The Dallas Mavericks fell to 13-15 on the season last night after dropping a nailbiter to the Portland Trail Blazers, 121-118. Luka Doncic, as has been the norm for Dallas this season, put up huge numbers in a losing effort, scoring 44 points on 14-of-20 shooting along with nine assists and seven rebounds. The Mavs superstar has the numbers of a legitimate MVP candidate-- but the wins have yet to follow for the young Slovenian and his teammates.
Doncic was accepted as a transcendent talent from nearly the moment he stepped on the court as a rookie two years ago. His feel for the game is obvious to anyone who watches and he regularly demonstrates a preternatural ability (even in today's high-paced, offense-heavy NBA) for stuffing the stat sheet. But, like many extraordinarily talented young players who go high in the draft, wins have been slow to come while the team builds around him. Doncic's rookie season saw the Mavs finish 33-49. His second, interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic before resuming in Orlando, gave Doncic his first playoff appearance as he and a shorthanded Dallas squad gave the second-seed Clippers everything they could handle.
This was supposed to be the season where Doncic's ability to do whatever he wants on the floor coalesced with victories, even given the fact that Doncic's sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis, was recovering from a knee injury when the season began. The Mavs traded for and drafted players that complement Doncic's play. It simply has not come together in the way that we all expected because Doncic and his squad are still learning to match his gaudy nightly box score with wins.
Doncic's stats don't change too much in terms of outcome. This season, he's averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists in wins. In losses, Doncic averages 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. His shooting percentage from the floor is almost exactly the same regardless of the outcome (47.2 percent in wins, 47.7 percent in losses).
Those kinds of numbers give the Mavs a fighting chance every night Doncic is on the floor. They just haven't been able to figure out how to come away with a win more often than not. Last night they might've if Doncic had been able to hit a wide-open three to tie the game with five seconds left, something he'll successfully manage most nights; in the eight games Dallas has played where the score is within five points, Doncic is shooting 50 percent from the field.
The biggest issue with Dallas is the ability to defend anyone at all. That might be a problem that lingers around Doncic teams for his whole career; Doncic has improved on that end to the point where he's passable most nights, but he will never be an elite two-way player like many of his wing compatriots around the league. The Mavs have an offensive rating of 112 so far this season, which is good (13th in the NBA) but not great. Defensively, they have been terrible, recording a 114 defensive rating through 28 games, which ranks 27th in the league.
The Mavs have struggled as much as any other team with keeping key players off the COVID list. Porzingis is still working his way back into shape, and so is defensive cornerstone Dwight Powell after he ruptured his Achilles last season. But wasting a career night against a Western Conference foe as the team did last night is not what playoff contenders are made of. Doncic will still be Doncic. It's time for the rest of the Mavericks to catch up.