Ten NBA things I like and don't like, including the Spurs' new threat

Lowe calls for Jokic to keep shooting, Knicks to roll the dice (2:14)

Nikola Jokic's and LaMarcus Aldridge's newfound abilities highlight what Zach Lowe likes this week, while the Knicks' questionable lineups are a dislike. (2:14)

A special "8 things" edition with a supersized Item One:

1. Welcome to the 3-point era, LaMarcus Aldridge!

Turns out, the perception that Gregg Popovich -- increasingly cantankerous about the tyranny of 3s -- hemmed in Aldridge was incorrect. After last season, Popovich approached Aldridge and suggested the team would need him to shoot more 3s, Aldridge told ESPN.com.

The Spurs ranked sixth in points per possession last season, largely on the back of incredible shooting that helped them overcome retrograde shot selection. A small slump, and they would lose their uphill battle against math.

Aldridge amped up his 3-point reps over the summer. And then the season started, and Aldridge barely tried any. The Spurs' shooting indeed fell a bit shy of last season's levels. In mid-December, Popovich met with Aldridge again. It was time, the coach said.

"We had a couple of bad shooting games, and Pop came to me and said, 'I think you need to start shooting it to open up the floor,'" Aldridge said. "It would give DeMar [DeRozan] more room. So I just started doing it."

For reasons Aldridge can't quite explain, he felt ready. He knows the transition came more slowly than fans hoped -- slower than for Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, and Brook Lopez.

"It has taken me longer than those guys," Aldridge said. "I just had to do it my way." Part of that involves taking the occasional off-the-dribble 3 -- including a few step-backs. Aldridge just likes that rhythm dribble. Popovich doesn't mind. "He's letting me shoot them my way," Aldridge said.

Before Dec. 23, Aldridge averaged 1.7 3-point attempts per game. On that night against Memphis, he went 3-of-5. He has jacked 4.7 per game since. The exchange has come almost entirely out of midrange shots. Aldridge has hit a career-best 43% on 3s. He is literally one of the best 3-point shooters in the league right now. Welcome to the party, pal!

Popovich has never urged him to chill with the 3s. "He's been on the other side of the spectrum," Aldridge said. "'You should have taken 10. Take 11.'"

The Spurs rank second in points per possession since that Dec. 23 game. They have outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge and DeRozan on the floor over those 15 games, reversing a season-plus of data pointing the other direction.

DeRozan has feasted in open space. He just concluded a streak of 13 games in which he scored at least 20 points on 50% or better shooting. (He still mostly refuses 3s, and even when he tries, he often has a toe on the line. It's almost as if he's doing a bit, only it's more infuriating than funny.) With Aldridge willing to spot up in the corner, DeRozan has taken to running pick-and-rolls with Bryn Forbes and other guards -- daring the opposition to switch a smaller player onto him. If they trap or hedge, DeRozan knifes through crevices and saunters to the rim with no big man help defender in sight.

"I'm gonna start taxing DeMar for all these open lanes," Aldridge chuckled.

Opponents are already switching the DeRozan-Aldridge pick-and-roll more often, rather than allowing Aldridge to flare out for uncontested 3s. Both are exploiting the resulting mismatches.

Every ball handler has noticed the improved spacing.

"It helps me for sure," Dejounte Murray told ESPN.com. "It was just a matter of [Aldridge] feeling comfortable. He's the player. No one else can speak for how comfortable he is."

It seems to be rubbing off on Murray. He has canned 14 3s since Dec. 16 after making only 23 in his career to that point. If Murray can hit jumpers, Popovich might entrust him with more ballhandling. "Hopefully I have freedom to do more," he said.

The change required minimal redesign. That was what grated about Aldridge's stagnancy: San Antonio's offense organically produced chances for Aldridge to launch -- pick-and-pops, trail 3s, natural clearouts to the corner when DeRozan drove. Aldridge would either stop a foot short of the line, or step inside it.

"I had to reprogram my mind: 'Don't take that step in,'" Aldridge said. "'Space to the 3. Don't trail inside for a 2.'"

Aldridge becoming a deep threat might reopen the possibility of him and Jakob Poeltl playing together -- something that could stabilize San Antonio's 23rd-ranked defense. Popovich has largely mothballed that look after using it a lot last season. "The floor was too clogged," Aldridge said. "But [shooting 3s] could help us play bigger."

Outside of a Jan. 12 game against Toronto, Popovich has kept the double-big look on ice. It requires Aldridge to defend power forwards, and he might not be up for that anymore. He has lost a half-step, something that shows up in his decreased free throws and offensive rebounds. Shooting more 3s is also a concession to aging.

Regardless, it helps San Antonio's offense. Aldridge doesn't plan to stop. He's from Texas. He chose the Spurs. He does not want to be on the San Antonio team that busts the franchise's 22-year playoff streak -- especially with Popovich and Tim Duncan, the living embodiments of that streak, watching from the sidelines.

"You never want to be the one that ends the legacy," Aldridge said.

2. A moment for Derrick Favors

As Zion Mania overtakes us, let's take a moment to appreciate Favors' work holding together New Orleans when he has been available. He's shooting a career-best 63%, and blowing away prior high-water marks in rebounding. He has been a steadying presence on both ends.

He has flashed nimble pitter-pat footwork and midair body control in finishing on the pick-and-roll:

That is straight-up balletic, big fella! Patience and balance have helped Favors avoid offensive fouls. He has hit a very nice 46% on shots between 3 and 10 feet from the rim, per Basketball-Reference.

New Orleans has scored 1.105 points per possession on any trip featuring a Favors ball screen, a solid number, and they have rarely turned the ball over on such plays, per Second Spectrum. The Brandon Ingram-Favors combo has been deadly: 1.174 points per possession.

Favors hasn't been airtight on defense -- opponents have hit 65% of shots at the rim with Favors nearby -- but the Pelicans' shell is harder to penetrate when he's on the floor; opponents generate many fewer attempts in the restricted area when Favors plays, per Cleaning The Glass.

3. New York veteran frontcourt fatigue

Nothing against any of these guys. Taj Gibson is a grinder and a beloved teammate. He's on fire right now. Julius Randle's offense has perked up over the last month. He just turned 25, so New York's brass can reasonably argue he is part of its young core. The mismatched Randle-Mitchell Robinson pairing has been a slight net-plus over the past five weeks.

Marcus Morris Sr. has been New York's best player. Bobby Portis is ... confident? So there's that.

As a nonpartisan viewer, I'm just ready to turn the page. Like, why is Gibson starting at center? The Knicks are 12-33. Isn't it long past time to throw Robinson into the deep end, even if the fit with Randle -- who needs to play some center -- isn't ideal? Kevin Knox II has been a disaster, but it would be nice to get at least a glance of him as a small-ball power forward.

As one of the original squatters on Julius Randle Hill, I must note that Randle should spend the second half of the season reorienting his game toward winning -- instead of chasing iso-tastic buckets and ramming into walls of defenders.

He has to pass more, and earlier, and prove he can defend one frontcourt position. He might have a better chance at center, despite size issues. He has shown the ability to switch and provide some rim protection when he really tries.

His lack of feel can be exposed more when he's guarding stretch power forwards:

Randle rotates into the paint way too late; he's still leaning there when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's kickout pass is most of the way to Kyle Kuzma -- Randle's assignment. Randle needs to help-and-recover with precision timing. He's too bulky to gather his momentum and change directions late.

Alas, he has fared no better patrolling the middle this season. Opponents have hit almost 66% of attempts at the rim with Randle nearby, one of the highest (i.e., worst) figures among rotation big men. Ball handlers flummox Randle with hesitation moves and pass fakes. He just apparates right out of driving lanes:

The Knicks might want to try switching with Randle when he's guarding screeners, provided the mismatch on the other end of that switch isn't too severe.

4. Nikola Jokic is back -- with moonballs!

Over October and early November, Jokic was averaging around eight post touches per 100 possessions, a sharp decline from last season, per Second Spectrum. Entire halves passed without Jokic demanding the ball on the block, where he presents a bulldozing mismatch for most normal-sized centers. Jokic also happens to be the best inside-out (and outside-in, and sideways, and backward) passing big in the league, and maybe the best ever. His passivity was a problem.

Not anymore. Jokic over the last month is averaging almost 18 post touches per 100 possessions, by far the most in the league. The Nuggets are mauling teams when he gets the ball down there: a hilarious 1.339 points per possession on any trip since Jan. 1 featuring a Jokic post touch, a mark that would rank third for the season among players who have recorded at least 100 post-ups, per Second Spectrum. (The top two? Nemanja Bjelica and -- gulp -- LeBron James.)

He is also experimenting with whatever you'd like to call this one-footed ceiling-scraper:

That is delightful, and so Jokic. We tend to laugh at bloopers. I'm not sure any player has made me cackle at good plays as often as Jokic. He is shooting only about 40% on long 2s, so it's not as if this warped Nowitzki shot is going in all that often. I don't care. It's awesome, and if a few missed moonballs are the price of Jokic posting more, I'm all for it.

5. Keep an eye on Montrezl Harrell's rebounding

File this away if you're looking for vulnerabilities within the Clippers: Their defensive rebounding sinks to almost league-worst levels with Harrell on the floor, per NBA.com. It's unclear exactly why that is happening, how much is on Harrell, and whether the problem will persist once LA plays its best lineups again.

For one, Harrell leads the league in boxouts, per NBA.com. He's not shirking duties. The problem might be what happens after the boxout. Our friends at Second Spectrum can estimate how likely a player is to grab a rebound based on his location when the shot goes up. Harrell fares quite well there; he burrows for deep position early.

Second Spectrum also has more sophisticated metrics that measure how much players improve those chances while the shot is airborne, and how many rebounds above or below expectations they get based on their starting location.

Harrell ranks toward the bottom of the league in those measures. (In one, he is somewhere below the first percentile among all players.) The very best rebounders can box out and go up to get rebounds. Harrell appears to be able to do the first, but not the second. Against bigger centers -- and when he gets tired -- Harrell sometimes struggles to hold those boxouts:

None of this makes Harrell a bad rebounder. The Clippers might just need a great one at his position. Harrell tends to play in smaller lineups that include Lou Williams, who does not exactly clean the glass.

Harrell is only 6-foot-7, so it's not shocking he might have trouble holding 7-footers at bay. Again: He's doing his best. The dude exudes fight

I'm not sure what the fix is, or if there needs to be one. In an encouraging sign, lineups featuring Harrell, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George -- aka, the lineups that really matter -- have rebounded at about a league-average level.

Ivica Zubac is stout on the glass; maybe Doc Rivers could play him in crunch time more when the Clippers are ahead -- provided he can survive on defense. The Clippers have trade assets and an urgent motivation to make a deal now, but upgrading at center does not seem like their most pressing need. Perhaps they disagree.

6. When youth forgets to respect its elders, Part II

The first part of this two-part series ran in this space last week, and featured Jordan Poole -- a rookie -- dangling the ball in front of Kawhi Leonard like a fool.

Here is Part II: PJ Washington learning the hard way that being larger than Kyle Lowry doesn't mean you should try this fire hydrant with arms in the post.

Even veterans forget: You can't move Lowry.

Opponents are scoring just 0.89 points per possession on any trip in which they attempt to post Lowry, per Second Spectrum. A full 24% of those post-ups have ended in turnovers -- the seventh-highest forced cough-up rate among 230 players who have defended at least 20 post-ups.

Lowry's numbers defending post-ups have been stellar for years. Unless you are, like, a foot taller than Lowry and bring polished back-to-the-basket skills, don't bother. You might as well hand him the ball and get back on defense.

7. Cleveland's horrid transition defense

The Cavs are a perfect storm of horrific transition defense: young guards who attack the rim, fall down when they miss, and don't yet know how to communicate scrambling back; corner shooters who slump their shoulders when those same guards don't pass them the ball; guys so thirsty for offensive rebounds, they run in from the 3-point arc to chase them in vain; and veteran big men who, let's say, aren't super-motivated to bust ass for a crappy team. Some players fall into two or three of those categories.

The end product is a lot of this:

Cleveland gives up the most transition chances in the league, and the highest points per possession on those transition chances. That double is so terrible -- requiring so much sloth and incompetence -- I almost admire it. It takes real commitment to be this bad at getting back on defense.

When they do retreat on time -- when the odds are almost even -- they turn ho-hum semi-transition situations into full-on emergencies with bad gambles and dumb decisions.

8. Daniel Theis, sealing off the world

Theis has been obliterating opposing centers with subtle seals at the end of Boston pick-and-rolls:

A few teams -- including the Celtics -- refer to this as "the Gortat," in honor of Marcin Gortat, one of the slyest and meanest screeners in recent league history.

Boston's coaching staff has worked hard teaching Theis how to do this without fouling: arms spread wide, butt out, hold as stationary as possible. Theis can get a little handsy -- including at the end of that play above from Boston's recent obliteration of the Lakers -- but he has kept it clean enough. Boston's ball handlers are slicing through the lanes Theis pries open.

There has been speculation since the summer about Boston upgrading at center. They are really good, and a small boost could have the sort of compound effect that catapults the Celtics into the inner circle of contenders.

But for months, I've been asking: Who and how? Any deal for a big-money center would almost have to involve Marcus Smart -- or another member of Boston's five-man perimeter core -- and I'd be surprised if Boston thought any available big-money center was enough of an upgrade over the Theis/Enes Kanter/Grant Williams pu-pu platter to justify sacrificing Smart.

(You could build some interesting deals with Gordon Hayward, but a) trading a star free-agency acquisition who had a traumatic leg injury, and who played for Brad Stevens in college, might be a look the Celtics wish to avoid; b) he has been great this season; and c) his player option for next season presents issues for teams who might be interested.)

Theis does all the dirty work. He doesn't care about points or touches -- precisely the sort of center you need on a team overflowing with talented perimeter players who do care about points and touches.

He battles on defense, and has made enough jumpers -- long 2s and 3s -- to keep defenses honest. Boston's starting five (featuring Theis) has outscored opponents by almost 17 points per 100 possessions -- sixth among lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com.

The wild card in Boston's center equation is Robert Williams III, who has been out since early December. He brings a vertical threat unique among Boston's centers -- on both ends. He has surprising feel and touch as a passer. It's a shame his injury has cost Boston a chance to groom him for the postseason, or at least see what they have. There's still time.