Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks visited Staples Center on Sunday for a marquee showdown with the league’s best team in the Lakers, and the result was a signature early season performance from the second year star and a lopsided victory for the Mavs.
Dallas trailed by three at the half, but Doncic took over in the third quarter, scoring 16 points and sparking a run that saw the Mavs open up a 15-point lead going to the fourth quarter, one they would maintain en route to a 114-100 win. Doncic finished the game with 27 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, and sunk a dagger stepback three-pointer in the face of LeBron James.
With that performance and another big offensive night as a team, the Mavs find themselves with the best offense in NBA history, as their 117.1 ORtg entering Sunday, per Basketball-Reference, was a full 1.2 points per 100 possessions better than last year’s Warriors team that set a new record, narrowly eclipsing the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers’ mark. Including the Lakers game, Cleaning the Glass has them at 116.4 (which excludes last second heaves and garbage time), and what’s most incredible about that mark is that they’re doing so with Doncic as the only player operating at a superstar level at the moment.
Kristaps Porzingis is supposed to be Dallas’ second star and his 17.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game are very solid, but his impact on the offense hasn’t been as great as most figure it could be, as he and Doncic still seem to be figuring out how to play with each other. That means, in theory, there’s still some room to grow before this offense reaches its ceiling, which is a terrifying proposition.
That Doncic is the main engine for an offense of this caliber is an unbelievable feat. Those 86-87 Lakers had Magic, Worthy, Scott, and Kareem all averaging north of 17 points per game, none of whom — even Magic — approaching Luka’s usage rate. Last year’s Warriors had a pair of former league MVP’s and Klay Thompson. This year’s Mavs have Doncic, Porzingis, and Tim Hardaway Jr. as the only regular rotation players averaging double figures in points per game.
Doncic is tasked with carrying a Herculean load for this team, a usage rate of 40.9 which trails only James Harden’s preposterous 42.4, and when he’s on the floor everything runs through him. He assists on 49.7 percent of his teammates’ made shots when he’s on the court, which narrowly leads the one player his size who has affected the game in this manner in recent memory, LeBron James — who was Doncic’s idol growing up.
This is where we make the very important disclaimer that we are not saying Luka is the next LeBron. Doncic is far from being LeBron as an athlete, and while he is one of the best in the league finishing at the rim, he doesn’t attack downhill nearly as much as James, choosing rather to shoot far more threes than LeBron ever has. Where he is LeBron-like, however, is the way he controls just about everything for his team, with the ball-handling ability and passing acumen he possesses in his frame as a point forward.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) December 1, 2019
His highlight package from the win in L.A. shows that control, as he toyed with the Lakers defense, which tries just about everything to stop him. Much like LeBron, what makes Luka such a nightmare to defend is he is always willing to make the right pass — which, if LeBron’s early career is an indicator, we’re eventually going to encounter “does he pass too much?” takes when a few teammates miss some late open looks. When help arrives too late at the rim, he’s a master at finishing through contact and drawing fouls — also Harden-esque — and if the help at the rim is on time, he knows where the open man is on the perimeter to kick it out to the corner or wing. When the Lakers blitz the pick-and-roll to send a hard trap at him, he calmly rises above them to flick a pass to the diving Dwight Powell. When they leave him iso’d on a bigger defender, he draws them out for the stepback, which only Harden uses to greater effect. When he’s iso’d on a smaller defender, he’s patient enough to work his way towards the rim, recognizing that when the double inevitably comes, he’ll have an open man cutting baseline.
“For me basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of his approach to the game after beating the Lakers. “You’ve got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”
The way he sees the game is unique to a handful of stars capable of taking on such a hefty offensive responsibility, and it involves constant evaluation of what the other team is doing and the ability to make in-game adjustments to his approach to maximize what the Mavs do offensively against their opponent’s game plan.
“He made a really good adjustment in the second quarter,” Rick Carlisle said of Doncic against the Lakers. “He started moving the ball quickly and getting the ball back. That put him in some situations that are a little more difficult to predict for the defense. Second half, more of the same. He made really good play calls, took advantage of what was happening out there with matchups.”
What this does for the rest of the Mavs is put them in good spots, and the result has been a lot of players in Dallas all playing pretty well (and fairly efficiently) on the offensive end. After Sunday’s win against the Lakers, only Porzingis (7th percentile) and Maxi Kleber (39th percentile) had below average effective field goal percentages for their position group for members of the regular rotation, per Cleaning the Glass. That is to say, just about everyone on the roster has shot above league average through nearly a quarter of the season. That’s an incredible testament to their role players making sure they are always ready to contribute when asked, and also to how the offense is running — which is so often through Doncic.
Whether Doncic factors into the MVP conversation at season’s end will be determined by how good the Mavs are, because that’s just how the award voting has worked for the last three decades-plus, but what he and the Mavs have done as a whole as we approach the quarter-pole of the season is nothing short of astounding. They are performing on offense at a historic rate and to do what they did against a Lakers team that entered the game boasting one of the league’s best defenses shows that this could very well be sustainable, if for no other reason than there being no fluke to what Doncic is doing to this point.
Dime’s Martin Rickman contributed to the reporting of this piece from Los Angeles.