A Long Hard Look at Luka
What’s next for Luka Doncic, and does the answer lie in this year’s MVP Race?
Luka Doncic is the real deal. The things he’s doing this early in his NBA career are essentially unprecedented. Not only did he single handedly carry his team through a highly competitive series against a more talented Clippers roster, but he has all the showmanship and tenacity we want in an NBA Star.
Most of the talk post playoff exit has centred around what moves the Mavericks Front Office need to make to better utilise his skill set, and it’s a valid concern. Kristaps Porzingis is being paid $30m to play like a poor man’s Brook Lopez. They traded away Seth Curry who has thrived in Philly while looking like the kind of player that would fit perfectly on their roster. His replacement, Josh Richardson, has severely underwhelmed.
“Kristaps Porzingis is being paid $30m to play like a poor man’s Brook Lopez.”
But less has been said about taking a closer look at Luka’s performance and what it might reveal about the next step for his growth as a player. If you ask me which, let’s be honest – no one did, the conversation has to start with one question: is it possible that, by NBA standards, Luka is simply a bit…..out of shape?
And sure, is it probably poor form to sit on my couch on the other side of the world and accuse an elite athlete of being unfit? Probably. Am I going to go ahead and do it anyway? Absolutely.
In a quick look at the numbers show that Doncic lead the league in Post Season Scoring at a wild 35.7 PPG on 49% FG and 40.8% 3PT. However, his production drops off a cliff when it counts most. He ranked only 22nd in 4th Quarter Scoring at 5.7PPG on a depressing 34.9% FG and 27.8% 3PT. Granted, this is all whilst carrying an enormous offensive workload, boasting a preposterous Usage Rate of 39.1%. He also did it with a neck injury that was clearly causing problems. But the question still stands – is he lacking the motor to close out games at an elite level?
Ultimately, its the the eye-test that will alert even the casual fan to suspicions that he’s gassed down the stretch of games. Luka’s diet of step back jumpers and banging in the post are physically taxing moves that become near impossible on tired legs. The jumpers that were falling for three quarters begin to not just miss, but clang off front rim and some even brick hard enough to air-ball. He just looks…tired. The number one thing this offseason for Doncic is to have the same realisation that the greatest players in the league have all reached at some point in their career – the need to get maniacally serious about diet and conditioning.
Look no further than Chris Paul. Already fiercely dedicated to his craft, he has dialled up his commitment to 11 with a plant-based diet and rejuvenated his career at age 36. As I wright this, he is eight wins away from an NBA Title. His 4th Quarter statistics from the Denver series are so wild they warranted multiple double takes to confirm they weren’t at typo: 10.8 PPG on 84% FG, 100% 3PT, 2.5 Assists and 0 Turnovers for +3.5 Box +/-. The elite players don’t just have the skill to execute down the stretch – they have the motor. But the most timely example lies in the 2020/21 MVP Race; a conversation around two players who have transformed this part of their career.
Nikola Jokic, once famous for his astonishing Coca Cola consumption and love of the Cheesecake Factory, lost nearly 30 pounds during a 2020 Covid Lockdown and entered the 2020/2021 season in the best shape of his life – and it shows in his game. To appreciate how this translates to the court it pays to look back to the 2018/19 Playoffs when Jokic was nearer in age and NBA experience to present day Doncic. We see a similar difference, going from ranked 8th in Post Season Scoring at 25.1 PPG (50.6% FG and 39.3% 3PT) to a drastic drop in scoring rate and efficiency at 20th in Fourth Quarter scoring with 5.5 PPG on 44.5% and 18.2% shooting. Fast forward to the the 2021 version of Jokic and his current Post Season run has him at 5th in post Season Scoring at 30.7 PPG (50.7% FG and 38.8% 3PT) and, whilst he dips to 17th in 4th Quarter Scoring at 6 PPG (likely explained in-part by the fact that passing is his weapon of choice), its on drastically improved efficiency at 51.5% FG and 51.5% 3PT.
A similar look at Joel Embiid only serves to further solidify the case that, surprise surprise, getting in elite shape is integral to being the best version of one’s self as a basketball player. He currently ranks 10th in Post Season Scoring at 28.9 PPG (58% FG and 41.7% 3PT) but actually improves in Fourth Quarters to score 8 PPG on 55% FG (he basically stops shooting 3's). For perspective, a look back at the 2018/19 Playoffs when he was still widely known for a lacklustre commitment to dieting, shows him at 19th in scoring at 20.2 PPG (42.8% FG and 30.8% 3PT) with a significant drop-off in Fourth Quarters to 30th at 4.5 PPG on 46.9% and 28.6% shooting.
But again it is, and always will be, about the eye test. Jokic looks like a different person altogether, playing with an entirely different energy and aggressive, assertive style. Hell, he is even dunking…often! The close-up camera shots of Embiid bent over clutching at his shorts sucking in air are becoming fewer and farer between. If you watch enough NBA basketball you know that they just looks different.
Interestingly, Mavs veteran JJ Barea went on The Old Man and the Three Podcast in December 2020 and, perhaps without meaning to, exposed Luka’s current attitude towards conditioning: “He’s still a kid. He’s still chilling….When he starts really training and really getting ready for the NBA, he is going to be a monster. Right now, he’s a kid. He still thinks he can pull it off like this, and he’s still getting better every year. When he becomes a man, he is going to be a problem.” Translation: he’s a young NBA Star who’s happy to let his natural basketball talent do the talking, and he’s not ready to put in the work yet.
It’s a road each NBA player has to walk in their own time, but if Luka Doncic finds himself looking for answers this offseason, it may serve him well to start by looking at the two names atop of this year’s MVP Ballot. They’ve both graduated from being good players who dominate for two or three quarters at at time into unequivocal forces that can finish games strongly night after night well into the post season. Following in their footsteps might just be the missing link that ushers Luka Doncic beyond first round exits and MVP potential and into the conversation of all time greats.