Trey Burke had something of an out-of-body experience on Friday, made all the more dizzying by the extra-long layoff that preceded it. Before he scored 31 points in 30 minutes on 11-for-16 shooting -- and went 8-for-10 from 3-point range -- in the Dallas Mavericks' bubble opener, Burke's last (non-scrimmage) NBA minutes came on Feb. 3 in Miami, days before the Philadelphia 76ers waived him.
Burke scored more than 12 points just once as a Sixer and didn't make more than two 3s in any of his 25 appearances. He went unclaimed on waivers, and for more than a month prior to the hiatus, anybody could have had him. The Mavericks finally signed him as a substitute player in early July.
After his eruption in Orlando, the first question he took from a reporter was: "I don't think any of us expected a performance like this; did you surprise yourself at all?"
Burke said he did not. He said he was just being himself. What do you think of that, Russ?
In thinking himself capable of doing more than others expect, Burke is a member of a highly exclusive club that happens to include practically every professional basketball player on Earth. Generally, NBA players who say this sort of thing are right, at least in literal terms. Benchwarmers were go-to guys before they made the league. Role players spent most of their lives doing superstar stuff. In the Mavericks' 153-149 loss on Friday, Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker played 40 minutes and attempted just three shots. Tucker led his college team in points and field goal attempts, with LaMarcus Aldridge as a teammate.
There is a difference, though, between being able to do something and being able to do it consistently, at a high level, against the best players in the world. Any NBA veteran can tell you the importance of coming to terms with your role and understanding how your skills fit in the context of your team. Young players are supposed to simultaneously show the league what they can do, learn through failure and put team success ahead of their own. It's a tightrope walk.
But what if Burke is right in more than a literal sense? Is it possible that this wasn't just a random scoring explosion, the likes of which we see fairly regularly, that may or may not be attributable to the hot hand? Thoughts, Russ?
In a way, Burke's performance was an outlier. His previous career-high in 3-pointers made was six, and he hadn't hit more than four in a game since he fell to the G League in 2017. Against Houston, he started the game 7-for-7 from deep.
If you believe in the hot hand, you'll see it on the tape. He hits a wide-open corner 3, then a deeper spot-up 3 in rhythm. The Rockets lose him in transition for his next one, and his teammates on the bench are out of their seats as the ball leaves his hands. In the second half, his attempts get more ambitious, and they keep dropping.
Burke can score in bunches. A week and a half after the New York Knicks called him up from Westchester in January of 2018, he came off the bench and scored 18 points (and dished 11 assists!) in 29 minutes in Denver. The next night in Phoenix, he logged only 18 minutes but again dropped 18, including 14 consecutively in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs know Burke well. They acquired him in the Kristaps Porzingis trade last season, and in 25 games he scored 18 or more four times, including a 25-point, eight-assist effort off the bench in a win against the Thunder with Luka Doncic sidelined.
One takeaway from Friday, then, could be that the Rockets simply let a gunner get going. Burke has a reputation as a score-first guard, but even if you ignore the pre-Knicks portion of his career, his efficiency been somewhat erratic: Burke had a true shooting percentage of 49.6 percent in an inconsistent role in New York last season, and in a similar situation with the Sixers he went 10-for-27 on long 2s (in non-garbage-time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass).
Long 2s are bad shots for most players, but Burke shot them with elite accuracy in his first half-season with the Knicks in 2017-18 and his first Mavs stint. If he has a reputation as a poor 3-point shooter, it is mostly based on his early years with the Utah Jazz. The volume has varied depending on the situation, but, per CTG, he shot 36 percent in 2017-18, 36 percent in 2018-19 and 50 percent (on a much smaller sample) in Philadelphia this season (excluding heaves and garbage time).
The case for Burke as a legitimate rotation player for a good team is that, if you give him something resembling modern spacing, he will help your offense. In 2017-18, the Knicks scored 112.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and last year's Mavericks scored 118 per 100, per CTG. Synergy Sports' statistics consistently rate Burke as one of the most efficient pick-and-roll ballhandlers in the league. What he did against the Rockets was special, and it should not lead you to conclude that he is the best shooter in the world, but he had made the same type of shots in a Mavs uniform before:
Even Philadelphia, which has often looked like a mess offensively, managed an elite number -- 116.3 per 100 -- with Burke on the court. But the Sixers don't run many pick-and-rolls, and when he got his chance they had not yet decided to shift Ben Simmons to power forward. Burke played a total of 86 minutes with Simmons in more than three months, and by the time Philly waived him, it had chosen Shake Milton for the role in which he might have thrived.
Watching Burke cook against the Rockets, it was difficult not to second-guess the Sixers' decision to waive him and the rest of the league's inaction after that. He is a limited defender, but other teams in the bubble need extra playmaking or at least needed it in February: The Los Angeles teams signed Dion Waiters and Reggie Jackson; the Raptors, Nuggets and Grizzlies do not employ third-string point guards; there are still some of us crazy skeptics who think the Bucks will wish they had more creators and stylistic diversity when they're dealing with elite playoff defenses.
Instead, Dallas, the team that already had the best offensive rating in NBA history, the team that let Burke walk last summer because it had an abundance of small guards, chose to sign him again. After Burke said he wasn't surprised at what he did against Houston, he added that his teammates and the coaching staff encouraged him to play that way. Burke said they were "telling me that's who I am, that's why they brought me back."
Previously on That's Pretty Interesting: Is Marcus Morris helping or hurting the Clippers?