The Western Conference has proven to truly be the Wild West this season. Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers (17-3) and the Golden State Warriors (4-17), the bulk of the conference is separated by about six games.
The Dallas Mavericks have especially surprised to begin the year: They are 13-6 and currently are tied for fourth place.
Second-year guard, Luka Doncic is the reason for their rise from the lottery to a possible first-round homecourt threat. The Slovenian is averaging 30.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game through 19 appearances this season.
Though his supporting cast is also playing well, his development has been a sight to behold.
There were glimpses of what he could become throughout his rookie season. He also entered the league as the most decorated teenage prospect in recent memory. Yet, the fact that “the leap” is seeming so effortless can’t be overlooked.
His physique was one of the knocks on his game last year. At 6’7” he has the size to make plays from all over the court, but he wouldn’t have been a first choice to appear in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. Not looking the part hasn’t stopped others from becoming superstars, but it’s rare to see a doughy guard be this dominant.
Doncic looks rather different now in comparison to last year. He still isn’t a bodybuilder per se, but the weight loss has helped him showcase some new tricks like speed and explosiveness that weren’t there a season ago.
This coincides with a full-time move to the point guard duties. Rick Carlisle is notoriously hard on his point guards and even harder on young players. While he hasn’t held back on Doncic, he’s realized that Luka’s skills and talents can be the key to a prosperous post-Dirk Nowitzki future. Turning over the offense to Doncic—though the coach will still call the occasional play—puts the kid in the same rarefied air as Jason Kidd.
Like Kidd, Doncic can shred a defense apart with his playmaking prowess. He often operates as if he has eyes in the back of his head, seeing the defense’s planned rotation before it even happens and then leading the open player for an easy look.
However, if an opponent begins to play Doncic to the pass, he’s had no problem taking on a score-first mentality. Doncic has apparently learned from James Harden and is using the stepback as a powerful weapon in his offensive arsenal.
His ability to decelerate is elite.
Once Doncic’s defender starts to lean or retreat, he stops on a dime and pulls back to rise for an open jump shot.
As a rookie, the Slovenian attempted the second-most stepback 3-pointers of any player in the NBA. It’s just that he wasn’t all that efficient with them, especially as he’d sometime fall into a fit of forcing said looks.
Though stepbacks are once again Luka’s main method of attack, he gets a lot of high ball screens and handoffs within the flow of the game. These actions situate themselves perfectly for the go-to move: As the defense is attempting to recover to the ball or keep Doncic out of the lane, he can pull the ball back and get off an efficient shot attempt.
Doncic could stand to improve his percentage from behind the arc as he only is converting 32.5 percent of his 9.4 3-point attempts per game. However, the high volume of attempts (so far) makes up for the fact that he shoots below average.
The improvement he’s made on other shots have also helped bolster his offensive game.
Doncic’s 2-point percentage rose from 50.3 to 62.6, while his free throw percentage jumped from 71.3 to 82.4. Put it all together and you get an effective field goal percentage of 56.2. (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker are the only other ball-dominant players with higher effective field goal percentages.)
Duos are the talk of the league right now. Dallas has paired Doncic with Kristaps Porzingis, though the two have not yet found their groove together. Fortunately, it isn’t out of the ordinary for one superstar to lead his team to the postseason.
Harden did it with the Houston Rockets, Russell Westbrook followed suit with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks last year. All three of those seasons had one thing in common: They finished with the solo act taking home the Most Valuable Player award despite Giannis and Harden having some All-Star-caliber help at at least one other position. (Westbrook really didn’t.)
Harden’s and Antetokounmpo’s cases for the league’s top individual award was clear cut. They were the best players on the team with the league’s best record.
It was Westbrook’s win that was much more contentious, as the Thunder finished as the sixth seed in the West that year. However, the point guard became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season.
Dallas won’t finish as the top seed in the conference. And while Doncic is close to hitting the marks now, it is also unlikely that he will average a triple-double for the entirety of the season.
With Harden and Antetokounpo still putting up MVP production on a near-nightly basis—and with perennial candidate LeBron James’ L.A. Lakers still sitting in first place out West—Luka’s case is far from definitive.
But that’s fine. It’s early, and the Mavericks star is already making waves. Aside from a recovering Porzingis, the rest of the roster in Dallas is filled with a who’s who of role players. Their team goes as Doncic does.
His path to taking home the hardware at season’s end relies on combining Harden/Antetokounmpo and Westbrook’s winning seasons into one: Finish with a top-four seed, be the clear star of the team and continue the statistically impressive output. (Maybe a little voter fatigue for the other guys, mixed with capturing imaginations as such a youngster, couldn’t hurt either.)
The 20-year-old has put the NBA on notice this season, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon. If he continues to be as dominant of a force as he’s been to begin the year, then he should have a chance of being Dallas’ first MVP since Nowitzki in 2007.
If not this year, then mark this down as a shot across the MVP bow that Luka will be in this conversation for a long time.