So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever. This week, we’re writing about our favorite players after about 25 games of the 2014-15 season.
Chris Ryan: If Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka stay healthy, the Thunder are winning the Finals this year. The scariest thing in the league should be these three playing with lowered expectations. They’ve won seven straight, and are now just behind New Orleans in the race for the Western Conference playoffs. “All the questions are whether we are going to get a higher [seed] now … It ain’t no more about if we’re going to make the playoffs.”
Russell Westbrook said that to Yahoo’s Marc Spears. Let me revise what I just said. The scariest thing in the world isn’t OKC’s Big 3 playing with lowered expectations. It’s Russell Westbrook playing. Period. Westbrook is still putting down barbaric yawp dunks like the one above. He is averaging a stupid 32 and eight, per 36 minutes. Oh, and he’s recommitted to defense. “I defend every night, but I told myself in the summer time that I really needed to lock back in defensively and try to be the best defensive player in the league,” he told USA Today‘s Sam Amick.
Russell Westbrook dunking on people’s souls is what Christmas is all about. But Russy deciding to play like a Wolverine on defense is like the part in Die Hard when John McClane writes, “Now I Have a Machine Gun … Ho Ho Ho” on that Nakatomi Plaza terrorist. You should just steer clear.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Robert Mays: For the past three years, everything I knew about Nikola Mirotic, I knew from YouTube. That entire stretch, Bulls fans were sold on the idea that the best player in Europe was coming to Chicago — someday. After one of Chicago’s 82-point outings, in a place like Atlanta or Toronto, there was some consolation in watching a few minutes of a 6-foot-10 guy drilling 3s better than anyone on Chicago’s roster.
What doesn’t come through in highlights, and what’s made watching Mirotic these first 25 games my favorite part of this season, are the little things. Yes, the guy can shoot. A little slump has him at 33 percent from 3, but it’s clear that he can fill it up from out there. But shooting is an afterthought when it comes to what he has added for the Bulls. The guy plays like a maniac.
Part of the reason his shooting has been shaky is that he’s often shot-faking defenders out of existence. It’s enough to drive the “Shoot the ball!” crowd crazy, but it also ends with him constantly barreling toward the rim. And when he finishes those off with a little wraparound to Pau Gasol or by launching himself into a defender and onto the free throw, the shot-fake life gets easier to live with. It’s the same on the other end of the floor. His steal rate for a big man — 1.1 percent — is crazy, and it’s a product of amazing hands that never stop moving. Whether it’s snatching the ball away, tapping a rebound, or corralling a pass as he sprints the length of the court right to the rim, he comes away with balls he really shouldn’t. On a team with Derrick Rose and the ascending Jimmy Butler, the most exciting part of Bulls games is when Mirotic is on the floor.
The best part, though, the part that showed up in the preseason and has carried through: Nikola Mirotic couldn’t be less afraid. If he’s 0-for-4, he doesn’t shy away from trying to make it 1-of-5. I guess that’s the benefit to being an MVP, someone who’s been the reason a lot of games were won. He plays like he belongs, and so far, he’s right.
Andrew Sharp: There are several Wizards I could have chosen (Wall, Pierce, Beal, RASUAL), and a few others who have been just as great (Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Monta Ellis), but all of that would be a lie. No player from the past two months has brought me more pure joy than Uncle Dre.
The way he waddles up the court is reason enough for any NBA fan to pledge allegiance forever. He might become the first player in NBA history to make it through a full season without ever actually running. And it works! Look at him dribble circles around Shabazz Napier. He’s everything you could want from a backup point guard, steadying the second unit for about 15 minutes a night — the perfect slow-motion mind-fuck for defenses who just got done with John Wall.
Is it even possible to not love Andre Miller? Look at his offseason training regimen, courtesy of David Thorpe:
“I have no regimen,” Miller says. After the season ends, so does Miller’s working out — no weights, no cardio, no nothing. “I really don’t pick up a basketball.”
Eating right also falls by the wayside. “(My diet) isn’t healthy at all,” Miller says. “Hamburgers, hot links on the Fourth of July, all that.”
… But he’s gotta start dieting as the season gets closer, right?
To control his weight, however, Miller uses old-fashioned discipline. “I starve myself,” he says.
It is impossible to not love Andre Miller. How does he still get to the rim? Why isn’t he getting destroyed on defense every night? These are questions that will never have answers. He’s the knuckleball pitcher of basketball. He might play like this forever.
On Tuesday he missed a putback dunk, and people were tweeting at me like I should be embarrassed. Are you kidding? Does YOUR favorite team have a 48-year-old point guard who just tried to turn into Russell Westbrook? That was amazing. This is worth 100 Westbrook putbacks.
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This is the essential joy of Uncle Dre. Everything he does on a basketball court will make you smile. Sometimes he’s face-planting on defense to start the fourth quarter, other times he’s throwing a pinpoint game-winning alley-oop to end it. Either way, the experience never disappoints. Whenever he retires, I will be legitimately heartbroken.
But he’s never retiring, so we’re good.
Jason Concepcion: The Milwaukee Bucks have been a welcome surprise in the Eastern Conference, where pretty much the only thing that’s been unexpected is how much shittier things have gotten. Stan Van Gundy’s Motor City reclamation project has run into more structural rot than anyone foresaw, and the Hornets went from strutting free-agency crackerjacks to the living embodiment of an “I’ve made a huge mistake” meme.
Meanwhile, the Bulls and Toronto are essentially the traditional powers at this point. Atlanta continues its trajectory as the less-talented version of the Spurs, for people who can’t get enough Spurs. Cleveland is steadily jelling into the offensively potent, defensively suspect chemistry experiment that many expected it to be. And everyone else is more or less as bad as anticipated.
Then there are the Bucks. And, sure, maybe I’ve spoken too soon, what with Jabari Parker’s blue-chip rookie-of-the-year season unexpectedly scuttled by a torn ACL. But still, Jason Kidd, the Tywin Lannister1 of the NBA coaching fraternity, has the Bucks playing a top-10 defense and is looking more and more like a legit talented tactician. And a large — like 6-foot-11 and still growing large — part of the Bucks’ surprising start has been the continued evolution of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Gut-stabs Lawrence Frank to solidify his power, leading to a small-ball-infused, post–New Year’s turnaround for Brooklyn, after which he instigates an attempted putsch against Billy King that’s, in retrospect, as close of a thing to heads-I-win, tails-you-lose, in recent NBA memory. Usurp King, and Kidd runs the Nets. Fail, and he frees himself from a historically expensive nursing home for bad contracts and old players.
What I love about Giannis’s play so far is that the better he gets, the less idea I have of what he might become. Sometimes, the sky’s the limit. Other times, the sky’s infinite.
In his second season, Giannis has shown signs of turning into a human wormhole — all infinite limbs and impossible strides, twisting our conception of space inside out. Coach Lannister has Giannis playing mostly power forward, and the shift closer to the basket shows in the Greek Freak’s shooting numbers. Giannis was a passable 3-point shooter last season, but, this year, he has all but eschewed 3s in favor of doing things like covering roughly 35 feet of space in two stupefyingly elastic bounds. Last season, 48 percent of Giannis’s made shots came from within three feet of the basket; this season it’s 58 percent, and the average distance of his shots has gone from 10.8 feet to 6.5. He’s converting those shots at a higher rate: 57 percent last season, a scary 66 percent this season. Antetokounmpo had 61 dunks total last season; through 25 games this season, he’s already at 34 dunks.
Last night, Giannis fell awkwardly and had to leave the game. So far, the injury seems as if it’s only an ankle sprain. Good. The winter in Milwaukee is cold enough on its own.
Kirk Goldsberry: Mike Conley is left-handed. That’s not why he’s my favorite player so far this season. He’s my favorite player because with 30 seconds left in the biggest game of his season to date, he hit this floater with his right hand.
Conley is the most unheralded great point guard in the NBA right now. In this sense he fits right in on the Grizzlies. Marc Gasol is unheralded; Zach Randolph is unheralded; Tony Allen is unheralded; Courtney Lee is unheralded; Dave Joerger is unheralded; you get the idea. Conley is the best point guard for a team that might unherald itself all the way to the NBA championship. Not only does he play good offense, good defense, and rarely turn the ball over, he also wears hats made of wood.
Danny Chau: Josh Smith is Detroit’s least valuable player — the team’s point differential per 100 possessions gets close to a nine-point boost the second Smith heads to the bench, which is unbelievable for a player who gets that much playing time. He’s shooting the ball worse than he ever has or ever will in his life. The Pistons are one of the most depressing teams in the NBA, and Smith is its biggest detriment, which is saying a lot, because he has teammates who do this. And yet I still rarely pass on an opportunity to watch him play.
I wouldn’t say I have a type, but the NBA players that fascinate me the most are the uncompromising ones. The ones who are incontrovertibly themselves: players like Westbrook, Kobe, Rondo. Players like Josh Smith. Both Kobe and Rondo have cost their teams games because of their stubbornness, but you live with those results, because those guys are systems unto themselves. Smith is not a system. He doesn’t make sense. He is cesium, and sense is water. Fighting injuries and creeping irrelevancy, he’s still a stats monster. Yeah, they’re the emptiest numbers in the league, but still, they’re numbers we’ve never seen before.
And that’s what keeps me coming back. His outright refusal to be the player everyone wants him to be is, to me, an incredible viewing experience. It’s been 7.5 years since Smith first worked on his post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon. He has the rare combination of power, agility, and length to actually take Olajuwon’s notes and apply them in some meaningful way. Watching him dance around down on the block, you hope Julius Randle ends up doing the same things once he’s healthy. But more than a third of Josh Smith’s attempts come from 16 feet and beyond, which has been the case for years. And you just wonder why. That wonder has been enough to keep me engaged. He’s a (basketball career) murder mystery. Josh Smith is my Broadchurch, even if he’s more of a Gracepoint. He is my Serial. And like Sarah Koenig, I’m willing to go down this road without any promises that I’ll find the answers I’m looking for.
Jason Gallagher: Tyson Chandler has been a huge reason for Dallas’s success this year. He’s been a resourceful cog in Rick Carlisle’s flow offense, and his high defensive I.Q. has been crucial to the Dallas defense. No, really, Dallas has a defense. As bad as the Mavs are on D, imagine it without Tyson. Scary, right?
Perhaps Tyson’s greatest gift to the Mavs is his strategic help defense, as highlighted in this wonderful piece by Rob Mahoney:
“I’m watching other players,” Chandler said. “I’m watching the guards. I’m watching every position. I’m watching sets. In the NBA, every set is the same. Every team runs the same thing. I’m watching the mistakes that others make and understanding how to fill holes. So if I see guards on the floppy action constantly getting beat one way, I go, ‘OK, this is how I can give him half a second to recover.’ For most cases out there, especially now in the league, I’m not really guarding my man. I’m guarding the other four men on the court.”
The most interesting thing Chandler talks about here is giving his guards “half a second to recover.” There are several examples this season of Chandler giving his team that half-second, and even more examples of the Mavs still finding a way to screw that up. No play exemplifies Tyson strategically helping his defense like this one:
Chandler called this amazing piece of basketball art “strategic,” so let’s go ahead and break down the strategy here.
The Mavs fail to take advantage of Marreese Speights’s missing shoe. They settle for a contested 16-footer from Jae Crowder. Not the best start.
Due to Crowder’s jumper, the Dubs now have the opportunity to run in transition. The Mavs, on the other hand, are crab-walking.
Dallas’s group of youngsters runs back for some unadulterated transition defense. As Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run the floor, R.J. is horse trotting on the other side.
If only the Mavs could get into their set defense.
CHRISTMAS COMES EARLY. CHANDLER SHOE BLOCK: WHERE AMAZING HAPPENS. HALF-SECONDS ARE PURCHASED FOR HIS TEAMMATES.
The Mavs defense is now set. The Dubs are down a player. It appears that Chandler’s strategic help defense is a success. Now it’s up to his teammates to do their jobs.
Crowder commits a senseless foul in seconds. Dead ball. The defining sound of palms to faces can be heard around the world. Shoe back on. Warriors score. Warriors win.
Again, just imagine this Mavs defense without Tyson Chandler, and you’re bound to appreciate him even more.