So much of the ~analytics~ that have gripped modern sports seem stupidly obvious when they’re fully articulated. If Bryce Harper is at bat, there’s no reason for him to bunt; if Patrick Mahomes is under center, nobody is hankering for him to feed Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Isaih Pacheco. When this is all gussied up with nerdery and presented as wonky quant exotica, it sounds sinister, but the sentiment is simple: your good player should do the good things. As such, through 12 games, Luka Doncic has assumed such a monstrous individual burden that he’s straining against the very premise that basketball is a team sport.
While Doncic has always dominated the ball, he has assumed sole custody of the Dallas Mavericks’ offense this year after the Knicks signed Jalen Brunson/did some slight embezzlement. Without any teammate worth deferring to, Doncic is now a hardwood Norman Bombardini, inhaling possessions and plays to the point that he’s consumed Dallas’ entire universe; at a certain point, he ceased being the Mavs’ star and transformed into their whole-ass solar system. Between his 34.3 points and 8.7 assists per game, he’s directly responsible for more than half of the Mavs’ offense, manufacturing 56 of their 110.5 points per game.
More specifically, Doncic has ratcheted up his scoring and usage rate to historic extremes—his 39.1% usage rate is the third-highest of all time and his rate of 47.0 points per 100 possessions is surpassed only by James Harden’s 48.2 points per 100 possessions in 2018-2019. Turn on a Mavs’ game at any given moment and there’s a 21.25% chance that Doncic will be handling the ball; on average, he has the ball for a league-high 10.1 minutes out of the possible 48, dribbling it roughly 546 times in the process.
Beyond simply doing everything, Doncic does just about every individual, discrete thing well. He’s among the most prolific isolationists, pick-and-roll ball-handlers and post-uppers in the NBA, ranking among the top five scorers in all three categories. In essence, he isos like James Harden, runs a pick-and-roll like Steph Curry, and bangs on the block like Joel Embiid; his interior scoring rivals peak Lebron James and his on-ball gravity is the strongest in the league. Oh, and he’s maybe the most creative, versatile passer alive. Most impressively, like the water cycle or a potato alarm clock, he’s completely self-sustaining—he’s the only player in recent NBA history to be assisted on less than 10% of both his two-pointers and three-pointers.
Even as Doncic blazed through the league in his first four seasons, his greatness was hard to approach directly. He never overpowered opponents like Giannis Antetokounmpo; his game isn’t frictionlessly perfect like Kevin Durant. Instead, fans attributed his success to Luka Magic or some divine intervention as they sang HalleLuka while some players—actually, player singular—derisively called him a flopper who served up the Luka Special. It wasn’t immediately clear why nobody could guard this doughy Zoomer besides the fact that nobody could guard him. This year, though, he’s noticeably stronger and faster than he’s been in previous years and is dusting people off the dribble as a result. Whereas a lot of Doncic’s game once felt predicated upon cleverness and guile, he now wins simply; all the destabilizing tact and herky-jerky ball-handling is still there, but his first step is finally slippery enough and his body is finally strong enough that getting to the rim feels more like an inevitability than an accomplishment. Accordingly, he’s evolved into the best driver in the NBA, scoring 15.3 points per game off drives while shooting 64.8 percent on those attempts.
Despite the basic tenet that basketball should be fun for everyone, Doncic’s radical independence undeniably works. For the third time in the last four seasons, Doncic is at the helm of a top ten offense and the Mavs have a top 10 net rating, even as they’ve shed Brunson and Kristaps Porzingis (the two best teammates of Doncic’s career) since last February. By dint of his virtuosic sin-eating, teammates and coaches are mere jibbitz on the larger croc of Doncic’s excellence—Spencer Dinwiddie can fill in for Brunson, Davis Bertans can replace Porzingis, Jason Kidd can take over for Rick Carlisle, but the team’s net rating and larger gestalt stays the same.
But for as impressive as Doncic has been, this kind of hyper-concentrated offense hasn’t yielded much historical success. Cynically, Doncic has the privilege of low expectations— the team is so limited that if they win, he should get all the credit, but if they lose, he should not be blamed at all. Similarly, no NBA champion has ever had a qualified player with a usage rate over 35 percent in the regular season; there’s a reason that one-man bands busk outside stadiums rather than actually perform inside of them. To a degree, the very fact that Doncic is entrusted with so much responsibility is an indictment of the Mavs’ roster—it’s not ideal to funnel every possession through one guy, but necessary evils are still necessary. No matter how keyed in a defense is, a Doncic pick-and-roll is preferable to a Dorain Finney-Smith isolation; not even Dwight Powell is clamoring for the Mavs to post up Dwight Powell more.
Unsurprisingly, Doncic’s individual success is so thoroughly enmeshed with the team’s success that the two are practically indistinguishable. In Dallas’ seven wins, Doncic is averaging an obscene 37.6 points on 67.8 percent True Shooting; in their five losses, he’s noticeably less superhuman, scoring just 29.8 points on 49.9 percent True Shooting. Still, these are differences of degree, not ones of kind—at his absolute worst, he’s still amazing.
But that’s kind of the problem; the Mavs are so reliant on Doncic that if he merely plays like, say, the 14th best basketball player in the world instead of like one of the the top five, that minor slippage redounds throughout the roster. When Doncic sits, the offense is downright dire—the Mavs’ offensive rating is the equivalent of the second best in the league when Doncic is on the court, but it plummets to 23rd with him on the bench. With Doncic, the Mavs’ collection of non-dribbling monotaskers are allowed to focus on monotasking because Doncic can do everything else; his shot chart looks like this, so theirs can look like this. Without Doncic, the Mavs can’t puncture or threaten the defense in any meaningful way and their two-point field goal percentage collapses by 10 percentage points in his absence. This is the upside and peril of such radical heliocentrism, the reason that the Mavs can win one or two playoff series but almost certainly cannot win three or four. As long as Doncic is incredible, the Mavs can be pretty good.