About one week from now will represent the first time Luka Doncic's talents will be on the brightest basketball stage in the world: the NBA playoffs. Doncic has been in his usual form in the bubble, and put up his best performance of the restart on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks' league-best defense with a triple-double of 36 points, 19 assists, and 14 rebounds.
Bill Simmons discussed the young superstar with Ryen Russillo on his eponymous podcast posted this morning. The framing of the discussion, as you would expect from Simmons, is if Doncic is the Larry Bird of the modern NBA. Simmons predictably said to pump the brakes on that particular analogy, but acknowledged that Doncic's passing reminds him of Bird because they aren't "cheap" assists. From the 38:45 mark:
"The thing with Luka is the assists aren't, like, cheap assists. He has the typical James Harden type of assist, where he brings the second guy over and hits the guy in the corner, the cross-court, all the stuff he's doing to get guys open threes. But he's also creating these cutter passes. Guys learn how to play with him and they're more active, more engaged. "- Bill Simmons
So while he didn't say it out loud, it sure seems like Simmons was implying that James Harden's assists are generally cheap. Harden is a great passer who regularly hits the open man when opposing teams send a double team or crashes down on him in the paint when he drives. My guess would be that Simmons believes those are cheap because it's just hitting the open guy, instead of creating an opening by putting the ball in just the right spot for a teammate to get it.
And I kind of get that. Hitting someone for a corner three is definitely easier than threading the needle between three sets of hands for a layup in transition, which Doncic does on a regular basis. Harden doesn't have the same highlight reel of passes that seem impossible that Doncic does, because almost nobody does. That doesn't mean Harden's assists are cheap. It's quite difficult to get an assist in the NBA! Are alley-oops cheap assists because they're just tossing it in the general direction of the basket? Is dropping a pocket pass into the lane for a center cheap because the nature of most pick-and-roll requires defenders to leave him open for a moment?
In my extremely professional opinion, the only assists we can call cheap are the ones where someone hits a teammate in transition and they run three-quarters of the court for a layup, and the player who passed them the ball gets an assist. That's cheap because I, who didn't play organized basketball past middle school, could probably do that. But a bullet pass to the corner from the paint while surrounded by multiple defenders right into P.J. Tucker's shooting pocket ain't cheap.
Both are great passers. Doncic has another level of vision that very few in NBA history have been graced with. Let's just leave it at that, shall we?