We know what this Mavericks team is already because we have seen it three seasons in a row now. It’s only been 11 games, but we know how it ends—a valiant first-round defeat riding on Luka Doncic’s back. The scouting report is the same as it has been, essentially amounting to Jay-Z’s line on “Takeover”: “Well, we don’t believe you, you need more people.”
It’s only been 11 games, but it is a microcosm of the Luka era thus far: a somewhat slow start by the Slovenian superstar that is largely attributed to conditioning issues (even if it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried this year) mixed with moments of LUKA MAGIC. Kristaps Porzingis missing a stretch of games, while occasionally teasing the tantalizing potential of a fully operational partnership between him and Doncic. A member of the supporting cast seemingly making the leap to Third Star?? status. (Jalen Brunson, in this case.) Some frustrating losses and even more frustrating wins, nights when everyone had to work just a little too hard.
Through 11 games, Luka’s shooting percentages are down across the board. But it’s so early in the season that a few good nights will get him right back to where he usually is, and those few good nights are assuredly coming, and I doubt anyone expects otherwise. Even with that, his numbers are right where they have been through his career: 24.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists this season versus 25.6, 8.3 boards, and 7.7 dimes across 210 games.
So this is where he is going to be until he decides otherwise. As great as he is, and transcendent at times, there is still another level available to him when he chooses to go there. It’s not an easy choice, because it’s not an easy life, so maybe it’ll take a few more years of enjoying his early 20s for him to make it.
I am talking about sacrifice: food as fuel and nothing more, cutting out sugar, limiting yourself to maybe the occasional glass of wine, and even then, only in the offseason—pursuit of absolute mastery of the game as a year-round pursuit. It’s Dirk walking into the arena with a plate from home covered in foil and 100 different insane stories about the late Kobe Bryant. LeBron James spending the equivalent of the veteran’s minimum salary on his body.
Even if Luka never goes to that level, it is difficult, if not outright foolish, to take issue with where he has already gotten. If this is what he is, with only a few tweaks here and there, that’s fine. More than fine. Incredible, really.
But in either scenario, whether he makes the choice or not, Luka can’t do it all on his own. No player ever has. Games, yes. A playoff series, sure. But a title? Can’t be done. And the Mavericks are pretty far away, more than a piece from being a true contender and locked into this roster—at least the core of it—for the foreseeable future.
Until the organization figures out how to make real changes—not just a Reggie Bullock here and a theoretical Goran Dragic there—we all should probably be realists about what to expect. And what we have gotten over these first 11 games, again, is what to expect. That means, from Luka, moments of sheer brilliance mixed with games where he is red-cheeked 30 seconds in and just doesn’t ever have it. From the team, it means high highs and low lows and way too much time spent in the middle. It means winning the games they’re supposed to (if not always as easily as they’re supposed to) and occasionally picking off one against a good team. Luka has to do too much because the team doesn’t have enough shot creators. Porzingis does too much because he wants to prove he’s more than just a spot-up shooter, like he has Haralabos Voulgaris in his ear telling him he’s a decoy every time he has chance to just rise up for an unblockable three.
That is not to say that it can’t and won’t change, at least a little bit, if Jason Kidd and his coaches look at these 11 games and see the things that are different from last season and nurture them. For instance: Frank Ntilikina’s play so far has earned him a spot in the rotation, but his impact suggests he should be getting even more minutes, perhaps replacing Sterling Brown until the former SMU guard finds his three-point stroke. (And I’m not saying that just because I’m in the tank.) There are other adjustments that could be made. Pairing Porzingis with another big should be abandoned, and Dwight Powell should go back to his role as a situational substitute, an energy-changer used sparingly.
But these are incremental improvements, worth a handful of games in the standings. The systemic problems will remain, and that’s maybe why this 7-4 start isn’t hitting the way it should.
We already know how it ends.