Ten things as the NBA loses its mind:
1. Boogie, fitting in
Rivals hoped DeMarcus Cousins' deliberate low-post brutality would suck away some of the Golden State Warriors' run-and-gun essence -- that they might get stuck between identities.
But Cousins has always been much more than a back-it-down bully. He has fit so seamlessly into Golden State's read-and-react system, it is almost alarming. When he finishes a defensive possession high on the floor, Cousins runs hard and seals for early post-ups -- an ingredient these Warriors have never had (and one they feature more on second units). He can push the ball, and sling outlet passes.
Otherwise, he trails for open 3-pointers. In the half-court, he is a threat to do anything -- pass, shoot, drive -- from any spot on the floor. That kind of versatility is even more valuable in a big man, since he drags opposing rim protectors away from the basket -- uncluttering cutting lanes for the league's meanest cutting team.
Cousins can set nasty pindown screens, or lumber off of them. He can hold the ball in the post as cutters orbit him, or screen for one of those cutters as someone else -- Kevin Durant, Draymond Green -- quarterbacks from the block.
Does this set -- with Cousins freeing Klay Thompson while Durant posts up -- look familiar?
It should. Green and Stephen Curry love this identical action:
Golden State can toggle stars between stations as if they are figurines on a game board. How do you plan against lineups in which everyone is dangerous from everywhere?
The Warriors are obliterating teams with Cousins on the floor. They have not slowed their frenzied pace for him. There will be issues on defense, and Cousins looked awkward in the post in Thursday's loss to Philadelphia -- in which the Warriors played without Klay Thompson. Cousins will not regain peak mobility until next season. But overall, there have been zero hiccups integrating him on offense.
The Warriors still approach their truest selves -- their purest basketball nature -- when they go super-small, with Green at center and Andre Iguodala on the floor. But their new starting five gets them closer to that nirvana than perhaps any other core lineup in the Splash Brothers era.
2. I wish Jae Crowder were 10 percent better
Crowder is good. For two years now, the Utah Jazz have been way, way, way better when he plays power forward next to Rudy Gobert -- and breaks up the Gobert-Derrick Favors twin towers.
(That argument is over: Utah won't win at the highest levels playing Gobert and Favors huge minutes together, and paying them both on fat long-term contracts. That doesn't mean Favors is bad. He's good! The Jazz might not have advanced past the Clippers or Thunder over the past two postseasons without him. Utah has outscored opponents with Gobert and Favors on the floor this season. But more Favors-Gobert isn't the big-picture answer.)
Crowder is a stout, switchable defender. He can make plays against scrambled defenses when he can catch-and-go in an instant:
He just leaves you wanting a little more. He has hit 33 percent from deep, and his 40 percent mark in 2016-17 -- when he became an overrated analytics darling -- appears to have been a fluke. Almost all of Crowder's looks are wide open. His effective field goal percentage is five points lower than we'd expect based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders, per Second Spectrum -- one of the largest negative gaps among perimeter players.
Imagine he settled at, say, 38 percent? Defenses would guard him more closely, opening more room for Donovan Mitchell's stutter-stepping pick-and-rolls.
Crowder is a little too small to jostle with beastly power forwards, and not quite quick enough to chase top-flight wings.
Utah doesn't need another great player to be a great team, though of course they would happily take one. A small upgrade at the right position could have an outsize impact. That might come at point guard; Utah has engaged in talks with Memphis about Mike Conley already, and those talks may pick up steam as the weekend approaches, sources say. But Mitchell is already a pseudo-point guard. The low-hanging fruit is elsewhere. What if Utah nabbed Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Gordon or Harrison Barnes to work their version of Crowder's medium-usage power forward role -- and even play alongside him (depending on trade terms)?
3. Philly, working the foul line to make the pieces fit
There are spatial challenges to fitting together Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler -- and some delicate ego-massaging to be done. It's very possible this experiment fails. Adversity will test them. Everything is easy when you are beating up on the dregs of the Eastern Conference in January.
But most NBA experiments fail if the standard is winning the title. Even the very best teams -- other than the anomalous Warriors -- land in some imperfect intersection along the talent-fit continuum. Star talent compensates for some fit awkwardness; a snugly fitting roster goes nowhere serious without star talent. The Philadelphia 76ers are already finding ways to make sure the offense adds up to something at least approaching the sum of its parts.
One to watch: slotting Embiid at the foul line, and using him as a screener.
The principle is simple: A giant human must guard Embiid, and giant humans are not fast enough to chase Simmons. Switch, and Philly chooses between mismatches.
The Sixers have even swapped Embiid into the cutter role by sliding their pet JJ Redick-Embiid back-screen action into the middle of the floor:
Leave Redick to snuff that pass to Embiid, even for a half-second, and you're toast. Philly is now up to 110 points per 100 possessions with Embiid, Butler and Simmons on the floor -- equivalent to the league's 10th-ranked offense -- and the Sixers are a Warriors-level 114 when Redick joins them, per NBA.com. Trend lines are pointing the right way. They need depth, but the Sixers are a very good team -- a basic reality easy to miss amid all the melodrama, some of which has been self-inflicted.
Playoff opponents will see these foul-line sets coming. A few such teams have the rare sort of switchable defenders -- Al Horford, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam -- who can at least bother each Philly star. But Embiid can mow over some of those guys if he has fresh legs and time on the shot clock.
Even if you switch, the margin for error is zero. Average players need lots of space to jaunt to the rim. Stars require only teensy crevices. That's what makes them stars.
4. Devin Booker, a few feet off
One reason the Phoenix Suns could use a real point guard: Booker isn't quite an accurate enough passer to handle the job full time (not to mention that too much Point Book cannibalizes his value as an off-ball threat). A lot of his passes are a hair off -- too low for galoots, or a bit behind them:
Booker's turnovers have spiked; he ranks eighth in turnovers off of passes, per Second Spectrum tracking data -- the live-ball, pick-six cough-ups that kill you.
Every entry pass is an adventure. Booker either throws lollipops or flat ropes that almost look as if they are intended for fronting defenders.
He's hit-or-miss when dealing with pressure at the point of attack. Booker will sometimes pick his dribble up above the 3-point arc, and toss soft desperation passes to guys who were open a second earlier -- but not anymore:
This isn't a huge problem. The Suns turn the ball over less often with Booker on the floor, and Point Book lineups have outperformed most other Phoenix groups. That probably says as much about the sorry state of the roster -- riddled with injuries for the past two weeks -- as it does Booker.
He sees the right things. He knows how to manipulate defenses in mid-rotation -- how to fake the pass they expect, and skip ahead to the one they don't. He's a dynamic lefty passer who can gather the ball with either hand.
It has been hard for Booker to develop chemistry with an ever-changing cast of kiddos. He slips backdoor passes to guys who don't cut, and lobs to rim-runners who don't leap. Cohesion will come with time.
But Booker needs to work on the basics, too.
5. Rudy Gobert's All-Star snub
The first rule of snub whining: You must identify the player you would remove from the All-Star roster to make room for your chosen snub. Here goes: Gobert belongs on the Western Conference team ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson, and Russell Westbrook. This might be the worst snub in recent memory. I am honestly shocked. Coaches are supposed to value defense more than we normies. (I elaborated on this in making my picks last week.)
I had Gobert, Westbrook and Aldridge on my fake All-Star roster over Thompson. Thompson is a splendid all-around player -- the most malleable among this group, and maybe the best when he's rolling -- but he was cold for most of the season until the last two-plus weeks. Westbrook is mired in a historically bad shooting season. Aldridge is San Antonio's two-way stabilizer, but Gobert has been better given his gargantuan impact on defense.
More to the point: All four are among the 24 most deserving players league-wide, and it's not close. Why not name Gobert as Victor Oladipo's injury replacement? The answer, of course, is dumb: fealty to conferences. The league continues to divide the All-Stars evenly by conference even though it no longer divides the actual All-Star teams by conference. The NBA should scrap conference as a criteria altogether, but self-interested, wimpy Eastern Conference owners likely won't acquiesce to that. Can we at least start by doing so with injury replacements? That seems like a small ask.
Gobert deserves to go to Charlotte.
6. Dennis Schroder, Broadway star
Theater actors exaggerate gestures so people in the back can see them. A few NBA trickster-playmakers use the same showy fakery to convince defenses a certain action is coming. Schroder, a reliable source of offense on the Oklahoma City Thunder's bench units starved for it, is an NBA thespian:
He waves his arms and widens his eyes: Yes, Hamidou Diallo, approach for a dribble handoff. Right here! Now! But it's a con! The moment Patrick Beverley angles his body to dodge Diallo, Schroder crosses the other way. The melodrama works because Schroder telegraphs a typical set piece. Beverley has seen that sideline handoff thousands of times. He expects it. Schroder preys upon that expectation.
The Thunder set up for Abdel Nader -- providing solid minutes lately -- to pop off staggered screens on the left side. Schroder faces that way, as if he's preparing the scripted pass to Nader. Nope.
Something Schroder-adjacent to monitor: Over the past two weeks, the Thunder have ditched their five-man bench mobs and kept one of George and Russell Westbrook on the floor at all times. Smart move given how opponents have shredded their bench crews.
7. Something's missing in Miami
When the Miami Heat were struggling in mid-November, their coaches whispered they missed James Johnson much more than outsiders would understand. Johnson was their connector -- hyperactive, always moving, touching passes and sprinting after the airborne ball to set an instant screen.
The Heat don't have a star, and they are light on shooting. To survive, they use cascades of quick-hitting motion to open progressively larger gaps until they find a shot they like. With peak Johnson skittering around, they fit more stuff into smaller chunks of the shot clock -- more chances for the defense to make a mistake.
We just haven't seen much of that guy since his return from surgery to fix a sports hernia. The Heat are about where they should be, anyway; the emergence of Point Justise Winslow saved them.
But they need Johnson to reach their ceiling. He's still participating in the same number of pick-and-rolls and funky handoffs; he's just not as effective. Johnson's free throws and assists are way down, and he's getting fewer shots in the restricted area. He lacks his usual oomph:
The Heat have scored just 0.56 points per possession -- not a typo -- anytime Johnson shoots out of the post or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, 136th out of 139 players who have recorded at least 20 such plays, per Second Spectrum. Johnson is producing just 0.78 points per isolation -- also near the bottom of the league. Miami's efficiency on pick-and-rolls with Johnson on either end of them has cratered.
Johnson has hit a career-best 34.4 percent from deep. Combine that shooting with his normal burst, and the Heat have something.
8. The patient playmaking of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
It has been easy to sleep on Gilgeous-Alexander amid Luka Mania and all the attention on high-wattage rookie big men. He's shooting only 32 percent from deep. The LA Clippers have been better on both ends with Gilgeous-Alexander on the bench.
But sometimes you watch, and you just know. This dude is going to be good. He prods at his own pace, and gets where he wants to go.
That is some old-man savvy. The Pistons try to pin SGA on the left side. He appears to take their bait before reversing course, using a second pick, slicing middle, and clowning the defense with a gorgeous lob disguised as a floater.
He is really good at keeping help defenders guessing -- until they guess wrong:
He gets to the rim at an above-average rate for his position. Dart under picks to wall him off, and Gilgeous-Alexander bobs and weaves behind his screener until the defense gets lost. He can also rev it up, beat his guy to the other side of the pick, and extend one of his preposterous arms for a weirdo twisting layup. He's already a floater expert and solid midrange shooter.
He's going to be an absolute menace on defense.
9. Marcus Smart, apparating
Folks within the Boston Celtics boast that it's impossible to screen Smart. That's obviously not true. What is true: If someone manages to lay the wood on him, Smart's recovery speed is ludicrous.
He is a god damned phantom -- back inside your jersey before you've even processed that you are open.
Smart has been a beacon amid a strange, inconsistent Boston season. He deserves a starting spot that seemed temporary when he got it. He is one of the league's half-dozen best perimeter defenders -- and one of the only ones strong enough to stone all but the beefiest post brutes.
Almost 65 percent of Smart's shots have come from deep, up from about 45 percent in each of the past three seasons. He has hit 36.5 percent on 3s. If that holds, Smart is a different player -- and a more attractive trade chip.
He's even shooting a career-best 70 percent (!) in the restricted area, a byproduct of clever cutting for more assisted buckets from Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. I was once a semi-Marcus Smart skeptic. I worried his bricky jumper would make him a liability in the playoffs. I am here to repent. I am a believer.
10. Thwarted rebound stealers telling on themselves
Oh, no, Thomas Bryant.
Big men seeking their first big contracts have tacit permission to steal rebounds. It is always delightful when the most blatant, DeAndre Jordan-level rebound hoggery goes wrong -- when the thief knocks the ball out of bounds. That is the basketball gods exacting revenge for a small perversion of the game.
But you cannot attempt to snatch a rebound from a teammate, tantrum when that teammate has the nerve to grab a ball that bounces to him, and stop playing until coaches leap from their seats and scream for you to be a big boy and kindly continue with the basketball game.