Of course he had to hear his eulogy while he was still alive after Andrew Wiggins read his last rites to him in Game 3, but Luka Dončić has nothing to be ashamed of. The Dallas Mavericks star led the NBA playoffs in scoring, but his singular production was in vain against a Golden State Warriors team that plays both sides of the ball like they’re part of the same hive mind .
The Mavericks were lambs to the slaughter against the Butchers of the West. Golden State is just too good right now. After five games in the Golden State meat grinder, a 110-120 loss sent them home in a gentlemanly sweep. The parallels to Luka being swept away by the Warriors tsunami are other superstars who found themselves with a bright future. Having your playoff clock cleared by unstoppable force in your early 20s is a rite of passage for generational stars. The response from the front offices is what defines the careers of these superstars.
The Boston Celtics wiped out a young 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 1986 Bulls included two leading scorers in Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey, who missed entire games by dipping themselves into nose candy.
Before winning the first of his five titles, Kobe Bryant, who was not yet even of legal drinking age, was swept in back-to-back playoffs from 1998 to 1999 by the Atlantic Conference champions. West, Utah then San Antonio. Shaq’s Orlando Magic was swept the year before he and Penny reached the Finals in 1995 – where they were swept by Houston.
LeBron James was months away from his 23rd birthday when he was crushed by Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs dynasty in their early years. James’ first place finish in 2007 ended in a sweep against these Spurs. This place would not have been possible without one of the greatest solo shows of this millennium. In the final 16 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, James had 29 of the Cavaliers’ last 30 points, including 25 straight points and the game-winning layup with 0.02 seconds remaining in overtime.
James, then 22, averaged twice as many points as his second-highest playoff teammate. LeBron caused a sensation with averages of 25.6 points per night, while Zydrunas Ilgauskas trailed with 12.6 points per game and Larry Hughes had just 11.3 points, shooting 34% from the field .
Dirk Nowitzki can identify with 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 dysfunction against 8th seed Golden State.
The Mavs can tinker in the offseason around Dončić like they did in assembling the 2011 Mavs team that defeated the Heatles. Dirk Nowitzki’s colleagues on that team were veteran amalgamation of Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and (one injured) Caron Butler. The Mavs will need to acquire, or draft, a secondary star to partner Luka. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton arrived in Milwaukee on draft night in 2013. Middleton via trade and Giannis via David Stern’s announcement of the 3 p.m. pick in the draft.
Who will be the second superstar to join Dončić? It may take a bit of luck like Chicago and Orlando drafting a Scottie Pippen or Penny Hardaway level sidekick. Or San Antonio extracts Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker from Argentina and France later in the draft.
It’s not for lack of trying. The Mavs thought it might be Kristaps Porzingis. After abandoning the Porzingis experiment at the trade deadline, Dallas climbed as 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 into the Eastern Conference Finals last May. Atlanta’s struggles this season are a warning that resting on its laurels and relying on its star to fill all the holes isn’t always viable.
The pressure on general manager Nico Harrison to assemble a full squad around Dončić will only escalate this offseason. LeBron had to leave Cleveland three years after his Finals debut to get help. Dallas is a nicer city to play than Cleveland, but despite being one of the top 5 metropolitan cities in the United States, it has never proven to be a top destination for free agents. That’s partly because the superstars would rather not be second fiddle to everything the Cowboys do to soak up all the oxygen in Dallas every week.
Luka’s presence makes the Mavericks more attractive to pending free agents like Bradley Beal. Beal was the player Dallas should have claimed in the Porzingis trade. The Wizards goalie would provide the Mavs with a secondary ballhandler who has the scoring prowess to relieve Dončić, and at 28, he’s still in his prime.
Their most important need is an inside presence on the glass and can modify shots on defense. Dwight Powell racked up 10 rebounds in five games. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson are just two of the most wanted mammoth-sized free agents you can put on your free agency wishlist. Maybe they can get Rudy Gobert out of Utah in a trade? Luka’s rise has only just begun. However, he needs an enhanced arsenal of talents at his disposal.