We’re done with the NBA geek’s midseason triathlon: the bleary-eyed madness of All-Star Weekend, the salary-cap gymnastics of the trade deadline, and the brain-bending MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It’s time to burn the pocket protectors and have some fun with our second-annual celebration of my favorite players to watch in the NBA this season. Let’s get all official and give this column a name: the Marc Gasol All-Stars.
Gasol isn’t on the team this year, since he has missed 23 games and is still playing himself back into peak trickster watchability. That’s part of the fun in this list — injuries, age, and plain old miserable play will strip away several regular candidates, while new names will rise up in their place.
Reminder: We use the same rules as the fans and coaches in selecting the 12-man All-Star rosters. I’ve tried to steer away from actual All-Stars and superstars, since there is no real value in anyone telling you it might be enjoyable to check out this Kevin Durant dude.1
I’ve also tried my best to avoid players to whom I’ve given previous attention specifically for their watchability, but that wasn’t always possible.
G Goran Dragic (cocaptain): I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: Dragic has been the most electrifying player to watch in the NBA this season, full stop. It is crazy to watch Dragic today and remember that his earliest NBA coaches had to urge him out of what seemed an ingrained timidity.
You want to see perhaps the most fearless performances in the NBA this season? Cue up the Suns’ two-game sweep of Indiana and watch, jaw agape, as Dragic sizes up Roy Hibbert near the basket, puts his head down, and zooms right the fuck at the league’s best rim protector. Hibbert scares the bejesus out of everyone. LeBron developed a floater for use exclusively against Hibbert, and he rarely goes to the rim against the big fella until the last two minutes of a close game in which Indiana has smashed the other parts of Miami’s offense to pieces.
Dragic didn’t give a crap. He just went right at Hibbert, and everyone else in his way this season. And the rim attacks highlight what makes Dragic so fun to watch: He’s effective both at full throttle in the open court and at slower speeds in tighter spaces. Watch his pick-and-roll drives in the half court against Hibbert and the league’s other beasts, and you’ll see Dragic use a hesitation dribble to get the big man to stand up straight — allowing Dragic to blow right past him. And if that doesn’t work, Dragic might continue on to the rim with a lefty drive, dip his right shoulder into the big’s chest, clear just enough space, and loft a lefty layup over the backpedaling post player.
He’s a wizard at all those small things — the killer step-back midrange jumper, prodding changes of direction on the pick-and-roll that confuse a defense trying to suss out help assignments on the back line:
Dragic should have made the All-Star team in the end. What a splendid season.
G Lance Stephenson: Stephenson’s game has taken on a bit of entitlement as he has felt his star rise over the last three months. He threw an on-court trash-talk tantrum against the Nets after the league’s coaches (correctly) snubbed him from the All-Star Game, and he’s let a bit of New York City highlight-chasing reenter his game — the high-step dribbles in transition, crazy behind-the-back passes, and meandering forays into the paint. Indiana’s meltdown in Orlando just before the All-Star break began with an irresponsible Stephenson cross-court behind-the-back pass in transition, and though lots of other stuff happened after that to doom Indiana, the Pacers were still quietly shaking their heads over Stephenson’s judgment hours after the game.
I never bought the notion that Indiana acquired Evan Turner as some sort of Stephenson free-agency insurance; Stephenson is much better than Turner, and the Pacers should use whatever means they have2 to re-sign Stephenson this summer instead of being content with Turner. But it wouldn’t shock me if the Pacers had the notion that Stephenson might at least see Turner as a threat and clean up his game in response.
The Pacers will have trouble re-signing Stephenson while staying under the luxury tax, but they could help themselves by salary-dumping Ian Mahinmi or Luis Scola — at cost.
The uptick in crazy has only made Stephenson more fun to watch from a neutral perspective. His rampages down the open court are terrifying, he backs down from no one on defense, and he has introduced a soft touch and subtle creativity to his off-the-bounce game around the rim.
If you ever get a chance to sit near the court at a Pacers road game, watch the way Stephenson interacts with fans who taunt him. He’s gregarious about it! He’ll cup his ears to hear more, feign anger, smile and applaud some good zingers, and even throw up his hands and make a sad face in mock offense. Just a great time.
FC Chandler Parsons: Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo now reminds me of watching Parsons’s rookie season in 2011-12. No one knew quite what to expect of Parsons in the NBA. He was the SEC Player of the Year, but he was “only” a second-round pick, and there was some division in Houston’s front office about whether he was the right selection at no. 38.
Watching him even in the first week of that season, one thing was clear: This kid could make next-level NBA passes, often in the tight confines of a half-court offense. That was no guarantee of success. But it showed that Parsons could process the speed of the NBA game, understand its spacing, and make advanced in-the-moment reads many veterans couldn’t. That boded well for Parsons’s ability to learn other NBA skills.
Antetokounmpo is so young, and so raw, but he can make the same sorts of passes. That is reason for optimism.
Parsons has indeed morphed into a wonderful all-around offensive player, though big holes remain in his game on defense. He’s still a very good passer, and though he’s not the speediest guy on the dribble, he has a fantastic sense of when Houston’s ball movement has bent an opposing defense just enough to open a driving crease that he can attack off the catch:
Parsons’s feet are moving before he even catches the ball, and he often gets a head start by running toward the ball while it’s in the air on its way to him. He’s a killer 3-point shooter who doesn’t need much space to launch, and his NBA intelligence translates into smart off-ball cutting. He might have the best pump fake in the league, always flirting with up-and-down violations on his tippy-toes.
FC Paul Millsap: Millsap might not be elite at any one thing on offense, but he has worked himself up to B-level mastery of just about everything. That makes for a very tough guy to guard, especially for the league’s plodding big guys.
Mike Budenholzer, a shooting zealot, has unleashed Millsap’s 3-point game, and that has only made Millsap a more difficult cover over larger swaths of territory. Run him off the line, and he has a surprisingly nifty off-the-dribble game, filled with crossovers, step-backs, and hesitation feints. That serves Millsap well against bigger defenders who aren’t vulnerable to his bullying back-to-the-basket game in the post; Millsap can simply catch the ball, face up, toss in a couple of jab steps, and go to work. He’s not an explosive athlete, but he’s springier than you think, and he’ll unleash the occasional vicious dunk.
He can do just about anything on the pick-and-roll — pop for a 3, slide down for a midrange jumper, catch and drive, or cut all the way to the rim like Tyson Chandler. And, hell, he may decide not to even set a pick in the first place:
He’s a skilled passer and a gritty defender long among the very best big men at swiping steals. Millsap has turned himself into a Swiss Army knife in the frontcourt.
FC Joakim Noah (cocaptain): A straight-up inspiration going through the very best stretch of his NBA life over the last two months. A lot has been written about the ugly issues within the Bulls — their mishandling of medical issues with Luol Deng and Omer Asik, the Vinny Del Negro–John Paxson shove-o-rama, the tension between the front office and Tom Thibodeau, etc.
But there is something very right with this team and its culture, and among the players, that begins with Noah’s selfless excellence. Chicago is 19-9 since the Deng trade, and its mechanical offense has actually scored at an above-average rate over the team’s current 9-2 stretch.
Noah has been one of the game’s great big-man passers for years, but what he’s doing now is ridiculous. He’s averaging about six assists per game over the last two months, and for the season, he has assisted on 23 percent of Chicago’s baskets while on the floor. Noah would become just the 11th player 6-foot-10 or taller to record an assist rate that high, per Basketball-Reference. He’s zipping the ball to backdoor cutters, pitching it to guys popping off screens, and lofting Taj Gibson pinpoint high-low dishes. He might be Chicago’s best transition ball handler.
He’s never going to be a big scorer, but he keeps defenses honest with dribble drives from the elbow and post-ups against smaller defenders. He’s done all of this under a huge minutes burden, without sacrificing an ounce of his all-world defense and rebounding. Noah is the most important non-Thibs cog in Chicago’s maniacally perfect scheme, and it’s time to at least consider him for Defensive Player of the Year and lower-rung spots on five-man MVP ballots.
G Kyle Korver: He’s still streaking, and if you ever want to enjoy an Atlanta game in a different way, just ignore the ball and watch Korver roam. You’ll see an entire defense bend toward a moving target, leaving open teammates in Korver’s wake and opening up driving lanes for Atlanta’s point guards.
He is the league’s most powerful non-star decoy in late-game situations. There have been crunch-time possessions on which another Atlanta player has scored precisely because all five defenders — all five! — have their heads turned toward Korver, or to the other player that has just come open because of Korver’s movement. And Budenholzer has loosed Korver with creative handoff actions like this one:
G Jamal Crawford: I’ve long picked on Crawford for his awful defense, but it’s time to laud him: Crawford has added some malleable efficiency and smart team defense to his annual package of spectacular highlights.
Those highlights form the basis of his inclusion here — the ankle-breaking crossovers, crazy step-backs, and 3-point bombs Crawford has to launch off your television screen to get them over defenders. He has hit a solid 37 percent from deep this season and gotten to the line at a career-best rate, even while Doc Rivers has had to constantly shift Crawford’s role because of injuries. Crawford has worked as both a bench gunner, running pick-and-rolls and flying off screens near the elbow, and as a secondary off-ball option next to Chris Paul in the starting lineup.
He’s still a bad defender. He can’t stay in front of anyone, bigger guards can destroy him in the post, and the Clippers have to hide him against the other team’s least threatening player. But away from the ball, Crawford has taken nicely to the strongside overload scheme Rivers imported from Boston. When he’s on the weak side, he understands when he has to shift into the paint on a help assignment, and he has generally timed those help-and-recover darts well.
That might not sound like much, and being in the right place doesn’t mean Crawford will do what he’s supposed to do effectively when he gets there. But just having a body in good help position at the right moment can make an offensive player pause, and Crawford has been up to it so far.
FC Channing Frye: Frye is the feel-good stand-in for all the league’s truly dangerous stretch power forwards — the no-brainer All-Stars too obvious to list here (Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki), and the slightly smaller version who has missed most of the season because of injury (Ryan Anderson).
A lot of teams shoehorn facsimiles of the stretch power forward into the role. But some of those guys either don’t shoot 3-pointers well enough to be of much danger, or need so much time to release the long ball as to be irrelevant against dialed-in defenses. Some are really just taller wings an opponent can exploit in the post on the other end.
But guys like Frye? They’re the real deal — big enough to defend power forwards (and centers, too, in Frye’s case), and with hyper-accurate 3-point shots they can release in an instant, and with a hand in their face. You have to scrap your entire game plan to account for these guys. Normally defend the pick-and-roll by having the big man guarding the screener drop down to protect the paint, like this?
Can’t do that against Phoenix, because it leaves Frye wide open and/or forces a third defender to fly at him from one of the corners.
Teams have to adapt by either switching defenders, creating two mismatches, or in some other way — perhaps by having Frye’s defender just stick to him, hoping other defenders can corral Dragic.
None of those adaptations are comfortable. Frye isn’t a post-up beast, but he’s good enough to score over smaller guys. There’s a reason Phoenix has put up nearly 113 points per 100 possessions when Dragic and Frye play together — way better than Miami’s league-best overall mark. They have been the most productive pick-and-roll combination in the league, per John Schuhmann at NBA.com.
Frye becomes dangerous just by setting a pick, and there are Phoenix baskets that happen three or four passes after that pick precisely because of how Frye’s initial screen scrambled the defense. A great comeback story.
FC Shawn Marion: You can learn a lot about basketball watching the long-armed Marion, even in his twilight. Teams don’t guard him on the perimeter, even though he’s hoisting those T-Rex 3-pointers again. That cramps Dallas’s spacing, but Marion has found ways to compensate — cutting backdoor from the corner when his defender ignores him, flashing into the middle of the paint for goofy floaters, and just moving around the court in smart ways.
He’s lost a step on defense, but he still has that massive wingspan, and the Mavs use him to guard four positions. He’ll go chest-to-chest with quicker wings on the perimeter, often swatting annoyingly at the ball like a cat going after yarn. He plays angles brilliantly.
He is one of the league’s most interesting and versatile players, and his ability to play power forward has freed Rick Carlisle to juggle Nowitzki’s rest periods in optimal ways.3 We’re going to miss Marion when he’s gone. And by the way: He’s built a fascinating Hall of Fame case.
Carlisle removes Nowitzki much earlier in the first and third quarters than is typical for a superstar, sliding Marion over to power forward in the process. That allows Carlisle to bring back Nowitzki when Dallas is playing more bench-heavy units in need of an offensive fulcrum.
FC Andrew Bogut: Bogut could make the team for defense alone, and not just because he’s mastered the art of concealing his dirty tricks from the officials.4 Bogut talks about “committing late” on defense. What he means: When a guard penetrates into the paint, Bogut will often stick to his own assignment or shift only halfway into help position. It will look as if the guard has a clean lane to the basket. Why is Bogut being so lazy!!???
Lots of other players try these little arm grabs, but few get away with them as often as Bogey.
What he’s really trying to do: impose indecision. The ball handler knows Bogut will slide over at some point, and the fear of that can paralyze most driving guards. Bogut’s hesitation, meanwhile, means the rolling big man is covered. That kind of stasis in the middle allows Golden State’s other defenders to stick by their own assignments.
Something has to give. Maybe the guard will surrender and launch a tough floater — exactly what Bogut wants. Maybe the little guy will find some bravery and go at the rim, at which point Bogut will shift into rim protector mode at the last possible moment and go for the block. A wily guard can try to slip a wraparound pass to Bogut’s man as Bogut is airborne, but those are tough dishes, and the Warriors will have help at the ready.
There aren’t many big men with the combination of balletic footwork, smarts, and conviction to create these little cat-and-mouse games. He’s been outstanding on defense all season; opponents are shooting just 44 percent at the rim when Bogut is near both the basket and the shooter, one of the stingiest marks among all big men.
He gets extra points for being able to bring the ball up, fancy interior passing, and always taking care to keep his shot blocks in bounds so the Dubs can retrieve them.
WC Al Jefferson: Let’s make it official: We’re calling him Prof. Al Jefferson, PhD, Post-up University, from here on out. Big Al and Prof. Andre Miller are the only two players in the league to earn academic titles in this space.
Professor Al5 is having perhaps the best all-around season of his career, carrying a heavier burden than ever for a Charlotte offense that dies without him. He’s still holding court on the left block, tricking hopeless fools with Randolphian footwork and the league’s most unfair two-handed pump fake.
Because, let’s face it, he’d encourage students to call him “Professor Al.”
Charlotte has Jefferson doing things a bit differently on the margins,6 but the arsenal is the same — jump hooks, instant-release push shots, midrange jumpers, up-and-unders, and killer drop steps. Professor Al is shooting nearly 50 percent on post-ups, and here’s the remarkable thing: He never shoots left-handed, even when NBA fundamentals say he should. Take these floaters he likes to launch after spinning back to the left baseline:
He’s incorporating more post-ups on the right block this season than normal, per Synergy.
This is a textbook lefty shot, but Jefferson always shoots it righty, even though doing so brings the ball back into traffic. He’s still not a good defender, but he fits better in Charlotte’s conservative scheme. We’re going to remember Professor Al as a delightfully unique player — an old-school post-up wizard who never turns the ball over.
WC Draymond Green: Green gets the last spot over a few guys whose entertainment value we’ve celebrated over the last year — Mike Conley, Patrick Beverley, James Johnson, Kyle O’Quinn, and others. Green can’t really shoot, and taller post-up guys can score over him on the block. But, holy hell, Green is tenacious on defense. He’s a brute to move in the post, and he has a fantastic pair of hands — both quick and strong. When Green reaches into traffic to chase a steal, he’s not just going to poke the ball away. He’s going to snatch it from you, keep possession, and take off on the break. He’s swiped two steals per 36 minutes this season, the seventh-highest mark among all players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes. The two-dozen such players who have cracked even 1.75 steals per 36 minutes are mostly guards.
Green moves his feet well and almost never gets out of balance or proper position, even against quicker players. He’s also turned himself into a nifty interior passer:
He’ll have to become a better jump-shooter to be a real heavy minutes rotation player, but Green has already earned a spot on this team.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Mike Scott’s Post Defense
Scott has had a nice season chucking 3-pointers, running the floor, and providing spacing for Budenholzer’s offense; he’s really on this list as a symbol for the demise of the injury-riddled Hawks, once the undisputed no. 3 team in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta was down to two healthy big men in Scott and Elton Brand before signing Mike Muscala over the weekend. Creativity and intellect are great, but that can only take you so far, even in the Eastern Conference, if you’re playing big minutes with DeMarre Carroll at power forward.7 Brand has been game despite his age, but Scott just doesn’t have the bulk and wherewithal to defend the post against starters. He’s overwhelmed, forcing the Hawks to send massive waves of help or risk easy baskets.
Atlanta has been so desperate it has even played short stints with Cartier Martin at power forward and Carroll at center.
Unfortunately, Scott isn’t much of a post threat on offense. Teams with skilled bigs can switch the Jeff Teague–Scott pick-and-roll, confident Scott won’t be able to do any damage on the block against a guard.
The Atlanta injuries, plus some decent play from the Cavaliers, have kept Cleveland semi-alive in the “race” for one of the conference’s last two playoff spots.8
The Hawks have already clinched the tiebreaker with Cleveland, if it comes to that.
2. Three-Card Monte
I will never get tired of this JumboTron game. You can put the token, usually a ball, under anything you want — baseball hats, soda cups, some other sponsored crap. I don’t care. For those 30 seconds, I am committing every fiber of my concentration to following the correct hat around the scoreboard. And, please, make the hats move as quickly as possible. Induce some seizures if that’s what it takes to make the game more challenging.
3. The End of Ben Gordon
Gordon in 2009 was one of the few NBA players capable of instilling sheer terror in entire fan bases. He had a couple of absolute bananas games in the insane Boston-Chicago first-round series that season, and when his quick-release 3-pointer wasn’t dropping, he could get in the lane with a pump fake and some herky-jerky moves.
Everyone knew it was a stretch for Joe Dumars to pour big money into Gordon, but nobody expected this — a total demise on the court, and a reputation as such a locker-room cancer that Charlotte intentionally waived Gordon hours after the deadline by which a player must be waived in order to be playoff-eligible. That’s cold.
Gordon’s almost 31, so it’s natural for him to have lost a step. But that can be fatal for an undersize shooter who needs space, and it doesn’t help that Gordon often blatantly failed to try on defense. What a collapse.
4. Taj Gibson’s Up-and-Under
I’ve praised the growth of Gibson’s post-up game before, and he has mastered one particular move with pleasing fluidity:
Gibson has propped up Chicago’s second units, and he pairs with Noah to form perhaps the most imposing big-big defensive force in the NBA.
5. Watching Anthony Randolph Sputter
Brian Shaw, scrambling for any spark as Denver’s season poops away, will inevitably unearth Randolph every few games for a major rotation stint. He even started Randolph at small forward in two games after the trade deadline. You can guess how that went.
Randolph is essentially the same player he was five years ago, when we were all so intrigued: a jittery, out-of-control pile of limbs that doesn’t know what to do with itself. He can’t shoot, he turns the ball over a ton, and when he dribbles, he does so without any purpose. All hope seems lost.
6. Alec Burks’s Shot Selection
This cuts two ways: Burks is attacking the rim with more confidence, and that’s good! A full 41 percent of his shots have come in the restricted area, up from 33 percent last season, per NBA.com.
The flip side: Only 15.4 percent of his field goal attempts have come from 3-point range, down from nearly 24 percent last season. Recognizing limits is healthy, but Burks has to at least think about shooting on plays like this:
Things like this happen regularly. Burks has hit about 35 percent of his career 3-pointers, a hair below the league’s overall average, and he’s generally not a shy offensive player. If you’re open, let it fly!
7. “Shuffled His Shoes”
Fred McLeod, the Cavs’ play-by-play guy, will occasionally break out this catchphrase when an opposing player commits a traveling violation: “Oh, he shuffled his shoes!”
I like it! The Cleveland broadcast team has really grown on me this season. I did not expect that.
8. The Majestic Monta Finger Roll
Hypothesis: Monta Ellis has the best finger roll in the league today:
There is something majestic about the way he holds the ball so far from his body, even in traffic, and keeps his arm extended while he’s airborne. He also picks up his dribble on the move with just one hand, never even using his left hand to balance the ball for a split second. Ellis has always been a stylish player, but this is his coup de grâce.
9. The D.J. Augustin Pirouette
Augustin has been doing this for years, and it’s a piece of NBA flair that drives me batty for reasons I can’t really articulate:
Kirk Hinrich will do it once in a while, too, and it’s not making Chicago any prettier to watch. The move might have some ostensible purpose. It could get Augustin into a proper rhythm as he starts the first real action of a possession, and the change in direction might confuse an opposing defense.
Meh. The little spin happens so early in a possession, and so far from the paint, that I doubt it has any impact at all on the defense.
But, hey: Augustin has resurrected his career in Chicago, another bit of proof that NBA success can sometimes come at the intersection of ability and one glaring team need. Good for him. Just stop spinning!
10. The Aborted Shot-Clock Buzzer
Sometimes a team will be on the verge of a shot-clock violation, only to turn the ball over or hoist an air ball that the defense rebounds just as the shot clock is about to expire. If the defense has gained full control of the ball, there has been no shot-clock violation.
The bang-bang of events can happen so quickly that the shot-clock buzzer will begin to sound as the rebounding team prepares to bring the ball upcourt. In those cases, the timekeeper will halt the buzzer sound more abruptly than usual so as not to interrupt the action. You get a brief burst of noise instead of a prolonged ringing.
And you know what that aborted buzzer sounds like? A game show “wrong answer” buzzer, similar to the “strike” sound effect on Family Feud.
I like game shows. I enjoy Family Feud, and I especially enjoy the use of obnoxious noises to point out someone’s humorous bumbling on national television. (I may or may not have an aggressive trigger finger on the Taboo buzzer.) So, naturally, I enjoy the aborted shot-clock buzzer.