NBA

How the Mavericks can learn from Luka Doncic’s success with Slovenia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Although it wasn’t the finish Luka Doncic and Slovenia wanted at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing fourth in the country’s first ever appearance in basketball is nothing to hang their heads about. Over the course of two weeks, Slovenia continued to surprise everyone with a win over Argentina, another over Spain and found themselves with the opportunity to win a bronze medal after falling to France in the semifinals in the closing seconds. As each game passed, Doncic’s performances only continued to amaze, echoing yet again what makes him so special.

Slovenia also showed what a team best suited to Doncic’s skills could look like, something that the Dallas Mavericks should certainly take note of. While the overall talent level on the Slovenian national team doesn’t stack up to the Mavericks, the approach to constructing the Olympic roster yielded to Doncic’s abilities better than what we’ve seen the Mavericks do so far in his three-year career. Simply put: surround Doncic with enough consistent shooters and a couple other guys who can handle the ball and watch what happens. 

Every game Slovenia played, there were countless possessions of Doncic attacking the rim to then flip a pass out to a shooter in the corner or back out on the wing for an open 3-pointer. It’s something we’ve seen him do countless times in Dallas, but instead of Dorian Finney-Smith standing in the corner, who shot 39.4 percent from deep last season, it was Vlatko Cancar drilling 3s at a 48 percent clip. Finney-Smith actually had the best shooting season of his career last year, but when you put it side-by-side with Cancar’s numbers, or anyone else on Slovenia’s team, then it just looks average.

Here’s a breakdown of Slovenia’s 3-point shooting throughout the Olympics:

Klemen Prepelic

6.7

40%

Vlatko Cancar

4.0

48%

Zoran Dragic

3.3

45%

Edo Muric

2.3

35.7%

Mike Tobey

2.2

38.5%

It felt like every time Slovenia attempted a 3-pointer, it was going in. In comparison to the Mavericks this past season, they had just one shooter who attempted three or more 3s a game that shot over 40 percent from deep: Maxi Kleber (41 percent). Dallas attempted the sixth most 3s in the league last season (38 per game), yet ranked 18th in the league in 3-point percentage (36.2 percent).

How Dallas uses Doncic compared to how Slovenia uses him aren’t too dissimilar: space the floor, set some screens and allow Doncic to create some magic either through scoring or passing. The difference, though, is Slovenia was more equipped to make that successful in the Olympics. Slovenia had three surefire shooters who were going to knock down 3s at a consistent enough clip, whereas the Mavericks most reliable shooter last season was Tim Hardaway Jr., and even he can be really streaky. 

So far in free agency, the Mavericks have somewhat addressed the need for more shooters, after agreeing to a three-year, $30 million deal with Reggie Bullock, who shot 41 percent from deep last season and is a career 39.2 percent 3-point shooter. They also went out and got Sterling Brown, who shot 42.3 percent on a lowly Houston Rockets team last season, and Dallas is banking on him replicating that success, instead of the 32.4 percent he shot in Milwaukee the season prior. This is in addition to re-signing Hardaway Jr., who was undoubtedly the second-best player for the Mavs in the postseason and earned Sixth Man of the Year buzz for his play off the bench.

If those three guys can shoot consistently from deep, it’ll solve a major issue Dallas had last season. It’ll also ensure that more of Doncic’s great passes aren’t empty, and are generated into more assists. Last season Doncic ranked fifth in the league in potential assists per game (16.3). He already averaged 8.6 assists per game last season, but that number could easily be in the double figures if guys are knocking down shots when Doncic is putting them in position to get good, even great looks.

Getting consistent shooters to surround Doncic is the easy part, but the part that Dallas hasn’t quite figured out is getting a secondary ballhandler, or just guys with better handles to put alongside Doncic in the starting lineup. It’s not that Slovenia had Doncic sharing ball-handling duties with anyone else, but rather there were several guys who were capable of getting their own shot or finding the open player for a bucket. 

The same can’t be said about the Mavericks roster, who struggled to find anyone outside of Doncic to be adequate shot creators this past season. Hardaway and Jalen Brunson were perhaps the best at doing so, but Hardaway has a knack for getting out of control sometimes which result in turnovers, and Brunson isn’t always consistent. Everyone else, like Finney-Smith, Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis are mainly used as catch-and-shoot players as none of them have good enough ball-handling skills that warrant them even dribbling the ball when they get a pass.

But Slovenia showed Dallas that perhaps a secondary ballhandler isn’t the end all be all. Unless a deal for Goran Dragic gets done for Dallas, this will be Year 3 of the Mavericks unable to find a suitable secondary playmaker to put next to Doncic. Instead, perhaps what Dallas should be focused on is putting enough guys around him who not only can be catch-and-shoot players, but when needed could get their own shot, too. Slovenia had guys like Klemen Prepelic, Vlatko Cancar and Zoran Dragic who could get to the rim, and someone like Mike Tobey who can score on the inside and knock down 3s. When Doncic went to the bench, Slovenia didn’t surrender leads like the Mavericks so often did last season. They were capable of not only holding onto leads, but adding to them. 

Prepelic was more than capable of running the offense for Slovenia when Doncic was on the bench. Dragic could bring the ball up, take two dribbles and nail back-to-back 3s to put the pressure on Germany in the closing minutes of a game. Cancar could get to the rim for a bucket when needed. Dallas doesn’t have enough players like that, and by limiting its players to just standing in the corner without any movement on the floor, it creates an incredibly predictable offense around Doncic. 

We’ve seen what Dallas’ offense looks like when Doncic is the driving force behind literally all of it, and in back-to-back years it has resulted in first-round exits in the playoffs. It’s not sustainable for Doncic to have a usage percentage of 35 percent, which ranked second in the league last year, when he’s not getting the necessary help to generate wins in the regular season and in the playoffs. 

Although Slovenia didn’t end the Olympics with a medal, their national team gave Mark Cuban, Nico Harrison and the rest of Dallas’ front office a few tips on how to be successful with Doncic. Now it’s up to the Mavericks to take that blueprint and put it to good use.



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