central role on a team squarely in the hunt for a playoff berth. While most of his rookie peers slowly attempt to find their way, a perfect marriage of rookie, coach and supporting cast has made Dončić instantly transformative.
In the absence of a superstar, Dallas operates largely by committee, with depth at every position. Rick Carlisle gets the most out of every rotation player, deploying contrastive skill sets in perfect concert with one another so that any weak points can be fortified by another piece in the machine. But it’s Dončić who ties those parts together, making the Mavericks better than a team of that talent level has any right to be. He can already create efficient offense for himself, but it’s what he does for others that makes him such a vital addition.
In being so flexible himself, Dončić ensures that no Maverick is overstretched. His ability to work comfortably from nearly anywhere on the floor allows his teammates to pick their spots rather than being confined to less cozy ones. He affords Harrison Barnes the space to attack in places that suit him, Wes Matthews the luxury of running off screens or spotting up, and DeAndre Jordan the freedom to dive relentlessly to the rim.
Dončić has the ball in his hands on most every possession he is on the floor, steering plays in the halfcourt as either finisher or facilitator. He already possesses the vision and creativity to give possessions life, and the patience to sustain them until Dallas finds what it wants. He bends opposing defenses toward him, only to set up a teammate on the opposite side of the floor:
He works intentionally in the pick-and-roll, dragging his defender back and forth over screens until he finds headway. When an opening forms, he improvises at the defense’s direction. Any misstep is an invitation for Dončić to attack. Much of his game is built upon the chemistry he has established with Jordan in the pick-and-roll, and Jordan’s roll gravity helps open up the floor for all parties. When help opponents commit to Dončić, he tosses lobs to a rolling big. Protect against the lob, and Dončić lofts floaters over indecisive defenders. Manage to defend both, and Dončić zips passes to open shooters:
Barnes and Matthews are underqualified as primary scorers, but in more complementary roles, they’ll do just fine. The two shoot a combined 43.8 percent on 3-pointers set up by Dončić and spare him of especially strenuous defensive assignments. The Mavs’ present cast of role players aren’t so much a long-term core as they are a template for how Dallas should build around Dončić, who projects as neither a versatile defender nor an indomitable scorer, going forward. So much of his game is predicated upon hitting difficult shots and finding easy ones for his teammates. He is capable of making contested attempts at a high rate but will be at his best with a costar who can alleviate some of the strain from his shoulders.
That the Mavericks have scored and defended more efficiently without Dončić on the floor is less a reflection of the rookie’s impact than it is a testament to the quality and continuity of Dallas’ bench. The Mavericks have 11 players capable of contributing on any given night — Dirk Nowitzki’s return could add a 12th — and Carlisle often deploys five backups en masse. Dallas is the rare team that can survive prolonged stretches with all-bench units, let alone thrive in those minutes. They feature heady players who keep possessions moving, taking what the defense affords them, and open shots seem to become available on almost every trip down the floor:
Possessions often begin with J.J. Barea operating in the pick-and-roll, but could just as easily pivot to Devin Harris attacking off the dribble or Dorian Finney-Smith sneaking behind the defense for drop-off passes. Maxi Kleber provides the floor spacing necessary for the offense to breathe, with more functionality as a driver, roll man, and defender than the standard stretch big man. The Mavs’ most reliable bench lineup (Barea, Harris, Finney-Smith, Kleber, and Dwight Powell) has scored at a prodigious rate in 74 minutes together, and Carlisle will occasionally mix Dončić, Barnes, or Dennis Smith Jr. into second units to add an extra touch of playmaking. Jalen Brunson can provide spot minutes without missing a beat.
Nowitzki’s return will complicate the rotation, and a fully healthy backcourt could squeeze Brunson from regular duties. Carlisle, though, has the liberty and the willingness to experiment until he finds the right mix. The foursome of Dončić, Matthews, Barnes, Finney-Smith looms as a possible counter to athletic, like-sized opponents, though Dallas lacks some defensive versatility at center. That and their lack of a singular, immutable talent impose a ceiling on how far these Mavericks can go. Dončić and Smith are still figuring out how best to play off of one another, a balance that will take time to find. For now, Dallas has a right to be thrilled with where it is now – and where its young star can take them.