- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
Before March gets too crazy, let’s look at 10 (actually, 11) NBA things:
1. Here come the Clippers
Remember when people were worried about the Clips losing games without two or three starters, including one of the league’s 10 best players? That was cute.
After destroying the Rockets in Houston Thursday, the full-strength Clippers have won six straight. Their new starting lineup is plus-41 in 95 minutes. They have outscored opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions in 700 minutes with their two superstars on the floor. When they are engaged, they are a nightmare to score on — all spread-out arms and fast feet and sneering faces.
They switch seamlessly across three positions with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Marcus Morris on the floor — and Patrick Beverley is stout and mean enough to make it four in some matchups.
It’s easy to typecast Ivica Zubac as a token starter, but he’s second in the league in offensive rebounding rate and an effective pick-and-roll dance partner for Leonard. Opponents have hit just 46.3% at the rim with Zubac nearby, third-stingiest among rotation players who challenge at least two such shots per game, according to NBA.com.
In this six-game stretch, they’ve been talking more on defense and executing more sophisticated maneuvers on the fly: jump switches from the corner, “scram” switches rescuing smaller guys from the post. That kind of shuffling can leave holes, but the Clippers are usually airtight. When they’re not, they are long and fast enough to close those holes before opponents exploit them.
The same evolution is happening on offense, where Doc Rivers is testing out new screening actions all over the floor. One of George, Leonard, and Morris has a size mismatch at almost all times; if the Clippers don’t like the one they see at the start of a possession, they can move pieces around until they find something more lopsided.
Oh, and Marcus: more of this against smaller guys — and less Jordan/Kobe shots, because you are not Jordan or Kobe (no one is).
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are still clowning fools. JaMychal Green is shooting a good-enough 36% from deep. Landry Shamet is solid. Reggie Jackson has amped up his effort by a lot. They have only barely started staggering rotations so that one of Leonard and George is on the floor at all times — if they even need to do that.
Chameleons thrive in the playoffs. The Clippers can play at almost any size, and in varying styles. They look like a contender rounding into form. I picked them to win the title before the season, and I’m (gulp) sticking with it.
2. The one-of-a-kind joy of Nikola Jokic
Denver has suffered some alarming recent losses — a blowout against the Clippers, and a dud at home against the Warriors — and it’s fair to question their bonafides as contenders.
But set all that aside, and just appreciate the Joker’s one-of-a-kind passing brilliance. This one made highlight reels:
Even the best outlet passers — from Wes Unseld to Kevin Love — aren’t grabbing rebounds with one hand, and spinning into full-court lasers without using their other hand. This is the NBA version of Rey Ordonez diving to snag a grounder barehanded, popping up, and side-arming a bullet to first base.
This bad boy from the same game received less attention because it didn’t lead to a basket, but it might be even wilder:
I often poke fun at the fake no-look pass — when the passer stares at his target, throws the pass, and only then whips his head in the other direction to create the illusion of something fancy.
Jokic is one of the best real no-lookers left. Can you find any evidence below that Jokic ever sees Gary Harris before slingshotting this baby? Maybe early, when Harris is creeping baseline?
Jokic more or less is Denver’s offense. He is probably the best passing big man ever, with the caveat that we never saw prime Arvydas Sabonis here.
3. New York’s floor balance
It remains astonishing that in the year of our basketball gods 2019, the Knicks drafted a ballhandling bulldozer with a shaky jumper — RJ Barrett — and introduced him to the NBA by surrounding him with: Julius Randle at power forward; paint-bound centers; and point guards who can’t shoot.
Every defender is in the paint. There are no driving gaps. Mitchell Robinson rolls into brick walls.
Less remarked upon has been the harm this inflicts on New York’s transition defense. The Knicks routinely sport some of the league’s worst floor balance, with four and sometimes five players well below the foul line when a shot goes up. New York is 28th in points allowed per transition play, according to Cleaning The Glass. Few events have been more damaging than Randle driving into a forest of bodies, and barfing up some hopeless “oh crap, now I have to pass” lollipop that lands in the hands of an opponent — who promptly streaks into a 3-on-1.
The Knicks have improved their spacing a little by reinserting Wayne Ellington into their rotation, and even sliding Kevin Knox II to power forward for spot minutes. (Downsides: Knox continues to look out of sorts, and what exactly did Damyean Dotson do to deserve outcast status?)
4. Mitchell Robinson, off one dribble
I’m starting to wonder … is James Dolan pulling a stunt? Is this some Joaquin Phoenix “I’m Still Here” thing, where Dolan will reveal all of these insane, embarrassing controversies were part of some decades-long art installation-slash-social experiment? The endurance of true Knicks fans is remarkable.
They need something positive, so here’s this: Robinson, the Knicks’ second-most-important young player — and maybe the one with the most upside — has looked more comfortable over the past month or so finishing after one dribble on the pick-and-roll.
Robinson catches that pass at the 3-point arc. Without that dribble, he’s useless there — a non-threat waiting for someone to rescue him. With it, he’s a scorer who draws help and has options — including Bobby Portis open in the corner.
Robinson ranks seventh in offensive rebounding rate, and that one dribble helps when caroms take him out of dunk range:
There is a perception in some corners of the league that Robinson’s progress has stalled. There has been a two-steps-forward, one-and-a-half-steps-back feel to his sophomore season. He still fouls too much. But New York’s ill-fitting roster and oppressive dysfunction have made it hard for Robinson to show linear growth.
His core strengths certainly haven’t atrophied; opponents shoot 8.9 percentage points worse at the rim with Robinson on the floor, one of the league’s largest discrepancies, per Cleaning The Glass. If you look hard enough, you can see other hopeful signs.
5. Tobias Harris’ playmaking
Harris is a really good player who does a little bit of everything for a team that because of its weirdo personnel — mega-skills with giant holes — sorely needs a jack-of-all-trades type.
He’s up to 37% from deep after a chilly start. He worked all summer posting up smaller defenders, and has attacked one-on-one more often. (He’s especially dangerous when he brings the ball up in semi-transition with a guard stuck on him, and rampages through that guy toward the rim.) He has doubled his pick-and-roll volume in Philly, a necessity given the Sixers’ nominal point guard refuses to shoot jumpers and is therefore not really a pick-and-roll threat.
Harris can produce a workable shot almost whenever he wants. If there’s something that leaves you wanting, it’s his playmaking. There are corner shooters and baseline cutters — Josh Richardson below — Harris doesn’t see until he’s already launching a long 2:
Sometimes he shoots before compromising the defense:
Harris is dishing three assists per game — a career high. Philly needs a little more, and that isn’t his fault. Ben Simmons isn’t yet an every-possession creator in a slowed-down, half-court game. It is hard for a post behemoth — Joel Embiid — to play that role today. It was Jimmy Butler’s job last season. The Sixers hoped Richardson would soak up more of that duty — he still might — but he hasn’t settled in. Alec Burks is helping, but is he closing playoff games? Maybe Shake Milton is the answer.
All of this has left Harris overtaxed as a playmaker.
Talking about player salaries is unpleasant. It’s also reality in a salary-cap league. For all the anxiety surrounding the Embiid/Simmons fit, the Sixers just aren’t getting enough production for the $60 million they are paying Harris and Al Horford — almost double-max money.
6. CJ McCollum’s hesitation crossover
McCollum during Damian Lillard’s six-game absence, which ended Wednesday against Washington: 33.3 points per game on 49% shooting — 41% from deep — and almost 8.5 assists. He earned nearly six free throws per game, more than double his average.
McCollum did his part to keep Portland — with the second-easiest remaining schedule in the West, heavy on home games — afloat in the playoff race. (New Orleans’ disastrously timed ongoing three-game losing streak helped, too.) Portland in that Lillard-less stretch outscored opponents by four points total with McCollum on the floor, and got waxed when he sat.
A bag of tricks deeper than Hermione Granger’s magic handbag has made McCollum a regular here. Another move to highlight: an absolutely disgusting, borderline Iversonian hesitation dribble and crossover in one.
John Collins is still trying to find McCollum:
Most players don’t switch hands or directions on hesitation moves. They drive with their strong hand, pull up mid-dribble as if to shoot, and then continue the same way. McCollum is combining two and even three moves in one. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are also skilled at the hesitation crossover.
How about a double dose for poor Bruno Fernando?
If McCollum treats rookies this way, the NBA might have to add some sort of McCollum-related emotional counseling to the Rookie Transition Program.
A lot of the discussion around McCollum focuses on the weaker spots in his game, and the sustainability of his partnership with Lillard. Fair. There are McCollum-centric trades that might better balance Portland’s roster.
But don’t lose sight of what a wizard this dude is — what an absolute gamer. He has missed 21 games combined over the past five seasons. He ranks in the top 20 in minutes every season, and can run around forever without getting tired. He evinced zero fatigue down the stretch of Game 7 in last season’s epic second-round series against Denver — a game McCollum iced with 37 steely points.
7. Collin Sexton is learning stuff
Sexton since Jan. 1: 23.3 points per game on 48.4% shooting, and 46% from deep — including 48% on 2.1 pull-up 3s per game. He has even boosted his assists and free throws from “pathetic” to “low but less worrisome.”
He’s inching forward as a passer; he recorded a season-high (for him) 19 potential assists Wednesday against Boston, and his three best games by that metric have come since the All-Star break, per Second Spectrum. (Related: Darius Garland has missed Cleveland’s past two games.) His defense is a problem, though he has been friskier lately. Nothing so far indicates he will ever be a top-two player on a championship-level team.
But Sexton just turned 21, and he’s sprinkling in hints of improving craft — including an effective lefty hesitation dribble:
Teams duck screens against Sexton a fair bit, and he needs a better counter than pulling up for long 2s. This is one: hesitate behind that screen to map the floor and see if the defense exhales. If it does, Sexton crouches into a speed dribble, zips by the first line of defense, and makes a play.
Sexton is also cagier bobbing back-and-forth behind second and third screens — another must-have counter to the “go under” defense.
8. Two trade deadline partners that make sense
Golden State has spent much of this season looking incoherent. That was inevitable. Injuries left the Warriors cycling through castoffs. They’ve had too many big men, forcing Steve Kerr to play two centers together and/or Eric Paschall as the league’s heftiest wing.
In their final game before Stephen Curry’s return — a blowout win in Denver — the Warriors finally looked like a team that made sense. They started four switchable perimeter players in Mychal “Fox” Mulder, Damion Lee (brimming with confidence), Andrew Wiggins, and Juan Toscano-Anderson — a fun dude who can shoot 3s and just knows how to play. (Toscano-Anderson is an ace cutter.)
They played only two centers, and never both at once: a rim-runner who can pass from the elbows in Marquese Chriss, and a shooting 5 in Dragan Bender who complements Paschall’s raging-bull game.
Jordan Poole came off the bench again after a stint as Golden State’s fill-in point guard, and his playmaking and shooting from inside the arc have rounded into form after a disturbing first two-plus months. He’s making smart, quick decisions with the ball:
The team that traded Wiggins has a vision coming into focus even in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns: streams of D’Angelo Russell-Towns pick-and-rolls surrounded by shooting, with other good Towns stuff mixed in — post-ups, pump-and-go drives, and canny passes from the elbow as Russell plays hide-and-seek off the ball.
Malik Beasley is letting fly from everywhere, and looks like a fixture on the wing. Jarrett Culver, surging again, projects as a nice two-way complement there. Josh Okogie offers fierce competition for wing minutes.
Juan Hernangomez is 24-of-53 from deep in 11 games as Minnesota’s starting stretch power forward after hitting 54 triples combined his past two seasons in Denver — and no more than 66 in any season. Even so, Minnesota’s biggest long-term need is finding a better frontcourt partner for Towns.
The Wolves have a long way to go. They will have trouble crafting a competent defense around Towns and Russell, and it’s tough to crack the West playoff race without one. (Side note: Will all 15 teams in the West enter next season with at least semi-legitimate playoff hopes?)
But Minnesota had no organizing principle before February. At least it has that now.
9. My son is also named Dort
Luguentz Dort (a real player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, I swear) is 7-of-31 from deep over his past 12 games, and down to 29% overall. It is kind of astonishing (and an indictment of the occasionally shot-phobic Terrance Ferguson) that Dort starts for a mid-tier playoff seed in the varsity conference.
But he has earned that, mostly with tenacious, in-your-jersey defense. Dort is a giant cinder block with arms. You cannot move him. In the post, he is Kyle Lowry, but (at least) three inches taller. He defends everyone from star point guards to gigantic wings, allowing the Thunder to spare Chris Paul some grunt work.
Dort can’t do much on offense, but neither can Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader, or Deonte Burton.
Dort is an aggressive driver with no regard for his own safety, or the safety of those around him. When defenders close out hard — a mistake given that 29% mark on 3s — Dort has flashed the ability to blow by them and finish with either hand:
The Thunder score well on Dort drives, per Second Spectrum. He draws a ton of shooting fouls.
Dort is a bowling ball in transition with a surprising ability to slow down as defenders fly past him, and loft layups with a soft touch.
10. Third-party current player jerseys
A fan behind Toronto’s bench during Sunday’s Nuggets-Raptors game in Denver wore a green Celtics “0” jersey — probably a Jayson Tatum jersey. I will never understand Random Jersey Guy. Why wear the jersey of an active player not involved in the game you are attending, with no historical link to either participating team?
The worst version of This Guy shows up at, like, a Magic-Hornets game wearing a LeBron jersey. Are you so devoted to LeBron that you must represent him at all times? Are you a Heat, Lakers, or Cavs fan rubbing it in the face of locals rooting on lesser franchises? Do you want everyone nearby glancing at you?
Perhaps you are trying to mark yourself as a hardcore basketball fan. Fine. If you are determined to do so with an unaffiliated jersey, the right move is a throwback, or some jersey of a retired legend. Otherwise, you are Homer Simpson holding the “Sports” pennant or some cousin of the guy at the concert wearing the T-shirt of the band playing the concert.
11. Keep an eye on Cam Reddish
Over his first two months, Reddish was plainly unready — bricktastic from all over the floor, and weirdly sluggish with the ball.
But Reddish is 42-of-110 from deep (38%) since Jan. 1. Does that render his horrid start irrelevant? Not completely. Trending upward over two months proves little. But it’s better than the alternative — especially since Reddish has shot 3s more often, and sometimes even under duress, over those two months.
He also been more decisive attacking off the dribble, with a crafty change-of-pace game and the length to finish over and around defenders:
Reddish isn’t going to be a primary pick-and-roll guy. Atlanta has Young for that. The Hawks need Reddish to defend like all hell, and punish defenses — with 3s and catch-and-go drives — when they swarm Young pick-and-rolls. You can see the blurry outlines of that sort of player in both Reddish and De’Andre Hunter.
I never bought the idea that Atlanta could chase the East’s No. 8 spot this season. The Hawks’ core is so young, and they used a lot of roster spots on unproductive cap fodder. But next season? Make the playoffs a goal.
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