King George VI once stated that “it is better to be patient and get what you desire in the right time, than have high office thrust upon you when you are not ready.”
For NBA superstars patience, in terms of championship aspirations, is in short supply. Through the years, the best of the best have tried to skip steps in the natural progression towards league supremacy. The next uber-talented phenom looking to cut the line towards immortality is Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić.
The Slovenian-born Doncic is a three-time all-star who possesses a rare blend of passing, scoring, and control of pace that goes well beyond his twenty-three years. After being blown out in the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals against the defending conference champion Phoenix Suns, the chances of a Mavericks upset seemed remote.
Luka and his squad did not give up, however, and proceeded to win three out of the next four games. This improbably has the Mavs within one game of winning the series and reaching the Western Conference Finals. Luka is not the first precocious prospect to attempt to pull off a stunner and advance beyond what pundits thought possible.
The two greatest players of all time sought early entry to the mountain top that is the NBA Finals. The respective failures of Michael Jordan’s 1988-89 Chicago Bulls and LeBron James’ 2005-06 Cleveland Cavaliers serve as a roadmap to the pratfalls that the Mavericks need to avoid against these mighty Suns.
Michael Jordan and his Bulls’ inability to match the physicality of the eventual NBA champion Detroit Pistons doomed their chances to advance to the 1989 NBA Finals. Before Michael Jordan was the modern game’s most prolific winner, he struggled to get over the championship hump.
In fact, Jordan did not win his first title until his seventh year in the league. Two years before he would win his first ring, his sixth-seeded Bulls surprised everyone by making the Eastern Conference Finals. In their way stood the number one seed and defending Eastern Conference Champion Detroit Pistons. The “Bad Boys” of the NBA were a ferocious team led by their brilliant point guard Isiah Thomas, scoring guard Joe Dumars, and the sterling defense of Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and Bill Laimbeer.
Despite being significant underdogs and winning sixteen fewer games in the regular season, Jordan and the young Bulls won two of the first three games against the mighty Pistons. An upset was brewing as the series shifted back to the Motor City, but the Pistons had a specific plan to stem the tide.
Detroit Pistons head coach Chuck Daly employed rough house tactics as a successful means to stifle Jordan and win the series. Daly called for violent acts against Jordan which his Pistons executed with ruthless efficiency. After inattentive defense on Jordan led him to score 46 points in a game three win, Daly demanded that for the rest of the series, whenever Jordan “goes to the f—in’ basket, put him on the ground.”
Hall of Famer, and noted North Korean negotiator Dennis Rodman, articulated his interpretation of Daly’s words more succinctly: “We tried to physically hurt Michael.” The rugby strategy known as the “Jordan Rules” would prove highly effective as the Pistons won three straight games to win the series 4-2.
Jordan was not quite ready to ascend, allowing the Pistons’ brutish big men to serve as highly paid air traffic controllers as they grounded his aerial assaults on the rim. Luka would be well served to reflect on the lessons that Air Jordan learned about overcoming physical defense.
Phoenix’s physical toughness can overwhelm the Mavericks if Luka and his teammates do not keep their composure. The defending Western Conference champions are led by their brilliant point guard Chris Paul, scoring guard Devin Booker and the stout defense of Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton. Sound familiar?
The ability of Paul to be both a disruptive and irritating force defensively and a calming influence offensively helps the Suns maintain their edge. The versatility of the Suns lies in their use of multiple lanky and athletic defenders to throw at Doncic to make his life difficult. The effort of the perimeter players coupled with Ayton’s solid interior defense makes the Suns a black hole for opposing offenses.
With the second-highest technical foul total in the league, the excitable Dončić must avoid falling into a trap of self-defeating pity when the Suns ramp up their intensity. If he takes the bait, the final game of the series will more closely resemble the three games in which the Suns cruised.
Luka’s trust in role players has helped the Mavs thwart some of Phoenix’s physicality. This harkens back to LeBron James’ desire to trust his 2006 Cleveland Cavaliers teammates as they unsuccessfully attempted to beat another group of bad-boy champs from Detroit.
The lack of additional scoring help wrecked James’ first attempt to defeat the second iteration of the world champion Detroit Pistons. The moribund Cleveland Cavaliers franchise was hit with the biggest adrenaline shot in recent NBA history when they won the draft lottery and the right to draft LeBron James. James was destined for greatness and more than lived up to his high school bestowed moniker of King James.
LeBron’s early seasons with the Cavs, however, saw him receive inadequate help from his teammates. Nevertheless, James’ Cleveland crew reached the second round of the playoffs in 2006, tussling with 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. The formidable Pistons were led by their brilliant point guard Chauncey Billups, scoring guard Richard Hamilton and the sterling defense of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince. Are you sensing a pattern?
Despite being outmatched in terms of depth, the relentlessness of LeBron James elevated his inferior teammates to remarkable heights. Against all odds, the Cavs took a 3-2 series lead into their home arena with a chance to knock out the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs. Could LeBron get by with a little help from his friends? The answer to that question would not please the king.
Unfortunately, the limitations of LeBron’s supporting cast were fully exposed under the bright lights of the final two games of the series. Other than LeBron, only two Cavs scored in double figures in game six and only one in game seven! The second-highest scorer on the team over the two games was Zydrunas Ilgauskas and his name has more letters than he scored points in game six (17-16)!
As a general rule, when your second-best player is being defeated numerically by his own name, your team is in deep trouble. Although they are often referred to as supporting players, the teammates of legends can have a superstar impact on the result of a series. LeBron’s team left him searching for answers and Luka will be equally befuddled in the Phoenix series without viable production from his lesser partners.
The Dallas Mavericks will not win their series against Phoenix unless the rest of the team supplements Luka’s basketball brilliance. The paradox of Luka in this series is that the more he scores, the greater the chance that the Mavs lose. In games one, two, and five of the series, Luka averaged an astronomical 36 points, yet the Suns handily won all three games.
In games three, four, and six Luka averaged eight fewer points, but the Mavs’ diversified attack made the difference. Game three even saw Luka yield the high scorer mark to Jalen Brunson. The importance of Luka as the engine of the offense is incalculable, however, a ball dominating Luka often leaves his teammates uninvolved.
The Mavs only had seven non-Luka players reach double figures in games one, two, and five combined. In games three, four, and six, the number ballooned to twelve. The additional scoring helps to create balance and forces Phoenix to defend at multiple positions.
The Suns seem content to let Luka score at will as long as his other teammates do not get into the offensive flow. Role players have a tendency to perform better at home, but the confidence of the Mavs’ supporting cast needs to translate on the road in order for Dallas to prevail.
The Mavericks hit a scorching 20 three-pointers in game four and 16 in game six so a reversion to the mean in game seven is likely. Still, seeing shots going in the basket can only help to galvanize the upstart Mavs as they head into a winner take all game on Sunday. The Mavs were an inferior team to the Suns for 82 games, but one hot shooting night in the desert and Dallas will punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals. In order to achieve that dream, Luka will need to unleash his inner egalitarianism.
An understanding of the playoff trials and tribulations of Michael Jordan and LeBron James can help guide Luka Dončić past the Suns and keep him in the running for his first ring. Despite their early failures, Jordan’s six rings and LeBron’s four are a reminder that even early playoff setbacks can be used as positive motivation. After all, the long and grueling NBA playoff schedule requires sixteen victories to claim a championship.
In terms of metaphorical comparisons, the quest for an NBA title dovetails neatly with the summiting of Mt. Everest—both processes cannot be done alone, require a tremendous amount of prep, and are always one ankle roll away from ending in disaster. Most accomplished climbers will never summit Everest and the few who do generally do so at a slow and methodical pace.
In some special cases, however, a transcendent talent can sprint up Everest at impossible speed. The climber Nims Purja once summited both Everest and Lhotse in just 10 hours and 15 minutes. His incomprehensible rush towards greatness serves as a reminder that the impossible can be made possible. Will Luka reach his own personal Everest in the form of an NBA championship this season? If he does, he will not be alone at the summit, but the speed in which he gets there will set him apart from even MJ and the King.