The NBA Finals’ Best Player Is Also Its Most Annoying

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Tonight in Boston, the Dallas Mavericks, led by world-historic weirdo Kyrie Irving and Slovenian ball magician Luka Dončić, will face off against the devil’s own Boston Celtics in game one of the 2024 NBA Finals.

Dončić has been one of the NBA’s best players, and certainly its best backcourt player, for the last few years. He is many things: a shit talker, a three-point shooter, an ace ball handler, an incredible lob passer, and the greatest Slovenian basketball player who has ever lived. But, more than anything Luka is the modern NBA game manifested, a player standing in stark defiance of anything resembling the game’s past.

Michael Jordan may or may not have been the greatest basketball player who ever lived but he was by far the most perfect. He was great. What made him great? He could dribble like a madman and create his shot from anywhere. Any single defender was turned into dust, any double was managed properly, the clutch shots went down.

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Early in MJ’s career, he just jumped over anyone, looking like he was from fucking space. Late in his career, he developed a lethal low post turnaround that spun so fast you could hear it whip when he sent it out. He was supremely competitive, handsome, but above all, honorable. He looked at the guy across from him and put him in the dirt, over and over and over.

After Jordan retired, the NBA became a messianic cult obsessed with the emergence of a new Jordan, a shooting guard who mashes up his opponents like bugs. The prophecies have all failed: Kobe was a miserable copycat, Vince Carter wasn’t psychotic enough, LeBron became some other different kind of thing, more versatile than the man but also more complicated as an object of appreciation. Lately, the prophets have chanted the name of Anthony Edwards, a hypercompetitive shit-talking guard plying his trade for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but even he blanches at this a little.

But the reality of the matter is this: There is no new Jordan, there will never be a new Jordan. Not because a player can never be as good as Jordan, but because in the morass of basketball postmodernity, a player can never be as perfect as Jordan. Defenses are too complicated, skills are too refined in too many different directions, three-point shooting is too important. To succeed in the modern NBA is not to slice through opponents like a hot knife the way Jordan did—it’s more bureaucratic, more arcane. The great ball-handling players who emerged from the league Jordan left behind aren’t modeled on Jordan. They are, instead, variations on Reggie Miller.

Once, Reggie was seen as an irritant, an aberration, plying his minor trade for a team that was built around gigantic dudes who played hellish defense, but in the modern game he looks like the harbinger of league future: Steph Curry curling around endless screens; Chris Paul whining to anyone who will listen; James Harden, the man from hell, stepping on the court with gamesmanship on his mind. These are Reggie’s children, playing in a league that, after putting it off for decades, has fully embraced three-point shooting and complicated zone defense schemes. Victory in the modern NBA is not a Trojan prospect anymore, slicing through the cut in front of you until the river is gutted with their blood. No, it’s the Odyssean league now, the trickster league, the guile league.

This is the world where Luka Dončić was born and raised, the filthy, bureaucratic league where he excels. Honor is dead, the imps command this land now. If you ask me, Ant Edwards never stood a chance.

When Luka was 17 years old he won the league MVP for Spain’s Liga ACB. As a teenager who routinely dominated grown professional athletes so thoroughly that he was regarded as the best player in the consensus second-best basketball league in the world, it’s possible Dončić was the single most accomplished prospect in the history of the NBA Draft. Nevertheless, two teams passed on him in the draft, in favor of DeAndre Ayton (Middling Big Man) and Marvin Bagley Jr. (Bust). The teams who skipped on Luka were piddling around in an old paradigm while the near one was blowing up in their face. He was immediately excellent, winning Rookie of the Year and netting an All-NBA First Team appearance in his second season.

Describing the productive content of Luka’s game doesn’t really reveal much about him. He is the platonic ideal of a modern NBA guard. He has a reliable three-point jumper and handle, he can produce off screens or in isolation, handles switches easily, and is a remarkable passer, particularly on lob passes (he is probably the best lob passer since Andre Miller, who was a savant in the matter).

In the Western Conference Finals against the Wolves, he went on several backbreaking scoring jags. His signature move is a stepback three-pointer, a remarkably difficult shot that he executes as easily as someone hitting the “fill row” shortcut on Excel. It’s not fast, or snappy, like watching Jordan hit that baseline turnaround. It’s languid, somehow, as if Dončić hit his opponent with a spell that stopped them from understanding their cover was going to take a shot.

The player Dončić most resembles is James Harden, but with the sliders flipped around a little bit. Fewer helter-skelter drives to the rim, more stepbacks. A little less emphasis on strength, a little more on his devastatingly high shot release point. In his heyday, Harden was NBA public enemy No. 1, an aggressive flopper who could turn any play into a mess that ended with him getting one to three points with the help of the free throw line. He was amazing at what he did, but what he did was tricking everyone and turning the game into a rockfight, and it drove some people, especially the Jordan-prophet types, into fits of pique.

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Luka’s drive game is not as aggressive as Harden’s and doesn’t draw as much ire as a result. But Reggie’s spirit, the eternal spirit of the NBA imp, lives in Luka as powerfully as it once did in James. Because folks: Luka is a friggin’ stinker. The element of this is his buckwild disregard for the spirit of the NBA law. There is no call he won’t complain about with the conviction of a white-shoe lawyer objecting to some procedural bullshit in a case regarding lead levels in children’s toothpaste.

A referee has never been right in Luka’s eyes, a conviction that, I think, most NBA players share, but that he is uniquely unembarrassed to express night after night after night. It’s kind of impressive in its way, the levels of outrage he can sustain night after night: I don’t care about anything as much as Luka cares about referees calling against him. His outrage about the cruel universe does not affect his play style, because, folks, Luka loves flopping. Personally, I think flopping is cool, tricking referees is the best, and light cheating brings a certain spice to the game. But some people, people carrying around the dream of an honorable game, don’t care for this sort of strategizing.

Luka is also a true hater. He chirps at opposing fans, eats up their groaning and disappointment, absolutely dumps on any team who seems like they really want it a lot. Luka is big, athletic, and well-conditioned, but doesn’t necessarily look big, athletic, and well-conditioned, and when he comes into town and stomps on you, there is a kind of residual embarrassment that comes from him slowly stomping the life out of your squad and then publicly celebrating with a mother flippin’ beer after the game.

Oh, you want it more? You live on the grind? Shut the hell up dude, Luka’s here to sling mud in your face and then whine about it to the ref right before sinking one over you or lofting some perfect lob to the big man you forgot to cover.

The men of honor extol sportsmanship, even when their idol was an immaculate dickhead, but Luka just… doesn’t give a shit about any of that. He’s a great player with a troll’s spirit and he doesn’t give a rip if anyone doesn’t like that. It's the kind of disrespect that you can only cultivate if you spent your teenage years putting grown men in the toilet. It’s admirable, it’s terrible, it’s great sports.

Luka’s teams have fluctuated wildly for the last few years, a more common occurrence in an NBA where salary cap space has teams working on the fly to avoid getting kneecapped by the new upper limit “hard apron” on salaries. This Mavs team, consisting of Dončić and Irving and a grip of young role players, is a daily new unit that has slowly developed over the course of the season, climaxing in the annihilation of a TImberwolves team that has finally rounded into shape after years of waiting for their young talent to cohere.

In that series, Dončić drove the entire arena to madness, seeming to feed off negative energy. This magical quality will—God willing—serve him well in Boston, where he will bring this impish spirit to battle in an arena full of frothing-at-the-mouth Boston fans and their team full of uninteresting functionary bureaucrats. The Celtics are, on paper, better, but Dončić is the kind of guy who wipes his ass with “on paper,” and the hooting lunatics who cry out its dull message. Jordan-esque, in a way. But not, like, a tangible way.

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