Watching Luka Doncic head off to Atlanta for the All-Star Game, even just for the weekend, is like sending your kid to camp. You hope he picks up with old friends and makes new ones. You hope he shows off, but not too much. You hope he stays safe.
You hope he still likes you when he comes back.
Because he’s returning to a one-star team.
Four of the seven teams ahead of the Mavs in the West will be represented this weekend by two All-Stars, and Damian Lillard should be rejoined shortly by CJ McCollum, vastly improving Portland’s odds. Chances of moving up to the fifth seed look remote, but, given the Mavs’ play lately, sixth seems doable.
And if they displace the Nuggets and Spurs and rise two spots and everything else in front of them holds, they’d open the first round of the playoffs with…
Life out West never seems to get any easier, which is why it’s imperative to pile up as many All-Stars as you can along the way. This is hard enough to do in the summer and almost impossible at the trade deadline unless you’re willing to shake up things considerably, even dangerously.
Maybe you heard that the Mavs were shopping Kristaps Porzingis. Those of you short on patience would welcome a change in Porzingis’ scenery, but you’d be selling low at this point, and you’d eventually regret it. Trust me. Otherwise, no other Mav not named Luka would command a significant return. Even a deal for Andre Drummond, in whom the Mavs might have an interest, would be all but impossible because of his $28 million salary. They’d have to gut half the rotation to make it work. Same goes for Al Horford and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and a host of other names you’d recognize.
Who might be available then? Blake Griffin, but he’s so dinged up, he can’t even dunk anymore. Literally. No jams this season. How sad is that? The Mavs need shooters and 3-and-D wings. Several players — JJ Redick, Wayne Ellington, George Hill, Lou Williams, maybe even Trevor Ariza — could fill one of those roles for a reasonable price.
But no campaigns from me this year for Andre Iguodala. No, thanks. That bus has pulled out.
The Mavs probably will make a deal before the March 25 trade deadline, but don’t expect any of them to set off the Richter scale. The best that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson can do now is give Luka a little more of the same help he’s already getting. That may not be as boring as it seems.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Mavs have been all over the place this season. Middling start accented by a spectacular win over the Clippers. Then COVID hit, and the bottom fell out. Lost six in a row and seven of eight. That streak of wretched play not so coincidentally coincided with Luka’s darkest days as a Maverick.
Then Luka Magic got his mind right and next thing you know they won nine of 11 going into the All-Star break.
Now, the question is, are these mercurial Mavs the team that nosedived, or are they the one that went into the hiatus on a high?
My guess is that they’re closer to the latter, and that’s for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is that Luka is finally in game shape and playing better than ever. Porzingis also looks more comfortable. Good enough to be a true second star? Not every night, no. That’s something to hope for come the playoffs or maybe even next season.
Until then, coach Rick Carlisle must hope Jalen Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr. continue to fill the roles they’ve played so well and that Josh Richardson finally lives up to what the Mavs thought they were getting when they traded Seth Curry for him.
Now, I know that Curry-for-Richardson hardly ranks as an all-time deal. Historians won’t look back on it like Harvey Kuenn for Rocky Colavito or, closer to my childhood grief, Mike Cuellar for Curt Blefary. I mean, neither Curry nor Richardson will lift a team to a title on his own. Early on this season, though, it seemed safe to say the Mavs got robbed. Curry gave the 76ers offensive punch they didn’t have last season.
Then he came down with COVID and, though he’s certainly had his moments, he hasn’t been quite the same since.
Funny thing is, most of this season, you could say the same about Richardson. The Mavs weren’t expecting him to be a big scorer. What they wanted was the two-way 3-and-D player they chronically lack. And whether it was COVID residue or scheme fit, Richardson just seemed to be drifting.
The good news is, he looks more assertive lately, which bodes well for life after the All-Star break. If Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith can return to form, it won’t matter as much that Dwight Powell and Trey Burke have been disappointments.
And maybe Luka won’t hold it against them that they don’t look remotely like the team LeBron James built around him for the weekend. Have a good time in Atlanta, Luka. Try not to get used to it.