Luka Absence Proves His Presence: MVP of NBA Bubble

Richie Whitt

Boban Marjanovich set a monster pick at the foul line. J.J. Barea utilized it perfectly, brushing off his teammate’s hip, keeping his dribble alive and finding himself open for a foul-line jumper. But as two Utah Jazz defenders converged into Barea’s personal space, the point guard deftly audibled from a jump shot to a nifty drop-off pass. The ball sneaked between the two Jazz players and led Marjanovic in stride in the lane, allowing him a free path to a one-handed dunk and an easy basket for the Dallas Mavericks.

It was a perfect pick-and-roll right out of James Naismith’s dusty manual.

It was … unfairly unsatisfying, a reminder that Luka Doncic isn’t only one of the most entertaining players in the NBA but also a legitimate candidate for Most Valuable Player of the NBA’s wildly successful re-start Bubble.

READ MORE: Mavs Vs. Portland GAMEDAY Preview - Playoff Seeding At Stake

UPDATE: And now, as of Tuesday, there is actually such a thing. The NBA has announced that it will name an MVP and an All-Seeding Team as a result of play in the bubble.

Not that watching a savvy veteran like Barea run a clinical play with the 7-foot-4 Marjanovic isn’t enjoyable. It is. But when you’re less than 48 hours removed from seeing Doncic deliver one of the best pick-and-roll assists in the history of basketball, anything else feels relatively mortal.

READ MORE: Carlisle Raves About 'Bird/Kidd-Like Savant' Luka

After dominating the ball and maxing out his minutes and his effort as the Mavs went to overtime in three of their first five Bubble games, Doncic sat out Monday afternoon’s game against the Jazz.

His absence was alarming.

Despite his replacement – Barea – producing 18 points and eight assists in 26 minutes. And despite the Mavs, who also played without Kristaps Porzingis and Dorian Finney-Smith, rallying from a 22-point deficit for a victory. Mainly, because without their ringmaster, the relatively lifeless Mavs fell behind 78-56 before ending the game on a 37-14 run when the Jazz emptied its bench and played the fourth quarter with essentially a G League lineup.

READ MORE: Mavs Comeback Over Jazz Features 'Playoff-Style' Attack

“I was very concerned at halftime,” said Mavs’ head coach Rick Carlisle. “We had low assist numbers. We were stagnant. Had some uncharacteristic ball stickiness. They did pull their starters. We certainly can’t overlook that factor in the game.”

For most of Monday, in other words, we were reminded about Mavs’ basketball B.D. Before Doncic.

Without him they are NBA fodder, a cast of characters that would wonder aimlessly into yet another Lottery.

With him they are the most exciting team in basketball, able to beat any team on any night.

Luka says so himself.

“We always have chances,” Doncic said a few days ago. “We’re a great team. We always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. I think we have chances, so we’ll give it our best.”

Still ... without Luka (and to be fair, without Kristaps Porzingis and Dorian Finney-Smith, who also rested), the Mavs are barely competitive against a Jazz team playing without star Donovan Mitchell in a Monday matinee that had all the intensity of a Summer League in Las Vegas. With him, they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in a prime-time matchup that felt like Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Isn’t that the definition of an MVP?

The Mavs without Luka are …

The Kardashians void of money.

The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.

Sports sans fans.

READ MORE: Luka Not In Top 3 MVP Finalists, But Is Up For MIP

Over the weekend, Doncic – last year’s Rookie of the Year – was named a finalist for Most Improved Player. But after his quintet of performances in the Bubble, he should also be high on MVP ballots. (Inexplicably, this year’s MVP voting only takes into account games played up until March 11.)

In the Bubble, Doncic is averaging 35.4 points, 12.2 rebounds and 11.6 assists. His 36-point, 14-rebound, 19-assist performance was simply unprecedented. And his left-handed, between-the-legs bounce pass to a cutting Maxi Kleber was the highlight of the NBA’s re-start, and maybe of the entire season.

“Talented, really talented. One of the most talented guys I've ever played against,” said Bucks’ star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2019 MVP. “He's making the whole team better, and he's going to keep getting better. As long as he's making his team better, they're going to be tough to beat.”

Said Fox Sports Southwest analyst Derek Harper about Doncic’s play in the Bubble, “Only guy I’ve seen that makes the game look as easy as Luka is Wilt Chamberlain.”

Devin Booker, who has led the surprising Phoenix Suns to a 6-0 record in the bubble, and Portland’s Damian Lillard are in the conversation for best player in the Bubble. But Doncic is a cut above. He’s turned the triple-double into a yawn. He effortlessly gets where he wants – how he wants – on the court, creating open looks for himself or teammates on seemingly every possession. He’s made the Mavs the best offense in the Bubble.

He’s obliterating records we didn’t even know existed, and is already the Mavs’ all-time most prodigious statistical player. The other players are worthy candidates. But only one is drawing comparisons to Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson and James Harden.

Without Luka, you can watch Barea, Boban and the Mavericks execute successful basketball.

With Luka, you can witness history.

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