It's Friday, and that means we highlight 10 things I like and dislike from across the NBA! This week, we look at Luka Doncic and the Mavs maybe, possibly, getting right, a rookie second-round steal in Chicago, and feistiness from LaMelo Ball and the surging Hornets.
1. Are the Mavs finding the right identity, or are they stuck?
Before the season, I picked the Mavs as my "if everything goes right, this is the under-the-radar candidate to sneak into the Finals" team. Zero teams want any part of Doncic in a playoff series. If his jumper is falling -- and it hasn't been for much of this season -- he has a counter for every scheme.
Of course, everything has not gone right. Doncic showed up in less than pristine shape, and dealt with ankle issues. Kristaps Porzingis has missed 16 games. The entire roster forgot how to shoot. They fell to 15-17. The three teams atop the West outperformed expectations, making a long Dallas playoff run seem like a pipedream.
Plot twist! The Mavs are 13-4 in their last 17 games, and their defense has rocketed up to No. 5 overall. They've benefited from some cold opponent shooting, but the underlying structure looks sound. The Mavs move on a string, communicate, and make smart adjustments. They limit 3s and shots at the basket. The Mavs may not be an elite defensive team in the end, but they're good.
Doncic's conditioning improved. The coaching staff made the right call keeping Jalen Brunson in the starting five, and flanking Porzingis with Maxi Kleber instead of Dwight Powell. Kleber can shoot 3s or roll to the rim; Powell has been tremendous off the bench.
Slotting another ball handler around Doncic invigorates the offense. Brunson can catch kickouts from Doncic, knife into the lane, and keep the machine moving. He can screen for Doncic, gifting him mismatches if defenses switch; Doncic has been posting up more, and he's lethal backing down smaller players.
Doncic has good feel as a cutter and give-and-go dance partner, and the Mavs are better when he dials his game 10% in that direction. Brunson activates that part of Doncic's game:
More ball handlers means more chances to push, and the Mavs -- the league's second-slowest team -- need some easy transition buckets.
They are playing smaller a little more often, sometimes with Porzingis as the only big. That is where they have their highest ceiling. It maximizes the sometimes stilted Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll -- giving it breathing space, and making it harder for defenses to switch against it. Porzingis has looked more capable lately of anchoring small-ball groups on defense.
The Mavs now have to ask themselves: Is this team really good enough? Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith will be unrestricted free agents, with big raises coming. The Brunson flight risk is real, sources say. The Mavs have no cap space to replace them.