Luka Doncic is a transcendent offensive talent. I have repeatedly called him the best offensive player in the world, and while that is debatable, it is certainly not ludicrous. This talent has made him the preseason MVP favorite each of the last two seasons. Unfortunately he has come into the season in less than ideal shape each season.
This lack of peak conditioning coupled with his offensive load has caused his defense to suffer. Doncic is never going to be cut from the mold of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Michael Jordan. He is never going to win a defensive player of the year award or even contend for one to go along with his MVP(s). But he does not have to be a liability on that end either.
Several of Doncic’ offensive strengths should translate to the defensive end. Doncic is an absolute giant for a guard. There are varying reports on the length of his wingspan and as he did not attend the NBA combine there is no definitive measurement. But it is at least 7 feet. He has used this size and length to get deflections and steals such as in the plays below.
He has also used this length to block shots. He has done so on the perimeter and at the rim. He actually blocked more shots than Maxi Kleber during the 2020-21 season though that number is misleading due to Doncic playing 16 more games.
Luka is clearly able to make plays defensively. He led the Dallas Mavericks in “stocks” which is the total number of blocks and steals in 2020-2021. He was second to Dorian Finney-Smith in “stocks” this season. He only had 16 fewer and played 15 less games so given the same amount of games played it is likely that he would have led again.
Do these plays mean Doncic is the best defender on the Mavericks and his reputation as a defensive liability are entirely false? No. Doncic makes plays due to the sheer number of defensive plays he is involved in, but he also rests quite a bit on defense. Doncic is the spiritual successor to Lebron James as the NBA’s premier playoff “bum hunter” on offense. This is a term referring to a primary ball handler having the opposing team’s weakest defender involved in a screen and roll and rescreening until that player is forced to switch onto him.
Unfortunately, offense is not the only side of the ball Doncic is involved in bum hunting. Other teams have made it a point to attack Doncic defensively as much as he attacks them. The Phoenix Suns especially made it a point to attack Doncic with both Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Doncic rebounded but the amount they felt comfortable attacking him should make him feel uncomfortable. Here is an example of an action where Paul makes Doncic switch onto him then beats Doncic easily and scores himself.
Doncic being beaten by other ball handlers does not just effect him though. The Mavericks play a style of defense which relies heavily on the better defenders helping the weaker ones. In the following play, Paul again forces a switch on Doncic and beats him. However, this time multiple defenders help Doncic, leaving Paul with multiple passing options resulting in a layup for Cam Johnson.
This play highlights not only Doncic’s issue but also the innattentiveness of Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie is initially shading towards the middle to discourage Paul from penetrating that way. However, he loses track of his man as Paul penetrates despite not being in position to help. Davis Bertans also struggles mightily on this possession. He provides willing and timely help initially which highlights that he truly does try on defense despite his limitations. He then provides absolutely zero resistance as Johnson finishes the runner right in front of him. Doncic’s defensive mistake starts the problem, but his teammates’ struggles compound that problem.
The Mavericks have not gotten significantly better on the defensive end this offseason. Javale McGee will help but the limited minutes he will play mute the level of impact he can have. The heavy lifting of the Mavericks defense will still need to be done by Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, and Maxi Kleber. Doncic should be able to help.
In addition to his length and size, Doncic is one of the strongest guards in the league. He also understands basketball geometry as well as any player in the world. He has an incredible ability to decelerate which while it has been focused on as an offensive stregth, should help him mirror his opponents much better than he does. That combination of size, length, basketball IQ, and deceleration gives him a much higher defensive ceiling than he has shown.
The reason he has struggled has often been attributed to his offensive workload and fitness. Doncic appears to be in the best shape he has been in, in years while playing for Slovenia this offseason. Starting Dinwiddie alongside him should relieve him of having to carry such an extreme playmaking burden. This should allow him to attack each possession with renewed vigor which would go a long way to making his defense better. Here are examples of him working through possessions defensively with the type of effort which should be more common this coming season.
Neither of these plays registers as a defensive stat for Doncic, but they are good defense. The roster around Doncic has limitations and the front office should work to improve those limitations. But Doncic is not perfect and there remain a few areas where he can look to improve. His defense is the most obvious area he can improve. If he does so, it will go a long way to making him deserve his first MVP award and ensuring that the Mavericks remain a playoff fixture in an absolutely loaded Western Conference.