LOS ANGELES — As he navigated a maze of basketball legends on all-star Sunday in Cleveland, Michael Jordan beelined for Luka Doncic, engulfing the Dallas Mavericks guard with a Santa Claus-like bear hug.
That warm embrace highlighted a sensational month for Doncic, who celebrated his 23rd birthday this week with two wins over the Golden State Warriors and another against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Slovenian star claimed Western Conference player of the month honors by averaging 34.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Along the way, he notched a career-high 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers, outdueled Stephen Curry and LeBron James and jumped so high for a putback dunk over Dwight Howard that the typically ground-bound playmaker left his coach and teammates baffled.
“Was that Luka?” Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd quipped. “You sure that wasn’t Maxi [Kleber]? It wasn’t Davis [Bertans]? It had to be Dwight [Powell]. You had to take a second look to make sure it was Luka. I guess as he’s gotten older, he’s jumping higher.”
Doncic captivates with gutsy shot-making and terrific vision far more often than with aerial feats, yet his exchange with the highflying Chicago Bulls legend provided helpful context for his current predicament. Doncic endorses Jordan’s sneakers, but Jordan has been in his shoes.
Like Jordan, Doncic has spent his early 20s posting stunning stat lines and collecting individual honors such as rookie of the year and all-NBA nods. Like Jordan, Doncic has raised his game on the postseason stage, fearlessly battling more experienced and accomplished opponents. But like Jordan’s Bulls, Doncic’s Mavericks didn’t reach the second round in his first three seasons.
Jordan’s first series victory came in Year 4, and Doncic could very well be headed for a long-awaited postseason breakthrough of his own. The Mavericks (38-25) have rocketed up to fifth in the West’s standings, posting the NBA’s second-best record (21-7) and second-best defensive rating (106.3) since Jan. 1. Doncic, who carried extra weight coming into the season and missed time in December with an ankle injury, now looks fit and healthy, and he has benefited from Kidd’s offseason arrival and a trade deadline deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie and Bertans.
Kidd has fully empowered Doncic, whose career-high 37.3 usage rate leads the NBA. More importantly, the 48-year-old coach has established a healthier team dynamic than existed during the latter stages of Rick Carlisle’s tenure, which saw several public displays of frustration by Doncic during last year’s playoffs. Carlisle’s authoritarianism has been replaced by a gentler touch.
“He’s making us talk a lot more and letting us figure it out,” Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith said of Kidd. “He’s asking questions and letting guys speak up. We’ve been holding each other accountable this year. Our team is jelling right now.”
Porzingis’s departure has further clarified the Mavericks’ identity on both ends. Dallas now favors a completely spread attack on offense that relies on ball movement to find open shooters, no longer needing to feed Porzingis for post-ups or to work around his limited passing ability. The Mavericks’ improved defense is built on speed rather than size, and they cover ground more easily with small-ball options such as Kleber and Powell rather than the 7-foot-3 Porzingis, whose mobility has been limited by injuries.
Meanwhile, Dinwiddie has made a seamless transition from Washington, where he struggled to find a fit alongside Bradley Beal and within a locker room plagued by competing interests. In Dallas, Dinwiddie functions as a third ballhandler behind Doncic and Jalen Brunson, who is averaging a career-high 16 points and 5.3 assists en route to being one of this summer’s most coveted free agents.
“The spacing is different from Washington,” said Dinwiddie, who is averaging 14.5 points in six games since the trade. “Night and day. There’s a lot of spot-up capabilities on this team. We’re taught to stay spaced, and that makes pretty big gaps for somebody like me who likes to get into the paint.”
The Mavericks will be fascinating to watch in the playoffs because their most likely opponents — the Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets — all feature traditional centers, setting up a clear stylistic contrast. To offset an undersized front line, Dallas will experiment with three-guard lineups and turn to Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock for outside shooting when Doncic faces double teams and traps.
Few players are better than Doncic at orchestrating when faced with extra defensive attention. He has a deep bag of tricks to keep opponents guessing — step-back threes, trusty floaters, sidestep midrange jumpers and bulldozing drives — and his patience has improved. Doncic won late-game chess matches against the Warriors and Lakers by forcing and then exploiting isolations against Curry and James.
“Attacking the best players is always good,” he said after he scored 41 points in a win over Golden State on Thursday. “They’ve got to have energy on both ends.”
Dallas struggled in close games to start the season, going just 6-11 through Dec. 31 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Since then, the Mavericks are 11-5 in such games. Kidd was pleased with the Mavericks’ mental toughness after they closed out the Lakers and then survived a fourth-quarter officiating controversy against the Warriors.
“In the past, we’ve maybe melted mentally,” Kidd said. “Early on, you would have seen that [Lakers] game get away from us. We didn’t blink. We didn’t take a step back. We just kept playing the game and found a way to get control of it. Luka is really good dictating down the stretch, getting shots or finding the open guys.”
Waiting is always the hardest part for young stars, and Doncic has had to watch as Deandre Ayton and Trae Young, his 2018 draft classmates, tasted early playoff success. It’s worth noting that the Clippers, who eliminated the Mavericks in each of the past two postseasons, were loaded with long and physical perimeter defenders ideally suited to making Doncic’s life difficult. No matter which team Dallas draws this year in the first round, Doncic won’t need to deal with Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, let alone both.
To watch a wide-eyed Doncic frozen with admiration for Jordan at All-Star Weekend, then, was to be reminded of his youth. Four years is a long time, but it’s also only the beginning.