Tim MacMahonESPN Staff Writer
LUKA DONCIC CROSSES the half-court line and surveys the defense, setting up a high ball screen on the right wing by using a nifty crossover and hesitation dribble to leave the defender on his heels.
Time for a highlight.
It is Nov. 11 and the Dallas Mavericks are trailing by five points late in the first quarter against the 7-1 Boston Celtics. With 3:05 left in the frame, Doncic, who already has seven points on 2-of-5 shooting, drives into the teeth of the defense. He fakes a pass to Dorian Finney-Smith, who is wide open in the right corner because his defender had to help on Doncic.
Then Doncic pirouettes off his left foot and throws a blind, one-handed — backward — pass over his right shoulder to Justin Jackson camped out in the left corner. It’s the kind of moment that will make any crowd, home or away, buzz with delight.
Just one problem: The no-look heave is several feet off target, forcing Jackson to lunge over the baseline to save the ball from flying into the stands.
It ends up being a breathtaking … turnover.
It’s the kind of play that can test the patience of a no-nonsense coach. It’s also the kind of play a coach has to live with when he has a young star eager to push the limits of his creative potential.
As the next few seconds unfold in front of him, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle keeps his hands to his side, leaning slightly to his right as Jackson attempts the save, apparently hoping a little body English will help the ball land in a Maverick’s hands.
No scowl, no snarl, no screaming.
Carlisle calmly calls timeout after the Celtics score to discuss strategy, rather than confronting his young star.
“Special players like this need to be trusted,” Carlisle says.
But it wasn’t always so easy.
CONSIDER NOV. 24, 2018: It was the first time the then-rookie Doncic had faced the Celtics. Doncic had delivered a few spectacular minutes to open the game, hitting a 3-pointer and delivering three dimes, each one prettier than the last, to help Dallas take an early lead at home.
Then the kid had gotten a little greedy, trying to thread the needle to get the ball to a teammate on a backdoor cut into traffic. The result: a turnover and a transition 3 for the Celtics seconds later.
Carlisle had responded by angrily calling timeout, stomping toward Doncic with arms raised and yelling at the rookie about being careless with the ball. Doncic had barked back at Carlisle without breaking stride while walking to the bench.
It was a moment that had illustrated the occasionally tense dynamic between a championship-caliber coach with a reputation for being controlling and a phenom who had arrived in the NBA as the most accomplished teenage prospect ever, having won titles and MVPs at the highest levels of European hoops.
“Luka just came from winning a championship and expected to win,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. “That wasn’t so much barking at Rick as it was frustration that we were losing. He had never lost before.
“When you’re winning and you’re becoming a better team and you’re on that upswing, everybody’s attitude is different. When you’re frustrated from losing, nobody likes it. Nobody’s happy, and it’s difficult on everybody. It was just a different set of circumstances that I’m glad are behind us.”
Doncic is blossoming into one of the league’s best players, producing unprecedented numbers for a player so young. He ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring (29.5 per game), second in assists (9.3) and 12th in rebounding (10.7) for the 8-5 Mavs, who appear to have a legitimate chance to make the leap from the lottery to the playoffs.
But sources around the league, and even some within the Mavs organization, have questioned whether the Doncic-Carlisle dynamic — two brilliant basketball minds with a four-decade age gap — can develop into a successful long-term partnership.
“A great player needs a leash,” said former Mavs director of player development Mike Procopio, a sounding board for Doncic in his rookie season. “I don’t think it was a toxic thing by any stretch, but it was just a young player wanting more and a coach who wasn’t used to doing that with a young player.
“For the development of a great player this young, the best thing they can do is make mistakes and grow from those mistakes. You can’t freak out over every mistake. Rick understands that. Rick is intelligent.
“Rick knows this kid is the future of that organization. He can’t get in the way of that.”
It’s no secret that Carlisle is especially tough on point guards — the position that the 6-foot-7 Slovenian now plays full time after starting his Dallas career as a playmaking forward.
The point guard position has been a revolving door in Dallas since the departure of Jason Kidd, who helped guide the Mavs to the 2010-11 NBA title after Carlisle gave him the keys to run the offense. The Mavs’ front office twice acquired point guards it hoped would be franchise centerpieces, but Carlisle’s relationships with Rajon Rondo and Dennis Smith Jr. deteriorated quickly, and their tenures in Dallas were ultimately brief and disappointing.
“When we had people here who didn’t think they needed to learn anything, that’s when we’d run into conflicts,” Cuban said. “Luka is a sponge, on the court and off.”
Another factor: Carlisle didn’t believe in Rondo or Smith. Sources say Carlisle expressed concern about Rondo’s fit before the Mavs traded for him, and he had soured on Smith by the All-Star break of the lottery pick’s rookie season.
Carlisle, though, considers Doncic to be a legend in the making, declaring on media day this year: “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the league.”
“Rick knows this kid is the future of that organization. He can’t get in the way of that.”Former Mavs director of player development Mike Procopio
He often tells Doncic stories about Larry Bird, who Carlisle played with in Boston and coached under with the Indiana Pacers, because that’s the kind of company that the coach believes Doncic is destined to join. And Carlisle vows not to make the mistake of micromanaging that kind of rare talent.
“Guys like Doncic, Bird, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson — sometimes they get bored and they want to get into a creative state and do some things to kind of break up the monotony,” Carlisle said. “But the important thing is to understand that there’s a time and place for everything. The most important thing is not to compromise your opportunity to win.
“I give him the trust to figure those things out.”
That kind of trust doesn’t come easily from Carlisle. But players like Doncic don’t come along often. Those precious few need freedom and their coach’s full support.
“You have to,” Carlisle said, repeating himself for emphasis. “You have to.”
OPPOSING SCOUTS AND coaches widely consider Carlisle to be among the league’s elite offensive playcallers. Ask Carlisle, though, and he insists that he would prefer to never call plays.
“Look,” Carlisle said, “when we won the championship, we didn’t call anything.”
That’s because Carlisle trusted Kidd, a basketball savant in his 16th NBA season at the time, to orchestrate the offense. Carlisle sees similar savvy in Doncic, who began playing professionally for Real Madrid at the ripe age of 15.
“I always ask him, ‘What do you want to run?'” Doncic said of his coach. “During the game, he lets me call the plays. It’s good. It lets the game go and play more with pace. I think it’s the best basketball to play.”
Doncic certainly hasn’t given Carlisle any reason to tighten up the reins. The Mavs rank second in the league in offensive efficiency (112.6 points per game) despite Kristaps Porzingis‘ inconsistency coming off a 20-month layoff and the roster’s lack of proven firepower beyond the two young franchise pillars.
“As Luka demonstrates not just that he makes things happen but he can make everyone else better, why would Rick jump in?” Cuban said. “Because that’s the ultimate player. When a guy can see the court, see the time and score and see who’s on the court on both teams and know what to do, take the ball.
“But that confirmation only comes from winning.”
Doncic, mind you, doesn’t have complete playcalling autonomy. There are still games when Carlisle calls a lot of plays, particularly when he feels there are opportunities for the Mavs to exploit that don’t require Doncic to dominate the ball.
Doncic occasionally glares at Carlisle if a playcall from the bench doesn’t work or he doesn’t agree with another coach’s decision, such as a substitution. But there are also times when Doncic looks to the sideline, wanting a call from Carlisle.
Sometimes Carlisle responds by quickly twirling his finger. That’s not a signal for a play; it’s Carlisle’s way of telling Doncic to push the pace and attack before the defense can get set.
Scouts consider Doncic a predictable playcaller at this point. He has two pet playcalls, both of which are staples around the NBA: the Mavs’ “Push” set that is commonly known as “pistols action,” giving Doncic the choice of a dribble handoff or pick-and-roll on the wing; and a high pick-and-roll.
In other words, Doncic is going to call his own number and create. When the Mavs dig deeper into Carlisle’s thick playbook, those calls tend to come from the sideline.
“I think they just see it a little bit different,” said a Western Conference scout who has watched the Mavs multiple times. “I think they’ll get on the same page. It’ll take some time. But I think Luka sees things for him more than others.
“It’s not like he’s trying to ball hog or anything. He just thinks, ‘I can take this fool.'”
OFF THE TOP of his head, Carlisle can tell you how many followers Doncic has on Instagram. It’s three million and counting. And it’s a concern for Carlisle.
“Social media has created really an undue pressure on guys like Luka to generate highlights,” Carlisle said. “[Fans] want to be seeing stuff every day on their phones.”
Doncic delivers those highlights on a regular basis — 40-foot fastballs diagonally across the court right into the numbers of an open shooter in the corner; perfectly timed lobs just over the hands of helpless defenders; no-look dimes after dribbling behind his back in traffic.
And launching step-back jumpers, often from far beyond the 3-point arc — smiling and shrugging, in this case, at a trash-talking courtside fan in Boston after swishing a couple.
“He’s one of those rare players that has not only an amazing imagination for the game but the skill and the ability and the wherewithal to pull it off,” Carlisle said.
Even the threat of Doncic’s passing frequently leads to fun. His pass fakes have caused several defenders to look like fools, turning their heads or even their whole bodies as he either lays the ball in or dishes to another teammate.
“That’s what I do. I like to enjoy the game,” Doncic said. “I like to be an entertainer. Sometimes it’s good to be, sometimes it’s too much. I just like to enjoy playing basketball.”
Film sessions with Carlisle, on the other hand, often aren’t so fun.
“You’re going to be sometimes on video with things you don’t want to see,” Doncic said with a shrug. “Sometimes it’s good things, sometimes it’s bad things. It’s good to see bad things; you can learn from them.”
There were several team film sessions last season when Carlisle was especially harsh on Doncic, drilling him for mistakes in front of his teammates. According to others in the room, Doncic would just listen and take the criticism, but there were times when he seemed uncomfortable, like a student getting scolded by a teacher in front of the class.
“They got to know each other last year,” said Mavs veteran point guard J.J. Barea, who has played nine of his 14 NBA seasons for Carlisle and serves as a mentor for Doncic. “This year, they’re doing a good job talking to each other. They’re attacking it the right way.
“When Coach needs to tell him something, he tells him. He won’t stay quiet. But Coach knows the way he needs to talk to him. He does it and they move on.”
Through it all, Doncic has earned the respect of Carlisle — and not just because he is producing the kind of numbers that could land him in the MVP conversation.
The biggest question about Doncic entering the league was whether he would be athletic enough to be a superstar. Carlisle alluded to this on the night the Mavs traded up to draft Doncic, citing conditioning as a developmental opportunity for the Slovenian star. Doncic, who was a doughy 247 pounds when he reported to Dallas the month before his rookie year, is significantly leaner and stronger after a summer in which he cut sugars and breads from his diet and committed to the Mavs’ strength and conditioning program.
The physical improvement has been a factor in Doncic’s statistical improvement from average to elite as a finisher inside the restricted area (55.7% as a rookie to 64.8% this season, per NBA.com/stats).
Doncic also has displayed a surprising accountability — twice publicly blaming himself after close losses when he put up big numbers this season:
Doncic criticized himself for not driving the ball more when the Mavs got into the bonus during the fourth quarter of an Oct. 27 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers when he had 29 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
He ripped his own “bad shot selection” after his 38-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist performance in a Nov. 8 home loss to the New York Knicks, specifically for settling for a step-back jumper with one foot on the half-court logo when the Mavs were down three points in the final minute. (Carlisle did not criticize the shot, saying he was comfortable putting the ball in Doncic’s hands late and living with his decisions.)
It’s all part of the Luka Doncic experience, a thrill ride upon which Carlisle and the Mavericks are completely on board.
“I understand that he’s a performer, he’s an artist,” Carlisle said. “It’s important for him to feel that he is out there doing a job to win a game, but also he’s an entertainer. I get that. What the great players in history of sport have in common is they can take the understanding of the entertainment side and fit it into the team concept and still make winning the priority.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that for Luka Doncic, winning is the No. 1 and most important thing, hands down.”