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Basketball

A Full-Throated, Air-Tight Argument for Luka as MVP

We sometimes take his brilliance for granted. Let's do better.
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Luka signing autographs before the Bulls game Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Dončić and Jason Kidd looked at each other as the clock wound under 10 minutes to play on Monday night in Chicago. The Mavericks were up 36 on the Bulls and Dončić was three points shy of extending his already historic streak of six straight 30-point triple-doubles to seven. Dončić and Kidd asked the other what he wanted to do—neither willing to show his hand. Three more points and the record would be extended another game. On the other hand, a tough back-to-back was looming, and there’s always an injury risk and the appearance of running up the score.  A few minutes and two missed three-pointers later, Kidd pulled the plug.   

It was a historic night nonetheless. With his seventh straight 20-point triple-double, Dončić now shares the record with two guys who are enshrined in Springfield: Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Another night, another record. Dončić also moved to third in franchise history in career three-pointers made and fourth in rebounding. As Rick Carlisle recently put it, Dončić is “rewriting history.” Yet Dončić is not the frontrunner to win the league MVP. In January, I wrote about how he deserved to be in that conversation. Now I believe he owns it. Why? Not only because what he is doing is historic, but also because what he is doing is hard. Don’t believe me? Just ask him.

Dončić rarely gives long-form interviews. But when he does, they offer great insight into the brain of someone who sees the game at a level it’s hard to comprehend. J.J. Redick played with Dončić for a couple of months in the last year of a career that spanned 15 seasons. On his podcast recently, he asked Dončić how it is that what he does is so easy. Dončić quickly countered, “Why does everybody think it’s so easy?” Redick believes the game is easy. How then should we mere mortals be able to comprehend what we are seeing on a nightly basis? At some level, we have taken Dončić’s greatness for granted.

The MVP award can be driven by narratives. It might be someone’s “time” or maybe he is “due.” There is voter fatigue and the flip side, an attraction to the new, shiny toy. There is confusion on what the award honors, based on the interpretation of the word “valuable.” Let’s clear the air. The MVP is for the player who had the best regular season. Period. It isn’t complicated.   

Dončić’s raw numbers are hard to overlook. He leads the league in scoring (by more than three points) with 34.6 points per game. When you factor in his 9.8 assists and 9.0 rebounds per game, ranked third and 18th in the league, he is almost averaging a 35-point triple-double. Over his last 10 games, he is averaging 36.4 points, 11.4 assists, and 10.2 rebounds—numbers never before seen in a 10-game span in the last 48 years. Dončić has produced seven first halves of 25/5/5. The rest of the league has a combined four. You want defense? He is eighth in steals. Earlier this month, he had a stretch of three straight triple-doubles with at least 37 points. That is more than all but 12 active players in their careers and more than 13 franchises in their history. He accomplished that in a week.

The Mavs’ record seems to be the main sticking point on Dončić’s MVP résumé. He is the third betting favorite to win the Michael Jordan Trophy, behind the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who play on the top two seeds in the West. Both are deserving candidates who have rightful claims to the award. When having these conversations, I don’t believe you have to tear down one player to raise another. A player’s contribution to winning is a valid way to measure effectiveness, but simply picking the best player on the best team is a simple-minded way to look at it. Dončić will have a chance to make his case starting Thursday night as he plays Gilgeous-Alexander and Jokic in consecutive matchups on national TV.

There is precedent for rewarding outstanding players on teams lower in seed. Russell Westbrook won MVP in 2017 when he averaged a triple-double for the sixth-seeded Thunder. Jokic’s second consecutive MVP in 2022 was on a Nuggets team that was also seeded sixth.

Winning is the ultimate goal, and that’s what Dončić cares most about. He carried this team in December and much of January, playing to exhaustion while the Mavs suffered injury after injury. He often didn’t know who would be starting games with him as the Mavs have used 32 different starting lineups, third-most in the league. No five-man unit has logged more than 100 minutes playing together, making Dallas one of two teams with this distinction (the other is Miami). When the Mavs played Cleveland on February 27, it was the first time since their home opener that they were fully healthy.

All the while, Dončić was the focus of the game plan for opposing coaches. Yet he still produced. When he scored 73 points against the Atlanta Hawks in January, he was double-teamed the entire second half and still scored 32 points. He had seven assists, the most by anyone who has scored 72 or more in a game. In fact, no one who has scored that many points had more than two assists. He wasn’t stat-padding. The Mavs needed all of those points, winning only by five.   

Player of the Month and Player of the Week awards signal who the league believes is best in real time. Team record has seeped into these accolades as well. Joel Embiid didn’t win in December, even though he averaged more than 40 points a game. No player has more than one Player of the Month award. (Dončić won in February.) Dončić is the only player eligible for the MVP who has had three weekly wins. (Embiid, ineligible because of games missed, also has three.)   

Dončić’s play is not only buzzworthy, but it’s also tactical. With his no-look passes, it seems as if he is wearing a Vision Pro headset, able to see what others can’t. This is what he was talking about with Redick. What he’s doing is hard. He knows not only his role but also where everybody else is supposed to be on the floor. And he always seems to be a step ahead. On a recent play against Detroit, he knows his potential shot will be contested. A Piston is cheating over to cover P.J. Washington in the corner, and a defender is crashing down from the other corner on Daniel Gafford underneath. Derrick Jones is standing in the corner, exactly where he’s supposed to be. The pass to Jones is Dončić’s only play, and he makes it brilliantly—a highlight-reel play that is also perfect basketball. He doesn’t get credit for the assist, but Kyrie Irving never gets the chance to knock down the three-pointer if Dončić doesn’t make the initial pass. 

How can we measure impact? By looking at how Dončić makes those around him better. Gafford has found fun and joy in basketball again since arriving at last month’s trade deadline. He holds the record for consecutive field goals made in the play-by-play era (since 1997), at 28 and counting. Why? Because those shots are mostly dunks and layups from playing the pick-and-roll game with Dončić. Dereck Lively II has benefited from this, too; he scored a career-high 22 points against the Bulls on Monday night as the two centers combined for 42 points and 14 rebounds.

The vertical game with an athletic, rim-running rolling big man unlocks everything the Mavs are trying to do offensively. And it is all predicated on Dončić being a magnet for defenses, putting them in impossible predicaments. Go under the screen and he steps back for a three. Go over it and he puts you on his hip. Play up as the center and he lobs over for the alley-oop. Stay tied to the rolling big man and he goes to the rim. Help from the corners and he whips the ball to the open shooter. All because he can score and play-make from all levels while reading defenses and tendencies in a split second. It looks so easy. It isn’t.

If the Mavs can climb to the sixth seed over the last month of the season and Dončić continues playing at a historic level, it will be hard to deny him the hardware he will so richly deserve. Sometimes transcendent seasons break all the rules. However this plays out, Dončić will care more about winning than the personal glory. But maybe those around the league will recognize what he is doing night in and night out isn’t as easy as he’s making it seem.

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Brian Dameris

Brian Dameris

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Brian Dameris writes about the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is the former Director of Basketball Development for the Dallas Mavericks…

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