Ten things I like and don't like, including the NBA tank battle

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Friday, February 16, 2018

Here's our latest batch as we move into the All-Star break:

1. The coming tank war of 2018

Holy god. I'm not sure if this is going to be epic, embarrassing -- or both.

There are eight teams with records between 18-41 (Atlanta and Phoenix) and 20-37 (Chicago), with the unicorn-less Knicks (23-36, losers of eight straight) making a late push to join the slap-fight. They are giving minutes to something called Luke Kornet, which sounds like a woodwind instrument. (In fairness, the Unikornet can hit 3-pointers.) The 19-40 Nets aren't even tanking; they're just losing every night!

We could have a legitimate nine-team race for the best lottery odds. I'm not sure if we've ever had a tanking pool this deep. These teams make the Lakers, 23-33, look like a goddamned juggernaut.

(Lakers side note: Under the terms of the Markelle Fultz-Jayson Tatum deal, the Sixers receive the Lakers pick if it falls either at No. 1, or anywhere from No. 6 to No. 30. If Philly nabs L.A.'s pick this season, the Celtics get Sacramento's top-1-protected pick -- GO KINGS! -- next year. Philly receives it if it lands at No. 1. Sacramento has some nice young talent, but right now, how many teams stand to be worse than them next season? Imagine if the Sixers end up with the 10th pick in this draft, and Boston selects No. 2 in 2019? Do not trade with Danny Ainge.)

In theory, the increased number of bad teams could dissuade blatant tankery. With so many variables outside the control of any one team, why would any debase itself and anger the basketball gods? They've all been (kind of) trying for much of the season. We usually have one miserable, gutted sub-20-win outfit, but all these teams are on pace for 25-plus. Maybe they'll all fight to the end? (Stop laughing.)

On the flip side, a couple of unplanned wins could cost a team two, three, even four spots in the draft order.

I'm not sure lottery reform, kicking in next season, would dissuade tankers in this sort of crowded field. The new system cuts the chances of the worst teams nabbing top-three picks, but bumps up the odds for teams in the middle. It may create more incentive to jump from No. 8 to No. 5.

Prepare for some horrid basketball, and some strains and sprains to get around the league's resting policy.

2. The Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic give-and-go

Man, these two have gorgeous chemistry:

Murray starts his cut to the basket while his pass to Jokic is still in the air! Jokic established a wink-wink mind-meld with Gary Harris last season, and he's nearing that level of telepathy with Murray. Jokic has assisted on 49 Murray buckets, double the number of dimes any other Nugget has provided Murray, per NBA.com.

In Murray, Jokic and Harris, Denver has one of the league's most enviable collections of 23-and-under talent. A few executives have posed this question in recent months: If you could pick one nucleus to build around, would you choose Portland's, Denver's, or Minnesota's?

Karl-Anthony Towns should end up the best core player from that group, but Jimmy Butler is the oldest, and Andrew Wiggins remains a bit of an unknown. It's unclear who the third can't-miss cog is in Portland. Damian Lillard is somehow 27 already.

Denver has won eight of 11 to climb within two games of the No. 3 seed in the loss column. (They are also only two games ahead of the 10th seed. If things break right over the next two weeks, we could have an eight-team battle royale -- with cheese -- for six playoff spots. Incredible.) Their schedule eases up after a brutal upcoming eight-game stretch that could prove pivotal.

They have rediscovered their improvisational, pass-and-cut identity since Mason Plumlee's injury forced Mike Malone to separate his centers and start an unguardable small-ball lineup. Jokic has four triple-doubles in his past 10 games.

But those small-ball groups can't defend; the Nuggets rank 22nd in points allowed per possession. You can almost understand why Malone force-fed the twin-towers look.

And then you remember: Paul Millsap exists! Denver started to find its rhythm and spacing with the Jokic-Millsap combination just before Millsap busted his wrist. If they can pick up where they left off, they should hold on to a playoff spot.

3. James Harden, post defender

With each passing win, the Rockets look more and more like the first real threat to the Warriors since Kevin Durant ditched Oklahoma City. Houston is 28-1 when all three of James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela play.

When the media first started trumpeting that stat a few weeks ago, it was tempting to dismiss it as cutesy cherry-picking -- Houston's version of Doc Rivers reminding everyone that his starting five from Boston's 2008 title team never lost a playoff series when healthy. (Still true!) It's not cute anymore. The Rockets don't lose when their three best players are healthy. That seems important.

They sit at ninth in points allowed per possession, and they are trying some interesting stuff on defense. They have shifted Ryan Anderson to the bench, and they're starting Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker at the forward spots while Trevor Ariza recovers from a leg injury. Bringing Anderson off the bench is the right move long-term, and Houston is smart to make it two months before the playoffs.

Anderson is having his best defensive season, but he's still a target -- especially against Golden State. The Spurs went at Anderson so viciously in last season's conference semifinals, you pitied him. He can play a role on a championship team. He just can't start and log almost 30 minutes.

Houston's new starting five has blitzed teams by 18 points per 100 possessions in 110 minutes. They need a hair more shooting, and swapping Ariza in for one of Tucker and Mbah a Moute will do the trick. We haven't seen much of that lineup type. I can't wait to see more.

Playing three wings allows Houston more leeway sliding Harden onto power forwards; he defended Taj Gibson for most of Tuesday's win in Minnesota, and the Rockets were content to let Gibson back Harden down.

Harden has been a beast against post-ups this season. Opponents have hit just 34.8 percent of post-up attempts against him, the third-stingiest figure among 73 guys who have defended at least 50 such plays, per Synergy Sports. He loves to poke at the ball from behind; a full 18 percent of post-ups against Harden have resulted in turnovers, one of the highest such figures in the league.

Having Harden jostle against bigs minimizes his most damaging weaknesses -- his sometimes sluggish feet, and tendency to nap as perimeter guys run around. It invigorates him. It also unlocks convenient switches on pick-and-rolls. Best of all: Jumbling the matchups this way engineers chaos in transition when Houston gets a stop. Opponents are terrified of having a big man defend Harden. They scramble to normalize assignments, and expose creases in the process. Harden and Paul see those, and attack.

There is some risk inviting teams to beat up Harden. He is at a disadvantage on the defensive glass. But it has worked so far, and the Rockets are defending with a fierce connectedness. Watch out.

4. Jarrett Allen, dexterous!

Allen already has exquisite footwork and timing when diving to the rim on the pick-and-roll. He has a knack for rising up from weird angles under the rim, and exploding for dunks.

There aren't many rookie centers with the dexterity to gather the ball in traffic far from the hoop, take a rhythm dribble, and finish like this:

How about lefty? Sure.

Allen is shooting 60 percent out of the pick-and-roll, a tidy mark for a high-volume screen-setter.

He's a long-armed, cagey deterrent around the rim on defense. He doesn't bite on pump fakes. His arms are so long, he sometimes doesn't even have to jump to block shots. He juts one paw sideways, almost parallel to the floor, and swats at shots that appeared beyond his reach. It almost looks Duncanesque. Opponents are shooting just 54 percent in the restricted area with Allen nearby, one of the best marks among rotation bigs.

It's early to declare Allen a can't-miss part of Brooklyn's uncertain future. He has limited range. He doesn't have a quick second jump. He will eventually have to master kick-out passes on the move when defenses collapse on him. Beefy post-up brutes push him around.

But Allen is 19, skilled and fearless. Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked on him twice in a recent game, and Allen kept coming back for more. Sean Marks, the Nets' GM, swiped Allen at No. 22, and he looks like a steal.

5. BAM! BAM!

My personal case of Bam Fever is reaching dangerous levels. Look at this dude:

Do I care that he committed an uncalled goaltend with that (ironically) Whitesidian shot-catch? No. No, I do not.

What this clip doesn't show: Adebayo leading a functional fast break, and then staying in front of Eric Bledsoe on a switch. In need of a bucket in the waning seconds against Toronto on Tuesday, Erik Spoelstra called for an inverted pick-and-roll on the block, with Goran Dragic screening for Adebayo -- and Adebayo handling the ball. Adebayo spun baseline, and whipped a cross-court laser to Wayne Ellington for a corner 3.

Adebayo's versatility is way ahead of schedule. He looks comfortable guarding all five positions, and facilitating from the elbows. He has assisted on about 12.5 percent of Miami buckets while on the floor, a rare benchmark for a rookie big.

He has been malleable enough for Spoelstra to try him alongside both Kelly Olynyk (going great) and Whiteside (not so great). Heat coaches and officials cannot contain their giddiness when discussing Adebayo.

He isn't shooting jumpers yet, and that is where Dwyane Wade's introduction complicates life for the Heat. Wade is siphoning a few minutes each from Dragic, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Ellington -- all decent (or better) long-range shooters. With Wade, the Heat play more lineups featuring three non-shooters -- the tipping point at which some groups become ineffective. Wade is a legend, but the Heat have to be careful.

6. Jaylen Brown, block-by-block

Brown cemented three things as a rookie: He could defend almost every position, hit corner 3s, and post up smaller guards. Those ingredients alone make for an exciting modern NBA wing.

Brown has built atop that foundation. He's letting fly from above the arc, dusting dudes rushing to close out on him, cramming on fools in transition, and dipping his toes into secondary pick-and-roll duty:

Brown is 16-of-37 on shots out of the pick-and-roll after venturing just 18 such attempts last season, per Synergy. He's tentative and robotic, as you'd expect. He has coughed up the ball at an alarming rate. Even that floater above is a little awkward. Brown pauses early, forfeiting a chance to accelerate at Jonas Valanciunas, and almost bumps Aron Baynes. He ends up shot-putting a weird, long-distance runner.

But Brown is trying the right stuff, and you see some nascent feel -- the instinct to change pace, keep his defender on his hip, Chris Paul-style, and manipulate the defense. That floater is a handy break-in-case-of-emergency weapon.

Most players don't develop a bunch of high-level offensive skills at once. They build brick-by-brick, using one skill to enable another. Once you can shoot 3s, you can drive around defenders who run you off the arc. The leap from there to functional pick-and-roll work might be the hardest for wing players. It can take years. Some guys never make it. Brown entering the early stages already is a huge win for Boston.

Psst: Boston ranks 28th in points per possession since Jan. 1. They are 29th in the league during that stretch in shot attempts within the restricted area, and dead stinking last in field-goal percentage there, per Cleaning The Glass. Only Sacramento has generated fewer free throws per shot attempt.

Boston will rebound. The Celtics always surge after the All-Star break under Brad Stevens. Tatum will hit 3s again. But it's fair to wonder if these guys can squeeze out enough points against dialed-in postseason defenses.

7. Julius Randle to Brandon Ingram, out of timeouts

Ingram has received a lot of (justified) praise for his work as a de facto point guard during Lonzo Ball's absence. He entered the league as a savvy playmaker, and he's more confident knifing deeper into the paint. He's up to 39 percent from deep.

But he's not commandeering every possession. The Lakers run a lot of offense through Randle in the post, and he continues to provide bountiful feasts for us hearty souls atop Julius Randle Hill. One gem: this out-of-timeout lob from Randle to Ingram.

This has worked a preposterous number of times, even though it should be in every scouting report by now. Luke Walton tweaked it Saturday in Dallas, using Kyle Kuzma as triggerman instead of Randle. Ingram got a dunk out of that, too.

The Lakers kiddos have developed enough -- even with Ball injured -- that L.A. fans should feel at least a little encouraged even if they whiff again in free agency, and keep Randle.

8. Dennis Smith, a little out of balance

It's easy to nitpick rookies learning the most demanding position in the world's best league. But Rick Carlisle recently declared he'd like to see Smith dish more dimes, and in broad strokes, he's right: Smith pulls way too many contested jumpers early in the shot clock.

Smith is shooting 34 percent on long 2-pointers and 31 percent from deep -- not good enough to justify the volume. He's using up 29 percent of Dallas possessions while on the floor -- tops on the team, and a little ambitious considering his efficiency. Smith is on pace to join a pretty small group to soak up so many possessions while turning it over as often as he does, and Smith sports (by far) the lowest player efficiency rating among them.

Smith is going to be really good. His first step is ridiculous. He already gets to the rim at will. He has good vision, and slings cross-court passes out of the pick-and-roll with either hand. His defense hasn't been as flammable as advertised.

Just dial it back a bit. The numbers will come. You don't have to chase them.

P.S.: I like Dallas taking a shot on Doug McDermott. The Mavs need real wings. Their mighty-mite double-point-guard lineups are charming, but it is hard to build a functional defense with such a glaring size deficit up top. Kyle Collinsworth -- another real wing! -- has been frisky, too.

9. Stanley Johnson, bullying people

The Pistons may end up lucky they didn't follow their crankiest short-term instincts and give up on Johnson. They need him with Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris gone, and Johnson has delivered, with double figures in seven of his past 10 games, some amped-up bully-ball -- and even a few post-ups!

Johnson has shown flashes of off-the-bounce juice -- catch-and-go drives against closeouts, and slick interior passes. But there are long voids of emptiness between them. Johnson's busted jumper makes it hard for him to access those off-the-dribble skills; you can't blow by defenders who stand 15 feet away and dare you to shoot.

If teams are going to hide weaker, smaller defenders on him, Johnson needs to punish them in the post. Establish some bona fides there, and defenses will send help -- and activate Johnson's passing skills. He has unleashed some mean, shoulder-checking drives in transition, and on the occasional isolation from the elbow.

He still can't shoot 3s, but he looks confident trying -- the first step toward improvement. And he should be a beastly, switchable defender. Seriously: He didn't look out of place jostling with Anthony Davis on Monday.

10. Portland has gone to plaid!

Honoring Dr. Jack Ramsay with plaid uniforms sounded great. At first glance, the execution was disappointing. The black-within-black aesthetic made the plaid almost invisible.

But after seeing them in person and on television, I've come around. You notice the plaid. Up close, it stands out without overwhelming you.

And I underestimated the appeal of red numbers and letters popping against a black background. That stands out from any distance, and it looks awesome.

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