This tends to be a Serious NBA Space, all about defense, screen-setting, passing, X's and O's, cap rules, and other NBA minutiae. Having dumped out a lot of that material on Monday in assessing Boston's new Rondo-less reality, it feels appropriate to have some fun with today's column.
To wit: Below are my Personal Favorite Guys To Watch 2013 All-Stars. I followed the official All-Star roster rules, with four guards, six "frontcourt" players, and two wild cards. I also tried to avoid, if possible, any actual All-Stars or guys who received heavy consideration in the All-Star debate, just to add some fresh names to the conversation. The only criterion is entertainment value. That can come in the form of high basketball art — nuanced off-ball cutting, intuitive help defense — or something as silly as looking funny and having a tendency to do ridiculous things.
G Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
About a month ago, I was chatting with two NBA officials at a Knicks game a few days after Irving had come to New York and put up 41 points in a ludicrous near-comeback. None of us had attended that game, and we all agreed: We'd never miss an Irving visit to New York City again. He is already one of the half-dozen most entertaining players in the league, with an unusual combination of poise, smoothness, explosiveness, and creativity in the lane. That jumper my god, that jumper. Every once in awhile, he'll unleash something so crazy — a running/fading lefty floater from the baseline, for instance — as to require an immediate rewind and/or audible profanity. He's still a limited defender, but that's typical of most young guards carrying heavy offensive responsibility, and he's getting better. Electrifying.
G Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Cherish Manu in his twilight, please. He has long been among the most unconventionally creative players in the league, in just about every aspect of his game. Two idiosyncracies to highlight here:
• He may be the very best in the league at one particular type of pass that pops up when Ginobili runs a pick-and-roll, and the big man defending the screener slides over to help on Ginobili. That will leave the screener — Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan — free to roll down the lane. Most NBA defenses in this situation require that the wing defender guarding the weak-side shooter crash into the paint to disrupt that big man, so that if Ginobili is dribbling to his left around the pick, a defender on the right side of the floor will slide in toward Splitter/Duncan.
And Ginobili, more than maybe any other ball handler, knows how to toy with that help defender. It's almost cruel. Ginobili will pick up his dribble, jump in the air, turn toward the open shooter, raise the ball above his head, and begin what looks like a skip pass to that shooter. Once airborne, Ginobili has maybe a second or so to read that help defender. If the defender takes the bait and moves a half-step back toward the sideline shooter, expecting the pass, Ginobili will fire a pass to the now-open big man in the lane — never taking his eye off the shooter during the process. If the defender stands in the lane, paralyzed, Ginobili will simply make the pass to the shooter as scheduled. It is delightful.
• His success rate gambling for steals seems outrageously high. I'm not sure anyone is better at sensing when it's OK to leave a shooter in the corner and sneak up on a big man holding the ball at the elbow, back turned to Ginobili, never expecting this crazy man would try something so obviously dangerous. This is the exact sort of out-of-scheme gambling coaches try to limit, but Gregg Popovich long ago gave up on imposing such limits on Ginobili's freelance thinking.
FC Corey Brewer, Denver Nuggets
One of the only players whose effort is so manic, I actually worry he might hurt himself — or a fan in one of the first 10 rows. George Karl inserts Brewer for one reason: to wreak total havoc. He jumps passing lanes and begins leaking out for a potential fast break the moment an opposing shot is in the air, only "leak out" is the wrong phrase, since "leak" implies some caution or slowness. Brewer sprints out (pours out?) without a hint of concern that perhaps the opposing team might recover the ball, which can lead to semi-embarrassing 5-on-4 sequences now and then.
He's a long-armed, in-your-face irritant as an on-ball defender, and he's a violent off-ball cutter when a defender turns away from Brewer. And as I've noted before, no player celebrates a teammate's 3-point attempt with the arms-up "It's good!" sign with the same premature glee.
FC Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (Co-Captain)
The one exception to my attempt at honoring players for their work this season. This team simply cannot exist without Dirk, who helped reinvent NBA basketball and introduced shots no one had seen before. There is no more aesthetically pleasing shot than Dirk's one-legged, fading bank shot, which almost seems to roll gently down the glass rather than bounce off of it. There were times during Dallas's 2011 playoff run where I'd be snickering with such glee over such a shot — "Is he kidding with that?!" — that my wife would run from the other room to see what had happened. It was Dirk, again.
FC Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (Co-Captain)
I've covered this enough in anointing Gasol my mid-season Defensive Player of the Year, and my no. 1 choice of teammate in an alternate world in which I could play in the NBA. I love his shoes, with "Marc" in giant white letters on the tongue. I love his subtle anticipation on defense. I love how he'll hip-check the shit out of you if it will help Memphis — and if the refs aren't looking. I love his stand-still set shot. I love the sudden back-to-the-basket baseline spin he unleashes when a defender leans too firmly against him. I should probably stop writing about Marc Gasol.
G Dr. Andre Miller, PhD, Point Guard University
Miller is the reason every NBA fan needs to invest in DVR — and not even because of the lob passes, long the best in the business, and propping up JaVale McGee's career for the last year. It is astonishing what Professor Miller can see in real time, with nine other guys darting around a crowded court.
He is always two steps ahead of opponents and teammates, in ways that are easy to miss on first watch. But when you slow down the tape, you can see Miller doing this kind of calculation: "If I pause mid-dribble, hesitate, and then take one extra dribble into the paint, Defender A will shift to Spot X, which allows Teammate B to get open in Spot Y, which in turn will draw Defender B, which in turn will free Teammate C who likely has no idea what is about to happen." It is like a perfect geometric proof during an NBA game.
Toss in one of the best little guy, ass-first post games, and I'm sold. Miller can't really defend anymore, and Denver has to hide him on the weakest offensive player at all times, but this list is about pure entertainment.
G Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
Ginobili is really a token starter, since he needs to rest, anyway. Manu deserves the honor of a lineup intro, but Allen is really the most entertaining player in the league, the anchor of this team's backcourt rotation.
Allen is especially impressive because he's almost as entertaining on the bench as on the court. He celebrates every good Memphis deed while he sits, and when a teammate does something really spectacular, Allen is liable to step onto the court in celebration and/or toss his towel into the air with no idea where it might end up. He hit an old lady in the face with a towel once last season.
You know about the on-court stuff. He is so physical on defense you can almost feel it through the television, only he rarely finds himself off balance. An Allen fast break is a suspense movie on Blair Witch levels, with a dozen possible endings. He might air-ball an uncontested layup. Or you might fear such an outcome, conditioned by years of avert-your-eyes misses,1 only to have Allen surprise you with an artful drop pass to a trailing player. The best show in the NBA.
FC Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond has some issues with the complexities of big-man NBA defense, but this is no place for complexities. This is a place for outrageous dunks, emphatic shot blocks, alarmingly easy offensive rebounds, and the sort of springiness that should scare the rest of the Eastern Conference. Drummond is already a pick-and-roll threat in the mold of Tyson Chandler, a dunker so dangerous his rolls to the hoop suck defenders far into the lane, opening up things for everyone else. He has helped make Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye relevant, and worked as perhaps the most important ingredient on surprisingly productive Detroit bench units. The best part is that Drummond still looks as if he's playing with a sort of forced restraint, as if leaping and cutting as hard as he could might rip a hole in the atmosphere.
FC LARRY SANDERS!, Milwaukee Bucks
Folks on Twitter often ask why I write SANDERS!'s name like this. It's not obvious? This guy's game is all one caps-lock scream. He's a ferocious intimidator in the lane, scaring opponents away from it and punishing those who try their luck with the league's highest block rate. Milwaukee opponents shoot an embarrassing 52.7 percent from the restricted area when SANDERS! is on the floor. SANDERS! gets extra entertainment points for playing with an edge that makes it seem like he's one bump away from a fight at all times.
FC Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers
The most underappreciated player in the league. The fact that NBA Twitter spent much of Monday talking J.R. Smith's joke of an All-Star "candidacy," without a mention of Thad Young, is emblematic of Young's anonymity. It doesn't help that the Sixers are the Hawks of the Northeast. All this guy does every night is work, mostly as an undersize power forward, a role he never really wanted but has nonetheless embraced. He's quick enough to blow up pick-and-rolls all the way out to midcourt, and he loves talking about the ins and outs of Philly's defensive scheme.
He hasn't developed a consistent jumper or much of an off-the-bounce game, but look up at the end of every game, and lo and behold, Young has worked his way to 17 points via cuts, transition chances, and one or two super-quick moves that catch bigger defenders off guard.
WC Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors
Ross is beginning to find his catch-and-shoot stroke, and he's already one of the league's best dunkers. He's long-armed and hardworking, and should turn into a very good wing defender — especially since he's already shown a willingness to stick his nose in (and above) crowds for high-jumping rebounds. Rare is the player who can consistently turn in highlight-worthy boards. Toronto is downright exciting when they pair Ross with Kyle Lowry, whose penetration creates natural inside-out chances for Ross. The Ross-Lowry–Ed Davis–Amir Johnson quartet has only played 38 minutes together for the season, which seems inexplicable — and anti-fun.
WC Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
Barnes is just keeping this spot warm for Ricky Rubio, and since this is a temporary honor, we'll go with a subtler sort than any number of All-Stars with appealing NBA style.
It's easy to argue that Barnes, and not Jamal Crawford, has been the valuable Clipper bench player this year.2 He's cooled off a bit from the field, but he's still shooting nearly 60 percent on 2-point shots, and he's upped his 3-point percentage to around the league average. He's a very good rebounder for his position, can defend both shooting guards and small forwards, and works as one of the most intuitive off-ball cutters in the league. He's one of the rare players who makes cuts not only to get himself looks, but also because he understands how his cut will bend the defense in a way that frees a teammate someplace else on the floor. He's a joy to watch, and he brings a lunatic bravado that could lead to a confrontation at any time; remember this fun failed psych-out of Kobe?
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. James Harden's Defense
Houston ranks 20th in points allowed per possession, and their perimeter defense has been leaky all season. Harden has emerged as the worst offender, not a surprise given that lots of guys regress on defense when asked to assume more responsibility on offense. Harden has several bad habits, including reaching when he should slide; jumping himself out of position very early against pick-and-rolls; and gambling for steals when he recovers toward his man after dropping down toward the foul line to help on penetration.
The Rockets have even hidden Harden now and then on the weakest opposing perimeter player, forcing Carlos Delfino and Chandler Parsons — another serial gambler — into assignments above their respective pay grades. This isn't quite a crisis, but Harden needs to find a better balance to his game.
2. The Semi-Transition Staggered Screen for Stephen Curry
I wish Golden State could start every possession this way, especially now that Andrew Bogut is back to form an ultraskilled staggered screen monster with David Lee. Lots of teams use this action in delayed transition off opponent misses, but Golden State's version is especially devastating, given Curry's elite shooting and the versatile skills of Lee (and now Bogut). It's a simple improv play: Curry will bring the ball up at a fast jog as the two Golden State bigs on the floor suddenly appear beside him (usually to Curry's left), position themselves next to each other, and form a wall.
It's basically a massive pick-and-roll before the defense can get set, and it can cause massive confusion. Curry doesn't need much space to launch a high-percentage 3, so any misstep can be fatal. And if the defense manages to corral Curry, that means a Golden State big is roaming free somewhere.
I'm already on record as Pro-Pelican, but watching a home New Orleans game last week served as a reminder of yet another reason to welcome our new pelican overlords: the "BEE-FENSE" chants, an allegedly clever play on the traditional "DE-FENSE" sing-song, complete with team employees running around the court with "BEE-FENSE" signs. The giant Peja Stojakovic heads were genius, but BEE-FENSE needs to go. (Also, please, please do not adopt "BEAK-FENSE!")
4. Orlando's Broadcast Team
Right up there with Brooklyn's group as perhaps the very best on your League Pass dial. David Steele is evenhanded on play-by-play, and you can tell Matt Guokas devours every piece of NBA material he can find — lineup data, local coverage, blog posts from all over the Internet, and lots of other stuff. The facts Guokas brings up aren't the inane talking points other crews spout. In a landscape of mute-worthy homers, we must acknowledge the great work of those trying to bring information over fluff and noise.
5. Memphis's Metallic-Blue Road Alternates
I sense that someone with sophisticated taste would find them ugly. I do not have sophisticated taste.
6. Philadelphia's Reverse "Snug" Pick-and-Roll
I've written before about this version of the pick-and-roll (see item no. 2 here), which takes place down on the block instead of high above the 3-point arc or toward the sideline. For most teams, it begins by entering the ball to a guard posting up at the edge of the paint. As that guard — Kobe Bryant and Monta Ellis being classic examples — holds the ball with a defender on his back, a big man will meander down from the 3-point arc, squeeze right into the space between the ball handler and that player's defender (thus the "snug" designation), and set a pick. The ball handler can then loop around that pick and into the paint for a midrange jump or drive to the hoop.
Pairings that have made good use of this play over the last couple of seasons include Ellis–David Lee in Golden State, Bryant–Pau Gasol, and Chris Paul–Blake Griffin.
But Philly has its own reverse variation of this play. They'll have Jason Richardson (injured for now) play the traditional role of the big man by entering the ball to Thaddeus Young (playing the Ellis/Kobe role), then scooting down to screen for Young on the block. Young may not be an ace ball handler, but he's capable of taking two hard dribbles and arriving at the rim, and this action puts him in an advantageous position from which to do so. Good stuff.
7. Wing Shooting in Toronto
Perhaps this is a misguided complaint, since the Raps have scored a robust 105.9 points per 100 possessions — two points better than their very solid overall mark — when DeMar DeRozan and Landry Fields share the floor, per NBA.com. But the spacing just feels cramped, even as DeRozan moves around the floor in smart ways, because defenses just don't have to respect these guys from beyond 20 feet. That's especially so for Fields, who is rebuilding his jump shot after undergoing surgery to repair nerve damage in his shooting elbow — damage that caused pain, which in turn caused Fields to add a hitch to his jumper. He hasn't made a 3 all season, and defenses are just ignoring him in order to crash the paint.
Fields remains a good rebounder and passer, and a very smart cutter — one of those Barnes-style cutters who understand how their cut will get teammates open. But he must improve his shooting to even come close to justifying Toronto's investment in him.
8. Russell Westbrook's Transition Defense
Westbrook isn't quite on the level of Dwyane Wade or the 2012-13 Lakers, but for a balls-to-the-wall, mean-faced competitor, Westbrook goes through some disappointing lapses. He enjoys holding up his follow-through and admiring 3-point shots, a bit of self-flattery that gives his defender a small head start in transition and is based around bad math; Westbrook is a career 30 percent shooter from deep, so chances are he's admiring a brick.
Every daring point guard gets caught under the hoop after a drive gone wrong once or twice a game, but Westbrook tends to stretch out his delay by arguing with officials and/or holding his face so as to make sure everyone in the building knows he got (didn't really get) hit. This is fine in the regular season, but Westbrook needs to clean it up in the playoffs. He's too good for such nonsense.
9. A Potentially Useful Indiana Lineup
Indiana played most of the fourth quarter of its wild overtime loss to Utah on Saturday with a lineup of D.J. Augustin–George Hill–Paul George–David West–Roy Hibbert — their starting lineup, only with Augustin in place of Lance Stephenson. The lineup was plus-7 in about 7:45 of time in that game, and if Augustin can provide just average long-range shooting, this group could work well.
But Frank Vogel had played this five-man unit just 13 minutes all season prior to that Utah game, in part because Augustin struggled so badly out of the gate and briefly lost his rotation spot to Ben Hansbrough. Augustin has found his footing from deep over the last month, and George Hill can defend almost any shooting guard in the league. With Indiana searching for offense, this is one lineup Vogel might want to revisit.
10. Reggie Evans's Whining
Reggie Evans — what an enigma. Legit tough guy. Rampant fouler/shover. Groin-puncher. Flopper. And after Friday's blowout Brooklyn loss in Memphis, he joined a long list of players who have complained that a victorious team has violated some "unwritten rule" by doing something or other to rub things in. The reaction here is the same as it was when the Bulls, including shameless showboater Nate Robinson, complained about Damian Lillard gently dunking the ball in the waning seconds of a cinched Blazers win: This is the NBA, not Little League. Guys can do whatever they want over the full 48 minutes, especially if you do little to stop them. There are 81 other games; accept defeat and move on.