DALLAS - Dallas Mavericks point guard Luka Doncic began the NBA season as the odds-on favorite to take home the league's Most Valuable Player award. We're not sure he ever truly slipped from that perch. But if in the eyes of some, he did?

"I think,'' Bill Simmons says, "he's the "stealth MVP candidate.''

Again, "stealth'' means that at some point Doncic both slipped out of contention and is now a dark horse ... and we don't see it quite that way. Even as his numbers have bobbed up and down a bit (like most anyone's), he is averaging 29.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 9.4 assists - and criticism of him being named an All-Star starter were and are ridiculous.

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"Transcendent'' is one of the words Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has used to describe Doncic, and that has been true on an almost nightly basis for Luka, who just turned 22.

But Simmons of The Ringer is certainly right about some of the things that, for the Mavs and Doncic, are heading in a better direction than they once were. It's true that he was shooting below 10 percent from the arc, for instance, in the first week of the season. It's also true that he wasn't in peak shape early on. And most of all, it's true that Dallas started 9-14, digging for itself a hole it is just now emerging from.

From Simmons: "There are signs of the ship being righted, and that has a lot to do with the fact that they're no longer getting annihilated by COVID and dumb injuries, and they've actually had their team, which is what they've been saying all along both behind the scenes and publicly is, "We don't have our team."

Actually, the Mavs have said that publicly. Owner Mark Cuban said it. Carlisle said it. But COVID wasn't a Luka-specific problem. And really, maybe all of the "Luka problems'' were overblown.

Doncic is now shooting a career-high 35.7 percent from three, and the Mavs have jumped from 14th in the Western Conference to eighth by having rattled off nine wins in their last 11 games. Doncic didn't play on Wednesday night due to a sore back, but as he heads to All-Star Weekend, his Mavs still won, topping OKC to vault to a record of 18-16.

"There's been signs with him the last week or so and I think to me he's the stealth MVP candidate,'' Simmons says. "He was the guy before the season people had. People got thrown off him but it feels like he's about to go on a run and it feels like it's already starting."

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