HOUSTON – Granted, this isn’t ideal timing for must-see Mavericks basketball. Tipoff is an hour before Cowboys-Patriots. Then what? Two TVs? DVR and refrain from social media?
No, we didn’t see this coming, either, but here it is: Mavericks at Rockets, early season Southwest Division showdown, and as if that isn’t alluring enough there’s the obvious triple-double intrigue.
Houston (11-5) this past summer acquired the modern triple-double king, Russell Westbrook, to pair with otherworldly James Harden. Westbrook’s 141 career triple-doubles trail only Oscar Robertson’s 181, while Harden’s 42 triple-doubles rank ninth in NBA history.
The surprising Mavericks (10-5) are led by 20-year-old Luka Doncic, who not only leads the NBA in triple-doubles this season (7) but is averaging a near-triple-double: 29.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 9.7 assists.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle describes Doncic’s roll as “amazing” and “magical” and yet so consistent that “this isn’t a big newsflash now.” Listen closely, however, as Carlisle cites the most meaningful development in Doncic’s accelerated evolution:
“He’s doing it without disrupting team flow,” Carlisle says. “Which is very unique.”
For basketball fans, triple-doubles have been a fascination almost since the moment the term was coined during the 1979-80 season to illuminate the multi-dimensional play of Lakers rookie Ervin “Magic” Johnson, who recorded seven of that NBA season’s 32 triple-doubles.
Some have credited famed 76ers statistician Harvey Pollack for coming up with the term; others say it was Lakers public relations director Bruce Jolesch.
Regardless of who coined it, “triple-double,” though an individual statistic, generally is synonymous with team success.
Westbrook’s Oklahoma City and Rockets teams have a 113-28 record when he gets a triple-double. When Harden gets one, his teams are 35-7.
The Mavericks are 7-8 when Doncic records a triple-double, but they are 4-3 in such instances this season.
Part of the improvement can be attributed to this season’s improved Mavericks roster, but closer analysis of Doncic’s triple-doubles shows that the more efficient they are, the better Dallas’ chances of winning.
Dallas is 1-5 in Doncic’s triple-double games when he plays more than 35 minutes; 6-3 when he attempts 20 or fewer field goals; 4-3 when he shoots 50-percent or better; and 3-1 on the last four occasions that he has committed three or fewer turnovers.
“Obviously I’m trying to [limit] the turnovers,” Doncic says. “I had way too many. I’ve told you I would get better at it. It’s getting better and I’m just going to keep doing it like that.”
During Dallas’ 5-3 start, Doncic committed 5.25 turnovers per game. Since then he’s averaged 3.6 turnovers per game.
Last season Doncic averaged 6.0 assists and 3.4 turnovers per game, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.76 to 1. Not good.
During his current 11-game run of averaging 31.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 10.8 assists — joining Westbrook, LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the only players since 1983-84 to average a 30-point triple-double during a 10-or-more game span —Doncic has 119 assists and 50 turnovers.
That’s a 2.44 assist-to-turnover ratio. Tremendous.
“He’s made great adjustments,” Carlisle says. “The ball security is a big part of being successful, especially on the road. Look, he’s a great player. What he’s doing is really remarkable.
“When you have the ball as much as he has the ball during games, teams are going to put heat on you. They’re going to trap you and they’re going to do all kinds of things to keep you off-balance.”
Reducing turnovers isn’t Doncic’s only impressive gain in efficiency.
In this season’s first five games, he shot 40-of-95 from the field (42.1%) and 10-of-35 from 3-point distance (28%). That start virtually mirrored his percentages from last season, 42.7% and 32.7%.
In Dallas’ last 10 games, however, Doncic is shooting 52.1% from the field and 36.6% from 3-point range. Granted, this season still is young, but when you factor in his quantum leap from last season’s 71% free-throw shooting to this year’s 82.1%, it’s no wonder Doncic’s sophomore NBA season jump has thrust him into the MVP conversation.
“He’s taken a step that a lot of players take between their first and second year,” coach Steve Kerr said before his short-handed Warriors were crushed by 48 points as Doncic turned in a 35-11-10 triple-double.
“To me, that’s the biggest leap because once you return after your rookie year, you know what the league’s about. You start to know your opponents. You feel it, and it allows for more room for your confidence and your game to grow. So he just looks like he knows he’s the best player on the floor out there. It’s impressive for such a young guy.”
Doncic’s run has been so statistically historic that a dropoff seems to be a given. The long-term goal, health-permitting, is for him to achieve a level of greatness that sustains and keeps him among the league’s elite, even through minor performance dips.
The greatest triple-double performers in NBA history have done that. Harden has played in 781 career games, pulling off an average of one triple-double every 18.6 games. Westbrook’s 835-game career has produced one triple-double every 5.9 games.
Doncic’s sustainability will be a question mark until he shows otherwise. On one hand, his 15 triple-doubles in 87 career games puts him on a similar per-pace (5.8) as Westbrook and Robertson (5.7). On the other hand, all of his triple-doubles have come in his last 43 games, so in that sense he’s just starting to un-tap his potential.
Like any precocious prodigy, Doncic naturally is driven to succeed and innately curious to know what it takes to get there.
Consider a conversation Doncic had two weeks ago with J.J. Barea, before a trip that took the Mavericks to Memphis, Boston and New York.
Doncic told The News that he wanted to know what NBA playoff games are like. It’s one thing to watch them on TV, another to play in them, so Doncic asked Barea about the Mavericks’ 2010-11 NBA title run.
“It sounded like it would be so much fun,” Doncic says.
Recalling the conversation, Barea smiles.
“I told him, ‘You’ve never seen a Dallas crowd or the city like that.’ ”
Then Barea offered some advice that has proved clairvoyant, considering Doncic’s play since the conversation.
“I told him, ‘If you’re the best player on a team that makes it to the playoffs, you’re going to have a chance to be the MVP,’ ” Barea says. “But he’s a smart guy. He knows if we do well and he does well, he’s going to be in the conversation.
“He’ll be able to have his play speak for itself.”
Mavs’ record when Doncic …
Scores 25 or fewer points: 4-1
Attempts 20 or fewer field goals: 6-3
Shoots 50% or better: 4-3
Plays more than 35 minutes: 1-5
Commits 6 or more turnovers: 0-3
Has 11 or more assists: 5-3
Has 12 or more rebounds: 2-5
Staff writer Callie Caplan contributed to this story.