What a year this week has been. The Mavericks collapsed against the Hornets both Friday and Sunday, right after losing a must-win against the Warriors. And Luka Dončić opened up about struggling this season and losing the joy of basketball.
We’ve all noticed it this season. He hasn’t been himself the last while. I started noticing this fall - Luka was just not smiling very much anymore.
He was dominating in the beginning of the season, putting up crazy numbers and gaining MVP traction. Then the injuries started and he played through a lot, not looking as good for obvious reasons - and started focusing more on the outside noise. The referees mostly. When his focus turns from the next play to the referees’ last whistle, you know something’s up. It wasn’t just a couple of times a game, it was all the time.
Luka was not being in the moment, he was not being present very much anymore. I saw that as a bad sign right away, and watching him, it’s been hard not to get annoyed by his behavior.
Because what makes Luka such an exciting player to watch, what makes him a superstar and a generational talent, is his ability to stay in the moment. To focus all his attention on that next play, on reading the defense and finding the open spaces.
That’s where he found the pure joy of the game, and that’s where he inspired so many of us. Watching him slicing through the defense, making that impossible clutch shot or stepback three and then throwing up his hands showing that big grin - or shimmy - that’s how he got us. That’s why he’s so loved around the world.
Life is hard, but watching Luka have that childlike joy of the game makes it easier. It puts it in perspective - it reminds us to enjoy life while it’s here.
Seeing Luka lose that joy, bit by bit, loss by loss and missed clutch shot, has been devastating to watch. And while many of us saw his struggles and empathized, a lot of people turned against him. This season Luka went from superhero to villain, something all superstars seem to go through.
On top of all the other struggles, this may have hurt the most. Luka has always been the wonder boy. Since going to Madrid at 13, getting his pro debut at 16, winning a EuroLeague championship, the EuroLeague MVP, Eurobasket gold, drafted to the NBA at 19 and growing into a legitimate superstar - Luka has always performed above what was expected. He’s never let anyone down. He’s always been better than what people hoped.
Now he’s at a level where he has played well enough for long enough that there are certain expectations for him. To dominate every game. To show up in clutch every time. To take his health seriously. To keep showing the joy we all want to see and to keep being the wonder boy we all need.
But Luka Dončić is not a boy anymore. He is a grown man now and he has grown man issues. We’ve all been there, when life comes at you fast. Luka has reached a point where he’s realizing that there’s more to basketball than scoring and winning.
Besides his personal issues, which we have no knowledge about and which are none of our business, he’s dealing with things that come with growing up. Just like everyone else, he’s learning that if your personal life is a mess, it’s hard to focus at work.
Not to mention losing friends as teammates. Over the last year, some of his closest friends on the Mavericks have gone, one by one. Boban and Jalen Brunson this summer. Dorian Finney-Smith at the trade deadline. For someone who seems to care more about friendships and loyalty than most, that’s a lot of friends to lose in a year.
Some superstars have not wanted to have or make friends during their careers, only focusing on winning. Others, like Dirk Nowitzki, found the balance. But Luka needs to find out, like so many before him: can you have the drive to win and still be happy?
Luka is struggling with his feelings right now, something that’s relatable for everyone with a heartbeat.
An interesting part of this is that that’s exactly what’s been Kyrie Irving’s biggest problem earlier in his career too. Kyrie’s a baller - but his struggles with the media and on his prior teams have not been basketball related - they’ve been about feelings. Relationships, lack of relationships, personal issues and lack of respect.
From what I’ve seen from Kyrie in Dallas, he’s made a conscious effort, aided by the sheer good nature of the locals, to focus on basketball and positivity. On relationships and being that positive force for people around him. He’s had no attitude, no bad vibes, he’s been building up people, mentoring teammates and shown leadership. He’s been a ray of sunshine in a gray and cloudy Dallas.
And this is a good sign to me. If Kyrie sticks around long enough, I see real potential for a deep connection between the two superstars. Kyrie’s been where Luka is right now, at least professionally, maybe even personally too. Kyrie’s been working on himself and he’s in a much better place it seems, maturing and learning to control what he can control. Luka has hit a wall and needs friendship, guidance and people he can trust. If Kyrie sticks around, this may be a match made in heaven.
Turns out, basketball is about feelings after all.