How Far Can Luka Doncic Take the Mavericks in the Bubble?

Luka Doncic has had a phenomenal sophomore year, but can the Mavericks really challenge anyone in the West this year?
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Luka Doncic enters the NBA’s restart in the midst of perhaps the best sophomore season of the 21st century. Doncic was the most accomplished teenager in European basketball history when he was drafted in 2018, and he’s only continued his superstar ascent since. No player in the 2000s has posted a better PER in his second season. Trae Young is the only player to average more points per game in year two. Doncic does have a solid supporting cast in Dallas, but make no mistake: he's arguably the NBA’s top asset entering the next decade.

Doncic and the Mavericks are among the top contenders to win a championship in the 2020s. How long can they last in Orlando? That’s a different conversation. Let’s assess the Dallas' standing in the Western Conference as we approach the NBA restart.

The Mavericks appear to have two distinct paths in Orlando, with one route markedly preferable. Let’s start with the worst–albeit most likely–scenario. The Western Conference is composed of two clear tiers in 2019-20, with the two Los Angeles juggernauts leading the pack by a significant margin. The rest of the West teams in Orlando are jumbled in terms of their championship odds. The Rockets are considered by many to be the third-best team in the West, though they currently sit No. 6 in the conference. Utah is dealing with both the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic and a dose of superstar drama. Both Denver and Oklahoma City are quality teams, though both their ceilings appear limited. Parsing the West outside of the top two is difficult. Dallas could beat any of the aforementioned teams in the right series.

Getting to a matchup against one of the non-Los Angeles teams is paramount for Doncic and Co., though an uphill climb awaits. The Mavericks currently sit No. 7 in the West, 1.5 games back of Houston before the two teams square off on July 31. With additional matchups against the Clippers and Bucks in the eight-game regular season, making up ground is no easy task.

Could Doncic and the Mavericks challenge the Clippers in a first round battle? There’s not much reason for optimism. Los Angeles is long and versatile on the perimeter, able to trot out a vast array of quality lineups. There’s not the defensive presence to slow both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, neutralizing any scoring implosions from Doncic. Kristaps Porzingis could prove to be an x-factor given the Clippers lack of interior power, though his scoring binges have been few and far between in his first season with the Mavericks. Perhaps Dallas snags a game or two, but the road will end there. The potential conference favorites aren’t falling in round one.

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Dallas’ playoff prospects become increasingly more interesting if it can rise above the No. 7 seed. Seeding in the No. 3 through No. 6 spots is largely irrelevant without home-court advantage in Orlando, and a pair of first-round matchups could be decided by the luck of the draw. It’s unclear who the Mavericks wish to face if they can avoid a Los Angeles team in round one.

It’s unlikely Dallas is eyeing a first-round battle with their Lone Star State rival. The Rockets have a clear top option that can outduel Doncic, though Houston’s other MVP could be more impactful. The Mavericks defensive options against Russell Westbrook aren’t exactly appealing outside of perhaps Dorian Finney-Smith. It’s easy to imagine Westbrook bullying his way to the rim against Dallas bench units, with J.J. Barea or Seth Curry showing up on the wrong side of a poster. Porzingis could once again theoretically punish a small-ball unit, though that’s once again an unreliable option. If the Rockets are healthy, they're a first-round opponent to avoid.

The other three Western Conference teams are hard to separate as Dallas looks toward potential first round opponents. For Doncic’s sake, Denver may provide the path of least resistance. Utah sports the best defensive big and basketball, while Oklahoma City’s backcourt duo can wreak serious havoc on opposing offenses. Doncic could hunt Jamal Murray at will in a matchup with the Nuggets, burrowing into the lane without an impact shot blocker in his way.

Yet boiling Dallas’ preference to Doncic’s best matchup is too simplistic. Denver sports the NBA’s No. 3 offensive rating since Feb. 1. Utah lost a key piece during the COVID-19 hiatus. Oklahoma City’s depth remains a serious question mark. There are no easy answers as Dallas prepares for a sprint to close the regular season.

Each potential opponent provides a unique set of circumstances, but the first 60-plus games of 2019-20 proved a key point: The Mavericks are a serious threat to take down any non-Los Angeles team in Orlando. Doncic will have to wait a couple of years before truly chasing the Larry O’Brien trophy. But a first round upset? That’s certainly in play. With a true phenom leading the way, the Mavericks are among the most dangerous first round opponents ahead of the NBA restart.