There’s been some smoke about the Mavericks being interested in Anthony Black in the upcoming 2023 NBA Draft, and it’s created consternation among fans who see him as a bad fit. A guard, when the Mavericks are a team full of guards? An iffy shooter playing next to Luka Doncic? Isn’t it best for Black to have the ball?
For the entirety of the Doncic-era, there’s been a pervasive team-building philosophy. You’ve heard the phrase “build around Luka” hundreds of times, but it hasn’t meant “build a complete team” as much as “build around Luka’s abilities”. The goal was peak efficiency for Luka himself, with the idea that he was so good that his own maximization would mean that of the team. Give Luka as much spacing as possible, with shooters everywhere, with a limit on players who couldn’t fit.
It is possible that constructing a roster that way only enforced Luka’s rigidity, and that Luka’s brilliance should mean you have more options, not less. I don’t know if this is true, but we have to ask the question. Yes, Luka is narrow-minded stylistically, not to mention a basketball player’s approach is habitual to a degree. But if it’s habitual, how much is nature-versus-nurture? I don’t believe Luka is inherently selfish. If he’s already predisposed to thinking he’s the best option to win, it can’t help to be repeatedly encouraged by the only NBA organization he’s known.
I don’t know the answer, only that it feels like we’ve seen enough of that rigidity. If something is Luka’s fault, we’ve come up against the limit of building around it. When a player screens for Luka and receives the ball with a spatial advantage which Luka’s gravity creates, and they don’t know what to do with that space, is that not just as infuriating as a missed three?
Anthony Black becomes a good case study, because he’s not a great shooter and plays with the ball. Dallas’ defense and collective IQ was so bad last year that you’d think fans would be more willing to work through icky spacing to rectify it. It’s on coaching to make players like Black fit. You can go across the league to find examples of how cutting, screening, and movement allow for problematic offensive players to survive and thrive so the defense and transition game can be better. The common denominator is that overall offensive IQ and athleticism can make an offense successful despite inconsistent shooting, which are traits Black has, as does an Ausar Thompson or Jarace Walker. If you can create space, close space quickly, pass with the advantage you created and pressure the rim, then you create the conditions for less spacing.
The Warriors have Draymond Green running actions so quickly that he creates spacing through split-second decisions and handling for a forward/big. Neither Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler are real spacers but are quick decision makers. Thunder GM Sam Presti, talking about his young core, called the sport “increasingly a game of decisions,” and prized that decision making over shooting. Think of how excited Oklahoma City fans are about the trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey — they shot the three a combined 8.3 times a game! I’m not saying OKC, in their current form, is the standard to strive for, but hell they finished with a better record than the Mavericks last season and their core are also young players and are already seeing the dividends of marrying size or athleticism with guard skills. Drafting Black to play next to Doncic and Kyrie Irving is a less poorly spaced proposition than one Mavericks fans might watch from afar and find envious.
“The game is a game of decision…. There is less pattern and more rhythm, and those are rhythm players”— Andrew Schlecht (@AndrewKSchlecht) June 25, 2022
Presti on his 2022 draft class
The strange thing about discussion of Black’s fit has been the label of him as a guard, which is only theoretical — he has guard skills, but that does not make one exclusively a guard. He’s 6’7 and a great defender, and if you can physically match up with your counterpart then you can play that position. Draymond Green has guard skills, and yet no one calls him a guard. It certainly sounds a lot like how OKC incorporates Giddey next to two driving, scoring guards. What do Dallas fans miss that Thunder fans don’t? Why is there such fear over multiple players with guard-skills?
This is why I called the Mavericks’ roster building belief pervasive — it feels like a philosophical Stockholm Syndrome. A narrative has been built about the specificity of a roster around Luka, and it usually involves a stretch big, a roll big, a couple of 3-and-D wings and another shot creator. It’s a standardized set of allocated roles. A half-decade ago, everyone was copying “Morey-Ball”, the analytics-friendly construction of a well-spaced roster built around the pick-and-roll, coined after then-Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Now it seems like the NBA is moving toward prizing the intersection of size, skill, athleticism and ball handling.
The constant referendum on maximizing Luka infects the thought process about Black. “If he is best with the ball, why take it away from him” is a version of “no one can do Luka’s job better, so he should always do it.” You want more players who can do more things well so less can be taken away.
The truth is, Luka does need to up his game as an off-ball player. The hypothesis is that, if you surround him with many other players who can handle, pass and process the game, it will push him into it. At the very least, make use of his off-ball gravity (that exists even if he barely moves because he’s Luka-Freaking-Doncic). In 2022, this happened much more — the team spoke of something they called “the blender,” where shading toward Luka meant other players had room to drive and kick, creating the sorts of threes-or-layups shot quality we associate with the Warriors and Nuggets. It’s hard to replicate the best shooter ever and the best passing big-man ever as far as gravity, but you can still work toward that model instead of away from it. Luka with a decoy post-up, improving as a shooter off the catch, being the hub for dribble hand-offs. Have guys around him who make those actions beneficial, and maybe Luka does them.
Highest usage rate in single season, NBA history:— Kyle Grondin (@bykylegrondin) April 27, 2023
1. 2016-17 Russell Westbrook - lost in first round in 5
2. 2018-19 James Harden - lost in second round in 6
3. 2022-23 Giannis Antetokounmpo - lost in first round in 5
4. 2005-06 Kobe Bryant - missed playoffs
5. 2014-15 Westbrook - missed playoffs— Kyle Grondin (@bykylegrondin) April 27, 2023
6. 1986-87 Michael Jordan - lost in first round in 3
7. 2001-02 Allen Iverson - lost in first round in 5
8. 2022-23 Luka Doncic - missed playoffs
9. 2019-20 Giannis - lost in second round in 5
10. 2021-22 Luka Doncic - lost in WCF in 5
Or, maybe not. Maybe Luka is Allen Iverson, or Russell Westbrook, who believed they alone could do what needed to be done. Maybe the light won’t go off as it did for Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. These are four players who’ve registered higher-usage seasons than Luka’s last, none of whom made it past the first round in those seasons. But the teams around them were often limited–there’s a chicken-and-the-egg element to the usage discussion. Jordan and Bryant gained Pippen and Gasol, and had Phil Jackson to coax them out of single-mindedness. Both got older. Luka has the co-creator in Kyrie, and I think as Jalen Brunson grew as a player we saw signs of these shifts within Luka already. Coaching? We’ll just have to see. He is entering the early stages of his prime. Regardless, we are on the precipice of finding out what kind of player he wants to be, and roster moves should try and help implement that process.
If it doesn’t work, and Luka bristles at the discomfort of it? He’ll be out the door. But he will anyway if the Mavericks keep doing what they’re doing. No one in the top forty of that single-season usage list won a title. Jordan, in 1993, was 41st. Luka might dig his own grave, but there’s no reason to have a front office that helps him. I see no choice left but to try.