It’s 10 things time:
1. Let’s give Kyle Lowry a signature move
It can be hard to pinpoint what makes Lowry great beyond shooting and defense, which admittedly comprise a lot of it. So much of Lowry’s brilliance lives in his bobs and weaves through the nooks and crannies of the game — in those moments, invisible to some, between when he gives up the ball and when he gets it back. It’s hard to conjure a signature move from those two-second bursts of bouncy hyperactivity.
That is a Kyle Lowry shot. He is so good at zooming into the lane, stopping on a dime, spinning, and reclining waaaaaaay back so no defender can bother that gorgeous, high-arcing fadeaway.
A second very-Lowry thing:
He has been fooling suckers with this bit for years. Lean toward that shooter coming off a screen — doesn’t matter if it’s Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan, CJ Miles, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell, Lou Williams, or Greivis Vasquez — and Lowry will fake the pass there, and zip into the lane untouched.
Lowry might be in the midst of his best season. He leads the league in assists. He is spoon-feeding Serge Ibaka — thriving as a full-time center — with one-touch, thread-the-needle pocket passes. Lowry has dished dimes on 28 percent of his ball screens, the third-highest mark among all rotation players, beyond only Milos Teodosic and Ryan Arcidiacono — two guys who would be happy literally never shooting — per Second Spectrum data.
Lowry is always on the lookout for Pascal Siakam in flight, and Pascal Siakam is always in flight. He’s shooting 61 percent on 2-pointers, by far a career high.
Toronto is deep, nasty, and smart — a delight to watch.
2. Orlando’s predictably terrible point guard situation
Guys, you are never going to believe this: The Magic can’t score, get to the line, or shoot from anywhere outside the restricted area. You might need a moment to digest this. Take your time.
Their point guard situation is a sinkhole. No one could have seen this coming. Orlando cannot expect any more from D.J. Augustin. He’s shooting 41 percent from deep and taking care of the ball; on some nights, the Augustin-Nikola Vucevic pick-and-roll is Orlando’s only reliable source of offense.
But Augustin can’t consistently prod beyond the foul line. He’s a nice backup point guard. The Magic are asking him to be a heavy-minutes starter.
Jerian Grant has been an absolute disaster as their backup. Defenders ignore him off the ball; when another Magic wing catches off a screen with Grant in the game, this is what he sees:
Grant can barely get the Magic into their sets before the shot clock ticks into single digits. He holds the ball for about 5.5 seconds per touch, seventh-highest in the league — ahead of Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, DeRozan, and hundreds of other guys more qualified than Grant to dribble in place.
What is this thing?
Orlando has scored 88.8 points per 100 possessions with Grant on the floor — almost 12 points worse than the league’s worst offense. It is really hard to construct lineups that perform so poorly over extended minutes. Orlando’s bench is hemorrhaging points.
That’s not all on Grant, obviously. He has played 177 minutes alongside Mo Bamba, and only 44 with Vucevic. Bamba just isn’t ready. Jonathon Simmons is shooting 29 percent. But he’s also overextended, because Grant can’t carry the off-the-bounce burden of a league-average NBA point guard.
Someday, Orlando will have a competent offense again.
3. The resurrection of Juancho
Juancho Hernangomez’s lost 2017-18 season — due to mononucleosis — was an overlooked blow to Denver’s depth. Will Barton’s injury opened a minutes void, and Hernangomez has seized it with a combination of ace shooting, canny cutting and passing, and some perhaps unexpectedly solid defense across multiple positions.
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Hernangomez has been a snug fit alongside Denver’s core four starters; that group is plus-14 in 17 minutes. (Lineups mixing Hernangomez with two or three starters have fared well, too.) Dropping from two below-average 3-point shooters (Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap) to just Millsap has had an exponential impact on Denver’s spacing, unlocking corridors everywhere for Nikola Jokic and his army of cutters. (P.S.: Shoot the ball, Nikola!)
Hernangomez looks to be in peak condition. A lot of executives worried he couldn’t keep up with starter-level wings. But Hernangomez has been moving his feet. He can switch one spot up and down the positional spectrum, and Millsap is always around to tangle with the nastiest opposing wings if Hernangomez can’t hang.
He has even blocked six shots in 10 games — including that memorable game-sealer against the Warriors — after recording just 15 rejections combined in his first two seasons.
The full-strength Nuggets become a different team if Hernangomez can give them 15-plus reliable minutes. Semi-related: Barton’s injury has Mike Malone juggling lineups so that one starter — usually Jamal Murray or Gary Harris — is on the floor with bench lineups. He should keep doing this. Denver’s five-man bench mobs can’t score, and shouldn’t be a thing when — when! — Denver reaches the playoffs.
4. Brandon Ingram, settling
My Ingram optimism has taken a slight hit. He has recorded only 9.3 drives per 100 possessions, down from 15 last season, and his assist rate has cratered. Some of that is the predictable result of playing alongside LeBron, and of Ingram not getting enough lead ball-handling duty among bench mobs.
But teaming with LeBron in an ultra-fast attack should nudge any wing toward more efficient shot selection. Ingram’s shot profile is almost identical to last season’s. Some of that is on him.
He settles for long 2s way too often both on the pick-and-roll, and when he has a size mismatch in the post.
Yeah, Ingram is skinny and J.J. Barea is an irritant, but still: Even a run-of-the-mill face-up drive keeps the offense moving, and might produce a hockey assist.
The Lakers are scoring only 0.78 points per possession when Ingram shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or dishes to a teammate who shoots right away — one of the lowest marks in the league, per Second Spectrum. Only 16 percent of ball screens for Ingram have led to those one-pass-away shots for teammates — the fourth-lowest figure among 174 ball-handlers who have run at least 20 pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum.
In other words: Ingram is either taking blah shots after slithering around picks, or making unproductive passes. He’s barely snagging rebounds. He needs to do more stuff.
I’m still bullish on Ingram’s versatility, vision, and creativity. The LeBron transition is hard for everyone. But Ingram’s first seven games this season haven’t been encouraging.
5. Joel Embiid’s balletic foul avoidance
Embiid isn’t Tim Duncan, but he keeps his foul rate under control considering how much he relishes contact. He is good at staying big without lurching into ball handlers, or pawing at their arms.
He also maintains remarkable balance and dexterity at high speeds. He can change pace in tight spaces with artful little pitter-patters of his feet:
That is a gorgeous bit of foul avoidance. Embiid has been monstrously dominant — an MVP candidate. The Sixers are plus-4.4 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, but opponents have blitzed them by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when he rests, per NBA.com.
6. Jayson Tatum, also settling
About 38 percent of Tatum’s shots have come from midrange, up from 27 percent a year ago. The corresponding drop has come almost entirely at the rim.
When Tatum catches against a scrambling defense and blows by defenders rushing to close out on him, his first instinct is to pull from 18 feet — even if he has daylight:
That’s a decent shot. The math gets worse if a defender so much as waves at him, especially considering the available options: drive to pay dirt, or kick the ball to a teammate for an open 3 — or another drive. Boston is last at generating shots at the rim, and next-to-last in free throws per field goal attempt. Those are becoming annual problems; Tatum is contributing to them.
Boston ranks an ugly 27th in points per possession. That will come up as Gordon Hayward finds his footing, and chemistry solidifies. Tatum has hit just 26 percent of those long 2s; that will come up, too. That doesn’t mean he should settle. Tatum has shown he can explode to the rim, and make the next pass if help comes:
More, please. To have any hope of contending with Toronto and Golden State, Boston needs to rejigger its shot selection.
7. Rodney McGruder, filling voids
Only five Heat players have appeared in all 10 of Miami’s games. McGruder has plugged every hole, canning 3s, smothering elite wings, and flashing off-the-bounce oomph and passing chops he didn’t even hint at before this season:
McGruder has assisted on 13 of Hassan Whiteside’s baskets, seven more than any other Heat player.
(Whiteside is having a bounce-back season, by the way. He’s engaged again after sulking through last season, and he is inhaling rebounds. Whiteside has snared an absurd 40.6 percent of opponent misses. Reggie Evans owns the all-time single-season record for defensive rebounding rate: 38 percent for Brooklyn in 2012-13. Only six guys have ever cracked 35 percent, in nine combined seasons: Evans, Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Dennis Rodman, DeAndre Jordan, and Marcus Camby. The Heat are having trouble finding enough minutes for Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo, and that problem will get dicier once James Johnson returns.)
McGruder can’t bust a defense on his own; the Heat give him head starts by running him off one screen before he sprints toward a handoff — effectively a second screen — and into playmaking mode.
After missing most of last season, McGruder was at risk of falling out of the rotation. Instead, he’s on pace to shatter career highs across almost every category. What a story.
8. A good, old-fashioned up-and-under
Domantas Sabonis has one of the best going:
That is some sexy old-school basketballing. Sabonis is so polished, capable of doing productive things with the ball from anywhere on the floor. Trap Victor Oladipo on the pick-and-roll, and Sabonis can slip to the foul line, catch in open space, and make the proper read. If Oladipo prods further, Sabonis is happy to slide beside him. He has a tap dancer’s timing in speeding up or slowing down at just the right moment to provide ball handlers a passing lane to him.
And if he catches it deep, Sabonis is a violent, angry dunker. (Ask Embiid.) He is shooting 66 percent!
Switch against Indy, and Sabonis bullies little guys. Send help, and he’ll find the open man. He is getting really good at crosscourt inside-out passes. He is starting to sling them ahead of the rotating defense. He doesn’t simply hit the open man; he hits the man who is about to become even more open.
Sabonis has been so good as to present the Pacers with a dilemma. Indiana just paid Myles Turner $18 million per season. The Pacers hope Turner and Sabonis can play together, but their offense has died in about 350 combined Turner/Sabonis minutes over the past two seasons, per NBA.com. The Pacers are minus-2 in 57 such minutes this season. Indiana is plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions with Turner as solo center, and a whopping plus-7.4 when Sabonis replaces him.
Sabonis has outplayed Turner. Turner has the higher ceiling because of his 3-point shooting and rim protection — skills he hasn’t harnessed yet. Sabonis isn’t a plus defender, but he’s also not Enes Kanter. He’s nimble enough to guard some power forwards, and he knows where to be. But you don’t pay two guys huge money if they can’t play together.
9. Detroit’s search for shooting
The Pistons’ shot selection isn’t bad; they just can’t make anything. They’re 29th in 3-point accuracy, 27th from the floater range, and 19th on shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. Their only sweet spot so far is the worst spot: long 2s. Detroit’s effective-field goal mark (worst in the league) is about 4.5 percentage points below what we would expect based on the location of shots and nearby defenders — the largest negative gap among all teams, per Second Spectrum.
Reggie Jackson is down to 30 percent from deep after a hot start. Dwane Casey demoted Stanley Johnson to the bench, meaning Johnson shares the floor with Ish Smith — a duo that isn’t going to scare anyone from long range. Glenn Robinson III, Johnson’s replacement, has a limited NBA track record. Langston Galloway compromises Detroit’s defense. Luke Kennard, injured right now, needs to prove he can survive on that end.
Reggie Bullock coming back to form will solve some of this; he’s 7-of-30 from deep after hitting at least 40 percent in three consecutive seasons.
Regardless: It will be hard for Detroit to put enough shooting around Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. Defenses are ignoring bad shooters to swarm Griffin on the block. Those bad shooters then cut free to the rim, but new help defenders ditch Detroit’s other bad shooters to swarm those cutters. It’s a traffic jam.
The Pistons have enough talent to snare a bottom-two playoff seed, but they won’t get there unless someone other than Bullock and Griffin emerges as a reliable 3-point threat.
10. “Who Are You” played over visiting intros
The Blazers play this anthem from The Who as their public address announcer (very quietly) introduces the opposing team. I love it. There is not enough taunting of opposing starting lineups in the NBA. We need more college-style edge — some tongue-in-cheek disrespect.
A song that expresses indifference toward the enemy team is a basic step one. Denver’s mascot had the right idea when he plopped down in a lawn chair and read a newspaper while the Nuggets’ announcer recited the Lakers’ starting lineup.
The Wizards used to reserve a mocking song for each visiting opponent: the theme from “Barney & Friends” for the Raptors, the annoying-slash-hypnotic Meow Mix jingle for the Charlotte Bobcats, etc. (They don’t anymore. Cowards.) Some team with nothing to lose and zero national footprint — maybe the current Suns? — should go whole hog on this.
BONUS THING: Vince Carter, crankin’ it up forever
I don’t care that I already gave this a like — almost six years ago. I don’t care that the Hawks’ starting Carter at power forward eight times is kind of a bad sign, even if they did so in part because John Collins is hurt. (Collins projects as more of a center type, anyway.)
I don’t care that Carter has repeatedly said he is in fact not revving up an imaginary motorcycle when he cranks his wrists after a dunk (even if that is the only action he could plausibly be miming, and one that meshes thematically with the act of kindling his aging human engine).
The greatest dunker ever is still yamming in his 21st season, and he should absolutely crank it up — his preferred name for this celebration — every damned time to remind us that, hell yes, he used do this every night. Against Charlotte on Tuesday, he dusted Jeremy Lamb with a baseline spin, crammed, and busted out a couple of casual revs.
The nonchalance is what makes it work. Carter doesn’t sneer, shout, flex, or repeat the rev motion more than two or three times. He just flicks those wrists up and down with a noodle-y looseness and a stone face that says, “Yeah, this is no big deal for me at an age when most men are getting fat.”
Also: Remember when Dirk cranked it up after a flat-footed dunk?
Glorious. Long live Vinsanity.