It's the final Friday of the regular season -- time for one more dash around the league.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Washington's shaky defense
It hasn't gotten nearly as much attention, but Washington's leaky defense has actually been a hair worse than Cleveland's since the All-Star break. The Wiz are down to 20th for the season in points allowed per possession, one spot ahead of the Cavs. Washington ranked ninth before the break, and a very encouraging fifth over a three-month stretch in which they zoomed from 2-8 to 34-21.
Some of the regression might be noise. They've played 15 of their past 24 games on the road, including showdowns against the Clippers, Cavs, Raptors, Warriors, and Jazz. They are integrating three new rotation players, including one so-so defender (Bojan Bogdanovic) and one sieve (Brandon Jennings).
Opponents have hit 46 percent of their open 3s against Washington since the All-Star break, and 42 percent for the season -- the highest such marks in the league, per NBA.com. There is at least some bad luck baked into those numbers; they should come down if the Wiz survive long enough.
Some of the decline is plainly effort-related. John Wall has checked out in some games, dying on screens and resorting to desperate reach-arounds that yield a steal one out of every five times -- and leave teammates out to dry the other four.
They've introduced more switching, and let's just say they haven't been on hyper-alert with all the communication and synchronized movement required for an airtight switching scheme:
Yikes. They'll try harder in the playoffs, and iron some of this nonsense out. But the Wizards aren't good enough to play like an entitled, "flip the switch" team, and they know it. "We just have to lock in," Wall told me after their comeback win over the Lakers in L.A. last week. "You see in games like this, we just lock in when we need to. But you can never get bored like we do. That's something we have to do better. Championship teams don't get bored playing well, and winning."
2. Aggressive Rajon Rondo
Man, I didn't realize how much I missed this guy:
All it took to get him back was a social media feud, a prolonged benching, Dwyane Wade's injury, and the acquisition of Chicago's fourth substandard point guard. Huzzah!
Rondo shot 46 percent in March, by far his best shooting month in Chicago, and played with more decisiveness. Let's not go nuts, here. Rondo is still a below-average point guard -- a nice backup the game has passed by, in large part because he has never been the same since tearing his ACL in 2013. Without a jumper, Rondo couldn't afford to lose even 5 percent of his speed.
But he's still a useful NBA player. He's clever -- opportunistic in transition, with a sense for bendy cross-court passes that appear only to true visionaries. His passivity earlier in the season sucked the life out of Chicago's offense, just as it did at times in all his prior stops. He has to shoot when appropriate (at least sometimes), accept the possibility of free throws, and act fast instead of dribbling the air out of the ball. He misses the shot in the clip, but it's a healthy shot -- one that will go in more than half the time, and produce a bunch of offensive rebounds.
That version of Rondo can still play. Rondo as a secondary ball handler next to Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez, and two spot-up types is workable. Rondo as a third ball handler next to Butler, Wade, and Lopez is not. Decisions loom, assuming Chicago makes the playoffs with both Rondo and Wade healthy. Good luck, Fred Hoiberg!
3. Orbiting KAT
A minor Minnesota annoyance: No one moves when Karl-Anthony Towns gets to work on the block. The teammate who throws the entry pass will jog to the weak side, and stand there with all four of Towns' teammates. He is not cutting so much as getting out of the way.
This isn't some awful sin, and no one is expecting Minnesota to mimic the crisscrossing Warriors. Towns is posting up to score, not to pass, and he's damn good at scoring; Towns has hit 53 percent of his post-up shots, per Synergy Sports, and his righty jump hook is already one of the league's deadliest go-to moves.
He's dangerous enough to draw double-teams, and that gets at least one teammate open even if nobody moves an inch.
But Towns is a good passer. The Wolves would do well to orchestrate a little more movement around him. Tom Thibodeau is reconstructing this team from the ground up. The basics come first. Maybe we'll see more creative off-ball cutting from the pups next season.
4. Gordon Hayward, slinging fire
What a season for Hayward, one of many established names -- along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, and Isaiah Thomas -- gunning for a Most Improved Player award that usually goes to someone one tier below these guys.
Hayward has tightened up every area of his game. He's shooting 39 percent from deep, and on his best nights, he looks like a borderline All-Defense candidate. He doesn't have the explosive first step of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron, or prime Carmelo Anthony -- the ability to pry space on demand for a last-second shot. But how many guys fall into that category? Kawhi Leonard can usually clear room for a decent step-back 20-footer. Does that count? Can Paul George do it?
You hear it from team executives all the time: "Hayward isn't good enough to be the No. 1 option on a championship team." OK, so what? How many guys are?
Hayward looks more in command of Utah's offense every season:
That is some sophisticated pick-and-roll artistry. Hayward has that Alec Burks corner 3 in mind as a possible endgame before he even starts his dance with the French Rejection. (I will never give up on this nickname.) He explores one direction, dips back the other, and knows that second move -- to his right -- will draw Tim Frazier away from Burks.
Hayward doesn't even really pick up his dribble. He just transitions from dribble into pass, all in one motion, and slings a dart that hits Burks in the hands, chest-high. Gorgeous.
5. Delon Wright, crafty!
The only downside of Kyle Lowry coming back in full force: less of Wright, who emerged as a crafty and ultra-long ball handler while Lowry rehabbed from wrist surgery. Wright showed enough to leap Norman Powell in Toronto's rotation for now, and at 6-foot-5, he has the size to guard wings.
Wright dusts opponents with the shoulder-shaking cutbacks of an NFL running back. One of his pet moves: faking toward a screener, fooling his defender into leaning in that direction, and then crossing back away from the pick -- and into wide-open spaces:
A lot of young guys get overeager when the lane widens like that. They smell some sweet, sweet NBA points. They put their heads down, and plow into charging calls.
Not Wright. He stays in third gear, knowing he can rev it to fifth if that ends up the best option. He keeps his head up, and understands how defenses rotate to quell a pick-and-roll threat. He has already learned the first open teammate isn't always his best choice, even if the passing lane there is convenient. Defenses anticipate that play; they may lunge there before Wright even releases the pass.
Wright will sometimes skip right along to the second or third link, wrong-footing defenses who expect rote reads from a guy who hasn't even cracked 700 minutes in the NBA.
Wright is 24, so there isn't as much upside here as you might think. But he looks ready for a regular backup role. The Raptors may need to move Cory Joseph (among other players) to skirt the luxury tax if they re-sign Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and (maybe) Patrick Patterson. Wright's play should make them feel a little less queasy about that.
6. The Brandan Wright-Zach Randolph duo
Moving Randolph to the bench has generally worked out. Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green mesh well in a spacier starting five, and Randolph is a sixth man bulldozer. He still gets enough run with Gasol to satisfy our proto-nostalgia for grit-and-grind.
But the ripple effects include an awkward bench partnership with Wright, who needs an uncluttered lane for his rim-running alley-oops. He won't get that with Randolph holding office hours down low.
The Grizz have tried to make it work with sets featuring both guys at the elbows, and Wright is a little more capable than he gets credit for as a passer and driver. But it is not his bread-and-butter, and the results are clunky:
The Grizz have scored just 99 points per 100 possessions with Wright and Randolph on the floor, worse than any team's season-long mark, per NBA.com. Wright is a better fit next to Gasol or even Green, but the natural substitution pattern makes it a little harder for David Fizdale to get to those pairings.
It will be interesting to see how Fizdale manages his rotations in the playoffs.
7. 'Round-the-corner shooting fouls
This bull-poopy shooting foul has officially become an epidemic: The ball handler goes around a pick, feels a defender's forearm on his hip, and spasms up some barfy pseudo-shot in hopes of stealing three bogus free throws.
James Harden mastered this, but everyone gets it now. Jeff Teague dry-heaves his way into one every night. Jeff Teague!
Stop calling this a shooting foul. Shooting fouls exist to punish contact that occurs during the act of shooting. The contact on these plays happens while the offensive player is dribbling. By the time he rises to "shoot," the defender already has removed his hand -- "nothing to see here!" -- in panic. The shot that follows isn't really a shot, anyway. It's a trick. It's barely a basketball play.
Call a handcheck and move on. (Some officials are onto this already.)
8. Buddy Hield's in-and-out dribble
We should not hold Vivek Ranadive's irrational exuberance for him over Buddy Hield's head. It is not his fault that Ranadive looked at Hield and saw enough of Stephen Curry to upend an aimless franchise. Kwame Brown didn't run the Wizards' disorganized draft room. DeAndre Jordan never compared himself to Bill Russell.
It should be OK for Hield to be a perfectly nice rotation player. The Boogie trade left Sacramento in rubble -- a broken, tanking team resting its veterans. Few outside Sacto are watching, but Hield has been solid amid that chaos, even while assuming more ballhandling duties.
Hield has shot 27-of-46 out of the pick-and-roll in royal purple -- almost 59 percent, way above the ghastly 38 percent mark he posted as a Pellie. Defenses have to worry about Hield's pull-up 3, so they mostly chase him over picks -- conceding a pathway into the lane. Hield is patient, with a bobbing change of pace that keeps defenders off-balance. He also has flashed a filthy in-and-out dribble in traffic:
Hield isn't going to shoot 60 percent off the pick-and-roll, or even 50 percent, over the long haul. His turnover rate is still ugly. He'll probably never be a plus defender, or the full-time lead ball handler of a good NBA offense.
But he's sniffing 40 percent from deep, and has enough off-the-bounce juice to catch a swing pass and slice by defenders rushing to close out on him. That stuff alone makes Hield a useful NBA player. Incremental improvement at everything else would make him a solid starter. That would be a nice outcome.
9. The suspense of the little guy dunk
One of my favorite NBA moments: The littlest guy steals the ball, and streaks across half court all alone, without some pesky, hustling chase-down artist ruining the moment. Suspense builds. The bench rises: Will he try to dunk? Can he actually dunk? Will he somehow miss? Oh, god, is he going to pull a muscle? Will he do the thing where he clearly tries to dunk, realizes in midair he's not going to get there, and just kind of rolls the ball over the rim without grabbing tin?
The reactions afterward are priceless. The bench explodes as if the little guy rose up and crammed thunder over Rudy Gobert. The barely-dunker sheepishly smiles.
Mike Conley went for it Tuesday in San Antonio, and by god, he (kind of) did it:
That is Conley's eighth dunk in eight seasons, per the tracking site NBA Savant, so don't expect more. Conley is almost 30. He only has so many high jumps left in him.
10. Semaj Christon, off the ball
Poor Semaj Christon. He is Oklahoma City's backup point guard. Christon tries hard, but he's underqualified for that job. He's shooting 35 percent, and he has made 10 triples all season. He is not really a threat to knife into the lane and compromise the defense.
He will become a footnote in an all-time MVP race; Oklahoma City's offense vanishes into a black hole of suck when Christon replaces Russell Westbrook, and that one statistic -- almost as much as that other one involving round numbers in three categories -- will drive Westbrook's MVP case.
But someone has to bring the ball up while Westbrook rests. I'm not convinced it has to be Christon, or even Norris Cole, but let's posit that because those guys carry the same old-fashioned positional designation as Westbrook that it must be one of them. Fine.
But by the basketball gods, stop playing Christon in an off-ball role once Westbrook returns to the game! Play Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott, Jerami Grant -- literally any wing option but Christon. Billy Donovan will occasionally run out Christon next to Westbrook in crunch time. Even if Donovan wants to finish with small, defense-first lineups that can protect leads, he has better choices.
Bonus (because this may be our last 10 Things of the season): Fake timeouts!
I will never understand why more teams don't practice this:
The NBA needs more gimmick plays. This is the hoops equivalent of Kurt Warner angrily ripping off his chin strap, walking to the sideline, and convincing the defense the Rams had called timeout -- right as they snap the ball to Marshall Faulk.
It's even easier to pull off in the NBA. Stoppages come at designated times every quarter; have everyone slow into a stroll at the typical timeout juncture, and you can lull the defense into sleepwalking. That's when you strike!
This appears to be a Ricky Rubio improv job, but some coach should save a scripted version for a crucial playoff game. Every point matters.