Luka Doncic is redefining winning basketball
(Sean Carroll illustration)
Hindsight is 20/20, but if you weren’t watching this game you wouldn’t see anything about this game worth remarking on. The Detroit Pistons came to Dallas, the Dallas Mavericks won. Truthfully, Detroit led from the start of the second quarter to the end of the third, leading by up to 11 points midway through the third quarter. Dallas scrapped for this win against a team they shouldn’t have to scrap for.
In some ways, it encapsulates their season so far. That’s absurd.
At the time, Dallas had 96 points. Luka had 45 of em, meaning Dallas’ other nine players had a combined 51. At first look, it scans like a team in need of a second star, but the box score indicates otherwise.
Luka scores almost half their points but also scored half their threes, shooting 5-11 while the rest of the team combined for 5-23, which is 21 percent. This season, the league average is 36 percent. Merely a league-average shooting night would’ve given the Mavericks nine more points, turning this routine win that required some scrap into something more of a stroll.
John Hollinger’s Game Score is an imperfect metric, but it can provide context for when a game goes from merely great to historic. In short, it’s a weighting of the box score to give each game a score, with the score removing some of the fluff from the numbers to provide a greater sense of objectivity. This season (per Basketball Reference) has resulted in eight of the top 100 game scores - Donovan Mitchell’s 71 against Chicago, Damian Lillard’s 60 against Utah, Joel Embiid’s 59-point near quadruple-double also against Utah. Doncic is responsible for three of those eight.
There’s obviously some inflation baked in as the game speeds up and offensive ratings creep higher than ever, but the fact remains that there’s a statistical argument that just this season, Luka Doncic has played three of the 100 best games anyone’s ever played. But could those games have been better?
Rhetorical question. Of course they could’ve. What’s flown under the radar this season is that despite Luka’s objectively MVP calibre season is the fact that it could’ve been even more significant.
For the season, Luka averages 8.4 assists while averaging 15.8 potential assists. Sixth in the league in both, but it feels like Dallas live and die more by these hypothetical assists than most. For example, if Doncic’s teammates had converted every potential assist in his 60/21/10 game (and he went 60/21/22), his game score would be the highest in NBA history.
The Mavericks shouldn’t be too concerned about their record so far because at its fundamentals, winning and losing is arbitrary because it’s almost out of their hands. In the abstract, Dallas don’t ‘win’ and ‘lose’ in the conventional sense - they make threes or they miss threes. It almost reduces their games to coin tosses.
That’s where the inevitable James Harden/Houston Rockets comparisons come in, and while passe it’s also deserved. Those Rockets lived and died by their makes in a similar way, and it’s worth revisiting the site of their great failure just to create some extremities.
I’ll be clear - I think they did the right thing. The YouTube commentariat are on the side of simple basketball, but the odds of this game unfolding the way it did was 1/72000, and you take those odds every time. At the other end of the spectrum, they went 23/39 from three (59 percent) in a game they won by 27 points. In that game seven they went 7/44, or just 16 percent.
These Mavericks are not those Rockets, which is obvious but bears repeating. Luka isn’t the MVP favourite (more on that later), he doesn’t have a running mate of Chris Paul’s calibre. They probably won’t finish the season with the best record in the Western Conference. They’re also better defensively and somehow less gimmicky, being able to use Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber (when both are fit) to buzz around and create havoc as they did in last season’s Conference Finals run.
What Luka can learn from those Rockets is that sometimes the numbers aren’t your friend, but they got as far as they did by trusting their inherent weirdness. This team aren’t as weird, but they also aren’t as good. Feels worth retreading that discrepancy between potential assists and assists again - the 7.4 potential assists Dallas are leaving on the floor each night are worth, on average, 2.7 points, so every Dallas game has an average variance of 19.98 points based just on shots not made.
This season the Mavericks are averaging 112.3 points per game and 112.0 points per game against. It feels like, off eye test, the team would win more games if they bridged that assist/potential assist gap even just a bit. Back to the Detroit game from the top, where a league-average shooting game would result in an extra nine points - that’s roughly half the 19.98 point gap baked into those potential assists. The math bears out.
More importantly for Luka and his MVP candidacy, an extra nine points created per game would have won them 13 of their 25 losses and put an additional two games into overtime. Luka averaging 11.4 assists to go with 33.4 points and 8.9 rebounds for a team who could be 40-10 (minimum) would likely be the MVP frontrunner, but that’s getting too into the area of prognostication.
On a recent episode of The Deep Two NBA Podcast, Sean Carroll debated midseason awards with Marco Holden Jeffery, and they had this to say about Luka:“The reason I put Luka Doncic at number two [on my MVP ballot] and not number one is that this season is very Russell Westbrook-like. Okay, you're putting up some f***ing incredible numbers and he's getting better with every season, next season he might average 40 points, it's just, it's just unbelievable, but he's not winning enough games.
“I understand that there's the same argument for Luka Doncic but the Dallas Mavericks aren't very good at the moment and that's how things are sitting for me."
Per Sean and Marco, the main argument against is that while he’s putting up numbers, the Mavericks aren’t winning games. The baked-in variance to their scheme, and the very real way the Mavericks can improve - hitting more shots - could fix their winning problem or put them in a situation like Houston was.
There’s definitely an in-between but for the foreseeable future, it looks like the Mavericks are going to keep playing the way they are. They’ve got Jaden Hardy on deck (a guy I really like), who’s tearing up the G League but has only managed 229 NBA minutes so far. The front office could swing a trade for a secondary ballhandler, like the one last season that got the Boston Celtics Derrick White - but their attempts this season to get Kemba Walker and Facundo Campazzo firing have been so far fruitless.
There’s not really anyone who looks to be available to fit that need - John Collins doesn’t fill a position of need, nor does Eric Gordon; I can’t see them having much interest in Bojan Bogdanovic. This roster looks likely to continue as it has.
With that being the case, we’ll likely see Luka continue his gargantuan task of finding shots for his off-ball teammates. As we know, this Dallas team doesn’t win or lose basketball games, they simply either hit their shots or they don’t.