When I was growing up, I played a lot of sports video games: Madden, NBA 2K, FIFA, maybe some NHL here and there.
First there’s the right-handed laser to the open man in the corner for three, then there’s the caressed, lofted fly ball to the roll man for an uncontested dunk.
When Luka Doncic has the ball, everything on the court is suddenly on the table – there is the palpable sense that at any moment he might do something you’ve never seen before.
Every angle is available. The defence is left scrambling because of the suddenly nonconformist offence it must deal with.
It no longer just has to concern itself with ‘screens’ and ‘movement’ and other normal ideas, but also a mad genius keen to paint with a child’s imagination.
The back and forth whatever-freakish-diagonal-pass-you-can-make-I-can-make-better between Doncic and LeBron James last week in L.A.’s overtime win over Dallas was the highlight to date of the season.
Doncic and LeBron are similar pleasures – passing savants made extraordinary by their unusual height. Being 6’7″ with great vision changes the way the entire sport looks.
LeBron is a historic anomaly whose combination of size, strength, speed, lift, vision, skill and intelligence makes him the most complete player to ever take the court.
Doncic is more limited in that he can’t dunk on guys from the free throw line. But, in a way, Doncic is more fun to watch, because he looks a little less godly, a little more knowable. He’s more Steve Nash-like in this way, always probing, leveraging his movement and slight leans of opponents to create the smallest of openings for the perfect moment.
Doncic has less margin for error than LeBron – which can make him more exciting, and the perfect moments even more perfect.
Not that Doncic isn’t close to a perfect offensive player himself. He can score in ways that Nash never could.
His step-back three is unguardable – the unreal separation he creates in the act of stepping back combined with the smooth, arcing release, makes it one of the prettiest moves in the game, a less cynical version of James Harden’s medicine.
Doncic is quicker than he looks, and his guile creates clear runways – a crossover at the top of the arc wrong-foots his defender, and suddenly Doncic is headed downhill to the rim.
Outside of defending, he is doing everything right. He creates for others and takes the most efficient shots in the game – launching threes and getting to the line.
He’s not supremely efficient yet, but the shot is there and the fear is not – he’s already jacking almost nine threes a game. When the rainbow arc begins to fall more often, which you suspect it will, his numbers will be even gaudier.
They’re already plenty gaudy. 27 points a game, 10 rebounds and 9 assists – LeBron numbers. They will likely come back down to Earth somewhat, but projecting ‘Earth’ for Doncic seems risky.
There is no more compelling watch in the NBA than Doncic right now. Stephen Curry is hurt. Anthony Davis is magnificent but not magical. Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are breathtaking but also brutal. Nikola Jokic looks sad.
Doncic was doing a lot of this last year, but in a desperate and ultimately meaningless situation. Now, the Mavericks are a force again.
Kristaps Porzingis – still just 24 – is the perfect complement to Doncic, a floor-spacing bomber on offence whose spacing amplifies Doncic’s genius, and a rim protector on defence to cover up for defensive shortcomings.
Porzingis isn’t all the way back yet – but while he finds himself he’s still putting up almost 20 points a game with eight boards and multiple blocks.
The role players fit snugly alongside the top two – hard workers who blend defence, shooting, athleticism and ballhandling. Rick Carlisle remains one of the best coaches in the league.
The result is team that has started brightly and whose future is only brighter – and their star is the best show in basketball.