By: Andrew Hubschman
The Dallas Mavericks have clinched a playoff spot for the second year in a row since drafting young phenom Luka Dončić, winning their first Southwest Divisional title since 2010. As the fifth seed in the Western Conference, they will play Kawhi Leonard and his fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s First Round matchup in which LA came out on top in six games. Dončić’s run with the Mavs seems to be living up to its hype, but where oh where have we seen this before?
Who remembers LeBron’s first run with the Cleveland Cavaliers? You know, the one where he and Cavs greats Zydrunas Ilgauskas (left) and Larry Hughes (right) easily led Cleveland to their first Finals appearance in 2007 (read more about it here) and clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2009 and ’10 before quickly plummeting the year their superstar small forward left for Miami? Luka’s Mavs and LeBron’s 2000’s Cavs draw quite a few parallels… in some ways and not.
The main similarity is their team’s high dependency on the faces of their franchises. From 2006-10, the Cavs were 7-14 without LeBron – including an extremely poor 1-13 effort from 2008-10. Since Luka’s rookie season, the Mavs are 14-16 when he doesn’t suit up. Luka may have already missed more games than LeBron did in his five-year stretch, but these records show not only how much their presence is needed, but also that the Cavs had a higher dependency on LeBron than Dallas has on Luka.
Going further, Dallas finished the 2020-21 season 27-16 when Luka scores 25 or more, and 15-9 when he is the only Mav to score at least 30 (16-9 in total 30+ games); they were 10-6 when Kristaps Porzingis played in his 30-point games. To add a little side note, a handful of all those games ended in a five-point margin or less. Although Luka has some help beside him thanks to Porzingis averaging 20.1 points per game and Tim Hardaway Jr. with 16.1, the Mavs still depend on a strong performance from Luka to keep them on the winning side. Which player, again, does this sound like?
That’s right: LeBron! In the Cavs’ 2007 campaign, for example, Cleveland finished 20-11 in games that LeBron scored 20+ points and 20-13 when he scored at least 30. Of those games, the Cavs were 16-4 when LeBron and another teammate scored at least 20. In other words, the Cavs were 24-20 when only LeBron scored at least 20 points, further demonstrating the weak cast that surrounded him. The team’s top two scorers under LeBron were Hughes (14.9) and Illgauskas (11.9). Much like Luka and the Mavs this season, more than a handful of those games ended in a five-point margin at best (21, respectively).
The 2020’s Mavericks have roughly the same level of competition in their conference as did the 2000’s Cavaliers. The Cavs biggest competition in the East were Chauncey Billups and the Pistons; Dwight Howard and the Magic; and Paul Pierce and the Celtics. Thanks to weak first-round opponents (mainly the Wizards and Bulls) the Cavs made it past the First Round every year during their respective five-year period, only to find themselves outmatched by each of the former three teams – the sole exception being their 2007 Finals run where they saw themselves get trounced by the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs in four games.
The Mavericks have only played the Clippers in the playoffs since drafting Luka, but it is worth noting that the Lakers, Jazz, Suns, and Trail Blazers are also suited to be challenging opponents that the Mavs could potentially face in the coming years. Unlike the Cavaliers’ runs in the late 2000’s, we should not see a Mavericks ‘cakewalk’ during their playoff runs. Instead, we should see more well-deserved runs for the Finals.
The Mavs will play the Clippers in the First Round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. In a surprising coincidence, the Cavaliers played – and beat – the Gilbert Arenas-led Washington Wizards in the First Round each year from 2006-2008. Will luck go in the direction of Luka and his teammates? My answer: don’t sleep on them.