As we take a deep breath before the first round, let’s have some fun with the annual list of “likes” and “dislikes” that didn’t make it into a Tuesday column this season. It’s now or never for some of these bad boys; they deserve to live their destinies. There are 35 of ’em. Take a deep breath.
1. Unaware Courtside Fans, Covered in Beer
This is the painless version of the field-level baseball fan — head buried in his cell phone as the game for which he (but really his company) paid hundreds of dollars to watch unfolds before him — getting nailed by a foul ball. Sure, it delays the game, but there is a perverse satisfaction in watching some unaware fat cat suddenly covered in beer thanks to an errant pass. There were a bunch of these this season, and they were all delightful. You’re at the game in the best possible seats! Watch the game!
2. Nikola Mirotic, Through the Elevator Doors
Defenses are on high alert for the elevator doors now, so offenses have to get trickier about prefacing the play with more drawn-out and convincing decoy action. Witness this beauty the Bulls have used to spring Mirotic for a bundle of open 3s:
This looks like a standard “loop” action designed for Derrick Rose to scurry across the foul line, catch a pass on the move, and go into a wing pick-and-roll.
But no! That’s all just fluff ahead of the monster Joakim Noah–Taj Gibson man sandwich for Mirotic. The Bulls are playing Mirotic more at small forward now with Gibson back; there are only so many frontcourt minutes to go around between Chicago’s four core bigs. That’s a poor use of Mirotic’s skill set — he’s a stretch power forward, not a wing — but if you’re going to pair him with two bigs, you might as well use the added size to beef up your screens.
3. Mirotic, Overdoing It With Foul-Baiting
Mirotic has been one of the league’s most entertaining players this season, but he goes out of his way to bait opponents into shooting fouls when he could just jack an open 3 instead. This is overthinking it, Niko:
4. Tyler Zeller’s Turbo Left Hand
Zeller has a nice touch with his left hand, and a hyper-speed release to get hooks and flip shots off ahead of a closing help defender. This is almost a touch shot:
Zeller has also flashed an ambidextrous one- and two-dribble game on the pick-and-roll — a crucial skill for any big man:
5. The New Orleans Bunch Play
Monty Williams overuses this action, but it’s still deadly, and Ryan Anderson’s return unlocks several mothballed variations. The concept is simple: Start with a pick-and-roll for Anthony Davis, deadly on its own, and then hit Davis’s man with a surprise back screen. That creates a crisis, with Davis running free for a lob, which in turn forces help from other places:
Williams takes a lot of heat, much of it deserved. But he draws up some funky stuff, and he’s made the most of some quirky bench guys this season.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
6. Ryan Kelly’s Pump Fake
Ryan Kelly has a nice pump fake, and when he plays the position he should play — power forward — he uses it to get defenders off their feet, knife into the lane, and thread some nifty passes around the floor. This is one of the nicest things you can say about the 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers — and nicer than most of the things Byron Scott said about them.
By the way, did you see the report that the Lakers will entertain trade offers for Nick Young? You don’t say! A team might pick up the phone if someone calls with a pitch to trade for a demonstrably very bad player on an iffy contract? Whoa! This is almost as good as that moment, after the trade deadline, when JaVale McGee’s people leaked that he was waiting on offers from contenders — plural.
As an aside, uses of the word “entertain,” ranked:
No. 1: The actual meaning — i.e, “I hope this movie entertains you.”
No. 2: The above usage: “I would entertain the idea of going on a date with that person.”
Nos. 3.-infinity minus 1: Every other use of the word.
Dead last: Using “entertain” to mean “have people over.” Sample: “This room would be great for entertaining.” Just know that if you say this in front of me, I will silently judge you.
7. Ryan Kelly’s Beard
It’s just not working out.
8. Anthony Morrow and Klay Thompson, Keeping the Ball High
This seems almost unfair. Guys with two of the quickest releases in the world found a way to go even faster when passes come in high:
These guys are awesome. Remember how we spent the first 40 games wondering why Morrow was missing so many open 3s, and if something was wrong with his jumper? Yeah, me neither.
9. The Demise of Carl Landry
Landry was a borderline Sixth Man of the Year candidate two years ago for the first Steph Curry–era Golden State playoff team, and he parlayed that solid bench turn into a four-year, $26 million contract with the Kings — a team that didn’t really seem to need another post-oriented big man.
We’ve since barely heard from Landry, the latest in a long line of nice players who’ve seen their careers die in Sacramento. Knee and hip issues ruined last season, and he bobbed in and out of the Kings’ rotation as they spun the Wheel o’ Coaches this season. George Karl seemed to play Landry only begrudgingly, and it’s unclear where Landry goes from here.
10. Aerial Views During Broadcasts
I love this change of pace:
It’s a better view of the chessboard — how players move, and how much (or little) space really separates them as they shift around the floor. You wouldn’t want to watch a whole game this way, but it’s a cool way to view a few possessions.
Harry How/Getty Images
11. Boston, Milwaukee, and Other Teams That Make Transition Defense Easy
When Isaiah Thomas and Phil Pressey are both on the bench, Boston has three like-size players on the perimeter — some combination of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Evan Turner. Some of those guys are bigger and stronger than others, but they can all survive a single possession against most opposing point guards and wing players.
That brings a certain liberation in the chaos of transition defense — the freedom to guard the closest opposing perimeter player, rather than crisscrossing the court to find the “right” assignment. That kind of hectic searching causes confusion, and smart offenses sneak in for easy buckets as all the defenders are looking around for their one-on-one matchups. Boston shouldn’t have to worry about those kinds of baskets.
Ditto for the Bucks, who have a rangy point guard in Michael Carter-Williams alongside a bunch of long wings.
12. The Anthony Davis Fake Handoff Play
The fake big-man handoff is an art form, but many of its foremost practitioners — Nick Collison, Andrew Bogut, Matt Bonner — aren’t exactly speedsters when they pull the ball back after the fake handoff, cradle it, and drive to the hoop. Help defenders have plenty of time to meet them before the rim.
But when Davis does it? Yikes.
This is a regular part of New Orleans’s crunch-time arsenal, and got Brow a game winner early in the season against the Spurs.
13. The Monta Ellis Footrace
Ellis is a good midrange shooter, but he gets shakier the farther out he goes, and defenders will often go under screens against him — a method of cutting off his drive and coaxing him into a long jumper.
But Ellis won’t settle for that jumper. He knows how fast he is with the ball. He knows you’re going under the screen to meet him on the other side and wall off the paint, but he’s confident he can beat you to the meeting spot:
This is an underrated game-within-the-game — a kind of NBA duel.
Lots of teams blast it when the opponent commits a dumb turnover, and it will never get old.
15. Hubie Brown’s Prolonged “NIIIIICEEE” After a Good Play
Hubie Brown is the best.
16. Russell Westbrook, Owning Up to His Mistakes
I’ve criticized Westbrook’s hyperactive defense, but he gets credit for this: No one owns up to mistakes so readily. When a Westbrook breakdown leads to a basket, he’ll immediately raise his arm as high as it goes, pat his chest several times, and take the blame. Some players do this quietly, raising their arm only halfway up, or offering one meek chest rub — their way of taking the blame, but not so loudly that everyone notices.
And some players take the opposite course, barking at a teammate and passing the buck. Westbrook takes everything on his shoulders — for better or worse.
17. Aaron Gordon, Going for It
Aaron Gordon is the NBA’s Tigger. He’s just so carefree, hopping around out there, challenging the NBA’s behemoth rim protectors as if they were Nate Robinson. It almost seems like Gordon is oblivious to the fact that the person waiting to pounce at the rim is Hassan Whiteside — a giant human who blocks a ton of shots:
This is typical Gordon. He plays without a trace of worry. So what if someone rejects him in some humiliating way? It’s just basketball, and Gordon will hop right back at him next time.
18. Orlando’s Spacing in Most Lineups That Feature Gordon
Man, can it get ugly when Orlando trots out Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and any other big guy aside from Channing Frye. If Oladipo is the best long-range shooter on the floor, you’re officially working the clogged-toilet offense.
Going small with the Tobias Harris–Gordon-Vucevic frontcourt helps, but there’s still not a ton of shooting there, and certainly no rim protection. The Magic have many interesting players, but lots of them have glaring holes in their games, and those holes don’t line up quite the way you’d like. The Magic need rim protection and shooting, and it’s tough to find any one player who can do both.
While we’re here, two other teams that suffered from stomach-turning spacing: The Pistons need shooting around their Reggie Jackson–Greg Monroe–Andre Drummond core,1 and Miami struggled when Whiteside, Udonis Haslem, and Dwyane Wade shared the floor. Getting Chris Bosh back will loosen things up, but the Heat could use another shooter on the wing.
19. 2-for-1 Battles
If Monroe re-signs, which is up in the air.
Doesn’t it seem like we’re seeing more instances in which teams race each other for the best 2-for-1 chance? One team will score with 36 seconds left in the quarter, confident it has nailed the 2-for-1, only to watch the opponent race down and score in five or six seconds — shifting the final 2-for-1 edge back their way.
The second team in that scenario faces an interesting risk-reward decision — one I’d love for some academic with awesome data-scraping skills to study: nabbing the final 2-for-1 is great, but sprinting for the first shot inevitably results in some godawful looks.
20. The Reverse Charge
Chris Paul is the master at it — that little piece of chicanery in which a ball handler ahead of the pack, and sometimes with clear sailing to the rim, veers right into the path of the defender chasing him. It’s jarring to watch, since the offensive player sometimes has no reason to swerve — other than to draw a cheap foul.
If the direction switch is blatant enough, some brave officials will call the offensive player for a charge — and that is awesome. It’s not a basketball play.
21. Watching J.J. Hickson
Everyone has a few players they just hate watching, and for me, Hickson is the captain of that team. He steals rebounds from teammates, and when he doesn’t feel like exerting himself, he shrugs off the entire concept of defense:
He’s not an awful passer when he decides to use that skill, but he’s too often in love with chasing points — even on midrange jumpers, when shooters are very obviously wide open on the wing:
It can be dispiriting to watch him play basketball. On a related Nuggets note, every Darrell Arthur jump shot feels like a form of surrender at this point.
22. LeBron James, Playing Another Sport
It’s always fun when LeBron reminds us that he can do stuff no one else can, and on some of those stunts, it can look like he is playing an entirely different sport. Watch him chill at midcourt, off the TV screen, as Kyrie Irving runs a pick-and-roll on the right side — a play that draws the attention of LeBron’s man, Jared Dudley, near the foul line:
Bam! He’s like a sprinter or a wide receiver giving himself space to gather momentum and hit top speed.
23. Tyson Chandler’s Appropriate Dunk Aggression
Chandler loves to roar, pull back on the rim, and pound his chest on dunks, and it makes for great theater. But he understands how silly that can look when his team is getting drilled late, and he dials back his dunk intensity to fit the situation. If Dallas is cooked, Chandler will barely grab the rim, drop the ball through, and move on. No one can hit him with the “Scoreboard!” taunt.
24. The New Milwaukee Logos
I’m in! The colors are great, the use of the Wisconsin state map is clever, and there are small touches of genius all over the place. Just one example: Look at how the green collar on the Buck forms a subtle “M” below the neckline. The same “M” appears on the basketball logo, and it looks pointy and dangerous — like Poseidon’s trident.
The franchise rebrand is going well so far.
25. Coaches, Pointing the Way
My dad is a decorated high school swimming coach, and when I go to his meets, I always chuckle at coaches who stand beside the pool, wait for their swimmers to breathe toward that side, and then point frantically in the direction the swimmer is already going. Where else is he going to go? If you didn’t point that way, would he stop in the middle of the pool and turn around?
I think of this all the time when coaches wave toward the other side of the floor, in a grand looping motion, as players transition from offense to defense. Some of the worst offenders — Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, among many others — look like they are signaling to someone a half-mile away. What would the players do without coaches pointing toward the end of the floor where they’re supposed to run? Just fall over?
26. Kyle Lowry, Sneaking for Steals in the Post
Lowry is one of those perimeter defenders who toes the line between smart gambles and sabotaging entire possessions on low-percentage bets. He does some of his sharpest work sneaking in the post to swipe the ball from unsuspecting bigs backing down their man:
Look how Lowry jogs along with Goran Dragic, as if he’s going to track Dragic across the floor, and then stops as soon as he exits Whiteside’s line of sight. That kind of timing is how you shift the odds on a bet like this in your favor. Lowry is such a pest in the paint.
27. The Chase Budinger Mini Revival
It looked for the better part of two seasons like knee injuries might end Budinger’s time as an NBA-level player. But he perked up toward the end of the season, when injuries cleared some playing time for him across three positions. He got cooking from deep in March and April, including during some stints as a small-ball power forward, and even flashed the kind off-the-dribble bounce that once got him into dunk contests.
28. Adreian Payne’s Left Hand
I’ve no idea what to make of Payne yet. He has the reputation of a low-IQ player who doesn’t read the game well, but he has some obvious NBA skills — a workable jumper, the explosiveness to rise for emphatic putbacks, and some high-speed post moves he can finish with his left hand:
I’d rather have the lottery-protected pick Minnesota gave up for Payne, but I’m intrigued.
29. The Chop-Block Closeout
Every once in a while, you’ll see a player do something like this on a closeout:
What is this? Is it an attempt to distract the shooter by doing something so bizarre that it breaks his concentration — kind of like that famous high school inbounds gem in which a player barked like a dog?
30. Dante Exum, in the Passing Lanes
Exum didn’t really do anything on offense as a rookie. He was just kind of there, standing around, shooting the occasional spot-up 3. He’s still just 19, after all.
But he’s long for a point guard, and he showed glimpses of how he might use that wingspan to swipe pocket passes on the pick-and-roll:
That’s not a simple thing. If Exum overplays the pass, the opposing point guard has an easy driving lane, and the Jazz are toast. If he sticks close to his man, that passing lane is wide open. I can’t wait to see Exum in Year 2. The Jazz remain hopeful about him despite a discouraging rookie season.
31. When Headbands Get Knocked Off
It’s especially fun when this happens to a legit tough guy like DeMarcus Cousins or Zach Randolph. Some defender smacks them on the dome, the headband flies off, and the victim just sneers and tosses the headband into the crowd. It’s like Jerry Lawler pulling the strap down — a sign that an angry person is about to get serious.
32. Jonas Valanciunas, Jumping at Passes
The best big-man defenders talk about how important it is to hold their cards close to their vest as a ball handler drives toward them. Guys like Andrew Bogut and Tyson Chandler don’t leave their feet until the very last minute — not even when that ball handler picks up his dribble, fakes a shot, or turns his head toward some potential passing target nearby. Leap to reject a shot that never comes, and that big man leaves an easy drop-off pass open. Better to just let that ball handler take a semi-contested floater — a tough shot.
Valanciunas is still learning the art of waiting. Wily ball handlers prod him into jumping early at nonthreatening actions, freeing up easy bang-bang plays that lead to layups and dunks:
Valanciunas is still young, but his progress on defense has been slow.
33. The Goran Dragic Moonwalk
A post like this wouldn’t be complete without some homage to one of the league’s great tricksters. Watch Dragic start a typical point guard cut across the elbows, lull his defender into assuming Dragic will complete the cut, and then hit reverse:
Dragic’s departure from Phoenix was ugly, but he remains one of the league’s most electrifying players.
34. Michael Carter-Williams’s Defense
Something to monitor as Milwaukee chases a first-round upset: Carter-Williams has the look of a good defender, but he’s actually kind of a train wreck on that end. Mundane fakes juke him way out of position, he smacks into picks on and off the ball, cheats way too far under the ones he manages to avoid, and makes some wild, unnecessary help rotations.
Milwaukee’s ultra-aggressive scheme is based on exaggerated help, and Carter-Williams has the size and speed to recover fast from mistakes. But he can get out of control in ways that compromise the structure of Milwaukee’s defense. The raw materials of a good defender are here, but there is a lot of refinement still to go.
35. The End of the Regular Season