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Heliocentrism’s new face: Luka Doncic

Doncic is next in line in this stylistic basketball debate

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Dallas Mavericks v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Luka Doncic is having a dynamite start to his fifth NBA season. Fans and critics alike were monitoring how the 23 year old phenom would look to start the season after starting a bit slow each of his past 2 seasons. He has been red hot leading the NBA in scoring and there are no signs of slowing down… or are there?

The term “heliocentric” has been a trendy buzzword in the NBA world over the last 5 seasons. Heliocentrism is a theory that considers the sun as the center of the universe while Earth and other bodies revolve around it. This theory has been applied to the world of basketball with one player representing the sun and the other 4 players on the court with him as the other bodies revolving around him. This characterization seems rather complimentary on the surface, but the term has been used a beacon of negativity for both the Sun and teams who engage in this style of play. A simple explanation relates to the big question surrounding the concept of heliocentric offenses – can you win a championship playing like this?

The consensus seems to be no, but I’d argue that we’ve already seen that style win with Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. The problem, in my opinion, isn’t the concept of heliocentrism but usage rate, which is highly correlated with heliocentrism. This is the predicament that the new face of heliocentrism –Luka Doncic—finds himself in.

Luka Doncic is on pace for having one of the highest single season usage rates of all time. He sits at 3rd place just behind Russell Westbrook’s 2016-2017 season and James Harden’s 2018-2019 season. The top 10 features 2 MVP seasons in Westbrook’s aforementioned 2016-2017 season and Giannis’ 2019-2020 season. What is glaringly absent from the top 10 is a season where a player’s team won a championship. The highest single season usage rate where that player went on to win a championship in that season was Michael Jordan during the 1992-1993 season at 34.71%, which ranks 43rd all time.

For reference, Luka’s current usage rate is almost 6% (!) higher than Michael’s was which bodes the question – why should we be treating this as a contending year for Luka Doncic and his Mavericks? The Mavericks had hoped to take the next step after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season but early returns –while they are good—show that the formula isn’t necessarily conducive to winning it all.

What is lost in the conversation is that this heliocentric style of play with Luka having a sky-high usage rate is the best path to them making the playoffs in a tight Western Conference. The shot creation on the teams that have players in the top 5 usage rate lists was scarce. These current Mavericks are no exception. The team features just 2 true shot creators in Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie resulting in an unbalanced ratio of shot/play creators to play finishers. The worrying part about this, however, is that it feels like it is by design by the front office to leverage Luka’s otherworldly shot creation for himself and others.

Seth Partnow of the Athletic mentioned the drop off in Luka’s performance during the fourth quarter of games and suggested that fatigue from his workload in the first half as the culprit. It will be intriguing to see Luka’s numbers and efficiency in the second half of the season because there is real concern about how sustainable this style of play is for him over the course of 82 games.

While the Mavericks cannot play another style right now if they want to prioritize getting to the playoffs, it is imperative that the front office start making plans that result in not relying on every play to be ran through Luka when he is on the court. Luka will always have a relatively high usage rate and you SHOULD want most plays going through a talent like him, but going by the numbers and patterns, it is not encouraging if you have high hopes of him winning multiple championships in a Mavericks jersey. The good news is that the Mavericks have time to figure this out despite it feeling as if time has almost run out on them. In the meantime, we should kick our feet up and enjoy the Luka Doncic show because we could be in store for a very special season.