[Editor’s note: Iztok Franko is StrongSide’s one-man Slovenia bureau.]
A familiar face lurked in the background when Jaka Blažič, a shooting guard for the Slovenian National Team, started his post-game interview following the team’s victory over Japan. The guy in the background had a directive for the media.
“Ask him about table tennis. Ask him who won,” Luka Dončić said, a huge grin on his face. Dončić had just finished the night with 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists to help Slovenia beat Japan, but he wasn’t interested in his statline. He wanted people to know who was the best table tennis player on the national team.
This video clip of Dončić instantly became a meme among Slovenian basketball fans and embodied what watching Dončić and the Olympics was all about: a lot of fun. It was not only the people in Slovenia who enjoyed the ride; plenty of Mavericks fans in Texas adopted the Slovenian national team, too. Many stayed up late to watch Dončić and Slovenia play, while the most passionate ones even attached a Slovenian flag to their display names on Twitter.
Slovenia’s run to the third-place game was spectacular and unexpected. But the fun isn’t just about how far they went; it’s also about seeing Dončić in a different environment than what we’ve grown accustomed to with the Mavericks. Seeing him in that different context taught us a few things that could be relevant for the upcoming season. Here is what I saw.
Luka = buckets everywhere he plays
Whether it’s for the Mavericks or Slovenia, Dončić is a guarantee for top-notch offense. Slovenia was the highest-scoring team in the Olympics, averaging 101 points in their six games; compare that to the United States’ gold medal team, which was stacked with NBA stars but averaged only 99 points per game. Surround Dončić with shooters and a capable big man who can play in pick and roll, and you’re guaranteed a top-10 NBA regular-season offense. (Dallas ranked first on offense in 2018-19 and eighth last season).
Luka can play faster
The Mavericks were the slowest team in the NBA the last two seasons, ranking dead last in the frequency of transition attempts. Rick Carlisle liked to control the game and hated giving the ball away, so it made sense that Dallas played slow. It also helped them consistently rank among the NBA’s best in turnover rate. It did make you wonder, though, whether that was only Carlisle’s preference, or if Luka shared the same sentiment.
The Olympics showed us that a Dončić-led team can play faster. Slovenia ranked third in pace among the tournament’s 12 teams, with plenty of attractive, up-tempo basketball.
Can Jason Kidd implement the best of both worlds? Can the Mavericks push the pace and still take care of the ball? Kostas Kalogeropoulos, a veteran European basketball coach who analyzed Slovenia’s play, thinks it is possible to blend a faster pace with some measure of control.
“His size and passing ability give him the option to make accurate outlet passes to the wings running the fast break,” Kalogeropoulos says. “Slovenia’s offense with him as a leading guard was either a quick transition layup or an open three or a set play with the team finding a shot at the end of the 24-second clock. It was rarely something in between.”
As great as he is, Luka still needs help
Slovenia’s Cinderella run in the Olympics ended in a way very familiar to Mavericks fans. As the tournament progressed, teams started to focus on Dončić, sending double teams and zones at him to get the ball out of his hands. Dončić, who joined the national team just a week after the Mavericks’ playoff run ended, was visibly fatigued in the final games of the tournament. After shooting 52 percent in his first four games, he shot just 32 percent in the final two games against France and Australia. Slovenia lost in part because they did not have another player who could consistently generate his own shot or create opportunities for his teammates.
Where have we seen that before? An offense with Dončić and shooters works well in the regular season, but Dallas needs to find another option who can elevate his game in the playoffs by creating offense on his own. The Mavericks failed to address that need this offseason, and the Olympics served as a reminder that finding such a player should remain a team-building priority.
Dallas could use a mentor to help Dončić grow as a leader
The Slovenian National Team was a close-knit group of players who worked hard on the court and had fun off it. Dončić’s easy-going, sometimes goofy (though still competitive) personality was a big part of the team identity.
However, as we’ve seen in the NBA, Dončić’s competitive spirit can sometimes get the best of him. During the Olympics, we learned that Dončić’s beef with referees knows no geographic borders. Even worse, the team picked up his bad habits, racking up technicals at crucial points in the elimination games. Slovenia missed Goran Dragić, a veteran presence whom Dončić has listened to ever since Dragić took Dončić under his wing and roomed with him at the 2017 European Championships, when Dončić was an 18-year-old playing in his first big national team competition. Between Kidd and newly appointed assistants Jarred Dudley and Igor Kokoškov, it seems that the Mavericks have a coaching staff in place that is more capable of relating to a modern NBA superstar. That’s an edge Carlisle, for all his tactical brilliance, just did not have.
But they still could use a voice in the locker room to replace the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea. If longstanding rumors are to be believed, perhaps Dragić himself is the answer. If new Mavericks’ general manager Nico Harrison can pry him out of Toronto, that would be a big win for reasons that go well beyond whatever the 35-year-old still can do on the court.
Let’s talk chemistry
A week after the Olympics ended, Mark Cuban and the whole Mavericks’ front office traveled to Slovenia, where Dončić signed a historic $207 million rookie extension. As usual, Dončić wasn’t very talkative during the press conference, but he was very blunt when asked about the biggest potential area of improvement for the Mavericks.
“I know we made some great moves in the free agency, but I think one of the most important things to win is chemistry that the team has off the court,” he said. “With Slovenia, we had amazing chemistry the whole time, and I think that led us to winning games. And I think that’s what we need in Dallas.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that he said this so soon after his Olympic run ended. A lot of the skeletons fell out of the Mavericks’ closet at the end of last season. They’re banking on a new coaching staff, a new front office, and a new culture to change that.
Considering how largely intact the roster still is, improvement must come within, and it seems that Kidd has taken Dončić’s words to heart. “I think one of our leaders said it this summer: We’ve got to work on our chemistry. Our chemistry has to improve,” Kidd said recently. “We are a family. There’s going to be disagreements, but we move forward, and we help one another. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re going to see, the fans will see is that this team is together.”
For starters, maybe Kidd can install some ping-pong tables in the Mavericks’ training facilities. The Olympics showed us good things happen when Luka Dončić is having fun.