These are normally the dog days of the NBA season — the slog after the All-Star break, when seedings are set, tanking teams drop the pretenses, and we project first-round matchups that won’t materialize for weeks. It’s the perfect time for something fun, which is why we reserve this window for our annual Marc Gasol All-Stars — the 12-man roster honoring the guys I’ve enjoyed watching most this season.
Only the NBA is so damn good this year, there will be no dog days. We have the tightest MVP race in at least a decade; a battle for the no. 8 seed in the West featuring two historically unique freaks putting up historically freaky stat lines; a legitimately entertaining four-team battle for the last two playoff spots in the East; and the high comedy of the looming pick swap between the Hawks and Nets.
Still: Traditions matter, and it’s time to name the third-annual Gasol team. Three rules:
1. I use the same restrictions as fans and coaches do in selecting the real All-Star teams.
2. I try my best to avoid actual All-Stars, though I make exceptions. We all know Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook make you leap off the couch.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
Guard: Kyrie Irving
Early in the season, I told Mr. Simmons on a podcast that I didn’t really enjoy watching Kyrie Irving play basketball. He’s a score-first one-on-one player at heart, and though he can make the basic point guard reads out of the pick-and-roll, he hasn’t learned to probe for next-level passes along the same trajectory as John Wall and Westbrook. He will never bring the purist appeal of Gasol picking out cutters from the elbow or Ricky Rubio bending defenses in ways that open up a specific pass they’re not expecting.
And you know what? I don’t care anymore. I was wrong about Irving’s watchability. I was being snobby. This dude is electrifying, and playing Robin in a Batman LeBron-centric offense balances out his game. He was born to be the league’s best secondary attacker. A lot of Irving’s pick-and-rolls come after LeBron has used one to slice into the defense, meaning that when James kicks the ball out, Irving is looking at a scrambled opponent. The Cavs will sometimes give him an even bigger head start by setting flare screens as the defense converges on LeBron with the ball:
Irving has drilled 44 percent of catch-and-shoot 3s, vindicating those of us who thought his bricky numbers on those shots last season were fluky.
He’s not just a secondary attacker. Irving has the freedom to demolish defenses on his own in the right situations. He runs the offense when LeBron rests, and the Cavs let him fly when he brings the ball up in semi-transition against backpedaling defenses. And if he has a favorable one-on-one matchup — which is to say if he has any matchup at all — Cleveland is happy ceding the floor to him.
Irving is shooting 47 percent on isolation plays and generating 1.1 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. Among players with at least 50 isolation possessions, only Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki have been more efficient going rogue, and there might not be a single player in the league who can stay in front of Irving. Look what he does to Kawhi Leonard — KAWHI LEONARD — after a LeBron-Irving pick-and-roll generates a switch:
The ability to pull up in that in-between space and hit an off-balance floater — that’s unfair. He shoots from weird places. He launches off of one leg, and sometimes off of the wrong leg. He shoots righty and lefty, uses every inch of the glass on his highlight layups, and can hit shots when he can barely see the rim:
How are you supposed to defend that? When you can penetrate the defense so easily, you don’t have to be an ace passer to find an open man — especially since most of Cleveland’s lineups feature four shooters and just one traditional big guy. Irving has also become better at threading pocket passes to the screener on the pick-and-roll. After a slow start, Cleveland’s offense is scoring at a borderline top-five rate when Irving plays without LeBron — and lighting it up at historic rates when they share the floor, per NBA.com. (The defense is a different story.)
I can’t wait to see this dude in the playoffs.
G: Isaiah Thomas
Can you win sixth man of the year if one team trades you because you kind of annoyed your teammates? I think you can. Boston seems thrilled to have Thomas, a mighty mite who uses trickery to finish a preposterous percentage of his shots around the rim considering his size. He freezes big men on the pick-and-roll with perhaps the league’s most convincing hesitation dribble and a deadly left-to-right crossover.
Once he’s in the lane, Thomas has a bottomless bag of flip shots, floaters, semi-hooks, up-and-unders, and other devices he uses — with both hands — to get the ball around and over players who stand at least a foot taller. Thomas is small, but he’s damn strong, and he uses his body to create enough space to release those softy bunnies. If you’re in front of him on the break, he might dribble into your chest, hit you with a little shove, and lay the ball in as you fall out of bounds:
If you’re riding his hip from behind, Thomas will jut his ass and legs backward into your body and back you up just enough so that he can flick up a full-extension shot.
He’s a bit of ball hog, and it frustrates some guys to stand wide open while Thomas launches a step-back jumper. There are two or three shots a game he should pocket in order to feed hungry teammates who get open because of his penetration. That is the flip side of being a fearless gunner.
Only Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have scored more fourth-quarter points per game this season, and Boston’s offense is humming with Thomas running the show. The C’s have piled up nearly 109 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor, and have managed just 97 when he’s on the bench. Thomas is killing it in the pick-and-roll for Boston, and the C’s have provided him with pristine spacing — often slotting Thomas into small lineups with Jonas Jerebko at power forward.
Thomas wants to start, but his destiny may be life as a score-first bench spark plug who can carry a crunch-time offense on good days. And that’s fine from the team perspective. Thomas earns about $6.8 million per year on a declining four-year deal that will look like a misprint once the cap jumps in 2016-17. A few folks around the league wondered why Boston boosted its playoff chances by snagging Thomas at the deadline, but to get a player this good for a 2016 Cavs first-rounder and Marcus Thornton’s expiring contract is a goddamned heist. It’s not as if Boston would have picked in the top five, anyway.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images
Frontcourt: Kawhi Leonard
Oh my god. The Finals MVP missed time with eye and hand injuries, but over the last three weeks, he has looked like a complete two-way terror — a 20-point scorer knocking down pull-ups and floaters while imprisoning whatever poor opponent happens to draw him on the other end.
Seriously: If you are anything but an expert ball handler and you are dribbling within a 20-foot radius of Leonard right now, PASS THE BALL IMMEDIATELY. Leonard is the league’s best perimeter defender, and he belongs in the defensive player of the year conversation despite missing a third of the season so far. He’s the unofficial captain of my Mirror Guy team for defenders who move in such precise concert with their marks that it almost looks as if the offensive player is working against a reflection of himself. Good luck shooting against him in the paint.
The Spurs have played a long game with Leonard’s offense, as they do with everything. He has had more leeway to go one-on-one and pause the Spurs’ whirring system while sizing up the pick-and-roll landscape:
It hasn’t always paid off. Leonard mostly settles for pull-up 2s, and his shooting percentage has dipped accordingly from almost everywhere. But things are coming together at the right time, because, duh, these are the Spurs and Gregg Popovich is our overlord. Leonard is shooting 42 percent on pull-up 2s, it’s a very solid number, he’s getting to the line more, and he looks more comfortable dishing the kinds of interior passes that make the Spurs go:
He can make long 20-foot pull-ups and delicate 10-footers, using both floaters and an abbreviated version of his jump shot form on those shorter shots — an underrated skill. Leonard is the team’s best player right now, and it’s not all that close. I bet he makes the All-Star team next season, provided he rediscovers his 3-point shot.
FC: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
If you don’t like MKG, you probably leave your dog’s poop on the sidewalk, stand on the left side of escalators, and play your iPod so loudly on the subway that we can all hear the terrible music you like. That is to say, if you don’t like MKG, I question your basic human values.
He’s another Mirror Guy, only with even more in-your-jersey ferociousness. He wants to be the greatest defender in NBA history. That’s his goal — not to score 20 per game or make 10 All-Star teams, but to be the best defender ever. How can you not root for that? The Hornets saved their season by buckling down on defense in January when Al Jefferson got hurt, and MKG has kept them humming on that end since.
And he never stops competing, to the point where you almost worry for his physical health. He rebounds on both ends like a power forward, and the Hornets have used him a bit there with Al Jefferson hurt again. He is a superhuman transition defender, chasing plays on which others would quit:
His remade jumper is working better, but the 3-point arc still seems miles away, and nobody guards him as he hovers 18 feet from the basket. He’s still a net negative for Charlotte’s spacing.1 But MKG has learned to leverage the defense’s inattention, and the Hornets are scoring more efficiently with him on the floor.2
This has cost him crunch-time minutes, though it has become clear that Charlotte needs him on the floor — especially given the alternatives.
That doesn’t quite happen when MKG plays without Jefferson, but it does when Kemba Walker sits — thanks largely to Mo Williams’s splendid turn so far in Charlotte.
Watch Kidd-Gilchrist burn the Kings when Omri Casspi ditches him to patrol a Marvin Williams pick-and-pop:
Casspi can’t regain his balance after finding Kidd-Gilchrist at the end of a cut, and MKG has been hunting little seams like this all season. It’s hard to attack and finish when guys sag off of you, but MKG has learned to drive into their bodies, spin off of contact, and finish with runners off the glass. Love MKG or die.
FC: Marc Gasol
He is the team’s namesake, after all, and he’s back after a one-year injury hiatus. I’ve spent enough pixels lionizing the game’s most splendid all-around big man, so let’s just highlight two things here:
1. It’s always cute when big men run fast breaks, but the cuteness in some cases stems from the “fat-guy touchdown” effect — the anticipation that this behemoth will screw things up or bowl someone over.
When Marc Gasol runs a fast break, he runs the damn thing:
2. Kelvin Sampson, formerly the lead assistant in Houston, once told me that one of the first things he looks for in a rim protector is the ability to “ignore the fluff” — to sniff out the decoy action happening on one side of the floor and focus on the real attack elsewhere. Sampson was talking about a 21-year-old Anthony Davis, but Gasol might lead the league in seeing through opponent fakery.
Gorgui Dieng is setting some bogus pin-down for Kevin Martin on the right side while Andrew Wiggins slips in from the left? Gasol knows your game, Flip Saunders:
Watch Gasol sneer at an Eric Gordon pin-down along the left side, focus his attention on Brow’s roll to the rim, and then pivot back when the Pellies settle for a Gordon–Omer Asik action:
Marc Gasol 4eva.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
G: Dwyane Wade
Wade’s old-man smarts within Miami’s uneven pace-and-space offense, now somehow featuring heavy doses of Henry Walker, are propping up his individual numbers as his hops fade. Wade’s shooting a tidy 42 percent out of the pick-and-roll this season, but he’s tossing away turnovers at a dangerous rate and settling mostly for low-efficiency mid-range jumpers.
He’s a slithery defender navigating screens,3 but his commitment to defense comes and goes; Wade still approaches getting back in transition like a sulky kid asked to rake the leaves.
Pick-and-roll ball handlers guarded by Wade have fared miserably this season, though that stat is team-dependent to a large degree.
But, man, does Wade have a glorious old-man game. He can’t dial up the athleticism anymore, so he relies on fakes, hesitation dribbles, and a silky touch off the glass. Look at all the tools Wade breaks out to score on the pick-and-roll:
He continues to make a Jordan-style old-man migration to the post, where he draws regular double-teams, and all the off-ball cutting he did with LeBron serves him well — especially with Goran Dragic on hand to take over more ballhandling:
He’s still humiliating fools with his pump fake, even though he’s a bad long-range shooter. (The starting five on the All-Pump-Fake/No-Shot team has to include Wade, Andrea Bargnani, and Pero Antic.) He uses smarts to earn all of the free throws — nearly seven per 36 minutes — that sustain his fading efficiency. He gets to the line on 19 percent of his isolation attacks, one of the best marks in the league, per Synergy.
Wade just has style. Jogging looks like effort for some guys, but Wade appears as if he’s floating over the floor. His game has all kinds of elegant quirks, including a sideways no-look pitch pass he uses to swing the ball around:
Each lob pass to Hassan Whiteside is a small piece of basketball art. The Heat are hanging around the playoff race, and Wade has kept their offense afloat all season; they’re scoring at a borderline top-10 rate with Wade on the floor, and they collapse when he sits.
G: Gerald Henderson
Hendo isn’t for everyone, but it’s mesmerizing to watch a wing who belongs in the 1980s try to fit into the modern game. Henderson is like the NBA’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Your 3-point arc and intricate spacing frighten and confuse me!
Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist make for spacing death, but Henderson wrings everything out of a skill set that may never include a reliable 3-point shot — a limitation that cost him his rotation spot for a bit earlier in the season. He can pop off screens and run sideline pick-and-rolls, and though they’ll mostly yield pull-up 2s if Henderson keeps the ball, he’s at least a decent midrange shooter. If you squint hard enough at Henderson’s post game, all shoulder fakes and fadeaways, you can see Kobe Bryant.
When he doesn’t shoot, Henderson’s a solid and selfless passer who keeps the offense flowing. He’s a strong defender at both wing positions, and he always does his job within Steve Clifford’s scheme. Kidd-Gilchrist might have learned his “Oh, you’re not paying attention to me?” cuts from Henderson:
Henderson will unleash a vicious tomahawk dunk when you least expect it — sometimes in traffic. He is one of the NBA’s random great in-game dunkers.
GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images
FC: Rudy Gobert
The linchpin of the NBA’s stingiest defense since the All-Star break is coming to knock down your buildings, eat your children, and steal your city’s food supply. I’ve delved into the Stifle Tower before, and you all know that opponents are shooting just 39 percent on shots near the basket when Gobert is around — the lowest mark among all rotation bigs.
Watching Utah try to squeeze out points with the Gobert–Derrick Favors big-man combo is one of the next great NBA adventures. The outcome will eventually determine the ceiling of this rising Jazz team. Utah has scored at a bottom-10 rate with that duo on the floor, and they’ve been even worse than that since dealing Enes Kanter.
Gobert and Favors are both at their best diving to the rim, and that doesn’t figure to change even as they each stretch their skill set. There are possessions in every Utah game when they collide in the paint.
But other such big-man combos have made it work. Both Gobert and Favors are comfortable facilitating from the elbow, and Favors has honed his midrange jumper and post game. Utah’s recent success with Rodney Hood in the starting lineup could hint at what might come if Utah can put enough playmakers on the floor with Gobert and Favors. Remember: Alec Burks will be back next season.
Gobert is a skilled passer on the move, and he has accepted the fact that he’s not going to touch the ball on offense much. Trey Burke passes to Gobert on only 8.8 percent of the pick-and-rolls they run together, one of the lowest figures in the league, according to SportVU data provided to Grantland. Gordon Hayward, by far Utah’s best offensive player, hits Gobert only about 13 percent of the time.
In the mold of Tyson Chandler, Gobert is a selfless space-sucker, and he appears OK with that. But when he does get the ball, he’s winding up to dunk from about a foot over the rim, and he wants to hurt you. Gobert has worked his way into the conversations about defensive player of the year, most improved player, and sixth man of the year.
FC: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It’s not just the blow-your-mind physical acts — going coast-to-coast in four dribbles, Eurostepping from the 3-point arc for a dunk, and (kind of) filling all five positions. It’s that on any given possession, the Greek Freak can look like he knows nothing and everything at once. He is an empty vessel, and in a blink, he is one vision of modern basketball fulfilled.
Antetokounmpo can’t shoot yet, so defenders play way off of him — kind of a problem for Milwaukee’s spacing now that Michael Carter-Williams, another nonshooter, runs the offense in place of Brandon Knight.4 A Milwaukee ball handler will penetrate the paint, find it walled off, and kick the rock to Antetokounmpo, who will just kind of stand there, afraid to shoot, holding the ball as his defender sets up shop. In that moment, Antetokounmpo looks like a confused 20-year-old. And then the drive starts, and he still looks that way. He jukes one way, crosses over, spins, his arms splaying in every direction. He’s a man without a plan.
The team’s offense with MCW has been awful, but it has actually been worse when he hits the bench — evidence that Milwaukee’s reserve crew has been in one big funk for weeks.
Then, bam, he’s at the rim or the foul line. Antetokounmpo’s limbs are so all-encompassing, it’s hard for a defender to get close to him without at least appearing to foul him. He’s so long, he can reach the rim even after a series of moves that don’t appear to have covered much territory.
His length and size figure to make Antetokounmpo a good post player, and he’s indeed shooting 51 percent from the block against defenders who look miniature next to him. But he’s also coughing it up a ton; Antetokounmpo has turned it over on nearly 25 percent of his post-ups, the highest figure in the league, per Synergy. He’s learning on the job, and the results range from the sublime to the embarrassing.
Lately, Antetokounmpo has also been more decisive in trying jumpers and attacking off the catch against closeouts:
FC: Luis Scola
A nerd’s choice, perhaps, but Scola is an all-time crafty FIBA guy scrapping against age for an Indy bench that has been a big plus all season. Scola’s having a bounce-back campaign after looking borderline washed-up at times last season, and he’s a pro who plays his ass off on both ends.
His pick-and-pop jumper makes him a release valve for Indy’s surging offense; the Pacers make hay running a pick-and-roll on one side, drawing the defense there, and then skipping it to the other side for an open look:
He’s one of the big-man screeners most likely to catch and drive, per SportVU data, and though he can’t finish like he used to, Scola is still one of the game’s great post-up tricksters. He’s shooting 47 percent on the block, and a whopping 22 percent of his post-ups have resulted in free throws — the second-highest figure among regular post guys, trailing only Jimmy Butler. Just when you think you have Scola contained, he’ll fool you with a head fake, an up-and-under, or an unexpected flick shot with the wrong hand:
He’s a liability on defense, but he doesn’t use that as an excuse to coast. The Pacers often ask him to hedge out on pick-and-rolls, and when he’s feeling frisky, Scola will chase point guards out toward midcourt. He can’t jump, but he makes a difference rotating to the rim at the right time:
Hustle is age-defying.
Wild Card: James Johnson
There is not enough James Johnson in my life right now, even if the Raps are smart to return to their original starting five. Johnson lives in the gray area between “crazy” and “close enough to crazy that it looks crazy.” Players athletic enough to reside there throw opponents for a loop, and Johnson is always making plays the other team doesn’t expect. Just when it looks like he has strayed too far away on a help assignment, he’s springing back out to his man and blocking a 3-pointer.
Uh-oh, he’s giving Mario Chalmers way too much room to make this pocket pass!
His brutal dunks draw all the highlights, but Johnson has dialed back the insanity enough that Dwane Casey calls post-ups and isolations for him out of timeouts. Turns out, he’s nifty at both. Johnson is shooting 52 percent on isolations and an absurd 17-of-26 on post-ups, where he has shown both patience and a nice lefty touch, per Synergy Sports:
He can out-hang defenders for beautiful driving shots:
Johnson remains a nonshooter, but he’s smart about cutting into gaps when defenders drift away from him. He’s a plus defender, and the flailing Raps, down to 24th in points allowed per possession, could use more of him — both on the wing and as a small-ball power forward in the right matchups.
WC: Draymond Green
Our only repeat Gasol is the most entertaining non-superstar in the league. Draymond MF-ing Green is a living monument to everything that is great about the NBA. He entered the league as a doughy second-rounder who couldn’t shoot or defend any position. Three years later, he’s just good enough on wide-open 3s to be a problem, and he can defend all five positions on some (most?) nights.
His defense has been so airtight that his evolution as a driver and passer probably hasn’t gotten enough attention. Teams that trap Stephen Curry on Curry-Green pick-and-rolls are making a risk assessment: Curry shooting a 3-pointer off the dribble is worse than Curry slipping a pass to Green, who can then work a 4-on-3.
Green is blowing up that math. He can catch the ball 30 feet from the rim, drive into the paint, and either take it himself or find an open shooter when the defense collapses on him. He might whip the ball out to Klay Thompson, or throw an artful wrap-around pass to Andrew Bogut in Golden State’s bigger lineups. He’s not just a good passer, he’s an unpredictable passer.
The Warriors’ small-ball lineups with Green at center are the most exciting five-man groups in the league. How are you supposed to defend this, beyond just praying that Andre Iguodala misses?
The Dubs score about 1.2 points per possession on any trip featuring a Curry-Green pick-and-roll, the ninth-best mark among hundreds of pick-and-roll combos, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.5
The best? Jamal Crawford–Blake Griffin.
Sure, playing that small is scary against some Western Conference playoff teams. The Grizzlies bully everyone. LaMarcus Aldridge loves shooting over smaller guys, and the Blazers pound the offensive glass. The Thunder do, too, and if they ever get healthy, they might be able to out-small the Warriors with Kevin Durant at power forward. The Pelicans are right behind the Thunder in offensive rebounding rate.
The Spurs can slot Leonard at power forward or use Boris Diaw to beat up wing players, though Diaw hasn’t been the same this season. Putting a wing on Dirk Nowitzki makes you queasy, but Dirk is limping around, and the Dubs have risked it in regular-season games.
And that’s the thing: Steve Kerr seems like he’s itching to risk it against even the biggest teams, and he might not think of it as a risk at all. Monitoring Golden State’s playoff rotation will be fascinating, but for now, we can all enjoy Green making enemies across the league and getting the last word on Glenn Rivers.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Danilo Gallinari, Back?
The best part of Denver’s mini-resurgence, other than Will Barton zooming all over the place, is watching Gallinari do Gallinari things after so many knee and back issues. Gallo was never a blow-by guy, but he’s lost another half-step and can barely get around anyone at either forward position.
But he can still keep defenders off-balance with a herky-jerky driving game that creates a ton of contact. Gallo’s been hitting step-back jumpers, picking-and-popping for 3s, and shooting over smaller guys who switch onto him. It has been heartening to see.
2. Larry Bird, Still Trash-Talking
The Hawks’ unveiling of a statue honoring Dominique Wilkins served as yet another reminder that Larry Bird is the best:
3. Mitch McGary Running
It’s like the Kramer painting: You can’t look away.
Look at all that churning effort, the weirdly stiff arms and hands, the eager glance backward that says, “Please pass me the ball, I’m open, I’m running really fast, so fast, like the wind, am I going to get the ball?” He’s like a dog looking for a Frisbee.
Jokes aside, big men who run the floor suck in defenders and open up shots for teammates. Good on the rookie for playing out the ball.
4. Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Alternates
They’re the best sleeved jerseys in the league, edging out the Clippers’ baby blues, and they’re a welcome relief from the gray sleeved alternates Boston unveiled this season, which are a heretical abomination. These green, gold, and white bad boys stay true to Celtics history, and a gold-yellow shade has always felt at home on the fringes of Boston’s color scheme.
5. Not Passing to a Great Dunker on a Two-on-One
Kevin Martin streaked down the floor on a two-on-one with Zach LaVine against Oklahoma City over the weekend, opted to keep it himself, and laid the ball in for a fundamentally sound two points.
BOO. If you have the league’s dunk champ as your wingman, make an effort to give the paying customers some fun. There’s admittedly a fine line here. The Lob City Clippers have hunted alley-oops on the break when simpler plays would do, and there is a schadenfreude when that highlight searching blows up in their faces. Even just pausing to see if there’s a window for a pass can torpedo the entire operation.
Still: You have to try, or at least apologize afterward.
6. One Kind of Hack-a-Shaq
Free throws are boring, but I’ve never gotten riled up about the evils of Hack-a-Shaq. I kind of like watching smart coaches exploit the math, and Rivers did so nicely Sunday against the Rockets, when he had the Clippers intentionally foul Joey Dorsey with 12 seconds left in the first quarter. Dorsey is a 39 percent career foul shooter, and Rivers correctly calculated that giving the Clippers’ powerful offense an extra possession was worth more than the expected points Dorsey would net on two free throws.
Mike Budenholzer has done this end-of-quarter hackery once or twice this season, and Popovich will dabble. It’s just smart.
7. Mo Williams, Pushing the Pace
Williams has energized the Hornets in part by sprinting the ball up the court and generating shots before Charlotte’s godawful spacing can paralyze a half-court possession. The Hornets average more than three extra possessions per 48 minutes with Williams on the floor, per NBA.com, and any attempt early in the shot clock is a good thing for a clogged-toilet offense.
8. Danny Green, Selling It
Coaches keep getting smarter about designing sets that look like typical NBA plays but quickly morph into something else. Some players assigned decoy roles really get into the play-acting, and Danny Green does some serious ACTING! on what looks like a ho-hum double pin-down for Leonard:
Did you catch that? Green is raising his arms and yelling, overdoing it in an effort to “alert” Leonard that it’s time to jet around that double-pick — the common outcome on this set. But it’s a ruse! Leonard is just a distraction! The real play is an unexpected pin-down for Green, and it works perfectly. Great stuff.
9. Russell Westbrook, Bursting Through “Horns”
“Horns” might be the most typical half-court starting point in the league: a ball handler up top, a big at each elbow, and a wing player in each corner. Ninety-plus percent of the time, the ball handler will either run a pick-and-roll with one of the big men or enter the ball to him and scurry off to set a pick near the corner.
But a few of the league’s most explosive drivers occasionally decide to short-circuit the whole thing and steamroll right down the middle:
Westbrook and LeBron are probably the best at this. It’s a smart way to punish a defender leaning early toward a potential pick, but you have to be a human rocket ship to make it all the way to the rim before help arrives.
10. Alexey Shved’s Defense
Shved’s been piling up stats across the box score, filling minutes for the league’s most miserable watch — but if he keeps blatantly mailing in defense, he’ll remain on the edge of NBA extinction. Shved treats every perimeter player like a total nonshooter, giving them a laughable amount of air space in which to drive. And when those players do drive, Shved just backs up with them, maintaining the same distance. He’s allergic to contact.