Back with 10 more things:
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, unguardable
The Timberwolves have petered out amid injuries and a hail of enemy 3-pointers, but beleaguered Minny fans can take heart in these two realities:
• Towns has posted up more than any player since the Jimmy Butler trade;
• The Wolves have scored at a rate of a top-3 offense with Towns on the floor since December.
Towns is the league’s best hope for a sustainable, old school-ish inside-out offense — even a tick above Joel Embiid. He can do pretty much anything from any spot below the foul line, and that versatility makes him unguardable one-on-one. He is a slightly better passer than Embiid, with a lower turnover rate.
Towns is slinging about four assists per game since the Butler deal, up from about 2.5 before. He is patient reading help schemes, watching cutters whir around, and firing cross-court passes that travel one link further along the chain than the defense expects:
Towns is averaging 35 points per game on 60 percent shooting since the All-Star break. It has been a joke watching teams try to guard him. He is on pace for a second consecutive 50-40 shooting season, and he is a slightly improved free throw stroke — 84 percent career — from becoming the second big man ever to post a 50-40-90 season. (You know the other guy.)
The Wolves have poured in 1.2 points per possession on any trip featuring a Towns post-up since the Butler deal, one of the best marks in the league, per Second Spectrum. Consider that Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Derrick Rose, and Tyus Jones all missed significant chunks of that time. Imagine when Towns can pass to more starter-level players?
He’s still not good enough on defense, but when he tries, he’s solid. On the other end, he’s an undisputed foundational superstar.
2. When the Bucks go old-school
I like when the Bucks attack the paint in methods a little outside their core offense:
Only the Sixers and Warriors set fewer ball screens than Milwaukee, per Second Spectrum. The same trio have their screeners slice to the rim (as opposed to popping) least often. That is not a bad thing! It’s notable that so many of the league’s best offenses — also including Denver and Toronto — rank toward the bottom in on-ball picks. There might be something to the notion that the more raw talent and shooting you have, the less you should rely on basketball’s staple.
But variety is healthy — and a necessity against playoff defenses. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t on the court for that play, and Brook Lopez is more dangerous diving to the rim with four shooters around him instead of three. But Antetokounmpo draws a ton of attention wherever he is. He also is Milwaukee’s most dangerous roller, and perhaps still underutilized as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls.
A bunch of opponents have defended Antetokounmpo with their centers. It has been nagging at me: Should Milwaukee post Lopez up more when he has a wing on him? They finally went to that well last week against Charlotte (picking mostly on Frank Kaminsky, but still), and Lopez obliterated the Hornets.
The Bucks have scored 1.32 points per possession anytime Lopez shoots from the post, or passes to a teammate who fires off the catch — the fattest mark among players who have recorded at least 50 post-ups, per Second Spectrum.
Adherence to dogma can sink you in the playoffs. Even Steve Kerr, blessed with insane talent, defaulted to the Stephen Curry–Kevin Durant pick-and-roll when things got tight in the 2017 Finals.
Mike Budenholzer is one of the most brilliant basketball minds alive. He has a vision for how basketball should look. He altered it some to fit a superstar. There will be moments in the playoffs that call for simple, ugly brute force. Budenholzer has to be willing to go there — and to make tough lineup choices in particular matchups.
3. Tobias Harris, upright citizen
I am checking my gut impulse to feel uneasy about Philly. The Sixers are a middling 9-7 in their past 16 games, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what they are as they integrate two new stars. Their bench is no bueno.
But their starting five has only played 83 minutes together, and they have smashed opponents. A no bueno bench doesn’t matter as much when you stagger those five guys. A healthy Joel Embiid solves a lot of problems. They are balancing competing identities on offense, but it hasn’t impacted the bottom line.
Philly is betting that there is no such thing as being too big. Given their collective skill level, they are probably right. But quick guards have given them issues, and those get more pronounced when Harris switches onto one. Even regular wings can roast him.
For whatever reason, Harris has always been a strangely upright and inflexible defender. Smaller players just slip right around guys like that.
It’s fascinating to watch who Philly chooses to defend point guards. Sometimes it’s JJ Redick, but is he up for Kyrie Irving or Kyle Lowry? Sometimes it’s Butler. He’s been just OK. More often lately, it’s Ben Simmons. He gets hung up on screens now and then, and defending point guards takes him away from the rim — where he’s a deterrent.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Sixers can pound opposing point guards on the other end. But it bears watching.
4. When Jeff Teague goes haywire
I’m not sure what happened to Teague in Minnesota, but something in his point guard circuitry went haywire. Maybe he just got a little older. Maybe coaching and roster chaos — plus a plodding offense that lacked the flowing beauty of his prime Atlanta years — sapped his rhythm and confidence.
There are long stretches when he barely looks at the rim:
Passing up opens 3s isn’t a crime; Teague is an average 3-point shooter. It is often smart to turn down open 3s, call for a second screen, and slither through the crevices that open. It is not smart when you do this:
Teague declines a 3, ignores a wide-open Dario Saric — shooting 39 percent from deep in Minnesota even though he hasn’t quite clicked all the way yet — and flings up whatever the hell this is.
Teague is on pace for his best assist season. But he’s also posting his worst shooting numbers since his rookie year, and there are an astonishing number of games where you barely notice him beyond a few head-scratching decisions.
Saric and Towns make for a snug fit, and every team needs someone like Covington. Jones is a nice backup, though his status as an analytics darling has inflated his reputation. Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop have the vague outlines of solid role players.
But Teague has outlived his usefulness to the franchise, and Andrew Wiggins somehow gets a little worse every season.
For all the losing and angst, how much of long-term import does Minnesota have beyond Towns?
5. The patience of Damian Lillard
In a league that is almost more melodrama than basketball competition, this dude is an absolute rock. Lillard has never missed more than nine games in a season. He has logged between 35.4 and 36.6 minutes per game for six seasons running. Every damn year, he averages around 26 points and seven assists on 37 percent-ish shooting from deep. He does not have down years.
He gets a little craftier with the ball every season — more patient reading defenses, and smarter manipulating them.
Lillard waits for the Thunder to reveal their strategy. They want to force him away from Jusuf Nurkic‘s screen, and pin him on the sideline. Lillard draws them out further, waits until Nurkic blockades Russell Westbrook, and then zooms where he wants to go — toward the middle, with Steven Adams trailing. From there, it’s spin, hesitation dribble, crossover, pull up in your face.
Lillard wilted against New Orleans’ trapping scheme in last season’s playoffs. He dissects the Thunder’s pressure here with icy calm.
Lillard heads up four of the league’s 40 most efficient pick-and-roll combinations, per Second Spectrum. The Blazers have scored 1.12 points per possession when Lillard shoots out of the pick-and-roll or dishes to a teammate who lets fly — tops among all high-volume ball handlers.
The playoffs will test him again. Right now, Lillard looks ready.
6. Tomas Satoransky just knows how to play
Every trade deadline leaves two or three makeshift teams in its wake: random collections of free-agents-to-be, guys acquired for reasons that are no longer relevant (Trevor Ariza), guys acquired later and for different reasons than the first guy (Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker), and maybe Dwight Howard holding a player option for reasons only Ernie Grunfeld understands. (The Grizzlies have the most fun Flotsam Team.) Everyone is marking time until the season ends.
But these Wiz are fighting, and Satoransky is a joy. Viewed with the wrong perspective, he might leave you wanting. He doesn’t run the offense as much as a traditional lead guard. You might not trust his jump shot. Elite point guards and physical scorers give him trouble on the other end.
But Sato just knows how to play. It would be really fun to be on his team. He’s unselfish, and a very smart passer. Few guards cut with his sense of timing, and such revved-up urgency:
Some ball handlers disengage when other guys run the show. Satoransky is always searching out little ways he can help, and he sees those opportunities earlier than most. Why stand still or beg for the ball when you can plow away the defense with an improvised screen?
The Wizards have posted a healthy scoring margin for two years running now when Satoransky and Bradley Beal share the floor. Satoransky is shooting 43.5 percent from deep combined over the last two seasons.
Satoransky will be a restricted free agent this summer, and he will have a market. He can play real minutes on a good team.
7. Emmanuel Mudiay‘s dribbles to nowhere
Four years in, it’s still unclear what Mudiay is. Denver conceived of him as a big point guard, but Mudiay has never shown enough playmaking to run a functional NBA offense. He is not really useful off the ball. He seems most comfortable hunting contested midrange shots, and passing up open 3s in annoying prelude:
Some players love catch-and-shoot 20-footers. Some guys make it rain teardrops. Mudiay is the rare bird who prefers tilting 13-foot jumpers, the most midrangy of midrange shots. He’s actually pretty good at them! Mudiay is shooting 45 percent on 2s launched between 10 and 16 feet from the hoop, per Basketball-Reference. He’s also hit a Nowitzkian 51 percent of long 2s!
Those might be outliers. Mudiay has never been above 36 percent from either range in any prior season. Coincidentally, he has hit almost exactly 36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over his past three seasons. So, like, maybe just take those instead of lurching into this kind of vomitous bile:
Even if Mudiay sustains a 40-plus percent hit rate on in-between shots, they are low points-per-play looks that have no place — beyond late clock bailouts — on a team actually trying to win.
8. Derrick White‘s high-IQ game
Quin Snyder once described a smooth, anticipatory player to me as having “a good nervous system.” I always liked that. (Please ignore that the player was Trey Lyles.)
White has a good nervous system. He is always on his toes on defense, sliding and bouncing, but never out of balance. He moves his feet in almost exact concert with ball handlers, like a mirror image of them.
He can start, stop, and change direction on a dime. He tracks everything at once, so he rotates on time — with the flight of the ball.
Dallas loves that “Spain” action, with Dwight Powell screening for Luka Doncic and Tim Hardaway Jr. lurking in the paint to slam Powell’s guy — LaMarcus Aldridge — before veering out for an open 3-pointer. A lot of teams coach their two guards — the guys on Doncic and Hardaway — to switch.
You almost never see any pair pull it off with the timing and synchronization White and Bryn Forbes show here.
It’s tempting to say White plays at his own pace, but we usually attach that phrasing to slower guys. White is explosive in tight spaces. He’s good slow and fast. He plays at whatever pace serves him.
It looks like the Mavs have switched when White scoots around this crunchtime pick from Aldridge. White isn’t sure. He keeps going, scanning the floor and stutter-stepping side-by-side with Aldridge — until Powell panics and sinks back inside, revealing the open jumper White suspected might materialize. That is old man savvy.
White makes simple, correct plays. He passes when he should pass, and launches 3s with confidence when defenses concede them. He often defends the best opposing wing scorer. He has a chance to be really good.
9. Denver’s inverted goodness
Behold: the most effective pick-and-roll in the league, in all its wackadoo goodness:
The Nuggets have scored 1.35 points per possession when Nikola Jokic shoots after lumbering around a pick from Jamal Murray; Murray launches off a pass from Jokic; or a teammate one pass away finishes the job. That’s the best mark among all high-volume combos, per Second Spectrum, and it is not close.
This is a perfectly unorthodox play for Denver’s perfectly unorthodox superstar. Jokic’s body is not fast. His mind is — and when he registers that Murray’s screen has given him the teensiest edge, he seizes it by putting his shoulder down and nuzzling into inside position.
Go under Murray’s pick, and Jokic can set and fire; his 3-pointer has stabilized over the past two months. Help off of any Denver shooter, and Jokic finds him.
Murray is cagey disguising the timing and direction of his picks, and in mixing up what he does afterward. He prefers popping for 3s. Overplay that, and he’ll slide into open space and await a dish from Jokic:
Both can abuse switches. That becomes more important in the playoffs, when defenses toggle matchups to make it as painless as possible to switch the opponent’s best pick-and-roll combination. It is hard to engineer such switchability against a pick-and-roll involving a team’s biggest and smallest guys.
10. Detroit’s volleyball tipoff
I’m not saying this is the most important story of Detroit’s season, but I’m also not saying it isn’t: The Pistons have an elaborate three-person opening tip routine in which Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson mimic volleyball players:
They do this every time Andre Drummond wins the tip, which is almost always, because Drummond is giant and freakishly athletic. He is really the volleyball MVP; you can’t develop this level of choreography without a near-guaranteed tip winner who can direct the ball.
(Drummond is 49-15 on opening tips, the best winning percentage among players who have jumped center in more than two games, per the league office. Yes, they looked this up. No, I am not ashamed. I also learned Antetokounmpo is 23-7 in jump balls other than opening tips — he’s 0-of-0 on those — which is the best percentage of anyone. Brook Lopez is a very solid 47-21 on opening tips, but I am now worried this opening tip controversy I just created could rip apart the Bucks.)
I am almost hesitant to spotlight it, because some anti-fun opponent might instruct its fastest player to rush in and intercept Griffin’s set. Couldn’t you see Westbrook doing this? Dude blocked Rocky the mountain lion’s half-court shot just to be mean. The threat might get in Griffins’ head, and impact his set height and accuracy.
The Pistons should go even further. Have Bruce Brown rise up for one of those decoy spikes.
Is this the best tip routine ever? Other nominations?