When asked how far Luka Dončić has come in his five years with the Mavericks, coach Jason Kidd took an opportunity on Sunday to explain it in defensive terms.

“How many guys are in the league, 400-and-some? We started there,” Kidd said.

In other words, Dončić was at the bottom of the barrel with his defensive skills when he got to the NBA.

So guess who’s tied for second in the league in steals?

Yep, Dončić went into Sunday’s game averaging two steals a game, tied with Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray and trailing only Toronto’s OG Anunoby at 2.5 thefts per game.

Piling up steals doesn’t necessarily prove any proficiency at the defensive end of the court.

But Kidd was quick to point out that, once upon a time, Dirk Nowitzki was a lousy defender (remember Irk Nowitzki?). But by the middle of his career, Nowitzki perfected the art of swiping at and stripping the ball from opponents who were trying to drive past him.

That was an important development in his career that helped facilitate the Mavericks’ championship season in 2011.

Luka has the same sort of genes that Nowitzki had, Kidd said.

“It’s pretty cool when you’re the leading scorer and second in steals,” Kidd said of Dončić. “I had the opportunity to play with someone that was pretty talented on the offensive end and we asked him to just use the swipe – and they count those as blocked shots. And he did participate and gave us two seconds so we could help him.”

Luka is going through the same thing now. After he started his defensive trajectory at the bottom, he slowly has improved that part of his game.

It’s a running dialogue now between Dončić and assistant coach Sean Sweeney, who is in charge of the Mavericks’ defense. Kidd said the uptick began sometime last season.

“He started yelling out 150,” Kidd said. “So that’s when we felt like we kind of got him to participate defensively because now he wanted to climb the charts. He would always run by and let us know about a block. He wants to have the total package. And we’re going to help him get there.”

Asked where Luka feels he is now, Kidd joked: “Top five.”

At least, we think it was a joke.

There’s little question that Luka is going to get plenty of chances for steals. Just as the Denver Nuggets did the last two games, most opponents do their best to make Dončić work on the defensive end.

“Yeah, I think everybody does,” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone said. “You can’t let a great player just play one end. You can’t let a great player hide on defense and then save all his energy to be orchestrator and conductor of a great offense.”

The interesting thing is that, when you are talking about Dončić and his rise among the great players of all time, defense is going to have to be a factor in exactly where he ends up in the superstar arguments.

It’s not always for a great offensive player to become acceptable on defense, let alone a defensive force.

“MJ did it,” Kidd said of Michael Jordan. “You look at the league, Giannis (Antetokounmpo) has done it, Kawhi (Leonard) has done it. There are guys that can go two ways.

“Obviously, offensively he carries a heavy load for us. But that’s what makes him special. He’s always up for a challenge. And he’s doing it at a high level for us, knowing that we ask him to do a lot at the offensive end and he’s one of our better rebounders. And we want to help him so that he’s not doing it by himself on the offensive or defensive end.”

Pickleball, anyone? NBA teams are on the road a lot, but they don’t always get a full day off in a city.

The Denver Nuggets had Saturday to relax in Dallas and coach Michael Malone and a few members of his staff went to an establishment in Grand Prairie.

“The team had a team dinner,” he said. “And I went to a Chicken and Pickle. We went to the one in Grand Prairie and played with a couple of the coaches. Had a great time.”

Malone said he loves the spot, which is opening more locations around the country and features Pickleball courts, among other games that patrons can play.

And Malone got a nice surprise.

“There was there was a group of Pop Warner football players from Greeley, Colorado,” he said. “Whatever tournament they were playing in, they had just won to qualify to go to Orlando. I don’t know how, but they recognized us and we spent some time with them afterward, took some pictures. So congratulations to the Greeley, Colorado, Pop Warner team.”

Briefly: Maxi Kleber missed his third consecutive game with lower-back soreness after he took a nasty fall against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday. Kidd said he’s doing better, but has not yet done any activity on the court. It’s still unclear whether the center/forward will make the trip that leaves Tuesday for games at Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee . . . The Nuggets once again were down three starters: Aaron Gordon, Jamal Murray and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. “When you’re down three starters, you don’t have a margin for error,” Malone said. “We have to be damn near perfect in everything we do.” . . . Going into Sunday’s games, seven teams in the Western Conference had exactly six losses.

Twitter: @ESefko

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