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- Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer Close
- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
On the 20th Friday of the season, let's look at 10 NBA things that have my attention.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Changing the All-Star Game
It's about time. Alley-oops and dunks are awesome because they are hard to get. They represent the total outmaneuvering of an entire team of humans trying to prevent them.
Uncontested dunks in exhibitions are still awesome, but the novelty wears off sometime around the 17th alley-oop of the 1st quarter. We can become desensitized to anything. Dunks lose meaning if you don't have to earn them.
Good on Adam Silver and Chris Paul for realizing the All-Star game lost its way around five years ago. We used to at least get 90 percent effort over the last five minutes. We'd settle for that.
The All-Star game is never going to carry the intensity of a real NBA game. It shouldn't. These guys play enough already, for both their NBA and national teams, and they shouldn't risk injury in a SlamBall game squeezed between concerts.
But it should at least resemble basketball for a few minutes. I'm not sure the league could realistically raise the financial rewards to a point that would matter for star players. Donating to one charity of choice for every player on the winning team might do the trick. I liked Tom Ziller's idea of expanding rosters to 15 — or at least 13 — so that guys would only have to play 15 or so minutes.
Maybe none of this will work. But I'm for small tweaks to the incentive scale over gimmicks like four-point shots and 10-point half-court heaves. We don't need the thing to look even more like a circus.
2. Jusuf Nurkic, dishing
Well, would you look who found a little pep in his step? Sparky Nurkic has looked like a completely different player since the Blazers nabbed him — plus a first-round pick! — in another center-for-center swap. After an enticing rookie season, Nurkic spent most of his time in Denver injured, disengaged, and cranky.
Analysts mostly panned Denver and Philly trading for Jusuf Nurkic and Nerlens Noel as their value cratered, but there's a common thread running between those deals: the situations with both guys had deteriorated beyond the point at which they could be salvaged. Nurkic was never going to try this hard fighting for scraps behind Nikola Jokic. You can debate whether that is acceptable from a millionaire player, or if the Nuggets could have done more to motivate Nurkic. You cannot debate the basic reality.
Nurkic has kept Portland on Denver's tail in the race for No. 8 spot. He gives the Blazers a post-up dimension they haven't had since LaMarcus Aldridge bolted, and he has his head on a swivel patrolling the paint. Opponents have shot just 47 percent around the basket with Nurkic lurking since the trade, a solid number — and a massive improvement over what the Bosnian Beast managed in Denver.
He's mimicking Mason Plumlee's ability to make plays on the pick-and-roll when defenses trap Portland's sharp-shooting guards:
Nurkic has assisted on 24 percent of Blazer buckets while he's been on the floor, a mammoth number for a big guy. He gets too cute threading needles, and he's prone to plowing over dudes; his turnover rate remains ghastly. His weirdo scoops and flips from the post kind of seem like accidents when they go in.
But they're going in enough. Portland is plus-11 points per 100 possessions with Nurkic on the floor — a hair below Golden State's league-leading margin, per NBA.com. They're getting destroyed when he rests. Nurkic's turnaround has been incredible. Adversity will hit at some point, and the whole league is curious how he'll respond: is this fool's gold?
The Blazers have pulled even in the loss column with Denver, and can clinch the tiebreaker with a win in their final matchup. (They can still snatch it even if they lose that game.) Their remaining schedule is easy, and 11 of their final 19 games come at home. This could be a fun race.
3. The Russell Westbrook plus-minus tension
The Thunder outscore opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor — kind of a middling number, actually — and collapse into nothingness when he rests. Opponents have blitzed the Thunder by more than 11 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook sitting, a margin that would rank way, way, way below Brooklyn's league-worst overall mark.
That gap creates my favorite tense subplot of every Thunder game: How close can the Thunder hang while Westbrook reloads? There is an urgency for opponents, too: How much can ground can we make up?
We've experienced this sensation with other superstars. If the Warriors of the past two seasons won the minutes Stephen Curry rested, their opponents were toast. It still happens with LeBron now.
But Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love at least provide the possibility of manufacturing enough points to stay afloat without the King. They are legitimate offensive fulcrums, capable of producing 6-0 mini-runs that feel so important in retrospect when we tally the final score.
The Thunder have no such No. 1 option type. They cannot score, at all, without the mad Westbrook dashes that suck panicked defenders into the lane — and generate open looks for Oklahoma City's supporting cast. The Thunder are deeper now with Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and a healthy Victor Oladipo, but that hasn't translated yet to much non-Russ punch.
4. Jordan Clarkson, falling behind
Clarkson is an interesting talent, but to really help the Lakers win — to be something other than an empty calories pull-up shooter who bleeds points on the other end — he has to clean up his defense. At just 6-5, he's always going to be undersized against wings. He should be able to hang against point guards, but his technique is a mess.
The best defenders move on their toes, with a coiled control — constantly in motion, but rarely overextended in any direction. Clarkson just kind of jumps around. He reaches for steals, lunges too late into passing lanes, and slams headlong into flare screens he never sees coming.
He overcommits so badly in falling behind a play that he needs a half-second to shift his momentum and trudge back toward the action. You don't get the luxury of that half-second in the NBA.
D'Angelo Russell hasn't been much better, and the Lakers have to conclude that the Russell-Clarkson duo is unplayable in real games. The Lakers have allowed an unthinkable, flammable, unholy 118.1 points per 100 possessions in the 369 minutes those two have shared the floor — the eight-worst mark among 1,200-plus duos that have logged at least 250 minutes together, per NBA.com. (Four of the seven pairings below them also come from the Lakers. Drive that tank, baby!)
Clarkson is almost 25. The Lakers need another two-way wing.
5. Robin Lopez midrange jumpers
I'm honestly not sure whether this is a "like" or a "dislike." A full 27 percent of Lopez's shots this season have been long 2s. They have never accounted for more than 10 percent of his attempts in any other season, per Basketball Reference. He has already jacked 220 midrange shots, by far a career high; he's cracked 100 only twice.
Those set shots represent form of surrender for the league's worst 3-point shooting team: "Welp, all five defenders are in the paint again. Can't get to the rim. Might as well launch the first open midranger we get!" The sheer volume of RoLo 20-footers stands as an indictment of Chicago's roster construction.
But Lopez has hit 46 percent of those shots on a high volume! That is positively Nowitzkian for a guy who hasn't dabbled in jumpers all that much. Lopez is making chicken salad out of chicken poop. Good on the league's meanest mascot bully.
6. The silent garden
Madison Square Garden experimented Sunday with scrapping the music, sound effects, and video skits that play over just about every second of an NBA game. They wanted to transport fans back in time, so they could "experience the game its purest form." The sounds of shoes squeaking and the ball thudding against hardwood would suffice, and maybe hypnotize.
It sounded like a good idea, but the Warriors, New York's opponent that day, didn't like it. Draymond Green was the most outspoken (shocker!), but even Golden State's coaches said the game felt lifeless. Extended national TV timeouts dragged without the usual in-arena entertainment, and the game itself seemed dull.
"I liked the concept, but it was weird," Steve Kerr told ESPN.com. "I think we're all used to some noise."
You know what? I'm not ready to drop this one. Attending an NBA game is a sensory overload endurance test. The noise can drain you. On the wrong night, the repetitive beats, slamming against your head like a hammer, give you a headache. Cutting the noise level now and then is worth exploring.
Kerr suggested there could be a compromise solution: scrap some of the music and the endless exhortations to CLAP AND CHANT in favor of an old-school organ, and keep the scoreboard entertainment during timeouts.
"I think there's a happy medium," Kerr said.
He's right. Everyone ripped the Kazoos for this one, but they were onto something. Teams should keep trying.
7. Paul Millsap, swiping
Millsap has surged of late for a strange Hawks team that just won't die, and he remains brilliant at using his hands on defense without fouling. He's a couple of rejections away from being one of just nine guys league-wide averaging at least one block and steal per game — a bar Millsap has cleared in all but one of his 10 prior seasons. (He averaged two steals and 0.9 blocks in that season. Slacker.)
Millsap might be the league's preeminent swiper:
I mean, that is some aggressive two-handed swipery. That is the same gesture my two-year-old daughter makes me when she throws a tantrum, and tries to shove me away from her.
Millsap has sneakily been one of the league's most reliable clutch players this season. He's a tidy 13-of-28 in the last three minutes of games in which the score is within three points, and even better — 9-of-18 — in the final minute of close games, per NBA.com. He doesn't look the part of an endgame killer; Millsap generally faces up for spinning, criss-crossy drives that end in contested floaters over backpedaling defenders.
But those shots are going in, and the Hawks are hanging around.
8. Utah going without both its GHs
This doesn't happen much when George Hill is available, and it should never happen in playoff game outside garbage time. Even with Rodney Hood and Alec Burks healthy, Utah's offense can get off-kilter when both Hill and Hayward sit. They lack a steady hand.
Opponents have outscored the Jazz by 68 points in the 680 minutes Utah's most important impending free agents have been on the bench together, per NBA Wowy. That's a little misleading, since Hill has missed a lot of games, forcing Quin Snyder to dig one layer deeper into his point guard rotation. Even so: a little more staggering of minutes will stabilize Utah in April and May.
9. Andrew Wiggins, waiting
I can't lie: I'm rooting for this guy. From the moment Wiggins entered the league, people seemed weirdly hungry to dissect the flaws of a teenager. A lot of those flaws are still there, to milder degrees. But for a dude that turned 22 last month? Andrew Wiggins is doing fine, thank you.
Wiggins will get better on the pick-and-roll once he makes it easier on himself, and the young pup Wolves learn to make it easier for him. A lot of those plays start with Wiggins zipping off a screen in the paint, catching the ball up top, and facing the basket to attack a scrambling defense.
One problem: he usually has to wait around for his screener.
That pause allows the defense to reset itself, and gear up for Wiggins' drive. It's hard to parse out blame for those delays. Some of it may be a design flaw. Sometimes, the big fellas are just late getting their butts in gear; you can hear teammates and Tom Thibodeau screaming for them to hustle out there. (You can hear Thibs, always.) Wiggins may be one of those guys who prefers to survey the scene.
But these plays work best when Wiggins can catch and go in an instant. That is the whole point — to drive at defenders rushing out toward the 3-point arc before they can reverse their momentum.
It takes years for any team to build up that kind of fluid continuity. Hell, it took years for the Spurs do it leading to their 2014 title, and they were loaded with savvy vets.
The fact that Wiggins fares pretty well anyway is a good sign — especially considering how opponents strangle the lane given Minnesota's total lack of outside shooting.
10. LaMarcus Aldridge, bully
When the Spurs signed Aldridge, a lot of folks — present company included — assumed they would encourage him to shoot more 3s. They've mostly gone the opposite direction and turned Aldridge into a bit of bully:
Aldridge has been a little more willing as a Spur to dip his shoulders into some fool's chest, bust out that deadly up-and-under, and play with more of a mean streak down low. He has traded out some long 2s and replaced them almost exclusively with shots closer to the rim. He'll even hang around there for potential offensive rebounds while Dewayne Dedmon dives to the basket.
When Aldridge slices to the rim on the pick-and-roll, he's capable of catching the ball on the move and tossing slick interior passes. Aldridge and David Lee have hooked up on some gorgeous tic-tac-toe sequences.
Shoving Aldridge inside instead of outside makes sense when you consider the Spurs' broader roster. With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aging, they don't really have the sort of north-south pick-and-roll maestro who can consistently drive into teeth of defenses, draw help, and spring everyone else for open 3s. Kawhi Leonard is obviously an elite ball-handler — he's an elite everything — but not quite in that sense.
The Spurs, man. My god, the Spurs.