"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.
Today, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic takes the spotlight.
According to NBA.com, that's Luka Doncic's shooting percentage in the restricted area this season.
Why is that noteworthy? It's, uhh, really, really good.
Of the 204 players who have attempted at least 100 shots in the restricted area this season, 21 have finished them at a higher rate than Doncic. That might sound like a decent amount of players, but it's a list dominated by big men such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka and John Collins. If you eliminate all the power forwards and centres, you're basically left with T.J. Warren and Derrick Jones Jr. as the only players ahead of Doncic. Neither role player shoulders the voluminous burden carried by Doncic, who powers the league's top-ranked offence.
When you limit the field to No. 1 perimeter options, nobody touches Doncic. Not LeBron James. Not Kawhi Leonard. Not James Harden. Doncic has been a more efficient finisher at the rim than each of them and many more stars this season.
It's pretty incredible that Doncic has been able to finish at the rim as well as he has seeing as one of the few knocks on him entering the draft was that he lacked the speed and athleticism needed to be a big-time scorer in the paint at the next level.
Check out three different critiques from three different highly regarded scouting reports:
"Nothing special as an at-rim finisher. Has a nice floater game and can elevate for dunks in transition but doesn't yet have the explosiveness to be a top-end finisher in NBA traffic."
"If he doesn't have momentum it's difficult for him to finish plays at the rim."
"Athletic ability has come into question. Quick enough off the floor and can elevate for dunks, but relies on his size and change of speeds to get into the paint and finish. Will face an adjustment to the speed of the NBA game."
That's not to point the finger at The Stepien, NBADraft.net and Sports Illustrated, the three aforementioned sources. Scouting is really hard! Each site also projected Doncic to be a special player in the NBA despite questions about his athleticism, some of which were warranted, although it does bring up an interesting discussion about how we measure athleticism. Things like deceleration and balance matter almost as much as how high someone can jump and how quickly they can get off the ground, but they rarely get talked about. Players can improve athletically as well. Doncic is yet another good example of that.
Instead, the point is that you'd be hard pressed to find someone who thought Doncic would be as efficient of a paint finisher as he has been this season. It begs a simple question: How has he done it?
There are a couple of things that jump out when watching all 236 of the shots Doncic has made in the restricted area this season. The first is how smart he is. It might sound cliché, but Doncic really is a basketball savant. Not only can he already beat defenses in a variety of ways - floaters, pump fakes, left-handed finishes, right-handed finishes, you name it - he has some Paul Pierce in him in that he always seems to be playing at his own speed.
Doncic will do things like lean into the body of a shot blocker before going up for a layup to get them off balance...
...use his body as a shield against his own defender...
...eurostep his way around help defenders...
...eurostep his way around his own defender...
...keep his dribble alive as he waits for the defence to pick their poison...
...and use high arching layups to score over shot blockers in the paint.
It helps that Doncic stands 6-foot-7. He might not play above the rim, but his size makes him an incredibly tough cover. Most point guards and shooting guards don't have the length to stop him when he gets anywhere near the paint and power forwards and centres have a tough time staying in front of him off the dribble, leaving the likes of James, Antetokounmpo, Davis, Leonard and Paul George as the only players who really have a shot against him.
That brings us to the second secret to Doncic's dominance in the paint this season - his teammates.
Let's go back for a second to December 27, 2019. After a game in which the NBA on TNT crew criticized Dallas for not posting Kristaps Porzingis up more, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlise went on a rather lengthy rant, which included the following.
"The post-up just isn't a good play anymore," Carlisle said. "It just isn't a good play. It's not a good play for a 7-foot-3 guy. It's a low-value situation. Our numbers are very substantial that when he spaces beyond the 3-point line, you know, we're a historically good offensive team. And when any of our guys go in there, our effectiveness is diminished exponentially. It's counterintuitive, I understand that, but it's a fact."
In other words, Porzingis is much more valuable when he's standing on the 3-point line because...
- He's one of the league's best 3-point shooters at his position. Kevin Love and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the only centres who have made more 3s than Porzingis this season. He's shooting 34.9 percent from the perimeter, a solid rate given the position he plays and the volume with which he shoots.
- He's been one of the worst post-up scorers in the league this season. Porzingis ranks in the 21st percentile in post-up efficiency with 0.79 points per possession. Not great.
- It provides valuable spacing for everyone else. The Mavericks being 1.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Porzingis on the court speaks to that.
Consider this possession:
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been an absolute mess defensively this season, but did you see what Larry Nance Jr. did? He was frozen in indecision. He basically had to choose between letting Doncic walk to the basket and leaving Porzingis wide open for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. With him out of the picture, it left Love, who has never been known for his rim protection, as Cleveland's only hope of stopping Doncic at the rim.
Here it is slowed down so you can get a better look:
That happens a lot, even against better teams than the Cavaliers, because Doncic is basically surrounded with four shooters whenever he takes the court. (It goes back to Porzingis, who plays a decent amount of centre, providing valuable spacing for everyone else when he's standing on the 3-point line). The only player in the rotation who doesn't shoot 3s in high volume is Dwight Powell, but he just so happens to be one of the league's most effective rollers. Everyone else, whether it's Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith or Delon Wright, is more than capable of punishing teams for helping off of them on the 3-point line when Doncic drives to the rim.
And Doncic will, of course, find them if they're open. It allows him to be selective with the shots he does take in the restricted area.
If teams do collapse on his drives, he can kick it out to an open shooter.
If they don't, he has the size and skill to finish over most defenders at the rim.
That push and pull between the defense helping and not helping on Doncic's drives serves as the foundation of a Mavericks team that currently has the best offensive rating in NBA history, an incredible achievement considering their best player is only in his second season. It makes you wonder how much better both Doncic and the Mavericks can get in the future.
And if you're looking for reason to believe that Doncic will continue to add to his game, the proof is in that one key number...
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