How about a fresh serving of 10 NBA things:
1. The tricks of Ja Morant
Morant’s athleticism and fearlessness strike you first. He is so fast. He wants to dunk on everyone — to humiliate victims, the bigger the better.
All that is cool. But what is most impressive about Morant — the runaway Rookie of the Year — is his veteran craft. He already knows how to start and stop with a live dribble, and keep defenses guessing until the best option reveals itself. He sees every pass. He imagines passes no one else sees, and conjures them with dribble moves designed to shift the defense in some specific way.
You just don’t see rookies doing stuff like this:
That fake spin — the Smitty — dusts damn near the entire LA Clippers team. The one-handed lefty gather into a reverse layup is borderline pornographic. That insta-gather is already a Morant trademark — useful in tight spaces.
He has a mean pass fake:
He busts it out on the perimeter to freeze help defenders:
A lot of ball handlers turn statuesque when someone else takes the controls. Not Morant. He weaponizes his speed as an off-ball cutter.
Morant isn’t the only reason the Memphis Grizzlies — 13-6 since early December — have improbably surged into the Western Conference’s No. 8 spot. Their three core big men — Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke — are balling, and their bizarro bench is obliterating opponents.
But Morant is driving it. He is real. He is a superstar in the making playing winning basketball. He belongs at the edges of the All-Star conversation right now.
2. Drivin’ De’Aaron Fox
After two months of injuries and uneven play, Fox is back on his ascent toward becoming the Sacramento Kings‘ franchise point guard. In seven January games, Fox is averaging 24 points and 8.5 assists on 50% shooting. He is driving more often, with more guile and ferocity.
Fox is earning seven free throws per 36 minutes — easily a career high. He is piling up almost 29 drives per 100 possessions, second among rotation players — and up from 15 and 18 in his prior two seasons, per Second Spectrum data. He has drawn fouls on 13% of those drives, 16th highest among 173 guys who have recorded at least 100 drives.
Fox is still searching for the right pass-or-score balance, and the Kings under Luke Walton haven’t landed on a coherent identity. (Injuries to Fox and Marvin Bagley III have stalled progress there.) They are playing at one of the league’s slowest paces, though they amp it up some with Fox on the floor.
The next step for Fox is dialing in on defense, where he has disappointed this season. The Kings won’t go anywhere too serious until the Fox/Buddy Hield backcourt proves it can survive on that end.
3. Forfeiting mismatches
A pet peeve:
This isn’t about the Orlando Magic. Every team does this now and then: Spot a juicy mismatch, and default into a pick-and-roll that allows the defense to switch that mismatch away.
Come on. Disengage autopilot and read the game. The right kind of post-up can still be an effective scoring option. They also are fun to watch. The league needs stylistic diversity.
You know who rarely bungles this? The Indiana Pacers with Domantas Sabonis. Their old-school mentality serves them well when they earn a switch, or when the opposing power forward is stuck defending Sabonis. The Pacers in those scenarios are ruthless. They are surgical. They abort whatever plan they had and hunt that mismatch.
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, off the glass
The notorious S.G.A. is already one of the league’s shiftiest ball handlers — a long-limbed, change-of-pace phantom who seems to move at two or three different speeds at once. Guarding him is like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands.
He also is a premier bank shot artist, smooching from unconventional angles:
That is a little close to the baseline for most players to go glass. Gilgeous-Alexander has the touch to pull it off. That one hits pretty low on the backboard, but Gilgeous-Alexander will kiss the ball off the tippy-top if need be.
The straight-on banker is underused — a tricky work of depth perception that can increase your margin for error on harried floaters. Gilgeous-Alexander has it in his bag:
Only 10 players have attempted more glassers than Gilgeous-Alexander, per Second Spectrum. (Russell Westbrook has tried by far the most — almost double the No. 2 guy.) Coming off a ridiculous 20-20-10 game, Gilgeous-Alexander has a fringe All-Star case: 20 points, six rebounds and three assists per game, decent shooting, solid defense.
It is a hard case to parse. Each member of Oklahoma City’s three-headed point guard monster has sacrificed something. Gilgeous-Alexander has stepped back into a secondary ballhandling role behind Chris Paul (probably a better All-Star candidate) and Dennis Schroder (in the running for Sixth Man of the Year). Gilgeous-Alexander has logged only 40 minutes as solo floor general — without either Schroder or Paul.
I recently debated with a few non-Thunder executives whether Gilgeous-Alexander would grow into an All-NBA player. That they framed the question in those terms — and not around whether Gilgeous-Alexander will make All-Star teams — is indicative of how good he has been.
5. Still waiting on Aaron Gordon
Boy, did Gordon need this recent mini-hot streak: 60 points on 23-of-39 shooting over Orlando’s last three outings, and a last-second game-winner Monday in Sacramento. It has otherwise been a stilted, disappointing season for Gordon.
I thought this was the year it might finally happen for him. I predicted Gordon would make the All-Star Game.
Instead, Gordon’s production on offense has dipped across the board, though he remains engaged on the other end. There are three theoretical Gordons: the player Gordon wants to be; the player Orlando wants him to be; and the player Orlando needs him to be because of their roster construction. The actual Gordon is paralyzed in some sort of existential tension between all three.
The first player — Gordon’s dream for himself — is a ball-dominant scorer. Orlando indulges that Gordon by calling occasional post-ups for him and giving him some freedom to go rogue. Gordon can make hay against smaller players. He has done well on scripted duck-ins. But too many of his forays into would-be stardom end with bricked fadeaways:
A player this powerful should not spend so much time spinning away from the hoop. He rarely draws fouls. The Magic have scored 0.826 points per possession anytime Gordon shoots out of a post-up or passes to a teammate who fires right away — 74th among 96 players who have recorded at least 25 post-ups, per Second Spectrum data. He is not much of an inside-out playmaker. A full 77% of those post-ups have ended with Gordon shooting — the second highest such rate in that sample.
The best version of Gordon on a good team is something like his take on Draymond Green: screening and rolling as a power forward, spraying passes (Gordon is an underrated playmaker), defending like all hell across every position. The Magic have never put Gordon in optimal position to find that role. They shoehorned him onto the wing next to Serge Ibaka and now Jonathan Isaac.
That is not on its face unworkable. Some of those ultra-big Magic lineups have performed well — including last season. Talented frontcourt partners render positional designations irrelevant. What position would Gordon play next to, say, Kevin Durant and a traditional center in Brooklyn? Isaac has some blossoming all-around skill on offense.
But Isaac also is very young. Before Isaac’s injury, it felt — from the outside — Orlando was reaching the point at which it would have to make a final call on Gordon. There are teams who would give a lot for Gordon. Isaac’s knee injury may have put off those decisions. The Magic don’t have to rush. Gordon is still just 24.
But stasis often becomes untenable.
6. The Bucks, going under
Almost every team scurries under picks against bad shooters, but Milwaukee does it more dramatically and against many more players. The Bucks treat every so-so shooter like Ben Simmons. Present Milwaukee with Kris Dunn or RJ Barrett (two recent examples) and its on-ball defenders hang almost in the paint — a step or two further back than most teams prefer. They form a shell that is really hard to puncture.
They don’t deviate if some Dunn type hits a couple of long 2s. The Bucks understand math. They know their scheme plays mind games with opposing shooters — even non-terrible ones. They’re going so far under. This is embarrassing. Am I really supposed to keep shooting? Boom — the shot clock is down to 8, and you’ve accomplished nothing.
This is such low-hanging fruit. Every team should imitate Mike Budenholzer’s exaggerated “go under” ethos.
Of course, later playoff rounds offer very few awful shooters — and almost none beyond Simmons who handle the ball. It would be interesting to see Milwaukee’s approach in a series against the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler — shooting just 27% from deep this season and 36% for his career on long 2s.
7. When young guys forget who is guarding them, Part I
Oh, Jordan Poole.
That’s Kawhi Leonard. At his apex, the mere act of possessing the ball within a 15-foot radius of Leonard was dangerous for anyone outside the league’s most deft point guards. Forget dribbling. Poor saps held the ball close to their chest — terror sweat pouring from their brow, eyes darting in search of some passing target — until Leonard would simply reach out and take it. It was cruel. It was bullying.
Leonard isn’t the same impenetrable wall today, and he saves his best stuff for high-leverage playoff moments. But you can’t be Jordan freaking Poole and dangle the ball in front of him. This is like living next door to Thomas Crown, buying a masterwork, and leaving your front door wide open all night. What do you think is going to happen?
There has been much fretting of late about the Clippers’ underwhelming performances against the dregs of the league. Meh. One of Leonard and Paul George has missed most of those games. Wake me up when the real Clippers struggle.
The Clippers also seem like a mortal lock to make a win-now trade. They have use-it-or-kinda-lose-it assets ticking toward evaporation. They can trade their 2020 first-round pick, but that is the last one they can move (as things stand now) before their 2028 selection. They have Maurice Harkless‘ $11 million expiring contract, and a few semi-expendable midsized salaries.
The Clippers would rather add talent (via in-season free agency) without trading anything. Harkless is solid — a starter most of the season. That 2020 pick represents one of LA’s only means of acquiring a young player who might help Leonard and George as they age.
But the Clippers are all-in. George and Leonard can hit free agency in 18 months. They should prioritize this year over everything.
Part II of young guys failing to respect their elders is coming next week.
8. Respect the Mavs’ other big men
I never got the mostly quashed rumblings Dallas might be interested in Andre Drummond. Kristaps Porzingis should eventually play more as the Mavs’ lone big man, and in the meantime, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell are doing just fine alongside him.
Skeptics in the preseason perceived the Mavs roster as top heavy: two stars and a motley crew of bench guys. It’s true (it’s damn true!) Dallas does not have anyone like a third member of past championship Big 3s. But they do have (by my count) seven guys you might describe as quality fifth starters — seven fifth-best players, all but one (Tim Hardaway Jr.) on value contracts. There is power in giving zero minutes to below-average players.
Powell has always been a dangerous rim-runner, but he has exploded as Luka Doncic‘s go-to pick-and-roll dance partner. Only three player pairs have teamed up on that play more often. (For trivia purposes, the top three in volume: Spencer Dinwiddie/Jarrett Allen, Damian Lillard/Hassan Whiteside, and the Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell symphony.)
The Mavs average a ginormous 1.18 points per possession anytime Doncic or Powell shoots out of the pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who launches — ninth-best among 226 duos who have run at least 100 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
Powell has improved as a passer on the move — crucial when teams trap Doncic:
Kleber does a little of everything. He’s a serviceable screen-and-dive guy. He is hitting 41% from deep on a career-high attempt rate, and he makes canny plays off the bounce when defenses rush at him:
Kleber is a sturdy, smart defender across multiple positions. Rick Carlisle has trusted him to guard extra-large ball-handlers, including LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Simmons. He’s a solid rim protector with some hops.
Dallas is starting Kleber and Powell in the absence of Porzingis, and the Mavs have outscored opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions with both on the floor.
Kleber and Powell earn $18 million combined this season — $9 million less than Drummond. Drummond holds a much-discussed player option for 2020-21. Kleber and Powell are under contract through 2023. Leaving aside money and whatever assets Detroit might demand, it’s unclear whether giving Kleber/Powell minutes to Drummond would even make Dallas any better.
9. Miami is one player away, but who?
This is a minor quibble considering the Heat are 28-12 and a robust 10-6 against teams at .500 or better. Maybe the “one player” is Justise Winslow, who is still out with a back injury after returning for a single game last week.
Winslow is (in theory) the well-rounded small-ball power forward to unlock lineups featuring Bam Adebayo at center. Meyers Leonard is shooting 45% from deep as Miami’s nominal starting center, but there are lots of games in which he never sees the floor after his first stint in each half. Kelly Olynyk is barely playing.
Right now, Derrick Jones Jr. and James Johnson are holding down that Winslow slot. Johnson looks feisty after a long stint in Heat purgatory. He’s 10-of-20 on 3s. But his jumper is unreliable, and he is regaining the team’s trust.
Jones has taken the lion’s share of these minutes over the last month. His arms are everywhere. He is the keystone of Miami’s zone defense. Lineups with Jones and Adebayo at power forward and center have done well.
But are you trusting Jones to close playoff games? He’s shooting 23% from deep. Defenses ignore him on the perimeter to muck up Miami’s spacing.
Miami has tried to solve the equation at times by going super-small, with Jimmy Butler at power forward. That is a little too small. Adebayo is so strong and athletic, you forget he’s only 6-9. Miami has been a middle-of-the-pack defensive team after a stingy start. They have to be careful.
They are one player away from being really dangerous. They know. They are looking, sources say. A lot of speculation about the Heat — and other teams — has centered around Jrue Holiday. He’s good. The Pelicans may opt to keep him and push for the No. 8 seed. (This is what suitors expect as of now — which could of course change.)
But I wonder if Miami has a more pressing need for a stretch power forward with some defensive chops to fill that Winslow/Jones/Johnson slot. (Winslow returning to form could render this moot.) Danilo Gallinari would be a worthy rental, but the Thunder might be too good to trade him. It’s also unclear whether Miami has any appetite for surrendering any players who are or could be (i.e., Winslow) key parts of their current rotation.
Regardless, keep an eye on Miami.
10. Marcus Smart is coming at you
What in the hell is this?
I’ve seen defenders close out low to distract shooters, but they usually resemble football tacklers. They aim for the stomach. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone crouch toward the shooter’s foot. Smart looks like he’s trying to pick something up off the floor.
I honestly don’t know how anyone shoots 3s against Boston without worrying what kind of goofy closeout awaits. Jaylen Brown jumps straight up and down with all his might, and reaches both arms as high as he can — a technique Al Horford mastered, and something the Celtics teach. Brace for that, and Smart comes nipping at your ankles.