Bradley’s Buzz: Luka trumps Trae, but Luka has work to do, too

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) after their game at State Farm Arena, Friday, January 26, 2024, in Atlanta. The Mavericks won 148-143. Doncic scored a franchise-record 73 points. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) after their game at State Farm Arena, Friday, January 26, 2024, in Atlanta. The Mavericks won 148-143. Doncic scored a franchise-record 73 points. (Jason Getz /

Department of “duh”: Dallas won the Great Draft Swap of 2018. At this moment, any team, the Hawks included, would rather have Luka Doncic than Trae Young. The Mavericks are still playing. The Hawks were eliminated two months ago. Doncic is among the NBA’s top three players. Young isn’t the best all-around player on his team.

Doncic is not, however, perfect. His performance in Game 3 against Boston was the most petulant seen in an NBA postseason since the greatest player of this century stopped shooting for Cleveland against a different band of Celtics in 2010. LeBron James would soon take his talents elsewhere.

It has taken Dallas six years to get this far. Over Doncic’s first five seasons, the Mavs made the playoffs three times and won two series. Over those five seasons, Young’s Hawks made the playoffs three times – twice via the play-in – and won two series.

Though Doncic had stamped himself as the better player – he has made first-team All-NBA five times; Young made third-team All-NBA once – both clubs faced, and still face, the same issue: How do we build around an idiosyncratic guard who’s nothing special when he doesn’t have the ball?

The Hawks thought they were onto something when they made the 2021 Eastern finals. Nothing good has happened since. The Mavericks reached the 2022 Western finals but lost to Golden State. They missed the 2023 postseason.

On the morning of February’s trade deadline, the Mavs were 29-23 and bound for the play-in. They traded for P.J. Washington, who shoots well enough to create space for Doncic, and Daniel Gafford, who jumps high enough to grab Luka’s lobs. They won 21 of their next 28 games. They avoided the play-in.

Seeded fifth, Dallas tore through its half of the bracket. It beat the Kawhi-less Clippers in Round 1. Then it toppled top-seeded Oklahoma City. The burgeoning Timberwolves, who’d eliminated reigning champ Denver, lasted only five games in the West final. In his sixth season, Doncic seemed capable of anything/everything. Then the finals commenced.

Stipulation: Boston is doggone good. The Celtics’ fifth-best player would be the Mavs’ third-best. The C’s have the shooters to make Doncic defend, which he doesn’t do all that well, and the defenders to limit his options. He has scored 89 points over three finals games, having needed 74 shots to do it. He managed a triple double in Game 2, though his eight turnovers almost made it a quadruple.

In Game 3, he fouled out with 4:12 left and his team trailing by three. Fouls No. 5 and 6 came 26 seconds apart. He demanded his team challenge the sixth. It complied, to no avail. He lamented the officiating afterward – he laments the officiating in every waking moment – and said, “We couldn’t play physical.”

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst called Doncic’s performance “unacceptable.” (Having covered James for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Windhorst has a masters’ degree in superstars.) Windhorst noted, correctly, that the Mavs are in the finals because of Doncic, but averred that such excesses were the reason “they’re not going to win.”

Have we seen this before? Oh yeah. Michael Jordan didn’t become an NBA champ until his seventh season. James got his ring in Year 9. Even the best need time. It’s possible Doncic will, in another year or two with a couple of better teammates, bring the Mavs the first of many titles. It’s also possible he won’t.

He’s great when he’s great; when he’s not, it’s the refs’ fault. He’s a worldly 25 – born in Slovenia, played for Real Madrid – but he hasn’t grasped that the world doesn’t always bend to his will. It will be intriguing to see how his body ages. He has been listed as questionable for several games this postseason, though he has missed none. (The Mavs list him at 230 pounds, which seems iffy.)

Is he better than the guy for whom his draft rights were dealt? Put it this way: The Mavs wouldn’t trade Doncic for Young AND Dejounte Murray. But as skilled and sly and stylish as Doncic is, he’s not quite the finished product. Maybe next year he will be. Maybe, I said.

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