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How Luka Doncic, Mavs Can Take the Next Leap

Dallas can’t afford to stand still and expect another conference finals run.

Chris Mannix: All right Beck, not to discount Dallas’s chances of being the first team in NBA history to overcome a three-zip deficit, but it looks like the Mavs are headed to (ahem) Cancun. By any measure this has been a successful season in Big D. The Mavericks overcame a horrible start, made the playoffs and advanced past the first round for the first time since 2011. Meanwhile Luka Dončić continues to look like this generation’s next great playoff performer. But now the real work begins. Unless Dallas wants to become the 2019 Blazers—a perennial playoff team that made one trip to the conference finals—they need to improve. So where do they start?

Howard Beck: Absolutely, this has been a successful season for Dallas, no matter how this series ends. The Mavs won a playoff series for the first time since their 2011 championship. Luka Dončić got a real taste of playoff success. That’s important. And there’s no shame in losing to a dynastic team in the conference finals. They’re in good company, with the Blazers, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder (all of whom, by the way, had better overall talent than this Mavs team). But they’ve gone as far as Luka alone can take them. He needs a legit costar. Kristaps Porziņģis was supposed to be that guy. He wasn’t, so he’s gone. The No. 1 job for first-year GM Nico Harrison is to acquire that costar, whether via trade or free agency. I just don’t see an obvious path to that guy. Do you?

CM: It’s not obvious. The Mavs need an upgrade at center—but bringing in a traditional five, Rudy Gobert? Would an offense that has benefited from Maxi Kleber’s shooting and who knows if Jason Kidd’s blitz-everything defense—which propelled the Mavs in the second half—would be able to operate efficiently? I guess I’ll pause there—would you make a run at Gobert?

HB: Gobert might raise their ceiling in the regular season, but recent playoff history, and overall league trends, suggest he can be a liability in the playoffs. Besides, the Mavs have been able to manufacture a solid defense without a traditional rim protector. Gobert’s salary is also a concern. To me, the priority has to be getting a second star who can score and create and take some of the load off Dončić. Jalen Brunson is solid. Spencer Dinwiddie is streaky. Neither one qualifies as a costar. I’d be keeping an eye on Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, maybe even Ben Simmons, who I think is far from a lock to stay with Brooklyn. Is there another potentially disgruntled star, or a team disenchanted with its star, out there who I’m missing?

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CM: Right now … I don’t see it. Dallas’s best chance of improving could be internal. They have some decisions to make. Jalen Brunson, who was already going to be a hot commodity this summer, has improved his stock greatly in the playoffs. The Mavs have to find a way to keep him. And I’d like to see what full training camp/season with Spencer Dinwiddie does for his chemistry alongside Luka. Look at Dinwiddie’s Washington/Dallas numbers—it’s like two different players. In free agency I’d nibble around the edges, look for late offseason bargains, etc.

Then there is Luka. I want to see Super Luka next season. I want to see a guy who looked like he spent the summer training for a bodybuilding contest. Dončić has never had a chiseled physique. But he has admittedly come to training camp out of shape in recent years and never looks the part of traditional NBA superstar: LeBron [James], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], etc. I’d like to see him make that physical leap next season. I think that could have a profound impact on his game, on both ends. What do you think?

HB: No disagreement here regarding Luka. He’s an amazing player, but his conditioning has always been a concern. He also needs to improve defensively. But even a fully realized Luka won’t be enough to deliver a title if he doesn’t have a stronger supporting cast. We’ve seen ample proof that having one super-high-usage star doesn’t get it done in this league, no matter how talented they are. It was true for James Harden, true for Russell Westbrook and it’s true for Luka Dončić. So I’ll be very curious to see how the Mavs handle their offseason. How much are they willing to spend to keep Brunson? Is Dinwiddie, who will make $18 million next season, part of their future, or would they try to flip him for frontcourt help? Can they find a taker for Tim Hardaway Jr. and his contract, three years, $54 million? Swapping Porziņģis for the smaller contracts of Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns was smart, but not a permanent solution. Ultimately, the Mavs either need to create the cap room to pounce on the next big free agent, or they need to package some of their ancillary players and picks to get that costar. The West is only getting better next season, with the Clippers and Nuggets presumably healthy and the Lakers … well, doing something. The Grizzlies are here to stay. The Timberwolves and Pelicans are rapidly improving. The Mavs can’t afford to stand still and expect another conference finals run.

CM: Agreed. There are some early Harden vibes to Luka, too. That’s not a criticism. He’s just ball-dominant and as great as he is, you really have to surround him with very specific types of players to maximize his talent. He’s going to be able to win you a first-round series every year. Maybe two. But I think what we are seeing against Golden State—and feel free, Mavs fans, to shove this dialogue in our faces if Dallas comes back to win the series—is that the team has hit a ceiling with its current roster. The front office will have to find creative ways to improve it. 

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