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NBA Daily: Luka vs. LeBron At 20

Luka Doncic’s incredible start has many comparing him at 20 years old to LeBron James at 20. It isn’t crazy – could the Dallas Mavericks sensation be better? Drew Mays writes.

Drew Mays

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In 2004-05, LeBron James put up 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. The 27-7-7 line was made famous by James. As of this writing, his career marks of 27.1, 7.4 and 7.3 mirror his second season almost to the decimal.

That year, LeBron led the league in playing time at 42.4 minutes per night in 80 games played, numbers that’d make even Tom Thibodeau swoon. His percentages read 47.2% from the field, 35.1% from three and 75% at the free-throw line for 55.4% true shooting. He made the first of now 15 All-Star appearances and narrowly missed the playoffs – something he wouldn’t do again for 13 years.

LeBron’s 2004-05 was arguably the greatest season by a 20-year-old in NBA history.

Fast forward to this season, and Luka Doncic is giving him a run for his money.

Doncic is currently putting up an absurd 30.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game – add a one to each of those numbers and we’re talking about Russell Westbrook’s historic MVP campaign of three years ago. Luka is getting this done in on 34.1 minutes per game and on 48.3% from the field, 33% from three and 82.7% at the free-throw line for a true shooting percentage of 62.4% (for reference, a true shooting in the 60’s is Curry and Harden-like). He’s upped his field goal percentage by six points despite greater volume and his free throw rate by over 11% – a much more accurate number, one would assume when considering his shooting stroke.

Oh, and Doncic has the Mavericks at 13-6 in fourth place in the Western Conference. They even beat LeBron’s Lakers Sunday night in convincing fashion.

Luka’s run, combined with his Rookie of the Year runaway last season, has analysts and fans alike wondering if he’s the best 20-year-old basketball player ever.

Is he? The numbers say yes – and the eye test might too.

As always, arguments without the possibility of direct examination face a few issues. 2004 LeBron and 2019 Luka will never be able to face off. Discussions of this nature also typically result in false aggregations: Comparing the totality of LeBron’s career to less than 100 games of Luka, or the suggestion that LeBron’s legacy leaves him immune to small-sample comparisons.

Of course, these arguments are silly; people like us wouldn’t do things like this if we couldn’t make frozen-in-time comparisons.

And the truth is this: 2019 Luka is more effective than 2004 LeBron. Whether he’s better is up for more debate.

20-year-old Luka being more effective than 20-year-old LeBron isn’t all a product of era. “Effective” isn’t a nod to advanced analytics or a way to say Luka’s only better because of today’s analytic focus. His numbers are just better.

Luka is scoring more points, in fewer minutes and on a higher percentage. He takes and makes more free throws. He also takes more threes (9.4 per game, admittedly a consequence of the state of basketball) and makes more – his 3.1 makes per night nearly triples LeBron’s 1.1, more than making up for the small advantage LeBron holds in percentage.

It’s interesting to think what Luka would do with 8 more minutes per game. If he played the 42 LeBron played, it’s safe to assume his volume would remain the same (his usage this season is at 36%, compared to 29.7% for LeBron). Even if his efficiency dipped, extrapolated over the extra minutes, Luka’s line would read something like 36.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 11.5 assists. That’s insane to look at.

The passing is what makes this a real argument. Numbers can fluctuate based on a variety of factors – we’ve already discussed and know the impact the different eras can have – but the eye test, that same eye test proponents of past players tend to be fond of, says that Luka’s vision is similar to LeBron’s.

Luka is the ultimate decision-maker for Dallas. He regularly handles the ball out top, waits for a screen and play-makes from there. LeBron has done this his entire career and has done so a step ahead of everyone else. Luka is on the same trajectory. He’s one of the two or three best skip passers in the league and one of the five best pick-and-roll passers. His turnovers are even similar to LeBron’s.

The case in favor of sophomore LeBron is his defense and the lesser talent that surrounded him. LeBron came in as the most NBA-ready prospect ever from a physical perspective; he switched across four positions and possessed incredible quickness for a 6-foot-8 player.

However, the numbers show that Luka is comparable defensively. LeBron’s defensive rating in 2004-05 was 103; Luka’s is 105. Luka also holds a 2.6-1.5 advantage in defensive box plus/minus as well.

Now, it’s likely that LeBron was a better defender then than Luka is now. Some of those numbers are skewed by the aforementioned team around each. LeBron was flanked by Jeff McInnis and Ira Newble. Luka enjoys the company of Delon Wright and Dorian Finney-Smith. LeBron also had the rim “protection” of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden; Luka has Kristaps Porzingis and the athletic combo of Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell.

But the biggest tally in Luka’s corner isn’t who he’s playing with, but who he’s playing against. The ’04-05 Cavaliers lost a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot to the New Jersey Nets. The Nets had a strong top three: Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter and Jason Kidd. But Jefferson played 33 games, and Carter and Kidd missed 25 and 16, respectively. The Nets won just 42 games, and the rest of their roster was far from intimidating – Jason Collins led the team in games played at 80, and he shot 41 percent! As a center!

Meanwhile, Luka has single-handedly put Dallas in the thick of the West. In 2019, that means he’s matching up with the greatest talent the league has seen and doing it in a conference where 48 wins a year ago was rewarded with the eighth seed. Dallas is even with the Harden and Russell Westbrook-led Rockets and trails only the two L.A. title-favorites and the Nuggets. They’re eight spots ahead of where they finished last year, and it’s largely because of Luka.

Because LeBron is one of the two greatest players ever, it would be easy to dismiss this argument on its face. If you were to look back at LeBron’s 2004-05 and compare it to this year’s Luka season, the vaunted “eye test” may tell you LeBron was better…but it would be close. The things Luka’s done on offense to this point are spectacular, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. The numbers are a different story – they favor Luka in almost every category.

LeBron was All-NBA Second Team in his age-20 season. After beginning the year as a dark horse to make the Third Team, Luka’s a lock for All-NBA – and he’s pushed himself into the MVP conversation. If Dallas holds around the top half of the West playoff race, he’ll have as strong of a case as anyone.

In the end, whether Luka at 20 is better than LeBron was at 20 means nothing more than this – Luka is on track for greatness, like, historical greatness.

But LeBron’s been doing this for 17 years.

Maybe Luka is better now than LeBron was then. Maybe he’s not.

In either scenario, he still has a long way to go.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20

Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.

Douglas Farmer

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Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.

That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.

Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets

Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.

Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.

If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.

Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons

Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.

Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.

Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.

As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.

Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.

His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.

He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.

Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers

Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.

Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.

What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.

Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers

Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.

Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.

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NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz takes a look at what teams and names are generating buzz in the Pacific Division in Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Trade Deadline is a couple of weeks away. Here at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be breaking down which teams should be looking to make a move and which players could — and maybe should — have a new uniform by February.

In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers have established themselves as being among the league’s elite. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should stand pat as they both could stand to improve their rosters.

The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are both entrenched in a battle with five other teams for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Realistically, the Suns have a much better chance as they are not too far behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold the eighth spot. But Sacramento is only two games back in the loss column. There could be a player out there who can bolster their playoff chances, but is it worth it?

The Golden State Warriors are clearly out of the playoff picture, and they have some veterans on the team who they could move to playoff contenders and perhaps net a draft pick.

Here’s a look at the teams and players in the Pacific Division who could be active leading up to the trade deadline.

1. Los Angeles Lakers – $120,604,780

Relative to the rest of the league, the Lakers are middle of the pack when it comes to team salaries. Not bad for a team widely considered to be one of the favorites to contend for a title. Outside of last night’s debacle in Boston, they’ve been playing very well and recently had a big road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder without LeBron James or Anthony Davis.

There isn’t anyone on the team whom they should move necessarily. Kyle Kuzma has had his name come up in trade rumors, but the Lakers should keep him if possible. What the team needs is a point guard who can break down defenses and hit the open shot. If they can trade for one and manage to keep Kuzma, the better. They should inquire about D.J. Augustin in Orlando; he certainly fits the bill.

2. Dario Saric – $3,481,986

Saric was part of the big draft-day trade that netted the Minnesota Timberwolves the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver) in the draft. He had shown a lot of promise to that point and looked to be a nice addition to Phoenix’s young core. He’s since seen inconsistent minutes in the rotation and doesn’t quite appear to be in the Suns’ future plans. He’s since returned to the starting lineup, but the Suns will have to make a decision on him.

He probably has some value around the league as a stretch big man who crashes the glass and could certainly help some teams. He’s still only 25 years old. The Suns are knocking on the door for the eighth spot in the West, and perhaps Saric could be part of a package that nets them a player to solidify their playoff hopes. It’s worth a shot for a team that could certainly benefit from a postseason appearance.

3. Los Angeles Clippers – $130,766,746

The Clippers went all-in on a championship run for this season and have the payroll to back it up. Injuries have given them an inconsistent lineup throughout the season, but when they have been healthy, they’ve definitely looked the part.

Where they could stand to improve is also by looking to add a true point guard who can handle the ball and run the offense. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are great at what they do, but neither is a true point in that sense. They should also inquire about Augustin, and since you never know what Sacramento is going to do, they should place a call about Cory Joseph as well.

4. Dewayne Dedmon – $13,333,334

It’s public knowledge by now that Dedmon wants out of Sacramento. He was recently fined by the league for publicly stating that. He was initially thought of as being a great pickup for the Kings this past summer, but he’s fallen in and out of the rotation and his numbers have been down across the board.

He can certainly help quite a few teams out there. To this point, he’s been a solid stretch big who protects the paint and rebounds well. His former team, the Atlanta Hawks, has been mentioned as a possible landing spot. He’s probably a prime candidate to be moved at the deadline, but you never know with the Kings.

5. Alec Burks – $1,620,564

In a season that’s now become a developmental one for all the young players on the Warriors’ roster, Burks stands out as one of the lone healthy veterans who has turned in a solid campaign thus far. He’s dealt with injury issues in the past, but has proven to be healthy and able to be a solid perimeter scorer off the bench.

His name has come up already in trade chatter, and he could certainly help some playoff teams looking for instant offense in the second unit. The Warriors probably can’t expect too big a return for him, maybe a second-round draft pick. Or they could opt to keep him and see how he’ll fit next season when everyone is healthy. But if they’re looking to free up more minutes to play the youth, he’s a likely candidate to be moved by the deadline.

As the days leading up to the trade deadline continue to pass, more and more trade chatter will likely emerge. Rumors run rampant this time of year, and it’s important to remember that they are just that, rumors. Ultimately we won’t know until the deadline is actually here, but it doesn’t look like the Pacific Division will have any earth-shattering moves this trade deadline.

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NBA Daily: Title Contenders Should Covet Derrick Rose

After rejuvenating his career over the past four years, Chad Smith explains why now is the time for a contender to make a move for Derrick Rose.

Chad Smith

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Every season, simply put, there are teams that fail to live up to expectations. Whether they are the fans’ expectations, the organization’s or our own, teams will consistently fall short for whatever reason. Often times it can injuries or team chemistry that are to blame. In the case of the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons, both of those would apply.

After a successful return to the playoffs last season, the Pistons were seemingly on the verge of taking the next step. If the then-injured franchise player in Blake Griffin returned to his All-Star level of play, they appeared to have the parts and pieces to make it happen. Unfortunately, Griffin’s campaign only consisted of 18 games before he opted for season-ending knee surgery.

After missing the first ten games, there was plenty of concern permeating through Motown. Even when Griffin returned to the court, it was evident that their star player just wasn’t right physically. As the losses mounted, so did the speculation that Andre Drummond was going to be dealt before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

The market has gone quiet on Drummond’s potential suitors, but the Pistons do have one more strong trade chip that they can and should play. That would be Derrick Rose, a former MVP and a saving grace for the franchise this year. Halfway through this season, the point guard has already put up some monster stat lines.

In his first season in Detroit, Rose has played just about every role for the team. He has started games, filled in after injuries to Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, took over the scoring load and has played off the bench whenever needed. Right now Rose finds himself as one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year in many’s books around the league.

Rose has had plenty of experience in each of these roles throughout the course of his 11-year roller-coaster career. The Chicago kid was selected with the top overall draft pick by his hometown Bulls — where, of course, he earned Rookie of the Year. He elevated the Bulls back into championship contenders in the Eastern Conference. After the devastating injuries zapped much of his athletic ability, many people considered his career to essentially be finished.

After unsuccessful stops in New York and Cleveland, Rose was given a serious second chance by former head coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. The three-time All-Star re-invented himself as a member of the Timberwolves over the next two seasons. By resurrecting his career — and despite his lingering off-the-court issues — he won the hearts of many fans as he had become one of the best feel-good stories in the league. While he understood his value as a franchise player was no more, he did not let that become a roadblock to what the rest of his career could be.

Last year Rose played 51 games for the Timberwolves and finished with an average of 18 points per game. Better, he has increased that this season in Detroit, while also having more steals, blocks and assists. Moreover, his average of six assists per game right now is the most since his 2011-12 season in Chicago. Rose’s shooting efficiency numbers are up all across the board as well — his 55 percent from inside the arc and 88 percent from the free-throw line marks are both career-highs.

After signing multiple minimum contracts, Rose earned himself a two-year deal with the Pistons worth $15 million this past summer. He will be owed over $7.6 million of that next season, which is still considered a bargain for any team that covets him. There are several teams that could use this Rose 2.0 version player, including the title contenders.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has said that he is open to an extensive rebuild if that is what it takes. With the injuries and the probability of moving Drummond, the next order of business should be finding a new home for Rose. Dwane Casey won’t like losing his two best players, but he understands the return value for each is probably as high as it will ever be.

Finding the best fit for the 31-year old guard is interesting. Neither team in Los Angeles seems idealistic, as the Clippers already have a solid backcourt and scoring options off the bench. Playing alongside LeBron James didn’t work out well in Cleveland, while the Lakers will want to surround their star players with shooters. Assuming the Pistons would want draft picks in return, there isn’t much there from either of those teams either.

There isn’t a clear fit in the loaded backcourts in Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City — plus, Utah has already waived Rose once before. Staying in the Eastern Conference may be his best opportunity.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the clear class of the East, who hold a 38-6 record at the moment. They have been dominant, but acquiring Rose may come at the cost of losing George Hill, who has been fantastic for them off the bench this season. That being said, he would be a tremendous option for when Giannis Antetokounmpo needs a break. His scoring and slashing should keep their dynamic offense in full throttle.

Heading to the Miami HEAT would be another intriguing scenario. The obvious question would be the fit next to Jimmy Butler, as the two had issues playing together in Chicago. Toronto might be a sneaky team to monitor here, but Masai Ujiri may have something bigger up his sleeve. Boston doesn’t seem likely at all. Indiana is not likely either, as they have a nice 1-2 punch with Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo who is set to make his season debut in one week.

That leaves Philadelphia as the last true contender in the Eastern Conference — but one of that has displayed an interest in Rose already, nonetheless — and perhaps the worst fit of them all. Yes, their biggest need is clearly shooting and it would be a difficult pairing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid clogging up the lane. On the other hand, it would allow him to propel their second unit when those two are not on the floor. It would give the 76ers another ball-handler as well and could even allow Simmons to play off the ball as a rim-runner off of ball screens.

For seven seasons, it was Rose to the rescue in Chicago. After all that he has given during his time in Minnesota and Detroit, it is now time for someone to rescue him.

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