It's 10 things time:
1. DeMar DeRozan, stepping in, and the Spurs' retrograde shot selection
DeRozan's dabbling in real 3-point shooting has ended, probably at the wishes of both DeRozan and his new team. Almost by organizational fiat, DeRozan launched 3.6 triples per game last season, more than double his career rate. He hit just 31 percent, but that put the value of an average DeRozan triple on par with decent midrangers. Nudge his hit rate to 35 percent, and DeRozan would be a different player.
Nope. He's back down to 1.6 triples per game, doing stuff like this:
That possession ended with Patty Mills puking up a fading 15-footer that grazed rim. Announcers applaud shooters who step inside the arc for a comfortable 20-footer. They rarely say anything when passing up that wide-open 3 leads to a garbage attempt late in the shot clock.
This is more about the Spurs than DeRozan. They are last in the portion of shots that come from 3-point range, per Cleaning the Glass. They are 29th in shots at the rim. Almost 47 percent of their shots have come from midrange, 6 percentage points higher than any other team.
There is playing to your old-school personnel, and then there is obstinance. San Antonio's shot selection isn't just the former. The Spurs' expected effective field goal percentage -- based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders -- sits at 49 percent, the lowest mark among any team over the past two seasons, per Second Spectrum.
They don't get to the line much, either. They are an average scoring team because they take care of the ball, and have hit a league-best 39.5 percent of their non-heave 3s. They could rank higher with tweaks to their shot profile. One slump, and they plummet. As things stand, their margin for error is zero -- game-to-game, and within the playoff race.
2. Luka Doncic, post-up threat
OK, this is fun:
But can Doncic do it against a player closer to his size?
He's proficient from the left block too, with a soft fadeaway for use when he can't bully his guy. The Mavs have scored 1.36 points per possession on trips featuring a Doncic post-up, sixth among 101 players who have recorded at least 15 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
If Doncic proves a real scoring threat on the block -- and he might be already -- his inside-out passing becomes a weapon for the surging Mavs. (The wackadoo Dallas bench continues to kill it. In 2035, half the earth will have melted, and 51-year-old J.J. Barea will be getting buckets on the pick-and-roll with an undersized center from Kazakhstan.)
Doncic inflicts the same sort of positional confusion on opponents as Ben Simmons. On defense, the Mavs shift Doncic around the chess board -- just as Philly does with Simmons. The Sixers do this from a position of strength; the Mavs do it mostly to hide Doncic, though he has some nominal positional flexibility. The effect is often the same: Doncic defends someone the opponent does not want defending Doncic.
If opposing defenders crisscross the court trying to find optimal matchups, they open windows the Mavs can slice through. If they don't, Doncic might have a size mismatch -- a little guy he can post, or a galoot who can't keep up with his preternatural footwork and inventiveness.
3. Jerami Grant, rounding out the Thunder
More than with most players, the league (and media) have defined Grant against his theoretical apex self. If only he could shoot 3s, he would be the ultimate switch-everything stretch power forward. Maybe just corner 3s?
The Thunder ditched that experiment last season, and transformed Grant into a rim-running center next to Patrick Patterson on bench units. He fared well, but that role put a low ceiling on Grant's playing time; Steven Adams works in the same habitat, and Grant obviously wasn't stealing any of his minutes. That was fine as long as the Thunder had a real starting power forward.
Carmelo Anthony wasn't it. They tried Patterson, but he hasn't been the same since 2015. Good thing Grant is amenable.
In Year 5, the game is starting to click for him. He's shooting 36 percent from deep on a career-high number of attempts (by far), and he's actually been much better on longer, non-corner 3s -- probably an encouraging sign. We can't assume Grant will keep hitting at that pace. We shouldn't assume otherwise, either.
Grant is playing with a new calm and feel. The bricky Thunder navigate thickets of bodies, but Grant is good at spotting narrow corridors, and slipping into them for floaters:
He still gets to screen-and-dive some, with Adams lurking under the backboard, and Grant finds him with quick-hitting interior passes.
He's more opportunistic and under control off the bounce:
His turnover rate remains minuscule -- crucial for fourth and fifth options. There is less jolting violence in Grant's game, and more fluidity. That's not as fun, but it makes for a more polished complement to the ferocity of Russell Westbrook and Adams' pointy-elbowed brutality.
Grant has rounded out the league's hottest team. Oklahoma City has outscored opponents by almost nine points per 100 possessions with Grant, Adams and Paul George on the floor.
Grant is as versatile as ever on defense. He holds up well in the post against behemoths; opponents have scored about 0.75 points per possession when they post up against Grant, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
The playoffs will be Grant's ultimate litmus test. The pace will slow. Teams will stray an extra step or two away, and dare him to shoot. If he fails early, it might test Billy Donovan's patience.
4. The Grizz, waiting you out
Teams have spent the past half-decade searching for unicorns -- the fantastical big men who hit 3s and protect the rim. Oh, to have just one.
What if you had two? Memphis might. Marc Gasol and Jaren Jackson Jr. are as interchangeable as a rookie/veteran frontcourt tandem can be. Go small against them, and either can post mismatches; Gasol is bulldozing when opponents assign their nimbler, skinnier bigs to chase him off the 3-point arc. (Jackson is scoring efficiently enough in the post, per Second Spectrum, even if it doesn't look pretty.) If Gasol wants to beast, Jackson hangs on the perimeter, waiting to shoot or shimmy inside for a precocious floater.
Drop off Gasol on the pick-and-roll, and he pops open for 3s. Hedge out to prevent that, and he slides into open space -- and into playmaking mode, with Jackson among his favorite targets:
They are long, smart and nasty. Memphis has allowed only 94.1 points per 100 possessions with the Gasol-JJJ duo on the floor, the second-stingiest mark among any duo that has logged at least 280 minutes, per NBA.com. (At the top: Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles in Denver.)
Fine: It's a little early to anoint Jackson a unicorn. He's shooting 35 percent from deep, and he has to prove his funky shot-put form can sustain even league-average accuracy. He is fouling the bejesus out of everyone, as rookie bigs do. Memphis has been a disaster when Jackson plays without Gasol, though a lot of those minutes have come with Mike Conley also on the pine.
But Jackson's two-way promise is undeniable. I would pay good money to warp time so prime Jackson and prime Gasol could share the floor.
The Grizz play with such smart purpose. Their offensive possessions meander longer than anyone's, but they aren't grinding to grind -- or even just to drag turbocharged teams down to their pace. They pick you apart, waiting for you to expose a weakness. Every possession reaches a decision point: Do we shoot now, or can we find something better?
The Grizz know when they can find something better.
Gasol reads that mismatch, and smushes Avery Bradley. Montrezl Harrell sees that, and rescues Bradley. Aimless offenses stall out there. Not Memphis. Kyle Anderson flashes for a high-low as the Clippers are in mid-switch. Anderson draws the attention of Danilo Gallinari, who isn't sure whether Bradley will toggle onto Anderson in time. In that moment, Jackson slinks behind Gallinari.
Calculated patience was as much the essence of grit-and-grind as the physicality of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Every night, every possession, Memphis makes you earn it.
5. Two Pacers, too shy
Indiana's shot selection is almost Spurs-level retrograde, and it wouldn't be all that hard to modernize. Darren Collison led the entire stinking league in 3-point accuracy last season, but he's jacking only two per game now. He takes forever to wind up, and sometimes doesn't even get that far:
This is the NBA, buddy. You don't have time to laze into your warm-up release. That trip ended with Myles Turner bonking an 18-foot turnaround, and Turner loves him some midrangers; almost 55 percent of his shots have come from between the restricted area and the 3-point arc, putting him in the 96th percentile in midrange frequency among big men, per Cleaning The Glass.
I am not an anti-midrange zealot. Turner is a good midrange shooter! There is still such a thing as a good midrange shot -- even early in the shot clock! These are the ones Turner needs to excise:
Popping to 22 feet is one of the dumbest things a screen-setter can do. If the elbow is your sweet spot, by all means, sidle down for an open 15-footer good shooters hit almost half the time. But percentages on 22-footers are very close to those on 24-footers, and the 24-footers are worth an extra point. Duh.
Blake Griffin used to love 22-footers, too. He smartened up.
6. Andre Iguodala, dropping water balloons
Is Iguodala the all-time master at the short-distance, close-quarters bounce pass -- the one that travels so little over the horizontal plane, it's almost a basketball egg drop? I love this thing:
You never know when even the chill-mode Warriors will provide one minute of basketball so sublime, it makes slogging through the other 47 worth it. Part of that is sheer talent. But part of it is their collective basketball IQ, and the sorts of plays they value. They love passing, and take a special, almost cruel pleasure in outsmarting opponents.
We don't get much peak Iguodala until April. But he appears in almost every game, for flashes, when Iguodala senses a chance to make a play the other team can't even visualize.
It usually happens in transition, or semi-transition -- in something of a scramble. Iguodala's eyes light up. He maps the floor two and three steps ahead of everyone, and spies a chance to outwit the other team. He dribbles or sprints to a particular spot, and you don't even realize why he's revved up until the thing happens -- a give-and-go, a pass to a trailer who sees the urgency in Iguodala's raised-eyebrow stare and catches onto his plan, a throwback dunk.
Lots of guys can dunk. Iguodala likes to tease, and humiliate -- to flaunt his intellectual superiority. You know he's satisfied with his work when he stares down his own bench. I love guys who do that. They want to celebrate with their teammates, not at the expense of the vanquished.
7. Crashin' Dario Saric
The analytics department in Philadelphia influences coaching decisions, so there must be sound math behind unleashing Saric to hunt offensive rebounds.
Saric is one of the sneakiest outside-in foragers in the league. Half-ass a box-out, and Saric slithers around you:
Ignore him, or assume he's too far from the basket to bother, and he'll burn you once or twice per game:
The Wolves, always hungry for offensive rebounds under Tom Thibodeau, have welcomed Saric's scavenging. In 77 minutes with Saric and Karl-Anthony Towns sharing the floor, Minnesota has inhaled 36 percent of its own misses -- a top-5-percentile figure among 1,500-plus duos that have logged at least 50 minutes, per NBA.com. (Can we please see a little more of the Saric-Towns duo, Thibs?)
Saric is one of the league's unheralded chameleons. He fills gaps wherever they are in any lineup.
The Wolves are 7-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade, with the league's No. 2-ranked defense in that stretch. Their schedule has been easy -- four wins have come against Brooklyn, Chicago, and Cleveland -- but they also beat Portland and New Orleans, and took Denver to the wire. Andrew Wiggins hasn't hit a shot in two weeks. Jeff Teague has been weirdly blah all season.
The Wolves won't sustain this level, but they have found some inner spirit after swapping Butler for Saric and Robert Covington's smothering defense.
8. Zach LaVine, lost in space
LaVine's defense doesn't look as bad as it is, but that's because our eyes gravitate to the ball. Zoom out, and you'll see more of the damage:
If you had to boil LaVine's issues into one five-second snippet, you might use this. He can't multitask; shooters who move without the ball lose him when he turns his back. This happens in the corners a lot.
It will be fascinating to see how LaVine's role changes when Lauri Markkanen returns. LaVine is still averaging almost 26 points per game and attacking the rim like gangbusters, but his shooting has fallen off a cliff from almost everywhere. He has 97 assists and 80 turnovers. He can be a big plus offensive player in a secondary role, but he'll never impact winning as much as his surface numbers suggest until he stops gifting good shooters a few easy looks every game.
9. The noble work of PJ Tucker
In a Rockets season of wild inconsistency, let's honor one of their only bulwarks: the stout drudgery of Tucker. He is logging 36 minutes per game, seventh in the league, and eight more than he did last season. No one can dislodge him in the post. He can stay in front of almost anyone on switches; his quick feet move his fire hydrant torso faster than should be possible. He is in front of you, all the time.
Tucker plays every second on high alert. He calls out opposing plays. He sniffs out your diversions.
Yeah, his guy (Otto Porter Jr.) is part of some screening action on the left side. Tucker is on it. He'll be over here, just in case. He also sees James Harden, hands on knees, guarding John Wall on the right wing, and, you know, that might be a problem, too. Wall dusts Harden, and bam: Tucker is at the rim, arms outstretched, body flying sideways -- enough of an obstacle to cause a miss without fouling.
Aside from the corner 3s upon which Tucker is feasting, there is no glamour in his work. He doesn't dunk. He doesn't snag a ton of steals or blocks. He just toils for the good of the team. With Chris Paul in and out of the lineup, Houston owes whatever coherence it has managed on defense almost entirely to Tucker (and, to a lesser extent, Clint Capela).
10. Nikola Jokic, peak D-3 tattletale
Nobody likes a tattletale, but if you're going to narc on an opposing defender hanging too long in the lane, at least add some flair:
Fans in the nosebleeds could spot Jokic waving his arm to shame officials into calling defensive three seconds. He's like a WWE referee counting some villainous coward out of the ring. (Did any wrestler actually get disqualified for an out-of-the-ring 10-count? Is that still a rule? And how long did those "10 seconds" last on average? Thirty seconds?)
Players actually do this a lot. Some shout, "Three!" Some stand and point. I respect the hustle, and Jokic's out-in-the-open, melodramatic snitching. He truly is the heir to Marc Gasol in every sense, including over-the-top reactions to what he deems officiating injustices. On multiple occasions, I have seen Gasol cross himself, bug-eyed, in denial of some offense -- declaring his innocence to the basketball gods. Jokic will outdo him someday.