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Basketball is about feelings: Can the Mavericks win when the refs are bad?

Why can’t Luka Dončić just stop complaining to the refs? The answer may be more complicated than you think. 

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors - Game Five Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s time to talk about something that Luka Dončić’s haters love to point out and that his fans hate to hear. It’s time to get real and honest about Luka’s problems with complaining to refs and how that affects his own game, as well as the team’s as a whole.

This may be his biggest weakness at this point (though his European summers are up there), and it is something he has to manage, control and master if he’s going to reach the next level and lead the Mavericks to a title.

Whether he learns to control this will be decisive for his future career. Because let’s face it, Luka has basketball down, he has the game figured out and he’s continually developing on all fronts. Even mentally, he’s superior, but this aspect of the mental game is not in his grasp just yet.

(About half the readers will be upset right now, using the arguments of bad refs and unfavorable whistles against Luka to explain and excuse his behavior. But let’s be clear, a loss should never be blamed on refs. If you can’t win without a favorable whistle, you’re not good enough.)

Out of his most recent games, two in particular stand out when it comes to this issue. The first one was when Slovenia shockingly lost to Poland during the EuroBasket knockout phase this summer. During that game, Luka was so upset with the refs that his actions partly cost them the game. Other things, like low energy, poor preparation (the Slovenian players clearly expected a walk in the park) played a part, but what I saw from Luka during that game was staggering.

He kept complaining after every drive to the basket, the refs gave him less and less calls, and he stayed behind to complain every time, letting Poland score bucket after bucket in 5-on-4. The momentum shift that occurred multiple times, letting the less talented Polish team get ahead, was frustrating to watch. Another more recent, but similar example is the Mavericks’ loss to Oklahoma City, a game where they blew a 16-point lead and lost in overtime to a weaker team - once again..

Why could Luka not just snap out of it and go play the game instead of constantly complaining?

The fact that Luka didn’t realize how little it would have taken on his part to change momentum, the energy of the team and take back control of the game was just beyond me at the time. If he had just run back, ignored the last play, encouraged his teammates and kept driving to the basket, he would have forced the refs to act and momentum would have changed. He was by far the most talented player on that court and he could have controlled those games if he wanted - or knew how to snap out of it.

In order to find out what might be going on, I have spent some time talking to a few Slovenian sources, and though they have different opinions on why Luka has refs issues, they agree on this: Americans often misunderstand Luka because the cultural differences are so big.

In the Balkans, where Luka is from, being in your emotions, showing your feelings, is normal. Being angry in the moment and then cooling off right after is something you see much more when you watch the Balkan teams play, and it’s just more ingrained in their culture, just like in other Southern European countries. His “bad” body language, as many pundits and fans call it, is just body language in Slovenia.

But here we have, you might say, a 23 year old superstar, who has played basketball his whole life and who still lets the refs get to him. Talk from fans and opposing players fuel him, but he hasn’t found a way to deal with refs in the same way. Why is that?

I haven’t talked to Luka about this (though I’d love to, DM’s open Luka), so all I can do is use my observation skills, my understanding of different cultures and talk to people, who understand his background better than I do.

But there’s more than his culture at play here. Something clearly triggers him, and he’s not capable of controlling his reaction yet. He has talked about how singing in his head helps him refocus, and I think that’s a clear tell that he has a gut reaction when it comes to this, it’s something he cannot control and that annoys him.

I reached out to mental performance coach Art Rondeau, who’s worked with players with similar issues in the past:

“I’ve found that players who constantly argue with refs do so, because something causes them to experience a negative emotion and the negative emotion triggers the arguing. Negative emotions often come from a person’s rules being violated,” he explained to me.

What exactly is triggering Luka is impossible to know since we haven’t talked to him, and if I had I wouldn’t tell you.

But a guess could be that the pressure on him is so high that anything he feels may prevent a win for his team, when unwarranted or unfair in his opinion, is unacceptable.

Or it could be that his high basketball IQ (and IQ in general, I believe) makes it unbearable to him, when people don’t see the things he sees. Like when a good student gets frustrated with a mediocre teacher, as my Slovenian friend Alja Sotlar put it.

Art Rondeau talked about triggers and how to help players deal with them in a piece about Nate Robinson, who had similar issues with the Knicks, some years ago.

One thing I’m fairly certain of, though, is that it’s not the reason a lot of American fans seem to think. They’re used to American superstars with different cultural values and assume that he’s spoiled and entitled. The idea that players feel like they deserve special treatment because they’ve earned it, that if they don’t get it they’re not getting the respect they deserve.

There are certain superstars in today’s NBA, I don’t have to mention any names, who have this issue. But I’m pretty convinced that Luka is not one of them.

With all the development Luka shows every year - despite being only 23 - the fact remains: He is only 23.

He is also only human. I know, we tend to forget that and hold him to almost impossible standards, ignoring that the players we compare him to are 5-10 years older than him. Yes, Jokic doesn’t act like this, but he’s 27 and has played 4 more years in the NBA than Luka. No, Steph Curry doesn’t either, but he’s 34 and has 4 rings.

Maybe we need to give Luka a chance to mature and grow up? A lot of this will be resolved by itself with time, experience and maturity. Maybe he needs to learn this at a slower pace than he does basketball skills. Maybe in this area, he’s a normal 23 year old. We expect him to be more mature, because in all other walks of life he is a true role model. That said, I hope that Luka himself and the coaching staff spend more time working with him on this issue, finding strategies to cope better in the moment. Because if he is able to rein this in, it will make a huge difference for the Mavericks.

But, I know I said it before - and I’ll probably say it again: Luka is not perfect, and he is not ahead of the curve when it comes to this. But that’s ok, because don’t forget - he’s ahead of most other 23 year olds when it comes to almost every other skill.

Find last week’s Mavericks Feelings here.