Here we go:
1. The surging Bucks, at a crossroads
Here come the Bucks, 9-4 since acquiring Eric Bledsoe, with a new starting five outscoring opponents by a gargantuan 17 points per 100 possessions. They were right to dismiss the concerns over pairing Giannis Antetokounmpo with another so-so shooter who needs the ball.
Spacing can make up for a talent gap, but only so much. Talent wins. Bledsoe adds a needed dynamism in the half court and in transition:
Antetokounmpo is a nightmare cutting along the baseline, but he can't leverage that skill without another ball handler dangerous enough to draw attention.
The Bucks are good. Their easiest path to something better: improving a defense that ranks just below league average despite a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Antetokounmpo, wrecking stuff all over the floor.
Jason Kidd has softened Milwaukee's much-criticized, hyper-aggressive trapping scheme over the past 10 games, but the tweaks have appeared haphazard and inconsistent. Smart teams still bait Milwaukee into trapping, with a well-placed release valve at the ready:
Kidd has recently switched more with his non-centers, and the roster is tailor-made for that. He even used Antetokounmpo as a small-ball center against Boston this week, and that represents the most intriguing future version of the Bucks once Jabari Parker returns. (Parker is flawed, but it's sooooo tempting to imagine him on this team. Opponents are destroying Milwaukee when both Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo sit, and the Bucks shift Khris Middleton to power forward. That would be Parker's time. For now, Kidd might consider staggering Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo a bit more.)
The tweaks don't need to be that extreme; stopping at the point of the screen can be enough, and the Bucks have done that now and then:
Milwaukee's scheme at its most frenzied amounts to chasing perfection: swarm everywhere, and snuff everything until the shot clock dies. When the scheme works, it looks impenetrable. Kidd is not the only coach who favors that approach over a more conservative, drop-back system that might yield midrange jumpers. Doc Rivers has discussed the need for a stop-everything scheme against great teams in the postseason.
But the league has changed so much during Kidd's tenure in Milwaukee. Teams launch so many more 3s. They take the first semi-open triple instead of forcing extra passes Milwaukee once swiped for turnovers. Opponents have learned how to pass over and around the traps for dunks; no team allows more shots at the rim than the Bucks, per Cleaning The Glass. Perfect can be the enemy of good.
It will be fascinating to watch how they evolve.
Milwaukee will investigate DeAndre Jordan, and that is another future version of this team: Antetokounmpo running pick-and-roll with a lob dunker, shooters surrounding them.
That would also require something of a stylistic overhaul; Kidd has favored a more egalitarian motion offense, with cuts and handoffs swirling around the elbows.
The Bucks can't pay all of Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, Parker, Middleton, Tony Snell, and Jordan. They almost certainly can't get Jordan without giving up one of their good and expensive rotation guys, anyway. (I would be very surprised if they flipped Parker for Jordan, to be clear.)
Milwaukee faces some major choices over the next seven months.
2. Eric Gordon, out of a cannon
Can people get faster as they age? Gordon is accelerating from 0-to-60 like Usain Bolt springing from the starting block. His aggression is almost alarming -- violent, even.
There is no hesitation. If Gordon sees a larger human in his way, he speeds up, plows into that defender, and lays the ball in.
Big guys mark their territory with a macho arrogance. Gordon proceeds as if they should be scared of him.
Gordon's jumper has been off, but it will come. Meanwhile, he's shooting 69 percent at the basket, his best mark in a half-decade, and zooming there almost at will.
Gordon is averaging about 13 drives per 100 possessions, up from 9.6 last season, per Second Spectrum data.
Houston is pouring in 1.28 points per possession on any trip featuring a Gordon drive, 11th among 139 players who have recorded at least 75 drives, according to Second Spectrum. (For the morbidly curious: Justin Holiday, Kris Dunn, and Denzel Valentine comprise three of the bottom five on that list, with Valentine bringing up the rear. Go Bulls! At the top, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Courtney Lee -- Courtney Lee! -- are in a three-way tie.)
Houston is obliterating teams with Gordon on the floor. He has been the perfect tag-team partner for both James Harden and Chris Paul, entering whenever one needs a blow. Those three have logged just 21 minutes together, eight of those coming Thursday night against Utah. Is that a signal Mike D'Antoni may be ready for a deeper look at that trio?
Run those three with Trevor Ariza and any leftover rotation guy, and opposing defenses have no chance. PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, switching stalwarts on defense, have shot well enough that D'Antoni hasn't had to reach for offense. That is good for Houston. But the Gordon-Paul-Harden trio can survive on defense against a lot of hybrid starter-bench lineups.
3. Lance Stephenson, showman
Stephenson has turned every mundane act of basketball into a piece of flair. He doesn't just dribble up the court. He gallops and prances, sometimes literally jumping mid-dribble, so that both his feet are in the air, kicking in opposite directions.
Every pass can be a no-look pass if you will it. And if it wasn't really a no-look pass, jerk your head away from the target anyway, so it carries the same pizzazz.
Stephenson is screaming after almost every made basket. He's launching insane hit-ahead outlet passes, because why in the hell not? After leading one recent successful fast break, Stephenson stopped to strum an air guitar -- or maybe pluck a bass, it was hard to tell -- as the game was still going on.
When a teammate swings Stephenson the ball, he doesn't just shoot or drive. That would be boring. He palms the ball, and lifts it above his head with one hand in what is supposed to be a pump fake. If that doesn't work, he'll jut it out to his side -- a taunting pass fake. He might even poke the ball toward his defender's head as a rude scare tactic.
Stephenson is part basketball player, part public art installation.
And it's all kind of working. Stephenson has hit 39 percent from deep since Nov. 1. He's shooting well from midrange. Indy has played teams close to even with Stephenson on the floor over the past 20 games -- progress after an ugly start.
Stephenson can play alongside any of Indy's perimeter players, and even guard some power forwards when the Pacers downsize. His antics juice up the crowd, and his teammates.
4. Markieff Morris, not quite there
I'll give Morris an injury mulligan -- he scored well against in a revenge game against Phoenix Thursday night -- but he has never been good enough to play below peak intensity.
Morris' rebounding has been worrisome. He's grabbing boards at career-low levels on both ends, and the Wizards allow too many offensive rebounds when he's on the floor. He sometimes floats around the arc, doing nothing, when a shot goes up.
Washington's starting lineup is barely outscoring opponents. Meanwhile, their other go-to group -- a small-ball look with Kelly Oubre in Morris' place -- has emerged as their best lineup. I've written before that Scott Brooks should at least consider shifting Morris to sixth man; he's better suited than Oubre to carry bench units.
A change may cause more drama than it's worth. Washington's bench has perked up of late (hello, Tomas Satoransky!), and Otto Porter is doing good work as the lone starter alongside them. Moving Morris to the bench also would mean booting a big man out of the rotation, but that shouldn't be a concern when the reserves in question are Mike Scott and Ian Mahinmi.
The real solution is for Morris to get healthy, and play better.
5. Donovan Mitchell, scoopin'
Mitchell has scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games during Utah's unexpected surge, and as I wrote here, he looks like a second foundational piece for the Jazz. He is fearless from 3-point range, and has a deep bag of tricks to deploy against the trees.
Among my favorites:
Oh, baby. A one-handed gather into an extendo-arm scoop shot, released so low to the ground and far from Mitchell's body that no one has a chance to whap at it. We drool over vertical leaps, but scooting fast along the horizontal plane helps, too.
6. Dribblin' Ben Franklin lives!
Look at that sneer! Dribblin' Ben Franklin is about to hit some sucker with an Iverson-level crossover. Dribblin' Ben Franklin is out to humiliate fools.
The Sixers made Dribblin' Ben a secondary logo in 2014-15, and they've given him primo placement on basket stanchions in some games this season. Dribblin' Ben was a candidate to be the team's actual mascot in 2011, when they asked fans to choose between Ben, a moose creatively named Phil E. Moose, and a brown dog called B. Franklin Dogg (with two Gs, natch). The winner would replace Hip-Hop, a Poochie-esque sunglasses-wearing bunny who died on the way back to his planet. Dribblin' Ben was the obvious choice.
The Sixers chose the classic none of the above, and then went four agonizing mascot-less years before revealing a fluffy blue dog named ... Franklin.
Fine. Kids like dogs. But the Sixers know in their hearts that Dribblin' Ben is better.
7. Minnesota's horrid transition defense
The Wolves still rank an embarrassing 26th in points allowed per possession. The teams below them are either tanking, or decimated from injury. Minnesota entered the season with obvious fit and depth issues, but they should not be this awful on defense in Year 2 under Tom Thibodeau.
One easy fix: clean up the horrid transition defense. Only four teams allow more fast-break points, a blaring red flag given Minnesota plays at a slow pace. They rank dead last in points allowed per possession on transition chances by almost any available measure -- from Synergy Sports, Team Rankings, and others.
Most of their rotation guys have a bad habit of loitering in the corners or near the rim in case an offensive rebound falls to them, leaving only one guy back in case of an opponent fast break:
A full 35 percent of opponent defensive boards turn into transition chances, the largest such share in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Minnesota is a good offensive rebounding team, but not nearly good enough to justify routine jailbreaks.
This isn't even low-hanging fruit. It's fruit that fell off the trees, hit you in the head, and landed at your feet. Pick it up, erase five enemy points every night, and begin your journey to competence.
8. The effective weirdness of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
What a wackadoo player. Hollis-Jefferson is a small-ball power forward who can't shoot 3s -- almost an NBA oxymoron, and a player type that barely exists. No one guards him on the perimeter; any lineup featuring Hollis-Jefferson and a traditional center -- Timofey Mozgov, Jarrett Allen, Tyler Zeller, and now Jahlil Okafor -- will have issues squeezing out points against good defenses.
He's not an especially explosive leaper or straight-line driver, so he can't compensate by bounding for points at the rim.
And yet: He has a zigzaggy, arrhythmic method of nudging defenders on their heels, and getting where he wants to go:
He is the Elfrid Payton of power forwards. He doesn't blow by anyone off the bounce. He just lowers his head, drives into them, changes directions with a herky-jerky start-and-stop, burrows into their chest one last time, and lofts some crazy, high-arcing floater from his comfort zone. There's a little Thaddeus Young in his game, too, and not just because he's a lefty power forward toiling in Brooklyn.
Hollis-Jefferson coaxes fouls out of defenders who can't figure out his tempo, or dodge his elbows-out forays. He's averaging 6.5 free throws per 36 minutes, and has canned a whopping 81 percent of them. He's a solid midrange shooter.
Unless he hones a 3-pointer, Hollis-Jefferson will top out as a backup on a good team. Brooklyn has been much worse with him on the floor, though a lot of that is residue from early-season lineups vaporized by injuries. But he competes, and he can switch across at least three positions on defense.
The Nets have toyed with Hollis-Jefferson as a super-small center -- a natural way to minimize the damage of his shaky shooting -- but those lineups have bled points, per NBA.com.
Still: This season so far counts as a success for Hollis-Jefferson. It was unclear two months ago if he fit into Brooklyn's long-term plans. He still might not -- almost everyone gets traded at some point -- but for now, they are happy to have him.
9. Sarcastic Rick Carlisle clapping
No one -- and maybe no one in NBA history, at least not since Red Auerbach could get away with almost literally anything -- hits referees with the post-technical sarcastic clap like Rick Carlisle.
Carlisle stands up for his guys if he thinks a bad call has gone against them. Slap him with a technical for what he considers justified protest, and be prepared to endure a masterpiece of passive-aggression: a wide, loud clap, arms extended in the direction of the offending ref's face, accompanied by almost violent nodding. If Carlisle feels really testy, he might even snarl some phony praise: "Oh, yeah, great call [Insert Referee's Name]. GREAT CALL."
He nailed Kane Fitzgerald with the full routine last weekend during the Mavs' blowout over the Clippers, and Fitzgerald -- four days removed from tossing LeBron -- stood there and took it.
I hope Carlisle never retires. He's a savvy tactician, unafraid of bucking basketball orthodoxy, and an underrated showman.
10. Sudden Pelicans post-ups
I love watching the Pelicans -- how Alvin Gentry runs the offense through his two star bigs from all over the floor. One of my favorite set pieces: When the Pels laze into what looks like a rote "horns" set, with a big at each elbow and shooters in the corners, only to snap into a post-up that catches the defense by surprise.
And sometimes, it's Jrue Holiday, slicing down the gut:
The player in Holiday's spot there would normally proceed to one of the corners, and screen for a teammate. Defenders expect that. They are usually unprepared for Holiday to crash into them with such force.
Holiday has taken flak for shooting just 27.5 percent from deep, and that's fair. New Orleans is desperate for spacing. But he's also shooting 57 percent from 2-point range, including 7-of-9 on post-ups, per Synergy Sports. New Orleans has inverted the floor: bigs are creating for guards. A hair more than half of Holiday's buckets have come via assists, up from 29 percent last season and 27 percent in 2015-16, per NBA.com.