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Pressure Mounts for Mavs After Luka Dončić Extension

There is no surprise the Mavs signed him to a supermax extension. But can Dallas build a championship contender in that span?

Like most teams, the Mavericks entered free agency with a host of concerns, needs and wants. Unlike most teams, they also had a narrow window to upgrade their roster using cap space that would not exist the following year. And, independent of every other franchise in the NBA, on Tuesday Dallas officially inked Luka Dončić—a 22-year-old who’s already made as many All-NBA first teams as Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard and Paul George combined—to a historic five-year, $207 million supermax extension.

This deal justifies its own parade. It also comes with a profound responsibility: The need to make sure Luka reaches or even exceeds his ceiling can and should put immense pressure on everyone who works for the Mavericks. Dončić makes progress feel both inevitable and imperative, and, despite his new contract, this offseason has not unfolded as the best-case scenario a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2011 hoped it would be.

A brief reminder of just how awesome Dončić is before we go any further. In the 2020–21 playoffs he averaged 35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds. He made nearly half his shots, 40% of his threes and tallied 46 points and 14 assists in his very first Game 7 against a defense that had Kawhi Leonard, George, Nicolas Batum and Patrick Beverley, who, along with Ivica Zubac, had to be benched for most of the series after Dončić rendered them feeble. When Luka played, the Mavericks’ offensive rating was a whopping 118.3. When he sat, it plummeted to 83.0. And, to top it all off, no player in NBA postseason history has ever averaged more points per 36 minutes in the first three years of his career.

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His greatness creates a fascinating question: What should someone who can seemingly do everything by himself actually have around him? It’s a mild predicament. Going forward, adding players who function best with the ball in their hands would intentionally remove it from Luka’s, which sounds mad unless you recently saw him wear down against the Clippers. Dončić is marvelous but also a human being. When tired—as he visibly was after seemingly commandeering at least 80 pick-and-rolls in every game throughout that series—the stepback threes that make him invincible turn into fatalistic heaves. Michael Jordan is the only player who’s ever had a higher usage rate through his first three seasons—34.4 to Luka’s 34.3—and Jordan’s Bulls were … not good.

A playmaking point guard who also thrives off the ball and holds his own on defense would be nice. So would a stable of 3-and-D wings. Or a dynamic, rebounding rim protector. There’s no “right” way to supplement a prodigious mega-talent so early in his career, especially one who can already make irritating structural setbacks look trivial. Is there a world where Luka does what LeBron James could not during his first Cavaliers stint? Sure. But some situations are obviously more advantageous than others, which is why interrogating Dallas’s operational resources since Dončić was drafted feels relevant.

This brings us to Kristaps Porziņģis. Dallas’s highest-paid player (by more than $10 million) averaged just 13 points in a disastrous postseason that saw him get reduced to someone whose time of possession dropped below a minute per game. The fit on offense is generally neat (more on that later), but coming into this offseason Porziņģis’s contract was even more notable. His max deal coupled with Dončić’s extension always meant the Mavs would be constrained financially over the next few years, forcing some pressure on them to make an expensive signing. Instead of striking gold with Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley or even someone like Spencer Dinwiddie, Dallas stayed above the cap and pivoted to re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. and Boban Marjanović. They then used their midlevel exception on Reggie Bullock—a solid 3-and-D wing who makes enough sense anywhere but just had his offensive limitations exposed in the playoffs—and added Sterling Brown, who was quietly one of the best three-point shooters in basketball last season, especially after the All-Star break. Josh Richardson was shipped to the Celtics for Moses Brown (creating a useful $10.8 million trade exception) and Willie Cauley-Stein’s team option was picked up.

When stacked against expectations, the results were disappointing. But the addition of a couple of stationary marksmen in Bullock and Brown will help on both ends. And, again, their best player is an MVP frontrunner who doesn’t turn 23 until February. It’s possible that Luka’s own improvement (especially in the stamina department) will be enough to propel Dallas to the Finals as it is currently constructed. The NBA is increasingly hazy and we just saw even less predictable outcomes become reality. With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant in the Eastern Conference, Leonard and Jamal Murray recovering from ACL tears, James turning 37 years old in December and Chris Paul turning the same age in May, the West isn’t the death march it used to be.

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This creates another conflict, though one most teams would welcome with open arms. A decade after LeBron’s Decision, patience has become an alien concept around the NBA, particularly after everyone watched the Suns and Hawks grow from stumbling, purposeless organizations into near world champs. Now, the Mavs have to weigh their understandable desire to win right away with the reality that Luka is under contract for the next five seasons. Clogging their cap sheet any more than it already has wouldn’t be wise, and when it comes to making a win-now trade (like including Josh Green, Tyrell Terry or Jalen Brunson in a deal for 35-year-old Goran Dragić), the Mavs should proceed with some caution.

It’s all a balancing act. Dallas took what some might call a shortcut two years ago when it moved a pair of first-round picks, its most recent lottery pick (Dennis Smith Jr.), DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews for Porziņģis, Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke. The move didn’t obliterate its future, but it did accelerate what could have been a more methodical rebuild. Kristaps just turned 26. Yes, there was an ill-timed vanishing act during the Mavericks’ first-round loss against the Clippers, but the previous year, in the bubble, he was extraordinary before a meniscus tear ended things early.

And when Porziņģis looked right during the 2020–21 regular season, his on-court fit with Dončić—where the team’s offensive rating was about a point higher than the all-time most efficient Nets—vindicated that transaction. They’re one of basketball’s most lethal pick-and-roll tandems. (Last year was also the very first time in Porziņģis’s career when his team was worse on defense with him on the floor.)

Dallas overreacted after the bubble by attempting to stabilize its all-offense identity with some tenacity on the other end. The Richardson–Seth Curry trade was a misstep in real time, and several of its offseason signings (like James Johnson and Wes Iwundu) were shed at the deadline. The result was an offense and a defense that were worse than the season before. Now, even though Dončić still doesn’t have a top-tier playmaker by his side, his supporting cast is more potent and firm, without sacrificing much in the name of continuity. Maybe Green or Terry hits. Or Brunson—who’s unrestricted next summer and due for a large raise—takes a leap. Or it uses that aforementioned trade exception from the Richardson deal to add someone like Jeremy Lamb or Tomáš Satoranský.

Of course, unmentioned thus far is how all these players will actually play. For years, Rick Carlisle favored a slow, steady half-court offense—Dallas finished last, second to last or third to last in transition frequency in all but one season since 2014—that primarily catered to an aging Dirk Nowitzki and then Luka’s own brilliant ability to flatten every defensive scheme that currently exists when given a high ball screen and some space to operate. Under Carlisle, the Mavs didn’t turn the ball over, attempted very few shots at the rim and launched a bunch of threes. It was a safe albeit successful brand of basketball that made sense for Dončić. Then again, it’s worth wondering whether any scheme could hamper Dallas’s franchise player. Jason Kidd, the Mavericks’ new coach, is about to find out.

Will he embrace a similar style of play or encourage a quicker tempo? Will Porziņģis spend most of his minutes at the five or as a cog in larger lineups, similar to those that Kidd’s former team, the Lakers, deployed the past two seasons? The Mavericks have myriad intriguing lineup options.

Beyond that, if he’s not traded first, Porziņģis can opt out of his contract in two years. The Mavericks have only Luka, Hardaway Jr. and a few rookie-scale deals on the books that year. A fresh, evolved iteration with Dončić at the center of everything may be in the cards if this one doesn’t work out. But also, as we’ve seen time and again, teams that don’t have cap space are still able to acquire talent they want if the talent also wants them (e.g., Chicago with Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan or the Heat with Lowry). There’s a decent chance that good, seemingly unaffordable players will want to team up with a transcendent talent.

Now, is Dončić good enough to make every question asked in this article completely useless over the next few years? Absolutely. But if they don’t make a deep run this season it’ll be fascinating to see how the Mavericks respond. With urgency or calm? 

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