DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn't really have time to get out of playing shape after leading Slovenia at the EuroBasket tournament coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals with the Dallas Mavericks.
Therefore, the topic on the eve of training camp was how to ease the young superstar into the NBA season, quite the contrast to a year ago when Doncic was criticized for appearing to be out of shape as the Mavericks started slowly.
Doncic's break after EuroBasket was longer than he would have hoped, with the defending champs from his home country losing a shocker to Poland in the quarterfinals.
Still, that wasn't quite two weeks ago, as opposed to almost two months in 2021 after Doncic carried Slovenia to the semifinals as a first-time Olympic qualifier in Tokyo.
“We're going to start a little light,” coach Jason Kidd said. “Luka loves to play basketball, and so he's ready to go. We want just to start slow. This is a marathon, and he just got done playing.”
Analyst Reggie Miller questioned Doncic's conditioning on national TV during a loss to Brooklyn last December, and a 10-game absence because of injuries and COVID-19 soon followed.
When Doncic returned for the first game on the 2022 calendar, the Mavericks had just started a 36-12 finishing kick that carried them from under .500 to the fourth seed in the West playoffs.
Dallas knocked off Utah in the first round despite Doncic missing the first three games with a calf strain and blew out defending West champ Phoenix on the road in Game 7 in the second round before losing to Golden State in five games in the conference finals.
“Hopefully we don't start like last year,” Doncic said. “But it's not how you start. It's how you end. It was a good run. Not the best, obviously, but it was a good run.”
In his first season, Kidd coached Dallas beyond the first round for the first time since he was the point guard on the Dirk Nowitzki-led team that won the 2011 title.
Now the Mavericks have to figure out how to make another run without Jalen Brunson, the point guard who surged from backing up Doncic to starting alongside him and playing a huge role without him in winning two of three against the Jazz.
Brunson decided he wanted a leading role similar to what he had in winning two NCAA titles with Villanova. A second-round pick in 2018 when Doncic was drafted third overall, Brunson signed with the New York Knicks in free agency.
Doncic didn't have Spencer Dinwiddie in his backcourt to start last season, and finished it with shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. sidelined by a broken foot. Both will have to help fill the Brunson void, along with 3-and-D specialist Dorian Finney-Smith.
“I'm happy to try to co-pilot with a top five, probably, player in the NBA and try to improve on last year,” said Dinwiddie, acquired in a midseason trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Washington. “I think we have the talent to do that.”
The Mavericks have a retooled frontcourt with free agent pickup JaVale McGee and Christian Wood, who was an expected starter after being acquired in a trade with Houston but now appears to have a sixth-man role after Kidd said McGee would start.
“This is a different team,” Kidd said. “C-Wood can score the ball, JaVale can roll with the best of them and we all know Luka's playmaking. Don't know if we're going to try to create 40 (3-pointers) like we did in the playoffs because that's what we needed to do to win.”
The dynamic of the cheering section will change with Hardaway's return from injury. He and Theo Pinson led the boosters from the bench in the playoffs in such a way that the NBA fined the Mavericks three times for violating rules of bench decorum during the postseason.
The third fine came after the Warriors threw a pass out of bounds in the direction of the Dallas bench when Pinson was wearing white, similar to Golden State's home jersey. The league tightened the bench rules during the offseason, giving officials the option of penalizing teams during games.
“We had a little ‘Miami Vice’ action going on on the bench,” Hardaway said. “The NBA made a rule after us, so we must have been doing something right.”
Maxi Kleber, who broke out of a lengthy shooting slump to key a Game 2 victory that sparked the first-round win over Utah, enters his sixth season with the Mavericks after signing a $33 million, three-year extension.
Kleber’s Dallas tenure could push a decade, but he’d still have a ways to go to match the other longtime Maverick from Wurzburg, Germany. Nowitzki set an NBA record by playing all 21 seasons with the Mavs.