Four-Point Play

Luka Skywalker

Of the 54 19-year-olds who have played in the League, there are only three who have averaged 20 points per game for an entire NBA season: Carmelo Anthony, 21.0; LeBron James, 20.9; Kevin Durant, 20.3.

Nobody else is close, with Andrew Wiggins (16.9), Kobe Bryant (15.4) and Jayson Tatum (13.9) giving chase in various decades.

That is, until now.

Ladies and gents, meet Luka Doncic, in case you have not met him already.

 NBA 19 year olds  Games  MPG  PPG  RPG  APG  TSP  PER
Carmelo Anthony  82  36.5  21.0  6.1  2.8  .509  17.6
LeBron James  79  39.5  20.9  5.5  5.9  .488  18.3
Kevin Durant  80  34.6  20.3  4.4  2.4  .519  15.8
Luka Doncic  8  34.8  19.6  6.3  4.4  .580  15.0
Andrew Wiggins  82  36.2  16.9  4.6  2.1  .517  13.9

MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating. Age as of February 1 of matching season per Basketball Reference requirements.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

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Like LeBron, Melo and KD, the Dallas Mavericks rook has already cracked that aforementioned scoring squad, averaging 19.6 points thus far this season, which is 20 rounded up, right?

What really takes this teenage tale to storybook level are Doncic’s other incomparable stats, where he also averages 6.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.

That’s right, a 20-6-4 line from a teenager who doesn’t turn 20 until February 28.

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It really is quite historic: his 19.6 points ranks fourth, while his 6.3 rebounds ranks fifth only behind Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Cliff Robinson and Marvin Bagley, as his 4.4 assists ranks third just behind LeBron and Emmanuel Mudiay.

In other words, Doncic is the most complete all-around teenager we have seen since LeBron, and who knows if his 19-year-old metrics one day topples teen-age Bron (20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game) when all is said and done.

In fact, turnovers is really the only weakness on Luka’s stats ledger—he actually leads the NBA in turnovers, with 32 in 8 games.

Teammate Dirk Nowitzki time and time again has described how his EuroLeague MVP prodigy is far better than he was at the same age, and it is not just self-deprecation talking. Nowitzki did not start playing at Doncic’s level until he was 21 or 22 in his second and third NBA seasons in Dallas (18-7-3 in 1999-2000 and 22-9-2 in 2000-01).

Rookie Dirk was not being asked to quarterback the Mavs at clutch time (Steve Nash had those responsibilities).

But Doncic has quickly become Dallas’ go-to guy as their leading scorer, top three-point shooter (40 percent three-point shooting) and second-best playmaker (J.J. Barea has 6.4 assists per game).

But it is his court savvy that always comes shining through, even in losses, like Wednesday when veteran teammate Wesley Matthews foolishly fouled LeBron James intentionally in the closing seconds of the Lakers-Mavs game. Always court aware, Doncic and Barea were the first teammates to react to the miscue.

Going forward, look for more Doncic and Barea pairings. Not only is J.J. their best Mav off the bench, he is—and always has been—their best link to winning, going back to the Mavs’ 2011 NBA championship days.

When linked with Doncic, the duo has a +17.9 net rating per 100 possessions in 62 minutes together, while similar pairings with DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews give head coach Rick Carlisle his most likely combos moving forward.

What makes Doncic’s linkage with these players so special is that he works with each in separate special ways, setting up D.J. for dunks, Matthews for spot-up 3s and Barea as alternating ballhandlers off defensive rebounds or during possessions.

It’s still early and the season long, but Doncic already looks like the real deal and on his way to making it 20 for 19.


Wizards Are Too Good To Tank

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Who would have guessed after seven games that the 1-6 Wizards would be hanging with the six lottery-bound teams in the East?

Not I, who forecast playoff-destined Washington to win 44 games this season, while being led by current and former and future All-Stars alike (John Wall and Bradley Beal; Dwight Howard; Otto Porter).

Then again, I did not expect Howard to go down before the first game with a month-ending gluteal injury, forcing Coach Scott Brooks to play an ineffective Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith at center, while also forcing Jeff Green and Markieff Morris into small-ball center roles, effectively splitting the five spot into four inefficient pieces.

Then, somewhere along the way, Porter was accused of playing tug-of-war with the Wizards basketball, interrupting Wall and Beal’s annual tug battles, which led to subpar performances from all Washington guards and wings, and next thing you know, you got 1-6.

This now puts Washington in the ponderous position where the Wizards ask themselves if they should tank the rest of the season goodbye.

Head coach Brooks’ answer to that is an emphatic “No,” because that surely would lead to his firing.

Same would be true with Wall, who would be the most obvious piece to go because of his trade value and comparably cheaper contract at $19 million in 2018-19 (Beal and Porter make $25-26 million this season, while Wall’s extension nearly doubles to $38 million next year), not to mention Wall’s big contract slot easily could be filled by a cheaper point guard whose pass-first mindset meshed better with Beal and Porter.

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Actually, the whole franchise should be of that winning mindset since—as bad as their record is—the Wizards are only two games out of the playoff race.

Still, the hallowed waste of the Wizards’ October must plant seeds of trade talks in exec Ernie Grunfeld’s smartphone.

If nothing else, it gives Grunfeld proper time to reflect on Washington’s calamitous salary structure for next season when Wall ($37.8 million), Porter ($27.3 million) and Beal ($27.1 million) take up $92.2 million of the squad’s estimated $109 million salary cap.

Surely, if Washington is going to reload, now is the time.

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Conversely, if Washington is going to respond, Friday is Day 1 of the reversal when Howard likely makes his debut into the Wizards starting lineup.

Can Dwight fill in for the departed Marcin Gortat, who used to back him up in Orlando back in their 2009 NBA Finals days together?

Can the newcomer acquired with a $5.3 million mini-mid-level exception shore up a defense that ranks 26thin defensive efficiency and a board corps that ranks dead last in rebound percentage?

Heck, it cannot get any worse in Washington?

If it does, some Wizards gotta go.


New-Look Knicks

For a modest $63 million in today’s NBA salary-cap terms, the New York Knicks can lock up Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. if they can convince the former to re-up with his franchise this summer.

Now whether New York can lure Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or whatever pipe-dream max free agent is out there is another story.

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But it is not far-fetched to believe the Knicks will be moving forward with recovered All-Star Porzingis (averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds with a 20 PER when he tore his ACL in February), a defensive-deficient Kanter (averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds at a 20 Player Efficiency Rating this season) and a never-been-better Hardaway (career-best 26 points per game and career-best 20.6 PER). And it is not a pipe dream to believe that those three offensive standouts can get New York to a .500 record next season, or for the remainder of this season whenever (if ever) the 23-year-old Porzingis is able to rejoin his team.

After all, when KP played with Hardaway in 2017-18, they posted a +4.1 net rating per 100 possessions in 759 minutes together, while KP posted a +0.6 net rating with fellow big Kanter in 1013 minutes together last season.

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It is not a magical combo, but it will do until reinforcements can be brought in, whether that comes in the form of developing prospects Frank Ntilikina (20 years old), Mitchell Robinson (20), Kevin Knox (19), a 2019 lottery pick, a star on the trade market or a max free agent.

At least now, with head coach David Fizdale and Exec Steve Mills on board together, the Knicks have a winning culture being built into the foundation of the team, as opposed to a GM/coaching structure that did not always work cohesively in recent seasons.

Can that said culture weather the storm of another 29-53 season after this year’s 2-5 start?

Who knows?

If the Knicks fan base, Porzingis and the three prospects can keep one eye on the 2019-20 season and their current focus on player development, then the answer is, “Yes, they can weather the storm.”

There are enough feel-good stories on the roster to let followers know that Fizdale’s crew is good at getting the most out of its prospects.

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Check no further than second-rounder-turned-starting-wing Damyean Dotson, flameouts-turned-starting point guard and power forward Trey Burke and Noah Vonleh or undrafted-prospect-turned-sixth-man Allonzo Trier to see the reclamation projects now headlining Madison Square Garden.

Admittedly, you do not want to push all your chips in with these lackluster names, but it is good to know that Fiz can turn lemons into Sprite when necessary.

Kanter continues to be one of the NBA’s best rebounders.

Hardaway has suddenly become one of the NBA’s top scorers.

And the rest of the roster continues to overachieve despite playing for a 2-5 team that everybody expected to be 2-5 at this point in the season.

It might not seem like the Knicks are on the right path, but they are.

They are.


Timberrrrr

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Lost in the dysfunction junction otherwise known as the Minnesota Timberwolves is how Karl-Anthony Towns’ career is drifting into a slow demise.

Once thought of as one of the five most valuable young players in the game, he is now turning into an afterthought in Minnesota, lost in all the Jimmy Butler hullaballoo and Derrick Rose 50-point heroics.

Once upon a time in Minneapolis, Towns was Minnesota’s future. He was their present, too.

It is a memory team owner Glen Taylor rekindled when he signed KAT to max 5-year, $190 million contract this summer.

Unfortunately, Towns has seen his once stellar game drop off a level or two, going from leading scorer in 2016-17 when he was 21 years old (24.5 points per game) to second-leading scorer behind Butler in 2017-18 (21.3) to third-leading scorer in the 2018 playoffs (15.2 in five postseason games) to second-leading scorer behind Butler in 2018-19 (18.8 points per game, just 0.1 ahead of Rose).

The 25-to-19 points-per-game drop-off in two seasons might not seem so much alone, but when you consider his efficiency has also collapsed one has to start worrying why a 23-year-old player has regressed from a 21-year-old prospect.

Most notably, Towns’ Player Efficiency Rating has dropped from 25.9 in 2016-17 to 24.9 in 2017-18 to 20.2 in 2018-19, while his true shooting percentages have declined likewise, dropping from .646 last season to .587 this season. His usage rate also dropped during that span from 27.5 to 22.9 to 24.0 in eight games this season.

As we noted when it happened, head coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has been overly fond of reclaiming his old Bulls’ players, like Butler, Rose and Taj Gibson. The other factor is that players like Rose, Jeff Teague and since-departed Jamal Crawford are high-volume shooters, not to mention long-time T-Wolf gunner Andrew Wiggins.

On a per-minute basis this season, Rose, Wiggins and Butler are all shooting the ball more than Towns; in 2017-18, you could have added Jamal Crawford’s name to the mix.

When Towns is your team’s fifth option, as he was in the last year’s playoffs, your team has a problem that to this day has not been properly diagnosed.

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As a result, Towns is no longer being set up for baskets like he was when he was 21 and Ricky Rubio was his point guard. Now Towns has to go out the paint to get the ball, which is resulting in his average distance per shot rising from 9.7 feet, 10.3 to 13.6, according to Basketball-Reference.

Through his four-year NBA career, Towns has never missed a game, done whatever has been asked of him and is as good a team player as one could ask for.

Still, KAT is not going to make the progress that, say, an Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic can make if others on his team do not start looking out for him more than they do now.

After all, he is your team’s most efficient scorer by far, and for some reason, he keeps dropping down the pecking order.

I don’t blame Butler for Towns’ demise. I actually believe those two could be the NBA’s most dynamic duo together.

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I just feel when all the other parts—Wiggins, Rose, Teague, etc.—are taking as many shots as Towns, that’s when Minnesota loses out in an 82-game season plus playoffs.

Especially when those et ceteras start taking 15-20 shots per game.

If you factor out Minnesota’s 10-13 record in games played sans Butler last season, then the T-Wolves would have finished with a .627 winning percentage, good for 51 wins and a No. 3 seed out West. See what I mean? They are really good with Butler and Towns together.

I wrote that last paragraph April 13 and it still holds true today.

As long as this team remains built around Towns and Butler, it has the chance of stepping into that upper echelon.

There is plenty of room at the top for Rose, Teague and Wiggins. But you cannot ignore Jimmy or Karl if you want to get there together.

And right now, Minnesota is ignoring KAT and shopping Jimmy.