Watching the Slovenian National team qualify for the Olympics this weekend took my mind to a very specific movie speech:
Coach Gaines makes it clear in this speech that being perfect doesn’t just mean on the scoreboard. But with Luka Doncic on the court, the Slovenian National Team is perfect in the literal sense as well. They have never lost a game, going a combined 13 and 0 in Eurobasket 2017 and the current Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Slovenia has a current population of 2,079,226. To put that in context, Texas has a population nearly 15 times that at 29.2 million. Despite this, Slovenia has done a better job surrounding Luka than the Dallas Mavericks have.
There is an obvious caveat that the level of talent in the NBA is higher than in this FIBA tournament. The Slovenian National Team would not be successful in the NBA due to that talent deficit, but it is still possible to find lessons in the way they have constructed their roster.
Roll to the rim
Slovenia relies on Luka’s ability as perhaps the best pick and roll orchestrator in the world fairly often. However, they did a much better job of rolling to rim and finishing after picks rather than wandering about aimlessly as the Mavericks did entirely too often this season.
Being the roll man in a pick and roll heavy offense is a taxing burden if done correctly. There is a reason that Rick Carlisle praised Dwight Powell’s hard work so often. Setting an effective pick and exploding to the rim afterwards despite the fact that you may only get the ball once or twice every 10 possessions is difficult. But it makes a pick and roll offense hum, especially when the orchestrator is as skilled at getting roll men the ball as Luka.
Find better shooters
Team Slovenia shot 46.2 percent on threes in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The Mavericks shot 36.2 percent on threes during the regular season.
Dallas actually did a much better job in the playoffs shooting 38.8 percent on threes. Unfortunately this was largely due to the uptick in Luka’s shooting, as the non Luka Mavericks shot 37.8 percent on threes during the playoffs.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is fairly likely to leave the Mavericks this offseason. This is understandable as he is a flawed player and likely to command an incredibly large contract. If he does move on, it is essential that his high quality volume shooting is replaced.
Hardaway Jr. and Doncic combined to make 54 of the Mavericks 95 threes in the first round series despite Hardaway drawing all world defender Kawhi Leonard for much of the final five games. The rest of the Mavericks combined to make less than 6 threes per game in the playoffs.
Maxi Kleber is a good shooter. He shot 41.0 percent from three during the regular season. He even carried his shooting to the post season this year, shooting 40 percent from three against the Clippers. But he only made eight threes in seven games and teams simply do not honor him the way his percentage would indicate. They don’t have to because he is reluctant to shoot at a high volume.
Everyone who has played basketball at any level has been told to cut. Those of us who grew up watching the Mavericks while Bob Ortegal was commenting should remember his constant harping on “meaningful and purposeful movement of the ball and the man.”
There is value in simplifying reads for lesser playmakers in order to allow them to make a series of rote decisions. Luka Doncic is not a lesser playmaker. It makes sense to have a screener and 3 stationary shooters when Kawhi Leonard runs a pick and roll because for all of his gifts, he is not the playmaker Luka is.
One of Luka’s greatest gifts is his flair and improvisational skill. They don’t need to leave him with a series of simple if/then statements as his options to passing like he is a scorer who struggles to pass. Like Lebron James before him, Luka is a passer first who happens to also be a generational talent as a scorer.
The Slovenian team scored on easy buckets every game just by moving around without the ball. They also had secondary movements in the pick and roll.
In this play, the involvement of a potential back screener creates confusion on the switching defense leading to an open dunk for the original roll man. The Mavericks decision to largely run pick and roll with shooters in both corners and the weakside wing completely gives up the chance for these types of plays.
Find a secondary playmaker
The Mavericks clearly believe they need a secondary playmaker. That belief is what led to the decisions to acquire Delon Wright and Josh Richardson. It is likely the Mavericks will push to acquire one of the older point guards expected to be available this offseason.
The Slovenian team has Luka Rupnik, who would qualify as a secondary playmaker, but he didn’t play in the final as a coach’s decision. Rather than Luka and a single playmaking caddy, the Slovenian team relied on Luka and solid ball handling skills from virtually everyone else.
The Mavericks employed a starting lineup of Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis for large stretches of the year. Finney-Smith and Kleber would prefer to never dribble. Porzingis struggles when he has to dribble on the perimeter due to his height and the subsequent distance each dribble must travel. Josh Richardson struggled mightily with his handle.
While the team has rightly decided to prioritize shooters, it is extremely helpful to have players who can keep the offense going by attacking an already scrambled defense. Zach Lowe praises Mikal Bridges as a “3 and D and D guy”, meaning a player who can shoot the thee pointer, defend and drive. Lowe rightfully pointed out that at some point, adding enough skills changes the correct moniker to just “good player.”
The Mavericks need more good players. So many of the Mavericks are specialized role players who can only do certain things well. During the playoffs, other teams force you to do things outside your comfort zone. The Mavericks need more well rounded players who can do multiple things on the basketball court.
The talent level in this tournament and the NBA is quite a bit different. But NBA teams make mistakes. It is impossible to be a Mavericks fan and not realize that even NBA players get lost in off ball screening actions. They get confused in multiple switching scenarios. And it is important that the Mavericks give them every chance to make those mistakes.
The ability of Luka Doncic to elevate a tiny country like Slovenia to an international power house says a good deal about his prowess as both a ceiling and floor raiser. The Mavericks are also the beneficiary of those abilities and they need to learn what lessons they can about building around Luka from Slovenia’s success. If they don’t, someone else will.