I always thought of Dallas as the friendliest city. New York’s the rudest, Minnesota the most jovial and San Francisco the geekiest. L.A. is the flashiest, obviously.
In my mind, Dallas is the kind of place where strangers are embraced, conflicts are avoided and smiles are shared by strangers. A friendly place, a smaller city that has everything you need, but not too much - as Luka Dončić likes to say.
Maybe this is the reason no one is telling Luka the obvious things. But I’m not from Dallas, I’m not even from the US. I’m European, and in Europe we’re straight talkers, so I’m here to tell it like I see it.
Luka is used to the directness of Europeans, he obviously responds well to it, because that’s what he was used to growing up in Madrid, where he blossomed into one of the best European players the world has ever seen.
So I’ll cut to the chase, and I hope someone close to him will too, because most of these things are pretty easy fixes. But they have the potential to take him to the next level, a place he needs to go for the next phase of his career.
1. Try harder on defense
Luka simply needs to try more on defense. It’s getting embarrassing to watch players running right past him, him missing on help defense, reaching for the easy play instead of putting in the work. And sometimes not even paying attention.
Luka gets caught head in the clouds pic.twitter.com/JaHaiZz7VI— MavsHighlights (@MavsHighlights) February 24, 2023
The excuse of having too heavy of a workload on offense to put in a real effort on defense has gone with Kyrie’s arrival.
And watching Kyrie, it’s becoming clear that he actually makes an effort most of the time and is pretty good on the defensive end. Whether it’s a honeymoon phase thing or not, it’s making Luka’s effort so much harder to watch. He doesn’t need to be the main guy on defense, he just needs to put in a little effort and not be a liability. We know he can do it, because we’ve seen it in the past - so it’s just a matter of committing.
Luka needs to start thinking seriously about what is really important. Is spending all that time discussing foul calls or no calls with referees worth it, when he’s leaving his teammates alone to fend for themselves on defense?
What did he really get out of it? If Luka sat down and really considered if it was worth his effort to spend so much time and energy complaining, I think it would make a world of difference. Think about the difference in energy he could bring to his teammates, if instead he just ran back and kept playing. The energy of the team just gets sucked out of the game with this behavior and his teammates having to cover for him. That’s not good for the vibes and it’s not how you win games.
The refs won’t overturn their call. But his teammates will forever appreciate that he’s there to help on defense. It’s a team defense and it doesn’t work with only four players.
This is an extension of the previous point. Luka Dončić needs to start leading on the floor, even when things are hard.
Take a look at leaders like Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo, encouraging their teammates, no slumping shoulders, no negative yelling - to either team mates or referees.
Luka has been missing a vet presence, and this is where we see the results of that. But he has been around good vet leaders in the past and he knows better. The excuse of youth is also dwindling away. It’s better to take these steps now and start playing winning basketball, which we know he can do, because - again - he has done it in the past.
When he gets frustrated with his teammates and referees, he might think about going back to singing in his head. He used to sing Slovenian songs to distract himself from getting angry with the refs and I don’t know why he stopped.
He has also been able to stop getting techs every time he has almost reached the limit. Whatever he’s done to manage that - use it every game.
4. Ask to be coached
Another aspect is coaching. Luka grew up with the strict discipline of Real Madrid, and he’s been used to being coached. In Dallas that does not seem to be the case - and it seems even more, these days, that he gets to run the show.
But I say, ask to be coached more, Luka. He may not know to, but since Kyrie has distinctly asked to be coached by Jason Kidd, one could hope it rubs off. It would seem that more coaching might help him adapt better to a slightly different style of play with Kyrie, and getting direction on ATO’s and final second plays is always a good idea.
Running the same iso play again is not. Getting input into how to play with another ball dominant guard, on how to move without the ball and according to how Kyrie plays is always beneficial. And being held accountable by the coach - outside the media - would be too. It’s what coaching is, if you believe coaching is more than watching players work it out themselves.
It’s clear if you’ve followed Luka for a while that he needs something or someone to get him going - especially for games against weaker opponents. A little chirping with a fan helps motivate him. He loves when people tell him he can’t do something, because then he gets a chance to prove them wrong.
It’s probably something buried deep down inside him, like in most Balkan players (listen to the Ringer podcast The Balkan Boom to learn more) - or it’s the same thing that worked for Michael Jordan.
No matter where it comes from, it’s time to find a positive way of handling it. Not just show up to a game and hope motivation comes. Have a plan, be prepared. Maybe Mark Cuban hires someone to chirp at him from the stands? Just kidding, he needs a strategy to deal with this, whether it’s an internal goal he sets or a bet with his teammates.
The easy stuff
The reason it can get frustrating to watch Luka not trying on defense or complaining is because these are the most straightforward things for us normal people. He has all the hard things down, like raw talent and skills, why can’t he do these simple things that the rest of us have to do every day? (We wonder, while looking at that seemingly easy drive into the paint and perfect look-away pass to a three point shooter.)
The rest of us have all dealt with situations where we want to complain or scream at someone, because something isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Most things in life are unjust, like why some people are born with privilege and money, and others barely make it from month to month.
We have all been in situations where trying really hard was required. Even if we don’t have the talent, we all know that at least we can put up an effort. That’s something normal people have to do every single day, but I’m not sure Luka’s been in that situation all that often before.
With Luka Dončić, I sometimes feel like I’m watching my little brother play. You know his potential, you know all the small things that would make his path easier and his journey a little less wobbly, but he just won’t listen. Or maybe he doesn’t know how to.
It’s always easy to point out other people’s weaknesses and mistakes, not knowing what lies beneath. But with what we know about Luka Dončić, this is not an impossible task. It’s just another challenge on his path to greatness.