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Luka Dončić And The Mavs Are Pushing The Limits Of Offensive Efficiency

A few weeks ago, Chris Herring wrote about just how historically dominant the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks have been on defense, a fact that has gone somewhat unnoticed as Giannis Antetokounmpo and his sharpshooting friends have cruised through the league this year. But the Bucks aren’t the only team having a season for the ages on one side of the ball.

The Dallas Mavericks are an absolute offensive powerhouse this year. Dallas currently leads the NBA in offensive efficiency with 116.8 points per 100 possessions; that’s 6.4 points of efficiency better than the league average this season, which is the 30th-best margin over average in NBA history. The Mavs are also 3.1 points per 100 clear of the second-ranked Houston Rockets (113.8 points per 100), which is the seventh-best margin ever for a No. 1 ranked offense over a No. 2.

The Mavs are enjoying a historic offensive campaign

Best NBA offensive seasons ever according to efficiency (Pts/100 Poss.) relative to average, and margin over the second-ranked team in a season

Efficiency vs. Average Margin over No. 2 Team
Team Year PTS/100 vs. avg. Team Year Margin
Mavericks 2004 +9.2 Nuggets 1982 +4.1
Suns 2005 8.5 Suns 2010 3.5
Warriors 2016 8.1 Bucks 1971 3.4
Suns 2010 7.8 Celtics 1954 3.2
Bulls 1997 7.7 76ers 1967 3.1
Mavericks 2002 7.7 Royals 1962 3.1
Jazz 1998 7.6 Mavericks 2020 3.1
Bulls 1996 7.5 Mavericks 2002 2.8
Suns 2007 7.5 Suns 2007 2.7
Nuggets 1982 7.4 Suns 2005 2.4
Celtics 1988 7.4 Celtics 1988 2.3
Bulls 1992 7.4 Warriors 1956 2.2
Kings 2004 7.3 Stars* 1972 2.0
Lakers 1987 7.3 Mavericks 2003 1.9
Mavericks 2003 7.1 Mavericks 2004 1.9
Jazz 1997 7.0 Royals 1961 1.8
Lakers 1998 6.9 Bulls 1996 1.8
Magic 1995 6.8 Knicks 1958 1.8
Warriors 2017 6.8 Bulls 1991 1.8
Clippers 2015 6.8 Warriors 1957 1.8
Bulls 1991 6.8 Celtics 1955 1.7
Thunder 2016 6.7 Royals 1969 1.7
Bucks 1971 6.7 Bulls 1992 1.6
Mavericks 1987 6.6 Oaks* 1969 1.4
Thunder 2013 6.5 Warriors 2016 1.4
SuperSonics 1998 6.5 Stars* 1973 1.4
SuperSonics 1995 6.5 Royals 1951 1.3
Heat 2013 6.5 Rockets 1977 1.3
Pacers 1999 6.5 Rockets 1979 1.3
Mavericks 2020 6.4 Lakers 1985 1.3

2019-20 season numbers are as of March 9.

*ABA team.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Any way you measure it, this Mavs attack is scoring at one of the most efficient rates ever. And a lot of the credit has rightly gone to second-year guard Luka Dončić, who is on the short list of this year’s MVP candidates after winning Rookie of the Year honors last season. Among players with at least 895 minutes played this season, Dončić ranks third on offense (behind only James Harden and Damian Lillard) in our RAPTOR metric with a rating of +7.7 — meaning we estimate that his offense has been worth a shade under 8 more points than an average player for every 100 possessions his team plays.

Is that a lot? Why yes, it is. Historically speaking, there have been only 31 individual seasons (including those from Harden and Lillard) since the 1976 ABA merger in which a player logged at least 1,500 minutes and had an offensive RAPTOR better than Dončić’s has been this year. And Dončić is easily the youngest player in the sample to produce this kind of offensive season, in his age-20 season (as of Feb. 1).1 Nobody on the list above him did it at age 21; Chris Paul was the youngest, at age 22 back in 2007-08.

Although Dončić still has room to improve as a long-range shooter — his 3-point accuracy of 31.5 percent ranks 140th out of 147 qualified players this season2 — the rest of his offensive statistics have been stellar. Dončić excels at creating chances for others; he’s assisted on 45.6 percent of teammate baskets while in the game. He’s also great at creating for himself: He has a true shooting percentage of 58.3 percent with a usage rate of 37.0 percent, numbers that are particularly impressive when you realize that only 18.2 percent of his buckets have been assisted by a teammate (the fourth-lowest rate in the league). With his tremendous ability to get to the rim, absorb contact and finish the play, Dončić is generating 115.9 points per 100 possessions while also personally finishing 38.4 percent of the Mavs’ possessions that he’s on the court for — numbers that are in rarified territory on the usage-vs.-efficiency skill curve.

So with Dončić playing 54.9 percent of Dallas’s available minutes at a +7.7 RAPTOR offensive clip, we would expect a totally average team that added him to instantly outscore a typical offense by 3.4 points per 100 possessions.3 But as we mentioned before, the Mavericks as a team have actually been 6.4 points per 100 better than average — meaning Dallas’s standout offensive season has been about more than just Dončić’s individual excellence.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, seven members of the 2019-20 Mavericks have played at least one-third of the team’s available minutes and generated at least 115 points per 100 possessions: Dončić (115.9), Dorian Finney-Smith (121.6), Tim Hardaway Jr. (116.4), Maxi Kleber (123.4), Seth Curry (124.4), Delon Wright (121.2) and Dwight Powell (133.8).4 (Kristaps Porziņģis is notably absent from the list; his individual offensive rating of 109.6 is the lowest of Dallas’s regulars, though he is second on the team in usage rate among those playing at least a third of available minutes.) Going back to 1976, no team in modern history has ever finished a season with this many players logging such regular minutes at such high levels of efficiency.

The Mavs are overflowing with efficient players

NBA teams with the most players who played at least one-third of available team minutes and had an individual offensive efficiency of at least 115 points per 100 possessions, 1976-2020

Team Year No. of Players List
DAL 2020 7 Fin.-Smith, Hardaway, Dončić, Kleber, Curry, Wright, Powell
DEN 2019 6 Jokić, Morris, Millsap, Beasley, Plumlee, Hernangómez
PHO 1995 6 Majerle, Green, Barkley, Person, Ainge, Johnson
CHI 1996 5 Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc, Kerr, Harper
CHI 1997 5 Jordan, Pippen, Kerr, Harper, Kukoc
HOU 2017 5 Harden, Anderson, Beverley, Capela, Dekker
HOU 2020 5 Harden, Tucker, House, McLemore, Capela
LAC 2020 5 Harrell, Leonard, Shamet, Beverley, Zubac
LAL 1987 5 Johnson, Worthy, Scott, Cooper, Green
LAL 1989 5 Worthy, Johnson, Green, Thompson, Cooper
LAL 2020 5 James, Davis, Caldwell-Pope, Howard, McGee
MIA 2020 5 Adebayo, Robinson, Butler, Jones, Olynyk
OKC 2013 5 Durant, Ibaka, Sefolosha, Martin, Collison
OKC 2016 5 Westbrook, Durant, Adams, Kanter, Roberson
ORL 1995 5 O’Neal, Hardaway, Grant, Anderson, Scott
PHO 1993 5 Majerle, Barkley, Ainge, Johnson, Ceballos
PHO 2009 5 Nash, O’Neal, Stoudemire, Richardson, Barbosa
PHO 2010 5 Stoudemire, Nash, Richardson, Frye, Dudley
POR 2009 5 Roy, Blake, Fernandez, Przybilla, Batum
TOR 2018 5 Lowry, Valanciunas, Poeltl, VanVleet, Wright
UTA 1998 5 Malone, Hornacek, Russell, Keefe, Stockton

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

To be sure, Dončić has opened up many opportunities for his teammates to be efficient. According to Second Spectrum, there’s been a potential assist on 57.3 percent of Dallas’s non-Dončić shots; for context, the Phoenix Suns are the team with the NBA’s highest rate of potential assists per shot this season, at 57.0 percent. But his teammates still needed to convert on those chances, and they’ve been doing an excellent job of it. Dallas has both seven regulars5 with a 3-point percentage over 35 percent and seven regulars with a 2-point field-goal percentage over 50 percent. Basically, the Mavericks almost never feature an inefficient offensive option on the floor at any given moment during a game.

Of course, the abundance of 2019-20 teams on the list above shows just how much this efficiency-maximizing mentality has swept across the league, beyond just Luka and the Mavs. In the modern NBA, great offensive teams work like sophisticated machines, where all of the component pieces amplify each other’s strengths. There’s no place for a broken part in that apparatus, so coaches either have to find ways to help a player succeed or slot in a new player who won’t be a liability. It’s a testament to both Dončić’s playmaking and the coaching of Rick Carlisle that Dallas has emerged with so many players performing so well in their roles.

Perhaps an interesting comparison can be found in Dallas’s previous generation of offensive juggernauts. The 2003-04 Mavs remain the greatest offensive team — relative to league average — in NBA history (see above), and they did it with four regulars who had an offensive rating over 115 points per 100: Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison. Nash and Nowitzki are particularly known as two of the greatest offensive forces to ever hit the hardwood, capable in their primes of lifting any offense to the top of the league, so it makes sense that they would combine to drive a historic offense. But that team also had a highly inefficient player right in the middle of it: Antoine Walker, who played nearly 72 percent of team minutes and used over 22 percent of possessions while on the court but generated just 100.7 points per 100 possessions.

Though those Mavs were able to integrate him into their scheme and still score at an incredible rate, it’s telling that there are hardly any Walkers to be found in today’s best offenses. Instead, they are built more like the current Mavericks — a bunch of players who score at a hyper-efficient rate, all orbiting around one central Dončić-like figure who can do everything.

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Footnotes

  1. Dončić just celebrated his 21st birthday, on Feb. 28.

  2. We should note that Dončić is one of the game’s most prolific practitioners of both the pull-up and the Hardenesque step-back three, super-difficult shots that eat into his efficiency from deep.

  3. To work out that math, that’s a +7.7 rating times 0.549, which is +4.2, but then multiplied by a factor of about 0.8 to account for the team effects adjustment in RAPTOR.

  4. Powell was lost for the season to injury in January.

  5. Again, defined as playing at least one-third of available minutes.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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