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There are several critical things that will hinge on the first-round playoff series that kicks off Sunday between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers. For starters, there's a clear path to the Western Conference Finals on a side of the bracket missing the Denver Nuggets. There's a red-hot Mavs team trying to keep its stellar form alive now that we've arrived at playoff basketball. There's what becomes of Paul George if the Clippers crash out in the first round, and what to make of the star-studded tandem in Dallas if it's the Mavs who get eliminated early.

But atop the list of what could be at stake is a possibility sometimes whispered about in the NBA and, barring a change, creeping closer to reality: That Luka Doncic is actually James Harden 2.0. -- a superb scorer whose game doesn't easily translate to success in the playoffs.

Yes, at this moment in time, Doncic is one of the great basketball players on earth, and all the things that particular truth can foretell -- championships, perhaps several, worthy accolades like MVPs, periods of domination, HOF speeches, and so on -- can feel inevitable.

Doncic, after all, is so astoundingly great that Stan Van Gundy told the Dan Le Batard show last week Doncic is "the best offensive player now that I have ever seen."

That's high praise indeed, and well-earned, if a bit much. Doncic just had 33.9/9.2/9.8 season. He's a human highlight reel whose virtuoso offensive performances are difficult to overstate. I just voted him at third on my official NBA MVP ballot, an excruciating decision given the seasons Nikola Jokic and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also have had. 

And now, just in time for the playoffs, Doncic has a team that seems ready to rise to his level of expectations. 

Since the All-Star Break, the Mavericks have the seventh-best offensive rating in the league. No surprise there -- Doncic and Kyrie Irving are an outstanding offensive duo. But this next part is downright shocking: Since March 7, when Daniel Gafford, who was acquired at the trade deadline, was inserted into Dallas' starting lineup, they have the No. 1 defense in the league. 

A team that was awful defensively for much of the season – and that are still just 18th in defensive rating over the course of the entire season -- have been the league's best over the past 20 games. They also have the second-best record over that stretch, behind only the Boston Celtics.

But there is that worry, lurking, talked about in some NBA corners by Luka fans and Luka doubters, who have concerns.

Also worth noting: All-time greats who have been severely and savagely doubted have in the past flipped those narratives of doubt into reams of glowing press and starry-eyed believers. Think Steph Curry. Think, just a year ago, Nikola Jokic. 

Yet Doncic's greatness carries with it a distinct concern.

His ball-dominant approach, and the eye-popping regular-season results that can follow, have been seen before -- sometimes with brutal postseason returns. The idea of an MVP-level player, playing historically excellent offensive basketball, for a team that on paper looks like a true contender, that suddenly gets exposed in the playoffs -- well, there's a precedent for that.

And his name is James Harden.

As in the guy who will just so happen to be a walking reminder throughout this Mavs-Clippers series of how fleeting greatness can be, and the windows it that can open and close as a result, in the NBA.

Harden, after all, has won an MVP and three scoring titles, and is a six-time All NBA First Team player. He, too, was once rightly regarded as one of the great basketball talents to grace any court at any time in history. Much of Harden's time atop the NBA mountain came in Houston where, like Doncic so far in Dallas, The Beard made only one Conference Finals -- and never got further.

Let's be blunt: Harden's regular-season greatness has been exceeded only by his postseason letdowns.

There's also, back in 2019, an eerie echo of the Van Gundy quote on Doncic from last week. This one came from Houston's then-General Manager, Daryl Morey, offered up on a podcast, when he also argued Harden was historically the No. 1 offensive player ever -- this time in direct contrast to Michael Jordan -- despite having not then (or since) won a title.

"It's just factual," Morey said in 2019, "that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan. You give James Harden the ball and before you're giving up the ball how many points do you generate, which is how you should measure offense, James Harden is by far No. 1 in NBA history."

Harden and Luka share more than hyperbolic supporters, high-powered offenses and (to date) limited postseason successes. They're also hyper ball-dominant players, and there are corners of the NBA where you can find executives and scouts who worry that Docic's greatness, which will ultimately be judged by playoff success and championships, could go the way that Haden's has gone.

As in Luka Doncic becoming a new version of James Harden.

"I agree," one rival NBA executive told CBS Sports. "When you get a guy like Luka, you can win a lot of regular-season games and some playoff games. But there's a ceiling in terms of outcomes."

The reasons for that, several executives said, are numerous. Here's a compilation of their concerns about players, like and including Doncic, who dominate the ball at historical levels:

  • The defensive liability that often accompanies their offensive excellence, and certainly accompanies Luka's. 
  • The wear and tear of high-usage rate players that can impact performance in the postseason, when exhaustion and better defenses and schemes team up. 
  • The way players like Doncic or Harden drive offensive outcomes all year as individuals -- while dominating the ball -- thus undercutting teammates' abilities to be ready, best-situated or properly muscle-memoried to contribute in key playoff moments. 
  • The way playoff basketball is much more geared to stopping individual excellence than team excellence.

"The problem with the playoffs for Luka or James is better teams and better coaches," one scout said. "In the regular season, teams play most actions in flow -- not set plays. It's more random. There's just too many games, one after the other. But in the playoffs there's more time for a film-based approach, more specific actions, and more focus stopping guys like Luka, and more practice time to implement it. You can reduce his successful outcomes if not his stats."

History backs this up.

This season, Luka Doncic's usage rate was 35.98 percent, the 20th-highest mark in a season in NBA history.

No player in the league's history with a higher single-season usage rate has ever made an NBA Finals, let alone won one. Of the 19 times players had the ball in their hands more often than Doncic did this season, only three have even made a Conference Finals -- Harden in 2017-18, Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, and Doncic himself in 2021-22, his only time past the first round.

Michael Jordan has two of the highest-usage-rate single seasons in NBA history. He missed the playoffs in one of them and was eliminated in the first round in the other. In seasons with a top-20 all-time usage rate, Giannis, Iverson, and Dwyane Wade also lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Including this year, Doncic has four of the highest usage-rate seasons ever, all to no avail. Harden has three of them. He, too, has never won a championship, and never made a Finals since leaving Oklahoma City to become the focal point in Houston and, to lesser degrees, later in Brooklyn and Philly before heading to LA.

Three players have won an MVP while having a top-20 all-time usage rate season -- Giannis, Harden and Embiid. Not one of them got out of the second round of the playoffs those seasons.

All of which is history's way of telling us that, while greatness is a critical component of winning a championship, too-much ball dominance can undercut even the most astounding of historical seasons.

Luka Doncic is extraordinary. No doubt.

But so was Harden before him. And if Luka & Co. can't get past Harden and the Clippers starting Saturday, one of the game's brightest lights could end up being something that feels like a letdown: A what-could-have-been all-time great career.

There's time for all this to change. A year ago, criticisms and doubts were bubbling up around Nikola Jokic. One magical run silenced them all. 

Luka Doncic is amazing, and he may well do the same this season. But if he doesn't -- especially if it's another early payoff exist -- it might be time to start considering the idea of Dallas' James Harden 2.0.