The engines are revved up and ready to start the Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis Era. All that remains is for this dynamic duo to put the pedal firmly to the metal and begin what the Dallas Mavericks believe will be the beginning of something very special.
Clicking on all cylinders last season, Doncic was a runaway winner of the NBA Rookie of the Year trophy after he averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists per game. The 6-7 point guard walked into the NBA after being the best player in Europe, and then quickly showed that he was already wise beyond his then-teenage years.
Meanwhile, Porzingis was an indelible force in the NBA when he averaged 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and an NBA-high 2.4 blocks per game during his 2017-18 season that included earning a berth on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
However, Porzingis has been sidelined for almost 21 months while recovering form knee surgery. It’s an injury that has cast doubt in the minds of some about his durability, but not in the eyes of Porzingis or the Mavs.
Thus, with Dirk Nowitzki having retired after playing 21 magnetic seasons with the Mavs, Doncic and Porzingis have convinced Mavs management that they can indeed to pick up the baton and continue running a race that this franchise hopes will ultimately end with a berth in this year’s playoffs.
The Mavs are set to open the season on Wednesday night at 7:30 when they host the Washington Wizards at American Airlines Center. They admit not having the Big German around has made things somewhat off-kilter at the team’s practice facilities.
“Yeah, it’s different,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “After 21 years and everything (Nowitzki) went through the last two years with injuries, he couldn’t be out here if he wanted to.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s the definition of a gladiator. He put it all out there.”
So now, with Nowitzki’s hall-of-fame career in the rear-view, Doncic and Porzingis hope to turn the page and help the Mavs win more than the 33 games they won last season. That includes, they hope, rolling all the way to the postseason.
“The torch has been passed really to Luka and KP to be the leaders of this team at least from the standpoint of being the most visible guys as the best players,” Carlisle said. “That’s a challenge that those guys are looking forward to taking on.”
It’s a challenge for which Porzingis can’t wait. The 24-year-old hasn’t played in a regular season game since Feb. 6, 2018 when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament. At the time, Porzingis was playing for the New York Knicks, who subsequently traded him to the Mavs on Jan. 31, 2019, and now he’s eager to jump back in the saddle.
“You can tell he’s hungry to get back out there,” guard Seth Curry said of Porzingis. “I can relate to him in how he missed the game for over a year.
“He’s back out here healthy, he’s not taking any days off really, and his attitude about the game is real serious and real professional-like. And it seems like he’s wise beyond his years, so he’s a fun guy to play with.”
The presence of the 7-3 Porzingis and his innate ability to draw double-teams should take some of the responsibilities off of Doncic, who played last season like a wily veteran.
“He does everything,” the 20-year old Doncic said of Porzingis. “He shoots, he rebounds, he’s amazing.
“He doesn’t miss a shot, so I’m glad to play with him. We’ve got to have fun on the court, I’ve got to have fun on the court. That’s the best way to play.”
Porzingis was still in rehab mode when the trade to the Mavs was consummated. He ultimately sat out the remainder of last season, thus affording him more time to make sure his body was in top shape entering this season.
And he said it is.
Porzingis made such marked improvements in preseason that he acknowledged that he longer even thinks about the injury that put his career on hold. Thus, he’s entering Wednesday’s game as if it’s Christmas morning.
“I don’t think (the surgically repaired knee will) be a big deal for me,” Porzingis said. “I think I’ll go out with my mind in the right place and just play my game — play my game and not over-think anything. And just have fun out there.”
Clearly all eyes will be on Porzingis. And if he can pick up where he left off before his injury, the Mavs are confident they’ll be punching a playoff ticket at the end of this season.
“He’s done extremely well,” Carlisle said. “His process is day-to-day. Every day keep working toward better rhythm, better feel, teammates, all those kinds of things.
“But he’s put in an incredible amount of work. He’s worked himself back to the position that he’s in now.”
As far as the other half of the Mavs’ one-two punch, Doncic has showed that he’s the real deal. That’s why he received 98 of the 100 first-place votes in last season’s Rookie of the Year race.
“Luka is a great young player and one of the best young players in the league,” Carlisle said. “Teams are going to come at him hard every night. . .Those things don’t change from team to team or game to game.
“But he’s a competitor. He’s seen a lot in his young career – he’s been a professional for six or seven years. None of this is really new to him, and he’ll be ready.”
“His basketball IQ is unmatched,” Curry said, referring to Doncic. “He sees the floor better than a lot of people in the league right now.
“I’ve been playing against him mostly in practice – I haven’t been on the same team as him as much. But hopefully as the season goes a long we’ll get more court time together and we’ll continue to build that bond.”
The same bond that Doncic and Porzingis hope to build as a new era in Mavs basketball starts on Wednesday.