Mavs at Lakers Preview Donuts: How Luka Is Changing Our NBA West Playoff Thoughts
DONUT 1: NO PLAYOFFS?!: About a month ago I wrote a piece for DallasBasketball.com predicting the Dallas Mavericks would not make the playoffs this season. My logic, I felt, was pretty sound. It wasn’t that I thought the Mavericks wouldn’t be better this season. In fact, I wrote the following:
It’s not because (Luka) Doncic will take a step back in his sophomore season (he might, but I’m not counting on it). It’s not because (Kristaps) Porzingis might wear himself out with the rigors of his first 82-game season (we hope) in three seasons. It’s not because players like Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Justin Jackson won’t pull their weight. It’s not because the offseason signings of Seth Curry and Delon Wright aren’t solid.
My reasoning was that most of the Western Conference got better, too. Based on what I saw going into the season, I could only see a team or two that actually took a step back after last season (Oklahoma City being the most notable one). In fact, I felt there would be only one playoff spot open and that it would be a tough needle to thread for any Western Conference team on the outside looking in last season.
DONUT 2: BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL: I called it the "Beautiful, Brutal, Western Conference.'' And it remains so. But a lot has changed in a month. And it’s clear my prediction is starting to take on some serious water.
For instance, these Mavericks? Damn. Even after Tuesday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers (and I guess it was a loss — I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. I was watching my alma mater, Stephen F. Austin, steal one at Cameron Indoor against Duke. You’re welcome, America) the Mavs remained the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. And following an "absolutely breathtaking'' win at Phoenix on Friday, if the playoffs started today, yup, Dallas remains a four-seed.
DONUT 3: DONNIE TALK: Like Donnie Nelson told DBcom, Luka has altered the Mavs timetable.
DONUT 4: TOP TO BOTTOM: Doncic is the league’s Most Valuable Player after a month (fight me on it). Porzingis is starting to figure out where he fits in this offense (and a big help on defense on other nights). Mavs fans love Hardaway Jr. now. Did you know that 12 Mavs are averaging at least six points per game? The depth trickling down to the edges of the bench is something I didn’t quite expect one month in.
DONUT 5: PROFESSOR POSITIVE: But this is about what I thought would truly stand in the Mavs’ way of reaching the postseason — the Beautiful, Brutal Western Conference ... a march that continues today for the 12-6 Mavs when they play a 3 p.m. matinee at the Lakers, who are 17-2.
First, as much as we want to love what’s going on in Dallas, it should be pointed out that the Mavs are just a few games out from falling out of the playoff race (yes, I am Professor Positive. Why do you ask?).
So what’s gone the way I expected and what hasn’t a month in? Glad you asked.
DONUT 6: MAVS IN THE BIG 4?: I said the Los Angeles Lakers would be “markedly better.” Check. In fact today's foe the Lakers are the No. 1 team in the West. Plus, if, say LeBron James gets hurt, as he did a year ago, they won’t need duct tape and glue to hold the thing together.
The Denver Nuggets? No. 2 in the West right now. I noted the max extension for Jamal Murray (currently the Nuggets’ leading scorer) and the trade for Jerami Grant (nine points, 3.6 rebounds in 2019-20). They look right as rain right now.
Those aforementioned Clippers? I noted the signing of Kawhi Leonard and the trade for Paul George. They beat the Mavs Tuesday night and are now No. 3 in the West. What should scare you is that George has only played seven games. He and Leonard are still trying to figure it out. Imagine when they do figure it out?
The Houston Rockets went all in to get Russell Westbrook and so far, so good. The Rockets hold steady at No. 5. Same goes with the Utah Jazz at No. 6, another playoff team from last year. To be fair to Dallas here: The Mavs have yet to play Utah. But in the Mavs' most recent meeting with the Rockets, Dallas won. In Houston. (Mavs Step Back Podcast is all over it.)
DONUT 7: WHO IS OUT OF THE BIG 8?: What hasn’t gone as expected?
Um, the Golden State Warriors for one. Even with the losses of Kevin Durant and Mavs trade candidate Andre Igoudala, I felt the Warriors would remain contenders with Steph Curry and Draymond Green in the lineup. Then Curry broke his hand. Now all bets are off. The Warriors are the worst team in the West. This feels like the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs, where they lost David Robinson for the season, got the No. 1 pick and drafted Tim Duncan. Then the dynasty began.
Speaking of those Spurs, I wrote this about them last month:
C’mon, it’s the Spurs. It’s Gregg Popovich. They’ll figure it out by the Rodeo Road Trip. Always do.
Well, they might still figure it out. But right now they look like a dysfunctional bunch and six games under .500. If Pops gets this team to the playoffs it might be his best job yet. And Dallas' win over the Spurs means the Mavs stand in their way, and not the other way around.
The Portland Trail Blazers? Six games under .500? I guess that’s why they went and got Carmelo Anthony. It’s hard to fathom on paper. The stars are healthy. Hassan Whiteside is averaging a double-double. Six players in double figures scoring. They should be better than this. And they may end up being better than this by the time we get to April.
DONUT 8: IS THIS PERCENTAGE RIGHT? According to FiveThirtyEight, the Mavs presently own a 94-percent change of making the NBA Playoffs.
DONUT 9: TODAY IN LA: The result of all of this? There are three playoff spots in the Western Conference, at this moment, taken up by teams that missed the postseason last year — the Mavs, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns. Not to mention that the Sacramento Kings, after that horrid start, are a game out.
The Mavs are just 18 games into this. It’s OK to feel great about this start. It’s the best start the Mavs have had in some time. But it’s going to get tougher. ... as I believe we will see today.
Dallas played the Lakers tough in an early-season meeting at the AAC - the one after which LeBron labeled Luka "a bad m----------.'' Luka is still all that. But the Lakers? They'll roll out a lineup today full of nicely-fitting parts (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee), a second-tier standout (Danny Green) and two of the greatest talents in the game (Anthony Davis and LeBron.)
DONUT 10: BY THE NUMBERS: Los Angeles went 14-1 in November and has won 10 straight. The contextual point? The best teams are already rising to the top.
DONUT 11: QUOTABLE: “We’re hoping to be in the playoffs, that’s all,” Luka said this week. “We want to be as high as possible. But the goal is to be in the playoffs.”
DONUT 12: THE FINAL WORD: Will one of those ‘best’ teams, one of those playoff teams, be the Mavericks? Many signs point to yes. But the Beautiful, Brutal Western Conference will have its say. We’ll check in this afternoon ... and we'll check back in about a month.