With a few exceptions, the beauty of the NBA is in its equity. There are good owners and bad owners, but equalizing rules such as the implementation of a salary cap have created a league in which any well-run franchise has the opportunity to become a dynasty. The Golden State Warriors are the most recent example, launching themselves from perpetual basement dwellers in the ‘90s and ‘00s to the most feared synthesis of talent the NBA has seen over the past decade.
But well before the Warriors underwent a makeover, it was the Dallas Mavericks who successfully rebuilt their reputation. Throughout the entire ‘90s, a decade in which the Suns made the playoffs every single year, the Mavs had a winning percentage of just .303. That’s an average of 25 wins per season.
Since then, as the Suns have floundered (outside a few years in the mid-2000s), the Mavs have finished below .500 just three times in 20 years. And with the arrival of Luka Doncic, it doesn’t look like they’re headed back to the cellar of the Western Conference anytime soon.
There’s not much I can tell you about Luka Doncic that you don’t already know. Actually, there may not be much I can tell you about Luka Doncic that you’re even receptive to hearing. But whether you like it or not, it’s his future that will be always be interlinked with Deandre Ayton’s, potentially creating one of the greatest rivalries in Suns history over the next decade.
In year two, at age 20, Luka averaged 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game. Even more impressive were his team’s achievements. As of today, the Mavericks sport an offensive rating of 116.7; not only is that 1st in the NBA currently, but it is the greatest team offensive rating in NBA history.
Okay, now onto the good news. A rivalry is only a rivalry if both sides have a roughly equal chance of winning. And despite the Suns’ relative lack of success in the Deandre Ayton era...they have actually played the Mavericks very, very well.
Since the 2018 draft, the Suns and Mavs have gone head-to-head on four separate occasions. In those games, the Suns are 3-1. Not only that, but two of those wins for the Suns were a 21-point blowout win on opening night in 2018, and a phenomenal 29-point blowout win in January of this season.
Here are the individual splits for Ayton and Doncic when going head-to-head:
Ayton: 15.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG on 54% FG, 92% FT
Doncic: 18.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.3 SPG on 46% FG, 26% 3P, 59% FT
And in case you forgot, this is what Deandre Ayton looked like in his last game against Dallas.
Ayton shot 13-of-15 in what has to be considered one of the best performances of his career here. You can see his precise lob catching in the highlights, as well as some smooth spin moves on smaller defenders and forceful drives to the basket. You can also see, obviously, his trademark mid-range, face-up jumper.
This was a game in which every player fulfilled his role to perfection. Devin Booker finished with 32 points and 9 assists. Kelly Oubre poured in 19 points and Mikal Bridges added another 13. Overall the Suns finished with an astounding 34 assists to just 11 turnovers. Dallas, meanwhile, had just 19 assists to 15 turnovers. And Kristaps Porzingis, making $27 million this year, scored just 9 points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Most games between these two teams won’t look like this. Dallas is a playoff team for a reason, and the Suns have a long way to go to get to that point. But thus far we’ve seen an especially motivated Deandre Ayton whenever he suits up against Dallas. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, or perhaps he’s truly motivated by the opportunity to prove doubters wrong about the 2018 draft.
Regardless of why this happens, we’re gonna get to see this theory put to the test very soon. Two of the Suns’ remaining eight games in the bubble will be against the Mavs: their 2nd game on August 2nd, and their very last game on August 13th.
And while it’s incredibly unlikely that the Suns pull off a miracle and make the playoffs in 2020, we can all be sure that this will not be the last of the Ayton-Doncic rivalry. If James Jones plays his cards right, he can create a Suns-Mavs rivalry just as balanced and entertaining as the Nash vs. Dirk rivalry from the 2000s.
So strap in, because this is going to be a fun ride. There will be extreme glee and euphoria at the best of times, and at the worst of times, extreme salt and vitriol. But we’re only at the start of watching these two play out their careers. Don’t take it for granted.