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His Name Is Luka: Finding A New Slant On The Doncic Question

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Basketball: Luka Doncic Sipa USA-USA TODAY NETWORK

Note: I wrote this piece two days ago. After I submitted it to the editor, I saw a piece on Luka had just gone up. On the one hand, a Luka trade is not hugely likely, so arguably it doesn’t make sense for LB to publish two pieces on the subject. On the other hand, it’s fun to talk about, and pixels are free, and my approach to the question is rather different than that taken in the other piece. So if you’re sick of this topic, go ahead and skip this article. But if you share my fascination with Luka Doncic, read on!

There are rumors that Luka Doncic will not be among the top three draft selections. There are rumors that Memphis is willing to consider parting with the #4 pick if they can dump Chandler Parsons’ contract in the deal as well. And there are rumors that the Sixers are looking to trade up into the top five for a player they want, and rumors, or at least speculation, that the player in question is Doncic. If all those rumors are true, then maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that the Sixers would do a deal for Doncic. Would that be wise?

The two central questions behind any such analysis are “how good will Doncic be?” and “what would we have to give, and take, in such a deal?” This article will not analyze Doncic in any detail; others with greater expertise have done that. I will summarize the situation thusly:

  • People who use statistics to analyze young players and forecast their careers tend to be very optimistic about Luka’s future. The basic technique is:
  1. Take Luka’s statistics from his play so far
  2. Use a formula that attempts to convert stats in the leagues he’s played in to NBA stats, a version of the technique developed decades ago by baseball writer Bill James to convert minor league baseball stats to major league equivalents.
  3. Then use Doncic’s age, together with the NBA equivalent, to forecast how good he will be next year, at age 23, in his prime at 27, etc.

Both steps 2) and 3) are fraught with uncertainty, but they do both employ legitimate scientific methodology. Many, many players have gone back and forth between the NBA and various global leagues, and so we have a solid amount of data with which to say something like “a center who takes 10 rebounds per 36 minutes in Europe can, all else equal, be expected to take 7.3 rebounds [or whatever] per 36 in the NBA.” Forecasting player growth is, if anything, even more dicey, but, again, we have a lot of history to work with. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James didn’t put up spectacular numbers in their rookie seasons, but anyone who looked at their numbers in the context of their extreme youth and inexperience would have correctly predicted great things for them.

Anyway, without getting into too many specifics, I’ll say this: my impression is that people who follow the above approach generally conclude that Luka is going to be a major star in the NBA. So then the question is, why would he be expected to fall to #4?

And the answer is, statistics are not the only way to forecast young players, and may not be the best way. Spike Eskin nicely summarized the anti case on the RTRS podcast the other day. Luka does not appear to be especially fast or athletic by NBA standards. As such, probably the best we can hope is that he’ll be a solid defender, and the possibility exists that he’ll be subpar at that end. So for him to be terrific, he’ll have to be offensively superb. Great passing won’t be enough to deliver that; to be a superb NBA player on offense, he’ll need to be at least a terrific shooter or terrific at driving and creating his own shot, and arguably he’ll need to be excellent at both. But his shooting this year was not terrific, not close to that level (volume was very heavy but he hit only 31% from the close-in Euro three-point line). And he doesn’t seem to be fast enough to blow by NBA defenders. Putting it all together, if he becomes a great shooter he’ll be very good, but not necessarily elite. And that’s a statement you can make about a million guys!

So, that’s the skeptical case. My guess is the stats guys have the better of this argument. Doncic is just shockingly young to be playing 80 or so games a year against grown men; he pllayed most of this season at 18. And he didn’t just play, he was his team’s star, the guy drawing the double-teams, no wonder his 3P% was down! Go look and see how effective Dario Saric was at the same age; there’s no comparison. Or put him up against French Frank of the Knicks, who people think will have a fine NBA career; Luka’s numbers in Europe at the same age are on another level entirely.

But as I’ve said I’m not here to make that case, I just wanted to lay out the positions. If you think Doncic is unlikely to be a special player in the NBA, then, good news, the Sixers probably aren’t going to get him! More and more mock drafts have Mikal Bridges falling to us, which I think would be a fine outcome. But if you’re excited about Doncic and think he’s likely to be a fantastic player, then the question is, what would it take to get him?

While in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes it seems that other teams like Boston may have more attractive assets to offer than Philly does, in this case, if the rumors are true, the Sixers are unusually well positioned. That’s because we have both picks and cap space, and according to rumor that’s what Memphis craves. Which makes sense if the rumor that they want to clear the space so they can keep Tyreke Evans is true; as I wrote in my last post, Tyreke appears to be really good and so if they know they can keep him if they dump Parsons, they’re getting Tyreke and let’s say Mikal for Doncic and Parsons, a sensible tradeoff for a team that is trying to win now with Marc Gasol and the returning-from-injury Mike Conley, Jr. I mention this because, let’s face it, there are a whole lot of “ifs” in this discussion; if we can’t make sense of the supposed Memphis motivation then the whole thing is pretty silly. But actually I think Memphis’ plan here would not be crazy at all, assuming their goal is to put a playoff-quality basketball team on the floor. Granted a title is pretty clearly out of reach for that team, but since Boston has their pick there’s not much point in going into the tank, and the fans seem OK supporting them as long as they try hard and win their share. A Conley-Gasol-Tyreke-Mikal core will try hard, and will, I suspect, win their share.

So, what would it take to get #4 from Memphis, conditional on Luka being on the board at the time the trade is consummated? Besides taking Parsons? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. But let’s list some possibilities. In each case, the Sixers get #4 and Parsons. As a reminder to those who haven’t followed Parsons’ situation, he was a fine player, a 6’10” small forward who signed a huge contract and then was laid low by a knee injury that required the dreaded microfracture surgery. He’s been trying to work his way back. He’s owed about $25M/year for the next two years. Last year he hit well over 40% from 3 on heavy per-minute volume, but played less than half the games and was far from his old self in terms of his overall game. There is little chance he’ll play well enough over the two years to be worth anything near $50M, but it’s not out of the question that he could play like a $5-10M player in 2018-19 and play well above that level in 2019-20. OK, some possible offers from the Sixers:

  1. Jerryd Bayless.
  2. A second-round pick
  3. Pick 26 and Bayless
  4. Pick 26
  5. Pick 10 and Bayless
  6. Pick 10
  7. Picks 10 and 26, plus Bayless
  8. Picks 10 and 26
  9. Fultz and Bayless
  10. Fultz
  11. Fultz and 26
  12. Fultz, 10 and Bayless
  13. Fultz and 10

Like Parsons, Bayless is a negative asset, though of course not nearly as negative as Parsons. So the offers above are roughly from lowest offer to highest. My guess is the fair deal is around #10 for #4 and Parsons, or the similar 10+26+Bayless for 4+Parsons. And indeed I think if a deal happens it will be in that ballpark. I doubt Memphis will do the deal without getting 10, and I doubt the Sixers would include Fultz. So I think either we take Parsons to move up six spots, or we swap problems, Parsons for Bayless in return for the 10-to-4 move-up.

Of course, I could be wrong! But, we have to start somewhere. So, let’s imagine the deal we can give 10 for 4 and Parsons. Might that make sense?

The obvious problem is, such a deal kills our chance at adding LeBron James this year. The odds I’ve seen have us at 7-2, implying a 22% chance we get LBJ, probably more like 18-20% after accounting for bookmaker profit. Of course, Sixers brass have a better idea than we do about whether we have a good shot at the King or not. In addition to LeBron, there’s Paul George, and also the possibility of a Kawhi Leonard trade. All these become almost impossible if we take on the Parsons deal.

And then there’s next year: the Parsons albatross lasts two seasons, and next offseason is our final chance to sign a major star before the Simmons and Saric extensions eat up all our cap space. So even if you think LBJ, PG and KL are all headed to LA to form a Laker superteam, we still lose a lot by taking on those salaries. And let’s not forget the cap space is just half the deal, we’re also, in this hypothetical, giving up a player like Mikal Bridges.

So maybe it’s too much. If you’re not a Doncic believer, it’s definitely too much! But let me explain why it might not be. Let’s suppose that we think Doncic is going to be really good. Then it might be worth giving up on signing a star to add him, but it’s debatable. But here’s the question: are we really giving up on our chance at a star free agent in this scenario? Let’s say we make the deal above. If we hold on to Bayless, adding Parsons basically uses up our remaining cap room. So we’d be going to war this year with an expected 8-man playoff rotation of:

Bigs:

  • Joel
  • Ersan (I’m assuming we use the room exception to bring Ersan back)
  • Dario

Wings:

  • Cov
  • Luka
  • Markelle

Points:

  • Ben
  • TJ

Plus Parsons and Bolden as players who might be important contributors; obviously there’s lots of uncertainty here. That team could easily be the best in the East, if Markelle’s shot is solid by 10 months from now and if Ben and Joel take steps forward and if Luka transitions well. It could also be a first-round playoff exit, if there’s just too much youth and inexperience out there. I think they’ll be fun as hell to watch, and maybe they’ll also be excellent, but there’s no way to know.

What about the next year? Aren’t we stuck with the same squad? Actually, not necessarily! The key is that by the next offseason, Parsons will a) probably be healthier and better and b) have only one year left on his deal. That means it might be fairly easy to move him — say he plays well enough that he’s worth $10-15M; then trading him along with a low first or a couple of seconds, in return for, basically, nothing, is probably feasible. Failing that, he could be stretched, spreading his $25M across three years and thereby leaving the team with perhaps $30M or more in cap space. I’d like to see that money used to sign Jimmy Butler; your tastes may run to Klay Thompson or another star.

The point is, I don’t think doing this deal takes us out of 2019 free agency. It creates challenges for us to add a Butler in 2019, but those challenges look surmountable to me. I’ll just add that I’m starting to believe LeBron and Kawhi are heading to LA. The insight that persuaded me was recognizing that they really don’t need Paul George! If they can make a deal for Kawhi along the rumored lines — say Ingram, Hart and a pick for Leonard — then they can, if they wish, keep Luol Deng and Lonzo Ball, add another free agent worth around $10M — let’s say it’s Tyreke Evans! — re-sign Julius Randle with his Bird rights, add another good player with the room or mid-level exception, plus add vet-minimum ring chasers. I don’t know if that team could beat Houston or the Warriors, I guess it depends on who the free agent additions are and how they all mesh, but I’m just saying, even without Paul George that would not be a crazy situation for LeBron to walk into.

So basically, if you think we’re going to get LeBron, or you think Luka won’t be a special player, or you think Luka will cost us a lot more than our top 2018 draft pick, then you probably shouldn’t root for a Luka deal. But if you, like me, think it’s quite likely none of those things are true, there’s reason to hope Brett Brown’s promise to “be very aggressive” on Thursday means a Luka Doncic deal could happen.