To celebrate the last "10 things" of the season, we're blowing this one out.
1. Nikola Jokic, making you hit rewind
Jokic has a way of making the simple revelatory.
That pass is hiding in plain sight for any rim-running big man, but you rarely see it. It's really just a give-and-go squeezed into a pick-and-roll. Jokic, reigning king of the touch pass, unearths it.
Jokic is wrapping perhaps the best passing season of all time for a big man. He is on pace to be the fourth human 6-foot-10 or taller -- along with Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Kevin Garnett and Ben Simmons -- to average six assists per game. Jokic has assisted on 29 percent of Denver baskets while on the floor, a higher share than Chamberlain or Garnett ever produced. And Simmons isn't really a big guy. He's just a Ben Simmons -- an anomaly.
The Nuggets won't quit, and Jokic is finishing on a tear: 23.9 points, 11 rebounds, and six dimes per game since March 7, on 54/48/89 shooting --plus a clutch tip-in to seal a must-win over Minnesota on Thursday. Egads.
Picking the three All-NBA centers is going to be impossible -- or the last two, for voters who list Anthony Davis at center instead of forward. Good luck picking two among LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Al Horford, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela.
There are two distinct tiers there, with the dividing line coming after either Gobert's name or Horford's. Jokic is the worst defender among those first four (Aldridge, Towns, Jokic, Embiid), but he might also be the best offensive player. Towns is the most diverse scorer, and they all average more points per game than Jokic. But Jokic creates so many more points for others via assists, and the general gravity of his game. In that sense, he has a bigger role than Towns does playing alongside Jimmy Butler. He is the fulcrum of everything Denver does -- and a more adaptable fulcrum than Aldridge, who needs so much run through slow-it-down post-ups.
I know where I'm leaning, but no one should pretend these are easy choices.
2. Otto Porter, basketball player
I just wanted to say I enjoy watching Otto Porter play basketball. We tend to talk about third and fourth options in specialist terms: spot-up guy, stopper, rim protector, shooter. You know what Otto Porter is? A goddamned basketball player.
He has hit 44 percent from deep, third in the league. Run him off the arc, and Porter is comfortable improvising a pick-and-roll and pulling up for a smooth midranger.
He's shooting 52 on long 2-pointers. Pressure that shot, and Porter scoots in for a teardrop; he's shooting 41 percent from floater range, a tidy mark, per Cleaning The Glass.
He runs the floor. He cuts behind defenses. He has just enough post-up game to punish teams who hide little guys on him. Failing that, Porter might bum-rush inside for offensive rebounds.
He can credibly defend four positions, even if he's not quite as airtight on that end as he looks like he should be.
Porter is paid like a superstar, but he's not a superstar. That's not his fault. He can play in any system, in any lineup, and find shots against any style of defense. There is nobility in that.
3. Dejounte Murray has at least four arms
This dude is everywhere. Sometime around the end of the 2014-15 season, the basic act of dribbling within a 15-foot radius of Kawhi Leonard became dangerous for anyone beyond the league's expert ball-handlers. He just started straight-up snatching the ball out of people's hands. He undressed Ben McLemore on two straight possessions at the start of last season, and I'm not sure McLemore has dribbled since.
Murray is doing that in passing lanes. He just appears out of nowhere, with preposterous arms, and intercepts simple side-to-side passes. Lanes appear wide open, and then, whoosh, Murray is going the other way. He averages two steals and 3.5 deflections per 36 minutes, elite marks. San Antonio's defense is eight points per 100 possessions stingier with Murray on the floor, per NBA.com.
Oh, and he's also just grabbing the ball from people. Excuse me, Andrew Wiggins, you seem very polite and can jump very high, but I will be taking the basketball. Thank you for your participation in this exercise.
Imagine a defense built around Leonard and Murray. /single tear
4. Dante Exum, decisive
Before Exum injured his shoulder in preseason, the Jazz were cautiously optimistic he was ready to make a leap after so many aborted attempts. His play since returning last month has justified that hope.
Last season, Exum either went too slowly or flung himself toward the rim without a plan. He has at least ditched the over-cautious half of that dangerous equation:
Exum has a more refined sense of when teensy gaps open in the defense. He sees Rudy Gobert blockade Semi Ojeleye with a flare screen, and understands Ojeleye will be a hair behind when Donovan Mitchell's swing pass arrives. He also knows he is just flat-out faster than Ojeleye.
Wait even a half-second, and that advantage shrinks. Ojeleye can set his feet. Guerschon Yabusele, guarding Gobert, could dip back into the paint and barricade Exum's path. In the NBA, defenses close seams in a flash. The new Exum is diving through them like Indiana Jones ducking under a lowering wall (without the hat grab).
Utah has scored 1.2 points possessions anytime Exum drives and shoots, or dishes to a teammate who shoots after one or zero dribbles, per Second Spectrum -- a mark that ranks 14th among 300-plus who have recorded at least 50 drives.
Quin Snyder has even braved resting Ricky Rubio (what a happy story Rubio is right now, by the way) and Mitchell together, and letting some of his secondary ball-handlers -- including Exum -- run the show. Snyder should and probably will mothball those groups during the playoffs, but they have managed well in limited time.
Exum raises Utah's defensive ceiling even higher -- into historic territory. He is the rare guard who provides legitimate rim protection. If he can hit corner 3-pointers consistently, Utah has a dangerous new postseason ingredient.
5. The stalled diversification of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Before last season, Steve Clifford, Charlotte's coach, talked about diversifying Kidd-Gilchrist's game. In 2015, Kidd-Gilchrist had shown some nascent pick-and-roll craft. Opponents often hid their weakest and smallest defenders on him, so it seemed natural Charlotte would nurture Kidd-Gilchrist's post game as a counter. He's big and mean, and a decent enough passer to punish double teams.
It just never happened. Kidd-Gilchrist is just 11-of-21 on post-ups this season, five fewer attempts than he tried last season, per NBA.com. He barely runs the pick-and-roll.
There are good reasons for all of this. With Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum on the floor, it is hard to justify shifting much off-the-bounce duty to MKG -- even if plotting the chess pieces that way would loosen spacing. There is no room for another post-up threat with Dwight Howard hogging one block. Perhaps Kidd-Gilchrist hasn't shown enough in practice.
The end result is Kidd-Gilchrist standing around the perimeter, scrounging on cuts, offensive boards, and manic transition sprints. No one guards him.
That does not make Kidd-Gilchrist useless. The Hornets have generally played better, even on offense, with Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor. He is a plus defender across four positions, even if he hasn't developed into the unshakeable stopper we all envisioned. He has hit 47 percent of shots between 10 and 16 feet from the hoop, a solid number.
But those shots aren't worth enough to matter. The damage Kidd-Gilchrist inflicts on Charlotte's spacing -- and his presence as a safe hiding spot for sieves -- outweighs the occasional midrange swish and all his expert mooching. He would be a more interesting player if Charlotte gave him a little added on-ball responsibility -- even some touches at the elbow.
Two seasons ago, they hoped to do that. Instead, MKG has stagnated.
6. Miami's non-shooting lineups
Perhaps this amounts to over-fretting, but: It feels chancy whenever the Heat play any two of Dwyane Wade, Justise Winslow and James Johnson with one of their paint-bound centers -- Bam Adebayo and the surly Hassan Whiteside. Those groups feature three non-3-point-shooters, and some of them include neither Goran Dragic nor Josh Richardson -- Miami's most reliable stewards.
On balance, these wackadoo lineups have done well. They feature a ton of versatility and witty playmaking. Winslow is shooting almost 40 percent from deep, and looks confident. The Heat have a solid positive scoring margin when both Dragic and Richardson are on the bench, though that includes garbage time.
Erik Spoelstra is careful doling out minutes to these groups. Entire games go by without them. The Heat are endlessly interesting that way. They invert the floor with Kelly Olynyk as a stretch center, or even Luke Babbitt as a token starter alongside Johnson (or Winslow) and Whiteside. Miami even dabbles in super-small lineups featuring Johnson at center.
But playoff defenses are different animals. They will be ready for Miami's handoffs and wildcat cutting. Smart defenses delight in the presence of extra non-shooters. The Heat should be mindful of that.
7. Dennis Smith, posting up?
Hey, look, late-season player development that isn't resting your best players with fake injuries, benching them in crunch time, and playing young guys grotesquely out of position!
Smith has recorded 14 post touches this season, and half of them have come over the past 10 days, per Second Spectrum. This is absolutely worth trying. Smith is 6-3, physical, explosive, and a little nasty. The point guard post-up is an underrated weapon. Post-ups are best used now to draw help and unlock kickout passes. It makes sense to try them with your best passers.
Smith has been thirsty for highlights and points as a rookie, but he has good vision and slings fastballs across the court with either hand. Later against Minnesota, he posted up Jeff Teague again, sucked in help, and fired a lefty crosscourt laser to Dorian Finney-Smith for a wide-open corner 3. He whipped a similar pass the next night on a post-up Rick Carlisle called out of a timeout.
Smith is already comfortable turning for righty hooks and floaters.
This won't work every time, or even most of the time, obviously. Smith is young, prone to bad judgment. When Teague understood what was coming, he stonewalled Smith a little further from the basket.
But it's something to monitor.
8. Harrison Barnes, still an enigma
Barnes remains one of the league's more puzzling players -- not quite the same isolation-heavy scorer he was last season, but not all that much different. He can still be too tentative with the ball:
You have a direct line to the basket, buddy! Take it, and you'll find a layup, or an easy drive-and-kick!
But then you also see passes like this:
Barnes didn't have that in his game two seasons ago, and perhaps not even last season. He barely ran the pick-and-roll, and when he did, it was stilted. His game has tilted a hair more toward traditional perimeter play this season. He's setting fewer screens, and navigating around more as a ball-handler. His drives are up, and his isolations are down, per NBA.com and Second Spectrum. He is attacking the rim with a new physicality, especially when he goes left.
He's jacking about 1.5 more 3s per game over last season, and a lot of the jump has come via tougher off-the-dribble bombs. He has hit 38 percent of those. His rebounds, assists and free throws have all ticked up.
But the gains are small. Two dimes and four free throws per game is still low considering how often Barnes has the ball. Barnes is growing. The NBA is really hard. Some players never grow at all. But Barnes' growth has come in small increments.
9. Punishing the re-switch
Every season, more teams switch pick-and-rolls -- a way to minimize help, and stay close to 3-point shooters. That first switch leaves a little guy guarding a big guy. Sometimes that mismatch doesn't matter; fewer bigs are skilled back-to-the-basket players. But when it does, defenses increasingly use a second switch: Their other big man scurries across the paint, yanks the guard out, and takes the opposing brute himself.
Smart offenses see that switch coming, and find an open man while the two defenders are between assignments. Too many teams give up after that.
There is another counter: That second switch just shifts the small-on-big mismatch about 10 feet across the floor! If that other big guy is a post-up threat, give him the ball! That's exactly what Indiana does here after the Clippers try to sneak Lou Williams from Thaddeus Young to Domantas Sabonis:
I get why more teams don't try that. Toggling from one mismatch to another takes time; if you don't start your offense early in the shot clock, you won't have enough ticks left to pull it off. Swarming help defenses have made entry passes harder than ever. And again: Chances are that second big isn't a post-up artist.
But if you have the goods and the time, you should copy this Pacers blueprint.
10. The mimed Eurostep celebration, sweeping the league
As more players have mastered the Eurostep, a growing subset has also starting marking successful Eurosteps with an exaggerated, start-and-stop shimmy:
Boogie down, big fella. When a center pulls a Eurostep, he can do whatever the hell he wants.
Russell Westbrook is probably the league's preeminent Eurostep mime. He'll bust out two or three in a row, even during live play. He spasm-dances his way back on defense.
Basketball is fun. I support fun things.
And four quickies to round out the season:
11. Kyle Kuzma's skyhook
You've almost certainly seen this running, right-handed beauty by now. We all love Kuzma's audacious 3s, and the way Lakers fans sing "KUUUUUZZZZ" when they see him rising. Everyone shoots 3s now. There are maybe a half-dozen guys with a polished skyhook. That thing is magic.
12. The Olynyk whirlybird
Plays like this have spread around the league: two and even three shooters circle around a screener, sewing confusion about which is the intended shooter. Sometimes, the play is for one of those whirring shooters; Washington runs a few such actions for Bradley Beal.
But sometimes that final shooter stops his cut, veers into the screener's man, and reveals that the plan all along was to spring that big guy for an open 3-pointer:
Miami runs several versions for Olynyk. Spoelstra is genius about changing the placement, personnel and prelude to Olynyk somehow popping open.
13. John Collins, dribbling
As superior options disappeared amid injuries and tankery, the Hawks gradually let Collins explore the world of working off the dribble in the NBA. This is another version of healthy player development! Collins is fast, with some off-the-bounce skill. A lot of teams defend Collins with their centers -- assigning their power forwards to Dewayne Dedmon, since Dedmon has more 3-point range -- and that leaves Collins with a quickness advantage.
Why not use it?
That isn't the most graceful drive, but that sorta in-and-out dribble is enough to slither by Whiteside.
All in all, Collins has had a successful rookie season. He can struggle chasing stretchier power forwards, and brutes shove him out of the way for offensive rebounds -- Collins rebounds by jumping, not boxing out -- but those are typical problems for young bigs.
His defensive rebounding numbers are fine given his age and weight, and he is already one of the league's bounciest and most active rim-runners. He's also shooting 37.5 percent on corner 3s.
14. Elfrid Payton falling for it
If you want to know why Payton has never developed into the plus defender he has the tools to become, it's stuff like this -- plus his egregious out-of-scheme gambling:
He even bites on pump fakes from bad shooters!
Psst: Phoenix is dead last in both points scored and allowed per possession. That double -- known as Bobcatting in honor of the tanktastic 2011-12 Bobcats -- is a rare accomplishment.
And with that, onto the playoffs.