Lu Dort and the power of self belief

Tanking your way into accidental brilliance

An NBA team prioritizing development over wins produces a ton of losses and unexpected brilliance. For Luguentz Dort—Lu for short—the freedom of a developing Oklahoma City Thunder team allowed him one glorious evening of unlimited shots.

Imagine becoming CEO for 4 hours for an already bankrupt company; you get to make decisions, they might not matter to the bottom line, but for that brief period of time you answer only to your God (the coach) and a checked out executive board (OKC general manager Sam Presti).

Dort, a second-year player for the Thunder, rose to prominence last year during a stalwart playoff series against James Harden and the Rockets. He missed game one with a knee injury but returned as a stout Harden defender with a burgeoning but limited offensive game.

In Game 7 of that excellent series, Dort exploded for 30 points on six three pointers and had a chance to win the series with a last-minute three. This output surprised many, as he nearly outscored his entire series point total in one game.

Dort’s rugged and tireless defensive output calls back to stoppers of years past, the Bruce Bowens and Tony Allens fighting over screens and sticking their chest into the opposing star. His game 7 explosion hinted at an undiscovered array of offensive skills, and his defensive aptitude earned him some much need job security.

In the offseason, OKC converted Dort’s two way contract to a guaranteed four year deal worth $5.4M. This low cost flyer locked in a defensive specialist who just battled of the league’s best offensive weapons, and the Thunder quickly guaranteed the remaining two years of his deal earlier this season.

On Wednesday against the Jazz, Dort transitioned from defending top scorers to becoming one.

Becoming the gunner on the tank

For thirty-six glorious minutes, Dort flew around the court like a man possessed. With star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and hibernating Al Horford both ruled out, Dort managed the offensive workload. He took thirty-one field goal attempts—by far a career high—and ended up with 42 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals, per Basketball Reference. You can watch all of the attempts in their glory here.

Dort ran off dribble handoffs for threes.

He faded away and elevated for a silky jumper over the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.

He even added some midrange magic with this step back in a crowd.

Dort peppered the Jazz across the court with a variety of actions, enjoying life as the offensive focal point. This shot chart from highlights his success rate in each area.

He struggled to finish at the rim—not uncommon when facing Rudy Gobert—but thrived everywhere else on the court. Per Basketball Reference, Dort’s previous career high was 22 attempts. He nearly equaled that with attempts at the rim alone.

Cleaning the Glass clocked Dort’s usage at 39.8%, meaning that while on the court, Lu used nearly forty percent of all Thunder possessions. For one game, Dort reached the usage threshold of offensive engines like Luka Dončić and James Harden.

Everyone loves surprises

In today’s heliocentric, ball-dominating, superstar-driven league, nights where a star cannibalizes the offensive inventory appear more and more frequently. What separates Dort’s magical night in Utah?

Sheer improbability.

No one could rightly expect the defense-first James Harden stopper to become Harden. Yet, in the throes of a lost season, Dort stepped up to do just that.

Dort’s night as the star stands as the outlier of all outliers in his career output. From Stathead, I visualized every game of his career so far by the count of field goal attempts. In this below graph, the 25th through 75th percentiles of attempts all fall within the green box.

Wednesday falls just a bit outside that normal distribution as the far right black dot.

If Dort could be a one-night superstar, could others? I wanted to isolate exactly how rare this might be across the entire league.

To do so, I pulled every instance of a player shooting at least thirty-one times in one game from Stathead, filtering to what they set as the modern era of 1983-84 to today. I then paired those counts with the player’s career scoring average; this dataset lets us both identify players that often took that level of field goals and add context on their career scoring rates.

Since 1983, only 171 players hit that attempts minimum. Here’s how that looks compared to each of their career scoring averages.

The players popping on the top right corner make sense intuitively; you earn a high scoring average by taking shots, and the higher the scoring, the higher the shot totals.

Dort falls in the more fun corner, in the bottom left. Here, players who average 12 or less points per game appear, mapped against each of their 31+ field goal attempt nights.

These are the players who typically produce very little offensively but, for at least one game, decided to take over. On those magical nights, roles reverse and the innate gunner in each player activated.

At this point in his career, Dort should continue to develop and grow. Wednesday’s game might be a harbinger of offensive brilliance that turns his Thunder contract into even more of a steal, or it could just be his sole entry into the rare night of glory club.

His retired club mates with only a few entries in this group warrant further investigation. These players ended their careers with a low scoring average but, for at least one night, lived the superstar workload and lifestyle.

The glorious, selfish games of Jamaal Tinsley, Andray Blatche, and Ledell Edwards all needs another look.