One of the lasting images of the 2022 NBA Playoffs is Luka Doncic mercilessly being called up in pick-and-rolls over and over again as teams targeted him on defense.
“There’s no secret. They’re going to put him in every single pick-and-roll,” Jason Kidd told reporters midway through the Mavericks’ second-round series against the Suns. “They did the same thing with Dirk [Nowitzki], until Dirk participated and stood up for himself.”
The Suns are RELENTLESSLY hunting Luka pic.twitter.com/WS9ZQQXYG3
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) May 5, 2022
Doncic seems to have taken that challenge to heart this year. After being a liability defensively for much of his career, he feels that he’s improved on that end of the floor.
“People are not going to admit it, but I think this year I’ve really taken a big step [defensively],” Doncic told Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News. “I don’t need people to believe; I believe in myself.
“I think I’ve been playing defense way better than the first four years, and I think I’ve taken a huge step forward.”
Does Doncic really deserve more credit?
What the stats say about Luka Doncic’s defense
Doncic does have some statistical backing for his claim of improved defense.
- His career-high 1.8 steals per game are tied for the fourth-highest mark in the league.
- Doncic is tied for seventh in deflections per game (3.5), putting him ahead of tenacious perimeter defenders like Jimmy Butler, Herbert Jones and Jrue Holiday.
- Doncic is also an excellent defensive rebounder for his position, averaging 7.9 boards per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, that makes him the best rebounding point guard in the league.
As for his overall defensive impact, Doncic rates as either neutral or a slight negative in most advanced stats. SHNORP, a composite ranking system from Andrew Patton that averages out DPM, EPM, LEBRON, BPM and VORP, puts Doncic at No. 276 out of 494 tracked players.
While that doesn’t sound all that impressive, getting Doncic to an average level of defense would be a substantial improvement and a huge win in the eyes of the Mavericks’ coaching staff.
What the eye test says about Luka Doncic’s defense
That average-ish impact is backed up by Doncic’s film. He is certainly better than last season, but his play defensively has been somewhat inconsistent.
He does have great hands and anticipation, allowing him to rack up those steals and deflections. But he’s never going to be great on the perimeter. He has a tendency to give up ugly blow-bys because of his lack of lateral quickness.
Doncic also seems to get fatigued defensively as the game goes on, possibly because of his enormous load on offense. The Mavs try to conserve his energy by having him switch a ton rather than chasing guards and fighting through screens.
That lack of movement shows up in the NBA’s tracking data, as Doncic is the second-slowest defender in the league. Only 37-year-old Chris Paul moves slower than him among players who have appeared in at least five games. He still struggles with getting back in transition, lowering that average speed.
But Doncic does do some things particularly well. He has held up solidly defending the post. He’s a very good communicator on defense, organizing the Mavs and directing teammates to help assignments. And he’s usually in the right position as a helper.
All of those strengths and weaknesses back the idea that he has been a relatively average NBA defender this season.
Can teams continue to successfully target Luka Doncic?
The big question is what happens with Doncic in the NBA Playoffs. He will get targeted again until he proves that teams can’t benefit from that strategy. The early returns look promising.
The Warriors put Doncic in screening action repeatedly down the stretch of a one-possession game on Nov. 29, forcing him to switch onto Stephen Curry. In previous years, Doncic and the Mavs would have gotten destroyed in that matchup.
But Doncic held his own, executing the Mavs’ plan and even getting a few steals down the stretch.
Everyone’s talking about Luka’s 41/12/12 last night. But it was his defense that sealed the win.
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 30, 2022
Whether Doncic can repeat that type of performance is certainly up for debate, as his defense has been up-and-down throughout the year. But he has shown that he is capable of staying solid in key moments.
That makes the Mavs even more dangerous in potential postseason matchups down the line.