One of the oldest arguments in basketball is, when given a player with eye-popping counting stats, “is that guy actually a great player or does he just get stats from getting a ton of touches?”
It came up on Twitter again in regards to Luka Doncic, who had 42 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists in the Mavericks’ Game 1 loss to the Clippers Monday night and yet drew unfavorable comparisons to the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum (who had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the Celtics’ win over the 76ers.)
Is Luka better or do they just funnel their offense through him to increase his usage? https://t.co/gjkXHYAuyb
— Sante (@I_am_Syn_City) August 18, 2020
Well, for one thing, for that one specific game, we can put the usage rate argument aside immediately. Doncic went 13-of-21 from the field (2-of-6 3PT) and 14-of-15 from the line; Tatum was 10-of-21 from the field (2-of-5 from long range) and 10-of-11 at the charity stripe. The difference in usage rate actually comes from turnovers; Doncic had 11 and Tatum had just one, leaving Doncic with a 42.9 USG% and Tatum at 28.7.
VORP Vs. Usage: Some Rough Numbers
But single-game usage rates are not going to settle this argument. Let’s try something more scientific, like…say…the top 20 NBA players in the 2019-20 season by VORP listed alongside their usage rates.
1. James Harden (HOU): 7.3 VORP, 36.3 USG%
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL): 6.6 VORP, 37.5 USG%
3. LeBron James (LAL): 6.1 VORP, 31.5 USG%
4. Damian Lillard (POR): 5.9 VORP, 30.3 USG%
5. Nikola Jokic (DEN): 5.6 VORP, 26.6 USG%
6. Anthony Davis (LAL): 5.5 VORP, 29.3 USG%
7. Luka Doncic (DAL): 5.4 VORP, 36.8 USG%
8. Kawhi Leonard (LAC): 5.1 VORP, 33.0 USG%
9. Jimmy Butler (MIA): 3.7 VORP, 25.1 USG%
10. Chris Paul (OKC): 3.5 VORP, 23.3 USG%
11. Jayson Tatum (BOS): 3.4 VORP, 28.6 USG%
12. Bam Adebayo (MIA): 3.3 VORP, 21.2 USG%
13. Rudy Gobert (UTA): 3.3 VORP, 16.2 USG%
14. Trae Young (ATL): 3.2 VORP, 34.9 USG%
15. Nikola Vucevic (ORL): 3.1 VORP, 25.8 USG%
16. Khris Middleton (MIL): 2.9 VORP, 26.4 USG%
17. Domantas Sabonis (IND): 2.9 VORP, 23.3 USG%
18. Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN): 2.9 VORP, 28.8 USG%
19. Kemba Walker (BOS): 2.9 VORP, 27.2 USG%
20. Ben Simmons (PHI): 2.8 VORP, 20.9 USG%
The first thing that jumps out is just how sky-high Doncic’s usage rate is. The guy is the Mavs’ offense and the Mavs’ offense is Luka Doncic. He’s second only behind the Greek Freak and ahead of notorious offensive focal point (OK, ball hog) Harden, who somehow managed to post the third-highest usage rate in the league even with fellow ball-dominant guard Russell Westbrook (1.8 VORP, 34.4 USG%, 48th in the league in VORP in a truly awful season) in the same backcourt.
The other thing that jumps out is that there are plenty of efficient players in the league who post amazing advanced stats without needing the ball in their hands all the time on offense. Some of these guys are defensive specialists, like Gobert and Adebayo. Others play in offenses where their role is maximized for their strengths and they can do more with their touches (Sabonis, Middleton), and still others are in offenses where they don’t have to be the do-everything guy because the team around them distributes the looks and touches such that they can excel without putting up insane usage rates (Simmons, Paul, Jokic, and surprisingly enough, Butler.)
In fact, while six of the top 8 guys in VORP (and that’s all the guys with the MVP-conversation caliber 5+ VORP seasons this year) posted usage rates over 30 and Davis posted a 29.3 in the Lakers’ two-headed monster offense next to LeBron, once you get below that 5 VORP threshold, you start to see guys who are great without being ball hogs.
Well, except for Trae Young and Russell Westbrook, which brings us to the next part of this.
A Waste of Good Possessions
Let’s take a look at all the guys with a 30+ usage rate who failed to crack the top 20 in VORP, sorted by USG% with their VORP listed alongside.
Bradley Beal (WAS): 34.4 USG%, 2.5 VORP
Russell Westbrook (HOU): 34.4 USG%, 1.8 VORP
Joel Embiid (PHI): 32.9 USG%, 2.5 VORP
Zach LaVine (CHI): 31.7 USG%, 2.4 VORP
Derrick Rose (DET): 31.6 USG%, 1.4 VORP
D’Angelo Russell (GSW, MIN): 31.5 USG%, 1.4 VORP
Donovan Mitchell (UTA): 30.8 USG%, 2.3 VORP
Devin Booker (PHX): 30.0 USG%, 2.5 VORP.
What do all these guys have in common? Well, one of two things. Either they have a teammate who is a top-20 VORP guy (Westbrook with Harden, Embiid with Simmons, Mitchell with Gobert)…or they’re on teams that stink (the Wizards, Bulls, Pistons, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Suns, who couldn’t make the playoffs despite nine teams getting into a shot and an 8-game winning streak and 10-of-11 to close the season.)
In fact, Westbrook, LaVine, Rose, and Russell were so bad that they couldn’t even crack .100 WS/48 despite using over 30 percent of their team’s possessions, which should be an indicator that they could rack up enough counting stats to push their advanced stats higher than they ended up being.
Back on the original point:
So What Have We Learned?
Well, to answer the question in the headline, Luka Doncic is as good as he is because he’s a high-usage player in a league-leading offense (in fact, the Mavs’ Offensive Rating this year was the highest in NBA history.) They give him the ball and he scores lots of points, because he is the kind of player who is so great that teams give him the ball when they want to score lots of points.
Circular argument? Sure. But there are plenty of other guys in the league who get the ball and proceed to play like utter dog crap like that guy at the 24-Hour Fitness who is a black hole, can’t shoot for beans, and yet always ends the possession as soon he gets the ball in his hands. “Westbrick” was the worst offender in this category, but a washed up D-Rose and a never-was-any-good D-Lo were almost as bad, making them the three players out of 15 with at least 30 Usage Rate who couldn’t crack two VORP.
And while you don’t have to have the ball in your hands to put up eye-popping value over replacement player, you’d better be an All-World defender like Rudy Gobert (with his microscopic 16.2 usage rate) in order to do it. Offensive players avoided him like he was covered in coronavirus long before he ever tested positive for COVID-19.
And to answer the question in the tweet: Yes. Luka is the best young player offensively (and one of the best at any age), and that’s exactly why the Mavs keep feeding him the ball.