It’s clear that Luka Dončić has taken a good look at his weaknesses during the off-season and decided that he needed to improve in every single area. And he has.
A lot of the improvements, namely on defense, have to a certain extent been possible this season, because Luka doesn’t have to carry the same load on offense as earlier. This helps the effort on defense, both physically (more energy to hustle) and mentally (less pressure).
Let’s take a look at the areas where we’ve seen improvements from Luka this season:
The main area of significant improvement is on the defensive end. His floor has simply become higher, and when he combines more effort with his high basketball IQ and vision, the result is elite.
“He doesn’t want to just be known that he can play on one end at a high level. He wants to be a complete player…It’s not that he’s going to shut down everyone but he’s going to compete. He has pride and he knows that he can move his feet,” coach Jason Kidd said about Luka’s defensive effort earlier this month.
Luka Dončić has always been good at poking the ball away on defense, both at the perimeter and the post, but when you combine active hands with vision (reading the offense) and his much improved ability to stay in front of who he is guarding on the perimeter, we have a really good defender on our hands.
This season, Luka has managed to lock up players like Mikal Bridges on the perimeter:
And Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint. A point guard successfully defending an elite big in the paint? No problem for Luka:
Luka guesses correctly and picks KAT's pocket pic.twitter.com/7fqHjFzt4w— MavsHighlights (@MavsHighlights) January 8, 2024
The potential and promise of this is actually huge. The Mavericks are generally a smaller team, and the fact that they can play small ball with their point guard as a big, opens up a lot of possibilites for Jason Kidd.
It helps the Mavericks advantage of the fact that they have smaller and more athletic players, who can blitz and pressure on defense, using their speed to their advantage, and creating defensive stops and play fast in transition.
Gone are the iso days (for now), replaced by a fast-paced offense, which suits the likes of Josh Green, Derrick Jones Jr., Dante Exum, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jaden Hardy. And Kyrie Irving, of course, who can push the ball like the best in the business and get everyone involved.
The league in general is moving away from small ball and towards more traditional but dynamic stretch bigs, like we see with the Timberwolves, who play very big, starting both KAT and Gobert. Holding on to the maybe outdated small ball doesn’t make the Mavericks first movers, but due to their lack of size it is often their best bet to have a chance against the bigger teams.
Off-ball movement, catch-and-shoot threes, pace
Luka Dončić is shooting more catch-and-shoot threes this season than pretty much any other time during his whole NBA career. A lot of that is due to other players being able to create this season, like Kyrie Irving and Dante Exum. But some of it is also due to trust in his teammates.
His off-ball movement has also been better this season, which, along with a higher pace, shows improved conditioning. It shows a willingness to actually do these things, as well, something many people doubted in the past.
Back in September, when I wrote about how Luka Dončić came into the season with a different mindset about being in shape, it was unclear whether Luka was able to keep it up. I think we can say for certain now that he not only has stayed in shape this season, but also managed to take advantage of what that brings - among other things, better shooting, more energy on both ends of the floor and a better mental attitude.
That brings me to the last point.
Complaining and body language
Luka Dončić still complains. This will never go away completely - we might as well accept it now. The man is Balkan, he was raised in a culture, where the tempers are hot and the complaining incessant.
But what we can and should expect of Luka Dončić is to improve and get better through a concerted effort, and that’s what he’s been doing this season. The amount of technical fouls he has received doesn’t show the full picture (though he has seven as of now, 17 last season), so we must rely on the eye test. And as someone who has watched a lot of Luka Dončić over the last years, as well as in Madrid, I have no doubt. Luka is complaining a lot less.
Sometimes, he reverts back to old ways and turns his back on the ball to complain or leaves his teammates on defense. But the amount of times it has happened this season is drastically less than previously.
His leadership through body language is much better too. Here, I want to highlight Kyrie Irving as a positive influence. He’s a pro, who has the trust of the locker room and a positive influence on Luka, I believe. No matter what, it’s hard to constantly complain to the referees when your co-star mostly shrugs after a no-call. All of this is resulting in a better attitude toward the refs and in general, and it’s elevating his game in more than one way.
There’s no two ways of saying it. Luka Dončić’s insistence on being better in every way deserves respect and more attention on a national level. Let’s give credit where it’s due, and it’s due in Dallas right now.