Luka Doncic is one of the most special talents in NBA history. He has yet to turn 23 years old and he is already in the top ten in NBA history in triple doubles. He has gone toe to toe with one of the best collections of wing defenders in the league in the playoffs each of the last two seasons while putting up ridiculous numbers. His career playoff averages are 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game. Bill Simmons once made the “42 club” in order to list players having special playoff numbers if their points, rebounds and assists added up to 42. Luka is .2 away from being in the 52 club.
But anyone reading this site already knows how special Luka had been in the past. He had slipped to begin this season which is becoming a disturbing trend. Over his first 33 games this season, Luka averaged 25.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game. He shot 43.6 percent from the floor and 29.9 percent from three. In his last seven games, Luka has averaged 29.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 12.1 assists per game. He has also cut his turnovers from 4.5 per game over his first 33 games to 3.1 per game over his last seven.
Plus minus is a very fickle stat, but during his first 33 games, Luka had a slightly negative plus minus of -0.6. In his last seven games he has completely flipped that script with a mammoth +14.7 plus minus. What has changed so drastically?
Luka has leaned into his playmaking, consistently made jumpers and the coaching staff has done more to get him free. Luka has at least 10 assists in all of his last seven games. The 12.1 assists per game he is averaging during this stretch would be the 17th highest total in NBA history over a full season. 13 of the seasons averaging more than that belong to either John Stockton or Magic Johnson. This is generational playmaking from a player who also has generational scoring ability. Luka always has to thread a fine line between playmaking and scoring because of how much the team relies on him for both. Of the seasons that averaged more than 12.1 assists per game, only peak Magic Johnson averaged more than 22 points per game in both 1987 and 89.
The scoring has gotten better through a combination of his own shooting improving and playing himself into shape. Luka has averaged 7.9 three point attempts per game in both sample sizes. He made 2.4 in his first 33 games and 3.1 in his last seven. That difference accounts for roughly 2.1 extra points per game on the same shot attempts. Luka fairly famously only has three dunks this season, but two of them came recently against the Philadelphia 76ers. These plays show a level of explosiveness he simply did not have earlier this season.
The team is also doing a better job of helping Luka help himself. Luka has a tendency to rest when he is off the ball due to his incredible workload with the ball. He has the skills to do some interesting things off the ball which he utilized when he played for Real Madrid. He is good enough to beat most teams, even good defensive teams, by attacking a set defense with a high screen starting 35 feet from the basket. But just because Usain Bolt could win a race against most people with a parachute tied behind his back doesn’t mean that doing so is the best way for him to run. The Mavericks being more creative has removed the parachute from Luka’s back.
The Mavericks have tweaked their normal pick and roll offense to involve Luka taking dribble handoffs as an alternative against elite defenders. Matisse Thybulle is a truly elite wing defender who is uniquely equipped to hamper Luka. Yet, once the team went to dribble handoffs, there was very little the 76ers could do to stop Luka. The reason is simple. When Luka runs a pick and roll, he has to handle the ball while going around the screen. An elite defender like Thybulle can poke and prod at that dribble both slowing Luka and deflecting his focus.
One of Luka’s preternatural abilities is the ability to control the speed at which the game is played. He can move faster without the ball than he can with it, especially with an elite defender pestering him. Adding more speed gives him an even greater ability to change speeds. It also keeps a defense off balance. It is hard enough to defend Luka when you know what he is going to do ahead of time. It is nearly impossible when he changes things up and you have to defend multiple options.
In the above video you can see all of his improvements on display. He makes a three early, utilizing the extra spacing provided by the dribble hand off. The dunks which have already been mentioned show a level of explosion he simply hasn’t had. And his teammates also made shots which helps any playmaker. The Mavericks have shot 41.2 percent from three point range during the last seven games which is part of the reason for Luka’s explosion of assists.
Essentially, everything is coming together for Luka and he is playing at a level very few have matched in the history of the NBA. He is dominating, his teammates are supporting him and his coaches are putting both him and his teammates in the best position to succeed. The only thing that leaves for us to do as fans is to sit back and enjoy the game of basketball being played at its highest level by one of its brightest stars.