Let's roll into 2019:
1. The Pacers, rock solid
Thaddeus Young's blue-collar handsiness has come to symbolize the gritty, underappreciated Pacers, but Bojan Bogdanovic might work better in this sense: He does everything pretty well. Bogdanovic is a shooter by trade, and he's lighting it up from deep. Close out hard, and he slithers into the paint with a calm and decisiveness that surprise if you hold the outdated conception of Bogdanovic as one-dimensional gunner.
Hide weaker defenders on him, and Bogdanovic can work in the post. He's a physical, smart defender; he made LeBron James earn it in last season's seven-game bloodbath against the Cavaliers.
There are no holes in his game. There are no holes anywhere on the Pacers. Every rotation player brings something on both ends. They don't have a single great passer, but everyone happily makes simple passes until they cascade into an open look.
They all compete on every possession. Superstars drive winning at the highest level, but there is power in playing good (or at least non-bad) players 100 percent of your minutes.
Myles Turner has cleaned up his timing and footwork on defense. Opponent shooting at the rim drops more than 7 percent with Turner on the floor, one of the fattest marks in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. He has improved his rebounding, though the Pacers are still vulnerable when Turner plays without Domantas Sabonis.
Turner is smarter at what coaches call ignoring the "fluff"-- sussing out when he can take half an eye off his guy to focus on the rim. You can't trick him into caring about Miles freaking Plumlee in the corner:
You can nitpick. Indiana ranks 17th in points per possession; more 3-pointers would help. The Pacers are No. 2 on the other end, but they might be getting a little lucky. Only the Bucks yield more 3s as a portion of opponent shots. No team has allowed a lower hit rate on midrange jumpers. Indiana opponents have an effective field-goal mark 2 percent below what we would expect based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders -- the league's second-largest negative differential, per Second Spectrum.
They won't have the best player against Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee or Toronto. (It would be close between Kyrie Irving and last season's Victor Oladipo, but Irving can carry an offense in a way Oladipo can't quite manage. Oladipo hasn't yet found last season's All-NBA level.)
But these guys are damned good. They have a lot to do with those low opponent shooting percentages. They give absolutely no quarter.
2. The James Harden-Clint Capela long-distance two-man game
The Rockets are back in position to host a playoff series after the best stretch of Harden's career. Harden is averaging 42 points (!) per game since Chris Paul's latest hamstring injury. He is up to 33.6 for the season, on pace for the highest scoring average since Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. This is prime Michael Jordan territory.
Houston is at its best when Harden mixes up his attack. A personal favorite: his long-distance handoff partnership with Capela.
Eric Gordon slinks away here, but Harden will often use the guy in Gordon's spot to dislodge his defender before meeting Capela. That setup gets Harden going full speed before he gets the ball, and Harden at full speed is unguardable.
When defenders overplay that handoff, Harden slices backdoor. Capela knows what to do from there:
Capela has amped up his play, too. He's back to inhaling defensive rebounds, and Houston has taken baby steps toward plugging early season leaks on the glass.
Their rotation has come together; the Rockets are actually outscoring teams when Harden sits, including in this stretch without Paul, per NBA.com. Nene Hilario has stabilized the center spot. Gerald Green is hitting high-wire 3s again. Danuel House Jr. fits right in. Austin Rivers fills a void.
Everything comes back to Harden. Houston could build an efficient offense around endless Harden isolations. The degree to which he owns the step-back 3 is absurd. Harden has drained 100 step-backs this season, per Second Spectrum. Luka Doncic is second -- with 28.
You get the feeling Harden would be cool launching 30 of those bad boys every game. But predictable one-on-one ball won't work against elite defenses. He has been more diligent of late toggling between strategies.
You might not like Harden's style -- the flopping, hooking and ref-baiting -- but with another eruption Thursday in Oakland, he might have overtaken Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James as MVP favorite. (Also up there: Joel Embiid, who is laying waste to everything in sight. We'll get to him next week.)
3. The Knicks can't stop, won't stop anyone
If it weren't for this season's Cavs, the Knicks would be flirting with ignominy -- on pace to threaten the record for most points allowed per possession. New York has allowed 113.5 points per 100 possessions; no prior team in the NBA's public database (which dates to 1996-97) has ever been worse. Ditto for Basketball-Reference's accounting, which encompasses all of NBA history.
Using points per possession is unkind to the Kazoos. Offense is way up leaguewide; in relative terms, the 2008-09 Kings and 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats (of 7-59 infamy) were more porous than New York. (Such adjustments do not save the present-day Cavaliers, a full two points behind the Knicks.)
New York's centers -- Enes Kanter and the scorching Luke Kornet -- need airtight perimeter defense in front of them, and New York's guards and wings, umm, don't provide that. Frank Ntilikina has slipped a hair on that end. Damyean Dotson can get out of whack away from the ball. Courtney Lee has barely played. The rest disintegrate at the mere sight of a pick.
Once opposing ball handlers dribble into daylight, Kanter and Kornet do nothing to impede them.
Small-ball units with Noah Vonleh at center have been stingy, but it's unclear if that would sustain over heavy minutes. Mitchell Robinson intrigues; he's second in block rate, barely behind Turner, with an old-school knack for keeping swats inbounds. He also fouls any nearby entity, in part because he is only learning the footwork and angles of NBA defense:
He'll get better. Kristaps Porzingis looms. But the Knicks need perimeter defenders who offer some resistance.
4. Dirk, forever
Yeah, coldhearted analyst guy, Dirk Nowitzki doesn't look right. And, yeah, his return kinda disrupted a bench rotation that had been humming. That matters for a Mavs team semi-unexpectedly hanging in the playoff race.
How can you care when every Dirk second tingles with the possibility of a legend turning back time?
Look at where that ball embeds into the backboard:
Close your eyes, and you can see Nowitzki and Jason Terry working that exact two-man action in that exact spot, drawing a switch so that Nowitzki can dance with a wing. If you're lucky, you might catch Nowitzki glance at the opposite shot clock -- one of my favorite Dirk quirks, executed most often with his back to the basket at the center of the foul line -- as he decides which move to use. That look tells everyone: "I got this."
You have to guard him closely, at 40. You still have to bend your pick-and-roll defense to account for him. His shooting has picked up this week.
Twenty years after his debut, we are still waiting for someone so tall who can shoot like this, from every place in the floor, out of every action.
We have only so many Dirk games left -- so many wrong-way leaners that somehow go in, and one-legged fadeaways so soft, the ball almost rolls down the backboard. Cherish every one.
5. The Bulls have built a time machine and are using it for evil
As Jim Boylen often says, he worked for Gregg Popovich and Rudy Tomjanovich. You don't get to those places without knowing the game, and how to coach it.
I just don't really get what he is trying to prove turning the Bulls into a slow-it-down post-up machine.
The Bulls under Boylen are averaging almost 14.5 post-ups per 100 possessions -- up from nine under Fred Hoiberg, per Second Spectrum. That increase is proportionally even larger, since Boylen has the Bulls crawling.
Boylen argues playing inside-out allows Chicago to control pace, limit turnovers, and force opponents to play against its set defense. That sounds like a thing. Chicago just doesn't have the personnel to, like, do it. Popovich and Tomjanovich had Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. The 2018-19 Bulls have ... other players.
Since Boylen took over, only Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge have posted up more often per possession than Robin Lopez, according to Second Spectrum. I love Robin Lopez. He revels in the dirty work that wins. His hardwood-scraping, floor-to-ceiling ice-cream-scoop hook is a little piece of hoops art.
There is just no universe in which Lopez should be posting up this much.
Lopez has no meaningful size advantage over Greg Monroe. He's not going to draw a hard double-team.
Did the Bulls really draft Wendell Carter Jr. to do this?
The Bulls have scored 0.65 points per possession anytime Carter shoots out of a post-up, or passes to a teammate who lets fly -- fourth lowest among 119 guys who have recorded at least 10 post-ups, per Second Spectrum. Just ahead of him at 0.67 apiece: Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis.
Chicago has been the league's least efficient post-up team under Boylen. They are taking more midrange jumpers. They are last in free throw rate, and 29th in turnover rate. (Prioritizing ball security and somehow almost leading the league in turnover rate almost makes me think the Bulls are embarking on some Joaquin Phoenix-style meta public art spectacle.) They have the NBA's worst offense in that span by a margin so wide it looks like a glitch. The best way to force opponents into playing against your set defense is to score!
Their defense has been better. I'm not sure you can connect A-to-B so clearly. Many of the Bulls' best defensive games over the past month have come against bad offensive teams, opponents missing star players -- or both (hi, Wizards).
There is really no evidence that shooting 3s -- and especially non-corner 3s -- leads to any increase in opponent transition points. Plenty of teams manage to quash fast breaks and limit turnovers while playing modern-style offenses.
Boylen doesn't think the Bulls are ready to do both. There is value in establishing effort and defense as baseline thresholds for playing time. But you can prioritize those things while still building the kind of offense Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Markkanen and Carter will need to play -- and want to play -- when it comes time to contend for the playoffs.
6. Al Horford's on-and-off creakiness
Measures of Horford's speed, acceleration and distance traveled look almost identical to last season's, per Second Spectrum. But the eye test reveals a little creakiness changing directions in tight spaces:
That -- from last Saturday in Memphis -- looks 10 percent more laborious than peak Horford; it was his fourth game back after seven games off to rest his knee.
That ultramobile Horford appears here and there; he got up for Boston's Christmas showdown against Philly, and looked frisky jostling with Towns on Wednesday. Perhaps he's just rounding into form. The Celtics will need that Horford full time in the postseason.
7. Josh Okogie, not creaky
I'm not an Okogie true believer like the Minnesota fans demanding he play a major role now. He can't shoot, and his so-so dribbling makes it hard for him to work as a secondary creator.
But I get what those fans are seeing: Okogie is a physical beast in ways both obvious -- stout build, manic approach to loose balls and rebounding scrums -- and subtle. Check out the deceleration and balance:
Okogie goes full blast at Marco Belinelli and girds himself to leap at a potential 3-pointer like a gymnast approaching the vault. Belinelli thinks better of it, perhaps unnerved by the cinder block with limbs running full bore at him. Okogie just ... stops. He doesn't fly by, or smash into Belinelli. Almost every defender changing speeds at these extremes would teeter at least a hair off-kilter, and allow Belinelli an easy blow-by. Okogie stones him.
He does three or four crazy things like this every game he plays -- which has been a lot of late, given Minnesota's injury issues. (Props to Tyus Jones proving -- again -- filling in for both Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose that he deserves a real role somewhere. Also: Has any allegedly high-end starter had as forgettable a season as Teague? He made an All-Star team three-plus years ago, and now you barely notice him.)
8. Steven Adams, little-by-little
Adams has never made the kind of one-year mega-leap that generates Most Improved Player buzz. He just gets a little better at everything, every season. He has quietly transformed as a player without transforming the fundamental nature of his game. We should do more to acknowledge that sort of gradual improvement -- the product of unceasing, almost tedious work.
Adams is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, steals and assists. The Thunder fall apart on the glass when he sits. (Adams playing most of his minutes with Russell Westbrook -- the league's best rebounding guard -- infects those splits, but Adams' presence is the more important bellwether.) He's turning the ball over and fouling at career-low rates.
His floater is money. Adams is posting up more than twice as often as last season, but he has sacrificed nothing in efficiency; the Thunder have scored 1.12 points per possession anytime Adams shoots out of the post, or passes to someone who shoots right away -- 20th among 119 guys who have recorded at least 20 post-ups, per Second Spectrum data.
The Thunder ask a lot of Adams on defense -- perhaps too much given his size and so-so athleticism. But he dutifully blitzes pick-and-rolls as the point man in Oklahoma City's frantic, turnover-forcing assault. He never takes possessions off.
In return, he asks for nothing. He doesn't even care that playing alongside Westbrook has left him with a career defensive rebounding rate barely above that of Andrea Bargnani.
The Thunder just don't work the same way, on either end, without him.
9. T.J. Warren, off one leg
Behold perhaps the league's prettiest one-legged runner:
Warren's newfound 3-point shooting -- and willingness to play power forward -- has changed his career trajectory, but at heart, he's always going to be a buttery throwback midrange scorer.
Fun thing: Phoenix has scored 1.21 points per possession on any trip featuring a Warren pick-and-roll, sixth in the entire stinking league among 182 guys who have run at least 75 such plays, per Second Spectrum. (Ahead of him: Joe Harris, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Holiday, Ben Simmons, and Nikola Jokic. The Jokic-Jamal Murray inverted pick-and-roll in semi-transition is killing teams.)
A lot of that production comes directly from Warren; only 23 percent of his pick-and-rolls have led to shots from teammates one pass away, the fourth-lowest rate among those same players. (The chuckers ahead of him: Kevin Knox, Otto Porter Jr., and the shameless Antonio Blakeney. Right behind him: Andrew Wiggins.)
Give Warren this: He knows who he is. Tighten up on defense, and he could play big minutes on a good team.
10. 'Giant killer'
This is one of my favorite basketball phrases: "giant killer" as nickname for floaters little guys loft over larger humans. It's perfect: short, and more evocative than "teardrop." It is not connected to any one player or announcer; it transcends those things. It's violent but not in a way that references guns or postbiblical warfare.
It also somehow sounds less cliched than other basketball truisms like "mouse in the house," "taking [Player X] down to the weight room," and others. Brevity cuts against banality.
What other basketball phrases fall into this template?