Luka Dončić’s poor body language is becoming one of Dallas’ many problems: the Mavericks’ mailbag

We’re in an ugly stretch of the Dallas Mavericks season, one that was supposed to be a wonderful honeymoon after the Kyrie Irving trade days before the deadline. When I asked questions for this article on Monday, Dallas had just lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in a way that made it clear that the team’s demons are no different than they were before they acquired Irving. Another defeat on Tuesday, this one a 124-122 loss at home to the 28-35 Indiana Pacers, didn’t help change their minds or mood. With only 19 games remaining, there isn’t much time left before Dallas cures the many ailments we’ve seen.

So let’s talk about them, with a specific emphasis on Luka Dončić’s visible and vocal recent frustrations. Let me be clear, as I will write later in this article: Dončić is the singular reason this team is dangerous and successful. Any criticism of him comes from the high expectations he has set for himself. But since many of your questions focused on him, I felt it was worth responding in kind.

Note that some questions have been edited or condensed for clarity.

Micah N. asks: “I’ve been very hesitant to jump on the ‘Luka needs to mature’ bandwagon, but watching Sunday’s game (against the Lakers), I couldn’t help but feel that way. I’m curious if you feel the same same.”

My barometer for Dončić’s temperament is whether it affects his play multiple times per game, and especially for multiple possessions in a row. Lately it has. The technical foul he received against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday was not only earned, but called for. Dončić had survived a shouting match with one of the match officials before seeking out another to complain, practically forcing the whistle on him. If Dončić picks up two more technical fouls this season, he will serve an automatic one-match ban.

These frustrations affect his defensive effort several times each game, and maybe even sometimes his shot selection. The problems arise not only with Dončić’s transition defence, but in moments like this, where he doesn’t even try to box out his man on a rebound attempt.

Dončić’s anger may be justified. He seeks out and maintains plenty of physical contact throughout the games, some of which is inevitably not required for fouls. But that’s the life of an NBA superstar. Even worse, his frustrations with the officiating cascade into consecutive sequences of negative results for his team: failed box-outs, four-on-five defensive possessions, rushed stepback 3s and more. For all the benefits Dončić creates through his pure, undisputed talent, he gives too much of them back through avoidable behavior on the pitch.

I don’t know how to fix it, not with immediate effect. But that needs to change for the Mavericks to be more successful.

Jon B. asks, “What do you think about trading Luka?”

But okay, let’s not go too far with this. This is an obvious overreaction to one of the league’s very best players going through a frustrating stretch.

Ryan R. asks, “What do you think about Jason Kidd saying, ‘I’m just standing there after the Lakers game?’ I feel that more needs to be done about this.”

Jason Kidd’s full quote was this: “I’m not the savior here. I do not play. I’m watching, just like you. As a team we need to mature. We’ve got a lot of new bodies coming back and we have to grow up if we want to win a championship. There is no young team that has ever won a championship, either mentally or physically.”

There are a couple of things here.

First, after more than a decade of listening to press conferences and quotes from sports figures, I’ve become gracious in trying to interpret them. Kidd said that he looks “just like you guys” was a self-inflicted mistake; it’s a bad order of words, and it reflects his long-standing stubbornness to take the blame. But we’ve all said sequences of words that aren’t quite what we mean. As we have just established, the second part of his quote is absolutely correct as far as Dončić is concerned.

This quote really made me understand that Kidd’s tendency to call the team “young” last season (when the role players objectively aren’t) was referring to mentality rather than age. It’s true, especially before last season’s conference finals, that this team hadn’t accomplished much together. It’s even more true that any team takes after its leader, which is Dončić, whose mentality is what Kidd was mostly referring to, I think it’s safe to say. What Kidd probably meant was that he can’t change Dončić’s headspace in one timeout with strategic adjustments. It’s a bigger problem than that.

But even a sympathetic view of the exact quote does not absolve Kidd of questions. While a timeout lasts 90 seconds, he spends hundreds of hours with Dončić outside of matches. Kidd, as much as anyone else in this organization, is the person tasked with getting the most out of their superstar point guard, and he just isn’t right now. I wondered, after Dončić picked up the technical foul late in the second quarter against Indiana, if Kidd would dare bench him himself for a possession or two. I don’t know if it will work! It’s just that other tactics so far haven’t.

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Joe Z. asks: “One big difference between this year’s and last year’s Mavs teams is the leadership. Dallas has lost its three biggest leaders in Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Boban (Marjanović). I wonder who will step up?”

I suspect this is a factor contributing to Maverick’s current discomfort. Marjanović is of course missed, but his brand of encouraging positivity has been replaced by Theo Pinson and assistant coaches. However, Brunson and Finney-Smith have no direct replacements. They were the players who worked every day to be what they were as non-first round picks. They led by pushing others to match their relentless desire to improve. They had the fixed seniority to demand even more from Dončić.

Irving was asked directly after Tuesday’s loss if this team had leaders, and he sidestepped the question, not naming anyone specifically except for Kidd. These two are probably the only ones who have any chance of influencing Dončić in a meaningful way, and neither has the best track record of creating positive team atmospheres. In a team sport, the individual motivators should never be greater than the culture set by the whole. Dončić shouldn’t be running back on defense because he’s fine with getting hammered without making a call, but because he’s motivated by the fact that his teammates need him back there. It is possible that is what has disappeared.

That’s another reason why I thought this team should sign Goran Dragić this summer, not just for the role on the field he clearly could have earned, but for the respect Dončić has for him. (Although it was not appreciated last summer, it is unclear whether it is seen as any more important now that Dragić is a free agent again). I am not in the dressing room outside of media availability periods, nor am I privy to Dončić’s inner dialogue. I don’t know exactly what would make this situation any better, nor do I think that the team’s last game is anything close to solely related to him yelling at refs too much. But it’s understandable looking at Dončić’s own role, this team is stumbling from its position of immaculate vibes to what’s happening now.

Stanton H. asks, “How much are the Mavs outscored in (after timeout) situations?”

Stanton, I will limit your long comment to only one aspect that I can provide accurate numbers to answer. Last season, Dallas was the league’s most efficient team out of timeouts, averaging 1.21 points per possession. This season they have dropped to 16th (1.10 points per possession). I think personnel affects this more than coaching, but last season’s personnel being able to generate the league’s best numbers means this season’s roster could be better than they are.

The only coaching change this summer was the departure of Igor Kokoškov. While he was known for his tactical acumen, the Mavericks’ slippage in execution after timeouts is probably more complicated than that, and even somewhat random. But while wins and losses are mostly determined by the talent of a team, there are small areas in each game — timeouts, plays out of timeouts, late-game situations — where coaching shines. I don’t think Kidd and his coaching staff have excelled in those areas this season.

Timothy C. asks, “Can you tell me with a straight face that Dwight Powell is a better defender than Christian Wood?”

Powell is in the right positions more often than Wood, while Wood does more to prevent baskets on the rarer occasions when he is in the right spots. Dallas’ coaching staff has prioritized execution over talent on the defensive end, and that’s what led the team to its best defense last season. Even this season, for example, McKinley Wright IV was favored over Jaden Hardy for a brief portion of the season; while Wright doesn’t have the physical tools to be a good defender, he rarely lost focus or executed his plans incorrectly.

However, I don’t know if that standard holds up in the grand scheme of this team’s decisions. JaVale McGee was signed to replace Powell and play over Wood, but he has never been a fundamentally sound role player even when playing for championship rosters. He was actually benched for the most important moments of the three title runs he participated in. Wood was at least treated with skepticism by the coaching staff from the beginning of the season, based on Kidd’s way of playing him. Whether Wood’s season could have gone differently with a different approach, I’m not sure. But it couldn’t have helped that the team’s accurate assessment of his best role off the bench quickly went from meritocracy to pedagogy as he was often the team’s only non-Dončić scoring spark early this year.

Even if the coaching staff’s standard doesn’t quite scale up in light of McGee’s signing, Powell is playing the role of defensive big in a way that is much closer to the way they want. Wood hasn’t shown the discipline or instincts to contribute to a top-10, championship-tested defensive unit.

Were the Mavericks ever in a position this season to execute idealism over pragmatism? It’s a difficult question, although I can understand the intentions behind it.

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Joe Z. asks, “If you could describe the last 20 games of the Mavs season in one word, what would it be and why?”

Undeserved idealism.

Nick D. asks, “What do you think the likelihood is that a Josh Green extension will be completed this summer?”

I think it is very high.

Dillon T. asks, “Are the Chris Paul/James Harden Rockets a good template for Dallas to model their Irving/Dončić team after?”

Yes and no, for reasons I have to write many more words to explain. Will you all read it?

Cameron W. asks, “What’s your prediction on the Mavs’ playoff seeding?”

Dallas has the league’s eighth-easiest remaining strength of schedule, per Tankathon, and I still think this team will look better in the coming weeks. I’d say they finish sixth, winning 11 of their last 19 games and finishing 43-39.

But if and when they win five straight in late March to put some space between them and the Play-In contenders, I wouldn’t forget this stretch either. Even after the Irving trade, this team has done very little to convince me that they have a higher ceiling than last season.

(Photo: Grace Bradley/Getty Images Sports)

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