A look at Luka Doncic’s early MVP candidacy prior to return to court tonight

As Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic is slated to return from injury tonight against the San Antonio Spurs, it’s time to take a look back at Luka’s season prior to his injury and how that would put him into early MVP consideration.

The pace of today’s NBA has led to inflated stats, an overreliance on 3s, and the near-extinction of the back-to-the-basket big man. Plenty of players have benefitted greatly from the “new” NBA, but one man, in particular, Luka Doncic, is producing at an unprecedented rate for a player so young. 

How many players in NBA history, at the age of 20 or younger have ever averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds, five assists with a minimum PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 25? Lebron James and Doncic. That’s it. Lebron’s PER during the 2004-05 season was 25.7, which was awesome then and is still awesome now. Then comes Doncic, who is posting a PER of 31.7 as of right now; that mark would be the best in league history if the season ended today, per Basketball-Reference. That is to say, what Doncic is doing is unheard of for someone his age. 

This season has been a lot of fun for basketball reasons: Giannis Antetokounmpo has elevated his game to another level, James Harden is averaging the most points we’ve seen since Wilt Chamberlain, and teams like the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers have been better than expected. There hasn’t been a lot of transactional drama–like say akin to last season’s Anthony Davis debacle–but that’s perfectly OK, because, at the end of the day, the play on the court is what matters most. Doncic has been at the epicenter of the Maverick’s elite on-court production. 

The 6-foot-7 Slovenian is having himself a heck of a coming-out party in only his second season. The Mav’s franchise guard is third in the NBA in scoring at 29.3 points per game. He also averages 9.6 rebounds (first among guards) and 8.9 assists per game (third in the league). In an era in which the NBA values 3-pointers and free-throw attempts, Doncic is an ace at both. He attempts 9.3 shots from deep per game (fourth) and 9.2 shots from the charity stripe (third). He’s tied with Lebron for first in assist rate for players who’ve played in at least 20 games. He’s fifth in the league among players who’ve played in at least 20 games and average 30 minutes per game in unassisted field goal percentage at 78.4 percent. He’s baby Harden, but I guess, more likable?

His jump in production and the fact the Mavericks have been much better than the general public expected have Doncic firmly entrenched in the MVP race. Before his ankle injury against the Miami Heat, I would have put him in the no. 4 spot behind Giannis, Harden, and Lebron. That’s some pretty decent company to be compared to in only your sophomore season. 

Doncic’s MVP case starts with his usage rate and ends with the Mavs gaudy offensive production. The Mavericks have an offensive rating of 116.2 which is not only the best mark this season but would be the best mark in NBA history if the season ended today. That mark would etch out the 2016-17 Warriors by 0.4 points, per Basketball-Reference. As the catalyst for such a supercharged offense, Luka needs to be given the bulk of the credit. 

And what a catalyst he’s been. Coach Rick Carlisle didn’t just surrender the keys to the offense to Luka, he surgically attached them to his prized superstar. Everything runs through Doncic, and it shows in some of his tracking numbers. According to NBA Advanced Stats Doncic is averaging 92.2 touches per game (third in the league behind only Nikola Jokic and Lebron) and 8.6 seconds per possession (also third, behind Trae Young and Harden). For players who’ve played in at least 20 games this season and average at least 20 minutes of game action, Doncic is third in usage rate at 35.9. 

If a team is historically great on offense and that offense is run almost exclusively through one guy, then that’s about as valuable as that one can get, don’t you think? 

Furthermore, Dallas only has one other guy on its roster you could dub a shot creator, but until recently with Doncic out with that ankle injury, I would’ve argued against it. That guy is none other than Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis has been trying to acclimate himself to new teammates, a new system, and a new city, so I’ve tried not to be too hard on the guy. Most importantly, he missed 20 months with a torn ACL, so I say give him a break. 

But the start of the season was rough for Porzingis. He struggled when coach Carlisle would stagger he and Doncic; he seemed incapable of creating anything in the post, or on the move. And his shooting percentages resembled those of an inefficient combo guard (shoutout to all the sub 40 percenters out there!). 

The Porzingis Partnership

The only chink in Doncic’s MVP case would be his pairing with KP. Analyzing both guys on the court at the same time goes as follows: Luka has the ball at the top of the key with three players spreading the floor–Porzingis being one of them–then one of Maxi Kleber or Dwight Powell screens for Luka and Luka either creates a shot for himself, hits the roll man, or fires a pinpoint dime to one of his shooters. Rinse and repeat. In other words, with Doncic, KP has become a 7-foot-3 spot-up shooter. He’s made an All-Star game, he’s 24, and he’s way too skilled to be pigeonholed like that. 

Porzingis’ numbers during Doncic’s absence have been promising. In the Mav’s last five games–which include the game Luka was injured–KP is averaging 35 minutes per game, 22.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks. Up from his season stats: 17.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks. If this kind of production is more about Porzingis getting his rhythm back than just a product of playing without Luka then Dallas’ ceiling should be remeasured. This Porzingis paired with MVP-caliber Luka makes the Mavs a contender.  

We all know how much voters love a guy on a team that wins a bunch of games–except for [sigh] Russell Westbrook’s MVP season–so the Mavs elevating into the next tier of teams would only strengthen Doncic’s case. A world in which this iteration of Porzingis and Doncic develop perfect synergy is a world I want to live in. 

It would take a lot for Doncic to win the most heralded individual award in the NBA. But if you scoff at the notion that Luka is a legitimate MVP candidate, you have to start reevaluating your list. 

I am from Houston, Texas where I am in my senior year of college with the goal of graduating and joining a sports media publication and helping them create content. I have experience writing articles and covering sporting events for my university. I am a big Boston Celtics fan, but you can catch me flipping through multiple games on League Pass any given day. My hope is to continue getting better.

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