We are now about a quarter of the way through this NBA campaign and four teams that didn’t find themselves with a playoff spot last season are currently in the top eight in their respective conference. Of those teams, there were a couple you could expect a leap from. The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers added star power in Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis, respectively. Those 2 squads were poised for the leaps that they have taken. On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix Suns find themselves as an 8th seed today after having the worst record in the West just last year.
The team that has made the biggest leap in the standings though is the Dallas Mavericks. And news-flash: they have been really good. After finishing 14th in the West last season, just above the Suns, they are currently cemented into 2nd place, 3.5 games behind the Lakers. That’s a 12 position jump in the standings. The Mavs also have the 2nd best point differential in the Association and have won 5 games in a row including a 46-point thrashing of the New Orleans Pelicans yesterday that saw star forward Luka Doncic score 28 points in just 26 minutes.
(Full disclosure, as I have edited this post they have come back from a 20-point deficit vs. the Kings tonight and are now wrapped up in a close game. All that appears above and below does not include data from that game… I hope I didn’t jinx them. I already look silly because Kyrie still hasn’t returned to action).
Doncic in particular has been incredible. The internet has been buzzing just in the last couple of weeks about his superb play. Last year’s Rookie of the Year has already taken another step forward at just 20 years old.
At 20, the Slovenian-born former Euroleague MVP is leading the NBA in Basketball-Reference’s VORP statistic, a stat very similar to the WAR stat that is used in baseball. Let me be perfectly clear on how good Doncic has been. Doncic’s VORP of 3.0 puts him on pace to finish the season at a VORP of 11.2. Only 2 men have ever had a rating that high for a season. You might have heard of them. Their names are James and Jordan. Did I happen to mention that this guy is 20 years old?!
For those of you not as enamored with new-fangled stats, he’s also nearly averaging a triple-double with 30.1 points per game (good for 3rd in the NBA), 10 rebounds per game as a 6 foot 7 guard and 9.2 assists per game. There are 7 players in the league this year that are shooting 73% or better at the rim while taking at least 5 such attempts per game. Doncic is the only one listed under 6 foot 9 and is also the only one that has logged all his minutes as a guard, according to Basketball-Reference. All of this is coming from a guy that a lot of basketball talking heads didn’t think would have the athleticism to be a star in the NBA. He’s not perfect. He’s taking the 3rd most 3-point shots in the league while only making about 32% of them… but did I mention he’s 20 years old?!
Beyond Doncic, this team has been incredibly sound. They’re first in the NBA in Offensive Rating and have the fewest turnovers per game. Sixth-man Tim Hardaway Jr. has the best turnover percentage in the league while being one of three double-digit scorers on the squad alongside Doncic and power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
The X-Factor here though is Porzingis. Last year’s big name acquisition before the trade deadline is only 20 games into his return from a torn ACL that caused him to miss all of last season. The Mavericks gambled when they traded for him and to be fair he isn’t a sure thing. His scoring numbers are down. This has been the least efficient shooting season of his career by True Shooting Percentage (.499) and he’s averaged fewer points per game than any season other than his rookie year. However, he’s rebounding at a better clip than he ever has (15.0%) and is 5th in the league in blocks per game (2.0). I would say this signifies that he is playing hard. His offense is going to come. This is already the league’s best offense and Rick Carlisle knows a little bit about how to showcase an over-sized power forward who can shoot from anywhere on the floor.
For perspective on this team’s brilliance with the ball, last year’s Golden State Warriors have the best Offensive Rating in NBA history at 115.9 for a full season. Right now, this year’s Mavericks are at rating of 117.9. I know we are only 22 games in and I am getting ahead of myself, but they are on a record pace and Porzingis is likely only going to get better. If he can become the more adept scorer that he was while playing for the Knicks this team could even find another gear. This could be a historically proficient offense.
Outside of Doncic and Porzingis they have had real professional efforts from the rest of their roster. Hardaway has scored 12.5 points per game off the bench, Dwight Powell’s defensive field goal percentage (57.7) puts him in the company of other respected big man defenders like Marc Gasol and Mitchell Robinson. Bench guard Delon Wright is 10th in the league in Offensive Rating.
Yes, this team seems somewhat devoid of star power outside of their two top guys, and really Doncic is head and shoulders above Porzingis at this moment. It isn’t all positives. Their performance bares similarities to LeBron in his first go-round with the Cavaliers, although to this point Doncic has even out-paced LeBron’s age 20 season.
This is only the beginning though. Porzingis is just 24 and I think I remembered to mention that Doncic is 20. ESPN’s Zach Lowe calls the Mavericks quite possibly the next team to have a roster with a “Big Three” a la LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love or Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Even if they don’t add a big piece, Dallas has become an organization of great stability and infrastructure under Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Carlisle. They should be poised to be a real problem in the West for years.
The Dirk Nowitzki story might have just ended in Dallas, but a new and possibly even bigger tale may just be beginning.