Consider a tale of two NBA franchises, one whose fans suffered a seeming eternity of futility packed into just five years or so, the other which suffered hardly at all as their rock bottom coincided with the departure of an old superstar and the arrival of a new hope.
Now consider that the Philadelphia 76ers, whose protracted period of being so bad that “putrid” would be overrating them, have a core consisting of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris, solid veterans off the bench in Danny Green and Dwight Howard, and a spot in the second round of the Eastern Conference 2021 playoffs as the 1 seed—whether the Atlanta Hawks can do the unlikely and knock that squad off after winning Game 1 remains to be seen, however.
On the other hand, you have the Dallas Mavericks, who bade farewell to Dirk Nowitzki but gained another European franchise savior in Luka Doncic, whose 35.7 points per game was not only the 12th-highest scoring average in playoff history but also represents 250 points, the third-most all time by a player whose team was eliminated in the first round.
It speaks volumes that a guy can score that many points and still have his team lose. Then again, look at the early career of Michael Jordan, when he was forced to score all the playoff points for Chicago before they got him real teammates. Or Russell Westbrook, himself no stranger to mammoth scoring averages in doomed playoff runs.
Despite having a guy who put up the 12th-highest playoff scoring average in history, the Mavs were ultimately no match for a Los Angeles Clippers team that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, won Games 6 and 7 by a combined 22 points, and did it behind impressive shooting and an ability for multiple players to force their way to the line.
When one team’s second-best player is Paul George and the other team’s second-best player is Kristaps Porzingis or Tim Hardaway Jr., that is not a sign of a matchup that favors the latter team no matter how good their superstar is.
Which leads the Mavs to a major problem facing them in the offseason. Their regular-season 42-30 record prorates out to 48-34 in an 82-game season. They finished in a 3-way tie for fifth that could just as easily have seen them fighting for their lives in a play-in game as squaring off against a 4 seed.
And that’s where the Mavericks’ fortunes may leave them perpetual underachievers, always just not quite good enough to seriously contend for a title.
Then again, you could’ve said the same thing about Dirk.
The funny thing about the 2011 Mavericks title team is that other than Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, that was not a stacked talent team.
Sure, guys like Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Terry had solid careers. Marion especially might get into the Hall, if only because every eligible player with more career Win Shares than Marion is already in that august museum.
But nobody’s voting Terry or Chandler in.
Doncic may have that same problem. Top-heavy Big Two or Big Three rosters are what win titles today, and on some level that’s always been the case throughout NBA history. Even true transcendent talents need a world-class sidekick, whether it’s Dwyane Wade or Anthony Davis in the case of LeBron James, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to Tim Duncan, or even Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And let’s face it. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis are absolutely not anywhere in the same universe as D-Wade, the Brow, Manu, Parker, Big O, Magic, Scottie Pippen, or even Jason Kidd.
The biggest problem the Mavericks have now is finding a free agent they can get under contract before Luka, with his Rose Rule mega-contract extension he’s all but guaranteed to sign this fall as he approaches restricted free agency, soaks up too much of the Mavs’ cap to get the numbers to work.
Because losing in the first round in a series they were winning with an elimination game at home and a Game 7 on the road that they lost might just be this team’s ceiling if they expect Luka to do in Dallas what LeBron did all those years in Cleveland, dragging G-League teams further than they ever had any business going.
That’s a recipe for Doncic to end up with a playoff legacy more befitting Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul than his ceiling of LeBron or Jordan or Kareem.
Trouble is, Dallas hasn’t historically been able to attract those kinds of guys. And with the team too successful too fast, they’re no longer picking in draft slots that could let them get a guy like Luka or, considering the trade that brought him to Texas in the first place, Trae Young, whose Hawks combined a core of young guys they’d drafted (or traded for on draft night) and role-playing veterans like Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Danilo Gallinari.
The Hawks were so good that they won a playoff series with Nate McMillan coaching them. It was McMillan’s first playoff series win as a coach since 2005—to the shocked disbelief of Pacers fans who ran him out of town in Indianapolis after he couldn’t get out of the first round in four years of trying, even if it was against the Knicks—and speaks to the enormous talent level the Hawks put around Young to let him blossom as a franchise player.
Dallas doesn’t seem to understand this, and their window for building a team around the future Hall of Famer on the rookie deal is getting ever-closer to snapping shut on them.
Which is a shame, because it may very well mean that Luka Doncic, the heir apparent to Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy, may someday, when unrestricted free agency hits in a few years’ time, jump ship to some superteam, win three titles in his late 20s or early 30s, start getting his name in GOAT discussions either outright or at least “greatest European player” conversations, and walk into the Hall of Fame wearing some other team’s hat when the Mavs will have only themselves to blame for being unable to build a winner around him.