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Can the Mavericks Help Luka Doncic?

On any given day, Luka Doncic might just be the best basketball player in the world. This is hardly a novel sentiment—Doncic is averaging 31.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game while nursing a gimpy calf—but it feels worth verbalizing. For whatever reason, Doncic was shunted to the outer rim of the MVP conversation, his all-world last 60 games of the season canceled out by his pudgy, lethargic start to the year. Unfairly, his gaudy box scores bear the stigmata of unvirtuous stat-padding, numbers derived in part from gluttonous usage rate and grift rather than purely from ethical skill. Still, this unlikely Dallas Mavericks run to the Western Conference Finals has revealed a surprising truth about the heliocentric Doncic: none of this is really about him.

To a degree, Doncic is so good and so prolific that his own greatness is almost immaterial to the outcome of a game. In Dallas’ nine playoff wins, Doncic has averaged 29.3 points and 7.7 assists (out of 14.3 potential assists) per game;  in their eight losses, Doncic has put up 34.3 points and 5.1 assists (out of 13.1 potential assists) per game. During any given game, Doncic will do Doncic things—he’ll dribble the ball enough to grow new calluses on his hands, get his teammates open by twisting anxious defenses into recklessness, and score somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 points. He creates consistency through volume—there’s an upper and lower bound on how good or bad he can be.

In this sense, the Mavs fate rests in the hands of everybody else. When the Mavs win, they have a 65.6 percent effective field goal percentage on catch and shoot opportunities; when they lose, that number shrinks down to 50.6 percent. This is hardly groundbreaking shit; it’s shot variance. 

But beyond that, the Mavs are ironically, uniquely reliant on their role players because of the way that Doncic hogs the spotlight. By dint of Doncic’s individual dominance, the rest of the Mavs handle the ball within specific, frantic moments of opportunity while the defense is in fire drill rotation. Doncic invariably creates good chances for his teammates; it’s up to the likes of Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Spencer Dinwiddie and especially Jalen Brunson to transform them into great ones. 

Unsurprisingly, the Mavs season-prolonging, Game Four win doubled as both their best shooting and best passing performance of the Western Conference Finals. With the Warriors prepared to recover on Doncic’s kick-outs, the Mavs recognized that the pressure point of the Warriors’ defense was their ability to make second and third rotations rather than simply executing the first. 

As such, Dallas weaponized Brunson and Dinwiddie as sources of shot creation rather than merely as possession-ending shooters, trusting them to exploit advantages against the Warriors. Accordingly, both Brunson and Dinwiddie were more involved as passers—Brunson made 50 passes (up from his average of 43.8 for the playoffs) and Dinwiddie passed 36 times (up from 31.8). Similarly, the Mavs increased their off-ball creativity, setting pin-in and flare screens away from the ball to further obstruct the Warriors’ attempts to contest shots. As a result, over 49% of the Mavs’ threes were either open or wide open. 

Of course, all this is secondary to the less romantic reality that the Mavs won mainly because they made shots rather than miss them. More than any other year in recent memory, these playoffs have been decided by the basic arithmetic of field goal percentage and have spawned an anticlimax of blowouts and non-competitive fourth quarters. Staring down a 3-1 deficit, the Mavs are still probably going to be fodder on the way to another Finals run for the Warriors, but their evolution to suit peccadillos and peculiarities of Doncic could vault them from a year as a surprising contender and into years of perennial contention. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 6th-12th

On any given night, NBA Twitter is abuzz with reminders to appreciate Lebron James or Kevin Durant while they’re still active. This week, they gave us ample opportunities to do so. To be sure, though, they weren’t the only players in the league to have notable performances. Down below are our four takeaways from it!

LeBron and KD continue to add to their highlight reels

While their greatness gets anticipated on a nightly basis, James and Durant somehow surpassed even the loftiest of expectations this past week. In addition to leading their teams to a combined 6-2 record, the pair of former NBA Finals MVPs produced one signature performance after another.

Between Durant scoring 51 points, the most scored by a player this season, and James becoming the oldest player in league history to produce a 30-point triple-double on Sunday night, it only served as additional highlights on their overwhelmingly extensive resumes.

Kelly Oubre Jr is becoming must-watch TV

Despite his obvious talents, Kelly Oubre Jr. has flown under the radar and hasn’t really showcased the true breadth of his abilities. But throughout this month, the 6-foot-6 swingman has played the best basketball of his NBA career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the playoff-contending Charlotte Hornets.

Oubre Jr is not only averaging 26 points per game since December 1st, but he’s helping the Hornets as an additional playmaker who takes some pressure off of star point guard LaMelo Ball. And the Kansas product should be applauded for being a willing rebounder, too, as he snagged ten rebounds against the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday night.

Luka’s conditioning is now in the spotlight

Although many things said on social media about NBA players and teams don’t gain any traction, the conversations surrounding Luka Doncic and his conditioning have only gotten louder. Ever since he arrived in the league, the Mavericks’ superstar has thrived despite not being in top shape, and fans have wondered what it would be like if he were.

But with his recent ankle injury expected to have him out for multiple games, Doncic’s health is being examined more than ever. Alongside dealing with various ailing injuries over the years, Doncic has struggled with his weight and conditioning, especially with the star confirming his issue of staying in playing shape.

The LA Clippers have discovered another talent in Brandon Boston Jr

When people think about the Los Angeles Clippers, they immediately think of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but the franchise has quietly become one of the league’s best talent developers. This season, Terrence Man has built on the role that he established in last year’s playoffs and second-round rookie Brandon Boston Jr. has wormed his way into the rotation.

The 2021 second-round pick from the University of Kentucky had his best NBA game against the Boston Celtics last Saturday. Boston Jr scored 27 points and was a marksman from downtown, making five out of eight three-pointers. Even though George and, eventually, Leonard will determine the Clippers’ immediate success, their team’s ceiling could be defined the development of its promising young talents.

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Sports Strength

Can the Dallas Mavericks Save Their Season?

For the Dallas Mavericks, this should’ve been the easy part. They already have Luka Doncic, the era-defining megastar they poached in the 2018 NBA Draft, whose eliteness has already been accepted as indisputable, universal knowledge. His presence alone guarantees a tremendously high baseline of perennial playoff appearances. Accordingly, they’ve tried to tailor a bespoke supporting cast for Doncic—a stretch big with burgeoning defensive chops (Kristaps Porzingis), an implacable rim-runner to catch lobs (Dwight Powell), nervy shotmakers (Tim Hardaway Jr and Jalen Brunson) and defensive-minded wings (Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Frank Ntilikina and Sterling Brown). But by building so comprehensively around Doncic, the Mavs have forgotten to build anything else.

Offensively, Doncic is empowered to play with such freedom that it borders on solipsism—there’s no offense beyond the realm of his own creation. His 41 percent usage rate and 46 percent assist rate are both the highest in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass) and yet those figures still undersell his ball-dominance. Of the 35ish minutes that Doncic plays per game, he controls the ball for over nine of them, according to Second Spectrum stats; assuming that the Mavs are on offense half the time, Doncic holds the ball more than the rest of his teammates combined when he’s on the court. 

And, to an extent, this approach makes perfect sense—it’s generally good when good players have the ball rather than bad ones; nobody is exactly clamoring for Dorian Finney-Smith to cook. More, it’s hardly a departure from Dallas’s strategy in the past—Doncic’s usage rate surpassed 40 percent in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons too. The main difference? It used to work. Whereas the Mavs had the most prolific offense in NBA history two seasons ago, they’re now scuffling to a 107.7 offensive rating this year, which qualifies as one of the 10 lowest marks in the league. 

Since the Mavs’ attack can basically be boiled down to Help me, Luka Doncic, you’re our only hope, any small tremors that interfere with Doncic’s Atlas-ian undertaking quickly grow into a season-derailing earthquake. Compared to the last two seasons, Doncic’s production is down a skosh, but he’s still Luka Doncic; he’s fundamentally the same All-NBA caliber force he’s always been, even if his body looks especially yeasty this year.

As such, the problem with the Mavericks isn’t so much Doncic’s relative struggles as much as their own misconceptions about themselves. Going into this year, they seemed to think that their Doncic-driven approach was an indestructible black box, that Doncic was so incredible that he could sustain an elite offense regardless of the context. Conversely, their offense is more of a Swiss watch, its small, fragile mechanisms hidden beneath a glossy bezel. 

So far this season, Doncic is getting to the rim at the lowest rate of his career and his drives peter out in the midrange because the paint is too densely packed; the Mavs three-point percentage has plummeted because Doncic’s skip passes find shooters who aren’t comfortable with the new Spalding basketball;  is getting to the rim at the lowest rate of his career. Individually, it may not be such a huge deal that the Mavs rely on two-big lineups with scrunched spacing or that Reggie Bullock is in a slump or that the new balls feels weird or that their roster “is not built to play defense” (ok, maybe that’s a big deal), but minor hindrances compound into bigger problems.

 You know, all for want of a nail, etc.

In this sense, beset by truly lousy vibes and struggling to maintain a winning record, the Mavs are discovering the perils of such extreme heliocentricity (which is NBA Twitter-speak for giving one guy the ball all the time). The secret recipe to this strategy’s success, though, is that you have to create an environment in which your star can actually succeed—the Bucks did so by finding the right mix of players and spacing to optimize Giannis Antetokounmpo; the Rockets cynically and rigidly did everything imaginable to give James Harden maximum space. Instead, the Mavs, uh, have made the floor as cramped as possible, repeatedly posting up their alleged stretch-big and stocking their rotation with non-shooters. This is baffling self-sabotage, the hoops equivalent of slopping an otherwise delicious steak.

Dallas’s ability to win games is contingent on Doncic doing everything, but they can’t help themselves from getting in Doncic’s way. Doncic is their clear, guiding star; the Mavs need to allow him to shine.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 1st-7th

If there’s any lesson to learn as an NBA fan, the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint! Things can change quickly across this league, so you have to accept that. Who would have thought the Cavaliers found their best answer to life post-LeBron so soon? Why does Luka Doncic have a thing for breaking the Celtics’ hearts? Can the 76ers continue their hot streak despite the outside noise? Down are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

Evan Mobley is the Cavs’ answer to surviving life without LeBron

Among the many storylines that have lived in the NBA over the past three years, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles without once, long-time superstar LeBron James. Outside of their 11 years together with James, which included multiple Finals appearances and one title, the Cavaliers have not made the playoffs and are also an annual participant in the league’s draft lottery. But things may have changed this season.

Evan Mobley, the team’s third-overall pick from this year’s draft, appears to be the answer the Cavaliers needed to succeed in life without James finally. Besides being a key component in the team’s surprising 7-4 start, Mobley’s versatile skill-set and potential are recognized across the NBA as the traits needed for a prospect who has the keys to the franchise. And only 11 games into his career, the USC product has produced a pair of signature performances, including his career-best 26-points in a 126-109 road win against the NY Knicks on Sunday.

Luka breaking the Celtics’ heart is now common

Sometimes it doesn’t take much for anything to become a trend, and we’ve reached that point with Luka Doncic and the Boston Celtics. For the second time in two seasons, the Mavericks’ superstar has broken the Celtics’ heart by making another step-back three to win the game, 107-104, last Saturday night.

What makes Doncic’s latest game-winner insane to think about is he not only made it but attempted it from nearly the same spot he made his first game-winner against the Celtics. But the biggest difference? Doncic now made it with three defenders over him, including stellar defense by former teammate Josh Richardson.

The 76ers have quieted the noise so far!

While Philadelphia’s off-court drama has hogged most of the spotlight, fans and media should pay just as much attention to the Sixers’ on-court dominance. Despite the Simmons drama, the 76ers have locked in and played good basketball to start this season, storming out to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 8-2.

Even though center Joel Embiid hasn’t yet matched his production from last season (his 21.4 points per game are down more than seven points from last year), the East’s No. 1 seed has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach. Seven players are averaging double-digit points per game, and six players are shooting over 50% from the field while also producing player efficiency ratings over 20.

Cole Anthony’s sophomore season is going to be spectacular

There were a lot of crazy, and at times egregious, events that transpired last NBA season, and one of them involved Cole Anthony. The then-rookie point guard of the Orlando Magic didn’t make either of the league’s All-Rookie teams, despite being more productive than the likes of Issac Okoro and Isaiah Stewart. But Anthony isn’t one to cry over spilled milk.

Fast forward 11 games into his second season in the league and Anthony is proving his doubters wrong. Not only has the UNC product averaged more than 20 points per game (up from 12.9 last year), but he’s built on that same confidence and swagger that he exhibited towards the end of last year. 

On Sunday night, Anthony sparked the Magic’s rallying 24-11 run by scoring 10 of those points en route to a 107-100 comeback victory over the heavy-Western Conference favorite, Utah Jazz.