Written by Aljuš Pertinač
“Deep in the heart of the eastern slopes of the Alps is the home of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty: Slovenia. … Slovenia is a magical fairyland, home to the rarest of mythical creatures …”. This is how Academy Award winning writer and director Michael Moore portrays Slovenia in his 2015 documentary: Where to Invade Next.
Whether you approve of Moore’s views and analysis of US society and politics or not, one thing is certain, there is at least one miracle that Slovenia can be credited for. I’m talking of course of a sports miracle of the Slovenian national basketball team winning the title at EuroBasket in 2017. Five years have passed since this magical, almost mythical achievement and the stage is set now for the Slovenian national basketball team to deliver another such miracle in EuroBasket 2022. What would make this basketball fairytale of winning back-to-back gold medals at the second toughest international competition (only the Olympics when Team USA plays with their best roster can be considered tougher) almost into a real fairytale is that the two best players on the Slovenian team and would have done it in reversed roles. Goran Dragic, who was the MVP of the 2017 EuroBasket, is now, according to his own words, the Robin and generational superstar Luka Doncic, who was Dragic’s Robin half a decade ago, is now the clear Batman.
Such is the power of this story that FIBA in its initial EuroBasket Power Rankings put Slovenia in the first place, ahead of such perennial European basketball powerhouses as are France, Greece, Serbia and Spain, respectively. This is undoubtfully a testament to Luka Doncic’s greatness whom FIBA also made the face of the tournament but is also indicative of how significant Goran Dragic’s return to the national team is. For his teammates, the coaching stuff, for the Slovenian fans, basketball aficionados all over the world and especially for Dallas Mavericks fans.
Mavericks fans are no strangers to their superstar spending practically every summer playing for a national team. This was the case for many years with Dirk Nowitzki, who, like Luka, brought his national team almost single handedly to previously unseen and almost impossible heights. Nowitzki led his national team to bronze medal in FIBA World Championship in 2002 and silver medal in EuroBasket 2005, both times also winning the title of MVP. Luka put his national team on his back last summer when Slovenia qualified for the Olympic games for the first time and was later one Nicholas Batum of France and Los Angeles Clippers block away from playing in the finals against Team USA. It’s hard to contextualize just how incredible an achievement this is for a country of just over two million people.
Undoubtfully there are many Mavericks fans who are not too sympathetic of their two franchise superstars spending their summer playing for their national teams and risking injury, instead of resting and working on their individual games. It is no secret that Luka Doncic’s coming into 2021-2022 NBA season out of shape can be in large part attributed to that he had only three weeks of rest following a grueling NBA season and playoffs, the aforementioned Olympics run that drained Doncic both physically and emotionally.
Be that as it may, there are reports that Luka, who is currently spending yet another summer (and this time also September), playing for his national team might come into Mavericks training camp in October in the best possible shape.
Luka, like Dirk, will play for the national team each summer at least until the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is true that Luka benefits from playing for his national team. Dirk’s role as leader of the German national team helped him become the player he needed to be, which eventually lead to the 2011 NBA title. It’s reasonable to hope for similar growth from Doncic. Luka Doncic was the second-best player on the title winning 2017 national team and almost single handedly brought his country within a whisker of winning an Olympic medal. These two moments were why everyone remained confident in the Mavericks and Doncic for Games 6 and 7 versus the Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals. He knew already that acting tough is one thing, but only a few can put in their best performance when it matters most, like for elimination games on opposing team’s court.
Basketball is a team sport and winning by yourself in today’s top-notch basketball, NBA or international, is almost impossible. This is why Goran Dragic’s return matters so much. He might well be the turning point between Luka Doncic showing up in training camp after another fourth place (in a row) finish or with a medal, possibly even gold around his neck. Every Batman needs a Robin and Dragic is almost the perfect one. Maybe not for an 82 games NBA regular season which seems to be the Dallas Front office’ reason for not signing Dragic, but certainly for the 10 games at EuroBasket.
Goran Dragic on the national team means less playing time for Luka. It means less responsibility and burden for Doncic as well. It means Luka’s usage rate will go down, something that is very much sought after by Dallas fans. We will see a lot more of Luka playing without the ball. Setting guard to guard screens for Dragic, dishing short handouts, cutting and even catch and shoot plays. All that is needed to keep Luka fresh and even more lethal on the basketball court and above all, to ensure that he will be able to play close to a hundred games in a potential Mavs deep playoff season. It will also serve as yet another example that “ball hog Luka” narrative is a false one and that NBA stars who need the ball in their hands can come play with Luka without fear or hesitation.
Enjoy the potential Slovenian basketball fairytale at EuroBasket and it might be followed by an even greater Dallas Mavericks one. Goran Dragic has a pivotal role to play in one and paradoxically also in the other. Batman and Robin, just the way it should be. This team will be one to watch for August and into September.