Exactly one year ago today (as of this writing) the Dallas Mavericks were 20-24, 4 games under .500, 13th in the Western Conference.
What a difference one calendar year has made.
The Mavericks, officially halfway through their 2019-20 season, are 26-15, a season-high 11 games over .500, and sit 6th in the Western Conference standings through 41 games.
In fact, the Mavericks are only 2.5 games out of the 2nd seed in an ultra competitive West this season.
Behind a 20-year old triple-double savant in Luka Doncic, a revamped Unicorn in Kristaps Porzings, and a talented, yet still underrated bench, the Dallas Mavericks have firmly entrenched themselves within the Western Conference playoff picture.
Aptly dubbed with the nickname ‘Luka Magic’, second-year star Luka Doncic at 20 years of age, has not only become the face of the Mavericks, but a budding face of the NBA.
After legend and former NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki retired after 21 remarkable years last season, all with the Mavericks, Doncic became the focal point in the ushering in of a new era of Mavericks basketball. Notching 8 triple-doubles in his rookie season on his way to Rookie of the Year honors last year, Doncic halfway through the 2019-20 season has been on another level.
In fact Doncic, who leads the NBA with 12 triple-doubles, has played at times at an MVP like level. With 20 career triple-doubles (his 20th coming with a career high 17 assists against the Kings on Wednesday night), Doncic is now just one triple-double shy of the Mavericks franchise record held by Jason Kidd.
More on Doncic later.
For the Mavericks though, it hasn’t been just about Doncic.
The Mavericks have used a resurgent F-C Kristaps Porzingis, dubbed ‘Unicorn 2.0’ and a terrific bench to become the NBA’s best in offensive rating (115.9).
Unheralded contributions from 3-and-D standout Dorian Finney-Smith, budding reserve Maxi Kleber, and the timely insertion of Tim Hardaway, Jr. into the starting lineup have the Mavericks on pace to win 52 games this season.
Although Porzingis has missed the last 9 games due to knee soreness, ‘The Unicorn 2.0’, has been a revelation for veteran NBA champion coach Rick Carlisle.
Coming over to the Mavericks in a highly publicized trade from the New York Knicks, Porzingis has returned to full-time basketball after being away from the game for 20 months. Averaging 17.3 points and 9.4 rebounds this season, Porzingis continues to come into his own as he becomes more accustomed and acclimated to Rick Carlisle’s ‘flow’ offense. Defensively, Porzingis has shined with his rim protection and consistent shot alteration allowing him to average 2.1 blocks per game (5th in NBA) this season.
While the continued missed time for Porzingis is concerning, his value to the Mavericks this season has been proven through his defensive prowess, stretch the floor three-point shooting, and strong rebounding. Carlisle has praised Porzingis throughout the season, even coming to his defense against Charles Barkley, for his ability to adjust while still being productive as he continues to solidify his functionality within this roster. Porzingis has been very open about his adjusting to Carlisle’s offense as he continues to regain his rhythm and confidence on the floor on a consistent basis. His self-reflection and deprecation has given observers a fresh look into who Porzingis is as a player and as a person. Porzingis’ self-reflection and accurate criticism of his game gives fans and observers confidence he will return to the consistent form that made him an All-Star with the Knicks.
One unexpected revelation for the Mavericks during the first half of the season has been the emergence of G Tim Hardaway, Jr.
Since being inserted into the starting the lineup, Hardaway’s aggressiveness on both ends of the floor has given the Mavericks a much needed identity at the two-guard position. Hardaway was inserted into the starting line up on November 20th as G Seth Curry dealt with illness and since then has become one of the Mavericks main outside shooting threats.
Against the Houston Rockets on November 24th, Hardaway scored 31 points and solidified his place within the team’s starting lineup in replacement of Seth Curry. ‘THJ’, as he is affectionately called, has provided a surprise third scoring option for the Mavericks as Doncic and Porzingis have carried the scoring load for the majority of the season.
While the Mavericks have leaned heavily on the production of Doncic, Porzingis, and Hardaway (since his insertion into the lineup) the depth of the team’s bench has proven to be the most valuable asset to Carlisle and co.
The Mavericks bench includes the emerging F Maxi Kleber, Delon Wright, Justin Jackson, and Jalen Brunson all of which have created increasing depth and production to supplement the team’s top stars. Dallas’ bench this season is 5th in the NBA in scoring averaging 42.3 ppg. The rise of the reserves for the Mavericks has been a breath of fresh air as they consistently force the issue against opponents night in and night out.
While the likes of Dwight Powell continue to improve with his rim running and athleticism in the starting line up, the bench has provided valuable minutes to supplement starters minutes throughout the season.
The overall depth of the 2019-20 Mavericks has created an offensive juggernaut that averages 116.6 ppg (3rd in NBA), while also being 4th in the NBA in true shooting percentage (58.1%). Head coach Rick Carlisle continues to prove himself not only with his longevity, but his adaptability to allow his 20-year old superstar in Doncic to lead the way. Carlisle’s ability to make in-game adjustments (especially in 3rd quarters) as he continues to use a variety of personnel has allowed the Mavericks to remain malleable against opponents. His creativity in mixing up different lineups and tinkering with rotations on the fly has kept opposing teams off balance for a majority of the season.
One of the major story lines for the Mavericks this season though has been their stark and contrasting home and road records. While 14-5 on the road this season, including impressive wins over the Lakers, Rockets, and Nuggets, they are only 12-10 at home. On the road the Mavericks are averaging 118.6 ppg while at home 114.9. Ironically, the Mavericks have played better defense at home statistically but have 5 more losses at home than on the road.
Additionally, the Mavericks have struggled against presumably inferior opponents including losses at home to the Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Hornets. The Mavericks inability to close during “clutch time” has allowed critical home games to get away from them which could prove costly with respect to seeding come playoff time. Carlisle has chronicled the Mavericks struggles in critical moments including against the Heat, Hornets, and Celtics, all home losses. He has routinely said that the Mavericks must improve at home to create a home court advantage that allows for more consistency on a night to night basis.
For the Mavericks to be considered true threats in the Western Conference, they must improve on their 12-10 home record going into the second half of the season in order to truly threat for a top-4 seed.
With a MVP candidate in tow, the Mavericks have a tremendous second half opportunity to become that true threat in the West that observers have seen in flashes throughout the season.
Luka Doncic has firmly put himself in the MVP conversation at the halfway point of the season and has done so with spectacular consistency. Doncic has dealt with increased physicality, pressure, and focus with each passing game as opponents focus their defensive efforts on stopping the Slovenian star.
Carlisle has been quoted as saying that Doncic has been getting the “sh*t” beat out of him and Doncic has had to adjust. Carlisle’s observations and calling out of the physical play on Doncic is part of the savvy, veteran leadership of Carlisle intended to get referees attention to the increased physical play on Doncic. As Doncic continues to adjust, he must focus his energy and sometimes frustration, not with referees, but with aggression channeled toward his opponents to make them pay for their continuously and more increasingly physical play.
There is no doubt that Doncic has played at an All-Star level and was rewarded by fans as the top early vote-getter when the first ballot results were released. Doncic has become the newest member of Team Jordan and his numbers have warranted all the attention that he has seen this season. Doncic this season is averaging 28.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 9.0 apg; the only player in the top-16 in all three categories. His star is special, his game increasingly incomprehensible, and he won’t be 21 until the end of February.
It is simple, the Dallas Mavericks will go as far as Luka Doncic will take them.
Carlisle, after Doncic notched his 12th triple-double of the season on the road in a win against the Kings said that he is running out of “accolades” to describe Doncic’s game. To be fair, no one saw the leap that Doncic has made from year one to year two, even after winning Rookie of the Year last year.
When I spoke to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smtih, he said that Doncic has the opportunity to go down as the,
“best white player since Larry Bird.”
Smith, obviously in tongue-and-cheek, recognizes like a lot of observers just how special Doncic is and will continue to be for years to come.
It is becoming that way for a lot of folks watching the precocious 20-year old around the NBA dazzle night in and night out.
There is no doubt that Doncic is not just a cornerstone for the Mavericks, but for the NBA as a whole, and will be so for years to come.
The Dallas Mavericks overall have been one of the best stories of the season so far across the NBA. As they go into their second half, one thing is for sure, for a team that only won 33 games a year ago, they are sure ahead of schedule this season.
For the Mavericks though, to a man, if you ask them, they will tell you this is where they expected to be all along.
The Mavericks host Carmelo Anthony and the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night to begin their second half of the season.
Follow me on Twitter @ctsportsradio for season-long coverage of the Dallas Mavericks for Black Sports Online.
Flip the pages to highlights of the Mavericks first half of the 2019-20 NBA season.