Lowe's 10 things: Uber-LeBron, Celtics unis and future All-Star Games
Let’s roll with our last batch of an eventful February:
1. The new All-Star Game
I’m not sure the new method of picking teams caused players to try harder. Any dramatic formatting change would have thrown into stark relief how unwatchable the game had become — and shamed them into effort.
But this one worked, and the NBA should stick with it. The effort level didn’t represent a sea change. Player still loafed for stretches, launched nutty 3s, and chased highlights they’d never chase in real games. Both teams finished in the 140s. One dude asked out of the game after hoarding a coveted spot, butting out deserving guys who happily would have taken his place.
But we weren’t asking for a sea change. No one expects NBA Finals-level intensity. Just play within a vague structure that resembles basketball, and turn it on in the last five minutes. With the talent on hand, that is all players need to do for the game to be fun again.
And it was fun! Teams ran honest-to-the-basketball-gods plays we’d see in regular-season games! They tinkered with lineups, hunted mismatches, and scrambled on defense in crunch time. It was cool to see old teammates reunited, and current teammates pitted against each other — right to the buzzer, when Kevin Durant and LeBron James smothered Stephen Curry. (Kevin Love, probably: “What’s the big deal? I did that all by myself!”) It will be even better next season when the league almost certainly televises the draft.
A lot of us were hard on the league for conducting the draft over private conference call. It was dumb, and everyone knows it. But we might have been a little too hard on them. This is a strange, bold move, and if the NBA wanted one season to gauge everyone’s comfort level, missing out on one draft won’t be such a bad price to pay — provided the league and union agree to televise it next year.
Seeing the draft will also make it easier to remember, in real time, why each player is on each team. The old East-West format at least united the teams under some easy-to-understand banner. That was the one drawback to Sunday’s game: As players shifted on and off the floor, I kept saying to myself, “Oh yeah, that guy’s on the white team!”
Maybe seeing them get drafted, and hearing why the captains pick each player — and seeing their reactions — will help the teams feel a little more coherent.
Overall, a huge thumbs-up.
2. Conference-based injury replacements
It’s fine (for now) if the NBA sticks with tradition in using the conferences as dividing lines in the initial selection of All-Stars. Introducing too much change at once can overwhelm interested parties, and short-circuit the reform process altogether. Inertia is powerful.
How about we ease toward the ultimate conference-less endgame this way: ditch conference affiliation as a criteria for injury replacements. Having captains divide up the 24 All-Stars is step one in de-emphasizing conferences. This is a natural step two.
As one Eastern Conference All-Star after another went down, it seemed silly to dig deeper into the East player pool while Chris Paul — the second-best player on the team with the league’s best record — was sitting right there.
3. When LeBron goes fast
For a turbocharged, uber-athletic player, LeBron has always preferred slowing down in the half court. He likes to scan the floor, evaluate dozens of options in a couple of seconds, and then execute his chosen plan of attack.
That’s fine. LeBron can do whatever the hell he wants. He can execute almost anything, against any matchup, and almost always makes the right choice. He remains one of the league’s deadliest one-on-one players, on both post-ups and isolations from the perimeter, per NBA.com.
But sometimes — and especially when LeBron manufactures a mismatch — you just want him to get on with it before the defense can gird itself for the coming assault. What are you supposed to do against this?
LeBron drags poor little Alex Abrines onto him after a switch, and spin-o-ramas to the bucket with 19 seconds on the shot clock — before Steven Adams has reached the paint, and before any other Thunder player realizes they are facing an emergency at the rim.
4. Ball handlers who keep going
Speaking of moving fast: What CJ McCollum does at the end of this possession is one of the most potent tricks any lead ball handler can learn — and one of the easiest to execute.
McCollum gains enough headway on that second pick-and-roll that the two defenders corralling him — Abdel Nader from behind, Daniel Theis near the rim — end up just short of formally switching assignments before McCollum dumps the ball to Zach Collins.
That exact thing happens a lot. The two defenders in that situation often get confused as to who becomes responsible for the ball handler after that kickout pass. Sometimes, each defender thinks the other will chase the guy in McCollum’s spot.
The worst thing McCollum can do is loiter under the rim. If he just moves — anywhere, really — he can leverage that confusion against the defense, and perhaps spring into a void with no one trailing him. And if the big man — Theis — takes him, McCollum can just run the galoot ragged. The most convenient place to go: the near corner.
Smart guards get open looks this way all the time. They slide over a few feet, unguarded, as the defense follows the ball. Stephen Curry mastered this. Kyle Lowry, forever bouncing on his toes, is really good at it, too. John Wall is a loiterer, and transforms himself into a stationary nonthreat.
Seriously: This is the low-hanging fruit of point guard play. Just keep moving, and good things will happen!
5. Cranky Marc Gasol
I’m not sure whether this is a like or a dislike, because Gasol’s persnickety perfectionism can be charming. But I’m a little worried he might descend into madness losing games surrounded by young guys learning their way. Watch Gasol’s reaction after Dillon Brooks ignores Gasol pointing and screaming for him to switch onto Myles Turner popping for 3:
Poor guy is like a frustrated parent. Gasol has talked before about embracing a more positive, huggy style of leadership. That is a day-to-day challenge for him.
Gasol needs this season to end so he can go to Spain, sip some wine, and wait for Mike Conley to get healthy — and for Memphis to add a high draft pick.
6. The Bucks, loading up when Giannis sits
Giannis Antetokounmpo might be flying a little under the radar in the MVP discussion. (Note to would-be joke tellers: Saying his last name really isn’t that hard, and riffing on it peaked about five years ago.) He’s second in the league in scoring, and a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It’s plausible to argue he should be co-favorite with James Harden, even though the Bucks are 12 games behind Houston.
It’s not Antetokounmpo’s fault the Bucks have been a disaster whenever he hits the bench. Milwaukee has outscored opponents by almost six points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor. Those same opponents have blitzed Milwaukee by 10 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo rests. No team has an overall scoring margin that bad.
With Jabari Parker back, the Bucks might have a remedy: playing all three of Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Parker during those precarious non-Freaky minutes. If that isn’t enough to reverse the trend, there might be no solution beyond dread and acceptance.
The results so far are underwhelming in a tiny sample size: The Bucks are plus-1 in 48 minutes that trio has logged without Antetokounmpo, and their defense has bled points. But neutrality counts as progress here.
Parker has looked comfortable guarding his own man and switching across multiple positions, but team defense remains beyond him. He has trouble multitasking, and digesting rotations. If he has to make a snap decision — go here or there? — he usually makes the wrong one:
But he should improve with time and health, and these three have the collective firepower to at least sustain Milwaukee’s offense while Antetokounmpo rests. Parker has run some tidy pick-and-rolls around the foul line with Milwaukee’s centers. Bledsoe and Middleton work a nice two-man game, and Middleton has sizzled lofting midrangers over smaller guys after switches. Parker’s post game against similar mismatches is still a little rushed and out of control, but it should come.
Joe Prunty is smart to try this.
7. Is OG Anunoby ready for this?
The one alarm beeping in the background during Toronto’s dominant — yes, dominant — ascendancy to the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference: Anunoby’s 3-point shooting has collapsed, chipping away at perhaps the weakest spot on Toronto’s contender résumé.
Anunoby is 13-of-59 from deep — about 22 percent — over his past two months. He has started pump-faking his way out of open looks, and he doesn’t have the off-the-bounce chops yet to restart the offense with a slicing drive against set defenses. Anunoby hesitating just stalls out possessions.
The Raptors cannot afford any slippage in 3-point shooting, or at the small forward spot — their shakiest position even though DeMar DeRozan has sopped up minutes there in killer three-guard lineups. The Raptors have hit 35.7 percent from deep, just below the league average. Serge Ibaka checks in a hair below that mark, and DeRozan, even amid an unprecedented 3-point boom for him, is still at just 33 percent. The bench shooting is shaky beyond the revelatory Fred VanVleet and the audacious C.J. Kilometres.
Among those bench guys: Norman Powell, presumed starting small forward turned 11th man who doesn’t play on some nights. If Anunoby quakes under playoff pressure, it’s unclear how the Raptors would manage.
They aren’t worried yet. Anunoby is an even-keeled, confident player who doesn’t let shooting slumps erode other parts of his game. His 3-point volume has kicked back up in February, suggesting he’s willing to shoot his way through fallow periods — a healthy temperment for both player and team. Offenses don’t function when spot-up guys refuse to shoot.
Jonas Valanciunas has turned himself into a 3-point threat, and the Raptors — fourth in points per possession — have had no trouble finding good shots in their new-look offense. Toronto has faith Powell will be ready when they need him. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry can still conjure something from nothing.
Still: File this away as something to monitor.
8. The all-around goodness of Bogdan Bogdanovic
Malleability is an NBA skill. (It has long been Al Horford‘s best NBA skill.) Being good at everything — even if you are great at nothing — is almost a separate meta-skill. It allows a player infinite access to each individual sub-skill. One weakness can limit that access; defenses use that weakness to defang your other skills. If you can’t shoot, it’s harder to drive. Any glaring weakness make it harder for players to fit alongside certain teammates. It robs coaches of lineup flexibility.
Bogdanovic is a very good offensive player because he is good at every part of offense. He can blend into any lineup type. He’s shooting 40 percent from deep, so if the Kings pair him with other ball-dominant guys, Bogdanovic slips into more of a spot-up role. If you need more juice, Bogdanovic runs a nifty pick-and-roll. By most measures, he has been Sacramento’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler, per Second Spectrum data derived from NBA advanced stats. He is even a threat to launch 3s off the bounce; Bogdanovic has canned 43.5 percent of his pull-up 3s, fourth best among 79 guys who jack at least one such shot per game. (The three above him, per NBA.com: Joe Ingles, Nikola Mirotic, and Tobias Harris.)
He’s a canny passer. He knows every read coming off a screen, and he touches extra passes around the perimeter. He loves to push the ball, and before even crossing half court, he knows when and where teammates will pop open — and how to manipulate the defense to get them open.
He can even post up smaller dudes, and Dave Joerger has started calling plays for Bogdanovic to hit the block:
Things aren’t as rosy on the other end. Bogdanovic isn’t the quickest cat, and he’ll occasionally get hung on screens. But he’s smart, and he tries hard. He should develop into an average defender, if he isn’t one already.
He’s already much better than that on offense — a favorite to land a first-team All-Rookie spot, and a nice bounty for the (deservedly) maligned Vlade Divac regime. The Kings acquired Bogdanovic, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, and a second-round pick during the 2016 draft in exchange for the No. 8 pick — which Phoenix used on Marquese Chriss. It’s early, and the Kings endured the humiliation of waiving Papagiannis earlier this month, but that deal is looking like a win for Sacto.
9. New York’s accidental, retrograde bench
Every year, some combination of injuries and rebuilding-oriented trades turns one team into an accidental, misshapen NBA Frankenstein.
Until they mercifully benched Jarrett Jack on Thursday (and, honestly, Jack has been solid relative to expectations), the unicorn-less Knicks were becoming that team — and might still be. They were running out bench mobs consisting of precisely zero capable 3-point shooters: Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay, Lance Thomas, Michael Beasley, and Kyle O’Quinn. That’s hard to do in the modern NBA. Before a calm game Thursday, Beasley had been forcing shots — and ignoring obvious kickout passes — at an alarming rate since Kristaps Porzingis went down.
To be clear: This is not an indictment of playing Mudiay and Ntilikina together, though they don’t have enough combined shooting (or combined anything, really) to make it work yet. It’s worth trying for a team in tanking freefall. They are each big enough to guard wing players, and Mudiay has shot decently on open catch-and-shoot 3s over the past two seasons; he can play a bit off the ball.
The Knicks just don’t have enough around them. Few teams are in more desperate need of a big two-way wing. Perhaps they can find one in the draft, or free agency — without compromising their precious 2019 cap space.
PS: Please give Troy Williams some run!
10. Boston’s green trim
I am very pro the trend of players accessorizing to match their uniforms. Several Miami guys are wearing pink or turquoise shoes to go along with their new Miami Vice jerseys, and the look is glorious to the point of distraction. I miss snippets of games because I am mesmerized by Wayne Ellington‘s damned pink sneakers.
Boston’s players have taken this to a delightfully absurd extreme, outfitting themselves in green performance tights, sleeves, knee pads, elbow pads, shoes, socks, wristbands, and whatever else they can pile on without restricting their range of motion. Marcus Morris is slacking like Jennifer Aniston in “Office Space” here by going with only wristbands and socks:
What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum, Marcus? Don’t you want to express yourself?
When Boston wears all these pieces of flair and their classic green jerseys, they almost look like an army of NBA martians — or Gumbys, or Jolly Green Giants.
(Also: I still contend Boston should start behind by five points any time they wear gray or black alternates. Write it into the next collective bargaining deal!)