Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What We Learned by Watching Every Shot Luka Doncic Has Taken This Season


This Season
Sadly, we’ll get none of it. But in place of all that, we do have an unusual opportunity: the chance to learn more from the season as it was, without all the usual trappings of the NBA calendar. There are no games, no draft rumors, and no free agent signings. There is just months upon months of game film, full of all the things we missed in the whirlwind of the season. So let’s start from the beginning—first, with a case study on one of the season’s most exciting players.

Luka Doncic took 1,111 shots this season. I watched every single one, and this is what they told me.

What at first looks like magic almost never is, even when a 21-year-old seems to bend space and time on his way to the rim. With Doncic, it’s an illusion born of clever footwork—riffs on the usual dance steps of the sport, stretched and repurposed until they become something new. The brilliance of Luka’s game is the way he journeys from the arc to deep in the paint with a single dribble. He has the ability to start a move at 25 feet out and end just 5 feet from the rim, all without any semblance of an open driving lane:

This is mystifying stuff in real time, as those who guard Doncic can attest. Yet in the context of his greater body of work, you begin to see the wonder of Luka’s game for its explicable parts: the subtle bump to knock his defender off balance, the way he slams on the brakes and shifts gears, the awareness to feign the footwork of a step-back jumper to set up a drive, a perfectly executed spin that then uses the defender’s recovery against them, and two long strides that bring Doncic nearly to the restricted area. It takes incredible basketball fluency to string that sequence together, much less to use it to dupe NBA-level defenders on a vital, crunch-time possession.

That might seem an odd way to classify one of the highest-scoring and highest-usage players in the league, but having a creator like Doncic around allows the Mavericks to pursue a fuller vision for their offense. The trouble in choreographing plays with elaborate off-ball action is where it leaves a possession in the event that nothing really materializes. Even the most well-drawn curls and split cuts sometimes result in nothing at all. Having Luka in control makes that less of a problem; if Tim Hardaway Jr. or Seth Curry doesn’t spring open as intended, one of the NBA’s best individual creators can freelance to create a decent look against a dwindling shot clock. Design and improvisation can live in harmony—as evidenced by the Mavericks running the NBA’s most efficient offense.

Both of these things are true: Luka hits long, difficult 3s more consistently than all but a few select stars; and overall, he shoots 32.2 percent from long range, a mark that puts Doncic in just the 24th percentile among wing players, per Cleaning the Glass. Reconciling those facts is complicated business. There are streaks within games where Doncic will hit step-back after step-back, sending exasperated opponents dragging to their huddles. In the very next game, Luka may miss far easier, cleaner looks from distance with no apparent explanation. Some of that is the reality of 3-point variance. Shooting from beyond the arc will inevitably feel more erratic than other kinds of offense, largely because it is. Great NBA 3-point shooters will still miss somewhere in the neighborhood of six out of 10. What’s strange with Doncic is how poorly he converts on open, catch-and-shoot looks—by far the easiest shots afforded him. Is it just more comfortable for Doncic to shoot in rhythm off the bounce? Is his dismal shooting on catch-and-shoot 3s (26.9 percent!) a by-product of spotting up a foot or more beyond the arc? It’s clear that Doncic is a dangerous shooter. There’s just no easy way to understand his place, contextually, relative to his peers. When in doubt, it’s probably best to trust the opponents who flail to contest his shots. On a few occasions, Luka even got the full James Harden treatment, to the point that defenders were guarding him completely to one side.

Even against more conventional coverage, the very whiff of a possibility that Doncic might rock back into a 3-pointer can be enough to get him a wide-open layup:

Even with the knowledge that Doncic is a very efficient scorer overall, it takes a certain kind of teammate to accept that Luka will sometimes dribble the ball across half court, poke around a screen for a moment, and then step into an ill-fated hoist from the logo. The idea of a “bad shot” is always relative, contrary to the gospel of Paul George. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy for other players—all of whom are expected to defend intelligently, run the floor, and cut hard—to accept the audacity of Luka as a fact of life. To everything, there is a balance. Clearly the Mavs can score well while working through Doncic as the engine of the offense. They just have to be careful in giving Doncic room to be himself without disrupting the team dynamic, not unlike the considerations Houston has to keep in mind while building around Harden.

There’s really no other way to put it. The dominant criticism of Doncic at the time he was drafted has become, at minimum, a nonissue. It’s not just technique or savvy that allows Luka to create space. It’s his acceleration—speed enough to not only burn his initial defender, but to beat those in rotation to the basket. This is what happened when Doncic turned on the jets just inside the half-court line against one of the best defensive teams in the league:

Ja Morant he ain’t. But Luka vaulted forward this season by increasing his functional athleticism—the kind of burst that makes every move a little bit easier and dramatically changes a player’s quality of life in the process. If a defense tries to cheat ahead in its pick-and-roll defense, Doncic can shift directions instantly to exploit the moment. With a slight hesitation or an inside-out dribble, Doncic has given himself enough of a lane to cartwheel to the basket. He’s now agile enough to take full advantage.

Doncic has better things to do than camp out on the block, but the Mavericks were able to wring a lot of value out of selectively posting up their 6-7 point guard. It’s all opportunistic. If a switching defense winds up with a smaller guard on Doncic, he will grind them into a layup or a short turnaround.

The prospect of working Luka out of the post has always been an interesting schematic option, considering his size. Rick Carlisle previously used Jason Kidd as a low-high playmaker; defenses would panic when they saw Kidd backing down their shortest player and scramble to double without realizing they had stepped right into the trap. The difference with Doncic: He might be too tall to get a consistent mismatch, as most opponents elect to guard him with their rangiest wing player. Still, when the opportunity presents itself, Luka has proven capable of stints of bullyball.

This should be somewhat self-evident considering how often Doncic will pull up or step back for 3s, though it’s striking nonetheless to see the full array of his attempts from this season and just how few were clipped on their way up. Doncic is a dedicated driver—his shot attempts at the rim actually trended up as the season wore on—and still he managed to work around the league’s rim protectors. To be fair, Doncic did sometimes go out of his way to create contact on those drives, even at the expense of his natural rhythm. A bump from a player as big as Doncic is often enough to push a potential shot-blocker out of range. It also could throw off his touch just enough to cause a layup to rim out. It’s all part of the bargain at this point, though that could change as Doncic continues his strength and conditioning work.

When a game is up for grabs, the ball should be with Doncic—who, in addition to clearly being the Mavericks’ best individual scorer, might be the team’s best playmaker by an even wider margin. How Doncic navigates those crucial moments is still something of a growth area. Some of the issue stems from the nature of his game; the step-back jumper is a powerful tool, but it’s also fickle, especially at a time in the game when getting a score—any score—matters.

It’s worth considering. Is the step-back 3 the kind of shot that’s better for building leads than cutting deficits? There’s not always a distinction, though some shots are better suited for certain situations than others. Some of that impression is experiential, in that taking a step-back 3 might just feel like settling in a high-leverage situation where the offense needs to score. That same shot might feel differently when the offense has the safety net of a lead. This season, we saw Doncic negotiate some of these factors in real time. It’s not as if the step-back 3 is his only option. Luka’s driving game is reliable, as much for generating layups as free throws. (Doncic may protest quite a bit during games, but he actually gets a lot of respect from the officials for a second-year player.) He already has the in-between game to play whatever openings materialize.