[Editor’s note: Iztok Franko is StrongSide’s one-man Slovenia bureau.]
A familiar face lurked in the background as Jaka Blai, a shooting guard for the Slovenian national team, began his post-game interview following the team’s win over Japan. The man in the background had a directive for the media.
‘Ask him about table tennis. Ask him who won,’ said Luka Doni with a big grin on his face. Doni had just finished the night with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists to help Slovenia beat Japan, but he wasn’t interested in his statline. He wanted people to know who the best table tennis player on the national team was.
This video clip of Doni immediately became a meme among Slovenian basketball fans and epitomized what watching Doni and the Olympics was all about: have fun. Not only the people of Slovenia enjoyed the ride; many Mavericks fans in Texas also adopted the Slovenian national team. Many stayed up late to watch Doni and Slovenia play, while the most passionate even attached a Slovenian flag to their screen names on Twitter.
Slovenians run to third place was spectacular and unexpected. But the fun isn’t just about how far they’ve gone; it’s also about seeing Doni in a different environment than what we’ve grown accustomed to with the Mavericks. Seeing him in that different context has taught us a few things that could be relevant for the upcoming season. Here’s what I saw.
Luka = buckets everywhere he plays
Whether for the Mavericks or Slovenia, Doni is a guarantee of a first-class foul. Slovenia was the highest scoring team in the Olympics, with an average of 101 points in their six matches; compare that to the United States gold medal team, which was packed with NBA stars but averaged just 99 points per game. Surround Doni with shooters and a capable big man who can play in pick-and-roll, and you’re guaranteed a top-10 NBA regular season foul. (Dallas was in first place on offense in 2018-19 and eighth last season).
Luka can play faster
The Mavericks have been the slowest team in the NBA for the past two seasons, ranking last in the frequency of transition attempts. Rick Carlisle liked to control the game and hated to give the ball away, so it made sense for Dallas to play slow. It also helped them consistently rank among the best NBAs in turnover rate. However, you wondered if that was just Carlisles’ preference, or if Luka shared the same sentiment.
The Olympics showed us that a team led by Doni can play faster. Slovenia ranks third in pace of the 12 tournament teams, with plenty of attractive, up-tempo basketball.
Can Jason Kidd implement the best of both worlds? Can the Mavericks pick up the pace and still get the ball? Kostas Kalogeropoulos, a veteran European basketball coach who analyzed Slovenia’s game, thinks it’s possible to combine a faster pace with a degree of control.
His size and passing ability give him the ability to make accurate passes to the wings running the fast break, says Kalogeropoulos. Slovenia’s attack with him as lead guard was either a quick transition lay-up or an open three or set game where the team found a shot at the end of the 24-second clock. It was rarely anything in between.
As great as he is, Luka still needs help
Slovenia’s Cinderella run at the Olympics ended in a way that is very familiar to Mavericks fans. As the tournament progressed, teams began to focus on Doni, sending double teams and zones to get the ball out of his hands. Doni, who joined the national team just a week after the Mavericks playoffs ended, was visibly fatigued in the final games of the tournament. After shooting 52 percent in his first four games, he shot just 32 percent in the last two games against France and Australia. Slovenia lost in part because they had no other player who could consistently make his own shot or create chances for his teammates.
Where have we seen that before? An attack with Doni and gunners works well in the regular season, but Dallas has to find another option that can improve his game in the playoffs by taking offense himself. The Mavericks haven’t met that need this off-season, and the Olympics reminded us that finding such a player must remain a team-building priority.
Dallas could use a mentor to help Doni grow as a leader
The Slovenian national team was a close-knit group of players who worked hard on the pitch and had fun doing it. Doni’s easygoing, sometimes crazy (but still competitive) personality was a big part of the team’s identity.
However, as we’ve seen in the NBA, Doni’s competitive spirit can sometimes be beyond him. During the Olympics, we learned that Donis beef with referees knows no geographical boundaries. Worse, the team picked up its bad habits and amassed technicalities at crucial points in the elimination games. Slovenia lacked Goran Dragi, an experienced presence Doni has been listening to since Dragi took Doni under his wing and stayed with him at the 2017 European Championships, when Doni played in his first major national team competition at the age of 18. Between Kidd and newly appointed assistants Jarred Dudley and Igor Kokokov, it appears that the Mavericks have a coaching staff more capable of comparing themselves to a modern NBA superstar. That’s an advantage that Carlisle, for all his tactical genius, just didn’t have.
But they could still use a locker room vote to replace Dirk Nowitzki and JJ Barea. If we are to believe the rumors, Dragi himself may be the answer. If Mavericks’ new general manager Nico Harrison can pry him out of Toronto it would be a big win for reasons far beyond what the 35-year-old can still do on the pitch.
Let’s talk chemistry
A week after the Olympics ended, Mark Cuban and the entire Mavericks front office traveled to Slovenia, where Doni signed a historic $207 million rookie extension. As usual, Doni wasn’t very talkative during the press conference, but he was very blunt when asked about the biggest potential improvement area for the Mavericks.
I know we’ve made some great moves in free agency, but I think one of the most important things about winning is the chemistry the team has off the field, he said. With Slovenia we had great chemistry all the time and I think that led to us winning matches. And I think that’s what we need in Dallas.
It’s probably no coincidence that he said this so soon after the end of his Olympic run. Many of the skeletons fell out of the Mavericks closet late last season. They are counting on a new technical staff, a new front office and a new culture to change that.
Considering how largely the roster is still intact, there needs to be improvement, and it seems Kidd took Donis’ words to heart. I think one of our leaders said it this summer: we need to work on our chemistry. Our chemistry needs to improve, Kidd said recently. We are a family. There will be disagreements, but we are moving forward and we are helping each other. I think the most important thing that the fans will see is that this team is together.
For starters, Kidd might be able to install a few ping pong tables in the Mavericks’ training facilities. The Olympics showed us that good things happen when Luka Doni has fun.
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