On a night where there were many contenders, Mavericks star Luka Doncic might have had the dark horse contender for quote of the night.
“That’s what I want to do one day,” Doncic said when asked about watching Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey retirement ceremony that featured heavy doses of Dirk and the Mavericks 2011 championship.
Doncic said that moments after watching the Mavericks do something they are apparently very, very good at — celebrating the best player in franchise history. As Nowitzki’s jersey rose to the rafters, with Doncic closely watching, the current Mavericks — Doncic’s Mavericks — just recently put the finishing touches on the teams most impressive win of the season, a 99-82 thumping of one of the best teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors.
It was hard to not connect the two major stars of the Mavericks franchise together. Dirk and those closest to him spoke of fond memories, war stories, and accomplishments. Doncic played a game that reminded everyone in the arena that, oh yeah, having a generational, once in a lifetime superstar means you always have a chance, even when shorthanded against the team with the best record in the NBA. It was a reminder that maybe one day a long time from now, Doncic will be standing in a suit in the middle of a packed arena in Dallas, watching with his own tears, seeing his own number being hoisted to the rafters.
This Mavericks season has been weird, to say the least. Dallas has flirted above and below .500, with injuries, another COVID outbreak and bouts of inconsistent play plaguing some of the joy and entertainment of what should be another stepping stone in Luka Doncic’s career.
With some of the injuries and COVID issues behind them, the Mavericks have finally felt like a real team the last few days. The replacement player journey was a fun distraction from the same tired arguments that have been had about this static Mavericks roster for years, but it was always going to be a quick fling. Doncic returned from an ankle injury and COVID, most of his supporting cast followed, and everyone sort of begrudgingly prepared to go back into the slop of a bizarre and disappointing Mavericks season. We always say to never compare Dirk to Luka, because there is only one Dirk, but this season stood out so distinctly — the Dirk era was never drama free, but Dirk’s rise from sheepish teenager to hardened killer was a nice, linear gradual slope. Dallas won 19 games in Dirk’s rookie season. Then they won 40. Then 53. Then 57. Then 60. Each season brought more wins and more playoff success, culminating in that 2003 Western Conference Finals run. Three years later and Dirk was in the NBA Finals. The year after that, the Mavericks won the most games in franchise history. It wasn’t until Dirk was 29-years-old before it felt like the team he led was stuck in the mud, rudderless. In Luka’s first four seasons the Mavericks have gone from 33 wins, to 43, to 42 and now they sit at 20-18. A pandemic really screwed things up, but the similar record follows the all too similar roster. After two successful, but fruitless playoff seasons with Doncic, the Mavericks again made minimal changes and somehow at age 22, not 29, the Luka Doncic Mavericks felt just as aimless as the post-2007, pre-2011 Mavericks. These Doncic Mavericks were two games under .500 not that long ago, something that was unheard of for Dirk’s prime that churned out 50 win seasons one after another. It was bizarre. How could watching a team with Luka at times be a chore?
So, of course, a week or so later, these Mavericks have a four game win streak. On a night where they honored Dirk, they put together their most impressive performance against a Warriors team that has steam rolled through most of the season. Instead of two games below .500, they’re two games up, with Doncic regaining some form after sitting out 10 games. Doncic wasn’t perfect against the Warriors, but he definitely harked back to the Dirk glory days, willing himself to the free throw line to carry a struggling team over the hump. The Mavericks beat the Warriors with a defensive effort that felt impressive. Despite shot after shot clanging off the rim, the Mavericks defense stayed steady, something that hasn’t happened often in the Doncic era. Much like becoming a better defensive team pushed the Dirk Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance, these Doncic-lead Mavericks learning how to win defensive slugfests feels meaningful. It also feels like some sort of progress, during a time where Mavericks basketball has stayed so frustratingly similar.
Doncic’s comments were a treat for sure and he’s always been eager to gush over his fondness of Dirk and his career. It’s clear Doncic is envious of Dirk’s achievements, wanting some of them to be his own. What we’ll never know is which ones.
An MVP, an NBA championship, a Finals MVP? Sure, obvious choices. Playing 21 seasons with the same franchise? That we won’t know for some time. Another reason the Dirk and Luka comparisons feel off base is because the eras they grew into are so completely different. Dirk is as unique a superstar as they come, but he also played in the same era as Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, two other lone franchise, Hall of Fame stalwarts. Luka is growing into a generation where stars finally feel like they have the sway to dictate where they want to play and who they want to play with. We’ve already seen stars with locked in contracts find a way to get where they want to go — Anthony Davis, James Harden, Jimmy Butler. Ben Simmons is testing the limits of how binding an NBA contract is as we speak. Every summer it feels like months of back channel planning leads to the next super team. LeBron James has played in three different jerseys and it doesn’t feel that weird. So has Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. These aren’t just stars, these are MVPs, franchise altering players. Loyalty is no longer built into players brains entering the league — it has to be earned. Dirk was, at times, just happy to be here, considering his humble origins in Germany. Luka was the greatest Euro prospect ever at age 18, the surest lock coming into the draft since LeBron James. He could have retired from basketball at 19 and still be considered a legend in certain circles. That has to change the equation. The blueprint for building around Luka has to be different than it was for building around Dirk and not just because they play different positions — they’re different people, from different eras.
Luka has said all the right things. Getting a front row seat to Dirk’s final home game and now his emotional jersey retirement hopefully left lasting impressions. But the Mavericks cannot hope that pomp and pageantry can carry the future. The team has to be just as good as these lavish and remarkable productions. Wednesday night was just a reminder of what the good version of this team can be and perhaps a preview of where it’s going. The path is just going to be different this time.
Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.