Great players make the players around them better. It’s why LeBron James has the legacy he does, why James Harden is much more than a great scorer, and why Luka Doncic has been the pre-season MVP favorite the past two years. The impact of these generational talents is, in part, visible in the assist column, but a lot of it lurks below the surface and is trickier to put your finger on, despite watching it unfold every night.
Usually we call it “gravity,” the fact that a player’s mere presence changes the way the game unfolds on the court, and it’s a huge part of the reason these high-volume, high-production players can put their teammates in such great positions to succeed.
But beyond the eye test, what, exactly, is gravity? Can we quantify it? And how do players like Luka use it to elevate the floor of the team they’re on? We’ll be answering these questions in a two-part series, the first of which looks to define and quantify gravity using Luka as an example.
(Check back tomorrow for the second part on how the newest Mavericks will benefit from Luka’s gravity.)
What is gravity and how does Luka Doncic take advantage of it?
Gravity on the basketball floor works the same way it does in the natural world: it’s the pull one object has on another. In basketball, you see it in double teams and help on drives, as well as other less obvious aspects like game planning. A player can command the defense’s attention in a variety of ways, but scoring prowess is the dominant factor. Doncic is one of the best scorers in the game, and his offensive arsenal opens up teammates, which gives Doncic more room to operate, creating a vicious cycle that defenses have yet to break.
The bulk of Doncic’s points come on two maneuvers: drives and the pick and roll. Doncic is flat out a master technician on drives. He utilizes his big body and ability to change pace to will his way to the basket in ways that almost look too easy. He was third in the league in scoring on drives last year, averaging 12.2 points per game, or just over 44 percent of his nightly average. He was also second in the league in drives per game, and among high-volume drivers, Doncic was the most efficient:
The concept of penetrating the defense and forcing multiple defenders to collapse, ultimately freeing up shooters, is one that is used in every offensive scheme. But when you have a player like Doncic who scores at such a high frequency (he made a shot on roughly one of every four drives in 2020-21), the defense overcommits more than they normally do, giving Doncic an element of gravity. This helps his teammates enormously; while he made a field goal on nearly 24 percent of his drives, he assisted one of his teammates on 11.2 percent of them.
Doncic also excels in the pick and roll. The pick and roll has seen its usage rates surge over recent years because it’s so difficult to guard. The Mavericks have followed this trend and, after drafting Luka Doncic, have become one of the preeminent teams in this category:
Doncic is the reason the Mavericks have been even higher than the league average; he’s just so dominant coming off a screen. Of the top 30 highest volume ball handlers in the pick and roll last season, Doncic ranked second in possessions per game and eighth in points per possession:
Being this dominant in pick and roll play adds to Doncic’s gravity in two ways. The first is making him a deadly scoring threat:
There was a clear positive correlation last season between points per pick and roll possession and points per game. This makes intuitive sense; if you score more points every time you run a pick and roll, and run it frequently, then your points total will increase. Points in the pick and roll lead to more points per game, which leads to the defense having to put more effort and attention into stopping you. Doncic is one of the best in the league in both frequency and efficiency, hence why he is so lethal in an action that is already hard to stop.
As with drives, Doncic also excels in the pick and roll by creating shots for teammates. There are so many nuances in the game between the ball handler and the screener, and Doncic utilizes a couple wrinkles particularly well. The first is his ability to use his body to shield off his defender from behind after using the screen, forcing someone else (usually the roll man’s defender) to either help or allow an easy basket. Here is a prime example, where Russell Westbrook is pinned on Doncic’s back and Powell’s man helps over leading to a wide open dunk:
His vision is incredible, especially to the corners, after using the screen. On this play, Doncic’s gravity and skill is on full display as he uses the screen to pin Kawhi Leonard behind him, forces Boban Marjanovic’s man to step up, and then draws all five Clippers’ eyes at the rim, leading to a Tim Hardaway Jr. three in the corner:
Another example: on one of the more ridiculous plays of Doncic’s career thus far, the Kings double team him off of the screen in an effort to force the ball out of his hands. A great idea... the only problem is that Doncic’s vision is second to none, and once again he finds a wide open Dorian Finney-Smith in the opposite corner for three:
This combination of vision, ball skills, and body control on the way to the basket is what creates such a strong gravitational force field around Doncic on the floor.
In our next installment, we’ll look at the impact this field has specifically on his new teammates. Check back Wednesday morning for part two.