Tim Hardaway Jr.

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Luka Doncic is playing chess and NBA defenders are stuck on a checkers board

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LOS ANGELES — Luka Doncic’s second NBA season has been a revelation.

It’s not a surprise, everyone knew Doncic was good, he did just win Rookie of the Year last season (and was EuroLeague MVP before that). It’s how good — MVP-level good — and how fast that has been the revelation to fans (as well as a few NBA front offices that passed him up in the draft for “safer” choices).

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his revelation much earlier.

“The first day he showed up in September [2018] and played pickup,” Carlisle said. “He dominated the pickup games with passing and vision, he wasn’t scoring that much. His size, strength, vision, power, stuff like that, it’s great for a young player.”

That young player was good, but the one filling up the stat sheet this season — and filling up NBA arenas to watch him play — is up another level. Or three. Doncic has been elite, averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists a game this season, leading a Dallas offense that is the best in the league while putting himself in the middle of the MVP conversation.

And this is not even his ceiling — Doncic is just 20 years old and still improving. Fast.

What led to this season’s leap for Doncic is not one simple thing, but a combination of many elements that led him to be arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game. Already. Before he can legally buy a drink.

The story of his leap starts in Europe at Real Madrid — Doncic played more than 120 games over a couple of seasons at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Which means he may be just 20 but he’s seen defenses try everything on him to throw him off his game: Blitz, switch, ice, drop, hedge-and-recover, zones, whatever NBA teams try it’s not the first time he’s seen it. Doncic learned how to read and react, how to set his defender up, how to feign he was driving left just to draw a help defender one step to open a passing lane to the right.

“For me, playing basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of how teams defend him. “You got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”

Doncic shoots off the pick-and-roll 12.2 times a game and the Mavericks score an incredibly efficient 1.12 points per possession on those plays (for comparison, James Harden scores at a 1.02 rate). Doncic has an eFG% of 60.2 as the ball handler.

Doncic has amassed a Swiss Army Knife of moves he can break out, depending on the situation, and he put in the work in the gym to make those moves — those decoys or step-back jumpers — look smooth and effortless. He shortened the stride on his first step this season, making it both more explosive and easier to switch directions quickly. He can do any of this in games without hesitation, and this season added a floater (and, if he’s driving more from the wing, a bank-floater off the window).

“He really put in a great summer of work, in all areas of his game, from conditioning to all the skill areas,” Carlisle said. “In today’s pick-and-roll game, teams play it a lot of ways. We’ll see trapping, you see drop coverage where the big guys keep dropping, keep dropping and force you to make floaters, which are difficult two-point shots — analytically they are the shots you want to force opponents to take — but he’s got better at executing those at the basket. Some of it is just experience, having gone through it a year, but most of it is just hard work.”

Having gone through it a year matters a lot, too. Last season when the Mavericks came to Staples Center and played the Lakers, it was the first time Doncic went up against his idol LeBron James. The 19-year-old asked for a jersey after the game in the hallway.

“Normally, I was never nervous before a game. That game, I was nervous, for sure,” Doncic said after his team snapped LeBron and the Lakers’ 10-game win streak last Sunday. “It was something special for me. Just growing up, I used to watch him a lot…. I still admire him very much.”

Don’t confuse that with Doncic holding back — he dropped a 27-foot stepback on LeBron last Sunday to help seal Dallas’ win.

The teams that give Doncic trouble have multiple long defenders who can be aggressive. Minnesota, with Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, were able to do that Wednesday night and Doncic shot 8-of-22 (but Dallas still won the game). A week ago, the Clippers with their length and quality defenders did the same thing, overloading Doncic’s side of the floor and forcing him into a 4-of-14 shooting night with seven turnovers.

The Lakers tried the same thing with their length, but Doncic and the Mavs adjusted.

“[Doncic] made a really good adjustment in the second quarter, he started moving the ball quickly then getting the ball back, and that put him in some positions that were a little harder to predict for the defense,” Carlisle said. “The second half was more of the same…

“He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a handful of people in the world can hit,” Carlisle added. Dallas pulled away to beat the Lakers comfortably.

Dallas has become dependant on Doncic and a few of those hellacious shots a game.

Doncic leads the league in touches at 97.7 per game, and he holds the ball an average of 5.59 seconds per touch (to be fair, him bringing the ball up the court skews that time number). Dallas has become dependant upon him to create, and Carlisle adjusted the starting lineup, rounding it out with shooters and finishers who can work off the ball, such as Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That group gives Doncic options: a roll man in Powell, a pick-and-pop guy in Porzingis, plus shooters and size everywhere (the shortest starter for Dallas is Hardaway at 6’5”).

Doncic was playing chess against Minnesota — they had taken away what works for him, but it opened up the opportunity for Jalen Brunson to come in off the bench and have room to operate. Brunson had 14 points in the fourth quarter, Doncic seven, and Dallas got the win.

Looking back to June 2018 now it seems laughable: The reason teams passed on Doncic in the draft were questions about how high his ceiling really went. With two seasons of high-level basketball in Europe to watch, teams picked his game apart and decided he wasn’t athletic enough, or that he had come close to maxing out what he could do in the pick-and-roll. Teams became enamored with American players such as Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley Jr. who were seen to have higher ceilings. It’s also always safer for a GM to miss on a high draft pick with American prospect than a European one, there’s less stigma. So Doncic slid down the board a little.

Doncic knows what any good chess player knows: Fortune often favors the bold. Mark Cuban’s Mavericks understood that and made the bold move, trading for Doncic.

The revelation that comes with that boldness is Dallas is going to be a force in the West for years to come. Because they have one of the top five players in the game and put the ball in his hands.

Luka Doncic’s 42 points gives him 30-point triple-double average for November; Mavs win

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PHOENIX  — Luka Doncic was in total control, getting into the lane when he wanted, getting the shots he wanted and getting the ball to teammates in places where they could do some damage.

Because of that, the Dallas Mavericks got the result they wanted with a 120-113 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.

Doncic tied a career high with 42 points.

Tim Hardaway Jr. added 26 and the Mavericks bounced back from a disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers three days earlier.

“Great players have a short memory for tough games,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said about Doncic’s big night. “They move forward. They’re always thinking ahead and about the next challenge. He was spectacular tonight from start to finish.”

The second-year guard just missed a triple-double with 11 assists and nine rebounds. Hardaway shot 6 of 9 from 3-point range to help offset a quiet night from Kristaps Porzingis, who finished with two points.

The teams entered the final quarter tied at 89. The Mavericks went on an 8-0 run midway through the fourth to take a 104-97 lead and never trailed again.

Doncic was coming off a subpar outing Tuesday night in a loss to the Clippers, where he shot 4 of 14 from the field and missed all eight 3-point attempts. The 20-year-old was superb in Phoenix, making 12 of 24 shots from the field and 15 of 18 free throws.

He said he didn’t get too low after the Clippers loss and was no more motivated than normal on Friday, even if his performance suggested he had a little extra fire.

“It’s just one game – we lost one game,” Doncic said. “We shouldn’t be worried about that. You go to the next game and pretend like nothing happened. I’m anxious to go out there every night. I’m excited about every game. That’s me.”

Phoenix has lost six of its last seven games. Kelly Oubre Jr. led the Suns with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Ricky Rubio added 21 points and nine assists.

“We didn’t play our game the last quarter,” Rubio said. “I think we got focused on the wrong things, things we can’t control.”

Doncic had 14 points, six rebounds and six assists in the first quarter as the Mavericks edged to a 53-50 halftime lead. Oubre had 13 for the Suns.

Watch Luka Doncic drop 41 on Rockets in 137-123 Mavericks win

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HOUSTON (AP) — Luka Doncic scored 41 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. added a season-high 31 and the Dallas Mavericks never trailed in a 137-123 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

The Mavericks scored 45 points in the first quarter and were up 78-60 at halftime. Hardaway had 19 in the half, Doncic 17 and Kristaps Porzingis 15.

The Mavericks has won five straight, scoring at least 137 in the last three. Houston has lost three straight after winning eight in a row.

The Mavericks got a dunk from Dwight Powell to push the lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter. Houston used a 6-0 run after that shot to get to 110-105 with 9 minutes to go.

Doncic ended the run with a jump shot, but Russell Westbrook added a basket seconds later to cut it to five again.

Dallas was still up by 5 later in the quarter before scoring the next five points, with a dunk from Hardaway, to make it 119-109 midway through period, and Houston didn’t get close again.

James Harden had 32 points for Houston but was just 2 of 15 on 3-pointers in a game where the Rockets made 10 of 44 3-point attempts.

The Mavericks had extended the lead to 16 later in the fourth when Doncic scored six points in a row, capped by a 3-pointer to make it 132-113 with about 3 1/2 minutes to go.

Dallas led by 20 in the third quarter before Houston scored the next seven points, with a 3-pointer from P.J. Tucker, to get within 89-76 with about seven minutes left in the third.

The Mavericks were up by 16 later in the third after two free throws by Dorian Finney-Smith before Tucker made consecutive baskets to cut the lead to 103-91.

Harden added two free throws, but Hardaway made a jump shot seconds later to make it 105-93.

Westbrook made a basket to wrap up the third quarter and cut the lead to 10 entering the fourth.

It takes Luka Doncic 25 minutes to put together 35-point triple-double (VIDEO)

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DALLAS — Luka Doncic scored 33 of his 35 points in the first half and had yet another triple-double to help the Dallas Mavericks rout the short-handed Golden State Warriors 142-94 on Wednesday night.

Doncic fell a point short of matching Dirk Nowitzki’s team record set Nov. 3, 2009, against Utah. In just 17 minutes, Doncic was 10 for 11 from the floor, making 6 of 7 3-pointers, and hit 7 of 8 free throws.

The second-year star from Slovenia had 22 points, five assists and five rebounds in the first quarter alone. He played only 25 minutes total, but still managed 10 rebounds and 11 assists.

Doncic was coming off a 40-point triple-double Monday night against San Antonio, and has an NBA-best seven triple-doubles in 14 games this season.

The Mavericks never trailed and tied a franchise record with 22 3-pointers while sending Golden State to its worst loss since a 1973 playoff game.

The Warriors, who ended a seven-game losing streak by beating Memphis on Tuesday night, are an NBA-worst 3-13. Their five-year run of at the top of the NBA has collapsed under a weight of injuries, with Draymond Green out Wednesday because of right heel soreness.

With Green out, Golden State dressed only eight players, none of whom suited up for the team last season when it made the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year.

Eric Paschall led the Warriors with 22 points.

Tim Hardaway Jr. added 20 for Dallas. Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth-straight double-double.

 

Report: Mavericks’ top target in free agency will be Kemba Walker

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Hornets point guard Kemba Walker is rumored to leave Charlotte in free agency this summer.

Where could he go?

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

Two sources with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking expect Walker, the Hornets’ three-time All-Star point guard, to be that team’s top target when NBA free-agency begins July 1.

Dallas projects to have about $30 million in cap space. Walker’s max starting salary projects to be about $33 million.

Maybe that’d be enough to get Walker, who’ll turn 29 in May. He’s very good right now, but he might not be worth a max contract over the next four years.

If they need to clear extra cap space for Walker, the Mavericks could try to trade players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Dwight Powell and Justin Jackson. A max contract projects to be worth about $141 million over four years. A starting salary of $30 million with max raises would pay Walker $129 million over four years.

For what it’s worth, Walker’s max contract with the Hornets projects to be $190 million over five years (or $221 million over five years if he makes an All-NBA team this season).

But Charlotte has never gotten Walker an All-Star teammate. In Dallas, Walker would have two teammates on the star track in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

Doncic makes this tricky, though. He’s a lead playmaker from the wing. Should he just be the point guard? If not, what type of point guard fits best with him? Signing Walker would be an expensive way to find out.

Walker can work off the ball. He drills catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at a good rate. His dribble-drives still work in secondary actions. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle likes to use two point guards, anyway.

But much of Walker’s value comes from his ability with the ball. If he’s not consistently initiating the offense and running pick-and-rolls, is he worth the salary he’ll surely command?

On the other hand, whom could Dallas get instead? Maybe a not-fully unleashed Walker is still the best option. After trading multiple future first-round picks, the Mavericks can’t just patiently roll over their cap space. Their imperative is to win soon, and Walker would help.