It's Friday; let's do it.
1. Oof, the Hornets
Injuries to Nicolas Batum and others have derailed a solid playoff team. Injuries hit every team, every year. With each passing month, Charlotte turning down the bounty of picks Boston offered for the selection that became Frank Kaminsky looks more and more like a franchise-altering blunder. Charlotte won 48 games the following season -- Batum's first year in Charlotte -- and pushed Miami the distance in the first round despite Batum's ankle injury.
That may go down as the highlight of the Kemba Walker-Steve Clifford era.
The Hornets are 10-17, and capped into oblivion (probably) until deals for Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist expire in 2020. Only Walker and their first-year players have any trade value. Acquiring Dwight Howard turned Cody Zeller into a $15 million backup. The Kidd-Gilchrist leap isn't happening. Williams is fine for what he is. Batum has been overmatched and passive as a second option. Kaminsky is a third big who can play in crunch time on those once-a-week nights when his jumper falls.
You can put lipstick on all of this, of course. Flip a few close games, and the Hornets are right in the playoff race. Those first-round picks from Boston -- four of them -- carried hope, not guaranteed talent. Noah Vonleh has done nothing to make Charlotte regret flipping him for Batum.
But picks represented a blueprint. The Celtics handed Charlotte a plan. Blueprints for greatness don't always get finished. But they at least contained vaguely outlined possibilities of a future.
The Hornets don't have that now. They know it on some level. They made initial inquiries with Chicago about Jimmy Butler last spring, but found the Bulls had no interest in anything they had, according to several league sources.
Charlotte is down to 22nd in points per possession, with a predictable offense that hasn't evolved much -- in part because the personnel has stayed the same. It has regressed, really. Only 29 percent of Charlotte's shots have come from deep, fifth lowest in the league. They had the fourth-highest such share two seasons ago. They are dead last, or close, every season in corner 3s -- an inevitable result when your best 3-point shooters are either ball handlers who work up high (Walker, Batum), or guys who sets picks for them (Williams). When Walker sits, they are a G League team.
Howard is rejuvenated, but his post game isn't helping -- even when it looks good. Post-ups have accounted for 38 percent of Howard's possessions, the highest such figure since his first year in Houston, per Synergy Sports. Only four rotation guys -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Joel Embiid -- average more post touches per possession, according to Second Spectrum Data. He's not productive enough to justify that volume.
Howard is shooting 48 percent on post-ups, a solid number, but he is bleeding turnovers. He has coughed it on almost 25 percent of his post-ups, the sixth-highest mark among 85 rotation guys who have finished at least 20 such plays, per Synergy. (The five below him: Kelly Olynyk, Draymond Green, Dario Saric, DeAndre Jordan, and Ben Simmons.) He doesn't compensate with inside-out assists.
Put it all together, and Howard post-ups are producing about 0.78 points per possession. You don't divert the offense this often for 0.78 points. You could argue Charlotte has no better option beyond Walker running pick-and-roll, but it's time to build one.
Charlotte can still be a midtier playoff team with better health. It is really hard to see any pathway to something better.
2. The frisky Bulls, springing Lauri Markkanen
We're two more Chicago wins from the front office concocting a fake injury to Nikola Mirotic. As great as Mirotic has been, here's hoping the Bulls reinsert the Finnisher into the starting lineup once Markkanen's back spasms ease.
The Bulls found out right away teams would switch any conventional pick-and-rolls involving Markkanen. Fred Hoiberg has found some funky counters. This action, with Robin Lopez setting bang-bang screens -- the last for Markkanen -- has been a staple:
It sows confusion, and sets up Markkanen against mismatches. Markkanen has been confident posting up smaller dudes, and even passing out of double-teams on the block -- great early signs.
These little pitch plays have surprised defenses, and forced them into an uncomfortable choice: switch a point guard onto Markkanen, or concede him a head start.
Markkanen has hit just 33.5 percent of his 3s, but considering the degree of difficulty, it's obvious he can stroke it. He's not a stretch big man. He's a shooter who happens to be big. There's a difference. Markkanen has a snappy release, and needs only a teensy window to let it fly. When the Bulls put better players around him -- guards who can bend the defense away from him -- Markkanen is going to be a problem.
Speaking of which: Kris Dunn, sneakily shooting 37 percent from deep, has seized the starting point guard job, and he's commanding Chicago's offense with a new aggression. Between Dunn's drives and some cement wall picks from Robin Lopez, Markkanen might see more daylight.
3. Dwight Powell and the Powellnaires
One nominee for Most Surprising Trend: Dallas has outscored teams by nine points per 100 possessions with Powell on the floor, per NBA.com. Meanwhile, opponents are drubbing the Mavs by 11.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits. In other words: Dallas is about 20 points better with Powell. Only two rotation players leaguewide -- Walker and Devin Harris -- have bigger positive differentials.
Dwight Powell is a plus-minus god. His reemergence as a stable rotation guy is a major reason the hodgepodge Mavs, with an NBA Mad Libs roster, are 6-7 since their 2-14 start. Rick Carlisle: still a warlock.
Dallas's go-to second unit -- Yogi Ferrell, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Powell, and Dirk Nowitzki -- has outscored opponents by 45 points per 100 possessions over 99 minutes, per NBA.com. That is the best figure, by a mile, among all 104 lineups that have logged at least 50 minutes. In raw terms, they have played the equivalent of two full NBA games together and won by 95 combined points! (Dennis Smith Jr.'s injury has made it harder for Carlisle to arrive at that unit -- Ferrell is starting again -- but he usually finds his way there.)
The Mavs have mothballed (for now) experimenting with Powell as a stretch center. Playing him alongside Nowitzki frees Powell to do what he does best: fly down a wide-open lane, and dunk lobs.
Powell is defending all sorts of players -- whatever it takes to spare Nowitzki grunt work. Ferrell and Barea are cagey ball handlers with reliable jumpers. If Carlisle could ever persuade the NBA to let him substitute Nowitzki and Barea out after every offensive possession, those two tricksters could son fools on the pick-and-roll deep into their 50s.
4. James Johnson, in constant motion
A few years ago, Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks coach, told me that sometimes he wished Kyle Korver would just chill behind the 3-point arc. Korver can't help himself. He's antsy. He likes to move -- to feel involved. He zips here and there, setting random back screens and searching out voids in the defense.
I wonder if Erik Spoelstra feels that way about Johnson, who darts around with a giddy hyperactivity. Pitch Johnson the ball, and he'll catch it on the run, hot-potato it right back you, and set you a pick at the same time:
He doesn't just give-and-go. He gives-and-gets-back and gives-again-and-goes. Johnson might be the league's most unpredictable handoff quarterback. Watch him fake one to Kelly Olynyk before sliding the ball to Wayne Ellington -- and absolutely mashing Ellington's man:
You get the sense that Johnson delights in improvising -- in exploring possibilities as he discovers them. A scripted set is boring. That mindset got him in trouble in his pre-Miami stops; he tried insane, no-chance-in-hell jump passes, and turned the ball over too much.
He plays with smart, refined maturity now, and the Heat have freed him to work as a point-whatever. It must be fun to be Johnson's teammate.
The Heat haven't quite found themselves. Injuries and lineup shifts have disrupted them. Perhaps their best potential starting group -- Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside -- has barely played.
They have another gear in them, somewhere.
5. The Thunder, going starless
By the numbers, those groups have worked; the Thunder have outscored opponents by about eight points per 100 possessions over 76 starless minutes, mostly due to unsustainable defense, per NBA.com.
Donovan likes to tinker in case he stumbles upon some combination that might work when the games matter. There is some value in letting Josh Huestis, Terrance "Turd" Ferguson, Jerami Grant, and others stretch their games. (Note: That nickname is not meant as an insult. Anyone with the last name Ferguson should be nicknamed "Turd." Norm MacDonald made it a term of endearment.)
But, what, really is the point of this? No sane coach is going to roll out these groups in playoff games. All three of Oklahoma City's stars are searching for their rhythm -- together, in pairings, and when they go solo. That should be the priority.
6. Lonzo Ball's extra dribble
Ball has taken heat for his passivity. Meh. He passes up some 3s, but a 26 percent bricklayer should probably exercise some discretion, and Ball is jacking about five per game as is.
But the Lakers do need more of this type of assertiveness in the half-court:
Ball often aborts his drives early, before puncturing the defense. That's understandable. He's a pass-first guy downloading the rhythm and speed of the NBA. Passes that worked in college don't work here. Defenders are too long, and too fast.
You can see Ball stop mid-dribble and think about kicking the ball back to Brook Lopez. But he realizes he hasn't pulled Lopez's defender, Enes Kanter, deep enough into the paint for that pass to accomplish anything; Kanter would recover to Lopez in time to challenge any shot.
Ball puts his head down for one more hard dribble, and that does the trick. Kanter can't scurry back to snuff Lopez's 3, which forces a third defender -- Courtney Lee, putting together a sensational season for the 'Bockers -- to abandon Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Ball reads the game at a high level. Let's give him some time, maybe?
7. Hield of Dreams
Jerry Reynolds, the ex-coach and longtime Kings TV analyst, is a master at deadpan, wink-wink, "so bad it's good" humor. He has coined a long list of punny nicknames and catchphrases that would be cringeworthy in the wrong hands. You can tell without seeing Reynolds' face that he knows they are silly.
If any other announcer declared, with a childlike awe, that a Buddy Hield hot streak had us all living in a "Hield of dreams," we'd roll our eyes. I still kinda do. But with Reynolds, it works.
And by the way: Sacto's bench is a goddamned ball right now. Hield is shooting 46 percent from deep. He can't really beat guys off the bounce, but he has a smooth step-back game, a knack for high-arcing floaters, and preposterous confidence. Bogdan Bogdanovic is clever on both ends, and knows how to set up Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Frank Mason III plays with a fierce certainty that he belongs -- unusual for a second-round pick. He's canned 42.5 percent from deep, and he's not afraid to launch when defenders duck under picks. He makes the right passes, and he throws them early. He finds guys when they are about to come open, not when they are already open.
8. The Spurs, adding plot twists
This bit of out-of-timeout artistry adds one final layer to a classic set designed to spring post-up brutes:
That play always ends with the guy in Aldridge's spot setting up on the right block -- where Aldridge arrives after picks from Manu Ginobili, and then Danny Green. Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have feasted on that exact set for years.
The Spurs tack on one wrinkle: Aldridge U-turns back around a second Green screen, dusts his man, and sets up shop at the rim with Ferrell on his back. The Mavs had no idea what was coming. Don't overlook the nice touch of having Ginobili, one of the best post-entry passers ever, play setup man.
Gregg Popovich is well-known for hoarding literally hundreds of out-of-timeout plays, and using some of them just once or twice during the regular season, so that they catch postseason opponents by surprise. I wonder when we'll see this bad boy again.
9. Taurean Prince, making plays
You'd be forgiven for skipping out on the Hawks.
They're 6-22, and their exciting rookie -- John Collins -- missed two weeks before returning Thursday. But keep an eye on Prince. He's shooting 41 percent from deep, and looking more comfortable attacking off the dribble as a secondary ball handler -- exactly the kind of progress the Hawks wanted in Year 2:
That is a sophisticated NBA play: Prince bobbing and weaving around Dewayne Dedmon's pick, pinning a defender on his back, freezing the defense with a hesitation dribble, and then baiting Jordan into an ill-fated leap. Prince is dishing about three dimes per 36 minutes, and he's had recent games with eight, six, and five helpers.
Prince is even better blowing by dudes rushing to contest 3-pointers. He catches-and-goes right away, with a fast-twitch pump fake that amounts to a nod at the rim. He is cutting the amount of time he holds the ball, or dances with it -- cardinal sins in Budenholzer's offense. If anything, Prince should probably shoot more 3s; he defaults into drive mode even when he has room to fire.
10. Marcus Smart's passing
It's an NBA riddle: How can a wing shooting 32 percent end up on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger every night? Boston fans would point to Smart's bullying, chest-to-chest defense, and the balls-to-the-wall plays -- flying in from nowhere for rebounds and saves -- that inspire teammates. (Many of those fans would wish not to consider the possibility that some of those plus-minus numbers are random noise that comes with playing on a very good team, and that historically bad shooting is harmful on certain nights.)
The debate has given short shrift to Smart's passing -- a must for any non-shooter who has the ball so much. Smart has grown in that department every year. He was wild and uncertain at first. By last season, he had mastered the simple stuff -- obvious drive-and-kick reads, pick-and-pop passes to Al Horford.
Now, he's thinking one step ahead, manipulating defenses:
Smart's swing pass kicks off that sequence. When the ball gets back to him, Smart drives with a purpose: He knows he can toast Malcolm Brogdon, and that if he does, Marcus Morris will fade to the corner. A bigger guard who can run the offense provides crucial roster flexibility.
Smart's free agency this summer will be fascinating. The league doesn't quite know what to do with him. He's a polarizing player. Given Boston's financial commitments to Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving -- plus the play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both ahead of Smart now in the organizational pecking order -- a rich offer sheet could present Boston with a thorny dilemma.