“Now the clock starts ticking.”
When Luka Doncic signed his supermax contract extension with the Mavericks, that phrase was on everyone’s lips. The notion is that just about every young star signs an extension after his rookie contract is up, at which point the pressure on the team increases to keep their franchise cornerstone content. If they fail, the player either can’t wait to get out of town at the end of the deal or, worse, demands a trade a year or so early.
I understand this premise, though I find it amusing. The reality is the “clock started ticking” on doing everything humanly possible to keep Luka Doncic content on June 21, 2018, the night Dallas traded up to select him. Dallas and the rest of the world might not have known Luka would be this good, this quickly, but they clearly viewed him as the future of the franchise. When you view a player like that, the ticking starts the moment he gets to town.
The clock truly started ticking on “What will the first stretch of Luka’s time in Dallas look like, and will it be the only stretch?” on February 1, 2019: the day the Mavericks traded for Kristaps Porzingis. That was the day the Mavericks signaled that they, in fact, did now realize how good Luka already was, and they made a significant gamble via Porzingis’ eventual maximum-contract extension to put him in a position to contend for titles sooner than later. It was a gamble I was on board with at the time and, by all accounts, a gamble Luka was excited about.
The following two and a half years have produced mixed results, with more negatives than positives, and now here we are. It’s always possible that Luka sticks around for a third deal no matter how the next few seasons play out. He’ll still be in his mid-20s, so perhaps he’d want to see the team take another big swing or two before leaving the only American home he’s ever known. But that doesn’t seem likely, for reasons that have less to do with Luka than with the NBA at large. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement means he’ll always be able to earn more with Dallas, the team that drafted him, than anywhere else, but Kevin Durant’s leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State and Anthony Davis’ forcing his way out of New Orleans are only two recent examples of how little weight that can hold after a superstar’s second contract if a player isn’t confident in his current situation. It’s on the Mavericks to give Doncic that assurance, and only one other player on the current roster is talented enough to raise his trajectory alongside him. The next two seasons of Kristaps Porzingis’ career will now be the single most important variable in determining how likely it is that Doncic is a Maverick past the age of 26.
KP has two years left on his deal, with a player option for a third. Next offseason, the Mavericks will have very little room to work with in free agency, as Doncic, Porzingis, and Tim Hardaway Jr. make nearly $90 million combined. Of course, good front offices can find creative ways to improve their roster even when they’re up against the cap, but the odds are still highly against Dallas signing a top-tier free agent next offseason. Barring a major trade, those are Dallas’ core players for the foreseeable future.
That leaves a few different ways this could play out.
The optimal situation is obviously Porzingis playing to his potential next season and reliably becoming Dallas’ second-best player night in, night out. This would immediately make Dallas a “contender,” albeit to what degree somewhat depends on your definition of that distinction. This is partly due to the fact that being the “second-best player” on a team where Luka is the best player is different than it is on most teams. But it’s also because the best version of Porzingis is still exceptional. Porzingis had a sneaky good offensive season last year, one unfortunately capped off by a terrible matchup against an L.A. Clippers team that took him out of the game both strategically and mentally. Despite the way it may look and feel at times, the offensive fit between KP and Luka is not the problem; according to league tracking data, the duo produced offense at the highest rate among high-volume tandems in the league, with Porzingis screening for Luka. In 2019-20, he was also solid defensively, appearing like the rim protector and side-to-side lane patrolling presence Dallas had long coveted.
If the “first offseason where Porzingis is healthy” (take a shot!) and the “new coaching staff, fresh start” (another!) optimism actually produce the desired results, KP remains an absolute problem. If he is healthy enough to do this on a consistent basis, Dallas will win 50 games and probably be favored in a playoff series. In this scenario, we likely stop hearing about “chemistry issues,” we stop micro-analyzing every high five (or lack thereof) between Doncic and Porzingis, and we give up dissecting every post-game interview comment. The Mavericks would go into 2022-23 feeling positive about what they’re building rather than dreading another offseason without the resources to add top-flight talent.
Now let’s extend that scenario for another year, giving Dallas two consecutive seasons as contenders buoyed largely by Porzingis performing to his paper. They would almost certainly be interested in bringing him back on another big contract. (Yes, he has a player option in his deal, but he likely declines it to hit the open market because, remember, in this scenario KP is a rim protector putting up 20 points and 10 boards a night while helping his team win. Those guys get paid.) I know that, to a lot of people, the idea of Dallas signing Porzingis to another contract seems insane. But if he plays well enough and often enough over the next two seasons, the Mavs will be very good, and Luka will want him back. If Dallas is in the Western Conference Finals in 2022-23 with Porzingis playing a huge part in that progress, the best way to keep Luka content would be to keep KP around.
Of course, Porzingis playing at this level would also rehabilitate his trade value. Let’s say he does this next year, to the degree outlined above. This could also work to positively impact the chances Luka is a Maverick long-term, as Porzingis could be traded for commensurate value that would rejigger the core around Luka. I consider that less likely, however. KP playing well equates to the Mavericks winning at a higher clip than Doncic has ever experienced in his career alongside the best running mate he’s ever had. What would it say to your superstar to trade that player for “fair value” literally the moment the team starts to take the next step?
Porzingis regaining his All-Star form is an entirely possible outcome; we’ve seen him do it for stretches in a Mavericks uniform. I’m even tempted to call it likely because he’s such a special player when he’s right physically. As we know, though, he simply isn’t “right” enough to bet on it. So, then, what if Porzingis’ body is no longer capable of cooperating? What if his mobility has permanently deteriorated to a point where the only consistent thing about his defense is it being a liability? What if he remains a player who can be entirely neutralized offensively in the playoffs by a “bad matchup,” of which there are plenty? What if the injuries continue to a degree that they make all of his seasons feel like someone learning how to drive a stick shift, with nothing more than stops, starts, a little progress, repeat?
Well, friends, I cannot stress enough what a colossal disaster that would be. In this scenario, KP would likely exercise his player option for 2023-24, because why wouldn’t he? An entirely busted player wouldn’t turn down $36 million guaranteed for a year’s work. Dallas would have several other small contracts come off of the books between now and then, but it would remain extremely difficult to build a contender with that much salary going toward an average, unreliable player. Now Doncic is only two years away from free agency, and I can promise you this is when the rumors of trade requests would start. Porzingis could still be traded, of course, but do you really think a player that broken down on that high a salary would net a return that gets the Mavericks closer to a championship? That does more to convince Luka your team has a real chance? Highly unlikely.
There are other minor roster moves the Mavs can and likely will make over the next 18 months to make them marginally better, inching them closer to contender status little by little. But the harsh reality is their ceiling over the next two seasons will be most starkly defined by what Kristaps Porzingis is or isn’t.
That’s a weighty enough matter in its own right. Unfortunately for Mavericks fans’ blood pressure, it’s much, much bigger than that. Porzingis’ next two years will have an outsized effect on whether Luka Doncic views this team as a real contender. And his opinion on that matter will determine whether he wishes to remain a Dallas Maverick past the age of 26.