The last two years Luka Doncic took the NBA by storm.
His offensive production makes any given night an opportunity for a triple-double and also a win for your team. Last season, it was obvious just how great he was when he was selected to the All-NBA First Team. Entering this season as the MVP favorite, many wondered what he could improve on to earn that accolade. Free-throwing shooting, improved efficiency on three-point shots and reducing turnovers seemed like obvious answers. But for Doncic, one area of his game looks lightyears better than it did last season — defense.
"The way you win championships is to play defense." - Luka Doncic— The Kobe Beef (@TheKobeBeef) January 14, 2021
Statistics are never the best way to gauge a defender, but the numbers Doncic has put up this season are mind-boggling. On the surface, his numbers don’t look too crazy, averaging 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. But a quick peek behind the curtain and some added perspective show just how remarkable Doncic has been.
To start, Doncic has vastly improved his ability to block shots. Through 11 games this season, he has blocked nine shots. In 61 games last season, he had blocked 14 total shots.
As for steals, his average of 1.2 per game this season shows an improvement of only 0.2 from last season and 0.1 from his rookie year. Doncic did have a five-steal game against the Nuggets this season, the first time he’s hit that mark in his career. Like most moments of good defense, Doncic’s displays of his improved abilities show up most noticeably on film.
To start, Doncic’s anticipation looks strides better than it did last season. When he’s playing off-the-ball defense, he’s seeing plays and passes before they happen. Before an offense is able to execute an action, Doncic will shoot the passing lane and cause a turnover.
Doncic also looks significantly stronger on defense. He’s received some criticism for his fitness coming into this season, but the extra weight actually appears to be helping him hold his own on the defensive end. Whether it’s defending a post-up or slowing down an opponent on a drive, Doncic is setting his feet and holding his ground.
Doncic has also improved his ability to stay in front of ball-handlers while they are driving to the basket. He’s moving his feet quicker and staying in front of players that would have left him in the dust last season. When some players have gotten by him, he’s shown he is able to remain attached to the play and sometimes get a trailing block.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the defensive improvement has been Doncic’s ability to defend one-on-one. According to NBA.com/Stats, Doncic is allowing just 0.42 points per possession when defending isolations. There are only two players in the entire NBA who have allowed a lower PPP while defending the same amount (or more) of isolations that Doncic has: Pascal Siakam and Larry Nance Jr. That places Doncic in the 95.1 percentile of ISO defenders. Last season, he was in the 31.6 percentile.
Matchup data is an imperfect way to see how Doncic has played defense, but the data is still very impressive. Perhaps the most notable is when Doncic defended LeBron James for three minutes and 54 seconds and held him to just seven points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field. Or the 5:19 of game time (over two games) he has spent on Gordon Hayward — who this season has looked like Larry Bird run through a fax machine a hundred times — where Doncic blocked two shots and held him to 3-of-8 shooting.
This season, not only is Doncic typically going to be the best player on the floor, but he’s also showing flashes of being able to guard your best player.
Perhaps it helps that Doncic is now apart of a new and improved Mavericks’ defense, which is fourth in defensive rating. Or maybe it’s the effect of being around the defensive-minded off-season additions Josh Richardson and James Johnson. Whatever it is, Luka Doncic looks like a new player on the defensive end of the floor. The importance of that can not be overstated.
Last season, Doncic struggled tremendously during the clutch. The Mavericks had a defensive rating of 106.3 and a NET Rating of minus-5.9 when he was on the floor in the final five minutes of close games. It was difficult for the Mavericks to have late success with his poor shooting efficiencies and liability on defense. This season, the Mavericks are allowing just 100.0 points per 100 possessions when Doncic is on the floor in the clutch, skyrocketing their NET rating to a whopping plus-36.7.
Doncic evolving on the defensive end was always going to be a crucial part to earning accolades. Much more importantly, his improved defensive ability is a key part of the Mavericks becoming a championship team.
If he maintains this level of impact, don’t just expect him to earn recognition by award committees. Expect him to pioneer a deep playoff run for Dallas, perhaps one that may last until late July.