5 Early Signs Luka Doncic Will Win MVP This Season
Luka Dončić is off to a phenomenal start this season, but that's nothing new on its own. We're talking about a player who's finished no worse than sixth in MVP voting across the last three years.
It'd be bigger news if, after less than two weeks of 2022-23 action, he weren't already on the shortest of short lists for that award.
The difference this time around is that No. 77's surge out of the gates is fueled by some new developments that could help him overtake the handful of players who've so far prevented him from earning the league's highest individual honor.
The very existence of those players—Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and a half-dozen others—is the best argument against him finally coming out on top. The field is crowded, and we've got a long way to go.
Still, Dončić's case is already coming together in ways that suggest something special is ahead.
Opponents Are Asking for It
Opposing defenses are trying what might charitably be called a bold strategy against Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks this season. While it might pay off eventually by wearing down the team's only reliable generator of offense, it has so far unleashed a hellaciously productive version of the 23-year-old superstar.
The Athletic's Tim Cato pointed it out early, and the numbers have normalized a bit as the Mavericks have played a few more games. But the plan basically boils down to daring Luka to win games on his own. Cato noted Mavs opponents are "sticking closer to shooters, switching more, helping less, allowing Luka Dončić to score if it prevents him from involving teammates as often."
With fewer opportunities to kick out as the defense collapses, Doncic is scoring more and finishing a higher percentage of plays himself than ever before. He leads the league in scoring at 36.7 points per game and is also tops in usage rate. In fact, Dončić is on pace to post the second-highest usage rate of all time, behind only Russell Westbrook's total takeover of an MVP season in 2016-17. Fortunately for Dončić's MVP pursuit, he's not letting these new defensive tactics limit his contributions to buckets alone. In addition to scoring at least 30 points in his first six games, a feat not seen since Michael Jordan did it in 1986-87, Dončić is also racking up plenty of other stats.
On pace to average 36.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists, Dončić isn't exactly feeling the squeeze of opponents' new tactics. Instead, he's exploiting them to produce some of the best counting stats ever seen. MVP voters love those.
Close-Range Looks Galore
Dončić has never gotten to the bucket as often as he is this season, and he's making the most of all those close-range looks. If he continues to take a whopping 35.3 percent of his shots inside three feet (with a previous career high of only 26.0 percent), opposing defenses are going to have to make an adjustment.
To allow someone who converts 71 percent of his attempts at the rim to take over a third of his shots from that range is to beg for disaster.
But let's say opponents go back to the old playbook and vary their coverages, perhaps sagging off shooters and dropping a big man in pick-and-roll defense once in a while. Maybe Dončić will see more double-teams, or even some zone looks.
If that happens, Dallas' cadre of marksmen will be equipped to make defenses pay. Dončić is wired to hit the open man, and this edition of the Mavs has several shooters who simply shouldn't be left alone. Spencer Dinwiddie is striping it at 45.5 percent from deep, while new addition Christian Wood is at a ridiculous 55.6 percent. Ditto, surprisingly, for Josh Green! Reggie Bullock is at a sustainable 41.4 percent, and Dorian Finney-Smith, while a little off to start the season, has been over 39.0 percent in each of the last two years.
As much as the stay-at-home-on-shooters strategy seems designed to wear Dončić out, it's also an acknowledgement by the opposition that the Mavs have loads of snipers on the perimeter.
Dončić could win MVP by living at the rim or picking out teammates for open looks when the lane closes down. It's really up to opponents and their pick-your-poison schemes to decide which way this goes.
Everyone Loves Free Stuff
One of the last big leaps many great offensive players make comes in the form of foul-drawing mastery.
The first of Joel Embiid's back-to-back second-place finishes in MVP voting came in 2020-21, the year he ratcheted up his free-throw attempts to 12.4 per 36 minutes. That career-high figure lasted a single year until Embiid broke it again at 12.6 last season. Nikola Jokic beat Embiid out in both of those campaigns, and he too posted personal bests in free-throw attempts per 36 minutes in each of them.
It may not be great news for Dončić that Jokic is on pace to set a career high in that category for a third time this year, but the point stands: When already dominant players start gobbling up free points through a combination of craft, physical dominance and—not to be underestimated—a little more respect from officials, it's often the final step toward MVP status.
This season, Dončić is attempting 11.3 foul shots per 36 minutes. That's a massive increase over last year's figure of 7.7 attempts per 36 minutes and the first time he's ever been in double figures.
Go back further, and the story stays the same. Giannis Antetokounmpo made his foul-drawing leap in 2018-19, when he won his first MVP by vaulting from 8.4 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes to 10.5, and then he bettered that number by averaging 11.8 in his second straight win the following year.
James Harden has been a foul-baiting savant since grade school, so he's something of an outlier, but even Russell Westbrook sustains the trend. His 2016-17 MVP season came with a career-best 10.8 attempts per 36 minutes.
These are just comparisons, and they don't lock up an MVP for Dončić on their own. But they're compelling data points that suggest Luka is developing in ways that bring to mind past winners and just-barely-missed-it contenders like Embiid.
In a race that'll probably be close, free points that bump up a scoring average and juice overall efficiency will matter.
It's All Coming Together
We've hit the high usage rate, rim attacks and free throws, but we haven't noted how all those factors combine with some other key tendency changes to make Dončić an essentially perfect offensive weapon.
Perhaps it's one of the difficulties that come from having the ability to get a shot from anywhere on the floor at any time, but Dončić hasn't always had the ideal shot profile. Fortunately, his penchant for mid-rangers is gone. After ranking in the 92nd and 82nd percentile at his position in mid-range shot frequency the last two years, Dončić now sits in the 23rd percentile. He's replaced long pull-ups and floaters with layups, and the impact on his efficiency has been profound.
Despite struggling to find his stroke from distance (22.6 percent on 8.8 three-point attempts per game), he's still blowing away his previous career highs in points per shot attempt and true shooting percentage. If the season ended today, Dončić would join James Harden as the only players to ever post a usage rate above 40.0 percent and a true shooting percentage of 60.0 percent or better. The unofficial benchmark for an elite top-option offensive weapon used to be a 30.0 percent usage rate with at least 60.0 percent true shooting. Dončić is forcing a reconsideration of that standard.
In addition to the uptick in scoring clout, Dončić is also on pace to lead the league (and set a new career high) with a 51.5 assist percentage, all while slicing his turnover rate to a career-low 8.9 percent. And we've already discussed the havoc he'll wreak as a passer if opponents pivot and try to stop him from scoring. That assist rate could actually go up.
Just Enough Defense
No one has ever successfully argued that defense wins MVPs. Championships, sure, but certainly not this particular individual award. Nonetheless, if we get down to the end of the season and the time to split hairs arrives, Dončić's passable defensive work could help him get over the top.
For the first time ever, Dallas is better defensively with Dončiç on the floor than off. Just barely, by a slim differential of 0.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, but better all the same. Add to that the highest steal and defensive rebound rates of his career, plus the lowest foul rate, and maybe there's actually something sustainable at work here.
Dončić doesn't have to guard the other team's best player unless something's gone awry, and it's not like Dallas or any of the rest of us should expect the guy leading the league in usage to have any energy left for shutdown work on the other end. But two-way play still has to count for something, doesn't it?
We started this exercise by noting how many other worthy candidates there are, and we probably didn't make enough of Antetokounmpo, specifically. Regardless of who's in the race down the stretch, it seems certain we're in for a close vote. Dončić won't win an MVP on the strength of his defensive work, but if he finishes up the season as the league's undisputed offensive superstar, it'll help his case dramatically if naysayers can't cite terrible defense in the case against him.
Of course, if Dončić sustains a handful of the stats he's put up to this point, he could probably play defense all year with one shoe on and still hoist his first MVP trophy. He's been that great.