It’s Friday, so let’s talk about some things around the NBA.
10 (11) things I like and don’t like
1. Aaron Gordon, in the right spot
Guys, I am going to tell you something that might shock and disturb you. It may upend everything you think you know about basketball — nay, about life –and plunge you into an existential abyss from which there is no escape.
Aaron Gordon might be better as a power forward. I know, I know. No one could possibly have seen this coming. Take a minute to compose yourselves.
With mopey Serge Ibaka gone, Gordon is back in the right place, looking like the bouncy playmaker who finished last season strong. Spot him up around a Nikola Vucevic pick-and-roll, and Gordon can catch the ball, toast plodders closing out on him, and rampage to paydirt:
Use Gordon as the screener, and he can glide into the lane to slip slick interior passes:
He’s lurking along the baseline for putback crams instead of hanging aimlessly around the perimeter. Gordon outsprints opposing bigs for transition rim-runs, and when the offense bogs down, he can juke guys off the bounce — something that was harder against wings, who can generally hang with him. He has even run a few nifty pick-and-rolls with Vucevic.
For the fifth straight year, we can plumb Orlando’s meaningless last 20 games for signs of what might come next season. Yay?
2. Learning to like Golden State again?
I get why these Warriors don’t inspire the same glee and universal affection of the two previous incarnations. The 2014-15 champs made an unexpected leap from good to historically great behind the new-style MVP and a fire-breathing, switch-everything power forward who began camp on the fringes of Steve Kerr’s rotation. They stumbled upon a new identity beyond Stephen Curry‘s crazy shooting. They were novel.
Last season’s 73-win juggernaut mastered that identity, and freed Curry to lift basketball into new places — to literally transform the sport. The defending champions were somehow novel, again. Curry’s 35-foot game winner at Oklahoma City is an all-time NBA flashbulb moment — the crystallization of a brand of fun we hadn’t seen before.
This year’s team would never recapture that magic. With Kevin Durant, their success was boring. Even fitting him in was easy compared with other star-mixing projects. Goliath is never all that likable, especially when he talks trash, gets his pick of the buyout market, and kicks at people.
But these Warriors live by the same joyful, team-first ethos that defined them before they were A Thing. They play for each other. When players meld blazing basketball IQs with a share-first disposition, they produce a dozen pieces of tiny hoops art every game.
One little treat: Their best passers read the game at such a high level, and derive such profound happiness from dishing, that they almost begin their passing motion before even catching the ball:
Strip away the mean-mugging and the endless noise, and this is still who they are. It is part of what can make them almost charmingly vulnerable — at least by superteam standards. The freedom and oversharing can cross into recklessness. They don’t function as well when a chess-master like LeBron strangles the pace.
Now that they’re facing some adversity, maybe we can enjoy them more.
P.S.: I’m happily surprised about the lack of HOT TAKEZ suggesting Durant’s injury proves Golden State was wrong to sacrifice depth for another star. It was absolutely the right decision, and Durant’s injury reinforces that: If one of your stars gets hurt in the playoffs, you have no chance — unless you have extra stars!
They gave up almost no real depth on this year’s roster to snare him. The bill comes due this summer, when Golden State will have trouble retaining Andre Iguodala and Livingston. Either way, it was worth it.
3. Al-Farouq Aminu‘s jumper
Uh oh. Aminu’s pointy-elbowed fling has regressed back to the point where you can almost hear the ball screaming, “WHERE AM I GOING? I AM VERY HIGH IN THE AIR AND IT SEEMS LIKE I’M HEADED FOR THE BACKBOARD! HELP!!!!!!”
Opponents always sag off Aminu, but Portland could live with it last season, when he hit 36 percent from deep. Now that he’s down to 30 percent, defenders have taken an extra step away to clog the paint on Portland’s dynamo guards. Even worse, Aminu is hesitating on wide-open triples, and forcing head-long drives into crowds. He is a chunk of debris clanging around the gears of Portland’s motion offense.
The Blazers need good Aminu; he’s by far their best option at power forward, and their defense cratered without him early in the season.
4. Dirk Nowitzki, roller
The Mavs’ smallish starting lineup, with the Yogi Ferrell–Seth Curry mighty-mite pairing and Nowitzki at center, didn’t have staying power even before the Mavs stole Nerlens Noel. There is just no way that group can defend well enough over the long haul.
But man, has it been fun. Slotting Dirk as the lone big man frees him to slice to the rim after setting picks instead of popping for jumpers every time. That’s a great way for sweet-shooting bigs to mix things up, and catch defenses off-guard; it is probably an underutilized part of Nikola Mirotic‘s game in Chicago.
Dirk is an expert at catching on the move from 15 feet out, stopping on a dime, and snapping off midrangers. When opponents send a third defender to smother those jumpers, he picks them apart with passes.
If that doesn’t work, Nowitzki can U-turn to the 3-point arc while Harrison Barnes takes his turn on center stage:
The Mavs and Rick Carlisle never stop reinventing themselves.
5. Silly Nikola Jokic fouls
The Nuggets score about 115 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor — better than Golden State’s league-leading mark, on pace to be the best in league history. They are a disaster when Jokic sits, which means he has to cut silly stuff like this right freaking now:
An alarming number of Jokic’s fouls are lazy reaches committed out of frustration after one of his Gasolian passes goes awry. He knows it, too. Jokic told me in January he’s focused on resisting the fouly tantrums, and curbing his very Euro addiction to whacking opponents before they can get out on a fast break — regardless of how many fouls he has already committed, or the time and score.
Look at that dumb swipe against the Nets: There isn’t even a fast break to neuter! Two Nuggets are already sprinting back ahead of every Net when Jokic volunteers himself into foul trouble 90 seconds into the game.
Even with New Orleans struggling to integrate DeMarcus Cousins, Denver isn’t good enough to withstand extended Jokic’s absences and cling to the No. 8 spot.
6. DE-TROIT BASKETBALL!
The simplicity of this slogan has a purpose: Detroit basketball stands for toughness, grit, and defense. It isn’t fancy. Both the Bad Boys and the mid-2000s stalwarts reflected the character of their city. Bonus points for the sing-songy way fans and the team’s public address announcer chant this. It almost doubles as a warning siren to opponents, and a taunt.
With apologies to suburbanites, I’m stoked for the Pistons to actually play in Detroit starting next season. The NBA needs to get Detroit an All-Star Game as soon as possible.
7. Paul George, cavalier
It’s a fascinating debate raging across the league right now: How good, really, is Paul George? Before his ghastly leg injury, George was a consensus top-10 or top-12 player. Now, he probably won’t qualify for one of six All-NBA forward spots. Toss in all the brilliant guards and unicorn bigs, and where exactly does George rank in the NBA’s star hierarchy? Was he really worth all the trade deadline agita?
He hasn’t played with the same fire this season. Only 13 percent of his shots have come at the rim, the lowest mark of his career. His free throws are down, and he’s taking more long 2s than ever. He has ceded some of the creative burden to Jeff Teague, and there are nights when he just looks a little off.
There is even some evidence that his vaunted defense has slipped. His adjusted plus-minus numbers are mediocre, and opposing players are shooting above their averages when George is nearby, per NBA.com.
He has developed a maddening habit of drifting too far from dangerous shooters when he doesn’t need to, leaving them open even on the strong side — one short pass away:
It’s almost as if George assumes he can make up all that distance if he revs into into gear. He can’t. He has been too cavalier this season.
But then you remember what he has done in the postseason hothouse. He drilled high degree of difficulty shots on the biggest stage, in the biggest moments. When he gets angry, George transforms into a lockdown defender — a long, multi-positional weapon, always on his toes, bouncing in sync with his mark as if he’s looking into a mirror. He almost single-handedly eliminated a massively superior Toronto team in the first round last season.
When it matters, I’m still riding with Paul George.
8. Ryan Anderson, eyes on the prize
Anderson may not play quite as much with Lou Williams around, and Houston tilting more toward smallish lineups with Trevor Ariza in Anderson’s power forward slot. But, damn, has it been fun to watch an uncaged Ryno fire at will. He’ll jack 30-footers, let fly with a hand in his face, and if necessary, shove his own teammate out of the way so he can catch and shoot:
He also has the best “please go in!” exaggerated follow-through since prime Paul Pierce:
He looks like a fencer!
9. Hey there, Alan Williams!
All hail Big Sauce! One bright spot of the Suns going all-in on youth (i.e., tanking): watching Williams morph from the NBA’s peppiest bench cheerleader into a real threat around the basket. Williams is shooting 60 percent, and he has a soft touch with both hands on little push shots — a must, since he can’t outleap opposing bigs.
Williams has gobbled up almost 19 percent of Phoenix misses, an offensive rebounding rate that would lead the league had he played enough minutes to qualify. He’s an NBA player.
To be a long-term rotation player, he’ll need to improve his defense. Williams is beefy, and he tries, but his athletic limitations hurt across all matchup types. He’s not quick enough to chase stretchier bigs outside, and he doesn’t offer much rim protection.
10. Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds, toiling through misery
Even in basketball, there is something to the idea that brilliance springs from despair. Some of the NBA’s sharpest and funniest broadcasting comes from markets that have known little else but dysfunction and losing over the past 15 years: New York, Brooklyn, Minnesota, and the two-man game from Napear and Reynolds in Sacto.
Chronicling dreck inoculates broadcasters from puffing their chests as if they have something to do with team success — a disease that spreads around contenders. Humor becomes a survival tool when you have to live through 82 bad games, year after year.
Reynolds has an ever-expanding collection of puns — Rudy “treys,” for when Rudy Gay (note the rhyme!) nails a 3; Arron Afflalo‘s fading “Afflalo-way” jumpers, and so many more. He’s in on the joke, by the way. He knows some of them are corny.
They aren’t homers, and they don’t bash refs. When a replay shows officials got a controversial call against the Kings right, Napear and Reynolds say the refs nailed it — an unthinkable concession in some markets.
Napear gets on the Kings when they play poorly, and was vocal in his criticism of Cousins’ attitude — and perhaps a bit too vocal for the fan base’s taste in celebrating Boogie’s departure.
All of this gives them credibility. Imagine that! On the rare occasions when they go in on officials, they’ve earned the right. When they rave about a Kings player — as both have during Skal Labissiere‘s recent coming-out party — it means something, because they don’t gush about every little thing.
11. The NBA’s rigged buyout game
Perception is worse than reality, but this sure feels like a rigged game, doesn’t it? The Raptors trade real stuff for Serge Ibaka, while LeBron and the Warriors wait around to nab their pick of the buyout crew for free. The process agitates the other 28 teams. (So does The Process, but that’s a different conversation. Get well, Joel!)
Team executives have pitched a bunch of solutions to this maybe-not-a-problem. The league could move up the drop-dead date for playoff eligibility — now March 1 — so that it comes before the trade deadline. It could limit buyout signings to one per team. One exec even suggested a “buyout wire” that would operate like the waiver wire.
Right now, if no team in the waiver wire line with room to absorb Andrew Bogut’s full $11 million salary hit volunteers, he goes straight into free agency — eligible to sign with every team but the one that just waived him.
Teams with requisite room will almost never claim expensive players via that waiver process; they are available because they aren’t performing up to their deals, and of minimal interest to the typical team with mega-space.
Once a player goes unclaimed, he’d move onto the proposed “buyout wire.” Teams with cap room would get first crack at offering these guys reasonable salaries. Instead of swallowing Bogut’s full deal, a team like Houston, flush with $3.5 million in new space, could bid any or all of that amount against other teams with room (or the $2.9 million room exception). Whoever bids the most gets Bogut. If no team with room bids, the capped-out teams — like Cleveland — can have at him, perhaps in reverse order of record. The winning bidder could even snare Early Bird Rights on the player — a potential incentive to bidding.
The restriction of Bogut’s freedom of choice in that system is uncomfortable. The buyout wire could be nonbinding — maybe room teams only get to pitch Bogut before Cleveland can — but that would defeat its purpose.
Maybe there isn’t a problem here, anyway. Buyout guys rarely, if ever, tilt the championship balance in June. As long as the league rewards bad teams with high draft picks, those teams should dump expensive veterans once they’ve fallen hopelessly out of the playoff race. Those veterans then get to choose their new homes. Almost everyone wins.
It’s worth discussing, though.