NBA superstars, the ones that have a chance to be truly special, often follow a similar trajectory, at least broadly speaking.
They enter the league as instant sensations, thrilling basketball fans while playing for rebuilding teams. Then, the expectations quickly arrive, and if they aren’t reaching the postseason and making deep runs, the criticism gets louder. If they are able to break through and be “The Man” on a championship team, the conversation changes in a dramatic way. (Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo.)
Luka Doncic is following this path, but he’s well ahead of schedule. At just 22 years old, the Mavericks star has earned a spot on the All-NBA First Team twice and finished in the top six of MVP voting each of the past two seasons.
Doncic posts eye-popping numbers (27.7 points, 8.6 assists, 8.0 rebounds per game in 2020-21), but his impact extends well beyond the box score. He is always in control and dictating the action, whether throwing defenders off balance with fakes and fancy footwork or punishing them for cheating too far over by hitting his teammates for open looks.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Mavericks front office handed Doncic a five-year, $207 million supermax rookie extension as soon as possible this offseason. The deal, which kicks in during the 2022-23 campaign, solidifies him as the franchise cornerstone through 2026. (The final year includes a player option.)
That commitment is undoubtedly a massive victory for the Mavericks. It also puts Doncic firmly in that second stage of superstardom.
While Doncic was spectacular in the Mavs’ 2020 and 2021 playoff series against the Clippers (33.5 points, 9.5 assists, 8.8 rebounds, 49.4 percent shooting, 39.2 percent 3-point shooting in 13 career playoff games), Dallas failed to advance beyond the first round both times. The most recent elimination was especially painful considering the Mavericks held 2-0 and 3-2 leads.
Doncic and the Mavs performed admirably against a legitimate title contender, but they are beyond the “happy to be here” phase. The Athletic’s Tim Cato shared the results of a fan survey this week, and Dallas devotees voted overwhelmingly that their favorite team must win a playoff series in order for next season to be considered successful.
The challenge for the Mavericks will be providing Doncic with the support that he needs. Dallas’ offseason didn’t bring a ton of excitement, as the most notable outside additions were Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown. The Mavs did re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. and Boban Marjanovic, but those guys are role players with hard ceilings.
With no major needle movers on the way, the Mavericks will be relying on internal improvement under new coach Jason Kidd. Kristaps Porzingis, who Mavs owner Mark Cuban called a “bonafide superstar” less than two years ago, is the biggest swing player on the roster. He has the size and skill to be a force on both ends, but his defensive effort and awareness in particular have been uninspiring.
One foundational issues with the Mavericks’ defense against the Clippers was Kristaps Porzingis’ lack of impact as the five.
Between poor containment on the perimeter and very little resistance in the paint, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, in particular, took full advantage. pic.twitter.com/lNWds5VXe4
— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) June 7, 2021
“The biggest thing is the defensive side of the ball,” Kidd told Dwain Price of Mavs.com. “We’ve got to pay a little bit more attention to detail. Understand we all have one goal, and that’s to win a championship. And we’ve got to get stops. The last time we won a championship here, we did get stops.”
It’s also fair to question whether there will be chemistry issues between Doncic and Porzingis after reports surfaced last season regarding Porzingis’ frustration with playing second fiddle to Doncic. Is Kidd the right coach to guide a team through a rough patch? He wasn’t exactly known for being able to communicate with players in a productive fashion the last time he held a head-coaching job.
Perhaps Doncic is good enough to render any concerns moot and push the Mavericks to the Western Conference semifinals. He is a rare talent who should only get better with more NBA experience.
But even some of the game’s greatest players couldn’t escape that expectation stage until they received some help from management or found it elsewhere. On the surface, Doncic’s new contract provides the Mavericks the benefit of time. But patience often has a short shelf life and the reality is that Doncic’s sudden emergence means the time is now for Dallas to take a step forward.