Good games, weird data

Luka Dončić should shoot stepback free throws

Luka Dončić should shoot stepback free throws

On Wednesday night, Luka Dončić put the entire Dallas Mavericks organization on his ailing shoulders and carried them to a pivotal Game 5 win. Nearly every successful play for the Mavericks developed through the guile and brilliance of Dončić.

Only six Dallas baskets in the entire game happened without Dončić's influence, a staggering offensive workload that turned the season's oddest playoff matchup on its head once more. Rob Perez chronicled the absurity of this gravitional pull possession by possession, underlining the ridiculousness of Dallas's one-man offense.

Dončić would manipulate the defense, identify the most advantageous outcome given the positioning, and create the shot that best attacked the opposition. He analyzed his options like a pitcher staring down a catcher, turning away sign after sign until finally landing on the right pitch. Yet, instead of staying stationary at the mound, Dončić did all that chased around the court by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the NBA's best wing defenders.

While Dallas enjoys a 3-2 lead thanks to this transcendent Dončić performance, there's one glarity oddity in his offensive output. Somehow, Dončić makes everything but free throws.

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Misery from the charity stripe

On Hollinger & Duncan, the NBA podcast hosted by John Hollinger and Nate Duncan, a listener asked about Dončić's incongruous shooting splits. He pointed out that Dončić thrives beyond the arc but strugglies mightily at the line.

Through five games, Dončić converts his free throws and his threes exactly 42.9% of the time, per Basketball Reference.  Nothing captures this oddity better than the fact he's shooting better than playoff Steph Curry from three and worse than playoff Shaq from the line.

He makes his freebies at the same rate as this pirouetting stepback.

Part of me wonders if Dončić only scores the impossible ones, forever chasing the NBA Street gamebreaker bar.

His combination of long-range lethality and free throw futility barely appears in NBA playoff history. From Stathead, I filtered playoff performances for players with at least fifteen minutes played across three playoff games, shooting over 40% from three and worse from the line.

76 different players shot this strangely across 81 playoff appearances. Hollinger and Duncan guessed correctly that Bruce Bowen, the Spurs defensive specialist from their 2000s dynasty, would join the list on much lower usage from three. This trend extends to the majority of the list, who qualify for the three point threshold by virtue of minimal attempts.

Dončić stands a bit ahead of his foul foul-shooting brethern from beyond the arc. Among this cohort, he more than doubles the next closest player on three point attempts per game.

When adjusted to playoff performers who take as many threes, Dončić's free throw woes stand out even more. Other than Dončić, no one who shoots at least ten threes a game in the playoffs shot worse than 70% from the line, per Stathead. He's socially distanced from all of his fellow long distance bombers.

He's a high-usage jump shooter who converts his free throws like a center, a combination that never appeared before in NBA playoff history.

Breaking usage records

In fact, adding a more restrictive filter of three or more attempts from three per game and tracking the usage rate of the eligible shooters really highlights the rarity of Dončić's box scores. Usage tracks the share of possessions a player takes while on offense, combining assists, shots, and turnovers.

Only seven other players in NBA playoff history shoot as poorly as Dončić from the line while taking at least three 3's a game. These players could not have more different offensive responsibilities.

No one who struggles like Dončić at free throws also boasts such a staggering offensive workload. His takeover of the Dallas offense puts him in rarified area among heliocentric superstars in the playoffs.

According to Stathead, Dončić boasts a 42.4% usage rate this postseason. In NBA playoff history, only MVP season Russell Westbrook produced a higher usage rate among players with at least 100 minutes played. In fact, Westbrook and Dončić are the only two ever to use more than 40% of their team's possessions in the playoffs.

Westbrook's one-man supernova earned him the Most Valuable Player trophy, the first triple double per-game average since Oscar Robertson, and a playoff exit in five games against the Rockets. Dončić can buck that trend tonight.

Game 6 offers Dončić and the Mavericks a chance to win the series at home. A victory there might be difficult—somehow, the road team won every single game so far—but Dallas's success or failure will flow through Dončić regardless. He's a must-watch superstar attempting to upset a bonafide contender with a historic workload, and tonight might be the biggest game of his young NBA career.

Just please, make those free throws.

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Jamie Larson