“MVP! MVP! MVP!”
A shower of cheers rained down on Luka Dončić as he walked off the court after a Dallas Mavericks victory last fall, four days before Thanksgiving. He high-fived a few fans — towel around his neck — then clapped his hands above his head and entered the tunnel as the MVP chants continued.
If he were in the familiar, comfortable confines of the American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas, the cheers and chants would have made complete sense.
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But he wasn’t. He was walking off the court of the Toyota Center in Houston after he and the Mavs knocked off the Rockets, 137-123.
MVP chants in another city? Against a heated in-state rival? Rare.
Moments later, in the locker room, I asked him how that scene affected him.
“It was nice. When I hear those sounds, it’s very nice. I never imagined being called [something] like that in the NBA, and it’s just something that feels special to me.”
That was a little over a year ago. Dončić has won many more games since then and racked up awards, recognitions and honors, including starting in his first NBA All-Star Game.
If they were chanting MVP back then, it’s easy to imagine what they’re saying now: that Dončić’s third year in the NBA could very well be his MVP year.
And no one would be surprised.
The NBA.com 2020-21 GM Survey, released last Friday, has Dončić (21 percent) second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo (32 percent) to win this season’s MVP award. He also tied Antetokounmpo (43 percent) as the player GMs would start their franchise with. Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill has Dončić — who has had the No. 2 best-selling jersey this year — as the betting favorite to win MVP, and countless sports pundits and talking heads are predicting that Dončić will finish this season hoisting the trophy as the best in the league.
“Luka Dončić is going to win the MVP. … He’s the next coming of LeBron,” Jay Williams said recently on his radio show Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin. “He’s must-watch TV.”
LeBron James himself has high praise for Dončić and what he brings to the game. “Luka is one of my favorite players in the NBA,” he said on the Road Trippin’ podcast. James also revealed that he wanted to begin his Team LeBron shoe line by signing Dončić, though Dončić ultimately signed with Jordan Brand. “That’s how much I believed in him.”
The FiveThirtyEight player projection model also believes in him, expecting MVP-level output not just this season but for the foreseeable future:
The NBA believes in him too, scheduling the Mavs to play in a high-profile Christmas day game — for the first time since 2011 — against the reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers on primetime television. The scheduling of that game is perhaps as much a testament to Luka’s growing popularity as it is to fans wanting to see the champs.
And who wouldn’t believe in Dončić at this point? Besides the obvious basketball skills, he’s a true kid at heart, with a great big smile and a part mischievous, part infectious personality — kicking around the basketball pregame like a soccer ball one minute, singing the lyrics to “Macarena” into the microphone during a media session the next.
That playfulness flips when the game begins, and he morphs into a fierce competitor: engineering the Mavs offense, throwing up shots, helping his teammates get buckets and showing his intense desire to win, even once tearing his jersey in half midgame — while still wearing it — to show his frustration at missing two key free throws in a battle against the Lakers; a nod to his competitive spirit.
He also displays glimpses of humbleness that make you think, “Maybe he really doesn’t understand just how big he is.”
“Luka’s an amazing player,” said Mavs rookie Josh Green. “Being his age and doing what he’s doing — it’s awesome. He’s an unselfish guy who looks like a great teammate.”
Josh Richardson, who was traded to the Mavs this offseason, met Dončić when the Slovenia native was only 16. He was working out in Santa Barbara, California, where Richardson — then a member of the Miami Heat — would spend his offseasons training.
Richardson knew right away that Dončić was a special talent.
“He walked in the gym, into the weight room that morning, and I never heard of him, never seen him,” Richardson said. “But I saw his body and how he’s built and they told me he was 16, and I was like, no way!”
“I watched him and saw his shot and how everything looked, and then when we were playing [pick-up games], it was like — just the pace,” Richardson explained.
“It’s hard to teach that, especially on a kid that was already 6’6” at 16 and 200 and however many pounds. It’s rare that you see something like that. He shot a few step backs, made a few good passes, and I was just like, he’s got it. He’s got it.”
What is it that makes Dončić so special?
Part of his mystique is the very real fact that at a young age, he already plays at an elite level in basketball — with so much more room to improve.
“He’s 21. He’s getting better all the time,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle told media during his first preseason session. “His game continues to be more and more refined each year in all areas.
“He’s a special player. He’s a special person. He’s a special leader on our team,” Carlisle continued. “And I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I do think you’ll see continued development and continued growth.”
As good as he’s been so far, Luka is pushing himself to be better — and as he goes, so goes the team. “I always say I want to win the championship, and that’s the goal we entered [with] last year,” he said, “and that’s the goal we’re going to enter this year [with] as a whole group.”
Luka burst onto the NBA scene in 2018 at 19 — a young but already bona fide basketball star from Slovenia. He was selected with the third overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2018 draft then traded to the Mavs in exchange for the draft rights to Trae Young and a protected first-round pick in 2019.
Average fans may not have heard of him. Even those who saw his name on mock drafts could have been forgiven for not knowing just how good he was.
But Mavs GM Donnie Nelson knew. Nelson started scouting a young Dončić two years before the 2018 draft. He knew what he saw was real. Dončić was special, would be special in the NBA and was the franchise-altering player the Mavs needed.
“He’s a winner in every sense of the word,” Nelson told Mavs.com last year just before Dončić was set to participate in the NBA’s Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend as a rookie. “There’s a maturity to his game that it seems like at every level, when he was playing as a youth and then into his mid- to late teens, he was always playing against bigger guys and getting it done against those guys.”
The Mavsalso saw a fierce competitor who is very comfortable on court; that would become apparent quickly. He won Rookie of the Year and was selected unanimously to the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Luka’s rookie year saw the retirement of the great Dirk Nowitzki — the Mavs’ loyal franchise player who delivered the team its only championship in 2011 — who effectively handed the keys to the team to Dončić. In turn, Dončić took the keys and unlocked the door to one of the greatest sophomore seasons in the NBA.
During his second year, he joined the upper echelon of NBA players. He finished the season as the league leader in 25-point, 10-rebound, 15-assist games (five), 30-10-7 efforts (18) and 20-5-5 games (50). He was selected to his first NBA All-Star game and was named to the prestigious 2019-20 All-NBA First Team, the first player named to the All-NBA First Team in either his first or second season since Tim Duncan in 1998-99.
Dončić finished fourth in MVP voting behind eventual winner Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and James Harden, and ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul. He also finished third in Most Improved Player voting behind eventual winner Brandon Ingram of New Orleans and Miami’s Bam Adebayo.
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He finished the regular season averaging 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in 61 games (all starts), making him just the third player in NBA history to average at least 28-9-8 for a full season (with Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook). And with Dončić creating shots for himself and his teammates, the Mavs had the most efficient offense in league history.
Dončić recorded a league-high 17 triple-doubles in 2019-20, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league outright in the category. He not only broke Jason Kidd’s Mavericks single-season triple-double record (nine in 1995-96), but he became the franchise’s all-time leader in the category as well (25). Twelve of his triple-doubles were of the 30-point variety, and he again joined Robertson and Westbrook as one of three players to record at least 12 30-point triple-doubles in a single season.
After the pandemic paused his stellar second season, Dončić and the Mavs headed to the Orlando bubble to finish out the season. It was there that he proved his ability in the clutch.
Dončić finished his first NBA playoff series — in six first-round playoff games against the L.A. Clippers — averaging 31 points (on 50 percent shooting from the field), 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists en route to becoming the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 30-8-8 in a playoff series (along with James, Westbrook, Michael Jordan and Robertson). Dončić was the first to do so in his first career postseason series.
And it will be hard to forget Luka’s performance in Game 4, when he hit a game-winning 3-point shot in overtime at the buzzer to tie the series.
“I remember just getting to my spot — that’s the key in the game-winners, have to get to your spot,” he said. “And … when I made it, everyone at the bench was looking at me and running toward me. It was the best feeling. After that game, I was just happy.”
The Mavs couldn’t sustain the momentum from the win, and without Kristaps Porziņģis, who missed the last three games with a knee injury, they eventually lost the series — but not before a series of much-publicized incidents that ended up serving as catalysts for the Mavs’ eventual new arrival.
In Game 3, after an altercation between Dončić and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers big man called Dončić a “[expletive] white boy,” setting off a firestorm on social media. Harrell, now with the Lakers, received no fines or suspension, but he apologized to Dončić and was seen talking with him pregame before Game 5.
But it wasn’t just Harrell who appeared to be picking on Dončić. Fellow Clipper Marcus Morris Sr. got into the act during Game 6 when he was ejected for committing a flagrant two foul against Dončić.
The name-calling and intense physicality had many wondering if other teams felt the franchise was soft and that they could push the Mavs and Dončić around. To be sure, Dončić didn’t back down nor did his teammates. But just the fact that the Clippers seemingly felt they could get away with such behavior raised a few eyebrows.
Enter Richardson, a former Philadelphia 76er who has a reputation as a “tough and gritty” player who has spent his whole NBA career in the more physical Eastern Conference. He’s a perfect fit for the Mavs — and Dončić.
“I think that a few of us coming in this year can definitely bring an aspect of hard-nosed, physical basketball,” Richardson said of the new Mavs players, a group that includes James Johnson.
“Josh Richardson is an edgy guy who’s a terrific defender,” Carlisle said. “We’ve been looking for a guy that can guard point guards and be able to score off the ball or be able to take the ball and let Luka work off the ball. And I think he gives us that kind of flexibility. He’s a guy from afar that I’ve always felt would be a really good fit with Luka Dončić.”
Dončić praised Richardson’s presence as well. “He’s an amazing player. … He brings a lot of stuff. He can shoot, he can dribble, he can guard anybody, and he brings a lot to the team. I’m really happy and we’re really happy to have him.”
When they met in California five years ago, Richardson and Dončić played pickup games and bonded over their love of soccer, and they stayed in touch over the years. Richardson said the two mesh well because they have similar personalities. “We’re very goofy off the court, but on the court, it’s business once that game starts.”
Richardson knows he has several roles on the Mavs team — toughness, leadership, defense and alleviating the pressure on Dončić. “I’m excited to play next to him because he’s one of the best playmakers in the NBA,” he said.
As he prepares for his third season in the league, Dončić hears the MVP talk but remains focused on winning a championship. All the ingredients are there — including new teammates. However, for at least the first few games of the season, he’ll be without Porziņģis, whose defense the Mavs desperately need if they hope to make any kind of real run in the postseason.
This is an opportune time for Dončić to show he has what it takes to get the young, new-look Mavs where they want to be — if not now, soon. But it starts tonight as the Mavs begin their season with a promise from Dončić.
“This season will be way better than last season.”
Somehow, you can’t help but believe him.