1. Some precarious Lakers minutes
It's really the only blemish on an otherwise dominant season: The Lakers average 100.5 points per 100 possessions withLeBron Jameson the bench -- three points worse than the league's clankiest offense. It's all shooting: The Lakers with LeBron sitting don't get nearly as many profitable shots -- corner 3s and attempts in the restricted area -- and they brick away from just about everywhere.
The Lakers shoot 70% at the rim with LeBron on the floor -- a number that would lead all teams -- and a middling 63% when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. The drop-off on corner 3s is just as severe. Their expected effective field goal percentage with LeBron -- based on shot location, the identity of the shooter, and the proximity of defenders -- would top the league, but drops to around average without him, per Second Spectrum.
Some of this is bad luck, but most is shaky process. The Lakers have no identity when LeBron sits. Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso dribble, dribble, dribble, but don't really get anywhere because defenders duck every pick. Someone burps up a contested jumper. Sometimes, the Lakers play these minutes with Anthony Davis at center. Sometimes, they pair Davis and Dwight Howard. Weirdly, they have tread water in the Davis-Howard minutes and hemorrhaged points when Davis mans the middle sans LeBron, per NBA.com. Sometimes they go wild and play without both LeBron and Davis.
It feels weird to say a dose of ballhandling would help, given both Rondo and Caruso are capable. But Caruso isn't a possession organizer, and late-career Rondo is hit-or-miss in that role against top defenses. He has been better as a connector -- a cutter and extra pass guy -- in the middle of possessions than as initiator. (Rondo got a "like" in this space for his connector role last month.)
The Lakers know this. They are looking. They will also ramp up LeBron's playing time in the postseason; there might be only five or six non-LeBron minutes in the highest-stakes games. Davis on his own should win some of those stretches. But entire quarters -- and then games, then series -- can be lost in those segments.
2. The Pacers, making it work
Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are both centers. They are also both good, and teams in small markets can't get picky about which good players to keep. The Pacers bet Sabonis and Turner were just different enough -- on both ends -- to make it work.
Indiana is a tidy plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions with their double-center look, and the two have settled into a groove. Sabonis has managed defending power forwards, allowing Turner to protect the basket.
It works on offense because Turner has stepped back into a secondary spot-up role. Sabonis is the hub. He sets twice as many ball screens as Turner, per Second Spectrum, and he's a pivoty passing genius in open space. He has become a little braver lately shooting long 2s out of the pick-and-roll, and he has drained 53% of them. Those aren't sexy shots, but every team needs them as a failsafe.
The Malcolm Brogdon/Sabonis pick-and-roll is already one of the league's most reliable engines of offense. They have a counter for every scheme. Both can exploit switches; Sabonis takes sneering delight in mashing little guys.
Turner is shooting 35% from deep, and struts onto center stage when Sabonis rests.
The question is whether Turner is content with this arrangement. The team belongs to Sabonis and Brogdon now. Turner jacks 16 shots per 36 minutes in his solo time, but just nine when he plays with Sabonis, per NBA.com. Turner's counting stats are down. Indiana has struggled in Turner-only minutes -- especially on the glass, where Turner remains unreliable.
The Pacers continue to turn away teams who inquire about Turner, sources say. They are good, and they want to see how things look when Victor Oladipo returns. But every team in need of a big man should keep an eye on Turner.
3. Andre Drummond, turnover machine
Drummond has 99 assists and 131 turnovers. That is ... not great. He is posting by far the highest turnover rate of his career. He ranks 399th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
This is only sort of about Drummond, who enjoyed a mini-breakout as a distributor from the elbows right before the Pistons acquired Blake Griffin to do that same job. With Griffin, Reggie Jacksonand now Luke Kennard injured, the creative burden on Drummond is too much. Detroit has no easy path to decent shots when Derrick Rose is off the floor. The upside of a thread-the-needle pass from Drummond might be worth the risk of a turnover.
But some of it is on Drummond. He has suffered a bunch of alarming cough-ups in the open floor, often without anyone pressuring him -- bounces off his foot, carrying violations, straight pratfalls:
It's as if the circuitry connecting his brain to his hands shorts out.
He hasn't really advanced as passer on the move in the pick-and-roll -- a crucial skill for any frequent screen-setter:
He has trouble mapping the floor -- tracking shooters and anticipating how the defense will rotate.
Detroit is still sussing out the market for Drummond, sources say. His potential availability presents interesting dilemmas for suitors. It's easy to get perhaps too low on Drummond. He's an old-fashioned brutish center valuable on defense only when he goes full throttle, and even then he isn't near the class of Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid.
But he's a monstrous rebounder -- one of the greatest ever. A trade could motivate him. A trade to a contender could really motivate him.
He has never played alongside an elite pick-and-roll ball handler. Remember when the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll was a thing? Hell, remember when the Brandon Jennings-Drummond pick-and-roll was a thing for a hot second? What would Drummond look like dancing with James Harden, Kemba Walker, LeBron,Trae Youngor Luka Doncic? (Note: I am not suggesting those teams as trade destinations.)
He'd surely look better, but he doesn't seem as explosive rim-running as he once was. Good teams are more curious about his defense anyway.
4. Some other Spurs are doing fun things
I'm tired of moaning about the tentpole veterans, even if DeMar DeRozan is in the midst of his best stretch of the season and LaMarcus Aldridge finally asked someone what the one arching line painted on the floor indicates.
The Spurs have won four of six, they're flirting with modernity, and some of their young guys are perking up.
Dejounte Murray is 10-of-15 from deep over his past nine games after canning only 23 triples over his entire career before then. He has made almost half his midrange shots this season.
Everyone spends time off the ball in San Antonio's system. A workable jumper would transform Murray into a threat. It might also coax Gregg Popovich into giving Murray more control of the offense. A Murray who punishes defenders for skittering under picks has major two-way potential -- maybe All-Star potential.
Lonnie Walker IV is already one of the league's half-dozen or so most telegenic players in the open court. He absolutely flies. Some guys hesitate in transition as they approach the 3-point line, expecting resistance. Walker does not know what it means to hesitate.
He's a graceful midair contortionist:
Walker is shooting 37% from deep and dialing in more on defense. Keep playing this man!
Jakob Poeltl logged more minutes alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in one playoff series last season than he has this entire season. That leaves only a dozen or so minutes per game for him, but Poeltl is making the most of them as a menacing rim protector. He is rejecting 2.8 shots per 36 minutes, up from 1.9 last season.
He is borderline balletic matching guards step-for-step:
He has been just as good zipping across the paint as a help defender.
Opponents have hit just 48.8% of shots in the restricted area with Poeltl nearby, the seventh-lowest figure among all rotation big men, per NBA.com. Other teams should be trying to steal him on the cheap.
5. Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes together, and the vanishing of Dario Saric
The Suns are plus-6 in 50 minutes with their double-barreled center, but I'm skeptical. I get the reasoning. The Suns have to start Ayton, and Baynes has been their keystone on defense. He spaces the floor, clearing the paint for Ayton.
It just doesn't look right. Phoenix wants Baynes barricading the rim on defense, forcing Ayton to chase stretch power forwards. He is out of his depth there. Smart teams are going to run his guy off pindowns and pick-and-roll him to death.
Opponents reverse the matchups on the other end; they stick power forwards on Baynes and assign centers to jostle with Ayton. That can neuter Baynes' shooting. Power forwards are faster than centers closing out on him.
Cross-matches create chaos in transition as teams scramble to find optimal matchups, but so far that chaos seems to work more against Phoenix. Ayton is still learning the basics of NBA defense. It's asking a lot of him to toggle assignments on a dead sprint as the game whirs around him.
The Suns built their roster not to play this style. They have a decent power forward in Saric, and three rangy wings filling time there in small-ball lineups:Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridgesand Cameron Johnson.
The Ayton-Baynes duo has marginalized Saric; he hasn't cracked 20 minutes in any of Phoenix's past five games, and didn't even reach 10 in two of them. Phoenix traded down from No. 6 in last year's draft to acquire Saric and the No. 11 pick -- which they used on Johnson. Johnson's shooting is as advertised, and he's nimbler than expected on defense.
But Saric was a key component -- a potential long-term starter. What now?
6. Get Trae Young moving, please
The All-Star conversation is becoming a premature referendum on Young: Is he a stats-hoarding gimmick enabled by a desperate-for-attention franchise?
That characterization is harsh, even if Young might be the worst defensive player in the league. Young runs more pick-and-rolls than anyone, but that doesn't mean his numbers are empty. He's a gifted passer, and he gets rid of it early when he sees an open teammate or a mismatch. His extra-long 3s stretch defenses to their breaking point -- opening lanes for everyone else.
Atlanta scores 108 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, and a grotesque 92 -- miles below the league's worst offense -- when he sits. You could argue that chasm is the penalty for building an all-Young, all-the-time offense; when he sits, the Hawks are clueless. Some of that is probably going on.
But this roster beyond Young and John Collins is mostly geezers, cap fodder, and guys in their first and second seasons. Young carrying them to something like a league-average offense is an accomplishment -- indicative of skills that will translate onto winning Atlanta teams.
That said, I would like to see more of this as Kevin Huerter,De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and the rest improve:
Young has attempted only 58 catch-and-shoot 3s -- about 1.7 per 36 minutes. That is down slightly from last season. Young has attempted five times as many pull-up 3s.Stephen Curry's splits were never nearly so stark.
Curry lifted the Warriors' offense -- and empowered teammates -- by leveraging the threat of his shooting as a screener and cutter. He turned his jumper into a mobile weapon that could materialize anywhere, anytime. The biggest difference between Young and Curry is that Young so far has shown little appetite for that.
Of course, younger Curry had superior teammates -- guys who made good decisions with the ball while he ran around. Young has to give his teammates at least some chance to prove themselves.Nudging Young in this direction would be one reason for Atlanta to acquire one or two playable veterans.
Would we tell Doncic, Harden, LeBron or Giannis Antetokounmpo -- suns in their respective solar systems -- to give up the ball some? Maybe not. But Young has one weapon they don't, and one liability -- size.
7. The steadiness of Serge Ibaka
Three years ago, when the Raptors re-signed Ibaka to a three-year, $65 million deal, he appeared at risk of accelerating decline. He had lost some of the athleticism that made him such a feared all-court destroyer on defense. That happens to everyone. Good players compensate with improved feel and IQ. But Ibaka hadn't made much progress reading the game.
He still hasn't, really. But Ibaka staved off further decline, and established himself as a bulwark on both ends for the injury-ravaged Raptors.
Moving to center almost full time has helped. It simplifies Ibaka's responsibilities. He screens for Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, slips into space, and flicks up midrangers. He has gorgeous chemistry with both Toronto point guards. Lowry could probably find Ibaka blindfolded, and has made a point over the past two seasons of feeding him in his sweet spots.
Ibaka's offensive rebounding and free throws have bounced back to near-prime levels since his shift to center. He is still explosive on second jumps, and has a good sense for when to chase put-backs -- when he has a crease, or when the Raptors need a jolt of energy.
His passing reads at center are more basic. Ibaka will never make the pass that surprises the defense, but he can make the simple one to the next link in the chain. That's enough.
Playing center parks him near the rim more, and he's still a deterrent there; opponents have hit just 49% of shots at the basket with Ibaka nearby, 9th lowest among 113 rotation players who challenge at least three such shots per game.
Remember: The Raptors don't win the title without Ibaka. He had some massive moments in their run: 17 points in Game 7 against the Sixers, including three gigantic triples (remember that contested pull-up over Ben Simmons from the right corner?), and 50 points over the past three games of the Finals. Nick Nurse busted out the Ibaka-Marc Gasol double-center look against Philly, and it worked.
Maybe Ibaka never became the player we dreamed he could be. Instead, he grew more comfortable in his own skin, and honed his core skills. There is dignity in that.
8. Coaches who use their challenge before crunch time
Coaches have to stop this unless they are challenging their superstar's fourth or fifth foul in the first half. Even in some of those situations, the chance of a successful challenge is not worth forfeiting that same opportunity when the game is in the balance.
I don't care if your superstar is mad about a call. I don't care if the opposing superstar just tricked the refs into a bogus 3-shot foul that puts you down by 10 in the second quarter -- a meaningful momentum swing. That deficit with 15 or 25 or 30 minutes left is not as bad as it seems. Time holds all sorts of possibilities. Someone on your team will get hot. You might benefit from a ridiculous 3-shot foul.
Superstars are adept at playing through foul trouble. Officials are loathe to foul them out on anything borderline.
Most coaches already get this. (Terry Stotts is a coaching challenge wizard.)More will save their challenges in playoff games. But coaches are blowing too many early.
9. Keep an eye on Jarrett Culver
It was hard to get a read on Culver early, but the picture became clearer as Culver got more minutes with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins out. Culver's shot comes and goes -- he's shooting 44% on free throws! -- but he has shown a nice feel attacking off the catch. He's patient, with some change of pace guile, and more explosive than you expect when he hits the gas in traffic.
Culver has scored in double digits in six straight games.
Culver's work on defense has been most interesting. (Minnesota has been feistier on that end without Towns.) He's long and smart, with a good understanding of personnel and what the offense wants to do. He plays on his toes, capable of changing direction in a snap.
Culver seems to like defense. He butts into passing lanes, arms extended, and denies swing passes:
Ryan Saunders has sometimes assigned Culver to the best opposing perimeter player, including Ja Moranton Tuesday in Memphis. Culver has not looked out of place in that job.
It's no secret the Wolves tried to move up from No. 6 in last season's draft. They liked Darius Garland, too. Garland has more star ballhandling potential and filled a more urgent positional need, but Culver might grow into a very nice two-way wing -- the most valuable type of support player.
10. Get all the way out of here with in-game ads
I have learned to tolerate announcers blurting out mandatory advertising reads at Micro Machines Guy-speed after every home team 3-pointer or dunk. Want to squeeze sponsored content onto one side of the screen during free throws? Fine. Free throws are boring.
But I cannot -- nay, will not! -- accept audio and visual ads engulfing live game action. I've seen this most egregiously on Cleveland broadcasts; the announcers go silent while some soothing techno-voice spouts Lindsey Naegle prepackaged gobbledygook about health care or retirement plans or whatever over live action -- with grotesque visual accompaniment:
Oh hell no.
Lakers' offense, Trae headline Lowe's 10 Things I Like and Don't Like
The Lakers' offense without LeBron, the Pacers' big men making it work and Trae Young's movement off the ball are three of Zach Lowe's 10 Things I Like and Don't Like.