The Dallas Mavericks have been fine to start the season. Just fine. They’re 7-4 but have a -3 point differential. They’ve been beating bad teams and losing to good teams. That means they’re just an average team right now, correct? Correct.
Part of the reason the Mavericks have been average to start the season is that their superstar, Luka Doncic, has been playing well below his standard. He too has been fine. But he’s a once-in-a-generation player. He needs to be way better than fine.
Luka’s struggles to start this season are largely because of two things: poor efficiency and poor shot profile.
Let’s examine his efficiency first as it’s the least interesting. Right now, Luka is flat-out missing shots he’ll probably start to make as the season goes on. Through 11 games this season, Luka is shooting 43.3 percent from the field to go along with career-lows from 3-point range and from the free-throw line (28.6 percent and 70.5 percent, respectively). A lot of the shots he’s missing are relatively open looks, and they’ll probably start to go down sooner or later. But one way Luka could help himself get back on track is with a better shot profile. And the kind of shots he’s taking gets us going down a bit of a rabbit hole.
Per Cleaning The Glass, only 14 percent of Luka Doncic’s shot attempts are coming at the rim. That’s a career-low by a mile. That number puts Luka in the 13th (13th!) percentile among point guards. For reference, here are three point guards who are taking a higher percentage of their shots at the rim: Kemba Walker, Devonte’ Graham, and Lonzo Ball. Those are three point guards who famously struggle getting to the rim. Luka is the opposite. He’s one of the biggest, strongest point guards in the league, and he’s excellent at getting to the rim and finishing around the bucket. So why isn’t he doing it more?
Take a look at this screenshot of a possession from the Mavs’ loss in Chicago:
That’s the spacing Luka is working with, and this is a lineup where Kristaps Porzingis is the lone big on the court for Dallas. This should be a lineup that gives Luka a ton of spacing, but Zach LaVine is more concerned with keeping Luka from going middle then he is keeping Tim Hardaway Jr. from taking a 28-footer. Nikola Vucevic is cool devoting his attention to Luka rather than Porzingis (who looks like he’s considering creeping in and clogging the paint anyway). And the worst part — DeMar DeRozan couldn’t care less about Dorian Finney-Smith in the corner. That pass to the corner is one Luka is more than capable of making, and everyone knows that. But teams are just fine with letting Finney-Smith shoot this season, and understandably so.
The spacing issues only tell half of the story with Luka, though. The other half is that he simply doesn’t appear to be in good enough shape right now to be getting himself to the rim. It’s either that or just a general lack of aggression because there are times where he has an opportunity to drive and just doesn’t.
Check out another screenshot from the same game against Chicago:
Zach LaVine is a better defender than he gets credit for, and the spacing here isn’t perfect (Dwight Powell sort of messes this up), but Luka still has LaVine on an island, and LaVine isn’t strong enough to keep him from getting to the rim. Maybe Nikola Vucevic comes over and makes it a difficult shot for Luka, but instead of attempting to get to the rim, Luka settles for a step back three. He missed.
After the game in Chicago, I asked Luka what he thinks he needs to do differently to get more looks at the rim. Luka said:
“Just be more aggressive. Today, I think I missed a couple easy shots, but you know, just be aggressive to the game.”
Part of this might just be a little boredom from Luka jumping into the early part of the regular season coming off a nice run in the Olympics, but the Mavs simply need Luka to flip the aggression switch.
I asked Coach Kidd the same question after the Chicago game, and he had a different approach to how the team can get Luka more looks at the rim. Kidd thinks they can get Luka some more looks in the post. Here’s what he told me:
“I think we can look to post him up more. His strength is being able to create on the perimeter for others and for himself, so that’s something we can definitely do is put him in the post to try to take some of the stress away for having to work so hard. But that will come in due time as the season goes on.”
Kidd is correct that the Mavs could stand to get Luka some more looks in the post. He’s phenomenal at scoring or creating looks for teammates out of the post. But frequent post-ups disrupt offensive rhythm and flow. More post touches shouldn’t be the sole answer for how to get Luka more looks around the rim. The Mavs need to do a better job of getting Luka the ball in positions where he can get downhill, using his overwhelming combination of strength and skill to punish teams in the paint.
If the Mavs want to get their offense production back, Luka needs to stop settling, and start putting his head down. But it’s not all on him. The team needs to help put him in better positions to do that. It’s something that likely won’t change overnight, but hopefully, we’re not having this same conversation in February.