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Around the NBA: Luka-ball, the Bucks’ new defense, and trouble in Minny

In the first installment of Around the NBA, we took a look at Luka’s heliocentric play, a new defensive scheme by the Bucks, and the struggling Wolves.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Around the NBA! This is a new weekly column that will discuss recent storylines around the league. Instead of focusing on particular teams, we will instead talk about the most prominent trends and their impact on the league.

To kick things off, let’s dive into Luka’s ungodly start to the season and see how far his heliocentric style can take Dallas.

The magic of Luka-ball

After scoring 30 or more points in nine consecutive games to start the year, Luka finally had a “down” game by contributing 24 in a loss to the Magic on Wednesday night. So far, the prodigy’s been averaging 33.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 7.9 assists.

Oh, and he’s doing that while shooting 29% from three, which is 5% lower than his career norm.

The most insane stat, however, is that Luka’s usage is currently a staggering 42.9%(!!!), which flirts with Russell Westbrook’s triple-double 2016-17 MVP season (45.8%... my goodness) and James Harden’s 2018-19 year when he averaged over 36 points.

Surprisingly, Luka’s current usage isn’t actually that far off from his career average. In fact, this is the fourth consecutive year in which it has exceeded 40%. What’s crazy is that he’s only turning the ball over 3.4 times a game, which is almost one less than his career average. Luka’s true shooting percentage is also at its highest ever (59.1%) — all while struggling from beyond the arc.

There’s no doubt that Luka’s been playing the basketball of his life, and it’s an absolute joy watching him dissect defenses on the fly.

However, there are still some things to be concerned about when it comes to Dallas’ playstyle. For starters, they’re dead last in the frequency of plays that come in transition and have been in the bottom three since 2015-16. The Mavs are also 27th in transition points per play, so they’re not taking advantage of catching the defense on its heels either.

With Luka’s methodical style, the Mavs will never be a team that runs a ton, but always having to go against set defenses will take a toll, especially in the playoffs when opposing teams can focus more on schemes — which is what happened last year against the Warriors.

With that said, the most concerning trend is Luka’s dropoff in play from the first to the second half. A lot has been made about his conditioning in the past, and while he came into this season in better shape after playing in FIBA, no one will consider Luka the best at taking care of his body. Add that to his ridiculous workload and it’s easy to see why he experiences a dropoff in play as the game goes on.

First-half stats: 18.8 points (1st), 3.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds on 53/35/73 shooting splits.

Second-half stats: 13.8 points (10th), 2.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds on 44/24/75 shooting splits.

While he’s still been incredible, there’s no doubt that Luka wears down in the second half of games. Teams will continue to attack him defensively in the playoffs to exacerbate this issue, which is why the Mavs can’t be considered bonafide title contenders until they find a true second star who can shoulder some of the offensive burden.

The Bucks’ new scheme

Since Mike Budenholzer became Milwaukee’s coach in 2018-19, the Bucks have employed a defensive system that prioritizes rim protection over closing out to three-point shooters. Over each of the past four seasons, they’ve been in the bottom five of the league in the percentage of shots conceded to opponents from long-range but top five in the frequency of shots allowed at the rim.

That tradeoff has mostly paid off since Milwaukee has sported a top-10 defense every season except for the most recent one, which was largely caused by the absence of Brook Lopez. However, the team saw the downside of their strategy in the playoffs last year when the Celtics blew them out in game 7 by hitting a barrage of threes.

In the clip above, Lopez is focused solely on preventing the lob to Horford and collapses into the paint, leaving Grant Williams open from three. Things are different this year, though, as Milwaukee decided to switch things up by prioritizing closeouts to shooters.

Right now, the Bucks are top-10 in both the percentage of shots conceded from three and at the rim, with the Celtics being the only other team who can boast the same. Milwaukee’s league-best defense is also giving up 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than second-place Phoenix, a difference that’s larger than the Suns and ninth-ranked Dallas.

The difference in scheme can be noticed in the following clip. In years past, both Bobby Portis and Jordan Nwora would’ve collapsed into the paint to contain Tre Mann’s drive, but Milwaukee’s new strategy calls for them to stick closer to the opposing team’s shooters.

The scariest thing about Milwaukee’s defense is that their play doesn’t seem to be unsustainable. Sure, the effective field goal percentage of opponents is below what is expected (52.8% expected vs 49.5% actual), but even that 52.8% number is top three in the league.

Lopez has also had a scorching start to the year and is currently blocking 2.7 shots per game. While no one expects that to continue with him being 34, the Bucks are also missing another solid defender in Khris Middleton.

So, what does this all mean? Well, Milwaukee looks poised to finish first in defense and currently has the league’s best record even without one of its All-Stars, so they should absolutely be considered the title favorites moving forward.

What’s going on in Minnesota??

Heading into this season, it was easy to predict that the Wolves might start slow as they worked to fit Rudy Gobert into their system.

I don’t think many people expected the vibes around the team to be so poor, though.

Whether it’s KAT randomly calling out Ant on his diet, or Ant saying that he prefers to play with smaller lineups, nothing seems to be going right in Minny these days.

Just look at the following possession:

If that wasn’t bad enough, D’Angelo Russell decided to one-up his teammate by producing an all-time Shaqtin moment:

The elephant (or KAT? Or Ant?) in the room, of course, is the acquisition of Gobert. So far, he’s done exactly what everyone expects of him, which is to provide defense: Minnesota has a defensive rating of 107.2 with him on the floor (which would be second in the league) and a 116.6 rating without him (28th).

Unsurprisingly, the concern lies at the other end of the court. The Wolves have an anemic 103.1 offensive rating with Gobert playing (dead last league-wide), but the most worrying trend is that the offense is just as bad when both he and KAT share the floor. Here are their stats in full:

KAT on, Gobert off: 116.8 offense, 121.0 defense, -4.2 net rating

Gobert on, KAT off: 102.0 offense, 106.4 defense, -4.4 net rating

Both on: 103.6 offense, 107.5 defense, -3.9 net rating

Both off: 133.6 offense, 102.4 defense, +31.2(!!!) net rating

Those last numbers obviously aren’t sustainable and are a result of playing against opposing bench units, but nonetheless, it’s not a good sign when the most successful lineups don’t include either big men on the floor.

Gobert’s presence in the paint has naturally forced KAT to stretch out, as the latter’s percentage of shot attempts at the rim has plummeted from 44% last year to 25% now. That’s to be expected and not a bad thing considering KAT’s shooting proficiency, but it’s also had a negative effect on Gobert’s already suspect offensive game.

Thus far, the French center is only shooting 65% around the rim, placing him in the 33rd percentile relative to his position, which is a large cry from the 77% and 90th percentile he put up last year.

To make matters worse, Ant has been forced to adjust his game, which is evident considering he only has three dunks in 12 games this season after putting up 58 in 72 matches last year.

Even so, the Wolves are supremely talented and I’m still bullish on their chances of making the playoffs, but there’s a reason why so many people were confused that they (1) pushed their chips in this early, and (2) used their assets on a big man whose timeline doesn’t fit with Ant’s.

Regardless, Minnesota never fails to entertain, even if it’s not always in a positive way.

This week, please check out CoachSpinsarticle on Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson! A great blend of analytics and film study is included which helps readers understand how the two youngsters are taking the leap.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

All stats courtesy of Statmuse, Cleaning the Glass, and NBA Stats.