Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Amid rush to anoint Anthony Edwards, Luka Doncic makes it clear that this is his time

The Dallas Mavericks pulverized the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday to advance to the NBA Finals, and it seems like in an attempt to rush to hand the league’s keys to Anthony Edwards, we forgot that Luka Doncic exists. 

It’s understandable. This is how it happens. Doncic has been around long enough for skepticism to set in. Edwards is in the honeymoon period. We haven’t started to focus on any of Edwards’ flaws yet, or if he doesn’t turn out to have any real flaws, we haven’t started the process of creating a few to talk about. 

We did that with Doncic, questioning his heliocentric style when his production was beyond reproach. Edwards not being quite ready to be the No. 1 guy on a championship team — let alone an offensively challenged one — shouldn’t be a controversial “take.” The guy is 22 years old. He’s played four years. 

This, of course, is where I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that Edwards is probably already good enough to lead a championship team if he wasn’t playing with an inadequate offensive support staff. Karl-Anthony Towns was miserable in this series, and simply cannot be trusted at this stage of the playoffs. Minnesota’s top-ranked defense could only take it so far when Doncic and Kyrie Irving showed up. Great offense will beat great defense most of the time. 

And that’s sort of the point. Doncic is still levels above Edwards in terms of being able to carry an offense under any and all conditions against any and all opponents. Having Irving as a creative co-pilot is a luxury Edwards has yet to know, but independent of that fact, Doncic is truly scheme proof. He always has been. The Wolves tried everything against him. Drops. Doubles. Hedge and recover. Blitzes. At the level. Whatever. None of it mattered. He’s seen these defenses so much that he doesn’t even see them anymore. 

The extra attention Edwards drew in these playoffs, on the other hand, noticeably wore on him. He wasn’t consistently sure when and where to attack. He hesitated at times. He was exhausted at times. This is all part of an ongoing lesson that Doncic long ago mastered. 

When people talk about the importance of experience in the playoffs, it tends to be through a psychological prism, as if the less familiar player is going to melt amid a baptism by fire. Edwards did not melt, you can be sure of that. This guy was, and is, a superstar. 

But there are levels of superstars, and Doncic is on a different one. I’m not going to get into a breakdown of skills NFL combine style, though if I did, Doncic would win. I’m just going to focus on what I believe to be the one half-flaw of Edwards at this early point in his career: shooting. 

I say half-flaw because he can clearly shoot. On certain nights, he can’t miss. Overall, he shot a better clip from 3 than Doncic has so far in these playoffs (38.5% to 34.4%), albeit on lower volume. But the volume counts in this formula, because Doncic trusts his shot in a way that Edwards — who, unless he’s super hot, tends to shoots more on the terms of the defense than his own — still doesn’t. 

It’s easy to accuse a player with Edwards’ downhill and vertical force of settling for jumpers, and you could see in these playoffs, particularly in this series, that Edwards saw it the same way. He wanted lanes to open up, cracks to develop, and when he saw defenders squeezing those avenues, he did not have the nerve to consistently launch over the top. He did it for stretches. But not as a rule. 

Doncic is hunting the shots that Edwards is trying to avoid, or at least limit, as the possessions get tighter and the lights get brighter. When Edwards vowed to come out gunning in Game 3 after Minnesota went down 0-2, he took 24 shots, but he only made three jumpers to Luka’s 10. 

In Game 5, Edwards wound up 4-of-6 from 3, but he wasn’t aggressively hunting jumpers while the game was in question, which wasn’t for very long. 

And the problem is, jumpers are often the shots that are, no matter the defense, available. You can wall off a driver. But as Doncic showed, even multiple defenders are often helpless against a self-created jumper. And if you’re not ready to cut those shots loose consistently, you can be — if not controlled — at least contained for stretches. Edwards was too often contained by Dallas in this series, and Minnesota’s offense didn’t have the bandwidth to survive. 

To be fair, this isn’t a problem specific to the Timberwolves, though they felt it more because of their lack of scoring options. All offense gets tough in the playoffs, especially in later rounds, when the physicality ratchets up and scouting reports have systems increasingly pegged. 

That’s why tough shot makers, guys who can just create their own space and fire away, are so valuable in the playoffs. Jamal Murray. Steph Curry. Kevin Durant. Doncic and Irving, certainly. It’s an ever-accessible source of offense if you can disregard the defense and pull up, if you can always get to your spot, be it in the soft gaps or at the elbow or wherever. 

Edwards has this kind of tough-shotmaking ability. But again, with this much on the line, he did not seem consistently ready to come out firing independent of what the defense gave him. His elbow-area pull-up qualifies as one of his spots, but do you see him getting to that shot time and again? He was often in “let the game come to me” mode as Doncic, on Thursday most notably, was busy burning the house down with 20 first-quarter points. 

In his second career conference finals, Doncic averaged over 32 points, eight assists, nine rebounds and a pair of steals on 47/43 shooting splits. None of the criticisms that have been lazily laid upon him were ever warranted. He’s been all-time unbelievably great since he was a teenager. 

At 25 years old, he could literally retire tomorrow and go down as one of the greatest offensive players to ever live, and surely he had proven himself as a playoff killer long before this run. But only now does he have the co-star next to him — and the team behind him — to bring it all together. 

Edwards has been blessed in his own ways, particularly with one of the best defenses we’ve seen in recent memory. But he needed a better offense to keep up with Doncic and Irving, let alone overcome them, and without anyone else to turn to, he needed to seek his own scoring in ways he’s not yet comfortable relying on. And before he knew it, a bunch of close games, and ultimately a series, got away from him. 

Now, this is obviously a thin criticism of Edwards. Actually, I wouldn’t even call it a criticism. More like an observation. Like I said at the top, when players are this great, you almost have to create flaws to discuss. There’s probably no version of Edwards great enough at this point to overcome the way Towns played against this lethal an opponent. 

Either way, let’s just recognize that Edwards, in addition to being one hell of a defender, just averaged 24.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists on 40% 3-point shooting in his first conference finals. He has a shot to be the best player in the league one day. But that day is not today. As anxious as we all were to anoint the Ant Man, this is Luka’s time. 

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