Let's take our weekly tour of the NBA:
10 things I like and don't like
1. C.J. McCollum's pull-up artistry
This dude is ridiculous. It's time to start talking about McCollum as one of the best pure shooters alive, along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Kyle Korver, Chris Paul, and a few others.
In his last 20 games, McCollum is averaging almost 26 points on a 50.5/41/89.9 shooting line. He has hit 46 percent of his pull-up jumpers, best in the league among guys who have fired at least five of those suckers -- the toughest shots in the game -- per night. Since the league started tracking pull-ups in 2013, only three players have exceeded that mark on five-plus attempts per game: Paul and Durant in 2014-15 (at 47.7 and 48 percent, respectively) and Nowitzki (46.8 percent) the year before.
In the NBA, there are threats, and there are weapons. A threat keeps a defense on its toes. They worry about it, but they don't change their whole scheme to account for it. They warp everything for a weapon. Nikola Vucevic's midrange shot is a threat. Nowitzki's is a weapon.
McCollum has weaponized an allegedly inefficient shot. He needs almost no space to stop on a dime, snap into that straight up-and-down balance, and rain fire. Keeping up with McCollum around a pick -- being almost on his hip -- isn't good enough unless you can reach around him, Kawhi Leonard-style, and contest his shot from behind.
Defenses have to sandwich him high on the floor, and that creates openings for the four other Blazers. (If only Al-Farouq Aminu could hit a shot again ...)
Portland will have issues playing championship-level defense as long as McCollum and Damian Lillard share the floor for 20-plus minutes per night. That has led a lot of thinkers -- including this one -- to suggest Portland's GM, Neil Olshey, quietly explore McCollum's trade market. Lillard is still the more valuable of the two; he jacks more 3s from further out on the floor, attacks the hoop with more muscly verve, and is better at setting up teammates.
But McCollum has made it a conversation.
2. The violence of Julius Randle blitzes
Luke Walton gets annoyed when his big men "slip" screens -- NBA lingo for moving into position to set a hard pick, and jetting toward the rim before making any contact with the intended victim. It's a score-first tactic: a big guy senses a free jaunt to the hoop, and takes off without giving his guard any daylight. Amar'e Stoudemire was perhaps the deadliest screen-slipper in league history.
"We fall into the bad habit of slipping every time because everyone wants to roll to the rim and dunk," Walton told me in his office last month.
Walton's right, of course. You have to master the fundamentals before dipping into the more advanced stuff. Prime Stoudemire was a one-of-a-kind athlete. Normal rules didn't apply to him.
But holy hell, is it fun when Julius Randle baits the defense into expecting a pick, and then revs into top gear for a violent rim run:
This will be an important tool for Randle, especially since he's such a good passer after catching the ball on the move. It's on Randle to mix up his screen-setting tactics -- slipping doesn't work if the defense knows it's coming -- but Walton should let him experiment.
3. Indiana's backup power forward situation
Indiana in the last three weeks has started playing Al Jefferson and Kevin Seraphin together on bench units. Watching them jostle for the same real estate is like stepping back in time. Opponents have outscored Indiana by about 7.5 points per 100 possessions in the 67 minutes those two plodders have shared the floor, and honestly, I'm kind of surprised it's not worse than that.
Playing exclusively against opposing bench mobs minimizes the sabotage any miscast lineup can inflict, but this just isn't going to work. Seraphin is a worse version of Jefferson. He has zero chance defending power forwards and hedging against pick-and-rolls, and that's a problem, since bench-heavy units trend a little smaller than starting fives.
Give Lavoy Allen another shot, go small, make a fringe trade, or rejigger the rotation so that one of Thad Young and Myles Turner is on the floor with Jefferson. Injuries on the wing have limited Nate McMillan's small-ball options, but he still has better choices than this.
4. James Johnson and bizarro Heat pick-and-rolls
A lot of us predicted before the season that the Heat would tank. Everything aligned. They just weren't good on paper; they lacked shooting, and their most accurate gunner from last season, Josh Richardson, hurt his knee in September. They owe two future first-round picks to Phoenix via the Goran Dragic splurge, but they happen to own their pick in a loaded 2017 draft. Pat Riley is a veteran of the opportunistic single-season tank.
Flipping Dragic for future assets was their most obvious path to the bottom, but Miami's injury situation has gotten so ugly, they don't even have to do that! They're 11-29, ahead of only the Nets. Teams will express interest in Dragic ahead of the trade deadline -- a bunch, including the Magic, already did, per league sources -- but Miami can hold out for a hefty return. They gave up a ton for Dragic, and they'd need to save face in any teardown trade.
In the meantime, Johnson has been a jack-of-all-trades bright spot. He's posting career highs in almost every category, and has drained a shocking -- and unsustainable -- 38 percent from deep after struggling to crack the 30 percent barrier over the rest of his career.
He can do a little of everything on offense, and the Heat have used him as a point forward -- and even a point-center! -- in bizarro inverted pick-and-rolls:
That is a nasty little screen by Dragic, who enjoys collisions. Nice working flipping directions at the last second, a veteran trick that fools both D'Angelo Russell and Randle.
Johnson has always been a high-wire passer prone to the sorts of insane turnovers that drive coaches batty. No coach has ever trusted him to play extended minutes for more than a month or so at a time. Erik Spoelstra has no choice but to live with Johnson's high turnover rate. Johnson is a free agent after this season, and he has earned a harder look.
5. Uninformed 'stats don't tell the whole story!' rants
A TV analyst who shall remain nameless recently remarked that a particular player's ho-hum 3-point percentage didn't "tell the whole story" about his long-range shooting. Said player was money on open shots, the announcer said; contested triples and end-of-quarter heaves were dragging down his percentage. "See, stats don't tell you the whole story!" he concluded.
This was stupid on at least two levels. No person with a functioning brain thinks stats "tell the whole story" about anything. Stop saying this.
But in this case, stats tell the exact story-within-a-story Anonymous Announcer claimed they could not. We can track wide-open shots now, and compare them to shots taken with a defender right in a shooter's face. It's true! You can even find out how many desperate buzzer-beaters a player has launched from beyond half court!
We have fancy cameras recording this stuff. We've had them for a half-decade. Isn't it, like, part of your job to know what statistics are available on the NBA's official website?
6. Dwight Howard's midrange courage
Big fella has jacked 25 midrange jumpers already this season. He tried 29 combined during his last two campaigns in Houston. He hasn't launched at this rate since 2010-11, when he should have won the MVP in Orlando.
Howard is 5-of-25 on those jumpers. Might wanna bag 'em unless the shot clock is about to expire.
7. Two fun, multi-positional young guys grow in Brooklyn
Look: I realize you're not going to watch the Nets. Given the options on League Pass every night, you probably shouldn't. They have the worst record in the league. Even hard-core fans haven't heard of half their players. They are still years, plural, from digging out of the Boston trade disaster.
But in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, the Nets have two versatile kiddos flashing more playmaking chops than anyone expected at this point. That is the value of tossing young guys into a free-flowing system where everyone is allowed to attack scrambling defenses off the bounce. Players get to test their limits, and in some cases, discover they can do things at the NBA level that were supposedly closed off to them.
The Nets are almost fun when they throw LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson out there together, usually at the two forward spots, and let them explore possibilities:
They can both switch across at least three positions on defense, and Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn's coach, has used both at power forward. They even unleash Hollis-Jefferson as a skinny, pointy-elbowed pick-and-roll dive man when Justin Hamilton spaces the floor as the nominal center.
LeVert is the more enticing prospect. He's bigger, with a smoother handle and jumper. Hollis-Jefferson's shot is still busted, and all indications are the Nets will listen when teams call about him, league sources say. But he's a tenacious defender who is better than you think at weirdo herky-jerky drives on offense.
8. The Enes Kanter predatory double test
Some double-teams are panicked -- the emergency response to a post-up brute measuring a mismatch. Some are predatory.
Smart teams send doubles at bad passers just to force them into passing under pressure, with cutters and defenders flying around a shifting floor. It's a fun little bet: We'll risk leaving someone open, because we think you'll probably pass to the wrong guy -- or throw the ball into the crowd.
Kanter has long been among the league's favorite bits of double-team prey. He has never averaged even one assist per game. He has often spotted an open cutter a beat too late, just as the defense closed a passing lane. Fans sitting across the floor from Kanter have risked beer-in-the-face embarrassment if they checked their phones during a Kanter post-up.
But little by little, Kanter is starting to get it. He's on pace for a (modest) career high in assists, and he whipped some snazzy passes out of double-teams against both Chicago and Memphis this week. He dished three dimes in each of those games. That doesn't sound like much, but Kanter has hit that mark only 19 times in six seasons. Three of those games have come in the past three weeks.
Kanter has never recorded more than four assists in any NBA game. Could that be the next baby step?
9. Orlando's double-center look
Frank Vogel may have mercy-killed this during Orlando's loss against the Clippers on Wednesday night. Let's hope so. Opponents have outscored the Magic by almost six points per 100 possessions when Bismack Biyombo and Vucevic share the floor, and the double-barreled center setup looks positively retrograde.
Early in the season, Vogel had Biyombo defending power forwards so that Vucevic could hang back against opposing centers. That made intuitive sense, since Biyombo is much faster than Vooch. (Don't call him Vucci Mane.) But that gambit also dragged Biyombo away from the rim, wasting his shot-blocking, and Biyombo didn't prove as adept as expected switching onto smaller players.
Vogel has since flipped roles, and assigned Vucevic to chase opposing forwards. That has gone as badly as you'd expect. The Magic need a roster readjustment, and I'd expect at least a slight one at the trade deadline.
10. Andrew Wiggins, cutter
Dissecting Wiggins' game has been a weird internet blood sport since he entered the league. Oh, he can't shoot 3s. He rebounds like a point guard. He averages only about two assists per game, embarrassing given how often he commandeers Minnesota's late-game offense under Tom Thibodeau. Andrew Wiggins isn't efficient! Zach LaVine is better than Andrew Wiggins! Andrew Wiggins is average!
I guess this is the burden of being the No. 1 pick. But can we chill on this? Wiggins is 21 years old. He is going to average more than 20 points per game for the second straight season.
Yeah, there are holes. He doesn't feel the game as naturally as you'd hope. He takes an egregious number of awful long 2s early shot clock. His effort level on defense waxes and wanes.
I'm still betting big on his long-term success. Wiggins will be an All-Star. Will he be a top-5 or even a top-10 player? Maybe not. But when did that become the standard? When did anything but that become a failure?
Wiggins is a crafty cutter with a knack for sensing a chance to catch a defender leaning the wrong way:
He doesn't do this much, but it's comforting to know it's in there. You can imagine him doing it more on a team with better spacing and more refined playmaking around him.