April 15, 2024

Luka Dončić unplugged: Mavs star on MVP, Dallas’ playoff push, talking trash with Vlade and more

Luka Dončić is highly unlikely to win his first MVP award this season.

He knows it. I know it. Anyone who has followed this 2023-24 campaign closely, and knows how hard it is to change those awards narratives in the closing weeks before the playoffs arrive, knows that Denver’s Nikola Jokić is the heavy frontrunner now, just as he has been for months. The short list from there is some combination of Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dončić and Boston’s Jayson Tatum. The Vegas oddsmakers agree.

But if ever there was a time for Dončić to do a little politicking, to make good use of the spotlight he typically doesn’t enjoy, it’s during this dominant Mavs run that should force voters to reconsider their rankings on this front. The (Athletic) microphone is yours, young man…

“I can’t answer that (MVP question),” he said with a smile during our hallway conversation at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento late Friday night. “That’s for the media. I’m happy we’re winning, man. That’s it. You know I’m not going to answer that question.”

But some guys do.

“I know some guys do, but you know I’m not…”

Then I’ll explore the answer for him. Dončić’s incredible play is deserving of that much.

After routing Houston with ease on Sunday (125-107) and breaking the Rockets’ 11-game winning streak, Dallas has now won 19 of its last 25 games (and 11 of its last 12) while going from eighth in the West to fifth along the way. The Mavs are only two games behind the fourth-place Clippers, with the chance to host a first-round playoff matchup on the line, although Dallas does not hold the tiebreaker between the two teams.

As I wrote last week, Dallas’ trade deadline moves to shore up its long-struggling defense have paid big dividends. All of a sudden, just a few years after it seemed plausible that Dončić might head for the exits because of dysfunction that existed within the Mavericks’ walls, this revamped front office has found a way to truly complement the Luka-Kyrie Irving duo that it formed in late January 2023.

This all matters for Dončić’s MVP purposes, of course, because his lack of elite team success has always been the biggest obstacle to his prospects of winning his first Michael Jordan trophy. The individual greatness has been there since his NBA arrival from Slovenia in 2018, but there are too many widely respected greats leading legitimate title contenders in today’s game for any superstar to rise above that relevant factor (a la Russell Westbrook in 2017).

But Dončić, who has never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting, is checking that (unofficial) box in a big way these days. As such, there should be an even greater appreciation of how he has carried the Mavs since late October.

ICYMI, as the kids say…

Dončić — who leads the league in scoring (a career-high 33.8 points per game), is third in assists (a career-high 9.8 per) and is the Mavs’ leading rebounder (9.1 per) — is on track to become the first player to average at least 33 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. Only two players have even reached the 30-9-and-9 thresholds, with Oscar Robertson doing it four times and Westbrook once.

Dončić is third this season in triple-doubles (behind Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis and Jokić) with 19. And as he reminded us yet again Sunday against the Houston Rockets, when he maneuvered around Jabari Smith Jr. as the shot clock wound down and buried an underhand scoop shot from just inside the 3-point line, there’s an entertainment element with Luka that adds to his appeal.

Yet as transcendent as Dončić has been, the fact remains that his collective track record when it matters most — two postseason absences, two first-round exits and a 2022 West Finals appearance that was his playoff peak — leaves much to be desired. In that sense, this latest opportunity looms extremely large.



How Luka Dončić nurtures his trick shot addiction: ‘It’s not just some BS’

This Mavericks team is looking more dangerous by the week, meaning it’s time for Luka’s entire body of work to be revisited for the purposes of a fair voting process. The results, for him and them, should put him on everyone’s short list.

Yet on the night we spoke, when the Mavs came back from 15 points down to beat the Kings on their home floor for the second straight time and create crucial standings separation between them in the process, his focus was on the past as much as it was the present. With former Kings general manager Vlade Divac sitting at midcourt, Dončić (26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds) had reminded the locals why their favorite team — why Divac, more specifically — should have drafted him over Marvin Bagley III with the No. 2 pick nearly six years ago.

This Sacramento story has been quieted in recent years because of the ascension of De’Aaron Fox, whose continued development was prioritized by Divac in his choice to opt for a big man in Bagley III, who he hoped would complement the Kings’ franchise centerpiece. Of the many reasons Divac’s Kings front office tenure ended in August 2020, the miss on Dončić topped the list. But Dončić put Divac front and center again during play, when he could be seen gesturing toward him during a Dallas run and telling fans “he shoulda drafted me” as he headed for the bench during a break in the action.

If one were to re-do the 2018 draft, Dončić (who was taken third by Atlanta and traded to the Mavs for Trae Young and a first-round pick) and Gilgeous-Alexander (11th to Clippers via Charlotte) would be the head of the class. The Suns’ choice to take DeAndre Ayton first looks worse with every passing year. The Kings, in other words, weren’t the only ones who missed the mark.

Yet because greats like Dončić always seem to seek motivation wherever they can find it, the Sacramento subplot lives on. And Dončić, whose Mavericks look fully capable of being legitimate West contenders in this postseason that is fast approaching, was more than happy to talk about it. For the Mavs’ purposes, though, the only takeaway that matters is this.

“They didn’t get me,” said Dončić, who is signed on a supermax deal through the 2025-26 season and has a player option for 2026-27. “I’m happy in Dallas.”

And given the way the Mavs look these past two months, who could blame him?

The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

So I remember talking to you a couple of years ago after a Kings game, and telling you how the locals were pretty upset about the Kings not grabbing you when they had the chance.

They weren’t (upset) at the beginning….

You don’t think the fans were? 

No. Not in the beginning. They just saw (what they missed out on) after.

No, they were mad from the start. But tonight, I mean if Vlade’s gonna sit in the front row, I guess he should know he might get it. I was a little surprised he was there. 

Yeah, I was surprised too (laughs).

So give me your thoughts on this team. You’ve already accomplished a lot in this league, with the way you’ve played and the West Finals appearance (against Golden State in 2022). But Luka, this team seems like it can be pretty special. You have defensive guys, two-way play. What do you think, though? Are you starting to look at it and see where it can possibly go?

It’s a good question. Everybody is just hustling, playing together.

You’ve looked pretty banged up lately. You have the (left) Achilles (soreness), the (right) knee (that has been ailing him). You doing OK?

Today was a struggle.

Is there any long-term (health) stuff happening?

No, no, it’s just short. But our main (development) is our defense, and defense wins games. So when we have me and Ky (Kyrie Irving) out there on offense, we can create shots for anybody when they double team us. So we just play out of that.

I talked to (Mavs coach Jason Kidd) the other day, and he was saying how the officiating changes after the All-Star break have helped your defense but are tougher on you. How do you see that development? 

Yeah, definitely. They changed the officiating for sure. It’s definitely harder. They let much more contact go, but I like it because we can play defense.

It’s weird though, right? I’ve covered the league for 20 years, and I’ve never seen them make this kind of a change in the middle of the season. 

It’s different. It’s way different.

When Kyrie came to town, a lot of us thought you could only be a one-way team, and that it would be very hard to have an elite defense. But you’ve played well on that end during this stretch (they’re fourth in defensive rating since March 7, and 10th since adding Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington at the trade deadline). Does that get you fired up, knowing how important it is when it comes to really contending? 

Yeah, of course. Those two guys that we got at the trade deadline, PJ and Gaff, they help us a lot. They never complain. They just play hard every play, and they are our two, I think, best defensive guys. We’ve got D. Jones (Derrick Jones Jr.), and everybody plays together. We have a five-man defense, which is very important. The whole team is special, man.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)