Let's get into the final six weeks of the regular season with 10 Things:
1. Anthony Davis, outsmarting fools
I keep waiting for the thin, injury-depleted Pelicans to fall in the eight-team battle royale for the last six Western Conference playoff spots, but they keep pulling out preposterous wins -- including three overtime wins in their current seven-game streak. They have put a little distance between themselves and Utah (stuck in 10th), and with 12 of their last 21 at home, they have something like an 80 percent chance of snagging a playoff spot, according to FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference.
Anthony Davis has carried them. You've seen the highlights, and the numbers. But there is something more profound going on. Davis is dialed in -- alert, engaged across every minute -- in a way we haven't seen before. We are watching experience and IQ catch up with athleticism.
On Monday night against Phoenix, Davis was guarding Dragan Bender when the Suns put him through a pick-and-pop. Davis corralled Devin Booker, who whipped the ball back to Bender behind the 3-point arc. Bender caught it, saw Davis recovering toward him, and unleashed a pump fake. Davis stayed down, and kept sliding toward Bender with one hand up. Bender, unnerved, shuffled his feet -- a travel. Davis let out of a roar and clapped his hands.
A year ago, would Davis have leapt at that pump fake? Would he have cared quite so much about forcing a stop? It was one of those moments that stick out when a player makes another leap.
Another trick Davis has mastered: When teams switch little guys onto him, he doesn't laze into a rote post-up 15 feet from the rim -- at least not every time. Instead, he digests the mismatch, bides his time, and darts to the rim to catch a lob:
It is a beautiful, canny use of his skills. Davis is faster than most guards. He doesn't have to overpower them. He can just run past them, jump above them, and catch feathery lobs from Jrue Holiday -- quietly having a great season -- and Rajon Rondo.
This dude is brilliant. He won't catch James Harden for MVP, even if Russell Westbrook reset the precedent for required team wins. And that's fine. Harden deserves it. But if the 2018 Pelicans finish in similar position to the 2017 Thunder and your argument for Westbrook as a superior MVP candidate comes to down, "Well, he averaged a triple-double," find a better argument.
2. Tyrone Wallace, filling gaps
With his two-way contract up, let's take a moment to laud Tyrone Wallace's improbable contributions to the Clippers' improbable season. The very last pick in the 2016 draft -- a dude who didn't appear in an NBA game until this season -- has filled gaps in makeshift Clipper lineups with heady, unselfish play.
Wallace makes quick decisions -- smart passes, and instant catch-and-go drives that show a sophisticated understanding of how and when rotating defenses expose corridors:
He has a surprising ability to create something from nothing as the shot clock ticks down -- key for the Clippers, who have looked understandably disjointed and improvisational since the Blake Griffin trade:
Wallace has hit eight of nine on isolation plays, per Synergy Sports. His jagged, arrhythmic off-the-bounce game confounds defenders.
He has guarded three positions on defense, and allowed Doc Rivers to limit the minutes Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic -- sieves on defense -- have played together against opposing starters. He has softened the blow of Avery Bradley's continued absence.
The Clippers would be dead without contributions from Jamil Wilson, C.J. Williams and Wallace on two-ways. Wallace's future with LA is uncertain, but he has earned an NBA contract.
3. Thon Maker, rebounding pylon
So, this happens a lot:
Thon Maker has grabbed only 14.8 percent of opponent misses, putting him on pace for one of the worst defensive rebounding seasons ever for a 7-footer.
When Maker is the closest player to the ball as it bonks off the rim, he grabs the rebound only 50 percent of the time -- third-lowest among 299 players who have recorded at least 500 rebounding chances, according to Second Spectrum tracking data via NBA Advanced Stats. The two guys below him: Ekpe Udoh and Robin Lopez.
Those names are instructive. Udoh and especially Lopez are famous box-out artists. They eliminate one and sometimes two opposing players, freeing teammates to fly in unmolested for rebounds. They do the grunt work without getting the glory.
Their teams rebound better when they are on the floor. That is, umm, not the case for Maker. The Bucks secure 78 percent of opponent misses when Maker is on the bench, but only 73.8 percent when he plays, per NBA.com. That is the difference between a top-10 defensive rebounding team and one that is even worse than the worst one in the league (Atlanta).
Maker's biggest physical advantage -- speed -- doesn't mean much when he has inside position, as centers typically do on defense; there is no one to scoot around. But he's so skinny, with such unrefined rebounding instincts, that players of all sizes and speeds can scoot around him. Behemoths shove him out of the way.
On bad John Henson nights, the Bucks don't get enough from their centers; they are space-clogging hindrances on offense who don't frighten anyone on the other end. Maker is the only one with 3-point range, even if that range is mostly theoretical. He draws token attention when he stands in the corner, and that opens space inside for Giannis Antetokounmpo's rampaging struts to the rim.
In playoff moments when spacing gets tight and rebounding is brutish, the Bucks will have to think hard about sliding Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker to center.
4. D'Angelo Russell, ceding the advantage
It has been a strange and vaguely disappointing season for D'Angelo Russell. He has been injured for about half of it, and spent the other half shooting and missing a lot. Russell perked up Tuesday in Cleveland, but he has hit just 38 percent -- and 27 percent from deep -- since returning from knee surgery.
Russell has used 32.4 percent of Brooklyn's possessions with a shot, turnover or drawn foul, fourth-highest among all rotation players, behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Joel Embiid. That is a little much. His turnover rate is icky.
Almost half of Russell's shots have come from midrange, a high number for a perimeter player, per Cleaning The Glass. Russell has a habit of gaining inside position with a shifty move, and then giving the advantage right back by slowing down, picking up his dribble and bricking a fading midranger:
When he came out of the NCAA racket, scouts feared Russell lacked the athleticism to get to the rim and finish. That was mostly true in his first two seasons. He has solved the finishing part so far in Brooklyn -- Russell has hit 69 percent in the restricted area, an elite number -- but he's not getting there nearly enough. Brooklyn scores at a league-worst level when Russell runs the show solo, without Spencer Dinwiddie at his side, per NBA.com. Let's not mention his defense.
Russell is still so young, and point guards develop in fits and starts. That same instinct to slow down with the ball serves Russell well when he uses it to pin defenders on his hip, keep his dribble alive, and probe. He has good vision, and projected before this season as someone who could hit pull-up 3s.
That has been the story of Russell's career: some parts of his game rise, and others fall. Maybe someday soon, they will all rise together. He just turned 22. But so far, this season has been unsatisfying.
5. Julius Randle, trucking you
I get it: The climate atop Julius Randle Hill isn't for everyone. His bricky outside shooting has somehow regressed -- he has hit 19 percent of long 2-pointers -- and his rim protection is spotty. The Lakers haven't been appreciably better with Randle on the floor, though the Randle-Brook Lopez combo has been solid now across two starting lineups.
Even Randle's rollicking, Earl Campbell drives aren't as productive as highlights make it seem. The Lakers have scored just 1.02 points per possession when Randle drives, 207th among 278 guys who have recorded at least 50 drives, per Second Spectrum. (The numbers barely budge if you isolate Randle's shots, or drive-and-kick attempts from teammates one pass away.) He has gotten a little greedy; Randle has passed on only 15 percent of drives, one of the lowest figures in the league. He is making the wrong play a lot, and costing the Lakers points. Randle is a good passer, even at full throttle. He should pass more!
Without a jump shot or a fearsome wingspan, Randle is something of an NBA antique. He might top out now as an elite backup center. He can be more if he balances his game, and hones his jumper and hoops IQ at least a little.
On a more basic level, you have to appreciate Randle's old-school, shoulder-blocking physicality. The guy just plows right through people.
That is Karl-Anthony Towns! Randle almost seems to delight in the presence of a large human obstacle near the basket. He hits bigger guys in the gut, shrinks them low, and finishes over them:
A lot of defenders aren't prepared for this level of violence. It rattles them. Randle has a little of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone in his game that way.
A full 55 percent of Randle's shots have come within the restricted area, and he has hit almost 75 percent of them. That is almost LeBronian. If Randle can't be a modern NBA big, at least he's fun.
6. Retrograde lineups of the tank brigade
The Grizzlies have been giving heavy minutes to lineups featuring Jarell Martin, JaMychal Green and Marc Gasol -- two power forwards and a center. For stretches of their completely unwatchable foul-fest against Phoenix on Wednesday, they had Martin guarding Elfrid Payton. You won't believe this, but it went poorly -- and those super-big lineups cannot score, like, at all. Also: Has any coach told Marquese Chriss that fouling is bad? Does he think it's good?
The Kings have been playing retrograde double-center lineups all season, and they stepped it up in Monday's loss/win against Minnesota by sliding Bruno Caboclo -- still two years away from being two years away, and maybe a few months away from China -- to small forward alongside Skal Labissiere and Kosta Koufos.
With Ersan Ilyasova gone, the Hawks now have (basically) four centers, and they've dabbled a bit with the biggest, least rangy combination of them: Dewayne Dedmon and Former Inexplicable Starter Miles Plumlee. I wrote about the Knicks' bastardized lineups last week.
Justin Holiday plays only when Zach LaVine doesn't, and Chicago has transitioned Robin Lopez into a role as hipster chic sideline model. Remember when the NBA said it might penalize teams for resting multiple healthy starters in the same game -- especially in road games? Yeah, the Bulls don't either.
Some of these wackadoo lineups are the semi-intended results of deadline moves aimed at rebuilding: Atlanta buying out Ersan Ilyasova, the Grizz swapping a functional wing (James Ennis) for a second-round pick, New York nabbing another point guard who can't shoot, the Kings sending George Hill to Cleveland. Tyreke Evans and Mike Conley are injured. Chandler Parsons is sick. Most of Memphis' perimeter players -- the guys who should be playing on the wing instead of Martin -- have been awful.
But at least they are, you know, perimeter players. You paid Ben McLemore almost $11 million knowing he would screw up endlessly on his uncertain journey to NBA competence. Let him screw up instead of shoehorning Martin into a position he can't play! Call up Kobi Simmons! Do something!
All of these teams know very well that these lineups don't work. Half of these late-season injuries wouldn't keep guys out of games that mattered.
Something I've always wondered: Teams defend late-season tankery by screaming "player development," but how much functional development comes from shoving young guys into uncomfortable roles amid lineups that don't make sense? How much value is there in letting Josh Jackson fling up floater after floater (even if he's making a lot lately)?
There is some value letting guys stretch their skill sets. Might there also be a cost? I don't know. I do know that anyone paying to watch something like Grizzlies-Suns should get League Pass free next season.
7. A super-cool way to spring Lauri Markkanen
Fred Hoiberg draws up some nasty situational plays. This bad boy for the Finnisher is a twist on a classic:
The foundation of that play is all over the league: a big man sets a screen, rolls to the rim, and stops suddenly to set a pindown for a shooter rushing up the floor. The Clippers, for instance, used to run this with DeAndre Jordan screening for J.J. Redick. The Cavs run it now for Kyle Korver.
Chicago adds one wrinkle: Lauri Markkanen, playing the Redick role here, sets his own off-ball screen for Holiday before popping up to hide behind Lopez.
The pick whiffs, but it has its intended effect: Markkanen's man (Serge Ibaka) has to loiter near the paint in case Holiday scampers free. That gives Markkanen even more space and time.
8. Taj Gibson, fundamentally sound
Check out Taj Gibson at the top of the arc, somehow looking like Doctor Octopus even though he has only two arms:
I'm pretty sure a reel of Gibson spreading his arms on defense constitutes pornography for Tom Thibodeau.
9. Ben Simmons, channeling Manu
... is the super-charged, next generation version of this:
Manu Ginobili patented that football-style pass, thrown to a receiver sprinting down the middle. It takes touch, timing and guts. Ben Simmons and Ginobili release those passes early, when the target is still neck-and-neck with his defender -- not even close to open. Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown (pre-Simmons) have told me they tried to teach that pass to other players, and found none had the courage and accuracy to pull it off.
Simmons walked right into the league with it in his bag. Anyone who anointed Donovan Mitchell as Rookie of the Year two months ago needs to reexamine a fun race. Simmons has Mitchell beat in defense, playmaking, rebounding and positional versatility. He tore the Cavs apart in what was almost a signature win for Philly Thursday night. His team is a much better bet to make the playoffs, albeit in the weaker conference.
We will hear a lot about how Mitchell has carried Utah, while Simmons has been able to lean on Joel Embiid. There is truth in that. Opponents have outscored the Sixers by about 4.2 points per 100 possessions when Simmons plays without Embiid, per NBA.com.
But that number does not represent a conclusive case. For one, it has shrunk as the season has progressed; the Sixers have been neutral in those Simmons/non-Embiid minutes over the past two months, and won them handily in February. They have outscored teams in the inverse minutes (Embiid without Simmons) by about 2.5 points per 100 possession -- nice, but far from dominant.
They blitz opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions when the two play together. Embiid deserves the most credit for that, but Simmons deserves some, too.
10. "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"
This is the song to blast when a player on the road team fouls out or gets ejected. It is way, way, way better than "Hit the Road Jack." It's a little slower, and lends itself to a gloating, sing-songy chant. When an entire crowd commits, it is almost hypnotic.
What other foul-out/ejection song nominees are out there?