Even Luka Doncic’s most fervent supporters ahead of the 2018 NBA Draft couldn’t have expected this type of performance through two seasons, because it’s in the most extreme range of outcomes possible. Doncic is on his way to being a historically great player already, and the three teams who passed on him in 2018 are being roundly mocked once again. But Doncic’s first playoff experience is also illustrating one reason he was doubted in the draft.
When Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer came on Locked On Suns shortly after that draft, he alluded to something that was in the ether before but I hadn’t heard stated clearly: That there was concern among Suns leadership over how Doncic and Devin Booker would mesh. It’s something John Gambadoro added fuel to just this morning.
Bottom line on the Luka-DA debate is that McDonough did not want Luka, thought he would be a bad pairing with Booker. Ryan had two full time scouts in Europe - 1 in Spain where Luka played. He took trips to Europe every year could have scouted Luka at anytime. He wanted DA— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) August 25, 2020
Just as a refresher, Doncic was coming off a 16-4-4 per game in 26 minutes during the EuroLeague for Real Madrid. The team won the EuroLeague championship and Doncic was the MVP of the Final Four. Revisionist history seems to indicate this was some unknown kid, but it’s important to remember he was one of the most accomplished 19-year-olds in the history of European basketball before he ever got to the NBA.
But Doncic’s path to the MVP trophy came in part because Sergio Llull missed most of the season. Llull was a star play-maker for Real Madrid, and his injury opened up an opportunity for Doncic to take the reins of the offense entirely. In addition to Doncic’s isolation creation, Real Madrid boasted former NBA players like Rudy Fernandez, Anthony Randolph and Gustavo Ayon, a trio of athletes who look a lot like the role players Dallas installed this offseason.
During that EuroLeague run, Doncic’s usage rate was 28.9 percent. Through two NBA seasons, his usage rate is 33.5 percent, and it’s been 37 percent through four playoff games. During the regular season, the Mavericks’ offense was the best in NBA history, and he’s gone toe-to-toe with the championship favorite Clippers in the first round. Give your offense to Doncic, and at every step of his career, magical things have happened.
The Mavs have put together exactly the kind of supporting cast you want around him. They found a great roll man in Dwight Powell (out with an ruptured Achilles’ tendon now) as well as floor-spacing bigs like Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber. Everyone else is either an elite shooter, a defensive wing, or a bench creator. Rick Carlisle’s mastery of the drive-and-kick offense means bit players like Dorian Finney-Smith and Trey Burke can excel, and that Dallas has tied the Clippers 2-2 in the first round despite missing players like Powell and Jalen Brunson.
Could the Suns have done the same? That question is at the core of how we should look at the Booker/Doncic pairing. I believe what Dan Bickley wrote this morning at Arizona Sports, that former general manager Ryan McDonough might have had a different perspective had he been invited to Europe to scout Doncic in person. And I also believe what Gambadoro and Tjarks said with regard to the front office’s hesitancy about pairing the Slovenian wunderkind with Booker.
While it’s silly to think the Suns couldn’t have turned their team over to Doncic in the same way the Mavs have considering they employed Doncic’s national team coach, Igor Kokoskov, during the 2018 pre-draft process, it might be true. Kokoskov’s system would have been beautiful with the two young play-makers working together, and we know Doncic was comfortable in it already, but Booker may not have succeeded in the same way. This would have been a true partnership, different from how Ricky Rubio was purely an initiator this year. Booker played off-ball more under Monty Williams and thanks to Rubio’s efficient play-making, but playing with Doncic could have been more of a your-turn, my-turn scenario.
There was also a question, even if you believe as I that Booker ultimately could have thrived in a sidekick role, of whether Doncic could actually keep up what he did in the EuroLeague at the NBA level. Not just from a competition perspective, but physically, and at the absolute highest levels. That’s something Doncic has proven wrong this postseason already, but it was not a sure thing because it never can be.
And all this is before we get into anything having to do with the marketing power, attention and financial opportunities that come with being the undeniable superstar of your team. Giving that up, as Booker may have had to do, would be difficult for any of us — in our heart of hearts — to stomach.
The reality also is that Kokoskov would have likely struggled to galvanize a team around a rookie Doncic. While his system catered toward Doncic’s pick-and-roll prowess, Kokoskov’s short-coming came as a communicator and leader. Carlisle’s approach is so well-respected in Dallas that he was able to slowly give the team over to Doncic in a way that’s led the Mavs to this point. It would have been far less easy for Dallas, and there would have been no Dirk Nowitzki to help smooth things out.
Still, talent wins out. Just look at how Doncic is willing Dallas to stay in a 2-7 playoff series that the Mavs had no business taking to a Game 6. Doncic is better than Booker was at 21, and has a pretty easy claim to being better than Booker already, full stop. That part is no surprise. There was a question whether Doncic could adapt without the full reins to an offense or in a system that didn’t quite suit him, but there was no question about if he had this talent ceiling. The only question was when he would click, and thanks to Dallas’ roster-building, it’s happening far sooner than expected.
I’m not going to get so far down the rabbit hole as to imagine a situation in which Booker were to be tradeable and what the Suns might have fetched, but the sin here in the 2018 draft was that the Suns failed to imagine a reality in which Doncic was the best player on the team and one of the best in the NBA. It can be said even more simply: They drafted for fit over talent, even with the No. 1 overall pick.
I’ll hear out a defense of skipping Doncic that revolves around skepticism that he could be as effective without an entire team orbiting around him, coupled with worry that he might not be as great as the sun for that solar system as he was in the EuroLeague. But at the end of the day, that’s not what happened in Phoenix. The Suns actually had a secondary scorer for him to grow with, and a coach who had already developed a system around him that catered to his strengths. It may not have been as smooth or as immediate as it has been with the more competent Mavs, but the Suns had an infrastructure that would have benefited Doncic, rendering many of the questions about him in the pre-draft process moot.
No, the Suns missed on Doncic for the same reason they’ve made so many other mistakes in recent years: The organization was in disarray at the top and failed to come together on a huge decision that would have changed the trajectory of the franchise for the better.