GM: Mavs core intact; Luka, team must improve

NBA

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DALLAS — In the wake of an NBA Finals run, Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison said he plans for the team’s rotation to return intact next season and has issued a challenge for “everybody to come back 10 to 15% better.”

That includes superstar Luka Doncic, an MVP finalist who just became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in total points, rebounds, assists and steals during a postseason.

Asked how Doncic could make that sort of improvement, Harrison pointed to how the five-time first-team All-NBA selection responded to harsh criticism following the Mavs’ Game 3 loss to the Boston Celtics. Doncic’s poor defense and petulant demeanor were spotlighted after that loss, when he fouled out with 4:12 remaining. He bounced back with a poised, dominant performance in a Game 4 blowout that was Dallas’ lone win of the series.

“We’re not where we’re at without Luka,” Harrison said Friday. “I think that’s important to point out, and we also won’t be able to get where we want to go without the best version of Luka. If you look at a guy who after Game 3 had the world on his neck — the scrutiny, which was crazy, the amount of scrutiny that he had to face — for him to focus in and do what he did in Game 4, I just think it just shows the character of him. He’s willing to fight through adversity, and I think he’s going to continue to get better.

“He’s 25 years old. I think just going through the Finals, him seeing what he needs to do to be at his best in the Finals after going through a grueling end of the year and then three tough, tough [playoff] matchups, I think you’re going to see the best version of him.”

Doncic, who won his first scoring title by averaging 33.9 points per game this season, dealt with a variety of injuries throughout the playoffs. He sprained his right knee in the first round, had left ankle soreness listed on the injury report for several games beginning in the second round and suffered a thoracic contusion in the Finals opener that required pregame pain-killing injections for the rest of the series.

Doncic was listed as questionable on multiple occasions during the Mavs’ playoff run, but he played in every game, logging a league-high 899 postseason minutes.

“He was hurting, but he’s a warrior,” Harrison said. “He’s going to fight through all those injuries. That’s just who he is. He loves to play.”

After the Mavs were eliminated Monday night, Doncic was noncommittal about whether he would play for the Slovenian national team this summer, saying that he was “just trying to get a little bit healthier.” Harrison said he expects that Doncic, as he has every summer of his NBA career, will play for Slovenia, which will play in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Greece beginning July 2.

“That’s probably one of his biggest joys,” Harrison said of Doncic playing for Slovenia, which he led to the men’s basketball program’s first Olympic berth and a fourth-place finish three years ago. “I think as long as he can walk, he’s probably going to go out there and play for them.”

Harrison aggressively upgraded the supporting cast around Doncic and co-star Kyrie Irving over the last year, drafting All-Rookie center Dereck Lively II with a lottery pick and acquiring starting power forward P.J. Washington and center Daniel Gafford in separate deals at the trade deadline.

The Mavs also got massive value by signing small forward Derrick Jones Jr. to a veteran’s minimum deal last summer. Jones, who started and usually took the toughest defensive assignment, is the only Dallas rotation player who isn’t under contract for next season.

There is mutual interest in Jones returning to Dallas, but the Mavs are limited to offering the $5.2 million taxpayer midlevel exception unless they trim enough payroll to open up the $12.9 million nontaxpayer midlevel exception.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but he’s a priority,” Harrison said. He added that he expects the Mavs’ “top seven or eight” players to return but will explore other avenues to upgrade the roster. “He’s priority one — 1A and 1B. I think he fits in with our team. He loves it here and we have to figure out obviously the dynamics to get him to stay. But that’s a priority and we’ll do what we have to do to get it done.”

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