Luka Doncic is playing with one eye on the MVP

    That evening, Doncic went with another option, sticking his rump into Devin Booker and scooting him backward into the lane. By the time Doncic raised up for a 8-foot push shot, Booker could only smack his arm, tacking a free-throw onto the bucket.Over the first third of the 2022-23 season, Doncic has had the best offensive campaign of his career, averaging 32.2 points per game and shooting 49.4% from the field while passing out 8.7 assists. Part of the reason for the success is that this avatar of basketball’s future is plumbing its mothballed past: the post-up.This way of playing was long a foundation of the sport, linking all of its dominant big men (Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan) and many of its iconic guards (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant).Then Stephen Curry rewired basketball. During the 2015-16 season—the year after Curry’s first title with the Golden State Warriors, when the NBA published play-type data for the first time—a dozen players finished plays in the post at least five times per game. Today, only Denver centre Nikola Jokic, who does so 5.3 times per contest, meets that mark.“The game has changed so much in the last 15 years, where you don’t see a lot of post-ups anymore,” Darrell Armstrong, a Mavericks assistant coach, said. He alluded to the Warriors’ habit of stashing the ball in the interior while their marksmen screen and scurry into open space. “If Golden State throws it in to Draymond [Green], he isn’t posting up to score,” Armstrong said. “If we throw it in to Luka, he’s going to score.”This season, Doncic has posted up almost twice as often as he ever had previously; his 4.3 such plays per game rank fourth in the NBA. (A 6-foot-7-inch player designated alternately as a point guard or forward, he trails three centres in the ranking and sits just ahead of two more.) To watch him is to glimpse an approach that a perimeter-centric version of the sport has threatened with obsolescence: studied close-quarter footwork and sequences of feints, with a layup or fadeaway emerging like the resolution of a geometric proof.Chasson Randle, a guard for the Grand Rapids Gold of the NBA’s G League, played alongside a teenage Doncic for Real Madrid of Spain’s Liga ACB. “He wasn’t as strong as he is now, I’m sure, but he had a solid body,” Randle said of the player now leveraging all of his 230 pounds. Randle credits the tactical priorities of European basketball, which favour exploiting game-by-game match-ups over holding to rehearsed attacks, for Doncic’s development. “Wherever there’s an advantage, that’s where the ball goes,” Randle said. “With Luka being a bigger guard, his advantage was when smaller guards were on him in the post.”What Doncic did when he got there was of his own design. Randle singled out a manoeuvre Doncic imported to the States, in which he abandons his dribble, fakes passes past his defender’s ear and waistband and, when the made-you-look moment finally comes, pops a lay-in over his head.“He was always under control, calm,” Randle said. “Able to get exactly what he wanted.”Real Madrid’s edge has become Dallas’ necessity, as the team tries to ease the burden on its superstar. Even while Doncic has levelled up this season, the Mavericks, who let fellow attacking guard Jalen Brunson walk in free agency this summer, have struggled to find consistent offence from other sources. They sit at ninth place in the Western Conference, with a 16-16 record. (A silver lining is that their opponent in Sunday’s marquee Christmas matchup, the 13-18 Los Angeles Lakers, has fallen even further short of expectations.) Entering Wednesday’s games, with Doncic on the floor, Dallas has scored 119.6 points per 100 possessions, which lands them in the 92nd percentile of line-ups leaguewide, according to Cleaning The Glass. When he sits, that number shrinks to 106.4, which puts them in the 7th percentile.“He’s asked what he can do more,” said Mavericks coach Jason Kidd. “That’s a hard question to answer, because he’s doing everything for us.”Working out of the post gives Doncic a measure of rest, allowing him to direct the offence—scoring himself or, if the defence sends a double-team, spreading passes out to the shooters in his orbit—without doing the stop-start labour of driving from the perimeter. “We’re trying to get him the ball in spots where he can score and he doesn’t have to work hard,” Armstrong said. “You see a lot of guys try to pick him up and wear down his legs.”Though the reasons for the strategy are practical, the appeal is nostalgic. A fanmade YouTube highlight reel shows split-screen clips of Doncic alongside the Mavericks’ previous franchise pillar, 7-foot power forward Dirk Nowitzki. If the players were in silhouette, a viewer may not be able to tell the difference. Each sends down the same rhythm dribble, swivels into the same leaning jump shot, takes the same step underneath the defender’s armpit for a layup.Andre Miller—Randle’s coach at Grand Rapids and, before that, a 17-year NBA point guard known to mix it up near the basket—sees in Doncic a refreshing blast from basketball past. Miller admitted to some fatigue with the primacy of the 3-pointer, and said that dispensing with post play has meant setting aside decades of passed-down hoops wisdom.Appraising Doncic’s work in his former quarters, Miller remarked on the Slovenian’s willingness to flip through the archives. “He’s got a mixture of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the shiftiness. I’m seeing a little bit of Charles Barkley, because he can pound you with his butt and shoot a fadeaway,” Miller said. “You can tell he’s watched a lot of basketball before him.”-The Wall Street Journal

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