While the talk of the bubble has been the league’s efforts to center Zion Williamson as well as the Pelicans’ involvement as a way of giving fans exposure to a young star, but quietly, the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic are just as interesting and have far more of a chance to make a run in Orlando.
The Mavericks’ historic offense was one of the nicest things to behold in the NBA this season, as Doncic turned in a season that will earn him MVP votes and Kristaps Porzingis developed into an awesome copilot. The middle of the Western Conference is jumbled, leaving the Mavericks a path toward, potentially, a top-four seed. This will be our first taste of Doncic in the playoffs, and nobody should count Dallas out as a tough second-round opponent.
Antonius Cleveland (two-way)
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Josh Reaves (two-way)
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20 (5.5)
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7.0)
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5)
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24 (9.5)
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24 (9.5)
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27 (11.0)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33 (18.0)
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37 (21.5)
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36 (21.5)
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36 (21.5)
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36 (22.0)
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39 (24.0)
Friday, July 31 — 9 p.m. ET — vs. Houston Rockets
Sunday, Aug. 2 — 9 p.m. ET — vs. Phoenix Suns
Tuesday, Aug. 4 — 2:30 p.m. ET — vs. Sacramento Kings
Thursday, Aug. 6 — 6:30 p.m. ET — vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Saturday, Aug. 8 — 8:30 p.m. ET — vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Monday, Aug. 10 — 3 p.m. ET — vs. Utah Jazz
Tuesday, Aug. 11 — 5 p.m. ET — vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Thursday, Aug. 13 — Time TBD — vs. Phoenix Suns
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Winning a playoff series. Despite Dallas’ historically efficient offense and MVP-caliber play from Luka Doncic, the Mavericks are still a young team, meaning there’s no pressure to barnstorm the league right away. In the short-term, they can look to climb the standings, perhaps as high as the fourth seed, if they steal games from Houston and Utah during the seeding round.
What’s most impressive about the Mavericks’ offense is that there’s no sorcery involved in making it go. With Doncic running the show and shooters and finishers at every position, Dallas has built a scoring machine that is hard to stop. While Utah or Houston is certainly more experienced and star-studded than Dallas, it would not be a shock for Doncic, Porzingis and a bunch of shooters to be precisely the recipe for the Mavericks to make a surprise appearance in the second round.
Kristaps Porzingis: Throughout February and March, Porzingis finally started to look like the player we all remembered, and the guy the Mavs thought they were getting when they gave up two first-round picks for him at the trade deadline in 2019. Porzingis averaged 24.5 points per game in 14 games after Feb. 1, and Dallas scored 130 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in the month of February. If not for a cold shooting streak going into the hiatus, Porzingis might have even had some All-NBA steam.
Yet Dallas’ best lineup, which outscored opponents by 34.8 points per 100 possessions, has traditional rim-running big man Powell in the frontcourt in place of Porzingis. Sure, the same lineup with Porzingis instead of Powell is nearly as good, but head coach Rick Carlisle has not trusted to play as many minutes. Porzingis has long struggled to defend in the post because of his thin frame and injury history, which is why Powell is so useful to the Mavs. The team clearly made it work during the regular season, but to get the five best players on the floor at once and juice the offense even more, Porzingis will likely have to play center more in the playoffs. Whether he can do that right now will likely help decide how far the Mavericks go this year.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Will the small guards hold up? It’s Carlisle’s style to play two or three guards at all times, but with Doncic, typically under-sized lineups became more playable. Though Doncic isn’t a great defender, his size and play-making ability give Carlisle the freedom to tinker even more than he has in the past. The same is true of the front court, where the versatility of Porzingis and Kleber plus the athleticism and efficiency of Powell make the Mavs’ roster interchangeable and pretty fearsome.
That said, most of the team’s depth is made up of typical Carlisle pieces. Where physical, athletic forwards like Caron Butler and Shawn Marion used to be, now there is Finney-Smith, Jackson and Kidd-Gilchrist. And most intriguingly, Carlisle hasn’t strayed from his infatuation with extremely small guards, in this case Brunson and Curry.
Both had career years, with Curry scoring the post points per game of his career and shooting an insane 45.3 percent from deep. Brunson is about league-average from three but a smart play-maker and physical defender. Carlisle made it work in 2011 when Dallas won the title with Barea and Jason Kidd playing heavy minutes, but the league looked different back then, and Tyson Chandler was at the peak of his powers as a defensive anchor. This roster poses different challenges as well as opportunities, but Dallas’ 17th-ranked defense remains a question as long as Carlisle puts diminutive guys on the court as often as he does next to the defensively challenged core of Porzingis and Doncic.