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Lakers, Mavericks grapple with their stars shouldering too much of the load

This was supposed to be a season when the do-it-all star wouldn’t have to do so much to win.

But for Luka Doncic and Dallas, a year removed from a somewhat surprising Western Conference Finals appearance, things haven’t quite gone according to plan.

Sure, Doncic – now ensconced as a perennial MVP candidate – is 15 years younger than LeBron James, his counterpart he’ll face Sunday for their second Christmas Day match-up. But the Mavericks, just 17-16, are grappling with a problem that many of the Western Conference hopefuls face this season: an inability to climb above the fray, and Doncic’s second-leading usage (37.1%) in the league, behind only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, has been a constant source of angst in Dallas this season.

Even on Friday night, as Doncic scored 50 points against Houston in a six-point victory, it reflected back on a nightly question: Just how much does he have to do for the Mavericks to win? Doncic’s teammates shot just 38% from the floor, with only two other Mavericks tallying even double figures (both Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans had 11 points).

“Besides Luka, we didn’t have a really high percentage from the floor,” Mavericks coach (and former Lakers assistant) Jason Kidd told Dallas media on Friday night. “But Luka sensed that and controlled the game.”

It’s a frustration the Lakers can understand well, especially in the wake of Anthony Davis’ injury. James’ usage is rising (30.6%, No. 14 in the NBA) and it hasn’t helped the Lakers win much since Davis went out. Though he played a leading role in victories against Denver and Washington, in the Lakers’ three-game losing streak, the last two losses have seen L.A. fall despite James notching at least 30 points in both.

“This one pisses me off a little bit,” coach Darvin Ham admitted after falling to Charlotte. “We just can’t assume because … we have first-ballot Hall of Famers on this roster that we can just play around with the game and waste possessions and someone’s gonna put their cape on and come save the day.”

The Lakers issues haven’t been individual problems: They’ve given up 130 points or more in three straight games.

Against the 9-24 Hornets, the Lakers were especially weak on transition defense, where they gave up 29 points, and were outscored 62-48 in the paint. On offense, the Lakers gave up 17 turnovers, which led directly to 32 Hornets points.

The good news for James and the rest of the Lakers: Another devastating injury seems to have been avoided. Thomas Bryant was forced to exit early on Friday night with a right shoulder injury, but he was not listed on the Lakers’ Saturday injury report and should be available to play. The team also recently returned Russell Westbrook and Austin Reaves – meaning the only rotation player the Lakers are now missing is Davis himself, who an ESPN report said is hoping to return sooner than initially expected after 7 to 10 days more rest.

Depending on how the Lakers are able to manage Davis’ absence, the Lakers and Mavericks might find themselves competing to buy in the trade market in the coming weeks. The Lakers have reportedly have had a long-established interest in players like Indiana’s Buddy Hield, Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic and even reuniting with Washington’s Kyle Kuzma.

Given Dallas’ dependence on Doncic, that list might also look fairly appetizing to the Mavericks as they push to get back for a deep playoff run. Dallas also has a few more tradeable salaries, with nine different players earning between $21 million and $5 million this season (Christian Wood’s and Dwight Powell’s deals are expiring). The Lakers are understood to be largely working with Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn’s expiring contracts for potential deals, while trying to stave off using their tradeable 2027 and 2029 first-round picks.

The most important goal for both teams is to stay competitive in the West while the trade market slowly heats up toward the Feb. 9 trade deadline. The situation is more dire for the Lakers at the moment, looking up at the standings from 13th place, but they’re just 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Mavericks – a sign of just how packed the Western standings.

“Those are self-inflicted wounds,” James said Friday night, his latest acknowledgement of the difficult margins the Lakers are facing without Davis. “We just don’t have a lot of room for error.”

It’s going around these days.

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