This is what Luka looks like when he's happy. The Mavericks would like to keep it that way. Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

Want to Keep Luka Doncic Smiling? Start With Better Team Chemistry

It may not be the most scientific approach. But it's the one that could matter most to the Mavericks' star player.

Relationships are hard work. I know this. I am 50 and single. In today’s swipe-right culture, some of the dirty work of relationship-building has taken a back seat to data, algorithms, and quick fixes. The Bachelor and Bachelorette show us that you need fantasy suites and horse-drawn carriages to have a chance. I have an Audi. I can take you to Chuy’s. That’s what I have to offer. But those “relationships” never work. 

Maybe old-fashioned ways like building chemistry and trust really are important after all.

The Mavericks are coming off one of the most tumultuous offseasons in their history, as Donnie Nelson, their president and general manager of the past 24 years, and Rick Carlisle, their head coach of the past 13 years, are gone. Those two helmed a championship team, but that was a decade ago, and things have gone sideways since. The public airing of some dirty laundry soon after their first-round playoff exit to the Clippers expedited these moves and laid bare tension, structural issues, and frayed relationships that plagued this team from the front office on down. In short, the Mavericks needed to learn how to coexist in the same space and pull in the same direction. A shakeup ensued.

So in came a new general manager in Nike exec Nico Harrison and a new coach in old friend Jason Kidd, as well as an entirely different coaching staff. They’ll be the ones presiding over this season’s important questions. How will Kristaps Porzingis look with a fully healthy offseason, and can Kidd bring out the best in him? Did the Mavs make enough moves in the summer to bolster this roster into a championship contender? How long will Porzingis actually play the 4, and will we see a rotating cast of centers play alongside him? Do they still need a secondary playmaker to help take the load off of Luka? How tired will Luka be after just an “in-between season” to recharge? Who is Mavs Man, and why does he have a basketball for a head? 

All of these questions will be addressed in due course (well, maybe not Mavs Man), but item No. 1 on the agenda is making sure the newly signed Luka Doncic wants to be an MFFL. Which is why the Mavs sent a star-studded contingent to Slovenia in August to commemorate the signing of his contract extension. Harrison, Kidd, Mark Cuban, Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mavs director of player performance Casey Smith all made the trip. It was a show of love and support for their star.

But the best way to really make sure he’s in Dallas for good is to win. Period. Because that is all he cares about. And if the Mavs want to know what it will take to climb to the next level and what is important to Luka, they need look no further than the words of their (new) wunderkind in that press conference. “One of the most important things to win is chemistry that the team has on the court,” he said. “For example, in 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.” 

Notice what he said at the end there. “What we need in Dallas.” Not “We need to continue that in Dallas.” Now, granted, there is always danger in parsing Luka’s words too much when he is speaking English, his fourth language. I am often accused of not communicating well — especially when asked why I waited until Saturday at 5 p.m. to ask someone out for Saturday night — and I speak one language. But I will take him at his word, and I think the summer’s changes in the front office indicated it wasn’t exactly AFC Richmond around here. 

But he wasn’t done. When asked later what else he could take from his Olympics experience to the Mavericks, Luka replied, “I think everybody trusted everybody … . Everybody had each other’s backs. That was the most important thing after the chemistry.”

Chemistry and trust. There it is. He just gave the Mavs the keys to what he sees as essential to his relationship with the Mavs and winning. You could see the joy in Luka playing for Slovenia in the Olympics — a joy that was absent in stretches last year in Dallas. The Olympics experience is vastly different from the NBA season, but the reality is that Luka will always play for his country, and so he will always compare the experiences. 

Soon after Harrison’s hiring, a team source, when discussing his attributes and skills from his old job at Nike that fit with his new role here, told me that his ability to manage was essential. Relationships, both external and internal, are being prioritized. Harrison will need to organize the front office that had been patched together over decades and encourage feedback. There is much work to be done. I’m told the decision-making cabinet surrounding Cuban of Dirk, Finley, Smith, longtime assistant general manager Keith Grant and sports psychologist Don Kalkstein were all open, honest, and essential to the hiring of Harrison and Kidd. Those two hires have been added to the group, and the plan is to have open lines of communication. 

There better be. Because simple communication and people skills can get lost in a sports world where analytics and data are all the buzz. But the rise of player empowerment in professional sports means connecting with players is more important than ever. Gone are the days are thinking of them merely as “assets.” There is no doubt there were breakdowns in communication and therefore broken relationships in last year’s organization. When tough conversations need to be had, has the relationship-building been done to establish trust so that someone is even heard? 

Press conferences such as the one in Slovenia are often boring, boiler-plate affairs with little news to be had, but Luka was revealing and honest about what he feels are keys to Dallas’ success. It isn’t “on the court” Xs and Os. Yes, those will come, but before that, there is some intangible work that needs to be done. 

The good news is the Mavs are taking the first steps toward showing they are listening. The trip to Slovenia demonstrated that they care, want to meet and know him where he is from, and were eager to listen. Kidd and Casey Smith then flew to Latvia to do the same with Kristaps Porzingis. It’s a noticeable shift in approach from Carlisle, who had a “one size fits all” approach to dealing with players. He did something we all do to a degree, which is look at the world through his own lens and think that how he’d see things, would react and be motivated applied to everyone else, too. Put Carlisle in the proverbial doghouse when he played, and he would redouble his efforts to please his coach, KC Jones. Put Dennis Smith Jr. in there, and he leaves the team for a week. 

The reality is building chemistry and trust is hard work, and reaching a 30-year-old player is different from reaching a 26-year-old one, which is different from reaching a 22-year-old. Warriors star Draymond Green recently admitted on a podcast with Kevin Durant that he has a hard time relating to younger players. “They [younger players] don’t have that ‘I’m doing this for the love of the game’ mentality; a lot of [them] are doing it for a good Instagram account,” Green told his former teammate. Attention spans are short. And we haven’t even talked about the many different backgrounds on this team. 

Relationships and communication lead to chemistry and trust. So far, the Mavericks seem willing to put the work in, and they’ll need to. Luka handed them the cheat code to his heart. If they don’t act accordingly, they might one day find themselves in a position of seeing their star player swipe left. 

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