Luka Dončić can’t do it all, and the Mavericks are in trouble if he keeps having to

The Dallas Mavericks, 11 games into this season, haven’t yet reached any determining point. They’re halfway into the season’s first quarter being played. Any number of outcomes remain possible.

But the Mavericks falling to 6-5 after two miserable road losses this week — one to the Orlando Magic, 94-87, on Wednesday and the other a 113-105 defeat to the Washington Wizards on Thursday — hasn’t provided any encouragement for this season’s best scenarios coming true. It’s been bleak basketball following the same game script: Dallas sees leads dissipate and its offense stall out. The Mavericks look lethargic, even fatigued.

There’s no discernible reason for that. Dallas is tied for the second-fewest games played in the league thus far, and the team has had four different instances with two days between games. The schedule has been favourable, frankly. Most opponents the Mavericks have played have been missing starters: they’ve avoided Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Kyrie Irving, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and more. In the past two losses, Orlando was without Paolo Banchero and Washington absent Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porziņģis. The Mavericks didn’t have Christian Wood for those games, of course. Injuries are part of this league. You still can’t deny the Mavericks’ schedule has been fortunate.

Until this two-game skid, when Dallas was 6-3 despite sometimes looking shaky, it was easier to spin the team’s start as something else. The opening-game blown lead against the Suns was irregular, the collapse against the Thunder was historically improbable, the plodding wins were part of the process. Yes, we’ve been reminded of the offseason fears. “Perhaps the season turns around Sunday, and a five-game start is forgotten,” I wrote in that article. It looked briefly like that might be the case.

Now, it seems less certain. Let’s take away the team’s lone outlier, the 41-point snowballing blowout against Memphis. (It’s perhaps something and perhaps nothing that the league has only seen six 30-plus point blowouts this year, a lower rate of large game-to-game margins than usual.) In the other 10 games combined, the Mavericks have now been outscored by six points. In a league where point differential speaks to team quality, it’s a worrisome start — especially when the Mavericks were expected to start this season any way but this.

So far, these are where the worries come from — and which directions they might go from here.

1. Can Dallas win when Luka Dončić isn’t otherworldly?

Doncic’s streak of 30-point games ended against Orlando. He went from scoring 44 points against the Magic last month to just 24 points on 9-of-29 shooting on Wednesday. On Thursday, he only passed the 20-point mark against Washington thanks to a meaningless made 3 in the final seconds. Without warning, he’s looked sluggish and disengaged during this back-to-back.

“I’m just feeling more tired on the court these last two games than anything,” he said after Thursday’s defeat.

That’s a troubling quote just 11 games into the season with the schedule poised to become tougher.

Dončić is leading the league in field goals attempted and free throws attempted. He’s averaging the third-most drives per game. He’s drawing 8.1 fouls per game, up from 6.2 last season. He’s had possession of the ball for 111 minutes this season, 20 full minutes more than Ja Morant, who comes in second. He’s on pace for the third-highest usage rate in league history. It’s no wonder his shooting percentages have plummeted in fourth quarters.

Dončić’s style has spawned a philosophical debate around the league over the past years: How much offense can any one player control without negative effects? Clearly, if Dončić has already felt the effects in the 10th and 11th games of the season, this might be too much. Spencer Dinwiddie played brilliantly in both losses, and that wasn’t enough to turn around either result.

These games were played without Wood, the team’s de facto replacement for the departed Jalen Brunson. His return should help, but that has its own issues. The Dallas coaching staff has been committed to a slow integration of the big man, which is reasonable in a vacuum. But the team hasn’t fully shifted its offense to fully incorporate him just yet, which has caused these trickle down effects on Dončić.

As I wrote last week: “Dallas has played Dončić-ball thus far, and it’s working because he’s that good. But if Dončić-ball is the team’s only path forward, well, we already saw its limitations last season — and the second-best player on that version of the Mavericks depart. For Wood to have any chance to assume that mantle, it’ll need to look different.”



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2. Are the role players all right?

Most good teams need offseason improvements to maintain themselves. The NBA is a rare example of this tired cliché actually working in practice: If you’re not moving ahead, you’re falling behind. Dallas doesn’t have a young supporting cast beyond Dončić and Wood, for the most part. Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith are 29, while Reggie Bullock and Maxi Kleber both 31.

The team’s attempt to freshen this cast around Dončić was signing JaVale McGee, and it’s worked terribly. Josh Green’s development has helped, but his 10-point tally on 4-of-10 shooting while playing 44 minutes in the past two losses is a reminder that his continued progress wo n’t always be linear or consistent. Tim Hardaway Jr. has made just a third of his shots from him thus far. It’s likely the lot of them will play better as the season progresses, but only Dinwiddie is off to a good start to the season.

If the past two games weren’t good situations for Facundo Campazzo, which ones will be? The point guard signed in the days leading up to the season — apparently, I’m told, a player they had sighted for this roster slot this entire time — clearly has an emergency role to play whenever Dončić or Dinwiddie miss games. But for a team so lacking consistent energy that it un-mothballed Dwight Powell and returned him to the starting lineup (and deservedly so), it makes you wonder why that third ballhandler role was seen as one only needed in an emergency.

3. How and when does the defense improve?

Dallas has allowed the ninth-fewest points per 100 possessions in the league. The Mavericks are still better than most teams at limiting the most efficient shots, allowing the 11th-fewest attempts at the rim and fourth-fewest 3s. But without elite defenders, there’s only so much success any team can have by dictating an opponent’s shot distribution.

As D Magazine’s Jake Kemp wrote this week, “Dallas is yielding a lower field goal percentage at the rim when McGee isn’t on the floor. Allow me to re-emphasize: he was brought here to address one area above all, but the Mavericks are better when he doesn’t play. They don’t protect the rim well, McGee or not.” It’s a good article that unravels most of the logic that could be mustered for McGee’s signing. McGee has been a deterrent at the rim in the past, but in different schemes where he was a reactive paint presence rather than a synchronized defender within a proactive system. He’s still adjusting, sure, but he’s also a 34-year-old center reliant upon athleticism. Unless there’s dramatic improvement, which he’s shown no signs of producing, it’s hard to imagine how Dallas musters any defensive force beyond what’s been seen.

Sure, we’ve said it before: This season has always seemed destined to be transitional. But it’s a season that still has to be played, and it’s one that the fandom rightly wants to find enjoyable. These past two defeats — and really, most of these first 11 games — haven’t been that. If that’s the case despite favorable scheduling, it’s easy to worry about what comes next.

(Top photo of Luka Dončić and Magic defenders: Kim Klement / USA Today)


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