The Dallas Mavericks recently completed a successful 2021-22 basketball season, posting 52 wins and the league’s 7th best net-rating (+3.5) en route to a Western Conference Finals appearance. The engine and centerpiece of Dallas’ success , as many know , was 4th year superstar Luka Dončić. With a surreal combination of elite scoring, playmaking, and direct involvement within the Dallas offense, Luka has continued to build his career body of work while establishing himself as one of the best players in the NBA and very arguably the best guard in basketball. The extent to which he impacts the Mavs’ success on offense is extremely rare amidst the league’s rich history – all the more true for a 23 year old. With this considered, a more overarching question arises: Was this the best season on offense ever played at this age? It’s tough to answer this definitively, but for my two cents – I definitely think he has an argument. Rather than comparing him to other players whom I also feel have an argument, I hope to use this article as an outlet to analyze each of these 4 players and define how good each was at the age of 23 in their own respective right(s).
Before getting into each of these players, stating my criteria would make sense. While evaluating any player on offense, I consider the following: situational impact, production (spanning scoring rate, efficiency, and playmaking), and skillset (with a slight but special emphasis on offensive traits/tendencies that go hand-in-hand with high-performing offenses). Elaborating on the lattermost part, some of these traits include high-quality playmaking , off-ball movement , and floor spacing. The last thing I look into is the best ability itself – availability – because being on the court is the first step at impacting winning basketball.
So with that criteria, I will key in on four age 23 players – Luka included – throughout NBA history who I believe fit what I described.
1961-62 Oscar Robertson:
Oscar Robertson is one of the most influential and underrated players in NBA history – generally speaking. Known by the mass viewing audience for his then triple double record, Oscar was the game’s original offensive engine and a phenomenal point guard for his Cincinnati Royals – combining stellar scoring efficiency and volume with ahead of his time passing. Film and advanced statistics for the 60s era is rather limited but from footage seen on YouTube and Ben Taylor’s BackPicks Database , it is clear Oscar leveraged great athleticism, as well as velocity & precision on passes to succeed in transition offense within the fastest-paced era in league history. In the half-court game, Oscar was an underrated slasher, finisher, & offensive rebounder and furthermore had a solid mid-range shot used as a scoring counter (due to the paint and near-basket area being more clustered and the floor being less spaced out opposed to nowadays). All of these traits led to consistent success on the end for Oscar statistically, but more importantly the Royals’ team offense.
Emphasizing his age 23 season, Oscar averaged the following stats on a 36 minute basis (a lot less to work with given era, once again):
Regular Season, then Playoffs:
- 25 Points, 10.1 Rebounds, 9.2 Assists
- 47.8 Field Goal % , 80.3 Free-Throw %
- 55.4% True-Shooting (+7.5% relative to league average / 116 TS+)
- 22.4 Points. 8.6 Rebounds, 8.6 Assists
- 51.9 Field goal %, 79.5 Free-Throw %
- 58.6% True-Shooting (+9.6% relative to league average and opponent quality)
To contextualize these stats, it is worth reiterating the 60s had the highest pace in NBA history and players took a higher minute load per game in that era – somewhat deflating the face value of per 75 possession and per 36 statistics.
It was clear regardless that Oscar had immense impact in this season, as he led the Cincinnati Royals to an offense nearly 5 points above league average efficiency – a mark good for first in the league by roughly 3 points. In the postseason, Oscar’s Royals ran into a stellar Pistons unit and lost in four games, but with a very small series margin of victory in totality. The full film from said series isn’t available, but every statistical indicator points to Oscar maintaining his production and value (minutes increase during playoff play, diluting “per 36” stats) while increasing efficiency. This season from Oscar in the grand scheme of things reinforced his versatility as an offensive engine , showcased how advanced he was both for his era of play & at a younger age , and represented a very consistent prime sample of offensive gameplay.
2002-03 Tracy McGrady:
Following the suit of all-time legends like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and being one of the first to do so, Tracy McGrady came into the NBA directly out of high school upon being drafted in 1997 by the Toronto Raptors. In the 2000 offseason, McGrady bet on himself through signing a 7 year contract with the Orlando Magic and broke out into a superstar talent the immediate season after – winning the league’s 2001 most improved player. Although injuries undermined McGrady’s over prime, he continued immediate improvement(s) en route to a phenomenal 2002-03 season. Statistically, McGrady averaged (on a per 75 possession basis) and had the following impact metrics:
- 33.4 Adjusted Points (leading the league) on +4.5 relative-to-league average true shooting
- 5.4 Assists, along with a 9.9 Offensive Box Creation and 7.6 Passer Rating
- 6.4 Rebounds (1.6 coming on the offensive end)
- 5.8 BackPicks Box Plus-Minus, 4.4 Augmented Plus-Minus / Game (4th and 5th in the league)
Posting one of the highest possessional scoring rates in NBA history, McGrady demonstrated a versatile scoring arsenal – leveraging his size and quickness for a long mid-range and 3-Point driven shot diet (57.7% of his total field-goal attempts, shooting 43.1 and 38.6 % on these level shots respectively) with stellar low post play and basket drives in addition. In a situation with relatively poor spacing and offensive support, McGrady was often responsible for creating possessions. His volume scoring gave him significant attention through doubles – where he showed a solid ability to pass out of them – dishing assists over the heads of defenders (the hyperlinked clip shows career highlights, including his 2002-03 season). How much McGrady was responsible directly impacted his team’s situation. With a 105.2 rated team offensive (good for 10th in the league), 74% of this production came with McGrady on – where the team posted a 109.3 offense (5.7 points above league average). In the other 26%, the Magic posted only a 91.8 offensive rating.
This goes to show how much of a load McGrady shouldered, where he ultimately brought the Magic to the first round of the playoffs in an 8 vs. 1 seed matchup against the 2002-03 Pistons (whom were anchored by a 99.9 rated team defense). While McGrady had some struggles down the stretch, he still performed well in totality. His averages in the series, listed below, show a somewhat decline in creation, but this can certainly be explored further when considering an inferior (for star standards) supporting cast and the opponent faced. In a better situation, there would certainly be a chance McGrady could engine a championship level offense.
- 32.5 Points on +5.5 relative-to-opponent average true shooting
- 4.4 Assists, with an 8.1 Offensive Box Creation and 5.8 Passer Rating
- 6.2 Rebounds (1.4 coming on the offensive end)
- 5.0 BackPicks Box Plus-Minus
2007-08 Chris Paul:
Another highly touted prospect and a successful college player at Wake Forest, the 2007-08 season was Paul’s welcome to NBA stardom and the beginning of an impressive prime period of play. With his combination of mesmerizing finishes, a stellar mid-range (and all-around) scoring game, and some of the best passing creation in league history, Chris Paul flourished as a surgical pick your poison archetype offensive star – especially in the half-court set of basketball. His “command-and-control” approach led the Hornets to a 56 win-season and top 5 team offense. While the Hornets’ team rating was 111.5 in totality, the team measured in at 115.2 with Paul on the floor and 100.0 with him off – showcasing his direct impact on the Hornets’ offensive flow. In the regular season, Paul put up the following stats “per 75” and impact metrics:
- 23 Adjusted Points on +3.6% relative-to-league-average true shooting
- 12.3 Assists (leading the league), with a 15.3 Offensive Box Creation and 8.9 Passer Rating
- 45% shooting from the mid-range (38.5% of his field-goal attempts)
- 7.2 BackPicks Box Plus-Minus and 4.8 Augmented Plus-Minus / Game (1st and 2nd in league)
After breaking out in the regular season, Paul continued his offensive excellence in the playoffs en route to one of the most impactful runs all time. Facing two elite defenses in the Mavericks and Spurs, the Hornets fared well with around a +8 relative offensive team rating with Paul averaging:
- 26.2 Adjusted Points on +4.5% adjusted relative true-shooting
- 11.6 Assists with a 13.9 Offensive Box Creation and 9.1 Passer Rating
- 9.4 BackPicks Box Plus-Minus (5th highest mark for a Playoff run in NBA history)
- 5.4 Augmented Plus-Minus / Game (leading the league)
While the Hornets ultimately fell short in the Western Conference second round, this season was no doubt one of the most situationally impactful on offense in history and (in my view) a top 4 playmaking season all-time. Having such mastery at age 23 just makes it all the more impressive.
2021-22 Luka Dončić:
Luka Dončić’s rise to stardom is one of the more unique ones in NBA history. Coming into the 2018 draft as a highly touted international player (as opposed to the more commonly seen AAU and NCAA Power Five route), Luka came in with some questions regarding his translation towards North American basketball but with an unparalleled track record/resume in European professional leagues at Real Madrid since teenage days. While he started out solid as a rookie, the 2019-20 season really saw Luka ramp up his scoring and playmaking to nearly unprecedented levels all-time. In spite of slow starts in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 regular seasons, Luka’s Mavericks picked it up around the mid-season time frame in both instances and witnessed success regardless. After an extremely slow start to the season (individually and on the team level) followed by an injury to Luka, the Mavericks ended the season in the 2022 calendar year with a 35-12 record and a 116.1 team offensive rating (+4.1 above league average), & 5.6 net rating within this timeframe. Luka’s volume on offense was on full display this year, averaging per 75 and across the board:
- 30.6 Points on +.5% relative-to-league average true shooting
- 9.8 Rebounds
- 9.4 Assists (87.6% of them leading to high-value shots at the rim of from 3-point range)
- 17.3 Offensive Box Creation and an 8.3 Passer Rating
- 73.8 Field Goal % at the rim, 48.13% from short mid-range
- 35.5 Field Goal% on 3-pointers (over 40% of Luka’s shot selection, and on the lowest quality/shot in the league)
Luka’s combination of scoring and playmaking – as stated earlier – is unprecedented, being the only player to be top 5 in the league with his assist (5th) and scoring (3rd) rates along with Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks. It is worth noting that his efficiency may seem low at face value, but this is directly attributed to Luka’s shot quality – as well as his shot diet consisting of mainly contested 3-pointers and low-post/fadeaway jumpers & floaters.
This particular tendency translates extremely well to the playoffs, making Luka’s offensive prowess even more impressive after the regular season ends. In this years’ playoffs, Luka came in injured and missed the Mavs’ first three games. However, he came back right after that and performed extremely well – ultimately leading Dallas past the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns and to the Western Conference Finals to play Golden State. In this time frame, he averaged:
- 34.8 Adjusted Points on +2.9% unadjusted relative true shooting
- 10.5 Rebounds
- 6.81 Assists (92.7% of them leading to high-value shots at the rim of from 3-point range)
- 15.4 Offensive Box Creation and an 7.0 Passer Rating
While his passing production went down a step, his scoring volume ramped up significantly while maintaining efficiency. Furthermore, part of his drop in assists resulted from teammates not converting directly off of Luka’s shots. On top of these stats, Luka’s impact on the Mavericks was felt offensively – as the Mavericks witnessed a 6.5 offensive swing with Luka on opposed to him off the floor in games he played this postseason. While the Mavericks ultimately fell short of a championship, they advanced past the first round for the very first time in Luka’s career. With how consistent Luka has already been on offense at a young age (very similarly to Oscar’s young career), the future is immensely bright in Dallas.