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The profound effect Luka Doncic has on how role players perform

Doncic is already a lot like his role model in this way.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Luke Doncic just made the All-NBA First Team in only his second season, the first player to do so since Tim Duncan in 1998-99. He’s already written his name in multiple places across the Mavericks’ record books. It wouldn’t be surprising for me to tell you that he is good. In fact, he’s already one of the league’s best players.

But what if I told you he’s so good that he’s making other players better than they really are?

That was a confusing mouthful — let me explain.

On Tuesday morning, this Tweet came across my timeline. It struck a sweet, harmonious chord with me:

We at Mavs Moneyball put a cap on this past season by writing reviews for each player on the Mavericks. I wrote about Maxi Kleber — one of my favorite players on the team — and included this paragraph towards the end. It made some readers very upset with me:

Next season, Kleber will be entering the second year of his four-year, $35.90 million contract. For what he brings on both sides of the floor, he is one of the best value role players in the league. But don’t think this makes him untouchable on the trade block. I can see multiple teams making calls to the Mavericks this off-season trying to make an offer for Kleber. As Dallas attempts to turn their assets into a championship caliber roster, it’s not crazy to think that Kleber — or mostly any Maverick for that matter — could be in different threads next season.

From “Maxi Kleber was an extremely versatile role player for the Dallas Mavericks this year

Here’s the thing about role players: their effectiveness is based on who you have around them. There is one guy who has shown this time and time again. His name is Lebron James.

Remember when the 2017-18 Cavaliers made the Finals? Sure, they got swept by the Warriors and their insanely talented roster, but the fact they got there is remarkable.

LeBron is an extremely gifted player, and perhaps the best part of loo his game is the way he creates opportunities for his teammates. He showed that in 2017-18, when six Cavs other than LeBron averaged more than ten points per game.

Points per game averages for Cavs in 2017-18

Player PPG in 2017-18
Player PPG in 2017-18
LeBron James 27.5
Kevin Love 17.6
Isaiah Thomas (15 games) 14.7
Jordan Clarkson (28 games) 12.6
Dwayne Wade 11.2
Rodney Hood (21 games) 10.8
Jeff Green 10.8

This is the LeBron James effect. James fully controls the gravity of the defense every time he’s on the court. The defense goes where he wants it to. He demands so much attention and respect when the ball is in hands because of what he can do with it. Even when the defense collapses on top of him, seemingly making the right play, James’s vision and playmaking ability bails him out and creates a score for a teammate. It’s how he just won the NBA Finals with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the third best player on his team (among other things).

This is what we are already seeing from Luka Doncic.

Let’s take two of the Mavericks most beloved role players — Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith — and show you how this plays out on paper. Listed below is the number of wide-open (closest defender is 6+ feet away) threes attempted by the two players combined.

  • 2017-18: 158

I mean, it’s nothing extraordinary. Finney-Smith was in the second season of his career, and Kleber was in his first. The young duo didn’t get very much space to take very many shots.

The best passer on this team was J.J. Barea, who averaged 6.3 assists per game. When you don’t have an extraordinary playmaker, your best players — and them alone — tend to shine. That’s what happened this season, when Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews shot a combined 434 wide-open threes.

Probably important to note: the Mavericks took the second most wide-open threes in the league this season.

  • 2018-19: 395

So the Mavericks draft a generational playmaker and the amount of wide-open three point attempts by the duo more than doubles. Coincidence? Yea, probably not. The Mavericks shot the third most wide-open threes this season, and took 210 more as a team than they did a season before.

  • 2019-20: 501

Yea. I’m starting to All-NBA First Team player Luka Doncic may have something to do with this. Kleber shot more wide-open threes than anyone in the league, and Finney-Smith came in seventh place. That’s not normal for two undrafted players.

I’m not trying to say that these guys aren’t good. What I am trying to say is that it is not reasonable for them to be getting this many shots in this much space. This is the Luka Doncic effect.

What if I told you Luka Doncic is so good that he’s making other players better than they really are?

Do I sound less crazy now? The goal was never to convince you that these guys aren’t good without Doncic. That’s just not true.

Kleber is a great defender with good shooting for a big. Finney-Smith is an absolute sniper in the corner. Curry is a historically efficient three-point shooter.

The goal is to convince you that Doncic makes them as absurdly efficient as they are, and these guys likely wouldn’t be as good without him. His incredible ability to draw the defense towards him, steal it’s attention and then make the right read is letting guys put up career numbers.

Being a fan is hard. It’s difficult for us to evaluate the true value of a player when we have an emotional attachment to them. There are a lot of players on this roster you and I both would like to keep around for awhile. But remember, just like your grandma used to say, you are who you hang out with. As long as these Mavericks role players continue to “hang out” (play) with Luka Doncic, they are going to continue to put up numbers.

This is the Luka Doncic effect.