Can Luka Dončić keep playing like the MVP? That, and 3 more Mavericks trends

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The Dallas Mavericks, through three games, have a perfect record, defeating the San Antonio Spurs, Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies. While it’s been an easy schedule start that soon becomes more difficult, there’s nothing more that the Mavericks could have done except win the games put in front of them.

It’s a tricky part of the season, where trends are just emerging without enough time to know how real they are. But four early ones that have highlighted each of these matchups thus far are worth acknowledging and considering if they might have longevity.

1. Can Luka Dončić have his best 3-point shooting year yet?

Dončić is the league’s scoring leader through three games. He’s looked unstoppable: quicker and lighter on his feet while still bullying grown men, more calculated about when he takes over and more ruthless when he does it, all while tallying up box-score statistics as casually as ever. The minor-but-mysterious injury concerns he had coming into the season have, at least for now, completely vanished. He once again looks like the very best version of Dončić that we’ve seen for stretches throughout his career.

It’s only been three games, but the trends worth watching revolve around the slightly different manner in which he’s scoring his points. He’s only driven 15 times per game and shot fewer than 10 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim, which would both be career lows. Because Dončić has basically turned into Stephen Curry — both are averaging six made 3s per game — he hasn’t needed to get any closer.

“It’s just my legs,” he said after Monday’s game. “I’m getting lower on the shots, trying to make them, but having my legs has made a difference.”

For all of Dončić’s career, there’s been the nagging question about what would happen if he did start making more 3s. His best season was only 35.3 percent, a number greatly influenced by the difficulty of his attempts, but he’s had stretches where he’s shot better – in his final 36 games of the 2021-22 season, for example, he shot just under 40 percent). It almost certainly won’t happen if he keeps shooting 3s with such difficulty, like the half-hook game-winning fling against the Brooklyn Nets that Dončić called the hardest make of his career. But it’s not implausible that Dončić has his scariest season as a long-ranged marksman yet. Perhaps his conditioning, which he took more seriously this summer than any previous one, was holding him back from more swished nets.

The trickle-down effect Dončić’s long-range accuracy would have, even if his actual 3-point percentage is lower, is mesmerizing to consider. As D Magazine’s Iztok Franko pointed out in this screenshot where Memphis’ Marcus Smart is guarding Dončić out to the logo, it’s already affected how defenses play him. Call it spacing, call it prevent defense, but this turns the court into four-on-four basketball.

Guess who is the missing 'invisible floor spacer' in this picture? pic.twitter.com/VMG7ci9bxh

— Iztok Franko (@iztok_franko) November 1, 2023

Dončić will surely have games coming soon where he needs to take up residency at the rim, but scoring more from distance and taking less contact, especially as he’s reduced his preferred playing weight, can only be good for his longevity this season. And it’s clearly good for his teammates, too. Whether Dončić can maintain this shooting might depend on if he can maintain his conditioning, but the early signs point to a better shooting Dončić season than any we’ve seen yet.

Likelihood that this trend continues: 7/10

2. Can Dallas be the league’s best offense?

Last season, Dallas was the league’s best half-court offense despite completely avoiding the type of sequences that are known to be this sport’s easiest ways to create the most efficient shots. Seriously, last season’s Mavericks were 28th in pace and dead-last in offensive rebounding percentage. They didn’t score fast break points and they didn’t get second chances. And they still finished last season with the sixth-most efficient offense.

Through three games, the Mavericks still aren’t rebounding their misses much more than last season (26th), but have dramatically increased their pace. This has been a training camp emphasis, but it’s one that requires personnel adept at playing at a quicker-tempo and Dončić’s buy-in. Often, pace can be synonymous with control, which correlates most directly with turnovers. But Dallas has been the sixth-quickest team while still turning it over at the third-lowest rate. It’s helped by the teams Dallas has played, of course, but it’s led to the Mavericks handily leading the league in points scored per 100 possessions thus far.

If Dallas can remain in the league’s top-third in pace this season, it’s likely that the Mavericks won’t only finish with the league’s best offense, but with the most efficient one in NBA history. This isn’t new to them, not after they set a new efficiency mark just three seasons ago (that has since been broken by multiple teams). The formula remains pretty similar: take Dončić, pair him with a rim-running big man and surround him with shooters. Now with Kyrie Irving anchoring the team when Dončić isn’t on the court and more NBA-quality players than last season – when Dallas often suffered when relying upon bench players in Dončić’s absence – it seems like an even more airtight formula than before.

Jason Kidd’s defensive-minded nature might lead to him playing more limited offensive players in hopes of finding an equilibrium on both sides of the court. But even the team’s most defensive players can be amplified by Dončić when he’s playing this well. It’s quite possible that the team’s pace falls more toward the league average as the long regular season drags on, but that would still be a massive improvement over the team’s typical last-place finishes. Dallas will almost certainly finish as a top-five offense, but it’s easy to see them as the league’s premier scoring machine.

Likelihood that this trend continues: 6/10

3. Is the current starting lineup here to stay?

Dallas has three certain starters: Dončić, Irving,and Grant Williams. Dereck Lively II has started all five halves after initially being benched in the team’s season opener, a cautious decision to prevent him from immediate foul trouble that he quickly rectified by outplaying fellow rookie center Victor Wembanyama. Against Memphis on Monday, Lively finally looked like a rookie as he tallied his third, fourth and fifth fouls in quick succession in the second and third quarters. But while Lively will likely yo-yo back to the bench at some point as the team prioritizes his development, it seems clear that the starting center position is his to win.

Derrick Jones Jr., the team’s fifth starter in all three games thus far, was an even more surprising inclusion. He’s only averaged the eighth-most minutes on the team through three games; it’s clear the coaching staff views him as someone who’s maximized playing with the team’s best players, not actually this roster’s fifth-best player. But after his 22-point explosion against Memphis, his inclusion in the starting five is an experiment that will undoubtedly continue for due cause.

When Dončić and Williams play with Jones, that three-man unit has the team’s second-best scoring margin (plus-12) thus far. (That’s greatly helped by Monday’s game after two sluggish starts for the starting units.) But the one three-man unit that’s been better is Josh Green in Jones’ place. These are extreme small sample sizes, but Green is better than Jones and capable of doing much more on the court than his competitor. It’s likely this starting spot changes throughout the season more than the center position does.

Likelihood that this trend continues: 5/10 for Lively, 3/10 for Jones

4. Can Dončić win MVP?

Whether Dončić can win his first MVP is another question, one which depends as much on his team’s place in the league than anything he does individually. But Dallas’ success is directly tied to Dončić’s, and the team’s early 3-0 record has been promising.

In a roundabout way, the team’s defensive aptitude — Dallas is just 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions so far — will determine its ceiling, which in turn might decide Dončić’s award-worthy status. There’s still a lot more to work out on that end, but defensive trends take longer to stabilize, as they’re more tied to opponents than the other end. We’ll get to that in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, it’s hard not to see what Dončić has done in his first three games and wonder, Is this the league’s best player? Even Nikola Jokić, the rightful title-holder and likeliest favorite for the award, might wonder that on Friday if this same Dončić we’ve seen so far shows up against him in this season’s first clash between the two European superstars.

If Dallas can win 45 games with a top-four seed, I suspect it will be a two-man race between those two. Whether Dallas can do that, however, is an as-of-yet-unanswered question despite the team’s undefeated start.

Likelihood that this trend continues: 6/10

(Top photo: Justin Ford / Getty Images)

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