Debates about Luka Doncic’s playstyle between his most ardent fans and zealous haters are never as nuanced as an accurate assessment of his game. It’s fluid, evolving at all times, and needs context. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg quality to whether Luka limits his teammates, or whether his teammates have been so limited that Luka’s responsibility is forced upon him.
While an assessment of the truth of Luka’s game is complex, the Twitter arguments about him are black and white — he’s a ball hog, or a basketball genius. He’s too stubborn and rigid, or he’s raising the floor of limited teams by controlling every outcome. All that is not gray in Luka discourse is the volume of his defenders and detractors.
Mavs Grant Williams shares his excitement about playing with Luka Doncic & gives insight on where he believes Luka’s game can still grow saying in part:— Kevin Gray Jr. (@KevinGraySports) July 21, 2023
“…his next step is understanding that as much as that happens he also has to empower other to play their games as well…”… pic.twitter.com/jQ0RBxVM52
So when Grant Williams makes a generally innocuous comment about Luka empowering his teammates, social media runs with it. What room does a player whose game doesn’t demand high usage have to speak on the matter? Why is a role player repeating a false narrative about our star, made by people who ignore the context of the past half-decade?
I’ll be the first to defend Luka when criticism is unfounded. When analysts suggest he let others create, and besides Spencer Dinwiddie (who also had high usage), you’re looking at a Reggie Bullock pick-and-roll or Maxi Kleber posting-up, it’s not a nuanced take.
The narratives about prior stars are also mostly false. Kristaps Porzingis was oft-injured in between the bubble (where he performed well with Luka) and his eventual departure. Jalen Brunson was still an evolving organism over the course of his breakout season, from sixth man to third option to co-creator. Rick Carlisle is one of the fifteen best coaches ever, and he both put Porzingis in a corner and didn’t see Jalen Brunson coming. Luka may be exceedingly ball-dominant, but no one wonders if Khris Middleton missed a 25-points-per-game season by being Giannis’ sidekick.
But Luka is stubborn, he is rigid, and he does not neatly fit into an environment of a fluid, ball-movement-heavy offense. By nature, he and his co-stars take turns much of the time, as did he and Kyrie Irving. He does not move a lot without the ball. His gravity can still make a cocreator’s job easier, simply because by the time they receive the ball the advantage is created, or the possibility of reversal to Luka holds a defense in paralysis like safeties in the vicinity of Tyreek Hill. Still, there is a synergy he needs to reach with both a co-star and a five-man organism.
I want to be clear how much of this is nurture as opposed to nature. Organizational directives seep down. The idea that “when you have someone that good with the ball, why take the ball away” was always a bad theory that coddled and refused to challenge Luka.
Yet there still remains the imprint that directive left. Even if other players are ignorant of the roots, it creates their perception of him. I wouldn’t say he needs to empower a Williams to “take the reigns” as much as he needs to loosen his own, not just with the ball, but in a macro sense.
Arguing less with refs, or not wearing his emotions on his sleeve, is the same kind of interior self-control that it takes to believe a game can be won without Luka-ball. Luka is, like many great artists, a control freak whose weaknesses and strengths feed one another. His stubbornness in regard to his own greatness gives him his power because it’s not unfounded.
One can argue that even his dislike of running is tied up in his vision of control; transition basketball is chaotic and introduces more randomness into the proceedings. The ball travels on its own accord. I do not believe Luka is selfish or wanting of glory for himself, but he does want to see success on his terms because he believes in those terms as an end that justifies the means. A slow pace, one most athletic players find limiting, is not inherently bad, but most great teams can play at any pace selectively.
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
The highest usage rate for a player to make the finals is 21st all time (2001 Iverson). The highest usage rate for a player to win an NBA title is 43rd all time (1993 Jordan). I’m not saying it’s a direct correlation, but it’s also not great to support this style of play— Kyle Grondin (@bykylegrondin) April 27, 2023
The information above still has a chicken-and-the-egg component; of course, a player needs help, and help lowers usage. Nevertheless, the varying quality of and types of players listed are interesting to juxtapose with Luka.
Not just ball-dominant players who either learned to let go, or didn’t, can teach us about Luka. All stars have their limitations. Steph wasn’t durable. Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t shoot. LeBron James was “mentally weak”. Michael Jordan was similar to Luka. Kobe Bryant, same. Hakeem, playing without another star on habitually .500 teams, was surly and despondent for years (shades of Luka, too). Nikola Jokic couldn’t play defense and was out of shape. We’ve heard these things about all the stars until they get toward their late twenties. Maybe Luka is like Allen Iverson, or Russell Westbrook, a stubborn and single-minded box score phenom without the proper self-awareness and basketball fungibility. In truth it’s probably most likely he ends up between these two poles, like James Harden, but Luka has every opportunity to be in the first category.
The insecurity of fans about Doncic is really a communication of insecurity about the greatness thrust upon him. The player who went toe-to-toe with peak Kawhi Leonard in his NBA basketball infancy promised something we were too impatient for. When a person strives to claim Luka’s perfection, it seems less confident in his potential than those who critique him with nuance. Yes, there are haters, but they don’t think he can be the best player in the world! They don’t see the potential we do. No way anyone that brilliant will end up like Russ, we think. The staunchest defenders of Luka almost seem to say “it’s okay if he is what he is, it’s great”, but basketball history says that’s never enough. There is an ineffable “secret” to basketball as a team sport, and Luka’s brilliance can distance him from it. There is also something ineffable about taking on the moment, an element even Lebron had to conquer, and something we should feel confident Luka has. Every star has his own lessons to learn.
I believe Luka himself knows he isn’t a finished product. Like us regular folk, a person is foolish through the first half of their twenties and not yet an adult. It’s science, after all, that your brain finishes its development around the same time an athletic prime ensues. If Luka holds within him basketball genius, then he himself will look back at how much he had to learn. Getting in shape shouldn’t just be a physical transformation, but also an act of becoming more aware of himself; becoming humbled. Humility is the key to mental health, and so much of sports is mental.
I believe he will. That’s the difference. Is that you may not think he has to, but that’s a disservice to him. Believing in his limitless ceiling means believing in the limits upon him; Doncic reaching that ceiling depends on his understanding of those limits. Until then, embrace watching him grow. Anyone as good Luka Doncic is supposed to be excited to grow, too. In fact, the worst thing I can imagine for him is to be as self-satisfied as some of his fans. I hope he’s hungry.