In the fourth quarter of Slovenia’s 100-91 World Cup quarter-final loss to Canada, Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic was ejected from the game after picking up his second technical foul. Doncic tried to draw a call against Lu Dort and screamed at the official after falling to the ground without a whistle. His first technical of the night also came from complaining about a missed call. Without their best player for the final 6:30 of the game, Slovenia didn’t have the juice to come back. Their World Cup run came to a screeching halt as they were eliminated by Canada.
In Doncic’s defense, the officiating in yesterday’s game was not good. Canada was playing with a ton of physicality and making life difficult for him. Guys like Dort and Dillon Brooks are known agitators, and their reputation as tough, gritty defenders might have given them a bit of latitude with the officials. It’s also a good bet by Canada, the refs aren’t going to call a foul every possession. So it’s completely understandable that Doncic would be frustrated with the way the game was called.
After the loss, Doncic said, “But you know, the referees told one of the guys they’re not going to call a foul on him because he’s coming at us. I think this is not fair. I know I complained a lot, but I don’t think it’s fair.”
And you know what? He might be right. He’s probably right. In this particular game, the way the officials were calling things may not have been fair. But Doncic said something else in his media availability, something far more important.
“Playing for the national team, it’s a lot of emotions. A lot of times I don’t control myself, which I’ve been having problems with,” Doncic admitted. As he’s done numerous times in the past, Doncic displayed self-awareness of his biggest flaw as a basketball player. I’m sure every Mavericks fan reading this can recall a specific press conference where Doncic took ownership of his incessant complaining.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward meaningful change. It’s good that Doncic recognizes that controlling his emotions is something he struggles with. We’ve seen plenty of prima donna athletes fail to reach this conclusion over the years. But, at a certain point, you have to move beyond step one. You have to start making genuine efforts to change your behavior. And so far, throughout his career, Doncic has failed to do so. If anything, the issue is getting worse instead of better.
In 2018-2019, Doncic picked up just five technical fouls. As a rookie, he wasn’t handling or driving the ball as much and likely didn’t feel comfortable demanding calls from officials yet. But over the next four seasons, Doncic averaged over 15 technical fouls per year in only 64.5 games. He nearly received a one-game suspension (his last tech was later rescinded) last season while his team was desperately fighting to stay in the playoff picture. His technical count has risen every year that he’s been in the NBA.
Technical fouls are just one way of measuring Doncic’s inability to keep his cool. His excessive complaining often prevents him from getting back on defense, resulting in a 5-on-4 break for the opposing team. Frustration with the officials also leads to him forcing shots, missing free throws, and turning the ball over. And, most importantly, it takes his focus away from the task at hand: winning the basketball game. This isn’t Luka vs. the referees. And yet, too often, this is the battle that ends up taking center stage.
Doncic first seemed to realize that his complaining had gotten out of control in 2021. In an interview with Stephen A. Smith, Doncic acknowledged the issue and said “I gotta stop this, I know it’s not right.” A few months later, starting down the possibility of a one-game suspension after picking up his 15th technical, Doncic again vowed to change his behavior.
After a win on national TV against the Brooklyn Nets, he told the Inside the NBA crew, “It’s something that I’m not supposed to do. [It’s difficult] with all the emotions in games, but obviously I’ve got to stop. It’s just hard for me on the court with all the emotions, but I realize it and I’ve got to work on this. It’s tough to do it, but I’ve got to work on it and be way better than this.”
And to Doncic’s credit, he didn’t pick up that 16th technical foul. But then 2021-2022 happened, and Doncic was right back to his old ways. Again, he acknowledged the issue. He appeared on an episode of The Old Man and The Three podcast in March of 2022 and made this declaration: “I had a little talk with myself. It was unacceptable, the way I was acting … I had a talk with myself and I just said, ‘This can’t keep going.’ It’s a really bad look. I knew I was doing this, but I kept going. It’s over. I had to tell myself: ‘No more, man.’”
Just over one year later, Doncic narrowly avoided a suspension for the second consecutive season. In a miserable campaign that saw everything go wrong for Dallas, Doncic’s frequent temper tantrums were again a major talking point. Because of the circumstances, it’s easy to argue that it was the worst it’s ever been. And if yesterday’s game is any indication, he still has a long way to go.
At one point in that game, Doncic expressed frustration with the officials by performing the “money sign” gesture with his fingers, a gimmick he’s broken out a few times over the last couple of years. Not only is this display incredibly embarrassing, it makes no sense. Doncic can’t possibly think that officials in both the NBA and FIBA are out to get him in some kind of grand conspiracy. So why act in this childish manner? This certainly isn’t the behavior of someone working to improve in this area.
Emotions are a huge part of the game. It’s awesome that Doncic wears his heart on his sleeve and wants to win so badly that he’s driven to visible madness. Part of what makes him such a special player is that he plays with his head and his heart. I’m not arguing that Doncic should strip emotion out of his game and play basketball like Kawhi Leonard. But his never-ending war with the officials has slowly sapped much of the signature joy out of his game. Instead, it’s been replaced by anger, frustration, and resentment. These feelings are often counterproductive to winning basketball.
Luka Doncic is one of the five best basketball players on Earth. He may very well be the most talented of any of them. When people talk about him, they should talk about the otherworldly pass he just made, or the insane step-back three he just hit. Instead, through his own doing, the narrative around him is constantly centered on the persona of a whining crybaby who won’t leave the referees alone. He hears the noise. And while that isn’t nearly as important as winning basketball games, figuring out how to control his emotions kills two birds with one stone. It’s what he needs to do to become the perennial MVP player he’s destined to be. The time for talk is done. Doncic will turn 25 this season; it’s time to finally grow up.