Luka Dončić is on the cusp of reaching all-time great status

There are levels and categories to greatness.

Individual greatness, which is the easiest to identify, but does it translate to winning?

Team greatness, but are you being carried and worthy of that individual praise if you’re supporting cast is that great?

And then there is the pinnacle, which few players ever reach, where the right blend of individual and team greatness form to produce an all-time great.

With the opening tip of the 2024 NBA Finals just a week away, we’re on the cusp of crowning an all-time great.

Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Dončić’ ,while being just 25 years old, already has a hall of fame basketball career. His basketball career dates back years before his NBA career. He’s been playing pro basketball since 13 years old in Europe.

Dončić’’s glittering accolades are too numerous to list. He has a trophy from Real Madrid’s 2018 EuroLeague championship, but none from Slovenia’s first-ever EuroBasket victory in 2017. There are countless plaques and medallions, too many to remember, from past tournaments and finals he starred in long ago.

But of course he wants to fill his trophy case with the one and only Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Dončić has always seemed destined to reach the pinnacle of the sport. His individual play has always been one which was deserving of winning, he just didn’t have the supporting cast at the NBA level to completely climb the mountain.

On Thursday, in Game 5’s 124-103 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Dončić advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time. Along with him came his new set of teammates, the best he’s ever had, amplifying their transcendent superstar who seemed destined to reach this stage.

And now he has.

It has been 13 years since the Dallas Mavericks reached the NBA Finals. Thirteen years since they lifted the crown under Dirk Nowitzki’s charge for the first time in the franchise’s history. Thirteen years toiling in Nowitzki’s twilight and then learning how to trust in Dončić after his arrival. This is Nowitzki’s franchise, always will be, but there’s no better successor. Not because these two legends are identical — not even close — but because they share one trait: A ruthless winning desire that uplifts all around them. What Nowitzki left, Dončić carried forward. Now, he’s arrived in the same place Nowitzki once took them: into the finals.

Growing up in Europe, Dončić didn’t watch the NBA Finals grown up, so he missed both of the Mavericks previous trips to the Finals. But from Game 5’s opening minutes, he left no doubt he would reach his first one. He had 10 points in the first three minutes, 15 in the first eight and 20 by the time the quarter ended, with the Timberwolves scoring just 19 themselves.

It was a display of finality that Dončić has exhibited many times before, most famously against the Phoenix Suns in a closeout Game 7 two seasons ago.

Dončić’s 36 points on 14-of-22 shooting was matched by his co-star running mate, Kyrie Irving, who had 36 himself. Irving is the one player on the team who has been to the finals before. Irving is the best player Dončić has ever played with, one who matched him shot for shot in Thursday’s closeout win. He ensured Dončić’s snarling-and-screaming eminence was affixed to his own steady-and-sure resolve. With those two atop the team, in games where they both decide losing isn’t an option, there’s a certainty in the results.

The teammates surrounding them — ones Dončić met for the first time 12, 10 or even three months ago — have quickly earned the entirety of Dončić on-court faith.

When Dončić is unstoppable, his teammates turn into the escalation of his brilliance. Play him straight up, and Dončić overcomes whatever high-flying athleticism he lacks for heaven-grazing lob passes that Gafford brings down into the rim’s mortal coil. Double-team him, and there’s the rookie phenom Dereck Lively II catching the ball at the free-throw line and swinging it to an open teammate — usually P.J. Washington or Derrick Jones Jr., two defensive stalwarts who have quickly learned that hesitation is an unnecessary sensation when those deliveries are imbued with Dončić’s own confidence in them.

Sometimes, Josh Green tries passes so audacious you wonder if Dončić might be puppeteering him when they succeed. At other points, old friends like Maxi Kleber emerge with veteran know-how to remind us that Dončić still is a young man of just 25, still not even yet in his prime, despite watching teammates age into and out of theirs. Even 21-year-old second-year guard Jaden Hardy, revived in the past two weeks, struts about with a swagger that at least must partially come from Dončić.

Dončić is always at the levers, manning this team’s helm. His hagiography is earned through nights like this, where there’s no way to watch him and think anything except that he’s the best basketballer alive. Whether he and his teammates are enough, right now, to topple the Boston Celtics will be determined. The battle will be fought over seven games, or six, or however many it takes.

“We’re not done here,” Dončić said. “We need four more.”

Dončić’s trophy case, the one which he’ll stuff his newly awarded slab into wherever it’ll fit, could use a centerpiece. What Dončić would like to see in that spot is the largest trophy this sport can offer. He’s always wanted that from the first moment he entered this league laden with laurels which he intended to exceed.

Now begins his first chance.


Leave a Reply