Throughout his historic first few years in the NBA, Luka Doncic has won with all manner of coaches and teammates, culminating in a surprise appearance in the Western Conference Finals last year. Over the last two-dozen games of this season, he will need to get up to speed quickly with his most talented teammate ever, Kyrie Irving.
While six weeks is hardly a comfortable adjustment period for Doncic and Irving, the trade continued a chaotic start to Doncic’s career. This spring in Dallas should provide some answers about what Doncic can be as a basketball player, as the Mavs have finally landed a legitimate co-star for Doncic after years of trial and error with various trades.
In theory, Irving is a perfect costar for Doncic. Everywhere Doncic has won, whether it be Spain, Slovenia, or Texas, he has done so with high-level secondary ball-handlers. Irving may be the very best one in the NBA, and has a history of thriving alongside legendary wing creators. Provided Irving can (finally) stay focused and that Dallas pays him what he wants this summer — two very big ifs — a committed version of Irving will be an incredible perimeter number two in the mold of past winning partners for Doncic like Goran Dragic and Jalen Brunson.
Still, the Mavs roster was unbalanced before the trade, and feels incomplete now. The team is small, and is likely to be even smaller come playoff time when switchable big man Maxi Kleber is back and closing games again. Wing defense, a huge strength last season, took a hit with Dorian Finney-Smith going to Brooklyn for Irving. This offseasn’s dice rolls on JaVale McGee and Christian Wood haven’t worked — head coach Jason Kidd plays both centers sparingly — and Dwight Powell simply isn’t big enough to handle the West’s best centers. The breakout of third-year star Josh Green should help round out lineups and benefit the two star guards, but even his recent stellar play won’t be enough to make the Mavs fully comfortable chasing a title with the current roster.
Incomplete, uncomfortable, and under pressure, the Mavs aren’t going to be among the favorites in the West. Whether that is a problem or not depends on how you see Doncic and how you see basketball players development curves. Doncic was excellent right away, coming off a Eurobasket and Euroleague title by the time he got drafted by Dallas in 2018, and has steadily built his game in the comfort of a team that has fully given him the keys.
Is Doncic ready to win a championship in 2023? Does he have to be? His absurd IQ, impossible shot-making, and control over the pace of the game would indicate the answer is yes. He has been an MVP candidate since his second season at age 20. But like all young stars, there are still limitations to his game he must find ways to strengthen and polish. He puts up little resistance defensively in all but the most important possessions. In 12 of his 31 career playoff games, Doncic has five or more turnovers. And whether to save his energy or because he tires quickly, Kidd rarely upped his minutes into the 40s in last year’s playoffs, a range most stars frequent in the postseason.
Beyond that, Doncic currently plays a style that does not have a winning precedent in the NBA for even Hall of Fame-caliber players. From Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant, no recent great has reached the 40.4% usage rate Doncic has posted the past two postseasons. Even James Harden maxed out at 37.1%. Against Utah in last season’s first round, Doncic missed the first three games, and Brunson had at least a 34% usage rate in each one. In Game 4 with Doncic back, Brunson’s usage dipped below 30%, and it fell even further in the following two rounds. In a conference finals loss to the Warriors, Doncic struggled against the eventual champs, shooting 41.5% from the field as the Mavs’ offensive sputtered as its star did.
That was his third taste of the playoffs, and also the third time you could reasonably claim he ran into a superior team. Each year, he has come back better — and with a larger workload.
Doncic exists today in something of a limbo. Because he was elite from an early age and got tagged as an unguardable future MVP before he even hit his prime, Doncic surged past the normal young star trajectory. But with Irving in tow and Doncic on his second contract, there’s more than just banners on the line in Dallas. This postseason should explain a lot about where Doncic is in his career and how to build the best team around him.
If Irving can slot in, an offense built around those two and shooters should take the Mavs plenty far. From there, it’s about finding wing and interior defense. If the partnership with Irving fails or Doncic takes a step back in some way, it won’t quite be back to the drawing board, but it will once again leave Dallas with uncertainty heading into the offseason — the one constant if there has been one during Doncic’s career.
We don’t know whether the Mavs’ impatience has been driven by Doncic, Cuban, or the front office (or a combination of all three), but they have clearly operated with urgency. A move to give up Dorian Finney-Smith (on a great contract) and a 2029 first-round pick for Irving shows how hard the Mavs want to push to build a winner next to their stud. It also raised the risk in the move tremendously, particularly given how hard it is to know what Irving will want to do this summer when he hits free agency.
Making this partnership work and showing Irving, as much as anybody else, that there’s at least a potential pathway to a title (assuming this is what he wants, which is not a guarantee) if the rest of the roster gets built out, is vital to avoid a major step back should Irving leave with the Mavs having spent key players and assets to get him.
That type of urgency also complicates the matter of Doncic’s own development. It’s easy to look at Dallas’ trade and their conference finals berth last year and place expectations on them to do even more this postseason. But the West is deep and there will be potential pitfalls in all three rounds, and Doncic is just 24 and still an incomplete player despite his greatness.
Young stars learning through playoff failure is a story fundamental to the NBA. The gold standards are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who lost again and again before they tweaked how they played, how they approached defenses, and finally broke through. For Doncic, one clear evaluation will be whether his huge workload can sustain and win in the playoffs — or if he can find ways to have a similar impact playing a bit more in tandem with Irving. On a Mavs team bereft of defensive depth, it will likely fall on him to guard better opposing players more consistently, further complicating the issue of stamina to carry so much of the offensive load.
We easily forget that even the greatest players must at times change and adapt. Doncic has had the fortune of not having to much of his young NBA career, but the close to this season could be the first time we see it. How he and the Mavs handle this stretch could have significant ramifications for their long-term build.