How would Luka Doncic fit with the Mavericks?

Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, and the Dallas Mavericks franchise finally got the ring they had been longing for in 2011, when they got revenge on the Miami Heat after what happened in 2006. That title brought massive levels of optimism. Surely with a ring, and Nowitzki and Carlisle dedicated to the franchise, the Mavericks could finally start attracting big name free agents.

But the optimism quickly faded as the Mavericks swung and missed on a slew of free agents from 2011 onward. DeAndre Jordan is one name that certainly comes to mind. After every swing and miss, they were forced to go for their second option who was always far worse. Monta Ellis and OJ Mayo are two examples of players they paid, because they had to pay someone to give Nowitzki another shot.

Nowitzki and the Mavs never got another shot, they tumbled simultaneously from the top of the league to the lottery.

Being a lottery team, though, gives the Mavericks an opportunity they haven’t really had since trading for Nowitzki during the 1998 draft — the chance to draft a player who gives you hope for the future. It started last season with Dennis Smith Jr. But everyone knows you need more than one star to have a shot in today’s NBA. With the fifth pick in this years draft, the Mavs will be looking to add a second potential star. There’s a chance, that it’s Luka Doncic.

Now, Doncic might not be who the Mavs want. In fact, they’re probably more interested in DeAndre Ayton or Mo Bamba. One of those players would most likely give them what they hoped Nerlens Noel would — a defensive anchor to hide Nowitzki as he gets closer and closer to retirement, and a solid pick-and-roll partner for Smith Jr. They also could serve as counter to the ever growing list of quality big men in the Western Conference such as Clint Capela, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and others.

Another potential outcome, is that neither of those players — nor another big body like Jaren Jackson Jr. — is available at five. Sure, Ayton and Bamba don’t seem like the best choices for the Suns and Kings given the bigs already on their respective rosters. But since when could we count on those franchises to make the best choice?

In fact, if Doncic were to fall to five it would make sense that the previously mentioned bigs have already been selected. Thus leaving the Mavericks with the best player available option, which would most likely be Doncic. But would the teenage superstar be a good fit for the Mavericks?

It’s tough to say for sure, as all projections for incoming rookies are guesses to some degree. But there’s a good chance he fits well. For starters, he’d have international basketball legend Nowitzki by his side for his first couple seasons in the league. Nowitzki himself admitted he got homesick as a rookie, faced plenty of struggles, and had to power through to reach his potential and become the star he is today. If Doncic were to face any of those obstacles, he would have the ideal mentor to talk him through it.

Doncic would also be playing for a top-three coach in the league in Carlisle. The long-time Mavericks head coach would find plenty of ways to maximize Doncic’s skills and I’m sure he’d be foaming at the mouth for the opportunity to coach a 6-foot-8 playmaker.

In terms of roster fit, as it stands Doncic wouldn’t have to be shoehorned in nor would he fit like a glove. Even though the Mavs only won 24-games last season, they do have two solid starting wings with over $40 million invested in them annually over the next two seasons, in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes. That would leave the Mavs with some decisions to make if they end up taking Doncic.

They could trade one of Matthews or Barnes, most likely Matthews. He only has two seasons left on his current deal, which is also cheaper. The trade market for Matthews probably isn’t all that strong, given his contract and struggles at staying healthy while playing a position and role many could come close to emulating for much cheaper. But who knows, maybe the Mavs could get a center who isn’t Salah Mejri in return. That’d be nice.

The other option the Mavs have is just rolling the dice with Matthews, Barnes, and Doncic. This would entail a small-ball 4, something the Mavs experimented with via Barnes. The experiment was paused in late March and put Barnes back at the 3. Once he went back to the 3, Barnes started playing like he did in his first season with Dallas. He added on to this improvement by saying a bright future for the Mavs most likely has him at the 3.

“That’s where we’re going,” Barnes told SportsDay. “That’s the future of what we’re trying to do. I just need to get better at the playmaking stuff.”

This would mean using Doncic as a small ball 4, an idea we should all be enamored with. Doncic is 6-foot-8 and weighs 220-pounds (not 288-pounds). While there are certainly some teams who could bully him down low on the offensive end, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

For starters, if teams think Doncic is someone they can bully down low then they’ll just run him through as many screens as possible to switch onto a low post player who they feel could exploit him. But, that probably won’t happen. Low-post offense is inefficient unless you’re throwing the ball to one of the handful of elite low post players in the league. Nobody on the Mavs current roster is stopping any of those guys anyway, so Doncic trying to doesn’t really make a difference.

Doncic would also be more comfortable — at least during his rookie season — guarding players down low. His foot speed isn’t the greatest, he definitely can’t be counted on to hang with NBA one’s or most of the league’s two’s for that matter. So why not test him down low? Playing him closer to the rim defensively would also capitalize on his ability as a rebounder — he’s averaging 8.7 rebounds per-40 over the past two seasons — and give him a chance to initiate some grab-and-go fastbreaks.

We see one example of a Doncic grab-and-go here from Eurobasket 2017. When Doncic is able to grab a rebound and start running into open space he becomes almost impossible to stop. With his size he can shrug anyone off at that speed and either demonstrate his explosiveness with a strong finish at the rim or flex his impeccable ability to find teammates in transition.

Doncic isn’t the worst low-post defender in the world. It’s not one of his strengths, but it isn’t a weakness either. Real Madrid had so many injuries this season, (Mainly to low post players. Ognjen Kuzmic missed the whole season, Anthony Randolph and Gustavo Ayon missed considerable time. Los Blancos were forced to sign Edy Tavares mid-season because they were down to two reliable bodies down low that weren’t Doncic), that Doncic was forced to play down there.

In this clip, Doncic does such a good job of positioning himself, battling his opponent, and cutting off angles to pass that he doesn’t even get the ball. The best part of this clip is the fight Doncic puts in. In the NBA, mainly as a rookie, experienced players will look to get the ball down there against him and see if he’ll roll over like a lot of young perimeter players do. If Doncic battles with them like he did in the highlight, they’ll call it quits on that strategy pretty quickly.

Guarding 4s, Doncic might be tasked with defending screener’s in the pick-and-roll. He has very little experience in this role, and some combinations would throw lobs over him easily if there isn’t help around the rim. But Doncic is a good pick-and-roll defender when covering the ball-handler. His reads and understanding of the coverage are solid, as demonstrated here.

Doncic jumps out to avoid the screener, then stays on the ball-handler’s back shoulder to discourage him from shooting while still tagging the roll man. Doncic plays this so perfectly that he baits the ball handler into the pocket pass and steals it. The defensive pick-and-roll IQ demonstrated here gives hope that after a steady amount of NBA reps, he will become a passable pick-and-roll defender when guarding the roll man.

So Doncic could clearly fit defensively with the Mavericks, what about on the other side of the ball? On offense, Doncic’s fit is even better.

Even though it was awesome to watch Doncic shoulder the offensive load for a title-winning campaign this season, that’s not his best role. It’s not something any team should envision for him long-term.

Doncic is at his best when alongside other creators who he can share playmaking responsibilities with. We saw this in the 2016-17 Euroleague season where Doncic got to play alongside Llull. Doncic’s usage rate jumped from 20.17 in the 2016-17 season to 28.79 for the 2017-18 season. A significant jump, which isn’t reflected in his assists as they only jumped from 4.23 per game to 4.3 per game. Meanwhile, his turnover’s per game jumped more than 25 percent from 1.8 to 2.3. This means asking Doncic to create more doesn’t guarantee he will. Instead, he’ll most likely tire out and start to turn the ball over more.

The best thing to do is to split his creative duties with someone else, like Los Blancos did with Llull, and like the Mavs could with Smith. Even in the Barnes quote earlier he talked about improving his playmaking ability. The Mavs could continue down that path, or have Barnes just focus on scoring where he has thrived for the Mavs.

If Doncic isn’t creating, then what is he doing? The answer is simple: spacing. Doncic only shot 33 percent from deep in Euroleague this past season, a number that just barely warrants respecting him out there. But going up against NBA defenses and using a slightly further line probably means that drops, right? Actually, wrong.

In the 2016-17 season Doncic shot 37 percent from deep in Euroleague play. His attempts were also lower, 3.0 per-game versus 5.4 for this season. The increase in volume, and more importantly the reasoning for the increase in volume, explains why his accuracy from last season is more trustworthy.

The reason Doncic had to take more 3s this season was because he was the player who had to force up isolation hoists for Real Madrid when the shot clock was running down. While he made some of them, these are often sub-optimal shots and one’s Doncic wouldn’t look for outside of this situation.

The Mavs won’t need him too do this, only in rare circumstances. Their end of shot clock duties will most likely fall to Barnes, and then Smith, before Doncic. When they are forced to iso, Doncic could space the floor and fire away on catch-and-shoot 3s when his man helps off of him. These are the 3s he’s more comfortable taking.

Doncic just seems to have more confidence when he’s firing away on catch-and-shoot 3s like the one in this clip. His release will need to be a little quicker in the NBA, but once his jumper gets blocked a few times he’ll start to adjust.

Even though Doncic will work well as a floor spacer for the Mavs, they’re obviously still going to have him run the pick-and-roll.

The Doncic-Nowitzki pick-and-roll is overflowing with aesthetic appeal for international hoop fans — the old generation working with the new generation as he nears the end, attempting to make the transition into NBA game play and stardom easier for the wunderkind. But Nowitzki only played 24.7 minutes per game last season which means there will be other pick-and-roll options. Barnes is one, as are Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Mejri.

(The thought of Doncic running pick-and-roll’s with Mejri does make me sad. I can’t even begin to imagine how many passes are going to slip through his hands or zip by his face and go out of bounds. Then, for the third time in the quarter, Mejri will turn and find Doncic as he trots back on defense and pat his chest while mouthing, “my bad.” A fun fact by the way, Mejri and Doncic were teammates in 2014-15. They both technically played for Real Madrid that season.)

Regardless of who is Doncic’s regular partner is in the pick-and-roll, their hands better be ready at all times. The same goes for his teammates spacing the floor. What makes Doncic so good is that at his size, and with his handle and court vision, he truly sees every opening. Sometimes, he sees the opening before his teammate catching the pass does.

In this clip we see Doncic draw two defenders and then throw the pass high for his roll man to catch and finish. There is talk that the Mavs may make a run at Julius Randle as a RFA this summer. If they do, Doncic could run this pick-and-roll with him and let him use his athleticism by tossing him lobs as he slashes down the middle.

The pick-and-roll trend we would most likely see from Doncic with the Mavs would start with him throwing the over the top pass to his roll man. Whether that be Nowitzki, Mejri, or another player it doesn’t matter as long as they regularly catch the pass.

Here’s one example from ACB action where Doncic doesn’t even have to attack off the pick-and-roll. He senses the attention from two defenders already so he just whips the pass into Tavares in a spot where only he can catch it.

After Doncic makes a couple of passes like this in the pick-and-roll, opponents will wise up. They’ll sink help off from the corner to cut off the angle. They may get a turnover out of this, but Doncic will wise up and realize his favorite pick-and-roll pass is open — the skip pass to the corner shooter.

Doncic throws the skip pass in the clip above. Juan Carlos Navarro came to help on the roll-man in the paint, but had sagged way to far off of Jaka Blazic. Doncic see’s the wide open Blazic, hits him in the chest, and Blazic knocks down the open look with ease.

The Mavs have plenty of players who could space the floor like this for Doncic. Barnes, Matthews, Nowitzki, and even Doug McDermott might be there if he decides to accept his qualifying offer. Regardless of who it is, they will clearly benefit and become a better player because of Doncic’s presence on the floor. Dallas as a whole, would become better than a 24-win team with Doncic on their roster. The fit may not be perfect, but it’s still pretty good.