clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Luka Doncic Could Use a Little Help

Dallas’s wunderkind has established himself as one of the NBA’s greatest young players, but history shows that his offensive burden may be too massive to reach the playoff success of the Hall of Famers in whose footsteps he’s following

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Luka Doncic is one of the brightest young stars the NBA has ever seen. Once this season’s All-NBA teams are announced, the Dallas guard will be one of just three players ever, along with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to be named to three All-NBA teams by their age-22 season. Every other player with multiple nods at such a young age is either in the Hall of Fame or a lock to get there.

Multiple All-NBA Berths Through Age-22 Season

Player All-NBA Berths
Player All-NBA Berths
Kobe Bryant 3
Luka Doncic 3
LeBron James 3
Carmelo Anthony 2
Rick Barry 2
Tim Duncan 2
Kevin Durant 2
Dwight Howard 2
Tracy McGrady 2
Shaquille O'Neal 2
Dolph Schayes 2
Isiah Thomas 2

In the playoffs, Doncic is, if anything, even more of a terror to behold—just ask the top-seeded Suns, who were eliminated when they couldn’t contain him last week. His career scoring average in the postseason is 32.1 points per game, behind only Michael Jordan’s 33.4 on the all-time leaderboard. Nobody else is even at 30.

Yet if the Mavericks are to fulfill their ultimate goal of winning a title, Doncic will have to achieve something with even less precedent. For as long as we have data, no player who’s dominated the ball as much as Doncic has ever claimed a championship. He’s already racking up impressive individual plaudits—but can he make even more history on a team level?

The Mavericks’ Luka-centric approach borders on the extreme. Doncic’s usage rate in the past three regular seasons is, in order, 36.8 percent, 36.0 percent, and 37.4 percent. That ties him for the second-most seasons on record with a usage of 35 percent or higher. (Usage rate can be calculated going back to only 1977-78, so an earlier superstar like Wilt Chamberlain might have had more.)

Seasons With Usage Rate of 35 Percent or Higher

Player Number of Seasons
Player Number of Seasons
Allen Iverson 4
Kobe Bryant 3
Luka Doncic 3
James Harden 3
DeMarcus Cousins 2
Joel Embiid 2
Michael Jordan 2
Tracy McGrady 2
Russell Westbrook 2

Doncic’s burden has grown even heavier of late: His usage rate in these playoffs is 40.2 percent, according to Basketball-Reference—the highest mark ever for a player with at least 10 games in a single postseason. For context, among other rotation players on teams that reached the 2022 conference finals, Steph Curry’s in second place, all the way down at 32.4 percent.

That sort of heliocentrism—a term first applied to the NBA by The Athletic’s Seth Partnow, referring to the notion of a world (or team) that revolves around a singular star—hasn’t typically succeeded in the NBA. Here are the overall results for teams led by players with a usage rate of 35 percent or higher since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff field (not counting this season’s Mavericks, who haven’t completed their postseason journey yet):

Outcome for Teams With a 35 Percent Usage Rate Star

Outcomes Number of Teams Proportion
Outcomes Number of Teams Proportion
Missed playoffs 9 31%
Lost in first round 8 28%
Lost in second round 10 34%
Lost in conference finals 1 3%
Lost in Finals 1 3%
Won title 0 0%
(Since 1983-84)

The 2000-01 76ers, with Allen Iverson, are the only team to reach the Finals; the 2017-18 Rockets, with James Harden, are the only other team to even reach the conference finals. That’s not an encouraging history.

Those results, however, were to be expected given where these heliocentric teams finished in the regular-season standings. Both the 2000-01 76ers and 2017-18 Rockets were no. 1 seeds in the playoffs, but that’s an anomaly for teams with such high-usage stars. This year’s 76ers, for instance, had Joel Embiid with a 37 percent usage rate, but a second-round loss is a typical result for a no. 4 seed. Last postseason, the Mavericks were a no. 5 seed, and they lost in the first round, as their ranking would suggest. The postseason before that, they were a no. 7 seed, and again fulfilled expectations by losing in the first round.

Sort the 21 teams with high-usage players that reached the playoffs into categories based on expectation, and the results still don’t look great, but at least aren’t quite as calamitous as before.

Outcome for Teams With a 35 Percent Usage Rate Star

Result Number of Teams Proportion
Result Number of Teams Proportion
Underperformed expectations 5 24%
Performed as expected 14 67%
Overperformed expectations 2 10%
(Since 1983-84)

By virtue of upsetting the Suns and reaching the conference finals as a no. 4 seed, the 2021-22 Mavericks have already placed themselves on a very short list of overachievers. The only other overperforming team is the 2004-05 Pacers with Jermaine O’Neal; as a no. 6 seed, those Pacers beat the Celtics in seven games—despite O’Neal himself playing a brutal series—before falling to the Pistons in Round 2.

The issue isn’t that heliocentric teams are uniquely prone to face-plant in the postseason; rather, it’s that they aren’t often among the best regular-season teams in the first place, which matters in a league that so often goes chalk into the later playoff rounds. The Mavericks themselves have never been better than a no. 4 seed with Doncic—though they did have the NBA’s second-best record after the All-Star break this season, thanks in large part to a trade that replaced nominal no. 2 option Kristaps Porzingis with more supplementary players. On the other hand, Dallas was only 14th in net rating during that stretch.

The culprit is obvious: The reason teams have such a high-usage star in the first place is that the rest of the teammates aren’t good enough to command the ball, which means the team probably isn’t good enough to win deep into the spring, either.

Consider the Lakers with Bryant as a counterexample. When Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal were teammates, they formed the best scoring duo in league history and won three championships. And because there were two stars, neither ever needed to drive his usage rate up to the 35 percent range. After Shaq decamped for Miami, however, Kobe’s usage rate rocketed upward as the team’s fortunes dwindled. More reinforcements—mainly Pau Gasol—arrived, Kobe’s usage rate fell back down to the low 30s, and the Lakers won two more titles.

Did the Lakers win because Kobe adopted a more egalitarian approach from 2008 through 2010? Or did he adopt a more egalitarian approach because his new teammates were worthy of the attention, which made them more likely to win? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that also applies to all-time greats such as Jordan, whose highest usage rates came early in his career before Scottie Pippen arrived in Chicago, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose usage dipped below 35 percent after the Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday.

Dallas achieved the first and hardest step to win a title by identifying its superstar. But that step isn’t usually sufficient by itself; while the rare champion does succeed with only a single star—like, incidentally, Dirk Nowitzki’s 2010-11 Mavericks—most title winners need to display more aggression in rounding out a contending roster.

Just look at how the past three champions leaned toward the finish line. The Bucks were lucky enough to draft a two-time MVP at no. 15 and see Khris Middleton blossom from an anonymous trade throw-in to an All-Star—and they still needed to exchange an armada of picks for Holiday to win a title. The Lakers signed LeBron James and still needed to deal for Anthony Davis. The Raptors built a deep roster that earned a no. 1 seed and still needed to gamble on a Kawhi Leonard trade.

It’s possible that logic doesn’t apply to Doncic—but, well, that’s a lot of precedent to ignore. And there are specific reasons to think Doncic himself might need more help to maximize his team’s potential. Partnow has noted that when Doncic has a usage rate above 35 percent in the first half of a game, he shoots much worse in the second half. “Doncic has shown that he’s a significantly better closer when he doesn’t have to throw fastballs for the full nine innings,” Partnow wrote. “But the Mavericks might not have anyone else ready in the bullpen.”

If he finds his Pippen or O’Neal or Gasol or Holiday, Doncic wouldn’t need to give up the ball much. He shouldn’t anyway, given his prodigious talents. But the past six teams to win a title had a player with a usage rate in the low 30s, meaning Doncic would need to cede only about one extra possession out of 20 to a teammate to fall in line.

Especially in the playoffs, Doncic could offload some responsibility and still lead the league. In each of the past two regular seasons, Doncic topped the league leaderboard in time of possession, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and he’s held the ball even more in the playoffs: for 10.1 minutes per game in the 2019-20 postseason, 12.1 minutes per game in 2020-21, and 9.5 minutes per game in 2021-22. He’s led the league in all three of those playoffs.

Yet the search for a sidekick is much easier said than done. The best in-house option is Jalen Brunson, who will enter unrestricted free agency this summer. In a market expected to lack star power, executives predict Brunson will receive $20-25 million per year.

Can Brunson serve as the secondary star on a title contender? The argument in favor starts in the 2021-22 playoffs, when he helped the Mavericks win two of three games against Utah with Doncic injured. Brunson is an excellent finisher, and as a former second-round pick, he’s improved every season in the league. His dual role—simultaneously able to play off Doncic and run the offense when he sits—is theoretically ideal for a partner for Luka.

Yet the argument against Brunson’s long-term potential also starts in these playoffs. Forced to match up against the Warriors’ and Suns’ stouter perimeter defenses instead of Utah’s sluggish backcourt, he’s struggled since the first round, shooting just 44 percent from the field and 20 percent on 3-pointers. A small-sample slump shouldn’t change an entire view of a player—but when re-signing Brunson would come with so much opportunity cost, that difference could really matter.

Moreover, even an empowered Brunson might not help the Mavericks’ potential heliocentrism problem. In the 2021-22 regular season, Doncic actually had a higher usage rate when Brunson was also on the floor versus when he wasn’t. (That dynamic has flipped in the playoffs, however.)

Luka Doncic’s 2021-22 Usage Rate

Game Type With Brunson Without Brunson
Game Type With Brunson Without Brunson
Regular Season 37.7% 34.9%
Postseason 37.3% 41.6%

The Mavericks tried to strike early in Doncic’s career by pairing him with Porzingis in a shrewd trade in theory that crashed in practice. That’s one reason Doncic has lifted such a heavy burden the past few seasons: His ostensible costar wasn’t up to the task. Now the Mavericks have reset without Porzingis and advanced to the conference finals for the first time in more than a decade as a result.

But the question remains if they can take even more forward steps this spring with such a clear split between their one star and the role players flanking him. Even compared with the rest of the conference finalists, that alignment stands out. The Heat have Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo; the Celtics have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; the Warriors have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

Dallas deserves a tremendous amount of credit for its playoff run so far, and for so cleanly eviscerating the NBA’s best regular-season team along the way. But against the remaining competition, the team might still be one costar short. The question is whether Doncic is so incredible that he can make up that gap all by himself.