Luka Dončić: The 2020/21 NBA MVP?

Javier Mendia García (Cropped)
When it comes to the NBA’s MVP, don’t get too comfortable Giannis – Luka’s got next.

Poor Phoenix.

I remember reading an article about the Phoenix Suns. It was about how the team isn’t tanking right now – they’re just losing.

Tanking is supposed to come with some kind of reward. One big win at the end of a period of small, numerous losses.

It’s a process, if you will.

You tank, you suck, you get a good draft pick, you get a good player and then they make you suck a little less.

It’s the circle of life.

To the naked eye Phoenix are tanking. Allegedly loosing on purpose to draft that can’t miss prospect. That player who would have an immediate impact on the franchise. And even if all that losing wasn’t on purpose (why would anyone admit to losing on purpose?), it did lead to the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, however.

Deandre Ayton was the prize. The big man, the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on the franchise. He played for the University of Arizona too.

It was perfect.

Now I’m not here to slate Deandre Ayton. He’s a good player don’t get me wrong – he was All-Rookie First Team. But since they drafted him the Suns are 45-102. He also had his drug policy violation and subsequent ban. I’m not pinning the fact that the Suns aren’t winning games on him – the Suns have had a host of other problems over the last few years. In fact the failings of the Phoenix Suns organisation is a whole other topic to write about in its own right.

I want to focus on the Dallas Mavericks, who had the fifth pick in that 2018 NBA Draft. They managed to get a 19 year old European after a trade with Atlanta involving another first round pick and Trae Young. They obviously saw something in this European.

That kid is 20 now. That kid is the next great NBA talent. That kid is the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on his franchise.

That kid is Luka Dončić.

Luka won Rookie of the Year for the 2018/19 season, averaging 21 points, almost 8 rebounds and 6 assists a game. In NBA history, only two 19 year olds have averaged 21/6/6, or even 20/5/5, for an entire season – Luka and LeBron James.

That’s pretty good company.

But as stats exist in a vacuum, it’s important to note that both Luka and LeBron were basically handed the keys to the franchise in their rookie years – both players had their team’s highest Usage Percentage. The ball was in their hands, and the systems that they played in were designed to put it there.

LeBron’s team in his Rookie year is seen as the worst he’s ever been on, and the Mavericks traded the player they selected with their first round draft pick from the year before to make Luka the primary ball handler. These two young stars’ teams revolved around them.

But winning ROY doesn’t always mean you’re going to be MVP, or play anywhere near that level (sorry Michael Carter-Williams). But Luka was instantly seen as something special. There was even a chance in his debut NBA season he’d be the first Rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to play in an All-Star game. He ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Don’t get too upset he didn’t make it though, he got there in his second year.

And that second year has been pretty impressive, much like the first year. Actually, it hasn’t been “pretty impressive”.

It’s been phenomenal.

In his second year in the NBA, at 20 years old, Luka is averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists a game. Only one other player has averaged that for an entire season, Oscar Robertson.

If 28/9/8 seems a little too cherry picked, Luka is one of only six players in NBA history to average 25/8/8 for a year. Luka is also one of eight players to average a ‘LeBron‘ for an entire season (27/7/7), which, in my opinion, is the gold standard for all-around basketball play. All the other players on these lists, besides Luka, are current, or future, Basketball Hall of Famers.

But again, it’s important to note that all these players always had (or have) the ball in their hands. They also led (or lead) their teams in Usage Percentage for these seasons. I’m not counting Luke Jackson’s 10 games for Cleveland in 2004/05, Coby Karl’s 3 games for Cleveland in 2009/10 and Josh Reaves’ 2 games for Dallas this season. Sue me.

Luka is the joint youngest player to put up these numbers too, so hopefully as Yazz sang, the only way is up.

That MVP could well be on the horizon.

But, for a player to be awarded the MVP, voters do concentrate on these stats, but also on the win/loss record of the player’s team and the media narrative surrounding said player (as odd as that sounds, just give it to the best player).

Allow me to explain quickly.

When Russell Westbrook won the MVP in 2017 playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was putting up absurd numbers. He became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. He was winning games and getting the Thunder into the Playoffs – even if it was only a six seed. But most importantly, the storyline of his season was dominated by the fact that Kevin Durant had left in free agency. Westbrook was the “one who stayed”, and he dragged his team into the Playoffs all by himself (or so it seemed, I’m not going to get into that season right now).

Russell was the “most valuable” player. He led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, minutes – almost everything. He won MVP because his individual stats were impressive, his team won games, and because he had a story that triumphed over all others.

Luka can do this too.

The stats mentioned previously show he can put up the numbers. The man seems to stuff the stat sheet, but not in the obscene and egregious way that Westbrook does. Or maybe he does. Either way, the basketball talent this 20 year old possesses would confuse even James Naismith.

Also, the Mavericks’ system will give Luka the ball. This year he’s second only to the one-man-wrecking crew that is Giannis Antetokounmpo in Usage Percentage. He also has the sixth most isolation possessions per game in the entire NBA. Dallas give him the ball and let Luka loose.

There’s no doubt that the Mavericks can win games. They’ve got a coaching savant in Rick Carlisle sat on their bench, and a solid number two in Porzingis.

Plus, the MVP voters may get tired of Giannis’ dominance with the award. Voter fatigue is a real thing, ask Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Voters felt that it was Malone’s “turn” in the late 90s – even if MJ was the better player. Plus, as this article from Bleacher Report points out: “Voter fatigue tends to slant toward up-and-coming players.” Luka’s only been in the league for two years, and he’s certainly up and coming to say the least.

So, voters can look at; the Slovenian wonder’s numbers, the fact that he has the ball in his hands, my assumption that the Mavericks will win games, and their possible Giannis-related boredom.

All signs point to Luka.

His play is already near MVP level too.

Luka said himself that in the NBA, “it’s easier to score compared to Europe”.

He’s got that signature move, the step back jumper. Despite not being the quickest move of all time, it’s still effective. You can see how it helps him get into his shooting rhythm and is almost unguardable.

He’s also got a strange combination of a first step and a head fake to drive towards the basket. Again, it’s not the quickest move, but it seems to get defenders off balance and get him to the hole. Even if a drive doesn’t lead to him directly going in for a score, he can set up his crafty “I’m going to stick me inbetween you and the ball” body position to keep defenders away.

His passing is already fantastic.

He seems to like to jump and pass the ball to the roller when running the pick and roll, which can be a little risky. But this elevation, combined with the height advantage he already has over smaller guards, enables him to see over the defence and zip the ball right where it needs to be. But it’s his lob passes that impress me. Just watch the touch on this one. The ball floats in the air for a second, just begging to plucked out of the sky.

However, his defending could do with some work.

His one on one defending isn’t bad, but as he’s not the most athletic player in the world, it’s hard for him to shift his feet quickly enough sometimes. But, he seems to read the game well, and knows where to stand. He’ll get better over time.

By the way, bad defending never stopped James Harden from winning the MVP.

Speaking of Harden, Luka’s 3-point percentage is slightly below the league average of 35% at 32%. In my opinion, to really take his game to the next level, he needs to get that up into the high 30s. But it’s not a bad percentage by any means. The opposition still need to respect him from 3-point range, so he spreads the floor nicely – that opens up opportunities on the pick and roll, or for Luka to drive into the paint himself.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the stupendous Slovenian enough now. The Eurostar. Ludicrous Luka. Dynamic Dončić.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when European players come to the NBA sometimes. As a Chicago Bulls fan, I remember how excited everyone was when they drafted former Liga ACB MVP Nikola Mirotić. He was good, but, maybe not as good as everyone thought he would be.

Luka is a former Spanish league MVP too, so you can argue that he knows what it takes to win this kind of award.

Everything seems to be in place for Luka to be MVP next year.

He can put up the individual stats. He can win the games. He can steal the media spotlight from Giannis.

To get players to play at an MVP level, yes, teams do need to put a good set of complimentary players around them, coach them well, have a good win/loss record and some Playoff success.

But you have to make sure that the player is the next great NBA talent. That the player is the can’t miss prospect. That the player is the one who will have the immediate impact on the franchise.

So you need to get lucky, and you need to draft the right player.

Poor Phoenix.

I took all my stats from Basketball Reference and stats.NBA.com – which are both great if you’re into that kind of thing. Also if you’re interested in Luka’s play a little more, watch this video by Thinking Basketball on his Rookie year – it’s fantastic and the YouTube channel should have way more subscribers that it does.

Michael Jordan and The Last Dance

(Netflix)
After watching the last episode of The Last Dance on Netflix last night, here’s a few thoughts on what I learned from it all as someone who knew some, but not all of what they went in to.

Spoiler Alert: All of The Last Dance, basically. Obviously.

Pretty much all of you have seen Space Jam, so you know who Michael Jordan is. He’s the best basketball player ever, global icon, champion, gold medalist, cigar aficionado, meme, hero, villain, everything. He is basketball. The king of kings.

My name is Michael Jordan, king of kings;
Look on my rings, ye mighty, and despair!

But in all seriousness, he was the NBA in the 1990s. That smooth fadeaway jumper, the dunks with the tongue sticking out, the dominance.

Unstoppable.

I knew about the Bulls (obviously). I knew he’d won six championships in eight years, took a season and a bit off to play baseball (yes, really), won six Finals MVPs, won five regular season MVPs, was a dominant sporting force and I knew pretty much all of the Michael Jordan lore.

I knew about the game against the Celtics, The Shot, the lay-up in the 1991 Finals, The Shrug in 1992, passing to Paxson in 1993, 72-10 and winning the title on Fathers Day in 1996, The Flu Game in 1997, and his final shot in 1998.

All of that was a spoiler if you didn’t know anything about him or basketball, but it goes over it all in the documentary anyway.

Talking about spoilers, that’s one thing I felt they did well with The Last Dance. They really managed to build suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat, before you just think, “Oh yeah, this happened 20 years ago and I know exactly what happens.”

That’s probably a nice metaphor for MJ there actually.

You were on the edge of your seat watching him, but you still knew exactly what was going to happen. He was going to win. That was his thing, he was the ultimate winner. Ultra competitive, and you really saw that in The Last Dance. To look inside his head and see, in his own words, what the psychology of a winner is like, was amazing.

To be surrounded by all these professional athletes, the best basketball players in the world, and he would still think he was the best, still wanted to prove he was the best, still wanted more, and was still driven to win, was brilliant to watch.

He never wanted people to think they had one over him. Like the bit with Gary Payton and he’s all, “Oh yeah when I defended him he got tired and that’s why they lost those two games against us in the 1996 Finals.” (I’m paraphrasing there).

Then MJ laughs and goes, “I had no problem with The Glove.”

That’s some BMT stuff right there. Badass, absolute badass.

You saw he did whatever it took to win, well, did whatever it took to put himself in that situation mentally, where he could find something to motivate himself to win. You would never be able to have one over on MJ, he just wouldn’t let it happen. He had to win. He needed to win. You saw it in the documentary.

That story about LaBradford Smith saying, “Nice game Mike,” and then MJ just spanking him in the next game was absurd. It was made even more absurd when it turns out he didn’t even say it! Jordan just needed to find some way to drive himself to dominate.

Which I suppose is a strange thought in itself.

The only thing stopping him from wiping the floor with any basketball player in the world at the time, was him knowing they thought he was the best. But how can you think anyone’s better than you when people scream your name everywhere you go, there are cameras in your face all the time, and apparently five people want to deliver your pizza in Utah just to see you? (I’m not getting into that nonsense, watch it yourself). What’s the Kanye lyric? “Hood phenomenon, the LeBron of rhyme / Hard to be humble when you stunting on a jumbotron“.

People hated LeBron for how he saw himself, thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But you can see with Jordan in this documentary how people put him on that pedestal – so why would you not think it? People didn’t really seem to hate MJ for that.

They seem to hate him for that same competitiveness that made him so great. That competitiveness that appeared to make him push people to do what he was doing, even though to everyone else on the planet it was impossible. Especially his teammates. I knew he wasn’t the nicest to them.

I knew it was bad.

Those parts of him laying into Kukoc and Harper were harsh, but, poor Scott Burrell. He was going at Scott Burrell all the time. Constantly. There’s no need to call him a ho MJ, come on. The mad part about that is, if this is what he says when he knows the cameras were on, what did he do when they were off?

Oh yeah, he’d punch Steve Kerr in the face.

People counter it by saying he’s pushing his teammates to win, and I see that. He’s not asking them to train or practise any harder than he would. But like I said, not everyone is Michael Jordan.

Not everyone can do what you do MJ.

Is gambling the next logical step with competitiveness? Would he want to win everything, so would he make everything a contest by putting money on it? Again, I’m not so sure, but The Last Dance‘s step into that was interesting. I didn’t know about his trip to Atlantic City trip in the playoffs because he wanted to go gamble. And how he casually got a limo there. As you do.

But who am I to preach to Michael Jordan? He had a pretty good career, so it’s incredibly harsh to pass judgement on gambling I think. It never affected his basketball (David Stern talked about about it, and he thought the same), unless you believe the suspension baloney that led to him playing baseball.

Regardless, and again, it’s all a part of his psyche, and there for you to see.

Perhaps it wasn’t a suspension that led to him playing baseball, maybe it was more of a, “Screw you guys, I’m going to play baseball” kind of thing. Everyone was on his back for the gambling, and sadly his dad died, so he thought, “You know what? I’m gonna hit some homers in the old diamond.”

You saw he wasn’t that good at baseball to start, but again, the work ethic and the competitiveness came through. He was getting better because he was putting in the work. He couldn’t stand not being the best.

That’s the highlight of the whole documentary for me. The look into the ultimate winner’s head, and seeing why winners win. Looking at how their brains are wired.

Oh yeah, and there’s some sick basketball in it too.

Just quickly, here are a few specific points I really liked and just wanted to point out:

  • The Chicago Bulls traveling cocaine circus in the 80s. I knew cocaine was a problem for the NBA from Bill Simmons’ book, but still, hearing MJ talk about it was pretty mad.
  • How awful was the quality of competition in the NBA if MJ wasn’t lifting weights until the early 90s? Bro you gotta get that squat up! There was literally only one team that he couldn’t beat until then. Madness.
  • The individual bits on the past of Jackson, Pippen, Rodman and the like. It was interesting to see where they came from, and how little I actually knew about them. To think I was worried about how much money Pippen was making.
  • He still hates Isiah Thomas to this day. I’m sure you didn’t keep him off The Dream Team, Mike.
  • The footage of him and Kobe at the All-Star game. Awesome. RIP Kobe.
  • The bits of him talking about playing all the NBA stars when filming Space Jam. That movie has given society so much.
  • Toni Kukoc’s defending of Karl Malone (I think it was) in episode nine, when he just kind of danced on his toes and let Malone back him down. I’m not sure why but it just got me laughing.
  • That Larry Bird and MJ “bitch” exchange from episode nine. Stupendous.
  • The photo above, where he’s swinging the bat and smoking a cigar like some kind of weird mob boss. It had me, and everyone else on the internet, reeling.

All in all, it was interesting to see inside his brain, to see his competitiveness and what made him tick. It didn’t really criticise him or go into anything that was too serious, or could maybe paint him in a bad light. But MJ had a hand in making the documentary, so I’m not sure what I expected. The behind the scenes footage was ace, the basketball was ace, as was the fact you really got to see why they called him ‘Air’.

He flew.

It was so good to learn about one of the biggest celebrities ever, and even better to have something basketball related in this Coronavirus drenched world we’re living in. Give it a watch if you haven’t. If you have, watch this video on what the Bulls did after MJ retired. It’s a great video connecting what Reinsdorf talks about in the last episode, to what the Bulls became in the 2000s.

I want to live the rest of my life wanting to be as good at something as much as Michael Jordan wanted it.

Or I might just play as him on 2K.

Rose Coloured Spectacles

“I am trying to post stuff more frequently.” Whoops. Anyway, here’s D. Rose and the 2010/11 Chicago Bulls.

The Last Dance has me thinking a lot about my Chicago Bulls.

When I say my Chicago Bulls, I mean the team that I watched. The team that was mine. The Michael Jordan teams from the 90s were not my team. I barely knew what basketball was back then. I’d seen Space Jam, but that was about it.

The 2010 Finals were really when I started watching the sport, but the 2010/11 season was when I found a team and followed them. That team was the Chicago Bulls.

The 2010/11 Chicago Bulls were my team.

And looking back at them is a lot of fun.

Don’t get me wrong, MJ’s Bulls were a far better team than the 2010/11 Bulls, but I didn’t watch them. I watched this team, and I watched Derrick Rose in his MVP year. I loved that season too, I loved watching Derrick Rose play, it was exciting, it was fun, and they won games.

I was staying up until about 6am (especially in the Playoffs) just to watch basketball on some dodgy stream, which, depending on the stream, was so pixelated the ball was just a few orange squares on the TV.

Rose was great that year. People say that LeBron should have won the MVP, and maybe they were right, but he didn’t. Derrick Rose won it. 25 points per game, 7.7 assists per game, All-Star, All-NBA, best player on the league’s best regular season team. MVP.

I remember watching the Playoffs too, and bloody, Psycho T, Tyler Hansbrough (who? exactly.) being a story in the first round when the Bulls played the Pacers, because he had a good game. If memory serves in the first game, the Pacers were leading for most of it, but the Bulls pulled out a win down the stretch because Rose just, did what your best player should do and won the game.

I think it was Game 3 of the second round when Derrick Rose had a (then) career high in points (upon Googling it, that was 44 points) against the Hawks and that was cool to watch. They won the series, and me in 2011 was all, “Wow, basketball is ace! I can’t wait for the Bulls to win the Championship and it’s going to be even more fun that it is now, and I’m having so much fun right now!”

Hahahaha, oh god.

Yeah, losing to the Heat kind of sucked. I remember people saying, “make anyone else but Rose beat you,” and that’s what the Heat did. The team wasn’t quite there yet, as amazing as I thought they were. Luol Deng wasn’t an All-Star yet. Joakim Noah wasn’t that Defensive Player of the Year yet, or the player where you could stick him in the high post or the top of the key and run everything through him because he’s such a great passer yet. So the Heat kind of took advantage of that. They won in 5.

At least we had this:

But I remember thinking, “that sucked, but there’s next year. This is going to be a great team to watch for a while. Derrick Rose is going to be a great player to watch for a while.”

Everyone knows what happened next. The injuries ruined Rose.

I’m not here to get into that, but I believe that if he stayed healthy, the Bulls have at least one Championship. The other players become better. They have their superstar, their MVP player. They get a steal of a draft pick in Jimmy Butler. Maybe if all this happens even Carmelo Anthony joins in Free Agency. That sounds like a Championship to me.

Derrick Rose still had his moments though, see exhibits A, B and C:

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be, but looking back at this season fills me with happy basketball memories. Maybe the fact there’s no basketball on right now is making me nostalgic, but, it’s nice to remember.

Maybe they weren’t even that good of a team. They didn’t win anything. They just had an unbelievable player. Or maybe they were. They were a great team defensively, and you have to defend as a team.

I don’t know.

Maybe they were better in my head, looking back at a team that only went as far as one Conference Championship and saying they were “my team” is a bit much.

But, they were my team.

Do I want to know how good they really were? No.

It’s just nice to think about my basketball team.

An Englishman’s Ode to Kobe

(AFP/Getty Images)
I thought I’d write a few words about how, even though I never realised, Kobe Bryant got me into basketball.

Kobe Bryant sounds weird. It was always just Kobe.

Kobe got me into basketball and the NBA.

I remember playing as Kobe on NBA 2K9. I had no previous interest in basketball, or really knew anything about it – but I played a demo, enjoyed it, and bought the game. At 16 it got me interested in the sport, but I eventually found out that in England it was always kind of hard to watch the NBA. In-between the time difference, school, and University, watching games was near impossible. I’m not going to go into how I managed to end up watching games, but the 2010 Finals were the first time I truly followed the NBA.

Kobe was MVP of those finals when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 4 games to 3. I didn’t really know what I was watching to be perfectly honest, but I bloody loved it. Kobe got buckets in those finals too:

  • Game 1 – 30
  • Game 2 – 21
  • Game 3 – 29
  • Game 4 – 33
  • Game 5 – 38
  • Game 6 – 26
  • Game 7 – 23

He averaged almost 30, but, I just remember it captivating me – and Kobe was the star of the show. Even when Ray Allen was going off for all those threes in Game 2, I just vividly remember (and it might not even have been in that game, but that’s not the point) Kobe sticking his hand right in front of Allen’s face, daring him to shoot. I was thinking: “What on earth is that?” The notion of it was just so weird to me, because I was so new to the game. That, alongside him stood on the scorers table, are what I remember from those finals.

I was hooked. Kobe was considered the best in the first series I’d ever watched. The man would do whatever it took to win, and I saw it for all of those 7 games.

Mamba Mentality.

Now I’d like to take you to the 2012 Olympics.

This was really the first time I was able to watch basketball at a reasonable time (I know, woe is me). I knew who the players were. I knew LeBron, I knew KD, I knew Chris Paul, and of course I knew Kobe. I remember him and LeBron from those Olympics. Not much of a story here, but Kobe’s what I remember.

People always talk about how the 2008 Olympics were his magnum opus.

They went to him down the stretch. But I didn’t watch that. I remember them doubling Pau Gasol and they still couldn’t stop him, and I thought: “Woah boy, here comes Kobe time!” He had some big shots in 2012, a big offensive rebound and put back, but no real take over. Not knocking him, the game didn’t need that.

But the point is that’s what you expected from Kobe. You expected him to take over. You expected him to do whatever it took to win.

Mamba Mentality.

The man tore his achilles tendon literally CARRYING his team into the playoffs. The Lakers (who were supposed to be a ‘Super Team’ that season with him, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) were average heading to the 2013 playoffs, but Kobe became more of a passer, and they won games. They lost in the first round, but that’s neither here nor there – no Kobe. That season I remember so vividly. I remember him tweeting about taking the ball into the post (or something like that) really aggressively because that’s how he saw the Lakers winning the series.

He did whatever it took to win.

Mamba Mentality.

I’m not here to talk about his famous work ethic, the fact he has 2 numbers retired at The Staples Centre, or he scored 81 in a game against the Raptors. I’m not here to mention his rings, his MVP, or his All-Star appearances. I don’t really know what I’m here to talk about.

I just wanted to say thank you to Kobe. He got me into Basketball, and I never even knew it. He was there when I grew an interest in it, and helped turn an interest into love. He made it fun to watch. He was fun to watch. He’s the reason I’m here, trying to write about the NBA. He started it all.

I never really thought about it until last night.

Thank you Kobe.

Mamba Mentality.

All info from Basketball Reference and my Kobe reflecting memory.