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An AI’s read on the biggest stars of the NBA Playoffs: Dallas Mavericks

It’s been a tumultuous few years for the NBA. From the isolation of the NBA Bubble in 2020, to the vaccination controversies that plagued the NBA last year and kept some of the league’s biggest stars off the court, players and fans have had much more to contend with than just basketball.

However, this year’s playoffs felt like a return to form. This postseason was filled with competitive playoff series. There were established NBA stars returned to form, and new faces making their first appearance on the big stage. Led by Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics to win the NBA Championship. The matchup pitted two of the NBA’s most popular franchises against one another, and resulted in the best television ratings since before coronavirus pandemic.

On their way to a championship, the Warriors defeated many formidable opponents, among them the up-and-coming Dallas Mavericks. Dallas made a surprising playoff run this year, highlighted by a blowout game 7 victory over the heavily-favored Phoenix Suns to punch their ticket to the conference finals.

Dallas also surprised off the court. Like the two Memphis Grizzlies we previously examined, the Mavericks playoff run generated immense interest in some of their players, with two stars standing out from the pack.

Using our culture AI, we decided to break down how these two players are perceived on and off the court, using nearly 1000 tweets and images from Twitter.

Luka Dončić (Volume: 2.74m, Growth: +9,590 Queries)

An Established Superstar

Luka Dončić’s playoff growth seems rather small compared to many of the players we will examine in this series. But Luka was a superstar long before these playoffs started, and will be long after.

He was already one of the best players in the world when he won rookie of the year in 2019 — perhaps the greatest season ever seen from a teenager. He was a star from the moment he stepped on an NBA court, and perhaps even before then, when he dominated European competition as a gangly sixteen year-old.

The numbers show that his stardom goes far beyond the court. Dončić was the second most searched player during this year’s NBA playoffs, and among the top-five most searched players in 2022 AND 2021.

Despite being only 23 years old, Luka is a bonafide superstar, and has been for years now. So how did this year’s NBA postseason build upon his stardom? What did he gain if not fame or renown?

In one word: Legitimacy. Dončić led the Mavericks over the one-seeded Phoenix Suns to bring them to the Western Conference Finals. It was the first time he ever made it out of the first-round with the Mavericks, and now he can breathe a sigh of relief.

The world knows that Luka’s stardom isn’t empty, that he is more than a statline and a good story — he’s also a winner.

Using our culture AI, we broke down how Luka’s rise to legitimacy is reflected on social media, and how users talk about him now that he’s validated his stardom on the biggest stage.

Luka Gets His Flowers

Luka Dončić’s playoff run was met with overwhelmingly positive reception on Twitter. After finally breaking through past the first round, NBA fans have only good things to say about the Slovenian superstar.

The top two emotions our AI detected in tweets about Luka Doncic were Joy and Optimism, accounting for more than 80% of all tweets examined. Posts tagged with Joy were often expressions of admiration — NBA fans noting his statistical accomplishments or ranking him as one of the best players in the world:

Posts our culture AI identified as Optimism were just that: optimistic. They were generally votes of confidence in Luka’s future as an NBA player, and many predicted championships coming to Dallas sooner rather than later:

Is Dončić tired of carrying the Mavericks?

The small minority of tweets that our AI identified as reflecting Anger or Sadness often surrounded one subject: Luka Dončić’s fatigue. As the playoffs wore on, many NBA fans lamented that Luka was too tired to play at his best:

The blame pointed in many directions. Some believed that Dončić had to work on his conditioning, while others pointed to a lack of depth on the team around him. Some NBA fans came to the defense of his Mavericks teammates, while others put them down further:

Luka’s fatigue this postseason was a touchy subject for NBA fans, and a story to follow as the Mavericks make moves to improve their roster.

In historic company

Our culture AI identified the following as the top 5 emotions in images of Luka Dončić on Twitter:

Images identified as happiness, excitement, and joyfulness were most often game photos, accompanied by celebration for Luka and his accomplishments.

Our culture AI did identify some images with the emotion fear, but these were also usually edited photos meant to convey Luka’s intimidating prowess, though sometimes of a rather dark tone:

There was also a different kind of edit that frequently appeared in images our AI tagged with creativity:

The historical importance of Dončić’s achievements was frequently noted by NBA fans on Twitter, even outside of such edits:

Now that Dončić has broken through the first round of the playoffs fans are readily acknowledging that he has written his name in the record books.

It’s clear to NBA fans that Dončić is a generational talent — not just one of the best players in today’s NBA, but one of the best in league history.

International Star

Despite a franchise in Toronto, the NBA is an American league through and through. That won’t be true for long though, in large part thanks to players like Luka Dončić. Players from abroad are coming to dominate the NBA, and more importantly, they are spreading the NBA’s popularity around the world.

Luka is a prime example of a player adored both in the United States and all over the world. More than 12% of logos detected by our culture AI were from outside of the United States, indicating a worldwide appeal in Dončić’s image.

Perhaps the most notable international brand that many associate with Dončić is his former basketball club, Real Madrid:

It’s quite intuitive that many fans would still celebrate Luka as a Real Madrid alumnus. But it also shows that NBA fans across the globe don’t forget where their favorite players started out.

Luka’s popularity among Real Madrid fans demonstrates that the NBA media pipeline doesn’t go one way — players can raise the profile of their former team even after they find success in America.

Jalen Brunson (Volume: 823000, Growth: +40,327 Queries)

An unexpected hero

Much has been made of the lack of talent around Luka Dončić this year. So when the Slovenian superstar injured his calf just ahead of the playoffs, many thought that the Mavericks were done for. Simply put, Luka was the Maverick’s offense. There was no backup plan.

As a result, Dallas went into their first round series against the Utah Jazz with little expectation of victory. But the Mavericks stunned the NBA world when they won games two and three to take a 2–1 series lead. Luka managed to return to the lineup in game four, and Dallas went on to win the series.

That first round win over the Jazz did not belong to Luka, though. It belonged to the rest of the Dallas roster, so often maligned by the NBA media. More specifically, it belonged to Jalen Brunson, whose incredible, record setting performance lifted the Mavericks over the Jazz even without Luka.

Brunson, a former second round draft pick, went on to have a tantalizing playoff run, averaging 21 points per game en route to the Western Conference finals. His performance drew an enormous increase in search interest, and launched him to the forefront of NBA conversations within weeks.

Using our culture AI, we examined how NBA fans talked about the small-statured point guard online, and what topics dominated conversations surrounding him:

Under appreciated or Overrated?

NBA fans were excited about Jalen Brunson’s playoff run, and this was reflected in the positive discourse our AI tools detected on Twitter.

In tweets our culture AI identified as expressing Joy or Optimism, there was often reference to Brunson’s surprising statistical company this postseason:

Many of the tweets tagged with optimism reflected fans’ surprise at Brunson’s accomplishments this postseason, and reflected on the positive future his sudden rise implies for the Mavericks:

All of this praise for Brunson came alongside debate. Most notably, there was a common divergence between fans who feel that Jalen Brunson is underrated, and those who feel that he gets more praise than he deserves.

In many tweets our AI identified as reflecting Joy, fans took the time to mention Jalen Brunson’s low salary and low profile in the NBA media:

Other fans took a different view. In tweets associated with Anger and Sadness, many users reemphasized the view that Luka Dončić had “no help” from his teammates, including Jalen Brunson:

It’s a strange position to hold, given all that Brunson managed to accomplish for the Mavericks this postseason. Still, Brunson’s value is a hot topic within twitter communities.

It is hardly surprising that fans are so invested in whether Jalen Brunson is overrated or undervalued. He’s just signed a contract with the New York Knicks for over 104 million dollars. Many are surely left wondering: is he worth it?

A rise in stock leads to a big payday

Whether or not you believe Jalen Brunson is worth the money, there’s no doubt he’s demanded a high price. Many of his fans celebrated the money Brunson will be making this offseason through emojis.

Several of the emojis most frequently found in tweets about Jalen Brunson came alongside discourse about his upcoming payday. The 💰 emoji was a particularly striking example of this:

The 📈 emoji didn’t always literally reflect Brunson’s earning potential, but did come to praise his rise in stock as a player:

Even outside of these emojis, many fans took the opportunity to speculate where Brunson might land, and how much he might be paid:

Now that he has landed with the Knicks, Brunson’s payday has come to fruition. NBA fans remain fascinated by Brunson’s big contract, especially in wake of tampering allegations from the Dallas Mavericks. Such allegations just add another dimension to the debate surrounding Brunson and his value:

Disrupting a local fanbase

Brunson’s move to the Knicks has caused waves across NBA twitter. But what does it mean for his personal brand?

Twitter users discussing Jalen Brunson often utilized hashtags that indicated a dedication to the Dallas Mavericks. Of the top 8 hashtags, three were exclusive to the Dallas Mavericks fanbase.

#MFFL stands for “Mavs fan for life” and #dALLasIN is used by the Dallas sports community to show their commitment. Both hashtags are popular on the Mavericks own Twitter page:

A clear dedication to Dallas and the Mavericks was almost a prerequisite to tweeting about Jalen Brunson prior to his move to New York. His appeal was overwhelmingly local, but now that local appeal will change.

Don’t be surprised if a move to a major market like New York launches Brunson into the national spotlight, and raises his profile beyond the Dallas area. He’s been a local hero, but now he has the chance to be a national star.

Write to anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai for more insights about your favorite brands and market trends.

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