Let's get into things:
1. Montrezl Harrell and the other, other Clippers
What remarkable work from the ragtag Clip Joint, who lost DeAndre Jordan -- previously indestructible, so naturally he got hurt -- just as they got Blake Griffin and Milos Teodosic (and Milos Teodosic's beard) back. How many times a day would Teodosic need to shave to remain clean-shaven? Three? Five? Do he and Luis Scola discuss this?
Lou Williams has rightfully received most of the adulation -- including the No. 1 spot here two weeks ago -- for keeping the Clips afloat. But one audacious gunner can't do it alone. Injuries have forced a bunch of unknowns to venture outside their core NBA skill sets, and they've all succeeded juuuuust often enough for LA to stay in games.
One example: Harrell is a tidy 30-of-63 on post-ups after attempting only 12 such shots in double the minutes last season, per Synergy Sports. Harrell's post moves aren't pretty:
He leans into his defender's chest, angles his body in some weird way, and flicks up an awkward shot. He's not tall enough to launch over big guys, or powerful enough to back them down. He kind of maneuvers the ball around them.
Harrell does have the speed to face up and drive against some centers, or spin by them. The overall results are just so-so. A Harrell post-up produces about 0.9 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum. You can't build an offense atop 0.9 points per possession.
But at the end of the shot clock, sometimes a 0.9-point option will do -- especially when you are surrounded by some combination of Jawun Evans, C.J. Williams, Wesley Johnson, Sam Dekker, and Chuck the Condor.
Harrell is active and fast on defense -- capable of attacking pick-and-rolls far from the rim, and switching onto some ball handlers. The Clippers have a better scoring margin overall with Harrell on the floor, per NBA.com.
It's flat-out astonishing the Clippers stand tied for the No. 7 spot in the West. I guarantee you almost no one inside the organization expected that when they lost Griffin to injury and sunk to 8-15. Their surge may take two major trade chips -- Jordan and Williams -- off the market, but it also pressures Denver, Portland and New Orleans to scrounge for upgrades at the deadline.
2. Shabazz Napier's disappearing act
LeBron's draft pick has finally come into his own after Miami and Orlando gave him away for literally zero basketball assets. (You could make a decent team from guys the Magic lost for nothing over the last five years.) Napier is shooting 48 percent overall, and 43 percent from deep -- career highs by a mile -- and slicing into the lane with a speedy new confidence.
Like Kemba Walker, Napier has discovered that his most obvious limitation -- his height -- can be an advantage. He scrunches through double-teams on the pick-and-roll, hunching so low as he skitters through traffic that he almost vanishes:
This is like the inverse of DeAndre Jordan's vertical spacing. Jordan and his ilk extend the terms of engagement 2 and 3 feet above the rim, where only they can reach. Napier takes the game down to toddler height, where bigger guys can't reach him -- and he can still scan the floor for teammates.
The craft has translated to his shooting. Napier has hit 63 percent of shots within the restricted area after failing to crack even 46 percent -- hideous for a player of any size -- in any prior season.
Napier's leap has unlocked some fun new lineups for Terry Stotts. The Blazers have outscored opponents by 22 points per 100 possessions in 140 with C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, and Napier on the floor, 30th among almost 1,900 trios who have logged at least 100 minutes together, per NBA.com. (Seven of the 29 above them are combinations of Golden State players.) Napier has been so reliable that Stotts has even (briefly) experimented with letting Napier and Evan Turner run things without either McCollum or Lillard on the floor -- instead of staggering those two stars so that one always plays.
That would amount to a sea change for Portland; Stotts reverted to his normal pattern on Thursday against Indiana. Credit Napier for playing well enough to coax Stotts into trying it at all.
3. A particular subset of Milwaukee's hyper-aggressive defense
There is room for an aggressive, extended defense that goes against the grain -- provided the team has the personnel for it. The rangy Bucks do. But in the age of drive-and-kick 3s, even a team with multiple Giannis Antetokounmpos would have to exercise some moderation against certain actions.
As I wrote in this space, Jason Kidd doesn't have to overhaul his entire NBA belief system. The tweaks can be small, and even opponent-specific. Switch more. Stop at the level of the screen, or just above it, instead of trapping every ball handler as if they are all Steph Curry. Scrap some of the random double-teaming of guys who don't merit it.
One particular Bucks bugaboo -- the unnecessary, prolonged swarming of the strong side:
The Bucks unleash hell to contain that initial Goran Dragic-James Johnson pick-and-roll. Antetokounmpo flashes out to corral Dragic, and John Henson shifts away from Hassan Whiteside to patrol Johnson. It works! Dragic picks up his dribble, and Antetokounmpo scurries back to Johnson as Dragic's pass arrives there. Crisis averted.
Except the Bucks remain in crisis mode. Henson hovers over Johnson, almost doubling him, as if Antetokounmpo might need help (he doesn't). The ripple effect: Eric Bledsoe has to abandon Tyler Johnson in the left corner, and park on Whiteside's hip.
The Heat go Johnson-to-Johnson for a triple that should never have been available to them.
I'd like to see Darren Collison score over President Malcolm Brogdon along the baseline. He might flip in an up-and-under, but I'd force him to try. Henson instead leaves Myles Turner to snuff Collison's drive, only no one rotates to Turner. That was Bledsoe's job. I'm just not sure it had to be.
4. Patty Mills can't stop, won't stop
Mills never stops moving. Even when he is standing still, Mills vibrates with excitement about all the possibilities before him. He is always on his toes, bouncing, ready to cut to wherever San Antonio's motion-heavy offense dictates he should.
He springs into action a tick earlier than most players, and might veer suddenly off the beaten path. Sometimes, he even confuses his teammates:
Most players in Mills' spot there would amble over to Kyle Anderson and "set" some rote, ineffective pick in the corner. Mills feigns that before aborting the screen, accelerating around LaMarcus Aldridge, and zipping into an open catch-and-shoot triple. His improvisation is so abrupt, he almost collides with Anderson.
Creativity executed with vigor gains players an extra few feet -- an advantage that compounds over a full possession:
That is a classic Ginobilian move Mills might have picked up by osmosis: running toward the ball after someone passes it to you, so that you are already at full speed when you catch it. Poor Frankie Smokes has no idea what's coming. Mills turns a static situation into an open 3, just by going from 0 to 60 sooner than most would.
Mills spends only 58 percent of his time on the floor jogging or standing still, the 14th-lowest share among all rotation players, per tracking data from Second Spectrum. The guys above him -- those who approach top speed more often -- are either track star-level speedsters (Ish Smith), scampering shooters (Stephen Curry, J.J. Redick, Buddy Hield, McCollum), or smart cutters who know they have to play super hard to stay on the floor (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot).
The Spurs haven't unearthed any profound new basketball truths. A lot of their magic lies in doing the same stuff everyone else does -- running the same sets -- a little harder, and a little smarter. Mills is emblematic of that ethos.
We know what the Knicks were going for here, but that combination of letters disables the sector of my brain responsible for language cognition. My instinct is to pronounce it "uck-nick-corn," which sounds gross. When I read it, even now, my brain goes haywire and my eyes involuntarily shift to some comforting, familiar word.
Good effort, but let's toss "uknickorn" into the dustbin of bad All-Star promotional ideas.
6. Chris Paul's hook passes
The point god spent most of his time in L.A. slithering through tight crevices, with Griffin and Jordan -- and their defenders -- cluttering the paint. Paul and Griffin poked open small gaps in the defense, and used their combined playmaking brilliance to turn them into larger ones until a good shot emerged. They made it work, but it was work.
The space between Paul and the rim is cleaner now. He can let loose a bit -- dance with more elbow room, and slingshot more long-distance passes to shooters dotting every sector of the 3-point arc. Considering his height -- he can't see over defenders like LeBron -- Paul might throw the league's most daring, creative hook passes:
Anderson has barely pivoted out of his pick when Paul tosses that sucker. Paul doesn't throw it to Anderson. He throws it to a location where Anderson damn well better end up.
I can't wait to see if the fightin' Rockets can get back on track now that they are whole again.
7. David West's Benjamin Button season
West became something of a punch line when he turned down $11 million to chase a ring with the Spurs, and then ditched them after one season to join the Warriors Death Star.
He's not a punch line now. West is shooting 61 percent (!) and filling whatever gap needs filling for Golden State's weirdo second units. When Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant rest together, the Warriors squeeze out points by entering the ball into the post and having everyone else cut and screen for each other. Klay Thompson flits all over, sucking in attention wherever he goes as four high-level playmakers ping the ball around.
West fits right in as fulcrum at the elbows, delivering shoulder-check handoffs and slipping passes to cutters. He is dishing five dimes per 36 minutes, elite for a big man. Need a midrange jumper at the end of the shot clock? West has hit 53 percent of his long 2s after canning 51 percent last season. He's even canned a preposterous 65 percent of shots launched out of the floater zone between 10 and 16 feet from the basket.
He's holding his own on defense, and even staying in front of perimeter players on switches. He somehow looks faster than he did last season.
This is not to say West is invulnerable. He can't protect the rim, and he'll struggle chasing centers with 3-point range. Playoff opponents who keep an ace ball handler on the floor at all times will drag him into the pick-and-roll on every possession.
But it has been such fun watching West this season -- a proud, roaring, high-IQ veteran reveling in being needed by a champion.
8. "Is This Anything?"
You would be forgiven for ignoring the 2017-18 Orlando Magic. They're bad, injured, and not all that entertaining -- a crushing outcome after a promising 6-2 start. But you're missing out on David Steele and Jeff Turner, emerging as one of the league's best all-around announce teams.
They know the game, and they entertain without resorting to exaggerated fake-laughter or the sort of shrill homerism that infects too many League Pass broadcasts.
My favorite new touch: "Is This Anything?" -- a parlor game Steele concocted before the season. In researching each opponent, Steele has a knack for unearthing weird statistical nuggets. The production crew would debate their significance. They decided to incorporate those debates into the broadcast. They just needed a name. The rhetorical "Is This Anything?" was an inside joke in the Steele household, something Steele thinks he subconsciously lifted from David Letterman's skit of the same name.
The Magic version borrows much of Letterman's absurdism. Steele picks some tidbit -- the number of games in which Marreese Speights canned a triple within one minute of entering, Zaza Pachulia's career 0-of-26 mark from deep -- and he and Turner debate over whether it is, in fact, anything. When they are done, the production truck renders a verdict: They ring a bell if Steele has found something, or sound a "Family Feud"-style buzzer if Steele's discovery amounts to nothing.
There are no criteria, and that is part of the fun. Steele plays up a sort of deadpan, hangdog helplessness as he sits at the mercy of an inscrutable judging process. I am all for any game that stokes tongue-in-cheek tension among a broadcast crew. That kind of melodrama has made "Who Am I?" must-watch TV for years on the Nets broadcast.
"It gives us something to talk about in what is becoming another long season," Steele says.
9. Washington, with a smart counter to your smart counter
Teams defending the last possession of a quarter often switch their biggest -- and slowest -- defender out of a pick-and-roll once they see it coming. I have no idea who invented this, but I nicknamed it the Brook Lopez switch a few years ago because the Nets did it in almost every end-of-quarter situation when Lopez was on the floor.
The gambit is simple: When an opposing big goes to set a pick, a smaller defender on the wing sprints over and yanks his teammate out of the action. That leaves the defense with two like-sized perimeter guys defending the pick-and-roll -- allowing for a final, seamless switch up top.
All of that switchery creates mismatches everywhere, but with the clock approaching zero, who cares? The offense doesn't have time to exploit them.
Too many offenses see the initial Lopez switch coming, and lazily accept it without changing course. Smarter teams have quick-hitting counters. Watch what the Wiz bust out here:
Chicago Lopez-switches Nikola Mirotic out of the play, stashing him on Jodie Meeks. But Washington doesn't let Mirotic off the hook. The Wizards keep Meeks moving, and he loses Mirotic around another screen.
Mirotic is fast for a Lopez-switch candidate. Imagine if a behemoth had to chase Meeks around a pick? Leave enough time for that, and offenses have a Lopez-switch trump card.
10. Detroit's new Motor City uniforms
These are just so blah. The chrome detailing and "sleek design lines" supposedly make these jerseys "automotive-inspired," whatever that means. I kinda like the grayish-blue, but Motor City is such a cool nickname, and presents so many fun possibilities for art that actually evokes cars.
Go too far with the car theme, and you risk landing on something garish -- flames on fenders, and such. But there is a huge middle ground to explore. Here's hoping Detroit nails the next version.