And we're back with the last 10 things of 2018:
1. Luka Doncic, across the court
Doncic's step-back jumper has drawn the most attention, but his crosscourt passes -- the timing and accuracy, the manipulativeness -- have been even more impressive. Look when Doncic slingshots this to Harrison Barnes:
That pass nominally comes via pick-and-roll, but the ball is out of Doncic's hands before the screener -- DeAndre Jordan -- is within 10 feet of him. Doncic spies Trey Lyles sinking into the middle, and knows he can give Barnes a head start by releasing the ball before Lyles reverses momentum. Lyles almost falls over, and Barnes coasts by him.
Two minutes later:
Oh, baby. Doncic sees two defenders collapse onto Jordan. He has his choice of targets: Dorian Finney-Smith in one corner and Wesley Matthews in the other. He looks at Finney-Smith, tricks the defense into thinking the pass is going there, and twists in midair (mind you) back toward Matthews:
The con works; Matthews' defender, Malik Beasley, lingers in the lane. That forces Juancho Hernangomez to rotate down from Barnes, and Matthews touches the ball there for an easy 3-pointer.
Giving your teammate an extra foot of space can be the difference between an open shot and no shot at all. That foot is everything. Doncic conjures it with preternatural timing and anticipation.
How often do you see anyone pass from the coffin corner, all the way to the opposite wing? Any defender would expect Doncic to dribble into a normal passing area. That expectation is why Doncic pulls up early.
The combination of size, vision and crosscourt accuracy reminds of LeBron. That is not to compare Doncic and James overall. But in this one skill-within-in-a-skill, they share some hoops DNA.
2. Trae Young's weird season
It's still too early to worry about Young's horrific 3-point shooting. He's about as bad as expected on defense. He runs smack into picks, and occasionally gets lost off the ball. Trae? You there, buddy?
He'll get better.
But something about his offense feels strange. He's not taking 3s in the volume or style we expected. Only 3.1 Young pick-and-rolls per 100 Atlanta possessions have led to an off-the-dribble 3-pointer -- 19th among high-volume ball handlers, right behind Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke and Mike Conley, per Second Spectrum data.
About 6 percent of Young's 3s have come via the pick-and-roll, the 20th-lowest rate among 75 ball handlers who have attempted at least 20 such triples, per Second Spectrum. He has attempted three or fewer triples in four of Atlanta's past five games. Young has danced his way to only two step-back 3s all season!
Some of this is by design. Watch where Atlanta's big men screen for Young; most of them straddle the 3-point arc, so that even if Young dribbles into daylight, he's already in 2-point range. Perhaps the Hawks are trying to build Young's game inside-out -- and preserve his confidence. He shares more that way, and his drive-and-dish work has been a bright spot.
But this isn't the version of Young that Atlanta chose instead of Doncic. I hope we see some of that guy soon.
3. Klay Thompson, forcing it
The world's foremost scaffolding expert is getting a little thirsty hunting midrange points. Half of Thompson's shots have come from there, by far a career high. He's jacking 5.4 pull-up 2-pointers per game, up from 3.3 last season. (He has never averaged more than 3.7.) He is literally in the 100th percentile for volume of long 2s among wing players, per Cleaning The Glass.
Some of Steve Kerr's scripted out-of-bounds plays put Thompson in position for quick-hitting 2s:
But Thompson is forcing it:
These aren't bad shots; Thompson has hit 47 percent from midrange, an elite number. He's trying to jolt his way out of a season-long slump from deep by wiggling closer to the rim. He has become a nifty interior passer, and some zig-zaggy drives have produced slick interior dishes.
But Thompson has taken the midrange thing too far, and you suspect both he and Kerr understand this -- that the numbers will trend the other way with Golden State at full health, and when the games matter in May and June. Thompson is too good from long range to brick away much longer. Another avalanche is coming. The slump hasn't affected his defense, either. But Thompson's midrange infatuation is symptomatic of a team out of rhythm.
(Speaking of rhythm: Curry is using only 29 ball screens per 100 possessions, 63rd (!!) among rotation ball handlers -- and down from 37 last season, per Second Spectrum. That is Curry's lowest-ever figure in Second Spectrum's database. More of Curry always sparks the Warriors. Using Draymond Green more as Curry's -- or Thompson's -- screener makes it dangerous for defenders to play 20 feet off of Green; the risk of an open Curry 3 is too high. That anti-Green gambit is not new. Teams have ignored Green and other Golden State bigs like this for years. The Warriors might be seeing more exaggerated schemes, but they know how to deal with them.)
Another Warriors midrange nugget: Shaun Livingston, an all-time midrange god, is shooting 31 percent on shots between 10 and 16 feet from the rim. Bonkers. He hasn't been below 40 percent since his rookie season.
Livingston has dealt with knee and foot issues, and his shot looks a hair off -- like he's not leaping as high, or creating as much separation. Livingston's struggles may not seem like a big deal -- who cares about Shaun Livingston on a team with so many All-Stars? -- but it feels like Golden State never loses when Livingston sinks a few.
Those buckets buy Golden State's hit-or-miss second units time. They are a buffer against one star having an off game.
4. Andre Drummond, bonking hooks
Drummond is averaging a career-high 17.7 points per game, and leads the league in rebounding. So why does it feel like he's not having that good a season?
Part of it is he's taking shots like this:
Drummond is shooting a pitiful 30 percent from hook/floater range -- i.e., short 2s outside the restricted area -- and he's taking more this season.
Connected: His free throw shooting has sunk to 52 percent -- a massive improvement over his early career norm, but a dropoff from his 61 percent mark last season.
He's flicking hooks before he has his bearings -- perhaps to avoid contact:
Detroit has scored just 0.71 points per possession when Drummond shoots out of the post, or dishes to a teammate who fires right away -- 103rd out of 113 players who have recorded at least 20 post-ups, per Second Spectrum data. Teams are destroying the Pistons when Drummond plays without Blake Griffin. Drummond was never going to be Hakeem Olajuwon, but it would be nice if he could manufacture some buckets when Griffin rests.
Griffin has been sensational, but he predictably cannibalized Drummond's outside-in passing -- an area where Drummond had made a giant leap before Griffin's arrival. Beyond steals and blocks -- those count! -- there isn't much evidence Drummond is a difference-maker on defense. Detroit is (again) stingier with Drummond on the bench. Opponents are shooting 63 percent on shots at the rim with Drummond nearby -- well below average for a center. Advanced stats and tracking data on Drummond's pick-and-roll defense paint a similar picture.
Drummond is now essentially an elite garbage man -- unstoppable on the offensive glass, and a nimble finisher when Griffin threads him the ball near the rim. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not worth $27 million when it doesn't come with major plus defense.
5. Bruce Brown, driving
That was not in the holiday spirit, so let's provide Detroit fans some good cheer: Bruce Brown, their fire hydrant of a rookie wing, is flashing a bit more off-the-bounce verve than anticipated.
He can finish through contact:
Brown is already catching-and-going in an instant when someone swings him the ball. That may not sound like much, but decisiveness is essential for role players. Hold the rock for some aimless jab-stepping, and your advantage disappears. Windows close. Possessions die.
Almost every NBA player was a jab-stepping star at some point. It can take years to iron out that hesitation. Some never grow confident enough to act in a split second.
Brown being there already is encouraging. He's a stout defender across three positions; Coach Dwane Casey has used him on some point guards, so Detroit can hide Reggie Jackson and Jose Calderon on weaker players. (The relationship between Casey and Calderon is one of the NBA's great recent love stories. Ask Kyle Lowry. Jeff Van Gundy's affection for Ivica Zubac is skyrocketing up the rankings.)
Brown is shooting only 27 percent from deep, though he has hit eight of his past 20 attempts. He did not shoot 3s well in college. If he doesn't improve, defenders will shut off these drives by laying in wait in the paint.
6. Davis Bertans and the rollicking Spurs bench
Even with Manu Ginobili gone, the Spurs' bench remains a manic delight -- with Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli in constant whirring motion, and Davis Bertans drilling everything in sight now that he has finally (maybe?) nailed down a permanent rotation role. (I don't care what the tracking data says; Mills and Belinelli have never stood still on a basketball court. In their deepest sleep cycles, they probably leap from their beds and sleep-cut around imaginary off-ball screens.)
Bertans is putting up a 50/50/90 line and spacing the floor for Jakob Poeltl's tap-dancy rim-runs. The red-hot Spurs -- 8-2 over a home-heavy stretch -- have outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions with Mills, Belinelli and Bertans on the floor. Those three unlock a ton of space for pick-and-rolls between Poeltl and one of San Antonio's shakier-shooting ball handlers (i.e., anyone but Bryn Forbes).
Bertans keeps the ball moving, too. Poeltl has perked up of late. Gregg Popovich will face some dilemmas when Pau Gasol returns. Gasol is an all-time high-post passer, and can work as a hub with Mills, Belinelli and Bertans orbiting him.
Bertans and Poeltl have earned minutes. Bertans is even hanging on defense, and looks more at ease switching onto guards -- even if he suffers from happy feet now and then.
7. Nicolas Batum, fading
During a recent game, Charlotte's broadcast team pointed out that Batum's rebounding and shooting percentages exceed his marks from last season. It was peak Hornets Pravda.
I've always been a Batum fan. He's a heady two-way player who contributes in ways that don't show up in the box score.
It feels queasy drawing a direct line between salary and points per game, but I'm sorry: A 30-year-old wing earning $24 million cannot average 7.5 shots per game on a team starved for someone other than Kemba Walker to let fly. (Cut to Malik Monk sticking his hand enthusiastically out of James Borrego's doghouse.) Charlotte ranks eighth in points per possession, but it has no offense when Walker rests or slumps. Batum jacking up his usage during those minutes would be worth a small downturn in his individual shooting.
A rim-protecting center is the only player type that can shoot so rarely and produce at a near-max-salary level. Those behemoths at least get to the line; Batum has attempted 31 free throws all season.
Even when he burrows into the post against a matchup he likes, Batum fades from contact:
Who is Charlotte's second-best player? Is it (gulp) Jeremy Lamb? Charlotte needs a little more from Batum to separate themselves at the bottom of the junior varsity playoff race.
8. Derrick Jones Jr. and the Heat, finding a way
It was perhaps my favorite random regular-season wackadoo game of the year: Miami blowing out the Clippers on Dec. 8 without Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside, Wayne Ellington and (of course) Dion Waiters. They cobbled lineups featuring two power forwards and two centers. Perhaps realizing those lineups were strange and ultra-long, Erik Spoelstra busted out a zone.
It was a delightful and gutsy win -- very #HeatCulture.
Jones entered the rotation that night in an emergency, and hasn't left during Miami's December surge. He has been the long-armed, leaping, sliding star of their zone, which has stuck since that win in L.A. (It also kicked off a leaguewide zone fervor. Over the past month, the Heat, Knicks, Raptors, Nets, and a couple of other teams have used one here and there. I am very pro-stylistic diversity! The Heat are probably getting a little lucky in theirs -- they are allowing a lot of corner 3s -- but it has worked on the whole.)
Jones ranks second on the team in offensive rebounding rate, behind only Whiteside. He is skinny and fast enough to zip around bigger guys trying to box him out. If that fails, he just jumps over them, reaches out one of his Plastic Man arms, and plucks the ball.
The Heat, long allergic to crashing the glass, rank an astounding third in offensive rebounding rate -- a reinvention part planned, and part response to an injury crisis that forced Miami to scrounge for points. (Couper Moorhead of Heat.com wrote a wonderful, in-depth story on this last week.)
Jones has made 10 3s this season after canning nine in the entirety of his prior career, and he looks more comfortable with the ball. He is at least semi-playable on the wing now -- provided Kelly Olynyk mans one frontcourt spot. The Heat are a little low on shooting, but they minimize that problem by slotting two of their minus shooters into the pick-and-roll -- meaning their best shooters space the floor.
Justise Winslow might not be a minus shooter anymore, anyway. He's up to 39 percent from deep after canning 38 percent last season, and thriving as de facto point guard.
9. Spencer Dinwiddie doing the electric slide
Whoa! Brooklyn has won nine of 10 to butt into the slap-fight for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. They have gotten solid play from both Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell during that stretch, and even managed to outscore opponents with both on the floor -- an essential turnaround with Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe out.
Dinwiddie has been outstanding propping up weirdo, ultra-big second units featuring three and sometimes all four of DeMarre Carroll, Rodions Kurucs (get to know that name), Jared Dudley and Ed Davis. He has supplanted Russell as Brooklyn's go-to closer, and perhaps emerged as the new frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year after lighting up Charlotte for 37 points on Wednesday.
My favorite Dinwiddie thing: his electric slide "step-back" 3-pointer.
He's out there doing lunges. Dinwiddie generates a preposterous amount of space with that one super-step. He's a scorching 10-of-15 on step-back 3s, tied for 10th-most in the league.
The Nets might regret not signing Dinwiddie to a longer deal than his recent three-year extension.
10. The "earned edition" jerseys
For those understandably having trouble keeping track: Every team now has at least four jerseys -- the constant light and dark uniforms (now called "association" and "icon" because some Lindsey Naegle branding sycophants thought that was a good idea), plus alternate "city" and "statement" editions that change each season.
But wait, there's more! Each playoff team from the prior season now gets a fifth jersey -- the "earned" edition. Some teams unveiled those on Christmas.
They are unimaginative. Some are just bad. Most are retreads, or color-flip variants of pre-existing alternates. Teams don't have the bandwidth to create three original, thoughtful new jerseys each season. Some can barely manage one. That's understandable. Even the NBA folks at Nike have other things to do.
Two new alternates per season is enough.