Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell and Luka Dončić have all played at an unprecedented level for their age (and in general) in the bubble this postseason. Mitchell and Murray have notably entered statistical territory in terms of scoring that only the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and Allen Iverson have entered at the guard position during postseason play.
Historically, in the old NBA of dominant big men, guards — particularly young guards — did not typically put up this gaudy of numbers in the postseason. Prior to Murray and Mitchell in 2020, the only other two players to have multiple 50-point games in a playoff series were Jordan and Iverson. The 2014-2019 Golden State Warriors were obviously always at a ridiculous level from a team perspective, but due to how loaded their squad was, they never had anyone drop 50 twice in a series. Even James Harden has yet to accomplish such a feat.
Jordan and Iverson were, at the very least, in the conversation for best scorer in the league at the time, however, and probably the favorite for that designation at the time they scored their two respective 50-pieces. Despite the events of the past couple weeks, it still feels unreasonable to think anyone would make that same argument for Murray or Mitchell in a broader sense.
The pace, spacing, and advanced schemes of the modern NBA offense are often virtually unguardable (a la the term ‘make or miss league’). Combine that with how important shot-making is and how dedicated modern high usage players are to the long distance shot, and you are seeing the — across the board at least — the best offense in NBA history.
The play of Murray, Mitchell and Dončić — as well as veteran backcourt weapons like Damian Lillard, Harden and Chris Paul — in the bubble has been incredible. Not to make it seem like it is rare for great players to play at a high level during the most important games of the season, but the overall display of offense from the premiere creators in bubble has been ridiculous.
LeBron James is currently tenth (!!) in postseason scoring at 27.4 points per game. That would have ranked sixth in both the 2018-19 as well as the 2017-18 postseasons. In 2015-16, 27.4 would have been the second most points per game for any player in the playoffs behind Kevin Durant, regardless of if they played four games or 18.
Both pace and three-point volume are key factors in this rise, and it obviously remains to be seen if the trend continues to this extent. Perhaps the slower pace of Game 7 between Denver and Utah is more of what we’ll see in the later rounds.
But another trend that needs to be noted is how good NBA offenses are getting at creating quality paint and three-point looks for their best players. Offense overall is on the rise in the in general, particularly from the shot creators.
Traditionally, more physical, defensive minded teams dominated in the postseason. That can still happen, as evidenced by teams like the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. The Clippers, Celtics, Lakers, Rockets, Jazz and Thunder all play at least solid defense when healthy, and on a given night, can slow a team down. As the playoffs wind down, we will probably see these teams lock up and play a slower more traditional playoff pace.
The difference? All of these solid-to-good defensive teams are even better offensively. So far this postseason, three teams are outperforming the Dallas Mavericks regular season record for offensive rating (115.9); the Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets. The bottom four in postseason offensive rating? Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers. Only one of those teams made it past Game 5, as Paul forced a Game 7 against his former team.
Last season, the Warriors led the postseason in offensive rating at 114.6. There is still obviously plenty of time for these numbers to balance out, and maybe something about the bubble is offense-friendly, as some have implied.
However, this postseason, particularly in the Utah-Denver series, along with the Mavericks-Clippers series has been dominated by offense. Los Angeles had little answer to Dončić, and ultimately over powered Dallas offensively following the injury of Kristaps Porzingis.
We may have seen the most impressive display of shooting by two opposing players ever in the postseason in this Utah-Denver series. To be fair, defense was not the best in the series between the Jazz and Nuggets, to put it mildly, but the shot-making and pure shot-creation ability being put on display by Murray and Mitchell should not be diminished. The defense in this series has suffered on both sides due to absences from key contributors.
Denver was without Gary Harris for the first five games of the series and, upon return, his presence made a tremendous difference. Utah missed Mike Conley for the beginning of the series, and has been without Bojan Bogdanovic throughout all bubble games.
The Nuggets were already not a great defensive team on the perimeter, so Mitchell going nuts was somewhat predictable, but no one could have predicted him to shoot at the clip he is currently. In seven games vs. Denver, Mitchell averaged over 36 points and shot 51.6% from three on nine-plus attempts per game.
On the other side, Murray did his best to not be outdone. The former Kentucky Wildcat shot 53.3% from deep on 8.6 attempts per game, and averaging nearly 32 points per game in the series.
Murray and Mitchell comfortably lead the way in postseason in pull-up shooting, in terms of volume and accuracy. Murray shot a ridiculous 57% (6.0 attempts per game) on pull-up threes in the series, while Mitchell was also over 50% (7.3 attempts per game) in the seven-game marathon. Murray averaged 16.6 points per game off of all pull-ups vs. Utah, while Mitchell was at 14.9 per game on the other side.
To put that in context for the regular season, James Harden led the way with 11.8 pull-up points per game. Kyrie Irving was 2nd with 11.5, and Trae Young was third with 11.3. So what does this mean for Young and the Hawks if they are able to put together a playoff roster?
During the 2019-20 season, Young averaged almost 30 points and 10 assists per game, benchmarks second-year guards do not come close to reaching (even the very high majority of first-ballot Hall of Famers). At age 21, he outperformed Murray and Mitchell in the regular season in the following categories: points per game, assists per game, usage rate, true shooting, assist percentage (literally doubled their output in this area), offensive rating, win shares, free throw rate (again, twice as good as Murray or Mitchell this season in this area) and three-point attempt rate. He was the most dangerous of the three weapons offensively, more efficient on higher usage.
Atlanta’s 114 offensive rating with Young on the floor surpassing Murray (112) or Mitchell’s (111) number, despite having far less talent around him is a feat unto itself. His second option, John Collins, missed 25 games due to suspension, so it’s hard to even fathom how good his offensive rating would have been in a full season with Jokic or Gobert, not to mention the rest of the depth on those respective units.
Despite Young’s struggles to find wins early in his career, he should be able to mirror, if not surpass, the individual performances of Mitchell and Murray in a playoff setting. He would be playing more minutes, ideally taking on a higher usage rate than he would in the regular season. There are skeptics of Young’s ability to win at this point in his career, which honestly seems silly given the lack of talent and experience that has surrounded him through his first two seasons.
Murray and Mitchell were drafted into more advantageous situations and into programs that were much closer to competing. In Murray’s case, he’s still probably the consensus second best player on his own team until he proves he can sustain anything close to this bubble performance for the bulk of a full season schedule.
The Hawks started the 2019-20 season with Chandler Parsons, Vince Carter, Damian Jones, Allen Crabbe, D’Andre Bembry, Jabari Parker and Evan Turner all on the roster at the same time. No disrespect to any of those guys individually, but that being essentially the entirety of an NBA teams bench in 2019-20 is an obviously not ideal compared to a deep team like Dallas who just look the Clippers six games largely without Kristaps Porzingis, or teams like Denver and Utah who have been Western Conference Playoff staples in recent seasons.
Dončić enjoyed a ridiculously productive second-season employing a similar approach to the game as Young offensively: pull-up three-point gravity, efficient penetration and great passing. In impressive fashion, Dallas quite quickly built a team that fits Dončić’s game to a T on offense, a unit that set the record for offensive rating this season while maintaining a relatively average defense, one year after the team missed the playoffs in the young phenom’s rookie season.
This should be Atlanta’s goal going forward — a great offense and a league average defense. The reality is, playing Young 75% (or more) of the time is going to have a negative impact on your defense. Digging into the numbers, Atlanta was basically a slightly below average team with Young on the floor overall (-3 net rating), but crunching those to just core lineups and returning players makes the net number closer to +5.
The Hawks have obviously yet to make the transition that Dallas, Utah or Denver has with their roster. A full season of Collins, the addition of Clint Capela and the progression of the young wings Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter and Kevin Huerter is a start towards that transition.
Defense is still essential for any playoff run, and the presence of Capela and Reddish is a start to shoring up that end of the floor. Hunter should be better than he was as a rookie going forward on that end as well, but outside help will be required to fill out the depth with the quality, experienced two-way options necessary to compete with top NBA teams.
It is on the Atlanta front office to figure out how to appropriately build around a top-5 offensive engine on the planet with $47 million in cap space and the No. 6 overall pick in 2020 along with their other future firsts. The hard part — finding a generational talent in the first place — is over with.