Let's bounce around the NBA in our weekly tradition.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Mike Conley, gone for a while
Well, this sucks. Conley just keeps getting better. He's under more pressure than ever this season for a paper-thin team, and he's thriving. Conley has nailed 47 percent (!) from deep, and he's running every possession with the usual change-of-pace guile. He has never looked more confident, and in control. He somehow appears even faster than usual when he decides to zoom.
The league's perennial almost-All-Star was making a legitimate case for a wild-card reserve spot, even as every Western Conference guard goes nuclear around him. And then, this. The Grizzlies are in deep, deep trouble. They have been great with both Conley and Marc Gasol on the floor, and disastrously bad in basically every other scenario, per NBA.com.
His backups have been borderline unplayable as lead dogs, notwithstanding Andrew Harrison's random outburst Wednesday against Toronto. David Fizdale may need to get Zach Randolph (when he returns) into games earlier to provide a second fulcrum for the gummy Grizz offense.
In the meantime, Memphis will round up the usual trade and free-agency suspects, and perhaps apply for a hardship exception to sign an extra 16th player. That's a stopgap that lasts only as long as at least four players -- in this case, James Ennis, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Conley -- are out.
Good thing they banked a bunch of close wins in typical grit-and-grind fashion, including a buzzer-beater over Denver after a botched call gave Memphis one last shot.
2. The Brandon Jennings experience!
Jennings is straight-up rambunctious this season. He enveloped Ramon Sessions over the weekend in a full-court press so vicious, you wondered if Sessions had done something to his family. He clowned Ricky Rubio in New York's exciting road win against Minnesota on Wednesday.
He pushes the Knicks into turbo gear and captains wildly unpredictable bench units populated by a motley crew. He appears unfamiliar with the triangle offense, and delightfully uninterested in getting familiar.
That said, he knows how to leverage the patterns of the triangle to his advantage.
Cagey! The Knicks look like they're setting up for a rare pure triangle possession, and that script would call for Jennings to hand Unicorn Boy the ball before jogging to the corner. Jennings knows that. He knows the defense knows that, that they expect it, and that he might catch them snoozing through the motions if he veers off script.
The results have been uneven, of course. Jennings is shooting poorly from all over the floor, and his defense breaks apart once the offense settles into its half-court actions. But I am entertained.
3. The blemish in the Russell Westbrook show
I love the Westbrook show. Let me repeat that for the, umm, most loyal Oklahoma City fans: I love the Westbrook show. But even the greatest shows have Poochie-level flaws. Westbrook knows he carries Oklahoma City's offense almost by himself, and he's not averse to some blatant stat-chasing. One ugly manifestation of all that: Westbrook's foul-baiting on jump shots has reached all-time shamelessness this season.
If a defender is chasing behind him, Westbrook might arch his back and jump sideways into him -- even if doing so kills the odds of his shot going in (which is supposed to be the goal of basketball). Only Draymond Green outranks him among the NBA's leg-splayers. Sometimes, he'll whip one of his arms sideways upon the release of a jumper, just in case he might smack an opposing player and trick the officials into thinking the victim hit him.
This is the Landry/Lance-might-have-murdered-someone subplot of the Westbrook epic. You kind of just have to ignore it.
PS: Is the Westbrook triple-double season average watch the NBA's version of a baseball player flirting with .400? Is there any other feasible statistical feat that would inspire fevered day-to-day monitoring at a decimal point level?
4. George Hill, crafty
Indy fans who couldn't wait to dump Hill might be surprised to learn he has been Utah's MVP so far -- a 20-point scorer approaching 50-40-90 shooting levels, and playing his usual hounding defense against opposing point guards. Utah has destroyed teams with Hill on the floor, and its scoring margin has remained strong when Hill has manned the ship without Gordon Hayward, per NBA.com.
Hill has been even better than expected on the ball, and he remains a lethal off-ball option -- key for a team with so many wings who take the controls.
That cut looks simple, and a lot guys standing on the weak side of a pick-and-roll slash to the rim when their defenders lurch in on help assignments. But there is an art to it. Go too early, and you might collide with a rolling big man. Go late, and the ball handler is too far toward the baseline to find you.
Hill nails it, and he's a crafty finisher from odd angles in the paint.
Side note: Utah has outscored opponents by 68 points in the measly 131 minutes Hill and Hayward have shared the floor this season -- equivalent to a ridiculous plus-25 margin over 48 minutes. If this team can ever get healthy, watch out.
5. Anthony Davis at full throttle
By some measures, Davis has not become the defender some of us predicted. He doesn't always move with the certainty and balance you would expect from one of the most well-rounded big-man athletes ever to play. He looked like he was defending on skates at times during his first two years, and he never totally excised that slight bit of awkwardness from his defense. He did not play at peak effort enough last season.
But when he's dialed in, holy hell is Davis an all-court wrecker. When he's the closest defender to enemy shooters, those guys are hitting about 7 percentage points lower than usual -- a monster number, per player tracking data. Davis has killed this measure over the last two seasons. He bothers shots almost no other defender can reach.
And when his antennae are up, Davis can be the most destructive team defender in the league -- a blur with a 7-5 wingspan:
Davis doesn't play with this focus all the time, but he's still just 23. (Anthony Davis is 23. My god. What a world.) He has been perhaps the league's best player this season. The Pelicans would be dead without him. Now that Jrue Holiday's back, they're alive and kicking.
6. Dragan Bender, 7-1 pseudo-wing
The Suns are so weird. They have mid-career veterans acquired to push a go-go .500-ish team toward 50 wins; kiddos plucked in the lottery when those teams went bust; graybeards meant to mentor those kids; and one center, Tyson Chandler, signed amid a fit of exuberance when the Suns thought they might also land LaMarcus Aldridge.
It's very hard to develop teeny-boppers while letting the vets try to win games. Earl Watson is doing his best to figure it out. He's starting Marquese Chriss and letting him bomb 3s, and finishing close games with Jared Dudley and/or P.J. Tucker. He has found Bender minutes.
Problem: He's lately using Bender as the league's tallest small forward, spotting him up around the arc and having him scramble against little guys on defense. Tim Hardaway Jr. blew past him for as baseline dunk Wednesday, and what in the hell is Bender supposed to do about that?
In the long run, it's not a big deal. But something needs to give on this roster.
7. Theatrical head-coaching goodbye waves
This is my favorite bizarre NBA coaching tradition: the end-of-game cross-court wave between opposing head coaches. There is no time to come over and shake your hand, so I'm waving! I am very busy! Look, I am stretching my arm as high as it can go above my head! Do you see me? You probably do, since you are only 30 feet away. Hey, you're waving back! I am now going to shift my hand into a thumbs-up, turn around, and leave. Bye!
It's just a great, strange social interaction.
8. John Wall's left hand
The Wizards stink again, so to make my D.C. buddies feel better, here's John Wall fooling two defenders with the same lefty in-and-out dribble in the span of about two seconds:
John Wall is a superhuman athlete, but the (justified) obsession over his speed has long masked the sophisticated craft in his game. He's a gifted passer who reads all five defenders at once, and he has a mean left hand. He likes to dunk lefty, and he's good at it.
9. The same old Jahlil Okafor
Thank the basketball gods for Joel Embiid, and may they keep watch over Ben Simmons' foot. Okafor stagnating was predictable, and not some indicator that he's doomed to disappoint; he's only 20, the team around him is still bad, and he's surely depressed scrounging backup minutes behind the next big thing.
But it's OK to worry a little that his warts look just as unsightly as they did during his haywire rookie season. Okafor is still a black hole in the post. He's rebounding like a wing player, again. He's constantly late on rotations, and worse yet, when he realizes he's late, he doesn't exactly respond with urgency.
Okafor is never going to be a stopper, but he should be better than this. He's a smart player with good hands, vision, and enough athleticism to get his ass moving on defense when he has to. He gives glimpses of a revving motor now and then.
Again, playing amid sub-NBA backup units is hurting his development, and though Brett Brown will try -- dude will try anything -- it's unlikely Okafor and Embiid can play much together. I'd be shocked if either Nerlens Noel or Okafor were on the team at the start of the 2018-19 season, provided Embiid stays healthy.
Bright side: Sauce Castillo is spicy!
10. Omri Casspi, real no-look passer
The Kings blitzed opponents last season with Casspi, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins all on the floor in small-ball lineups, so it was curious that Dave Joerger, their new coach, banished Casspi from the rotation for most of the first 15 games. (Let's be clear: It's not, like, super-interesting. Casspi is a lovable, full-throttle player, and that leads to some exaggeration as to how good he really is.)
He's back, and he's as fun to watch as ever, circling all over the floor like a madman and launching 30-foot Lillardian bombs. Seriously, the balls on this dude.
The most important Casspi-ism: He is a real no-look passer, not some fake who locks eyes with his target, throws a pass, and only then jerks his head the other way so everyone thinks he's clever. Casspi flies blind, and reserves the no-look stuff for passes on which baffling a defender for even a split second can make the difference between an open and contested look.