Welcome to 2018's first edition:
1. Lou Will dekes, and the fighting Clippers
This freaking guy.
Imagine being Treveon Graham. You're an undrafted fringe guy, and you've carved out a spot in Charlotte's rotation. You're shooting 44 percent from deep! Things are going great!
And then, bam, you run into whatever the hell Lou Williams has been doing over the past six weeks. Look at this trickster! Williams changes directions four times in about 2.5 seconds before finally jetting baseline, and leaving Graham somewhere near LAX.
Williams has been absurd in helping the ragtag Clippers improbably hold the fort amid injuries to Blake Griffin, Milos Teodosic (again), Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Danny Manning, and Loy Vaught.
They caught some breaks, sure. They sacked a tired Toronto team on the end of a back-to-back. They benefited from a bizarre timekeeper error in a home win over the Wizards, who played without John Wall. Other opponents in that Griffin-less stretch were missing Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Lonzo Ball. That is as close as the basketball gods get to helping the Clippers: providing a slate of injured opponents that are still healthier than LA.
Williams and Austin Rivers kept the offense humming at an above-average rate. Williams is clowning fools every night. He's splitting double-teams, crossing dudes out of their shoes, veering away from picks as defenders teeter the other way, shedding guys with nasty up-and-unders, and fading to his left for patented wackadoo jumpers.
Williams is averaging almost 22 points in 31 minutes per game, and he has drained 40 percent of his triples -- all career highs. He has cracked 30 points -- off the bench! -- in six of his past 13 games. That is insanity.
He has formed a productive pick-and-roll partnership with every L.A. big man. The Clippers have scored 1.24 points per possession when Williams shoots out of an isolation play, or passes to a teammate who launches after one or zero dribbles -- the third-highest figure among 91 guys who have run at least 50 isos, per Second Spectrum data. (The two ahead of Williams: Chris Paul and President Malcolm Brogdon.)
A bunch of unknown bit players have helped. Jamil Wilson supplied some stretch at power forward. C.J. Williams and Sindarius Thornwell fight on the wing. Montrezl Harrell supplanted Willie Reed, and manufactured needed buckets. Sam Dekker perked up. Jawun Evans can't shoot, but he can at least organize possessions while the big dogs rest. DeAndre Jordan is as constant as any NBA entity.
Everyone loves to mock the Clippers, and speculate about Doc Rivers' next job. We should laud them for battling. A lot of teams in their situation, with their personnel, would have quit. The Clippers didn't.
2. LeBron James and Kevin Love, finally working together
One happy consequence of shifting Love to center: The LeBron-Love pick-and-roll, undeveloped over three seasons, is finally weaponized. When Love played power forward, like-sized defenders switched this play, stalling it out. They fear switching centers onto LeBron, and that fear has unstuck the LeBron-Love dance:
Love can pop for angel food cake 3s, or slice down an uncluttered lane:
The Cavs are running about 12.5 LeBron-Love pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, up from 6.7 last season, per Second Spectrum data.
The returns of Tristan Thompson and Isaiah Thomas throw this new reality into question. With more scoring at point guard, would Cleveland consider sacrificing some offense for sturdier defense by starting Thompson again?
As fun as these Love-at-center groups have been, Cleveland has to at least try to find some token two-way balance. They will not beat the Warriors going all-offense. No one will. Is sticking three capable wing defenders between Thomas and Love enough?
It might not be. Teams are already chipping away at the new LeBron-Love potency by slotting wings onto Love, and hiding their centers on Jae Crowder. Cleveland has counters for that, but they'll see more such strategery in the postseason.
Bringing Thompson off the bench matches him with at least two other so-so shooters -- Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green. The weirdo bench, so good all season, might lose some of its punch -- even if LeBron or Thomas is out there to run the show.
It will be fascinating to see how Tyronn Lue rejiggers around Thomas. Cleveland has managed well when both LeBron and Love sit, but those minutes have always felt precarious -- at least on offense. Cleveland can now keep one of Thomas and LeBron on the floor at all times. That would shift Wade into an off-ball role -- a hit-or-miss proposition. Iman Shumpert will be back at some point.
These are good problems. Even with Boston and Toronto surging, the Cavs have to approach all of them with one eye on Oakland.
3. Washington's reactive defense
The rising Wizards rank eighth in points allowed per possession, so it seems a little strange to say their defense feels more rickety than that. They are a great recovery defense, but only because halfhearted work against the initial play forces them into recovery mode. They almost seem to relish the challenge: How deep a predicament can we escape?
They duck under some screens against dangerous shooters. They laze into switches, and sometimes don't talk them out, so that the switch doesn't actually happen -- leaving a shooter with an open window. They switch into mismatches Scott Brooks probably doesn't want.
Opponents can catch them naked in transition defense, with too many guys loitering near the rim. About 31 percent of enemy defensive rebounds turn into fast-break chances, the sixth-highest share in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Washington defends from a disadvantage really well. When they sense their own vulnerability, they scramble like hellions. John Wall is an all-time chase-down block artist, and he's rejecting shots in the half court now, too. He battles his ass off against bigger guys in the post after switches, and he can jump high enough from a standstill to bother their shots -- even if they smush him under the rim.
Their core lineups are speedy enough to chase the ball as opponents ping it around. They make up ground, and run startled shooters off the arc. The effort is admirable.
But I can't shake the feeling that their inconsistent habits at the point of attack could come back to bite them in the playoffs. You can't spot good teams a few feet and hope to snuff the advantage often enough to win four times in seven games.
As it is, they are a (slightly) below-average defensive rebounding team, and they may be getting a tad lucky. Opponents are shooting horribly on open 3s, per NBA.com. Opponents have hit just 32.6 percent on corner triples, the lowest such mark in the league by four full percentage points -- equivalent to the gap between the 2nd- and 23rd-ranked defenses by this measure. They allow a decent amount of both 3s and shots at the rim.
Washington is fine. When they shorten the rotation and play at top gear, they can threaten anyone in the East -- at least in one game. But they sometimes wait one or two passes too long before shifting into that gear.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, flingin' it
Cauley-Stein has made nice progress this season, but there are possessions where all he can do is fling the ball really hard in the general direction of the backboard:
This has more to do with Sacramento collecting a gazillion centers, and zero NBA-ready power forwards. (Skal Labissiere has shown intermittent promise, including over the past week, but he fades in and out of the rotation.) Cauley-Stein imagines himself an all-around superstar, but he is really a rim-runner who can pass a bit from the elbows -- a poor man's Andre Drummond.
That's fine! He is solid, and might become quite a good NBA player. It's just suboptimal for that player type to log two-thirds of his minutes alongside Zach Randolph or Kosta Koufos -- dinosaurs who inhabit the same real estate. You can't bum-rush the rim if there are three bodies in the way:
Cauley-Stein is shooting 56 percent as the solo center, and 48 percent in all other minutes, per NBA.com. The accidental benefit of shifting Cauley-Stein outside: He's growing comfortable dishing and running handoffs -- skills that become more essential for big men every year. Drummond adapting that way changed the entire look and feel of Detroit's offense.
As for the Kings, they won't be able to build even an average NBA offense until they add a bit more shooting and playmaking to their big man rotation.
5. The uselessness (on one end) of Bismack Biyombo
Biyombo is stumbling proof that Cauley-Stein's passing matters. Biyombo cannot do anything beyond rolling and dunking -- a skill that thrives only in precious and rare ecosystems. These Magic do not provide such an ecosystem.
The Pistons do not care about Biyombo catching the ball wide-open anywhere outside dunking range. They know he won't make a pass or dribble that hurts them.
Biyombo is a legit, fearsome rim protector; Orlando's defense will improve with Biyombo in Nikola Vucevic's place. Surround him with a pick-and-roll ace and three good shooters, and Biyombo comes to life on offense. That won't happen on this Magic team, even with Gordon holding steady as a 40 percent-plus 3-point shooter. Jonathon Simmons, starting now, has hit just 32 percent from deep, and smart defenders swerve under picks against Payton -- allowing Biyombo's defender to stay home.
In related news: Biyombo is due $17 million per season until 2020.
6. Portland's offense, out of sync
All the cutting and screening in Terry Stotts' system is (smartly) designed to make an oligarchical offense seem egalitarian to everyone else playing in it. Every part of that system has shifted toward an unhealthy extreme.
The Blazers are down to 28th in passes per game, tossing about 15 fewer than they did two and three seasons ago, per NBA.com. They rely more on isolation plays and shots McCollum and Lillard jack after scooting around picks -- and less on spot-up attempts from other guys. (They lead the league in shots from pick-and-roll ball handlers.) Only the slow-poke Mavs and Spurs generate fewer transition chances, per Cleaning The Glass.
There are a lot of trips where things just don't look right -- when the offense stalls out one or two passes earlier than it used to:
Bodies appear in the wrong places, at the wrong times. Some of those bodies are defenders abandoning Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and various Portland power forwards to clog the paint. (Aminu was on fire from deep until a recent slump, but in something of a paradox, defenders ignore him no matter how hot he gets. It's one of the hardest questions for analytics to answer: How many 3s does a reputational non-shooter have to make before the positive value of those buckets outweighs the damage he inflicts on his team's spacing?)
And yet: Portland is 19-18, with an improved defense. There is no crisis here. But this is an expensive team that has won 44 and 41 games since LaMarcus Aldridge bolted, and it just can't nudge its way out of mediocrity.
7. Dallas jerseys
The Mavs' new city edition uniform pays homage to the greens and blues of the Dallas skyline:
Annnnnnnnd ... let's chalk up another L for the Mavericks' art. Other teams went bold with their fourth jerseys, but the Mavs farted out a dull, predictable black-for-black's sake look. The lettering is round and cartoonish. At least the colors pop. The rest of Dallas' jerseys are so muted, you almost can't make out what -- if anything -- is on them.
No team -- not even the Thunder -- needs a full art makeover more desperately than the Mavs.
8. Pau Gasol, in his element
A thing I didn't expect I'd be saying in 2018: Man, has it been fun watching Pau Gasol this season. We know his limitations, and the Spurs have been better when they go smaller with LaMarcus Aldridge at center alongside Rudy Gay, Kawhi Leonard, or Kyle Anderson. (They have only begun exploring three-man frontcourts of Leonard, Anderson/Gay, and Aldridge.)
But Gasol is a man in his element -- a traveler who has found a place and time that agrees with him. He is playing with whatever passes for joy in the persnickety Gasolian universe.
Gasol is dishing 4.7 dimes per 36 minutes, the best mark of his storied career, thriving as the hub of a whirring offense. He's running handoffs, hitting jumpers, and working a gorgeous, old-school high-low game with Aldridge. Dejounte Murray is figuring out how to slip into voids where Gasol can find him.
Gasol's slow feet should make him a glaring defensive liability, but being tall and smart compensates for a lot. He is a long-armed irritant around the rim, and he doesn't foul; opponents are shooting just 52 percent at the basket with Gasol nearby, a more than respectable mark for a big man.
You can't play The Ostrich 20-plus minutes against Golden State, but Gasol has quietly had a very nice season. It's always fun to watch a brainy geezer who still has some fire in his belly.
9. Variety in Oklahoma City
Last week, I wrote that Oklahoma City has precisely one crunch-time play beyond high pick-and-rolls for Russell Westbrook: a rote "Hawk" action in which Carmelo Anthony sets an off-ball pick for Paul George before flipping into a ball screen for Westbrook. Meanwhile, George curls around the other side for a potential catch-and-shoot jumper.
It can work even if the defense knows exactly what's coming. The three participants are that good. But Oklahoma City can generate even better looks when they go off-script. Watch how Alex Abrines, in George's normal spot here, strolls toward Anthony's screen as if he's going to do the usual thing before moonwalking into an open triple that catches Memphis by surprise:
George got a layup Thursday against the Clippers by darting right down the middle instead of circling to the wing. On the very next possession, he mimicked the Abrines back-pedal and drilled a triple. Variety can be healthy. Who knew??
10. Spoiling no-fun fouls
There is no worse buzzkill NBA moment than a defender, caught flat-footed after his team turns the ball over, wrapping up an opposing ball handler to snuff a fast break. It is not a basketball play. It is a pathetic surrender.
So let us celebrate the fast-break demons wily enough to circumvent it with out-of-the-box tricks that look borrowed from other sports. Behold: Jimmy Butler, rampaging into the MVP race, unleashing a throw-ahead pass to himself that leaves poor, calcified Andrew Bogut hugging air:
Butler resembles a soccer player kicking the ball up the field so that he can sprint unencumbered to split defenders. Fantastic.
The NBA has tweaked the rules surrounding these clothesline fouls, but they haven't gone far enough to eradicate them. Either broaden the clear-path rule so that it punishes all these wrap-up fouls, or levy the same penalty reserved for intentional away-from-the-play hacks.