Luka Doncic continues to be one of the best basketball players on the planet. Last night was just another stop on his way to becoming one of the faces of the sport. 43 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists, and five straight points in Reggie Jackson’s eyeball to end overtime and tie the series with the favored Los Angeles Clippers up on a bum ankle. The legend grows seemingly every time he steps onto the court. But Doncic wasn’t some diamond in the rough. He didn’t come out of nowhere. The NBA very much saw the writing on the wall with the most promising European prospect they’d seen in a long time - perhaps ever. So, the most common question with how we got to this point with Luka remains with what happened on Draft night. Why did three teams pass on this generational talent that everyone knew about?
This isn’t hindsight. These were questions that happened in real time and have only grown louder since. Luka’s hype heading into that Draft was two years old. Plenty of time for the full cycle of takes to get out of the way before there was a consensus, “Yeah this dude can really hoop,” stamped on him. In fact you were viewed as a contrarian if you didn’t have Luka waltzing into the Hall of Fame. This wasn’t a secret. So again, what happened? How did the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, and Atlanta Hawks all get this wrong? Or… did they get it wrong. I’m not here to argue Marvin Bagley vs. Luka Doncic. I’m not that dumb. I’m here to say I don’t think anyone could draft Luka Doncic without also trading for Kristaps Porzingis. I believe this was an orchestrated play by the NBA to garner as much interest in overseas markets as possible by pairing two out of the three biggest modern European stars together.
It starts with Phil Jackson falling out of favor with Kristaps Porzingis. Kristaps checked out on the Knicks, skipped his exit meeting, and Phil began shopping him immediately. The teams Porzingis was most openly tied to is where this entire theory was born. Phoenix. The Suns and Knicks openly discussed swapping Devin Booker for Kristaps Porzingis. A move I don’t believe anyone faults the Suns for passing on. Booker wasn’t the star then that he has blossomed into now but he was still an incredible prospect who had shown he can score with anyone. Swapping him for an oft-injured Porzingis would’ve been a foolish move... in a vacuum. But I don’t believe it to be in a vacuum. I think once this was declined the Suns were out on Doncic. If not by their own choosing then by a mandate from above.
The next most popular trade floating out there was for Sacramento Kings young point guard De’Aaron Fox. This one had a lot of buzz yet, much like with Phoenix, the Kings shot it down. And again, in a vacuum, I don’t blame them. At the time I’d rather have Fox than Porzingis. Younger, more contract control, not a tremendous injury risk. But without that first piece there’s no way the League would want Doncic and Porzingis on opposite sides of the country, both trapped underneath horrible management. Doncic in the fourth largest market in California all by his lonesome? Hard pass. After the draft it came out that Vlade Divac (now fired) didn’t like Luka as a prospect because he didn’t respect Luka’s father. I believe a lot of front offices across all sports make terrible choices based off horrific logic frequently, but I cannot buy that train of thought for one second. Before you read these sentences you had never even thought about Luka’s dad once in your life. LaVar Ball is about to have his SECOND son drafted in the top three, I cannot believe that this was a real reason and not another excuse on behalf of the League.
“Why not just rig the draft so that the Mavericks would get the first pick?” It’s a fair question. It would’ve been the easiest lift and there wouldn’t have been nearly as many moving parts. With a good conspiracy you want as few moving parts as possible to leave less of chance of it all falling apart. But Adam Silver is a student of David Stern. Stern’s resumé is headlined by two things, among others: expanding the NBA globally after the success of the 1992 Olympics and rigging the 1985 Draft for the Knicks so that they could land Patrick Ewing. Stern took it to his grave that he did not rig the 1985 Draft and would bring skeletons out of your closet if you even brought it up to him.
So, as a student of Stern it would be in Silver’s best interest to not only follow in his footsteps but to also improve upon the groundwork that was already laid out in front of him. Pair Porzingis and Doncic together in the same market and make them the face of international basketball. Guiding the Suns and the Kings into making terrible decisions really doesn’t take much effort at all. Especially when you factor in the inherent biases which come along with traditional European prospects. "They’re not athletic, they’re slow, they all bust, they didn’t play in college how do we know they’re even good." On and on. It also helped that Deandre Ayton played right down the road from Phoenix at the University of Arizona. Ayton was a hell of a prospect in his own right. There’s no need for revisionist history when it comes to Ayton. He was an easy pick to sell to the Suns' fanbase as the top selection in that class. We had seen him on television, he was a traditional big man with some modern attributes. And he’s been a really good NBA player. I said at the time it would be hard to pass on a seven footer with the range and passing ability Ayton had at Arizona that he has yet to show at the professional level. The Suns had also just freshly busted on a top European prospect in Dragan Bender. With all that in mind, it’s easy to use Phoenix as a pawn in all of this. They have the optics, they have the history of being bad and inept, they still got one of the best players in that draft. Done, taken care of, easy to overlook for a traditional conspiracy theorist. The Mick Man? Gotta wake up pretty early to pull the wool over this fella's eyes.
Which brings us to the Kings. They took Marvin Bagley (soundcloud rapper) not only over Luka Doncic but also ahead of Jaren Jackson Jr. I get Vlade asked Papa Doncic for a cigarette once and Papa D was fresh out of Parliaments so they have some sort of unsettled blood feud going on. But if you’re not gonna take Luka you might as well take one of the better players available. Bagley’s career isn’t over by any stretch but he was an older freshman who led a forgettable Duke team. He had a lot of hype coming out of high school and those kinds of players typically pay off. So again, I can somewhat understand what happened but passing on Luka was only the first of many fuck ups the Kings pulled off with this one pick. Fox and JJJ could be doing in Sacramento what Ja Morant and JJJ are building in Memphis. Hell, if they wanted to take a swing on the best prospect based off their high school tape they should have really gone all out and taken Michael Porter Jr. But that’s why the Kings are the Kings and exactly why they're a perfect pawn in a heist like this.
Just about any year you trade the third pick for the fifth pick and another top 10 pick you’re probably making a great deal. Danny Ainge traded the first overall pick for three and 14 and won that deal handedly. So trading away the third pick for five and 10 the following year makes a ton of sense, again, in a vacuum. And I know there are plenty of Hawks fans who love Trae and feel he’s every bit as good as Luka and that Cam Reddish showed a ton of improvement as his rookie season progressed. The Hawks lost the trade. They got a tremendous haul back and still lost the trade. It happens. That’s how good Luka has already proven to be. Trae is incredible and will continue to put up points for a long time. Reddish can be solid. Combined or separate they can’t do what Luka is, has, and will be doing. The Mavericks being the team on the receiving end of Luka is really just too perfect for words.
Dirk Nowitzki's last season, the last time he’ll be the active face of the Dallas Mavericks, they transition seamlessly into the next great European prospect? They don’t make more perfect plans for Mark Cuban than this. This was like the Packers going from Favre to Rodgers just without the drama. The Mavericks already have an in with the European market because of the groundwork Dirk laid out over his Hall of Fame career. Now they get segue beautifully into Luka? That’s a little *too* on the nose for my liking. So perfect it had to be orchestrated from above. That doesn’t just happen. And even a brief glance over what the Mavericks paid to acquire Porzingis from the Knicks really ties this all together for me.
Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, Wes Matthews, and two picks in the 20s for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Trey Burke, and Courtney Lee. The Mavericks got the two best players here! And acquiring DeAndre may have fucked the Knicks over from signing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant! The Knicks used Porzingis as a salary dump. The best player they’d drafted since fucking Ewing they dumped all just to sign Julius Randle and several other players who also play Julius Randle’s position. The Knicks are as inept as the Suns. There’s no one debating that. But THIS was the best you could get in return for a disgruntled Kristaps? There’s no way. Surely someone had to offer something more substantial than cap space and mediocre at best picks. Yes I know whoever acquired Porzingis was going to have to pay him immediately. So what? That didn’t stop the Knicks from paying up in a trade for Carmelo even though he was going to sign in New York that summer regardless. The Knicks went from targeting De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker to having Dennis Smith, Jr. get booed loudly and frequently at Madison Square Garden. Not great!
All of this feels intentional. Every step of it. Preying on dumber teams’ inadequacies in an attempt to further globalize the NBA. I’m not even mad at it. It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint and I applaud the NBA for flawlessly pulling it off. Luka is a star, Porzingis is a great second fiddle when healthy, and the Mavericks are set for the short and long term. And that's all working under the assumption that there isn't MUCH more help on the way.
That’s right. The Mavericks will have an open max slot the same summer Giannis hits free agency. Which is truly, deeply TERRIFYING. Luka, Giannis, and Kristaps together as the face of the WORLD playing against the best the rest of the NBA has to offer on a nightly basis. That is David Stern’s dream actualized. And it’s about a year away from potentially becoming a reality.