Sure he had to hear his eulogy while he was still living after Andrew Wiggins read him his last rites in Game 3, but Luka Dončić has nothing to be ashamed of. The Dallas Mavericks star led the NBA postseason in scoring, but his singular output was futile against a Golden State Warriors team that plays both sides of the ball like they’re part of one hive mind.
The Mavericks were lambs to the slaughter against the butchers of the West. Golden State is just too damn good right now. After five games in the Golden State meat grinder, a 110-120 loss sent them home in a gentleman’s sweep. The parallels to Luka getting swept up in the Warriors tsunami are other superstars who wound up with bright futures. Getting your clock cleaned in the postseason by an unstoppable force in your early 20s is a rite of passage for generational stars. The response by the front offices is what defines the careers of those superstars.
The Boston Celtics obliterated a young hotshot Chicago Bulls guard named Michael Jordan in 1986. Jordan’s iconic 63-point deluge inspired Larry Bird to call him “God in disguise.” Jordan’s supporting cast on those ’86 Bulls included two leading scorers in Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey, who missed entire games dipping into nose candy.
Before he won the first of his five titles, Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t even of legal drinking age yet, got swept away in consecutive postseasons, 1998 through 1999, by the Western Conference champs, Utah and then San Antonio. Shaq’s Orlando Magic were swept the year before he and Penny advanced to the Finals in 1995 — where they were swept by Houston.
LeBron James was a few months shy of his 23rd birthday when he was steamrolled by Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs dynasty in their prime years. James’ first Finals berth in 2007 ended in a sweep against those Spurs. That berth wouldn’t have been possible without one of the greatest one-man shows this millennium. During the final 16 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, James rattled off 29 of the Cavaliers’ final 30 points, including 25 straight points and the game-winning layup with .02 seconds remaining in overtime.
A then-22-year-old James averaged twice as many points as his second-highest scoring teammate in that postseason. LeBron made a splash with averages of 25.6 points a night, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas lagged with 12.6 points per game and Larry Hughes put up just 11.3 points, shooting an excruciatingly poor 34 percent from the field.
Dirk Nowitzki can relate to Dončić. His only title in Dallas was preceded by an embarrassing loss to the “We Believe Warriors.” If it weren’t for 2011, his lasting legacy would have been his malfunction against 8th-seeded Golden State.
The Mavs can tinker in the offseason around Dončić as they did in assembling the 2011 Mavs squad that defeated The Heatles. Dirk Nowitzki’s colleagues in that squad were the veteran amalgamation of Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and (an injured) Caron Butler. The Mavs will have to acquire, or draft, a secondary star to pair with Luka. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton both arrived in Milwaukee on draft night in 2013. Middleton via trade and Giannis via David Stern’s announcement of the 15h pick in the draft.
Who’ll be the second superstar to link up with Dončić? It may take a little luck like Chicago and Orlando drafting a Scottie Pippen or Penny Hardaway-level sidekick. Or San Antonio mining Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker out of Argentina and France later in the draft.
It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. The Mavs thought it might be Kristaps Porzingis. After giving up on the Porzingis experiment at the trade deadline, Dallas soared like the post-Lloyd Pierce Hawks. Their blitzkrieg to the Conference finals is reminiscent of Trae Young (the man Dončić was traded for on draft day) and Atlanta storming the Eastern Conference finals last May. Atlanta’s struggles this season are a warning that resting on your laurels and relying on your star plugging all the holes isn’t always viable.
The pressure on General Manager Nico Harrison to assemble a complete team around Dončić will only climb this offseason. LeBron had to leave Cleveland three years after his Finals debut to get help. Dallas is a more desirable city to play in than Cleveland, but despite being a top-5 metropolitan city in the U.S, they’ve never proven to be a prime free-agent destination. That’s partly because superstars would prefer not to be second-fiddle to whatever the Cowboys are doing to soak up all the oxygen in Dallas every week.
Luka’s presence makes the Mavericks more appealing to pending free agents like Bradley Beal. Beal was the player Dallas should have clamored for in the Porzingis trade. The Wizards guard would provide the Mavs with a secondary ball handler who possesses the scoring prowess to provide relief for Dončić, and at 28, he’s still firmly in his prime.
Their most significant need is for an interior presence on the glass, and can alter shots on defense. Dwight Powell accumulated 10 rebounds in five games. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Mitchell Robinson of the Knicks are just two of the more highly sought after mammoth-sized free agents you can pencil in on the free agency wish list. Maybe they can finagle Rudy Gobert out of Utah in a trade? Luka’s ascendance is just beginning. However, he needs an improved armory of talent at his disposal.