10 things I like and don't like
1. Oh, oh, it's Magic!
The Magic are real -- maybe not .750 winning percentage real, or Aaron-Gordon-shooting-55-percent-from-deep real, but real enough to hang in the race for one of the East's last three playoff spots. None among the Philly/Detroit/Charlotte/Miami quartet seems poised to run away.
Hot shooting from Gordon (at power forward full time, finally!), D.J. Augustin, and Nikola Vucevic has blown open what used to be a clogged floor. When Vucevic rumbles to the rim after setting a screen -- something he's doing more this season, per Synergy Sports -- he's rolling into daylight:
Gordon has boasted of latent superstar ballhandling potential, but he's staying (mostly) within himself; he has launched just 11 shots out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. He seems to have figured out that he can be his own kind of star -- and maybe an All-Star -- by screaming up the floor, crashing the glass, cutting for dunks, canning open jumpers, hounding guys on defense and attacking off the bounce only after someone else bends the defense for him.
Evan Fournier is a calming influence. Jonathon Simmons is running one helluva show off the bench; that stop-on-a-dime floater is money. The Magic are flying around on defense.
There is more to explore! Coach Frank Vogel just started giving some of Bismack Biyombo's minutes to Marreese Speights -- a smart move against most bench units. Gordon and the ultrapromising Jonathan Isaac have shared the floor for just 15 minutes, and down the line, it would be fascinating to see them at power forward and center. A lineup with Fournier, Simmons and Terrence Ross -- and no point guard -- intrigues. It may become a necessity if Augustin misses time with hamstring issues.
Some regression is coming. Orlando isn't going to shoot 44 percent from deep all season, and their opponents won't brick damn near every open triple. (Only the Warriors have outperformed their expected field goal percentage by a larger margin than the Magic, per Second Spectrum data. And the Warriors aren't normal.) Every young team has to prove it can work through adversity.
And then there is the looming return of Elfrid Payton. Orlando almost has to bring him off the bench now, pending Augustin's health. In theory, his bricky jumper would inflict less damage now that there is more shooting around him. But a group that has never experienced any winning cannot mess with this kind of magic. Payton isn't a bad player; he does some things quite well. He's just a peculiar piece who requires a specific habitat different from the one Orlando has discovered in his absence.
Orlando makes some sense as a dark-horse Eric Bledsoe destination, but finding matching salary isn't easy. Would Augustin, Mario Hezonjaand a protected first-round pick do it?
2. The wizardry of Kemba Walker
Walker rarely gets the #LeaguePassAlert treatment. He doesn't have the size and sheer ferocity of John Wall and Westbrook; Walker hasn't attempted a dunk since 2013.
But Walker is the most underrated must-watch showman in the NBA -- a magician who ascends into rapturous frenzies of ballhandling wizardry that can last entire quarters. Some of what he does is so mean, so manipulative, it should be illegal. This is just filthy:
Walker turns his detriment -- his height -- into a weapon. When he needs to squeeze through a tight space, he hunches so low,no one can reach the ball.
He has every move -- crossovers, step-backs and maybe the cruelest in-and-out dribble in the league. (Mike Conley and Wall might argue.)
Every piece of flair has a purpose. As Walker approaches a pick from Dwight Howard or Cody Zeller, he'll unleash some fake -- maybe just a shoulder-shimmy -- designed to conceal his plans. He'll lean one way, nudge his defender there and then zip the other direction with a head start. Walker makes sure his defenders are flat-footed before ramming them into a pick.
The Hornets have scored 1.26 points per possession on any trip featuring a Walker-Howard pick-and-roll, per data from Second Spectrum. That figure would have ranked them among the half-dozen best high-volume duos last season. Charlotte has reinvigorated Howard.
Walker makes picks hurt.
That lefty finish over Bismack Biyombo is insane -- and a recent addition to Walker's repertoire. Remember: Walker couldn't finish anything at the rim when he entered the league. The NBA was too big for him. He struggled from deep, too; defenders ducked picks, inviting him to shoot.
And now? He's sniffing 50-40-90 territory -- and shattering his career high in free throws. The Hornets, lacking a true backup point guard and over-reliant on the brash Malik Monk, would be dead without him.
Some guys improve their shooting from one area of the floor over several years. Walker has improved on every kind of shot. He has reinvented himself.
3. Springing Kristaps Porzingis
Porzingis finally looked mortal against Houston on Wednesday, but he has (so far) risen to perhaps the heaviest offensive burden of any player in the league. One reason: New York is mixing in sets designed for Porzingis to catch the ball on the move.
They've gotten surprising mileage from this play:
Turning Enes Kanter into the trigger man unclutters the paint of big help defenders; Paul Millsap has to guard Kanter, since Kanter has the ball. Using Tim Hardaway Jr. as the screener stresses the defense: if his man, Wilson Chandler, hangs in the paint to patrol Porzingis, Hardaway scoots up for an open 3-pointer.
Porzingis is such a good shooter that flipping the script and having him screen for Hardaway has the same effect:
Help on Hardaway's curl, and Porzingis springs for a triple or a strong drive. Stay home on Porzingis, and Hardaway pops free.
These are simple actions every team uses. Opponents have them scouted already; Al Horford, locking up players of all shapes and sizes, will be ready at the rim next time Boston plays New York.
Porzingis has thrived one-on-one, but credit the Knicks for understanding no player can go it alone every single possession.
4. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, dribbling
Way back in Milwaukee, Mbah a Moute was (slightly) more than a stopper who stood in the corner on offense. He could dribble a little, and post up smaller guys. He restored his confidence last season in L.A., and he's feeling positively frisky in Houston:
Whoa! You almost have to rewind to make sure that's Mbah a Moute! He spies Jerryd Bayless leaning toward that James Harden pindown on the right side, and notices Embiid, guarding Nene, focusing all his attention on Harden -- leaving the lane vulnerable.
He's pushing in transition, and he has already launched as many non-corner 3s as he did all of last season. When defenders rush out at him, Mbah a Moute is meandering around them off the bounce. He's also stonewalling guys on defense at all five positions.
The versatility of Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza drives the wacky Houston lineups -- including those with Ryan Anderson at center -- that are working so well.
5. John Wall and Marcin Gortat, baiting you
Wall and Gortat, in Year 5 together, have a mind-meld so deep, they can read the defense and improvise with one glance. If Wall wants Gortat to flip the direction of his screen, Gortat will pivot at exactly the right moment. Gortat might abandon the screen early and dart to the rim if they both sense an opportunity for a quick-hitting dunk. And when Wall wants Gortat to mash someone, Gortat pancakes that sucker.
Sometimes, they decide in the moment that Gortat doesn't need to set a pick at all -- that he might not even have to come within 10 feet of Wall:
The mere threat of a pick-and-roll -- Wall's purposeful hunched dribble, the sound of Gortat tiptoeing -- is enough to freak the defense into exposing its intentions. De'Aaron Fox opens his hips to angle around Gortat's coming screen, and that is all Wall needs to undress the entire Sacramento defense.
6. Karl-Anthony Towns, hunting blocks
The Wolves rank an embarrassing 28th in points allowed per possession, and they've been so helpless when Jimmy Butler sits, they might be better off just hacking the worst foul shooter on the other team. (OK, that's an exaggeration.) With Butler resting, opponents score at the same rate as last season's Warriors -- perhaps the greatest offensive team in league history.
One irritating foible: Towns is a chronic block-chaser, leaping waaaaay late at rejections he has no chance to get and leaving the defensive glass naked behind him:
If you start your jump when the shooter is about to release the ball, you might as well stay ground-bound and box someone the hell out -- something else Towns doesn't really like to do.
He is also among the very best at the Andrea Bargnani fake fly-by contest -- the little sideways jump con artists use to pretend like they are playing defense when they are really getting out of the way. Remember verticality? This is horizontality.
Opponents have grabbed 25.6 percent of their own misses against the Wolves, the fourth-highest share in the league, and that number skyrockets when Towns is on the floor, per NBA.com. That's not all on him, but some of it is.
For someone who zooms in a blur on offense, Towns can look strangely leaden on defense. He lurches in robotic, two-footed shifts. He positions his body at weird angles that reveal driving lanes. He also flat doesn't play as hard as he does on offense.
Towns has the tools to be a plus defender. He looked like he would be one -- and soon -- during the first half of his rookie season, and he has somehow gotten worse and worse since.
He has shown signs lately -- especially against Oklahoma City last Friday. Tom Thibodeau will always demand more. Towns needs to be better for the Wolves to get where they want to go -- to where Towns has declared he would take them.
7. Powder blue is back!
I like everything about these gorgeous Minneapolis Lakers throwbacks: the powder blue, the UCLA vibe, the abbreviation and even the period at the end of it. That dot is a delightful touch. It makes this jersey unique.
I've never had any objection to the Lakers claiming Minnesota-era titles -- or the "Lakers" name. I don't sense Minnesota fans or Timberwolves employees do, either. Other NBA teams that relocated pay homage to their past this way. Every situation is different -- the Oklahoma City/Seattle boondoggle is fraught -- but this feels fine.
8. The bright green light of Justin Holiday
I never imagined I could be so excited for the return of Zach LaVine. One of the lasting, gross images of Chicago's 1-5 start will be Holiday doing stuff like this:
It's tempting to excuse such chuckery by saying someone on the sad-sack Bulls has to shoot. Their point guards can't create for themselves. Opponents know that, and so they switch most two-man actions featuring Lauri Markkanen -- vaporizing Markkanen's pick-and pop 3s. (Fred Hoiberg has found other funky ways to free Markkanen, whose game looks as smooth as advertised.)
But no one -- and certainly not Justin Holiday -- has to puke up a long 2-pointer with a defender in his jersey and 13 seconds on the shot clock.
Holiday is shooting 31 percent on almost 16 shots per 36 minutes. Only 61 players in the entire 3-point era have hit worse than 40 percent on at least 15 shots per 36 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. (A few did it more than once.) Only one -- Kobe Bryant, checking in at 35.8 percent in his final season -- shot worse than 36 percent on that many attempts.
Holiday is on pace for the worst high-volume shooting season ever. Even Antoine Walker is aghast. Holiday has 10 assists, so it's not as if he's driving-and-kicking the Bulls into good looks elsewhere.
This will change. Holiday will get hot, and his attempts will normalize once LaVine, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic return. But, man, has it been ugly.
9. The state of Sacramento's veterans
The Kings have the league's worst point differential. Their past three games have been decided by the second quarter. Even worse: Opponents have outscored them by a gargantuan 24 points per 100 possessions with both Zach Randolph and George Hill on the floor, per NBA.com -- the fourth-worst such mark among the 250 duos who have logged the most minutes, per NBA.com. (Two of the three duos below them play for the Mavs.)
I thought the old heads were supposed to help?
Randolph is trudging toward the end of a glorious, weird career; he shot 45 percent last season in Memphis, his worst mark in a decade, and he's down to 41 percent this season. The Kings are using Z-Bo post-ups as a fail-safe late in the shot clock, but it's not 2012 anymore.
Hill's play is more troubling. He doesn't, like, do anything. He's taking only 10.5 shots per 36 minutes, four fewer than he launched on 50-win Jazz team. His assists, free throws, and drives are all down -- precipitously. It's hard to recall any good player who transitioned from a playoff team to a bad one, and then did so much less than he had before. Hill is either hurt, recovering from toe issues, or disengaged. He can't pin all this on the inexperience around him, or Dave Joerger running so much of the offense through the high post.
10. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, building something
Oh, baby, is it fun watching these two behemoths figure out how to mesh their skills. That is never as easy as the talent suggests. Both guys need the ball. Both guys like to post up; Simmons will enjoy a lot of size mismatches when the Sixers play him alongside both Embiid and Dario Saric -- a trio Brett Brown is starting right now. (Saric's usage is down, and he's having the most trouble figuring out his new station in life. He's too skilled for a passive spot-up role, and not a good enough long-range shooter for it.)
Simmons is unwilling to shoot from beyond the elbows, so working any Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll magic will be tough; defenders dip under every pick, dare Simmons to shoot and avoid scrambling into rotations.
But two players this well-rounded, smart and implausibly strong can make it work:
Detroit switches the first pick-and-roll, leaving Anthony Tolliver -- a crucial early bench cog for the Pistons -- on Embiid, an exploitable mismatch if the Sixers pursue it. Simmons resets instead. Embiid anticipates another switch, and counters by slipping hard to the rim before Detroit can execute it. Simmons reads that early, and lofts a feathery lob. Tall passers are everything.
They've also discovered one way to maximize their cohabitation on the block: snug pick-and-rolls that start as Simmons post-ups before Embiid ambles down to screen for him at an odd spot:
Philly is .500 after a rough start, and these two guys have barely played together.
P.S.: Embiid's passing has perked up over the past two games. Thank the basketball gods, because his turnover rate remains absurd. Embiid is coughing it up 5.4 times per 36 minutes for the second straight season, a near-record number, and he is at risk of being the first rotation player in the 30-20 Club for guys who finish at least 30 percent of their team's possessions and turn it over on 20 percent of that sample.
P.P.S.: A lot of us are going to eat crow on T.J. McConnell. He has worked himself into a player.
Porzingis connects with Kanter again for dunk
Kristaps Porzingis passes the ball to Enes Kanter, who drives around a defender for a two-handed dunk.