One of the more well-worn saws of basketball conventional wisdom is that, due to the fact that there are only 10 players on the court at a given time, the team with a transcendent superstar always has an advantage. It’s one of those statements that seems so obviously true on its face that we don’t often notice that it’s often not: If it were, the Milwaukee Bucks would still be in the playoffs, and LeBron James would own a Bill Russell–like collection of rings.
There are, however, players whose combination of ability and feel for the moment make you reluctant to ever pick against them. At present there is one player like this above all others left in the playoffs, and it is the Dallas Mavericks’ flatly unbelievable point guard Luka Doncic. Doncic, whose Mavs play the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday in what promises to be an epic Western Conference finals, was last seen leading a full-scale demolition of the top-seeded Phoenix Suns, who won a league-best 64 games in the regular season. In Game 6, facing elimination, Doncic scored 33 points to go with 11 rebounds and eight assists, guiding the Mavs to a 27-point win. Game 7 was even more destructive, as Luka scored 35 points in a mere 30 minutes as the Mavs blew the Suns off their home floor in a 33-point victory, which wasn’t even as close as it sounds. (At one point the Mavs were up 46; Doncic finished with an absurd +37 plus/minus figure.)
Doncic is only 23 years old and is currently in his fourth season in the NBA, which he joined in 2018 as arguably the most hyped European prospect in history. (Next year’s presumptive top pick, France’s Victor Wembanyama, should soon claim that distinction for himself.) Doncic went on to win Rookie of the Year and has already assembled eye-popping career averages of 26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 8 assists. These career numbers get even sillier in the playoffs, where over the course of three appearances Doncic has averaged 32.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists.
Until this year, Doncic had been bounced in the first round in each of his first two playoff appearances, through little fault of his own. After five games against the Suns, the Mavs found themselves down 3–2, with Phoenix relentlessly hunting Luka as a defender, his one real weakness. At that point it seemed like Dallas was probably dead in the water; they’d finally advanced past the first round, and now could be a cool up-and-coming story going forward. But Doncic had other plans, and we’re now left to wonder if Doncic might be fulfilling his prodigious promise even sooner than expected. (LeBron James famously dragged an otherwise pedestrian Cavs team to the finals in 2007, his own fourth year in the league.)
The Warriors will look to throw whatever they can at Doncic, starting with guard Andrew Wiggins, an atrocious defensive player earlier in his career who has since improved immensely on that end. And Golden State still has no shortage of offensive firepower of its own, starting with Steph Curry, the greatest shooter the game has ever seen who’s still trying to shed an oh-so-mild reputation for postseason inconsistency. In a way this series feels like the past and future of the league colliding, as Golden State looks for yet another run with the same core that won its first title back in 2015, while Doncic tries to make his first trip to the finals of what might well be many.
If he’s not playing your team, Doncic is a joy to watch. He is listed at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, but plays (and probably is) considerably larger. He is one of the two or three best passers in basketball, and he competes with a passion and ferocious intelligence that only the greatest players possess. In terms of pure athleticism, he’s not in the top tier of NBA players, but his combination of size, strength, and preternatural spatial awareness make him almost completely unguardable. He simply gets wherever he wants to and can make pretty much any shot he creates for himself.
Like most good white players of the past 40 years, Doncic has often been compared to Larry Bird. He’s more deserving of the comparison than the vast majority of his predecessors, but I still don’t think it’s quite accurate: Bird was purely a forward, and Luka isn’t the generational shooter that Bird was. (As I have long maintained, this current NBA’s rightful heir to Bird is Kevin Durant.) The impossibly lofty comparison I might venture instead is a player who retired long before I was born: Oscar Robertson. I have only seen Robertson’s play in highlights, but there’s something distinctly similar to Luka’s game: the smarts, the creativity, the vision, the snarling irascibility.
Doncic also seems like a historic player in another capacity: the final, resounding nail in the coffin of a hard-dying belief that great European players will prove to be soft in the NBA. The Slovenian Doncic was drafted third overall in 2018, a minor slide that was baffling to many internationally oriented analysts who’d just seen him win the EuroLeague MVP as an 18-year-old for Real Madrid. The two guys picked ahead of him were center Deandre Ayton, who’d played one year at the University of Arizona and was drafted by the Phoenix Suns first overall, and forward Marvin Bagley III, who’d played a year at Duke and was drafted by the Sacramento Kings. And the team that originally held the third overall pick, the Atlanta Hawks, traded Doncic to the Mavs in exchange for the fifth overall pick, which they used to draft Oklahoma guard Trae Young.
It would be a Yao Ming–sized understatement to say that neither Ayton’s nor Bagley’s career has thus far turned out the way Doncic’s has. (Young’s has been mostly spectacular, albeit not quite in the same class as Luka’s.) Ayton’s Suns were most recently getting torched by Doncic in the aforementioned Game 7; Ayton found himself riding the bench after a mere 17 minutes of play. Bagley’s early career has been far bleaker, essentially busting out with a dysfunctional Kings organization before being traded to the cellar-dwelling Detroit Pistons earlier this season, where he has shown some signs of life.
There are a number of reasons both of these players were selected over Luka. One is probably size; both Ayton and Bagley are listed as 6-foot-11, and there’s still a belief in some front offices that bigger is better. Ayton and Bagley also went to top-flight American college programs, a context that many NBA scouts and front offices are more accustomed to evaluating. But there were also lingering whispers about whether Luka’s success was inflated; if he could really make it in the NBA, if his game would translate; if NBA players would simply be too fast, too big, and too tough for him.
These concerns are laughable in retrospect. Doncic isn’t just a great player; he’s a killer, the type of guy who feels like a supervillain when he plays against the team you root for. He’s tough as hell and an inveterate shit-talker, openly delighting in opposing teams’ misery. The best basketball players, the ones that you can never, ever count out, play with a sense of cruelty. Luka has that, and now the Warriors have their hands full.