DETROIT — Every team in the Western Conference feels like it’s one significant move away from separating itself from the muck and being established as a power.
A few nights before, it was hard for them to muster the requisite energy to match a hungry Detroit Pistons team — falling in overtime in a game they looked like Luka and the Donettes as they fell to 1-8 on the road.
Which one is the real Mavericks?
Well, both, and that’s the problem.
Reaching the conference finals in head coach Jason Kidd’s first season ramped up expectations in a way this roster wasn’t yet ready for. They were seemingly a couple years ahead of schedule.
But if they’re not careful, Doncic won’t be anywhere near his best because he’ll be so worn down from carrying this team.
Even Kidd, who put a lot of responsibility on Doncic, as he did with Giannis Antetokounmpo years ago, knows this isn’t sustainable.
“For 82 games, it’s no way that he can play at this level, the usage is just way too high,” Kidd told Yahoo Sports last week. “No one can. You know, the things that we ask him to do on the offensive end and then asked him to defend on the other end. It’s a lot.”
Monday, Doncic sat the fourth quarter because the Mavericks had such a comfortable lead on Phoenix — he’d already inflicted damage that had the Suns feeling like this was deja vu with 33 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 29 minutes.
But even then, Doncic controls so many possessions even when it’s successful, it feels draining. Doncic doesn’t lead the league in usage rate; that title temporarily belongs to Antetokounmpo, who’s had to carry more of a load in Milwaukee while Khris Middleton was out following wrist surgery to start the season.
Antetokounmpo can ramp it down on that end if need be, and he’s playing around 33 minutes a game. Plus, he’s a physical freak able to deliver hits as easily as he takes them.
Doncic, though, is no Adonis. His raw stats (league-leading 33.4 points, plus 8.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds) and the advanced numbers support his MVP candidacy, but he’s also playing 37 minutes a night and going to the line nearly 11 times a game.
Sounds like James Harden-in-Houston territory, and those movies always ended sooner than expected.
Dallas ranks last in both fast break points and points in the paint, according to NBA.com. The former is more concerning considering Doncic can saunter up the floor when he doesn’t have the ball, with his teammates waiting on him to join the party.
“Being consistent is a big thing we’re fighting to find, we have guys starting to play well,” Kidd admitted.
No one is getting anything easy and Doncic hasn’t figured out how to be effective without the ball to make life less stressful for his teammates. Fatigue, of course, has to play a factor, but it’s hard to tell how he would handle playing with another ball-dominant player.
“We got to get them help and we got to look to see how we can do that,” Kidd told Yahoo Sports. “His minutes are extremely high. You try to hold him [on the bench] but a lot of times you gotta bring him back early just to get back in the game.”
That’s the dilemma for Kidd and general manager Nico Harrison. On a nightly basis, who’s gonna produce other than Doncic? Tim Hardaway Jr. has begun to emerge after a slow start following his recovery from a foot injury. Beginning with the Mavs’ thrilling win over Golden State a week ago, he’s looked like a consistent sidekick, averaging 23.3 points while shooting 51.1% on 11.8 3-point attempts (!) — a product of the attention Doncic draws.
Christian Wood was brought in via trade, but his playing time has been spotty, even though his scoring has been as expected. One thing about Kidd, defense will always be a priority, especially for his bigs with the constant trapping and hedging and covering 47 feet of half-court space.
Wood has seemingly struggled on that end.
“I think you got to be able to balance that,” Kidd said when asked about struggling defensive players who provide offense. “And, you know, sometimes you just try to keep it simple. We’re running everything just to keep things simple.
“Sometimes it puts a small on a big and then a shot goes up, that’s where it becomes about manhood and trying to fight the small’s fighting the big, but it’s hard in this league.”
They play aggressively on defense, compensating for a lack of size with overall toughness that’s leading to another season hovering around the top five in defensive efficiency.
Would they love to have Zach LaVine in Chicago? Of course, but so would a handful of other teams. The Bulls haven’t given any indication they’re ready to strip it to the studs, and LaVine is in the first year of a five-year pact worth more than $215 million.
But LaVine represents someone on the Mavs’ timeline and his style of play would theoretically give them what they lack: Someone who can fly in the open floor as well as being a good enough shooter to play off Doncic while also being a premier shot creator.
It’s not that the Mavs are far away; nobody in the top eight is, but they embody the frustrating nature of this early season more than anyone.
Yet, they still have hope.