We've hit the three-quarter mark of the regular season, which means the dregs of the league are about to fall out of our collective consciousness — at least on nights when they don't play a team fighting for playoff positioning. Before we say farewell to the NBA's sad sacks, here's a team-by-team look at the positive signs these franchises should be hoping to see during the next 20 games — signs that might hint at long-term growth.
Six weeks ago, Cleveland was 9-31, staring at a half-season without Anderson Varejao, their second-best player, and facing questions about whether they'd fatally blown two straight top-five picks on Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. They looked like a lock to make a serious run at "earning" the most Ping-Pong balls in the draft lottery.
Whoops. Cleveland is 11-9 since, with wins in that span over Oklahoma City, Boston, Utah, Milwaukee, and Chicago, and several down-to-the-wire losses against other top teams. Both Thompson and Waiters have shown serious growth. Thompson has done better than expected in a larger role; he's shot 50 percent with Varejao on the bench and played with more decisiveness — as both a passer and scorer — when he catches the ball on the move near the foul line on pick-and-rolls. He's an active defender in space, and he's improved his defensive rebounding.
Waiters shot 51 percent from the floor in February, and though he still shoots too many 3s for a subpar long-range shooter, he has shown more careful judgement of late in jacking them up. He's proven a skilled passer with a very nice assist rate for an off-guard; he should be able to take over the offense when Kyrie Irving sits, and the evolution of NBA defenses makes it borderline essential for teams to have two capable ball handlers on the floor at all times.
The Cavs will be happy if both guys continue to mature on the floor, but perhaps even happier if the team shows any progress on defense. The Cavs are an awful, uncoordinated mess on that end — 28th overall in points allowed per possession — and they've actually been even worse during this otherwise very nice 11-9 stretch. Young teams are typically bad at defense, and Irving, for all his brilliance with the ball, is still struggling on that end. It's time to see some baby steps; another young team across the country, in Sacramento, never even got that far, and they've stalled out as the league's worst defensive team. The Cavaliers have another high draft pick coming and tons of cap flexibility they may want to save for LeBron James's potential free agency in the summer of 2014. Even if they hoard their space this summer, Cleveland should set an internal goal of snagging a playoff spot next season.
Another team that should be all-in for a playoff spot next season, because they capped themselves out with the Trevor Ariza/Emeka Okafor deal, and have ridden a surprisingly stingy defense to a 15-11 surge since their embarrassing 4-28 start. But here's the thing: John Wall is shooting 41 percent, with one 3-pointer, a very bad turnover rate, and a habit of descending into freneticism on both ends of the floor. He has boosted Washington's league-worst offense and handed a bucket of corner 3s to the improving Bradley Beal, but even with Wall on the floor, Washington is scoring at a rate that would rank about 25th overall.1 Wall has to get better to even approach justifying the max deal he'll surely demand when he hits free agency after next season — or the max extension he may push for in October.
Any advance in getting Nene healthy would also be huge. The Nene-Okafor front line has been productive on both ends, and Nene's ability to do just about everything at a B-plus level greases the wheels on offense. The Wiz need him productive so he can help on the court and up his trade value, in case the Wizards decide to try to move him at some point.
The Kitties are 6-42 since their fool's gold 7-5 start, and they've barely been competitive of late; 10 of their past 14 losses have been blowouts of at least 14 points. They're 29th in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency, and their point differential is once again the worst in the league by a huge margin. In other words: They are not as bad as they were last season, but they're still closer to "historically bad" than "run-of-the-mill bad." Progress of any kind, from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's jumper to the dancing skills of the team's inflatable mascot, would be welcome. There is value in every game, and every quarter Mike Dunlap gets to evaluate his borderline experimental pack-the-paint defensive system.
Some other quick-hitting specifics to watch: Can Kemba Walker solidify his emergence as an efficient scoring point guard on offense and improve defensively? Can Kidd-Gilchrist rebound on offense and cut his fouling on defense after smashing into the rookie wall? Can Bismack Biyombo, still (allegedly) so young, show glimpses of NBA-level offensive skill? Charlotte also has to decide if there's any reason, save for the pain of a sunk cost, in delaying the amnesty trigger on Tyrus Thomas, and whether Gerald Henderson is a core piece. Henderson's a useful two-way player who has shown improved 3-point accuracy on a higher volume of attempts, but he's about to get overpaid in a market oversaturated with cap space. Charlotte tried to deal him for a future first-round pick at the deadline but came up empty.
Oof. The Magic are 5-31 after their 12-13 start, and have predictably fallen apart on defense as young players have taken more minutes from veterans — a trend that picked up again when Orlando unloaded J.J. Redick at the deadline. The next 100 games are about simultaneously semi-tanking and learning what they've got in all the youngsters: Andrew Nicholson, who has been productive in limited minutes, but nonetheless struggled to get to the line or grasp the nuances of NBA big-man defense; Tobias Harris, thriving from all over the floor at multiple positions since the Magic rescued him from Milwaukee; and Moe Harkless, a raw slasher with good athleticism and size who has flashed a very smart cutting game on offense.
Joe Dumars has carved out a bunch of cap space, raising fears of a botched free agency sequel to the Charlie Villanueva–Ben Gordon spending spree of 2009 — the potential NBA equivalent of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. That kind of failure seems less likely with new ownership and an increased emphasis on analytics, but every game provides Detroit with a better understanding of what it has on the current roster — an understanding that will allow Detroit to enter the next two summers with more certainty about what it needs.
Andre Drummond's back issues have hurt Detroit's ability to learn more about how Drummond's pick-and-roll game might mesh with Greg Monroe's facilitating from the elbows — and whether Drummond really might be the explosive back-line helper who can cover up for Monroe's slow-footed, unintuitive defense. The Pistons have allowed exactly 100 points per 100 possessions in the 248 minutes the two have played together, a number that would rank eighth overall — far above Detroit's standing as a team. But Detroit's (very bad) offense has been worse when the two bigs share the floor, and 248 minutes is a tiny sample size.
Then there's Brandon Knight, fresh off two straight very good games before Sunday's contest working as something between a point guard and a shooting guard next to Jose Calderon. There's no shame in topping out as a hybrid guard instead of a ball-dominating lead dog, even if Knight would be small for a 2-guard; secondary ball handlers are valuable, and two very good secondary ball handlers can almost mimic the impact of one very good point guard. But where Detroit sees Knight's game going in 2013-14 will play a role in their decision with Calderon, a free agent this summer, and with Knight after that. Regardless, Detroit needs another wing who can shoot; Kyle Singler looks like a backup, and teams are scoring like mad against smaller lineups featuring Rodney Stuckey as a nominal small forward, per NBA.com.
The Raps are done as a playoff threat after four straight losses, with their overtime defeat at Milwaukee serving as the dagger. The rest of the season is an academic exercise — a chance to see how Jonas Valanciunas, a fourth-quarter benchwarmer most nights, might play in a larger role alongside Amir Johnson, and whether Andrea Bargnani can provide anything at all as something like a no. 1 scorer on bench-heavy units. Valanciunas is an exciting and raw talent who has yet to find consistent shots on offense — despite always rolling hard — and can overhelp at times on defense.
Bargnani has been obscenely horrible on both ends since his return from injury, to the point that Dwane Casey is sneaking him into home games after timeouts so that fans don't have a chance to boo the Italian big man at the scorer's table. Casey also will have a chance to refine Rudy Gay's fit, both in small lineups where he plays power forward and via finding more creative ways for Gay and DeMar DeRozan to play off of each other — sets that go beyond having them run off screens on opposite sides of the floor.
We covered this last week.
The most painful lost season in the league will only lead to more serious questions in the offseason, especially related to Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic. Kirilenko has a $10.2 million player option for next season, and given his strong play, it seems likely he'll opt out of that in order to secure a longer-term deal — something like a three-year/$27 million contract. The Wolves would likely re-sign him at that level. Pekovic is a restricted free agent — a bruising low-post scorer and pick-and-roll threat with smart feet on defense. He'll command at least $10 million per year, and likely more, in this summer's player-friendly market. Bringing back both guys at those salary levels would leave Minnesota with about $50 million committed to just five players in 2014-15, before even accounting for Derrick Williams, future picks, and a half-dozen empty roster spots. In other words: They'd be capped out until Kevin Love's deal runs out, which, by the way, could already happen in July 2015, because Minnesota voluntarily — and foolishly — decided locking up its best player for the longest possible length of time was a bad idea.
The Wolves really, really, really need to see how all these pieces fit together in real life, even if the fit looks so good on paper. Kirilenko can facilitate from the elbow, Pekovic can hurt teams in a ton of ways below the foul line, Love can play anywhere on the floor (the corners, the elbows, the block, the 3-point arc) in Rick Adelman's offense, and Ricky Rubio has found both his passing game and his fitness/speed as the season has progressed.2
But the Wolves need to see all of this play out on the court. They need to see if Williams, playing with greater decisiveness lately, can find major minutes within that rotation. He's an unproven defender at either forward position, including Kevin Love's power forward spot, and most of that increased decisiveness concerns Williams's midrange jumper; things can still get weirdly awkward when he works off the bounce.3 Chase Budinger, the wing shooter Minnesota desperately needs, is set to hit the free agent market after his own lost season, and his potential replacement, Alexey Shved, has shot 30 percent or worse in 12 of his last 19 games.
We don't know where the team will be playing next season, and the league still has no idea what to make of Tyreke Evans as he prepares to hit free agency and potentially soak up most of Sacramento's cap room. Evans is having a mini bounce back season, though he's done so primarily by being a hair more judicious with his shot selection and getting more shots via off-ball action. He still can't shoot, and he still isn't close to the right pass-or-shoot balance out of the pick-and-roll; it's possible the idea of "Tyreke Evans, go-to ball handler" is just over.
But forget all of this, and even forget the question of whether Patrick Patterson can really serve as the college buddy/floor spacer for DeMarcus Cousins, and what that means for Jason Thompson's future. Can this team play something that even looks like NBA defense? The Kings are the worst defensive team in the league, and they've gotten even worse as the season has gone on, per NBA.com.
The perimeter players can't deal with screens, and many of them are prone to ball-watching and back-cuts. Cousins is a miserable pick-and-roll defender. Nobody communicates, and the team's scheme has zero coherence. It is hard to watch, and the team will go nowhere until that changes.
In the backcourt, the Kings need to sort out the Evans situation and decide who among Jimmer Fredette, Isaiah Thomas, and Marcus Thornton is really a keeper in the long run. Fredette is a fringe rotation player, Thornton has finally found himself in the last week, and Thomas is a defensive liability who is about average as both a scorer and distributor. That is not a great combination, even if Thomas just looks like an intriguing player and is far better than the recently waived Aaron Brooks — who somehow stole Thomas's minutes early in the season.
New Orleans Hornets
Nothing shocking here: The Hornets need to see some very important pieces of their young nucleus mesh a bit better. New Orleans definitely put out Eric Gordon feelers at the trade deadline, but he's still around, and it's unclear how interested the team really is in moving him. It would help if Gordon could rediscover his shooting stroke and continue to develop a pick-and-roll chemistry with Anthony Davis; the two are still learning the timing of the pick-and-roll dance, and Davis projects as a devastating dive-man finisher once he gets that timing down.
Davis's shakiness on defense in space has been a bit of a surprise, and the Davis–Ryan Anderson front line has been a disaster; the Hornets have allowed 113.1 points per 100 possessions when those two share the floor, nearly 4.5 points worse than Sacramento's league-worst defense, and the worst number of any of the 40 or so New Orleans player pairs who have logged at least 275 minutes. The Hornets' defense, with a pack-the-paint emphasis nearly on par with Charlotte's, has been bad all season, and finding some synergy with the Anderson-Davis duo would be a nice coda — especially since Monty Williams appears to have (wisely) abandoned the idea of using one of them as a small forward.
The Hornets can nab max-level cap space this summer, in part because Robin Lopez's deal is only $500,000 guaranteed for next season. The team's faith in the Anderson-Davis pair will help determine how much it should spend on other back-line defenders. Continued incremental progress from Austin Rivers would also be nice, to say the least.
Goran Dragic is in a prolonged shooting slump, but the recent uptick in his assists — 11 per game over his last seven — is the latest sign that he's a very good starting NBA point guard. The rest of the season is about the development of an unproven lot set to nab all the playing time they want under Lindsey Hunter. Wesley Johnson is (barely) relevant again as he approaches unrestricted free agency, the Morris twins will get a shot to prove they are more than a pair of seventh and eighth men, and Kendall Marshall has 20 games to cut his turnover rate to a point at which it won't break most statistical databases. Marshall has to show he can defend at a level that is more "acceptably bad" than "unplayably bad," and he's in the early stages of alerting defenses that he might just shoot from long range if they completely ignore him on pick-and-rolls.
It's unclear if Marshall is ever going to be worthy of major minutes, but this is his first real chance to prove it.
Also: The team would love if Michael Beasley could perhaps take a prolonged break from being terrible, and if Marcin Gortat might look into bringing back some memories of last season.
(Note: We're giving Portland and Dallas the very, very small benefit of the doubt. But they're basically done, and we'll address them later.)
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Running to the Locker Room After a Road Buzzer-beater
Monta Ellis provided the latest reminder after dealing Houston a crushing loss the Rockets hope they won't be lamenting in a month: Sprinting to the locker room is the coolest way to celebrate a game-winning buzzer-beater on the road. It can communicate a lot of things, including "Let's get off the floor before the referees can review this," but to me, it always says, "I'm so cool that I'm not even going to gloat or give fans the opportunity to react in my direction. I'm leaving. Bye."
2. The Demise of Chris Singleton, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker, and Kevin Seraphin
John Wall is back, Bradley Beal looks like a borderline All-Star in the making, and the Wiz have been playing better than .500 ball for a while now. Lost in the happiness: Four recent first-round picks, including one lottery pick (Vesely) and two who fell just below the lottery, have failed to show any meaningful development at all. Singleton can't shoot, which torpedoes his chances of working as an effective small-ball power forward, and Vesely was out of the rotation until suddenly replacing Singleton over the weekend. Seraphin always shoots, usually misses, and never gets to the line. Booker has been a nonentity. This is bad. Let's hope it changes.
3. Pablo Prigioni's Reluctance to Shoot
The paranoid unselfishness is almost endearing. It's how I might act as an NBA player who suddenly had the ball 25 feet away with absolutely nobody bothering to do anything about it. Prigioni is actually shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, but it's a last resort, and he has a fantastic — and unique — combination floater/jumper he breaks out when he gets below the foul line but sees a defender heading to meet him at the rim. It's a shot that says, "I'm open, I guess I have to shoot, but I don't want to get any closer to the basket!"
I miss him already.
4. The Corner Rotation
One of my NBA pet peeves: rotating far off a 3-point shooter in the weakside corner to contest a midrange jumper on a pick-and-pop. Here's Jeff Green abandoning Gordon Hayward in the right corner to run out at a fairly well-covered Paul Millsap:
Obviously, every situation is different depending on the skills of the offensive players involved, but I suspect defenders in general are making this rotation far too often.
5. The Koufos Cut
A few weeks ago, George Karl told me why he sometimes stations his big men out of bounds for parts of offensive possessions, and how he wants his bigs to tiptoe along the baseline as a Denver point guard penetrates during a pick-and-roll. Here's a perfect and rather artful example:
6. The Demise of Jason Maxiell
There was a time not long ago when Maxiell was a useful player — an average midrange shooter who worked on defense, both in the post and against the pick-and-roll. That Maxiell is basically gone, and his minutes are dwindling, even with Drummond out. He's shooting a subpar 34 percent on long 2-point jumpers he's jacking more often than ever, and his defense has slipped. It will be interesting to see if Maxiell can land more than the minimum in free agency this summer.
7. Atlanta's Red Road Alternates
Why do so many teams — Portland, Philly, Atlanta — have sharp bright-colored road jerseys they only use for some games, when those jerseys are so much better than their standard uniforms? These babies, so damn red and with the simple "ATL" lettering, are fantastic.
8. Wilson Chandler Enters the Decoy Pick-and-Roll Club
I've written before on the decoy pick-and-roll, in which a big man sprints from the baseline toward his point guard, as if he's going to set a pick, only to suddenly veer off toward the 3-point line before actually setting it. It's a play with deep NBA roots, and one that can both confuse the man defending the point guard and net an open jumper for the screen-faker. Here's Denver using it with Wilson Chandler, working much more often these days as a small power forward:
If Chandler can hold steady at close to 40 percent from 3-point range on a high volume of attempts, he becomes a very interesting player — and trade chip.
9. Monte Mathis's Exasperation
You probably don't know who Mathis is, but he's been Dallas's official defensive coordinator since Dwane Casey left for Toronto, and he is a very good and well-respected coach. He also leads the NBA in subtly hilarious sideline theatrics, mostly because those theatrics come from a place of such deep anguish as to almost inspire pity. Dallas has spent most of the season as a bottom-10 defense, and after an egregious breakdown, you'll often spot Mathis holding his head in his hands or softly dropping his clipboard to the ground as he stares at the floor.
10. Hotels Secretly Putting Music on in Your Room
If you'll allow a non-hoops tidbit after a lot of travel in the last three weeks: Please, hotels of the world, do not include turning the television to the soothing/soft rock channel as part of your nighttime preparation regimen executed while a guest is out of the room. I got back to my hotel in Boston Thursday night and opened the door to find a dim light emanating from the TV and music playing at a fairly high volume. I thought for a second that someone had broken into my room, and that perhaps I should rip off a towel rack to wield as a weapon.
Nope. Just part of the nighttime coddling, along with slippers I didn't use and a friendly note on the pillow. Please discontinue the tunes.