“Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.”
That may be true for some. However, t
he Dallas Mavericks are currently winless without Luka Doncic this year. It’s not merely that they’re winless, it’s that the losses have been abhorrent- a loss to lifeless Houston and a middling OKC and absolute beatdowns by Chicago and Portland as they shot a combined 40.7% from the field in the five games. Luka’s absence last year and allowing Jalen Brunson to have an elevated role in the team propelled him to being the potential all-star that they lost on the Knicks this year, but the rest of the Mavs roster this year looks completely lost with so much of their machine running through Doncic.
No one’s absence is felt like Dallas feels it without Luka, which is why their outlook for a championship leads analysts to be skeptical as they only have one fastball. There’s only so much you can do in a league where the story this year has been the high-level performances from the stars, and teams have to do the best that they can to weather the storm shorthanded. The Nuggets are in a similar position with the two-time defending MVP with Nikola Jokic- they merely have a net rating of 2.1 with him off the court all-time and are sitting at a 2-2 record when he sits out this year. With the recent announcement of Kevin Durant’s injury that will sideline him for weeks, it’ll be interesting to see what direction the Nets go with the Suns, Warriors, Sixers, Knicks, and Celtics all on the schedule for the next month.
However, there’s been a trend of the Brunson-effect that started last year with the Memphis Grizzlies role players. Most-Improved Player of the year who became a superstar last season, Ja Morant, only played 57 games last year. In those games without their most important player, the Grizz went 20-5, Desmond Bane became (probably) the rightful owner of the most-improved player award, Tyus Jones became a starter-worthy backup point guard, and Jaren Jackson Jr. became arguably the best defender in the league when he’s on the court. Despite everything flowing through Ja, the supporting cast then was thrown into the deep end and learned to swim on their own, and it’s paying in dividends this year as they remain near the top of the Western Conference and can win in a variety of ways, Morant healthy or not.
The strengthening of the depth in games where it feels like your roster could drown has been a testament of the talent of the league. The Sixers, without Tyrese Maxey and James Harden for a time, went 9-6 without their two primary ball handlers, and within that time, Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton both answered the call. While one could have thought the Warriors were dead in the water without Stephen Curry after being sidelined with an injury earlier this season for multiple weeks, Golden State survived, went 6-8, and now Steph is back as they’re still in playoff position. It also put Jordan Poole in a position to step it up after one of the most disappointing starts to the season through the first month- in those games without Steph, he averages 27.8 points and 4.4 assists. The biggest question about the Warriors a quarter
of the way through was on whether or not Poole and the young surrounding pieces that their veterans were supposed to pass the torch to could step up, and now it appears that they’re putting together something that feels similar to the Golden State team you feared last year.
The NBA is a stars league, no doubt about it; if a superstar that is so pivotal to a game that’s played with only 10 total players on the court at a time goes down for an extended period of time, it normally feels decamating in a season so reliant upon the ebbs and flows and momentum. This year, it’s been inspiring to see the competent teams and coaches that can put together a game plan, prevent themselves from panicking, and fight the adversity that comes from being shorthanded and asking the role players to step up. It’ll be something to keep an eye on in the postseason when depth and having a stable of dudes that can play crunch time minutes is worth gold.