Here are 10 things with about 10 games to go:
1. Anthony Davis, crossing you up
Four years ago, Kevin Hanson, the New Orleans Pelicans' assistant coach who has gone deepest into the player development weeds with Davis, told me about their next big challenge: coaxing Davis toward two-dribble moves.
The younger Davis was comfortable dribbling only once. He covered so much ground, he sometimes didn't need a second. But to reach his ceiling as a do-it-all force, the Pelicans knew he would have to grow as a ball-handler.
Progress has come slowly. Davis still averages less than one dribble per touch -- not unusual for a big man finisher. But when he needs to, Davis busts out stuff like this:
Holy crap -- a double-crossover. We often hear how these unicorn big men dribble like guards, and it is usually an exaggeration. This clip is literally Anthony Davis handling like a guard. I'm scared, too.
One quarter later, Davis absolutely dusted Al Horford -- the rare big man who can at least approach Davis' foot speed -- with another crossover. It was filthy. If Davis is going to start roasting guys from the arc to the basket, we might as well fold the league and earmark an MVP or three for him.
Davis has seamlessly absorbed more ball-handling responsibility since DeMarcus Cousins' season-ending injury. He has averaged about seven drives per 100 possessions in that stretch, up from about four before then, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
Davis isn't going to win MVP, and he shouldn't. This is James Harden's season. But he deserves serious consideration for both MVP runner-up and Defensive Player of the Year.
2. The tankiest bunch of tank shots that ever tanked
This is Jarell Martin, a below-average shooter on open catch-and-shoot looks, grabbing the ball at the elbow and deciding, "What the hell, I'm going dribble left and shoot this bad boy." He vomited up an even worse off-the-bounce job two minutes earlier.
This is one danger of tanking: players chasing numbers outside of any coherent system. Oh, hey, Justin Holiday:
In his defense, Holiday was chucking like this early in the season, before Zach LaVine and Nikola Mirotic returned.
There is some value in permitting young guys to try things outside their skill set. Sometimes, you discover they are more ready to do those things in games than you had thought. But most of those revelations concern skills that arise in normal NBA contexts.
Want Martin to practice his pick-and-pop 3-pointer? Fire away, big fella. He's going to need that shot -- and the pump-and-drive it unlocks -- in real games. There is almost certainly no near-term in-game context in which the Memphis Grizzlies will ask Martin to hoist jump shots off the dribble. This is not something he can apply in the future. This is just a bad shot -- a losing shot.
Martin is a power forward with power forward skills. The Grizzlies have been starting him at small forward. They have even dabbled with ultra-big lineups featuring Chandler Parsons at shooting guard. This is a real thing that has happened in real NBA games.
Rebuilding is part of sports. Playing untested young guys at the end of a lost season is part of rebuilding -- especially when a reverse-order draft, or something like it, incentivizes teams to lose. Playing triple-big lineups, and using Parsons at 2-guard, is not proper rebuilding -- not when you have plenty of point guards and wings, including a few who might matter to the 2018-19 Grizzlies.
It is baldly and simply setting yourself up to lose, and without any of the player development benefits Memphis might net from playing normal lineups that would lose anyway.
3. Deyonta Davis, learning
On the flip side, here's Deyonta Davis using extended tanking minutes to make a play that matters:
That is a crucial read for any pick-and-roll big man. It is the easiest one; Davis hits a shooter in the strong-side corner -- the closest target, in his direct line of sight. Davis will eventually have to master a boatload of more complex skills: longer passes to shooters in the weak-side corner, dump-offs, floaters, stop-and-start footwork, fake passes.
But you have to start somewhere, and this represents progress. Davis has 33 assists this season -- almost two per 36 minutes. He dished two total in 238 minutes as a rookie, a Yinka Dare (Rest in Peace) level of hoggery that would have counted as one of the lowest assists seasons ever.
4. Milos Teodosic, a little too clever
We all love Milos Teodosic for his cleverness and derring-do, but that has a downside:
Teodosic relishes the near-impossible pass. He is smart enough to know that is a low-percentage play. That is the fun of it. Only a genius could thread that needle. What is the point of sports if a genius can't fly close to the sun?
Teodosic has the idealism of Brett Favre, or the Warriors: If you don't live with a certain number of adventurous mistakes, you don't get the good stuff, either -- the ultra-creative passing sequences that generate easy looks, rile up the crowd, and inspire teammates toward a more unselfish style.
Teodosic has coughed up the ball on 20.4 percent of possessions he finishes with a shot, turnover or drawn foul -- one of the 10 highest marks in the league. Turnover rate is a noisy stat that punishes guys who don't shoot much, but 20 percent is still something of a breaking point. Teodosic could dial back the high-wire act a hair without sacrificing the spirit that makes him who he is.
5. The Cavs, going 5-out again
With Kevin Love back, the Cleveland Cavaliers can play more with LeBron James and four shooters. There is no defense for that. The Cavs don't have to run anything as complicated as a ball screen to get a dunk or an open 3-pointer. Just give the ball to LeBron, have one guy screen for someone else away from the ball, and wait to see what develops:
That play from Monday's win over Milwaukee didn't involve Love, but the concept is the same: There is no safe place from which to send help. Any rotation to the rim leaves a good shooter open. The Cavs got bucket after bucket against Toronto down the stretch Wednesday by having George Hill and Love screen for each other in the corner just like that.
An alternate version: Love and Kyle Korver have developed a beautiful off-ball screening chemistry:
That puts two defenders of different sizes in an impossible predicament. Switch, and Love has a mismatch. Stay home, and someone who needs little time and space to launch is going to get more than a little time and space.
The Cavs with Love at center are unstoppable. The only way to beat them is to outscore them. Only one team -- last season's Warriors -- has managed that in the playoffs. As I wrote last week, Love at center might be the only lineup type in the Eastern Conference with enough shooting to play Toronto's centers -- Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl -- off the floor.
That overall matchup would be fascinating. What happens if OG Anunoby quakes on the big stage? The Raps typically go with three guards when Anunoby rests. None of those guards can defend LeBron. That means a big man has to do it -- Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam. OK. Then who's guarding Love -- regardless of what position he's playing? An undersized wing or a plodding center? The answer against Love-at-center groups could be neither if Toronto plays Siakam and Ibaka together -- a tandem Dwane Casey has used more in the past two weeks, but interestingly played for less than a minute against the Cavs on Wednesday.
Looming over all of that is a larger question: Who exactly are the Cavs starting when everyone gets healthy? If I had to bet, I'd go with Hill, Rodney Hood, LeBron, Love and Larry Nance Jr. It wouldn't surprise me if Cleveland gives Tristan Thompson first crack at center, and sticks with him if he fares well. But Nance has outplayed Thompson handily since the Cavs blew up their team.
6. The Kelly Olynyk-Wayne Ellington ballet
Olynyk was a cagey screen-setter in Boston, but the Miami Heat have turned him into a hand-off ninja. Maybe all it takes is hanging around James Johnson, the league's most creative and unpredictable hand-off artist.
Olynyk delivers almost 14 hand-offs per 100 possessions, up from just nine last season, per Second Spectrum. Even more fun: he executes 7.5 quarterback-keeper-style fake hand-offs per 100 possessions, tops among all rotation players. Wayne Ellington is Olynyk's favorite running back decoy, and the two keep adding new wrinkles to their dance.
This play-action job deserves The Simpsons "yoink" sound effect:
Ellington actually looks like a running back in the way he fakes away from Olynyk, and then cuts back toward him to grab the ball and heave:
Olynyk is shooting 49 percent overall and 37 percent from deep, and the Heat have been miles better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. He changes the entire look and feel of their team. Lou Williams is a lock for Sixth Man of the Year. Eric Gordon is probably a lock for the No. 2 spot. Olynyk should be in the conversation for bronze.
7. Where Philly's size hides
A general manager once told me the value of size on defense is hidden in events that don't happen. The Philadelphia Sixers aren't incredible at limiting opponent 3-pointers, but for a young team still #Processing, they are pretty damned good. Only 30.2 percent of opponent shots have come from 3-point range, the 11th-lowest share in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
One reason: Philly is giant with Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid on the floor. Simmons and Covington are close-out artists: fast, long, and smart -- experts at running startled shooters off the arc. Against a team with normal-sized perimeter players, Bojan Bogdanovic pulls an open triple here:
Simmons snuffs that. Covington, on the verge of repeating as the NBA's deflections king, disrupts Bogdanovic's pass to Cory Joseph -- another would-be open 3 smothered. Myles Turner finally cans a catch-and-shoot bomb, but only after the Sixers force Indiana to work for it.
By the way: Philly's ginormous starting lineup remains arguably the league's best. It has outscored opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions in almost 600 minutes. Among 117 five-man lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, only six have fatter margins, and they are relevant now:
• One of Portland's go-to non-Damian Lillard second units -- C.J. McCollum, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier, Zach Collins, Ed Davis -- is plus-22 points per 100 possessions in just over 100 minutes.
• San Antonio's new non-Kawhi, small-ball starting five -- Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Slow-Mo Anderson, Danny Green, and LaMarcus Aldridge -- is plus-24 in 110 minutes.
• Utah's new closing group -- Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert -- is a gargantuan plus-30.6 in 148 minutes.
• One of Houston's non-Chris Paul groups -- James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela -- is plus-21.5 in 214 minutes. With Anderson's role shrinking, it's unclear how much we'll see that lineup type going forward.
• Minnesota's starters, with Tyus Jones in Jeff Teague's place, are plus-23.4 in 261 minutes.
• Toronto's most-trusted bench mob is plus-23.3 in 272 minutes.
And that's it. Beware a Philly team playing its best lineups even longer in the playoffs.
8. Malik Monk, stepping back
Has anyone told Monk you don't get extra points for step-back jumpers? This isn't springboard diving -- there is no degree-of-difficulty bonus.
I'm not sure I've ever seen a player -- perhaps not even young J.R. Smith, Monk's obvious NBA soulmate -- who loves step-back jumpers so much.
Dude, you just burned Mike Muscala with a pump fake, and there is plenty of time on the shot clock! You are allowed to keep driving. You might dunk! You might open up a drive-and-kick triple for a teammate! But Monk cannot resist the siren song of the step-back.
He doesn't just step-back for 3s, either. Monk will happily slide back from floater range into a long 2-pointer.
Steve Clifford has never seen anything like this. I mean, look at that entire sequence. It is glorious. Monk just kind of meanders, bobbing back and forth with zero endgame in mind beyond "shoot."
Monk has prodigious talent. A lot of teams were ready to snap him up had the Charlotte Hornets passed. He just turned 20, and has barely played in the NBA -- or in the G League, where he has strangely appeared in just one game. He doesn't understand what is happening around him yet.
Monk should grow into a good player. What he is now is not representative of what he will be in five years. But the journey from here to there is going to be interesting -- and cost his coaches some hair.
9. Jeff Teague's puppet master gear
The Minnesota Timberwolves' offense hasn't missed a beat without Jimmy Butler. (The defense is another story.) Nemanja Bjelica has fared better than expected in an unnatural wing role. Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns have thrived soaking up extra possessions. Towns has been ridiculous across the board, and Wiggins has flashed a more refined all-around game.
Teague's fits of brilliance have always tantalized and frustrated his coaches. He spaces out on defense, and coasts through entire quarters without leaving an imprint on the game. And, man, can he leave an imprint when he engages. He toyed with the Clippers in a pivotal showdown Tuesday, manipulating the whole floor on every possession, pulling the right lever every time.
He digested how DeAndre Jordan was laying back in the paint against the pick-and-roll, and concluded he could zip right by:
When Jordan girded himself for those assaults, Teague pulled up for teardrops. The Clippers surrendered, and had Jordan blitz Teague. Teague downloaded that, and exploited it. Watch him bait Jordan with a shoulder fake to his right before bolting the other way:
Can we have this Jeff Teague all the time, please?
10. Brooklyn's bridge jerseys
The Brooklyn Nets and Nike -- and Nike is starting to exercise more control over jersey designs than adidas did -- had a nice idea stitching white diagonal lines into Brooklyn's standard black jerseys to mimic the cables that run along the Brooklyn Bridge. One problem: the lines are so skinny, and so faint, you can barely see them unless you are holding the jerseys in front of your face. You can't see them on TV at all. They just look black. Using black lines atop a white jersey might have worked better.
The Nets were smart to rebrand themselves in black-and-white upon moving to Brooklyn. Their look is simple, and cool. But if every team is gouging consumers with a rotating array of alternate jerseys, the Nets should go bold and colorful with one every season. Do I have to start some covert propaganda campaign on Facebook to generate support for a Swamp Dragons night?
Their Dodgers themed gray-and-blue jerseys marked a nice start, but they've ditched those, and with gray as the primary color, they were kind of drab, anyway.
Let's get funky, Brooklyn!