When the Mavs drew the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round playoff matchup, my anxiety was already high. Just a year removed from Kawhi and Co. sticking a dagger in MFFL’s hearts, the wounds were still healing. Being so conditioned, I didn’t really give Dallas much of a chance going in, yet somehow after what I originally felt was inevitable ultimately played out — with LA advancing, winning the series 4-3 — the sting is a little sharper than I had imagined it would be.
My frustration doesn’t necessarily stem from the fact that the Mavs blew a 2-0 series lead, a rarity so extreme it happens just 7% of the time. (Although the phenomenon is becoming exceedingly less rare — teams have overcome 2-0 deficits in eight of the last 10 years in the NBA.) No, despite the hope that soared through my soul after the first two games and which came crashing down to the molten core of the earth after the next two, the cleft in the ol’ ticker comes more from what the series revealed about Dallas as a team than the loss itself. It demonstrated just how far away they really still are.
Based on the performance offered by any player not wearing No. 77 down the stretch of the series, the Mavericks are not really a playoff-worthy team. If it wasn’t for our little Slovenian superhero gathering up the rest of the roster and carrying them on his nerve-pinched shoulders like a mama scorpion, the Mavericks wouldn’t have made it to seven games. Hell, without Luka Magic™️, they could have ended the regular season looking up at the lowly Rockets in the standings.
Luka had to carry the team even more through the seven games against LA. Averaging nearly 36 points and eight assists in the seven games, Dončić had a hand in roughly three quarters of all the points the Mavs could manage in the series. The 22-year-old’s performance in Game 7 alone was MVP-worthy, with 46 points and 14 assists that could have easily been 25 if any other player in blue and green could do anything besides clank one off the rim after he passed to them. But one man is not enough.
By comparison, the Mavs’ highest paid player, Kristaps Porziņģis, averaged just 13 points a game. (How’s that 30-mil-a-year contract look now?) I’m starting to understand that the reason they call him “The Unicorn” is that his reputation as a great player is very much like a unicorn — a myth. It was a nice experiment, and one I fully supported at the time, but the KP trade is going to be an anchor dragging this team down for years.
Dallas’ third best shooter in Tim Hardaway Jr. continued his feast or famine tendency, choosing Game 7 in LA to have his worst game of the playoffs. Dorian Finney-Smith was the only other player who appeared to leave it all on the floor, but he can’t be your No. 2 since scoring 25 a game is certainly not his forte. Maxi Kleber, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Jalen Brunson were complete non-factors. When Boban (God love him) is your answer to mid-series coaching adjustments, you’re probably in deep trouble.
By contrast, in addition to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George being themselves, the rest of the Clipper rotation contributed in big and timely ways and were the difference in both Game 7 and the series. LA’s bench outscored Dallas’ 26-6 on Sunday alone. Big 3-pointers by Marcus Morris and dagger second-chance shots by Nicolas Batum under the rim only highlighted Dallas’ lack of depth by comparison.
So that’s what we’ve got: Luka — a top-five (-three?) player in the world — and then basically nothing.
As a fan of DFW sports, I’m fairly accustomed to mediocrity. While not exactly Hot-lanta — that Deep South sauna, thanks mostly to Tom Brady, has seen exactly one championship parade from one of the major four in the last 64 years! — we don’t exactly have ring manufacturers on speed dial either. The last trophy hoisted in these parts was 10 years ago when the Little Mavericks took down Big Bad King James and his little dog D-Wade. Back when I had a considerably lower non-graying hairline. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Being the last team standing in any sport at the end of a season is never easy. It takes more work, determination, and grit than any mere mortal frittering away their days staring at screens in 4-foot cubicles could comprehend. But it also takes help. Individual world-class talents can’t do it by themselves. As amazing as Dirk was in that 2011 playoff run, or Mike Modano was for the Stars in ’99, they still had Jason Kidd and Jet Terry or Joe Nieuwendyk and Eddie Belfour behind them.
It would have been a travesty for Dirk or Mo — maybe the two greatest DFW athletes ever (with all due respect to Roger Staubach) — to have played their entire careers and never win it all. Yet this is the norm for individual athletes around here. The list of greats to have donned the uniforms of local teams who’ve never secured a title is depressingly long: Pudge Rodriguez and Michael Young, Tony Romo and Jason Witten, Ro Blackman and Steve Nash, Jaime Benn and Marty Turco, the list goes on. And if the Mavs continue on their current trajectory and can’t find a way to surround Luka with impactful players, you can add him to it.
More than likely, though, the Slovenian Splasher will go on to win multiple championships. But if the Mavs can’t figure out how to get him some help, it won’t be for Dallas.