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For Luka Dončić, the path to MVP starts with the fourth quarter

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Wonder Boy’s continued ascension requires him to produce even more when it matters most

Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Luka Dončić had quite a summer. First, the 22-year-old Slovenian became the youngest player in league history to earn multiple All-NBA First Team selections. Then Dončić lead the playoffs in scoring and impressed in the Olympic Basketball tournament where he took his underdog Slovenian team to a top-four finish. Dončić was also named a cover athlete for NBA 2K21 and signed a signed five-year, $207 million supermax rookie extension with Dallas Mavericks in August.

As crazy as this sounds, the MVP award is the only individual regular-season award missing in Dončić’s award closet. And he’s only heading into his fourth NBA season. Can Dončić win it in the 2021-22 season? Vegas odd-makers think so. Dončić was the preseason favorite to win MVP last season and again is the early Vegas favorite this year at +440.

There are parts of his game that Dončić needs to improve to take the next step to join that elusive top tier. Conditioning, defense, and free-throw shooting come to mind first. These will probably take a bit longer to improve, and we can not expect a huge leap yet, especially with the shortened off-season. But there is another part of the young phenomenon’s game that he and new coach Jason Kidd can clean up and if they do, it might be just enough for Dončić to win his first Most Valuable Player next season.

The next step in improving Dončić’s scoring efficiency

Dončić improved his scoring efficiency in each of his first three seasons in the NBA. Here are Dončić’s effective field goal percentages (eFG%) since his rookie year:

  • 2018-19: 49.7
  • 2019-20: 53.1
  • 2020-21: 55.0

Based on his track record (Dončić improved each year since his first professional season as a 16-year old) and the recent FiveThirtyEight 2021-22 NBA Player Projections, we can expect another leap in Dončić’s efficiency next season. Dončić ranked second, behind only Nikola Jokić in FiveThirtyEight WAR projections (wins above replacement level). FiveThirtyEight’s Offensive Raptor projects Dončić will improve significantly on offense next season.

But where can the improvement in efficiency come from?

The simple answer to that question is Dončić and Kidd must figure out how to get Dončić more easy looks. Or the other way around, Dončić should take fewer tough shots.

Dončić led the NBA in un-assisted points scored last season by a wide margin. As you can see on the chart above, there is everybody, and there is the red bubble on the top left, far above everyone. Considering the draft time criticisms centered around whether or not he would be athletic enough to get his own shot, it’s ironic that he lead the league by this wide of margin.

When you compare Dončić to other players with the highest MVP odds, only James Harden comes close in the share of un-assisted shots. Dončić is paying a price for extreme “self-creation”, and it shows in his scoring efficiency. There is still a big gap between Dončić and the top-tier group of the most efficient NBA scorers. Players in that elite tier, think Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Nikola Jokić, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, are the ones Dončić will have to beat for the MVP trophy.

If we look at the next chart, one doesn’t need to be an analytics geek to figure out that it’s the three-point shooting that is dragging Dončić’s efficiency down.

It’s worth getting more specific about the kind of shots Doncic should consider cutting from his diet. There are tough shots and there are some (or rather many) that are just next-level difficult. Digging deeper into numbers and film, one pattern becomes evident. Difficult (and inefficient) shots are much more frequent from beyond the three-point line and they tend to happen in the fourth quarter.

Too many bail-out threes in the fourth quarter

A deeper look into Dončić’s scoring data shows that his scoring probability decreased in the second half last season, with a slight increase at the very end of the games. But if we look at two-point and three-point scoring probabilities separately, there are two diametrically opposite trends.

While Dončić’s two-point scoring probability increased as the games progressed, his three-point efficiency fell off a cliff in the fourth quarter. Here are Dončić's last season’s three-point shootings split by quarter:

  • 1st quarter: 35 percent
  • 2nd quarter: 41 percent
  • 3rd quarter: 37 percent
  • 4th quarter: 28 percent

The Mavericks were 18-15 in clutch situations last season (17-12 in games Dončić played), which was a significant improvement over the 17-24 clutch record from the 2019-2020 season. There is still a lot of room for improvement on offense in the fourth quarter. Mavericks ranked 8th in offense last season but fell to 13th in the final period. Which is not optimal for a team that doesn’t really defend (Dallas ranked 21st on defense both overall and in the 4th quarter).

Even with the improvement in clutch offense some of the old problems remained. There were still too many occasions when Mavericks walk the ball slowly up the court, get in their sets late, and when nothing happens rely on Dončić to bail them out with a step-back three. The Mavericks led the NBA in very late (0-4 seconds left on the clock) three-point shots, taking 319 three-point field goal attempts with four or fewer seconds on the clock last season. That’s 5.1% of all of Mavericks’ field goal attempts. Things got worse in the 4th quarter for Dallas, when this share increased to 7.0 percent, also the most in the NBA.

It was Dončić who shot most of these late-clock three-pointers for the Mavericks. He led the NBA in both total and fourth quarter very late clock three-point field goal attempts. Compared to other high volume scores who rely on three point shots, Dončić comes on top in the share of late clock three-point attempts. The gap between Dončić and the rest gets even bigger in the fourth quarter.

Film analysis of Dončić’s 113 fourth-quarter three-point attempts

The most common explanation for Dončić's efficiency drop-off in the fourth quarter is that he needs to get in better shape. There were games where Dončić was visibly tired and looked out of gas in the fourth quarter.

While this is a valid criticism, the analysis of all of Dončić’s 113 fourth-quarter three-point attempts shows there is something else there. According to Synergy Dončić shot 39.6 percent on three-point attempts in situations where he was a ball handler in pick and roll, 35.3 percent on spot-ups, and just 16.7 percent in isolations. The sample size is small, 48 attempts as a pick and roll ball handler and 36 in isolations.

Yet, in watching the film it’s evident that Dončić is more comfortable shooting the three in situations where even a simple screen is set. His three-point shot is still very rhythm-dependent, and it seems Dončić is better at getting into his shooting motion out of a pick-and-roll setting. These situations give him a split-second advantage, or a miss-match, to get a less contested look.

Things get tricky when the Mavericks can’t get anything out of their actions. Then it’s up to Dončić to create something in isolation play. These are situations where most of the end-of-clock threes in the fourth quarter happened. Out of 36 isolation three-point attempts, 25 were with seven or fewer seconds on the shot-clock. Dončić can make these shots, but the degree of difficulty is off the charts. They look great when they go in (remember the game-winner against the Clippers in the Playoffs or the game winner against the Celtics), but not so much when they don’t.

Of course, Dončić can’t just eliminate all of these end-of-clock shots in the fourth quarter. When the offense gets stuck down the stretch and nothing materializes, somebody needs to take a shot. Dončić is the best option to create something out of nothing with his step-back. But there were many possessions last season where the Mavericks needed ten seconds to walk the ball up the court, didn’t run any actions, and just waited for a Dončić step-back three. Dončić led the NBA in the three-point attempts where he held the ball for more than six seconds in the fourth quarter.

What’s next?

If Dončić wants to win his first MVP he’ll need to take another step forward and improve his three-point shooting. Dončić is a better shooter than his 35 percent three-point field goal percentage tells us, but he takes too many difficult shots compared to the other best players in the league.

The good news is that not only did Dončić improve his overall scoring efficiency, but he was also a better scorer in the fourth quarter last season. He was good in the clutch, especially in shots crucial to the game outcome (buzzer-beaters and potential buzzer-beaters). Per data from the Inpredictable website, only Damian Lillard had a better effective field-goal percentage in those situations among the 15 players who shot the most such shots.

The bad news is that the drop-off in Dončić’s three-point shooting happened in the playoffs as well. The sample size is really small, just 76 three-point attempts in the playoffs including 18 in the fourth quarter, but the discrepancy was even bigger. He shot 41 percent from the three-point line in the playoffs but broken out by quarter he shot 45 percent in the first three quarters then 28 percent in the final period.

The other problem is that the new Mavericks’ front office failed in the offseason to find a second player who could create his own shot and take some of the pressure off Dončić. There is no doubt Dončić needs help. Dončić was second in the NBA in usage last season, with 35.0 percent usage rate. Things got even worse in the Playoffs, when the usage rate ballooned to 39.1%. According to John Schuhmann from NBA.com, that was the highest mark for a player with at least 200 playoff minutes in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data.

Until we see another shot creator next to Dončić we won’t know if the ball-dominant style is the way Dončić wants to play or is he playing this way because of necessity. There is still a chance will see this next season if the Mavericks find a way to get Goran Dragić on the roster. Maybe, Dragić can be a point guard and a secondary playmaker Dončić will defer to, at least to some extent.

If not, the improvement will have to come from within. The Mavericks will be a good regular-season team. We have enough evidence that shows that Dončić and competent shooting around him is enough for a competent playoff team. To advance to the second round or more Dončić and Kidd will need to figure how to squeeze more juice out of the current roster. Maybe, Kidd and his new coaching staff can get the Mavericks to play faster and less deliberately in the fourth quarter. Get in early offense sets faster, so that a spread pick and roll with ten seconds left on the clock is not the only option. Because if that is the primary action and things don’t work out, we know what happens next. Another end of clock step-back three.

If Kidd finds a way to get Dončić off the ‘NBA end-of-clock three-point attempts leaderboard’, it will do wonders for the Slovenian superstar’s scoring efficiency. And it might be just enough to add the missing trophy in Dončić’s trophy cabinet next summer.