With nightly averages of 27.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 9.4 assists, he is unquestionably the driving force behind the Mavs.
Yes, the team is struggling badly as of late, but that doesn’t mean Doncic has gotten worse.
In fact, there has been much talk about how his defense has improved from what he showed last season.
Are the rumors real, though?
ESPN senior NBA writer Zach Lowe recently said that Luka Doncic whines too much to the referees and he is negatively affecting his team’s defense by not running back to complain to guard the opposing team’s possession.
That may be true, but only to some degree: it’s doesn’t happen on every defensive possession.
If we go to the counting stats, Doncic is averaging a steal per game, just like last year, but his blocks per game have increased from 0.2 to 0.7, which is mind-boggling.
Doncic has been much improved on D
He may not be among the premier defenders in the league yet.
However, as far as Mavs’ members go, the evidence suggests that he might be one of the best performing players on that side of the ball, in addition to his elite offense.
The fact that the Mavericks defense has been nothing short of atrocious lately – they are 25th in the league in defensive rating with 112.5 – doesn’t help him look good, but Doncic has improved considerably.
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit the Mavericks – Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson, and Dwight Powell all have had to miss games due to the league’s health and safety protocols – they were playing good defense.
The situation has changed now, but this exercise is about Doncic, individually.
The Mavs’ primary ball-handler is ranked 33rd out of 474 players in defensive win shares, with 0.8.
That is good! By that metric, he is the best in the Mavs.
But remember that win shares are a counting stats, which means that players that play more usually fare better; and Doncic is on the court a lot.
That doesn’t mean he has been bad on D, though.
The point guard is currently 17th in the NBA in defensive box plus-minus, with 1.3.
This metric tries to estimate a basketball player’s contribution to the team when he is on the court, based only on the information in the traditional basketball box score.
James Johnson is the best-ranked Mav in defensive box plus-minus, in tenth place. But as you can see, Doncic is already among Dallas’ best defenders.
Post-up defense and intercepting passing lanes
Ryan Mainville of Mavs Moneyball stated in a recent article that Doncic is doing a better job at post-up defense and is improving his ability to disrupt passing lanes:
Additionally, he is in the 78th percentile while defending player isolations, allowing 0.65 points per possession.
This graph (stats through January 25th, though) tells a better picture of Doncic’s contributions as a defender, by using yet another stat: Total Points Added (TPA.)
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) January 26, 2021
As you can see, Doncic has been a top contributor on both sides of the ball.
Unfortunately for Mavs’ fans, the fact that he is one of the team’s best defenders may not be saying a lot.
The fact that there aren’t additional reliable defenders outside of Johnson and Doncic (maybe Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith qualify, too) makes the overall outlook of the team iffy, at best.
However, there is no denying that Luka Doncic has been playing better defense in the 2020-2021 NBA season. And that’s a fact.