The road to success for stars in the NBA is littered with teams whose pieces don’t fit. With cracks in those connections, it’s hard for even the most talented teams to stay together when driving over the potholes and through the speed traps of the playoffs. Perhaps the wheels fall off when faced with pressure. For the first three years of his career, Luka Dončić and his Dallas Mavericks fell firmly in the category of roadkill.
Yet Dončić has long been one of the most talented players in the NBA. He just closed out the Phoenix Suns in a Game 7 massacre in which he scored as many points in the first half (27) as the entire Suns roster. His final tally of 35 points was only slightly more than his career average in the playoffs — 32.7. He’s second to Michael Jordan in career playoff points per game, and this postseason run has lowered that average.1 He even has a game-winning playoff buzzer-beater to his name, with his overtime dagger against the Clippers in 2020.
Yet despite Dončić’s individual success, his team had fallen short. The Mavericks hadn’t made it past the first round of a playoff series with Dončić until this year. But Dallas has finally built a team that complements Dončić’s abilities, and he has driven roughshod over opponents.
The turning point in Dallas’s redesign came on Feb. 10, 2022 — when the Mavericks traded former Dončić co-star Kristaps Porziņģis to the Washington Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns. To that point in the season, the Mavericks had been outscored when Porzingis and Dončić shared the floor. When Dončić played without Porziņģis, the Mavs had a dominant net rating of 13.1; when Porziņģis played without Dončić, that number fell to a miserable -13.2. The pairing was not working.
Some of Dallas’s success has been addition by subtraction. Before Feb. 10, Porziņģis ranked seventh in the league in post-up frequency.2 Though such actions yielded a passable 0.961 points per chance, they took the ball out of Dončić’s hands. And Porziņģis’s presence on the court in that no-man’s land of the high post muddled the floor balance required to optimize Dončić.
From Feb. 10 onward, Dončić thrived. He ended up leading the NBA in both frequency and efficiency for isolations.3 Though he led the league in frequency of pull-up 3-point attempts, shooting 35.7 percent on those shots, he was at his best going to the rim. Among 31 players who ended at least 300 drives with a pass, Dončić created the most points off those chances, on average. Among 42 players who ended at least 300 drives with a shot, Dončić was the sixth-most efficient. The Mavericks have created an environment in which defenses have no good option to defend a Dončić drive, and he drove more than any player in the league this regular season.
|Number per 100 poss.||Points per chance|
|Pick and rolls||74.559||72.105||-2.454||0.980||1.120||+0.140|
Luka’s dominance makes for laughable statistics; for example, he led the series between Phoenix and Dallas in points, rebounds, assists, steals and made threes. Though Dončić finished 2021-22 with the eighth-highest single-season usage rate since 1976-77 and has dominated the ball even more in the postseason, his teammates catalyze his success. Dallas prioritizes spacing, with Dwight Powell the only player in the rotation who doesn’t regularly shoot threes. Porziņģis shot below 30 percent from deep for Dallas this season, while Dinwiddie and Bertāns have both shot at least 40 percent in the playoffs.
In a delicate and specific Dallas ecosystem, each of Dončić’s teammates has his specific role to play. Maxi Kleber and Powell are the pick-and-roll screening cadre for Dončić, and they are basketball’s version of opposite-speed pitches. During the postseason, Kleber has popped almost twice as often as he’s rolled and leads the playoffs in effective field-goal percentage. Powell rolls significantly more often, offering a counterweight to Dallas’s attack, and as a result he’s tied for ninth in the playoffs in dunks. Neither needs to use many possessions to be effective; both are below the 15th percentile in usage rate in these playoffs.
If losing Porziņģis helped Dallas, Dinwiddie was a significant addition by addition. According to Cleaning the Glass, Dallas marks the first stop in his career in which he has played big minutes as a wing,4 and though his assist rate was below his career average, it was in the 98th percentile for his new position. He had never shot so efficiently, and he hadn’t turned it over so infrequently since he played nine games in 2015-16. Dinwiddie commands fewer touches than did Porziņģis, and he’s been excellent as a connecting piece between Dončić and the orbiting shooters.
Offseason addition Reggie Bullock leads the team in minutes in the playoffs and is second in 3-point attempts behind only Dončić. Dorian Finney-Smith was one of six players leaguewide to have started at least 80 games during the regular season, and the ironman and sharpshooter has had Dallas’s highest on/off offensive point differential per 100 possessions in the regular season and playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass. Jalen Brunson has been the Mavericks’ second-leading scorer and averaged 32.0 points per game against the Utah Jazz in three games without Dončić, powering two crucial wins. There is no weak link; not one of Dallas’s eight rotation players has a negative total RAPTOR rating in the playoffs. No other remaining playoff team can make that claim, and neither could any previous Dončić-led Mavs squad.
In the playoffs, Dallas has had five rotation players who have dribbled once or less and held the ball for two seconds or fewer per touch.5 No other team in the playoffs has consistently used so many quick decision makers. Meanwhile, Dončić leads the playoffs in average time of possession per game and dribbles and seconds per touch.6 Dallas’s hierarchy is as solid and immoveable as a Powell pick.
If that strict hierarchy is the chassis of Dallas’s vehicle, then spacing represents the wheels. The Mavericks are averaging 15.5 made threes per game, best in the postseason, while shooting a third-best 38.5 percent. (Both marks would have ranked first in the regular season.) That supercharged shooting has manufactured extra space for Dončić. In the regular season, he found help defenders in the path of his drives 81 percent of the time. In the playoffs, he has encountered help defenders on 67 percent of his drives, per Second Spectrum. Dallas has spread the floor past its opponents’ breaking point, and Dončić is arguably the best in the league a taking his time with little help coming; his sweet spot on the floor is anywhere with the ball, so his only focus is seeking empty space, wherever it may be — even if that means spinning or side-stepping away from the rim as he shoots.
Dončić has been a star of this magnitude since his sophomore season. But even as he collected game-winners and 40-point triple doubles, the Mavericks couldn’t put together a deep playoff run. Now they have a better-than-even chance to make the NBA Finals, according to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model.
The biggest change has been in the environment around Dončić. Gone is the would-be co-star who took the ball out of his hands and limited his maneuverability. Instead, the Mavericks have surrounded Dončić with low-usage bigs and sharp-shooting wings. He has been one of the NBA’s best drivers since entering the league, and now he has a race car to suit his style. The rest of the league is learning how futile it is to try to obstruct that machine.
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