It's Friday, and that means it's time for our weekly run through the NBA.
10 things I like and don't like
1. The Wolves, coming for your soul
They ran out of gas Wednesday in Boston, but the Wolves have transformed into a two-way terror since the All-Star break against a slate that has included Golden State, San Antonio, Washington, and an absolute whooping of the Jazz in Utah -- one the most emphatic statement wins for any team this season.
Karl-Anthony Towns has been scary in gunning for an All-NBA spot. He's slapping up 30-15 lines as if they are routine. I'm not sure any big man can match his combination of speed and brute strength. On one possession, he'll smush someone on the block before lofting a feathery jump hook; he made one left-handed against Boston, and I almost cowered underneath my couch in fear. If he starts shooting lefty, it's all over. Next time down, he'll step outside, pump fake, and coast in for a layup.
He accelerates so fast after taking a pocket pass from Ricky Rubio, it looks like a glitch in the video: Towns catches the ball in a crowd, and then appears to fly toward the rim in fast-forward while everyone else moves in regular speed. He leaps, shoulders broad, for those Andre Drummond rebounds -- the loud ones that make you wonder how any other player ever gets a rebound when Towns is on the floor.
His defense needs work, starting at the foundation: A loose and upright stance that can make it hard for Towns to shift momentum on a dime. But it's coming.
I've waxed about Rubio in this space before, so suffice it to say that this latest stretch of blooming confidence has been a delight. Rubio is shooting when he's open, and making enough jumpers to justify what must feel to him like an unnatural uptick in aggression. If defenses respect him, that will unlock more passing lanes for a guy who already ranks as perhaps the world's most creative passer.
Andrew Wiggins is filling all the gaps, only he's so talented, he can pile up 25 points that way and toss in some functional pick-and-roll work when Rubio rests. Nemanja Bjelica brought a feistiness off the bench before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Boston. As a power forward with range and some playmaking chops, he made for a snug fit next to Towns; the Wolves outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions -- a huge margin -- with that duo on the floor from Feb. 1 on.
Bjelica supplanted Gorgui Dieng in Tom Thibodeau's crunch-time rotation, and the Wolves should target better versions of Bjelica to plop alongside Towns in the starting five.
Zach LaVine's absence is the elephant in the room. It's premature to say the Wolves are better, now or long-term, without LaVine. They need someone with exactly his skill set on offense.
But we have a lot of evidence that score-first, no-defense types who serve as second or third options are perhaps the easiest high-profile players to replace in the NBA. Milwaukee surviving without Jabari Parker was predictable, though a lot of that stems from Khris Middleton returning right after Parker's injury.
Give Minnesota a watch down the stretch.
2. Kyrie Irving, bank shot artist
The level of artistry in this dude's game is unfair. It's not pointless streetball garbage, either. These pieces of flair have purpose -- creating a sliver of space for a fallaway, or juking a defender onto his heels so that Irving can drive into his chest and release a floater over him.
Irving's ambidextrous finishing around the rim (rightfully) gets most of the attention, but he is also one of the league's canniest bank shot maestros:
That is a long off-the-glass job, from a tricky sideline angle. Only two players -- Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan -- have attempted more bankers than Irving this season, per the tracking site NBA Savant. Irving is a tidy 31-of-56 on those shots.
In the final seconds of a big game, even the nastiest one-on-one players can't get the precise shot they want. A crunch-time scorer has to improvise. Irving is comfortable under that pressure because he has practiced unconventional shots. Block out the ideal parabola between hand and net, and Irving will recalculate, find another arc, and fling the ball across it.
3. Get moving, Clips!
The Clippers run one of the league's most intricate half-court offenses, and they rank a very solid seventh in points per possession. In the big picture, they're fine. But spacing can get cramped, and good defenses force L.A. to toggle through a bunch of options before a clean look emerges.
When the Clips get their asses moving early, they become deadly -- and less predictable. Chris Paul can lurk in the shadows while someone else pushes, catch the ball on the move, and slice apart a back-pedaling defense unprepared for his cruelty:
Related: Paul is the Point God, but I like when he tilts his game just a hair in the score-first direction. He tends to play faster in that mode, and that speeds up L.A.'s broader offense. Paul also has a habit of passing up open 3s in search of better looks -- and perhaps because he prefers a slow release that requires being really open.
Sometimes, better looks don't come. Fire away, CP3!
4. [Team Redacted]'s defense
The Kazoos are down to 25th in points allowed per possession after the Nets flitted around for 121 points in Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Two of the five teams trailing New York in defensive efficiency are trying to lose. That includes the Lakers, who spent years clutching pearls about tanking from atop their golden throne -- WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN! -- before embarking on perhaps the most naked late-season tank job in recent NBA history. They sent two veterans home, and were about to banish Nick Young -- noted winner Nick Young -- until the public shaming became too much for them.
Back to the Kazoos: they are bad at basically every part of defense. They rank last in defensive rebounding rate. Their transition defense has been an abominable mix of lazy and uncoordinated. Derrick Rose is among the half-dozen worst defenders among all full-time starters. He's either lazy, clueless, or both. The Knicks should not re-sign him unless his market collapses into nothingness.
Carmelo Anthony has been a minus on defense for years, and he completely checks out on some nights. It's hard to blame him. With everyone fixated on the NCAA tourney, Melo brought us the single best, "Yeah, I care more about my shooting percentage than helping my awful team win" instance of half-court heave avoidance in league history:
That is the basketball representation of not giving a crap. That is avant garde art.
The scary part about New York's defense? Things could even be worse. New York has allowed a ton of open 3s, but opponents have hit an unusually low percentage of them, per NBA.com.
But, sure, keep working on the triangle. Difficulty mastering that has definitely been the thing keeping the Kazoos down for the last 15 years.
5. Surprise wing post-ups!
A lot of vanilla half-court sets feature wings setting cross screens for big men underneath the rim. The goal is to spring those big fellas into clean back-to-the-basket position. If that post-up doesn't materialize, the screener will jet up toward the foul line, curl around a pick there, and catch the ball primed to attack.
Defenses see that action a dozen times every night. Assumed familiarity can breed indifference. If you think you know what's coming, you might relax, and smart scorers leverage that moment of relaxation by flipping the script.
One example that has popped up around the league over the last two years: Wings with solid post games will stroll into that first screen as if they're going to do the usual thing, suddenly abort it, and seal their man under the rim for a quick-hitting post-up. Andrew Wiggins dabbles in this:
So does Marcus Smart:
6. The NBA, travelin' on
So I guess the NBA is just going to continue to allow infinite steps into catch-and-shoot attempts?
I'm pretty sure P.J. Tucker completes at least 30 percent of the Electric Slide there, as Ed Malloy, No. 14 in your playbooks and No. 1 in your hearts, stares right at him -- with his head tilted down toward Tucker's feet!
This has become embarrassing. I could pick out a couple of clips like this every week.
This is not blind purism -- enforcing the rules for the sake of it. The rules in this case have a point. Deciding to ignore them tips the balance of a possession. Shooters gain a huge advantage if they can take as many steps as they'd like before balancing themselves to shoot -- especially when they are sprinting, as Tucker is, when the ball arrives. A low-percentage leaner becomes a profitable shot.
Defenders train to close out on shooters who follow the rules. Maybe it's time for them to start practicing against cheaters.
Sometime soon, a team is going to win a playoff game on a last-second shot preceded by a blatant travel the entire arena calls in real time. The league will apologize the next day, shrug its shoulders, and point out there is nothing it can do about the result. It will be a humiliation. Maybe that's what it will take to make this a priority. Either change the footwork rules for catch-and-shoot attempts, or enforce the ones that stand.
7. Timmy and Thabo, killing it
This is just a nice, complementary wing duo: a score-first shooting guard with some issues on defense, and a stopper big enough to guard almost any perimeter scorer.
The Hawks, dragging a negative overall scoring margin, have trounced opponents by seven points per 100 possessions when Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha share the floor, per NBA.com. It helps that they've logged two-thirds of those minutes with Paul Millsap, Atlanta's best overall player, but these two make a natural fit.
Junior Crossover's strong play over the past two months is the latest cautionary tale against instant trade evaluations. A lot of folks laughed at Atlanta for coughing up a first-rounder -- the 19th pick in the 2015 draft -- for a cast-off from [Team Redacted].
Two years later, Hardaway is a dangerous 3-point shooter assuming more pick-and-roll duty. He's in line for a big payday this summer -- a new variable to consider in evaluating the Hardaway-Jerian Grant swap. And Sefolosha looks largely like the savvy, sliding terror he was before he broke his leg in an alleged instance of police abuse.
Atlanta has been smart to collect as many wing prospects as possible, and see who pops. They understand the game is evolving toward a fast-paced, semi-positionless style in which the best teams will have three wings on the floor during high-stakes moments. Hardaway is a player now, and Taurean Prince, one of two wings Atlanta drafted in the first round last June, is showing intriguing early signs.
8. Robert Covington, ace defender
Remember when some Philly fans booed RoCo during a shooting slump? That was dumb then, and it looks really dumb now. Covington has emerged as one of the very best wing defenders in the league, with the added bonus of being able to slide up to power forward if Philly ever needs it. (They may not once they get their full complement of young guys healthy, but we have no clue if or when that might happen).
Covington is almost uncomfortably handsy. Stand next to him on the subway, and he might swipe your wallet without you feeling a thing. Covington has snagged almost two steals per game, one of the league's top marks, and whaps more deflections than anyone.
Covington manages all that without fouling much, or gambling his way out of Philly's scheme. He moves on his toes, so that he can change directions easily, and he has a smart sense of angles and timing.
He kills every defensive metric. Players shoot below their averages with Covington around. He leads all perimeter players -- every single damned one -- in defensive adjusted plus-minus. Covington was a legit find for Sam Hinkie.
9. Dante Exum, speeding
Over the last six weeks, Exum has flashed the kind of burst that made him such an enticing prospect in the 2014 draft:
Exum has always been fast. He has gotten smarter about leveraging his speed into more of an advantage by keeping defenders off-balance with pauses and feints toward oncoming screeners. His explosion once he steps on the gas seems to catch defenders off-guard; he's in front of them, and then, bam, he's zooming past them to the rim.
This kind of feel is step one in building Exum into a rotation-level player on offense. (He's already there on defense). He's still way more comfortable as a straight-line, north-south scorer than in any other role. He struggles when defenses corral him on the pick-and-roll, and force him to slow down and make reads with a live dribble. His passes come too late, or too early, and they are often inaccurate.
Exum has turned the ball over on 28 percent of his pick-and-rolls that have ended Utah possessions. Among 159 guys who have run at least 50 such plays, only four -- Manu Ginobili (sad face), Solomon Hill, Dejounte Murray, and Randy Foye -- have coughed up the ball on a larger share of their pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. Exum ranked dead last by this measure in his rookie season.
His jumper remains wayward. Exum is down to 29 percent on 3s, and a hideous 25 percent from the corners. That's so bad, it almost has to be unsustainable.
The Jazz long ago concluded Exum isn't ready to run a team; they tried to extend George Hill before the March 1 deadline, and they're all-in to re-sign Hill in the summer. But keep an eye on Exum. Stuff is starting to happen.
10. Bismack Biyombo floaters
It's just not happening for Biz outside dunk range. He's trying, though; about 32 percent of Biyombo's shots have come between three and 10 feet away from the rim, the highest such share since his rookie season. He has only hit 31 percent of them. In a recent game, he air-balled one floater, and barely caught rim with another.
When he short-arms those righty shot-puts, Biyombo almost looks like an actor trying to portray a bad athlete. This is not a new problem. Biyombo is an effective rim-runner when he can leap all the way to the bucket for alley-oops. Orlando doesn't have enough shooting to unclutter the lane for Biyombo to jaunt that far. Stop him any earlier, and he has never been able to wriggle out of jams with soft in-between shots or quick-thinking kickout passes.
Orlando paid Biyombo starting center money last summer. He's a backup again, and has to master at least one new skill on offense to justify that contract.