When a player looks like he could become an all-time great, he often has playoff success before it seems like he’s ready to. In the 2007 playoffs, 22-year-old LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers past the No. 1 Detroit Pistons to reach the NBA Finals. James was in his fourth year in the league, and hardly anyone expected him to lead an undermanned Cavaliers roster to the Finals. He did so in historic fashion, averaging 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists during the playoff run. While Cleveland fell to the Spurs in the championship round, James proved at a young age that he was truly ready to compete with the league’s elite.
These playoffs, we’re watching Luka Dončić do a copycat routine. At age 23, in his fourth season, the Slovenian superstar is leading the Mavericks on an unexpected playoff run. Last weekend, Dallas knocked off the No. 1 Phoenix Suns — who, as the defending Western Conference champions, won 64 games this season. Dončić, like James, is leading the Mavericks in historic fashion, averaging 31.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists. I’m not saying Dončić is going to become LeBron. But their trajectories are eerily similar.
Ever since his unreal sophomore season — when he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists at age 20 — Dončić has rightfully stood out as a possible all-timer. He’s one of the most gifted offensive players in the league in a long time. He can score in any way on the floor: in the pick and roll, in isolation and even in the post. But not only that, he’s also one of the league’s best passers, routinely finding open guys most guards would never think to spot. Add all those skills to his 6-foot-7-inch frame, and Dončić is an impossible cover. We saw just how impossible in Dallas’ Game 7 contest against Phoenix last week.
After a hard-fought first six games in which the home team always won, the Mavericks and the Suns traveled to Phoenix for a Game 7. Many thought the Suns would once again defend home territory and move on to the Western Conference Finals. But Dallas — and Dončić — had other plans. Dončić came out of the gate firing, scoring the Maverick’s first 8 points, and the team never looked back. Behind brilliant isolation scoring from Dončić and unexpected heroics from Spencer Dinwiddie, Dallas held a staggering 57-27 lead at halftime. The game was never close after that, and the Mavericks cruised to a Game 7 blowout in front of a stunned Phoenix crowd.
Dončić was perfect, scoring 35 points to go along with 10 rebounds and 4 assists. His teammates supplied an unreal effort as well, with Dinwidde and playoff folk hero Jalen Brunson combining for 54 points. More importantly, though, the Mavericks’ defense turned the tide.
Dončić has been incredible this season and postseason, but the change in the rest of the Mavericks has been the biggest difference between this year’s team and previous versions. This past offseason, Dallas signed wing Reggie Bullock to help improve their defense. Then, they finally moved on from Kristaps Porzingis mid-season, receiving Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns in the deal. Most importantly, though, the Mavericks shockingly moved on from well-respected coach Rick Carlisle and signed Jason Kidd to replace him, a controversial move at the time. Kidd proved all the doubters wrong this season, and his changes have made all the difference for Dallas.
After struggling defensively for the past three seasons, Kidd is making this unit elite. The Mavericks finished the season sixth in the NBA in defensive rating, thanks to Kidd’s game-planning and stellar seasons from Bullock, defensive ace Dorian Finney-Smith and the versatile big man Maxi Kleber. That elite defense paired with the best offensive player in the world is a recipe for success.
Luka Dončić may never become an all-time great like LeBron. He hasn’t even made the Finals yet — Dallas has to knock off the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals this week first. But he’s on that trajectory now. No matter what happens in their next series, it’s clear Luka and the Mavericks have arrived. And they’re here to stay.