The Heliocentric Offense: Can Luka Doncic Carry Dallas Across The Finish Line?

Historically, heliocentric offenses have struggled to maintain their luster throughout the playoffs. James Harden’s Rockets are the exemplar for the typical outcome of these offenses. The Dallas Mavericks, who are coming off a Western Conference Finals berth, will once again utilize this style. 

During the regular season, Luka Doncic had a usage percentage of 36.8%, which ranked 2nd in the NBA behind Joel Embiid. However, that number jumped to the highest mark in the playoffs at 39.6%. Their championship hopes hinge on the following question – can Luka shine bright enough to be the Sun? 

Luka Doncic Isolation Scoring 

For Luka to successfully dominate the ball to this degree, he must be a proficient isolation scorer who can consistently break down even the best defenders off the dribble. Of the 67 players who recorded at least 100 isolation possessions during the entire year (regular season plus playoffs), Doncic ranked 6th in points per possession and 4th in eFG%. 

These impressive numbers don’t tell the whole story though, as Doncic absorbed more defensive attention than anyone. Per CourtOptix, he faced the most possessions per game while double teamed. 

The chart below via BBall-Index highlights Luka’s isolation brilliance. One on One talent captures a player’s isolation ability while factoring in vital context such as matchup difficulty, shot quality, and shot location. Pull-up Shooting talent also features the same context. Because of this, these metrics are far more accurate and indicative of success than a number like FG%.  

Luka Isolation Chart

Kevin Durant – who is universally hailed as one of the best scorers of all time – resides somewhat near Luka, but no player matches the Mavericks superstar. He ranks 1st in both One on One Talent and Pull Up Shooting Talent, which should inspire confidence in his capability to carry the half-court offense every possession. 

Doncic’s superb scoring has manifested itself into a playoff career 32.5 PPG, which ranks 2nd all time behind Michael Jordan. Luka is utterly unstoppable despite the fact that he is only 23-years-old! His feel for the game and offensive repertoire is only becoming more refined; it has been on display this summer in Eurobasket. He’s added a Kareem-esque hook shot to his drives that even the tallest defenders will have trouble bothering. 

Luka Doncic Gravity & Playmaking 

He can score at will, but being a deadly isolation scorer isn’t enough to carry an offense. What happens when the double team comes? If a kick-out to reset the play is the only option for the scorer, then there isn’t much value because the defense re-forms. However, this doesn’t apply to Doncic because he is an otherworldly playmaker while under duress. 

The chart below via BBall-Index portrays Luka’s playmaking and defensive pressure. Playmaking Talent measures shot creation with context like closest defender and degree of difficulty. On-Ball Gravity, meanwhile, evaluates the amount of defensive attention a player commands with the ball. Essentially, a player with higher gravity would always draw multiple defenders close to him, while a player with low gravity would have defenders constantly sagging off of them. 

Luka Playmaking Chart

There is no player in the same stratosphere as Doncic for the combination of playmaking and on-ball gravity. Despite the close proximity of multiple defenders, Luka effectively creates quality looks for teammates. I use the term “practical playmaker” to describe a player who makes the right reads and constantly utilizes passing to increase shot quality for teammates regardless of whether the pass itself was flashy or awe-inspiring. Doncic is the definition of this term, as he substantially decreases the difficulty of attempts for teammates – his passing isn’t just part of a highlight reel. 

Luka Doncic Impact on Shot Quality 

His immense impact can easily be seen by the team numbers. ShotQuality “predicts shot outcomes by evaluating the quality of each attempt.” Over 90 variables are considered, including shot making ability, defender closeout, and location of attempt. Essentially, it calculates the theoretical value of the attempt in a points per possession view and removes luck from the equation. Overall, it provides the expected points, which is more indicative of future success than actual points. 

For the entire season (per ShotQuality), Dallas ranked 2nd in Adjusted Offensive ShotQuality, 4th in Open Three Rate, and 3rd in Rim & Three Shot Quality points per possession. Their hyper-efficient offense generated excellent looks at the rim and from the corner, which are the two most desirable shot attempts. 

When looking at the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals, the Mavericks heavily underperformed their expected results due to poor shooting on open attempts. They beat the Suns 4-3 and lost to the Warriors 4-1, but the Mavericks were 5-2 in shot quality against Phoenix and 5-0 against Golden State. The following chart displays just how severely Dallas underachieved compared to a Warriors team that overperformed expected results. 

Mavs Actual PPG vs SQ PPG

Why is this encouraging for the Mavericks? Despite their 4-1 WCF loss, the offensive system clearly worked. Luka Doncic effectively shouldered the burden and gifted teammates attempts with a high expected value. If Dallas had shot to their normal standards, they may have been the team representing the West in the NBA Finals. 

Optimal Offensive Lineup Around Luka Doncic

With Luka’s isolation scoring, ball handling, and playmaking, the Mavericks need to provide him two things: three-point shooting and a pick and roll partner. Dallas ranked 3rd in spacing last season according to ShotQuality, and their outside shooting will again be effective this season. 

 Catch & Shoot 3PACatch & Shoot 3PT%
Spencer Dinwiddie2.342.3
Reggie Bullock5.337.4
Dorian Finney-Smith5.140.1
Christian Wood (with HOU)3.639.7
Tim Hardaway Jr5.034.3
Davis Bertans3.636.3
Maxi Kleber4.232.9

The four projected starters thrived as catch and shoot threats; the lowest percentage last season was Bullock at 37.4 3PT%. Bertans and Kleber didn’t excel, but they had down years and remain extremely effective. When considering his outlets, Luka has a plethora of weapons that hopefully play to their capability during the playoffs. 

As for the pick and roll partner, the Mavericks acquired Christian Wood (17.9 PPG) from the Rockets. He doesn’t set bone-crushing screens, but he’s mobile, elusive and a good shooter. Wood can either roll to the basket or pick and pop, which creates options. Luka managed to form one of the most effective pick and roll duos with the offensively limited Dwight Powell, so the thought of Wood replacing him is tantalizing. 

Reasons For Optimism 

The system worked in the playoffs, and Chrisitan Wood is a fantastic fit for the offense. However, the biggest plus is the improvement of Luka Doncic. Not only did he increase his offensive skill set, but he made conditioning a point of emphasis over the off-season. The Luka-centric offense is extremely taxing for him, and he appeared to be worn down by the end of the Warriors series. His conditioning work will pay huge dividends, which boosts Dallas’ championship aspirations. 

Overall, Luka and the Mavericks enter this season in great shape. Can they claim a championship with a heliocentric offense? It’s arguably the hardest style to win with, yet I submit that they can with Luka as that centerpiece. It may not happen until he is in his prime, but Luka’s scoring and shot creation cross the necessary threshold. 

Braxton has been writing for Lineups since December 2021 with the majority of his articles focused on the NBA. He is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group.

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