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Basketball

Luka Doncic’s Injury Is Jalen Brunson’s Moment to Sink or Swim

Brunson's first playoff series was a disappointment. Whether or not he can rise to the occasion against Utah could determine whether Dallas advances–and what Brunson's next contract looks like.
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Jalen Brunson has been Luka Doncic's running mate throughout the season. Now, he may have do the heavy lifting alone. Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

I remember it like it was yesterday (it was actually Sunday). The Rangers didn’t have the worst record in baseball. No one had glued themselves to the floor in the middle of an NBA game. And, most important, I had never heard the words “gastrocnemius” or “soleus,” and certainly knew nothing about how these muscles work. It was a simpler time. 

Truthfully, I still don’t really know anything about how the muscles that make up the calf muscle work. Without more specific info about the nature of the calf strain Luka Doncic suffered late in the third quarter of the season finale, we just don’t know how this is going to play out. But, like many of you, I have consumed enough calf-related content in the last three days to make me a pseudo expert. The best we can do is assume a middle-ground projection that looks like this: a very small chance Doncic misses no time in the Mavericks’ first-round playoff series against Utah, a very large chance he misses a couple of games, and another very small chance he can’t go during the first round at all. And even this is pure speculation without the relevant info we need being publicly available. 

Here’s what I know for certain: this is a tremendously consequential series for Jalen Brunson.

This could be said for several Mavericks role players, as tight playoff matchups are rarely won by relying on the superstar to carry you to four wins. The tenor and tempo of a seven-game series is just too much. In last year’s first round, Doncic posted a NSFW statline of 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 40.8 percent from deep—and it wasn’t enough to get Dallas past the Clippers. Teams have to have other contributors step up and provide more than typically expected, and that will be especially true in a series where I’m presuming Doncic misses a little bit of time or, at minimum, is nowhere close to 100 percent if he does play every game.

Last year’s postseason provides much of the context for why this go-round is so important for Brunson, even prior to Doncic’s injury. In Brunson’s first NBA-postseason appearance (he missed the Bubble Experience with an injury), he was “played off the floor” and relegated to barely-a-passenger status. After averaging 25 minutes per game in the regular season, Brunson saw that number reduced to 16 in the playoffs, including just 10 minutes in Game 7. I put “played off the floor” in quotes because, especially with hindsight, you can debate whether Rick Carlisle and his staff—namely, Bob Voulgaris, who reportedly had a huge say in player rotations—made the right decision. Maybe Brunson could have given more in his usual minutes share.

Either way, here’s a reminder of Brunson’s debut series:

You’ve heard before: the Clippers were a bad matchup, they had too much length, and on and on. Brunson is a different player now, too, just as he has been every season as his career has progressed. But just 12 months ago, Dallas’ second-most important player was a non-factor in the club’s first-round series. For Dallas to have a chance in this series, Brunson will have to completely flip that script this time around.

Then there’s the matter of his contract. Brunson has done enough to prove he’s worth the massive raise he’ll get when he enters unrestricted free agency this season, a number that’s expected to be in the range of $20 million per season. I hope he gets that raise from the Mavericks because his trajectory is one you should feel very comfortable and optimistic about. 

All that being said, it sure would go a long way in alleviating fears of a potential overpay if a Brunson-fueled attack holds the line until Doncic is able to play. This might be unfair, because the Mavericks’ decision to re-sign Brunson, or not, will be based primarily on the games in which he appears with Doncic (meaning, most of the season). That’s before getting into whether or not it’s fair to reduce our evaluation of a player down to just the handful of games that comprise a playoff series or two.

And it’s worth remembering just how good Brunson has been this year. The pick-and-roll is the lifeblood of NBA offense, and per Synergy Sports, a Dallas Maverick finished first in efficiency among players with at least 300 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler this season (46 qualified players). That player was not Luka Donic—it was Jalen Brunson. Brunson doesn’t draw fouls at the same rate as Doncic, but he’s just as good of a finisher at the rim even if they arrive at their elite outcomes in very different ways. He also turns the ball over far less on these possessions. And, for good measure, he was excellent this season with both pull-up and catch-and-shoot jumpers. His offensive game at this point really doesn’t have many, if any, holes in it. 

The remaining question is really just this: can he continue to produce consistently enough against the toughest competition? Compounding that question now, of course, is that it appears he will try to achieve this without Doncic for at least a couple of games. That’s an especially important question to answer before the offseason because Doncic will always miss at least a little time each season. He led the NBA in usage rating—basically, the number of possessions that end with a particular player taking a shot, free throws, or committing a turnover—and finished second in drives per game this season. He takes as much of a physical beating of any guard in the league, which makes some level of injury inevitable. So far, it’s been hard to judge Brunson on how the Mavericks played without Doncic this year: Dallas split their Luka-less games this season at 8-8, but many of them overlapped with a teamwide COVID surge that knocked out several other players, too. This series would provide a far more telling window, even if Tim Hardaway Jr. is also out of action.

What happens if it goes poorly? Because of the way the NBA’s salary cap works, letting Brunson go this summer would not mean that the Mavericks could simply take the money they didn’t pay him and immediately reallocate it to another free agent. Conventional wisdom, then, says giving him a new deal is much better than losing a very good player for nothing, no matter his flaws. 

That decision, however, would restrict them in offseasons down the line. Spencer Dinwiddie has been a phenomenal fit in Dallas, and while I don’t believe Dallas would refuse to trade him at this point, they would certainly be more hesitant to do so now than they expected when the deal was made. That’s another big salary on the team’s books. Finding a true second “star” was never going to be easy for this front office, and retaining Brunson will only make that tougher by further constricting the team’s cap. Then again, if Brunson, with the scoring help of Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell (averaging 11.4 points over the last 30 games of the season), is able to lead this team to a win or two without Doncic, it would go a long way to quelling the concern that they necessarily need a second star. 

Brunson now has an opportunity to lead, to eradicate the ghosts of his past playoff performance and put himself on his highest trajectory since he entered the league four years ago. If he does, the same will be said for the Mavericks, too.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who currently works for…