The future is here, and it is Luka Doncic

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

1. Luka Doncic is the game’s next great innovator

You are supposed to pick a highlight here and describe it, typically — a play so exquisite that it encapsulates and puts a bow on all the others. You can’t put a bow on Luka Doncic, though, and that’s precisely the point: Every new play is a stepping stone to something newer. 

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Doncic himself, who walks in the footsteps of creative giants, is proof of that. The 3-and-rim-centric shot chart that James Harden built with focus and vision — and through great consternation — is a blueprint for modern wings. For Doncic, it’s a playground, where the fluidity of his deceptive skills contrasts with Harden’s tight, formulaic maneuvers. Doncic is picking up where Manu Ginobili left off: stamping his insights on the game by taking risks that pissed his coach off before eventually wearing him down, expanding the game’s possibilities by pushing at its parameters, getting himself into messes just to find his way out.

Luka Doncic is doing things we haven't seen before. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Luka Doncic is doing things we haven't seen before. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Through 14 games, he is putting up 29.9 points, grabbing 10.6 boards and dishing out 9.4 assists per game. On Monday, he served the Spurs a 42-point triple-double and then followed it up with a 35-point triple-double against the Warriors on Wednesday.

Doncic moves precisely but in flow. He’s convincing, because he really is making last-minute decisions. Every step-back could be a pump-fake. Every pump-fake could be a jumpshot. Every jumpshot could be a jump pass. Every pass could be a floater. Every floater could be pass. Every pass is a look-away, because the powers of deception are infinite. They don’t need to be tempered. Doncic’s deceptive tactics are not a series of moves. They are a habit of mind, developed in a wholly different basketball environment in Slovenia, and later, Real Madrid.

Ginobili, unlike Doncic, had to reel himself in, playing alongside two stars in the Spurs’ egalitarian system. Doncic is coming of age in the high-usage NBA. He is next in a lineage of innovators, and he has more free rein than almost anyone at his age. You could, if you wanted to egregiously miss the point here, bring up the high turnover rate of a 20-year old averaging near a triple-double. But I trust you, so let’s just appreciate the fact that a player with his potential has a green light, and move on. 

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

Creative success, the players before Doncic taught us, begs for imitation. And Doncic’s creativity has already led to so much success that we know it will be instructive. With every new move made, every new angle discovered, Doncic is building the game’s future. 

Consider what he’s doing in this very moment: garnering unfair comparisons to legends and inciting the anger of their fans, which are rites of passage of their own.

The repeated term “first player since LeBron James to …” will soon become rote, but for now, every new record is an affirmation of his potential, and the better he is, the more the game itself will evolve. But gaudy stats have become routine in the modern NBA. What makes this moment special is the glaring awareness that in the passing of every successive game, Doncic is building the future. Watching him find himself is like watching a baby taking his or her first steps on Mars.

2. LeBron James is letting go and thriving

The past and future collided on Sunday, when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James embraced during the first quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers’ drubbing of the lowly Atlanta Hawks, who ran into the Lakers in the midst of a five-game winning streak that has been demonstrative of who they’re becoming this year: long and strong yet fast, creative and diligent, fun and balanced. The crowd, raucous and tickled, yearned for Bryant while the Lakers’ imploded and James got hurt last year, but in Year 2, the fans’ positive attention has now turned to LeBron.

After a blip in the timeline, James is back on track. Every new team he joins dawns a new iteration of his game, and the Lakers are no different. He has never been this conciliatory for one, an accomplishment for a player that is accustomed to controlling games and franchises. LeBron could lead the league in assists for the first time in his career, and his usage rate is nearly identical to Anthony Davis’. 

Next to a talent as singular and as dynamic as Davis, that was somewhat inevitable. But James, despite playing de facto point guard, has actively turned down the throttle, filling lanes in transition and vigilantly looking up the floor at the start of every possession. The defense, built in Davis’ image and currently fueled by a monstrously long starting lineup of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, James, Davis and JaVale McGee, is top 10 in blocks, deflections and steals. From there, James plays traffic cop, rifling passes up the floor before he can even set his feet.

LeBron is attacking the last weakness in his game: the tendency to hold the ball in a chokehold and flatten the abilities of the players around him, turning role players into one-dimensional robots — useful for hitting threes and playing defense, but don’t ask them to react to defensive pressure. The Lakers’ role players, from Dwight Howard’s utility down low to Green dunking rebounds to Alex Caruso generally existing, are only increasing in dimension.  

Lakers head coach Frank Vogel deserves credit as well for marrying James’ talent to a system that, for the first time since he left the Miami Heat, isn’t built solely around him. The result? A 70-win pace and the early makings of an MVP run.

3. The twisted nature of rewards 

On Tuesday, Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun reported the Toronto Raptors would not give championship rings to the players it traded in the middle of the season, namely Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas, who was the Raptors’ longest-tenured player before he was shipped to Memphis for Marc Gasol.

For standard procedure — only Anderson Varejao has been offered a ring from a team he was traded from (the Warriors in 2017) — the news was fairly controversial, unearthing questions about credit that fans had never really asked before. 

The Raptors chose to distribute rings to members of the team who were in the building the night they won a championship — along with Drake and superfan Nav Bhatia — and that’s fine, but the whole storyline got me thinking about the nature of success and credit in professional sports. 

Success is always cumulative. We pay lip service to this fact. I couldn’t have accomplished this without so-and-so, and so forth. Hell, Marc Gasol dedicated his triumph to his former Grizzlies teammates. But when it comes to rewarding success, a very North American — which is to say, individualized — framework takes over: The people in the spotlight basking in all the glory.

I think the contradiction finally struck a chord because the Raptors’ success was especially cumulative, the result of a half-decade of incremental improvement through player development and two lodestars, former head coach Dwane Casey and All-Star DeMar DeRozan, whom the Raptors parted ways with in order to service the higher purpose of winning.

It’s not like the Raptors should offer those two a ring, or that they or any of the traded players would necessarily want one, but the moment highlighted a harsh truth: The majority of people responsible for any victory are usually forgotten.

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