Luka Doncic is off to a phenomenal start this season, but that's nothing new on its own. We're talking about a player who's finished no worse than sixth in MVP voting across the last three years.

It'd be bigger news if, after less than two weeks of 2022-23 action, he weren't already on the shortest of short lists for that award.

The difference this time around is that No. 77's surge out of the gates is fueled by some new developments that could help him overtake the handful of players who've so far prevented him from earning the league's highest individual honor.

The very existence of those players—Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and a half-dozen others—is the best argument against him finally coming out on top. The field is crowded, and we've got a long way to go.

Still, Doncic's case is already coming together in ways that suggest something special is ahead.

 

Opponents Are Asking for It

Opposing defenses are trying what might charitably be called a bold strategy against Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks this season. While it might pay off eventually by wearing down the team's only reliable generator of offense, it has so far unleashed a hellaciously productive version of the 23-year-old superstar.

The Athletic's Tim Cato pointed it out early, and the numbers have normalized a bit as the Mavericks have played a few more games. But the plan basically boils down to daring Luka to win games on his own. Cato noted Mavs opponents are "sticking closer to shooters, switching more, helping less, allowing Luka Doncic to score if it prevents him from involving teammates as often."

Dallas is getting fewer catch-and-shoot threes than it did a season ago, and its field-goal attempts per game designated as either "open" or "wide open" are both down from last year's levels.

With fewer opportunities to kick out as the defense collapses, Doncic is scoring more and finishing a higher percentage of plays himself than ever before. He leads the league in scoring at 36.7 points per game and is also tops in usage rate. In fact, Doncic is on pace to post the second-highest usage rate of all time, behind only Russell Westbrook's total takeover of an MVP season in 2016-17. Fortunately for Doncic's MVP pursuit, he's not letting these new defensive tactics limit his contributions to buckets alone. In addition to scoring at least 30 points in his first six games, a feat not seen since Michael Jordan did it in 1986-87, Doncic is also racking up plenty of other stats.

On pace to average 36.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists, Doncic isn't exactly feeling the squeeze of opponents' new tactics. Instead, he's exploiting them to produce some of the best counting stats ever seen. MVP voters love those.

 

Close-Range Looks Galore

Doncic has never gotten to the bucket as often as he is this season, and he's making the most of all those close-range looks. If he continues to take a whopping 35.3 percent of his shots inside three feet (with a previous career high of only 26.0 percent), opposing defenses are going to have to make an adjustment.

To allow someone who converts 71 percent of his attempts at the rim to take over a third of his shots from that range is to beg for disaster.

But let's say opponents go back to the old playbook and vary their coverages, perhaps sagging off shooters and dropping a big man in pick-and-roll defense once in a while. Maybe Doncic will see more double-teams, or even some zone looks.

If that happens, Dallas' cadre of marksmen will be equipped to make defenses pay. Doncic is wired to hit the open man, and this edition of the Mavs has several shooters who simply shouldn't be left alone. Spencer Dinwiddie is striping it at 45.5 percent from deep, while new addition Christian Wood is at a ridiculous 55.6 percent. Ditto, surprisingly, for Josh Green! Reggie Bullock is at a sustainable 41.4 percent, and Dorian Finney-Smith, while a little off to start the season, has been over 39.0 percent in each of the last two years.