Three checkpoints Mavericks star Luka Doncic needs to hit to win MVP
For the second year in a row, Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win the NBA MVP. Expectations are high for the 22-year-old, but given his remarkable numbers and savant-like basketball mind, it’s by no means an unreasonable projection. Doncic is viewed almost universally around the league as the next Guy—the face of the league once generational talents like LeBron James and Kevin Durant eventually call it quits. He’s already proven to be an unsolvable problem in the postseason, pushing a superior LA Clippers team to six and seven games respectively in back-to-back years in the playoffs. He finished fourth in MVP voting in 2020 and sixth in 2021, but to fullfill those betting odds and finish first in 2022, he’ll need to reach some key checkpoints in order to sway media voters.
Lift the Mavericks to a top-three seed
An obvious requirement, but a necessary one. Dallas has slowly climbed the standings the past two seasons with Doncic running the show, finishing as the no. 7 seed in 2020 and the no. 5 seed in 2021. In order to separate himself from the competition (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant trail him as betting favorites for the award), the Mavericks will need to reach an impressive win total.
That doesn’t mean Dallas needs to have the best record in the league, or surpass the teams of the above players. Most would agree that the Mavericks are not as deep or talented as most of the contending teams in the league in terms of the supporting cast around their superstar (Kristaps Porzingis is a huge x-factor in all of this), but if they jump a significant amount (say, arbitrarily, to the no. 3 seed in the west), Doncic will rightfully earn recognition.
three-point shooting: from good to elite
So how does Doncic lift his team to these great heights? It starts by capitalizing on what is already a deadly weapon in his offensive arsenal.
Doncic in an empty gym could no-doubt knock down an absurd percentage of his threes, even by NBA standards. His jump shot is pure, with a lightning quick, high-arcing release. The reason he only shot 35% last season (which was a huge improvement over the 31.6% he shot the previous year) is because he takes arguably the most difficult threes in the league; 42.7% of Doncic’s three-point attempts last season came after he dribbled at least seven times. He takes off-the-dribble step-backs with hands in his face and pull-ups from far beyond the three-point line. To hit 35% of his 8.3 attempts on that level of difficulty is frankly miraculous. But, if he wants to claim the MVP, he must do better.
If Doncic can get up to 38%, not quite Steph Curry-level but still a sizable jump, while maintaining his volume and level of difficulty, it would do wonders for the Mavericks. He’s already on track to get there—in the seven-game first-round bloodbath against the Clippers in last year’s postseason, he shot 38.5% from deep on 14.1 attempts per 100 possessions, over two more attempts than his regular-season rate. If he can carry this hot streak over to the regular season, it’ll make Dallas’ offense even more potent.
strides on the defensive end
No one is asking Doncic to magically become an All-NBA defender. He simply doesn’t have the physical tools to ever get to that level, and even if he did, the amount of energy it would burn for him to guard the opposing team’s best player AND average 30 points and nine assists a game would be too much for even a spring chicken like himself to handle. But that doesn’t mean he can’t elevate to a slight positive on that end. Last season, the Mavericks posted a 112.7 defensive rating with Doncic on the floor (the lowest rate of his career), which would rank as the no. 22 defense in the league. That number of course cannot be entirely attributed to him, but there’s no denying he has trouble staying in front of quicker guards despite the team’s best efforts to hide him on that end. If he can become passable, using his strength when guarding bigger wings and moving his feet when dealing with guards, it would be another incremental step towards the MVP.
Ultimately, the likelyhood that Doncic will claim the award partially depends on the health of his contemporaries. Kevin Durant looked like the best player in the league last year when he was healthy, but he missed half the season due to nagging injuries. If youth remains on Doncic’s side and he misses minimal time, the MVP could be his by default. But if he wants to take it outright, he’ll need to improve incrementally in the above catagories, tightening the screws of an already well-oiled machine.