Welcome to my annual detox from tanktastic late March basketball: the Marc Gasol All-Stars, honoring my dozen favorite players to watch from the unwinding season. Two ground rules:
We build a realistic 12-man roster.
Jokic grabbing a defensive rebound and leading a fast break has been the most thrilling non-Westbrook sight of the season. He's under control, with a tight handle, and cool making snap pass-or-score decisions. He crossed up Draymond Freaking Green at half-court on his way to a 1-on-4 coast-to-coast dunk. I was at that game, and almost fell out my chair giggling like an idiot.
Corral him early, and Jokic will set up shop at the elbow, cutters whirring around him. That moment holds the magic of infinite possibility. Jokic raises the ball over his head, and squeezes it through a backdoor passing lane so narrow, you barely even see it on slow-motion replay. If Jokic's man reaches high for the ball, Jokic will dip his arm like a sidearm reliever, and almost bowl a bounce pass.
Press him hard, and Jokic might even turn his back to the rim, clear some space with his cevapi-fed ass, and toss a blind over-the-head fastball.
Jokic has assisted on 28.4 percent of Denver baskets while on the floor, the fourth-highest single-season figure ever among players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller. He just turned 22, and he's already the best passing big man alive. He elevates everyone around him. He creates easy baskets, and spares teammates from assuming ballhandling duties beyond their capacity.
Denver has scored 114 points per 100 possessions since making Jokic a full-time starter in mid-December, at least six weeks after it was obvious he was their best player. That mark leads the league, per NBA.com. No team has ever matched it over a full season. A second-round pick has transformed the trajectory of an entire franchise overnight.
His style extends beyond those outside-in no-lookers. Jokic has the wily, balletic footwork to punk fools on the block:
He is shooting almost 60 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports.
He can inject brilliance in the flow, without dominating the ball:
He's a supporting actor in that pick-and-roll, but he unlocks its possibilities. He knows before even catching the ball that Patrick Beverley will leave Emmanuel Mudiay to help in the paint. Mudiay won't be open long. Jokic buys time by catching and throwing in one motion, and looking away as he slings that crosscourt bullet -- a trick to freeze Beverley an extra half-second.
Jokic is the one true Gasol heir. We may have to exempt him from our All-Star restrictions.
Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
We pivot right to the smooth wing who enjoys a preternatural mind-meld with Jokic:
Harris is shooting 53 percent off Jokic passes, per NBA.com. The two hit one backdoor beauty every game. Harris has a knack for finishing from strange angles along the baseline, and underneath the backboard:
He'll sometimes leap out of bounds, reach the ball back in, and lay it up. The court extends 94 feet for most players, and 96 feet for baseline tricksters like Harris, Paul Millsap and Khris Middleton.
Harris moves in a glide -- the kind you look foolish imitating. It disguises an explosiveness that catches defenders by surprise. Harris has a mean hesitation dribble, and once he revs up, he flies across the horizontal plane faster than opponents expect:
Forget about him as a shot goes up, and Harris will sneak in for a put-back cram.
Harris is emerging as one of the league's most versatile off-ball weapons. He's drilled a sizzling 43 percent from deep, and he's not just a standstill gunner; he has a liquid release compact enough to catch-and-shoot in a blink after curling off screens.
Harris can run a functional pick-and-roll in a pinch, and he might be Denver's most reliable perimeter defender. (Note: This is not necessarily a good sign.) He toggles between star wings and point guards -- whatever makes it easier for the Nuggets to hide Jameer Nelson.
Harris made a leap at the perfect time. He's eligible for an extension after the season, and in a league starved for wings, the Nuggets know what will happen if Harris hits free agency in 2018.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (captain emeritus)
This is no token legacy spot. Gasol reinvented himself under David Fizdale as a shimmying 3-point bomber, and he adds new wrinkles to his game every season. When Mike Conley missed nine straight games, Gasol, a natural giver, held his nose and got selfish -- and found he could thrive that way, too.
He posted up to score more than ever before. His soaring baseline fadeaway, preceded always by a twitchy shoulder fake toward the middle, is becoming a signature shot.
After years of passive resistance, Gasol discovered 3s are kinda fun. He danced off the floor after a game winner in L.A.. Against Portland, Gasol caught the ball about seven feet behind the arc in transition and found himself alone. He glanced to his left looking for an open man, then to his right, and found no one. He finally shrugged and let fly. He looked like a kid who knew he was about to try something naughty.
Inside the arc, Gasol is still stretching the boundaries of high-post creativity:
That is the basketball version of a play-action fake.
Gasol's brain fires the same way on defense, even if he hasn't been as airtight on that end this season -- especially over the past month. He maps and remaps the whole floor, yapping with his head on a swivel, and he can still put out multiple fires at once through smart positioning.
Curry's undersized, without the coiled athleticism and cinder-block strength Isaiah Thomas uses to level the playing field. Curry is all guile and shooting. He's not ready to run an offense solo, but Curry is good at leading his man into picks -- and opening up the teensy pocket he needs to unleash one of the game's prettiest pull-ups.
Curry has nailed 46 percent of pull-up jumpers, second best (behind only CJ McCollum) among the 58 guys launching at least four of those toughies per game. Like his brother, Curry adds extra arc to loft shots over big guys. When help defenders blitz him near the 3-point arc, Curry uses one hard dribble to get them lurching backward before stopping on a dime for a rainbow.
If that fails, Curry scoots around them and tosses a skyscraping scoop shot -- one of the prettiest in the league:
He can gather the ball for that scoop one-handed, saving precious milliseconds as behemoths chase him. The ball doesn't really bounce off the backboard. It drips down into the basket.
Curry's cleverness translates to the other end. He anticipates and manipulates. Curry becomes a dangerous defender when cornered into a 2-on-1. He'll lunge hard at the ball handler, with an almost alarming level of aggression -- like Jason Segel bum-rushing the bystander who calls him out for leaving dog poop on the boardwalk in "I Love You, Man."
But it's a ruse. When that guy picks up his dribble and passes to a teammate, Curry will already be there to deflect the ball.
What a find for the Mavs.
The fearless, whirling, pivoting, head-down sprinting soul of Miami's offense. All the attention on Dion Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, and the Johnsons has obscured that Dragic is Miami's best player, and the firing engine of its relentless drive-and-kick machine. The Heat have scored 107 points per 100 possessions with Dragic on the floor, and a hair less than 102 when he sits -- about the equivalent to Brooklyn's 28th-ranked offense.
Dragic is a second-tier Westbrook: He knows only one speed. With last season's pace tug-of-war against Dwyane Wade in the rearview, Dragic and Erik Spoelstra, perhaps the favorite for Coach of the Year, revamped Miami's offense to flow from Dragic's skill set.
Dragic wants to run on every single possession. Force him to pick up his dribble near the rim, and he'll go into a bobbing dance of expert pivot moves -- up-and-unders, twirls and other fakes that leave you dizzy. He has a nifty floater game, and like Curry, he can almost shot-put them with one hand to save time:
Dragic plays with an underrated, nasty physicality that runs counter to the dumbest stereotypes of European players. While LeBron honed a floater to navigate his Roy Hibbert problem, Dragic just drove full-speed into Hibbert's stomach, knocked him backward, and laid the ball in. Get in his way, and you will catch an elbow to the chest:
The Heat bet huge on Dragic -- perhaps too much, given they flipped two first-rounders, including an unprotected 2021 Pat Riley Retirement Pick, to Phoenix as Dragic's contract was about to expire. Dragic has justified the gamble by rediscovering his 2013-14 All-NBA form.
The Warriors just don't feel like the Warriors until Iguodala enters. They get smaller, faster, and more versatile. Iguodala embodies this team's ethos as much as the three homegrown stars. There is both a joy and a prickly snobbishness in how Golden State values the extra pass. They love to share, but they also love advertising it: "We win the right way." That is Iguodala. He is Golden State's sixth man, but in many ways, the team has evolved in his image.
He represents their strange, almost charming vulnerability, too. Sometimes the fun stops, and someone has to get a bucket. The pre-Durant Warriors hit (short) rough patches in that setting. They mostly just waited for some variable -- maybe the entrance of Iguodala -- to jolt the game out of it. Iguodala goes through stages where he is reluctant to shoot, even around the rim, or can't create enough separation to pull the trigger. His frailty in those moments is relatable.
His basketball IQ is not. Locked-in Iggy is an all-world defender, sticking chest-to-chest with elite scorers, a hounding wraith they can't shake. He is uncanny at swiping at the ball, and getting all orange.
He is a genius passer in the open court. He reads the waves of humans cascading around him, and senses early when they will leave an open teammate in their wake. Watch him eyeball Green early here, and then wait for Avery Bradley to clear the passing lane:
He knows when his defender has to rotate away on a help assignment, and he exploits that inattention to open up shots for teammates one or two steps down the chain:
That is a pass specific to Golden State Iguodala. He sees two Thunder players trap Durant as his man, Andre Roberson, zips over to patrol Green on the pick-and-pop. Iguodala steps into the void. Most players cut there looking to score. Iguodala knows his cut will draw attention from Curry's man, and that Curry will drift open; he begins turning away from the rim, and toward where Curry should be, before even catching the ball.
Iguodala's brain is in peak form. His body isn't, but he loves reminding people in that Vince Carter way that he can still fly if he needs to. Iguodala is wrapping perhaps his best season as a Warrior. He deserves more attention in the Sixth Man of The Year race.
One of my flashbulb memories from this season will be Embiid catching the ball along the right baseline, lowering his shoulder, and absolutely trucking Nikola Vucevic -- a giant human -- on his way to the rim.
Embiid has the power and touch to merit automatic double-teams in the post. If he ever learns to pass, watch out. Embiid was in score-first, score-always mode this season, and that's part of what made him so fun to watch. He missed two years, and dammit if he wasn't going to make up for lost time. He coughed up an ungodly 5.4 turnovers per 36 minutes forcing the action, but did you really want to see this dude pass?
He is mean:
He has a Eurostep:
He terrorized people on defense. The Sixers -- the injury-riddled, slapdash Sixers! -- outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor.
He didn't play enough games to merit Rookie of the Year consideration, but he's a no-brainer for a Gasol spot. Get well, big fella. We need you. #TrustTheProcess
Whitehead isn't good, and he may never be. But there is a pulsating creativity to the Cyclone's (copyright: Ian Eagle) off-the-dribble game.
He can't blow by NBA guards, so he jukes and feints until he tilts them just enough off-balance that he has an angle into their chests. He sells a sly hesitation dribble by standing upright before crouching back down. He spins like he's in a centrifuge, gaining speed and power without losing vision -- a tough balance to strike.
He's strong, with a 6-9 wingspan, unafraid to plow into 7-footers under the rim:
He's a Brooklyn kid, and the Nets say he's a worker invested in the borough's team. Whitehead has been a part of strong bench units that have helped the Nets to a solid (for them) record since the All-Star break. Keep an eye on this guy.
Don't do this to me, Julius Randle. Don't be Antoine Walker 2.0 -- a sublimely gifted bowling ball who falls in love with the wrong things. This Julius Randle, right there?
I'm here for that guy. That guy is a problem -- a point-center who could grow into L.A.'s offense-first, junior varsity Draymond Green. Randle had five blocks in that Charlotte game. He has 26 total in 65 other games.
When Randle goes all-out on defense, he can switch across multiple positions and provide at least some resistance at the rim. When his motor runs low, he's a liability who doesn't do quite enough on offense to compensate.
Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers
The touch pass is a Gasolian skill. It is selflessness with style. A touch-passer is thinking so far ahead, he doesn't have time to hold the ball.
Nance may not have invented the rebound touch-pass, but he is its most frequent practitioner:
This might be the touch pass of the season:
Nance loves to pass. He talks about setting flare screens with the glee of Kobe Bryant discussing footwork in the post. Luke Walton, the Lakers coach, has to order Nance to shoot. Every good team needs a role player who loves the little things. (The Lakers do need Nance and Randle to hit more jumpers when they are open, and catch the ball in rhythm.)
Nance, the son of an NBA star, thinks he got this way because he didn't play on the AAU circuit until just before his senior year of high school.
"The kids who grew up playing AAU learn how to cross guys over -- all the 'oooh' and 'ahhh' stuff," Nance told ESPN.com. "I grew up playing with my dad and a bunch of 50-year-olds in a rec league. I learned to pass. I learned to back cut. I learned how to play without the ball before I learned to play with it. I feel like that's a lost art."
James Johnson, Miami Heat
Everything Johnson does (expounded upon here) carries a hint of danger. What is the fun of the easy pass when you might be able to spin in midair and slip the ball between four arms to Whiteside?
He swings for blocks as if he wants to deflate the ball and drill a hole in the floor. He flies across 30 feet of open space to close out on shooters who never thought it possible he might appear, and leaps, arms and fingers stretched, like a draft prospect aiming for a personal best at the combine.
You worry he's going to fly into the fifth row.
A repeat Gasol, and all of what we said last season still applies. For better or worse, you cannot take your eyes off Smart. He barrels through screens, snatches loose balls from rivals who grip them first, and outworks two and three opponents for improbable offensive rebounds.
His flops are so brazen, you almost admire them -- almost. It is so satisfying when they fail -- when the refs refuse the bait, Smart falls over in an embarrassing heap, and the other team scores in a 5-on-4 situation. Karma can be fun!
Toss in improved playmaking, and Smart has been an intriguing watch -- again. Just don't mention his shooting numbers to Boston fans.