It’s Friday, which means it’s time for another edition of 10 things I like and dislike across the NBA — starring Kevin Durant’s breathtaking dominance, leaky defense from LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets to aimless offense from the New Orleans Pelicans, and the end of a silly tradition.
1. The understated ease of Kevin Durant
During Sunday’s Brooklyn Nets game in Toronto, Matt Devlin, the Raptors’ play-by-play voice, mentioned it was Durant’s first time there since tearing his Achilles during the 2019 Finals.
We are prisoners of the moment, but that night, it felt as if the axis of the league tilted — that one of the 10 greatest players of all-time would never be the same, that the league and sport itself would never be the same.
And so it was rapturous last season to see Durant carry the hobbled Nets with one majestic performance after another. OK, he’s back. Story over. I’m trying to preserve the visceral emotions of that awful night in Toronto, and appreciate the day-to-day regular-season brilliance of this singular player.
Durant leads the league in scoring: 29.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, space-sucking defense. Brace yourself for the shooting numbers: 58.5% overall, 40.4% on 3s, an ungodly 64.5% on 2s — including an absolutely hilarious 61% on mid-rangers. Durant is almost a divinity — floating above mortals:
Durant dribbles at Chris Boucher, who has blocked more jumpers than almost anyone in the league over the last three seasons. Durant is unconcerned. He stops on a dime, rises, and barely registers Scottie Barnes flying at him.
Durant’s handle has always been third fiddle in analysis of what makes him unique, but it shouldn’t be. Most humans this tall cannot risk dribbling around smaller players. None can dribble so smoothly, in calculated staccato bursts. Durant’s handle and shooting stroke are intertwined — amplifying each other. The handle opens up access to infinite shot types.
Gary Trent Jr., leading the league in steals, claps at the chance to test himself. Durant is like, Oh, that’s adorable. What’s your name again?
The Nets are plus-3.7 per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor, and about even when he sits. They have managed only 99.7 points per 100 possessions without him — equivalent to the league’s 29th-ranked offense.
It’s tempting to pin that on James Harden, but the Nets have walloped opponents with Harden as solo star. Brooklyn is losing the Harden-Durant minutes by a lot, and they’re minus-23 in 75 minutes without both. (Hi, Kyrie!).
Steve Nash has risked more starless minutes recently due to a change in Harden’s substitution pattern. That generates more Harden-Durant time, which might be healthy; they haven’t shown much two-man chemistry this season.
2. Two fun pet moves for the strange, blah Mavs
Jalen Brunson’s newest trick: the Smitty fake spin!
That’s a canny way to leverage the threat of Kristaps Porzingis’s jumper; Brunson knows his defender will overreact to any fake there.
Brunson has again opened the season as the Mavs’ second-best player. He’s averaging 15 points on 50% shooting, and (again) finishing around the basket at a rate that should be impossible for a ground-bound fire hydrant.
The Mavs have blitzed opponents by eight points per 100 possessions with Brunson on the floor — and lost non-Brunson minutes by (not a typo!) 17.4 points per 100 possessions. Dallas is somehow minus-91 in 192 minutes Luka Doncic has played without Brunson. The Mavs’ lethargic first quarters got bad enough, Jason Kidd started Brunson twice last week.
Dallas is 7-4 despite ranking 22nd in offense and 19th in defense — with an ugly minus-33 point differential. That is so weird, I’m almost impressed.
Maybe gutting out more early wins than they deserve portends something bigger when everything clicks. Doncic will snap into a livelier gear soon. Dallas is shooting tons of 3s. Kidd has dabbled in playing smaller — with Porzingis as the only big, and Doncic sometimes the nominal “power forward” alongside three guards. That’s promising.
Or maybe this is who the Mavs are: sludgy, praying for good Porzingis games, redirecting too much offense away from Doncic spread pick-and-rolls. (Maybe call two fewer pindowns per game for Tim Hardaway Jr. long 2s while Doncic pouts like a puffy statue at half-court? In fairness, Doncic’s time of possession and pick-and-roll volume are up, per Second Spectrum. That said, I throw up a little in my mouth every time Porzingis wanders into a “post-up” at the elbow during what might otherwise be an effective Doncic-Dwight Powell pick-and-roll.)
With Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard hurt, the West is open. Doncic is that good. Ask the Clippers. But the Mavs aren’t playing with force. They are last in shots at the rim, and the folks at Basketball-Reference say the Mavs’ portion of attempts from the restricted area is the lowest ever in its database. Only 14% of Doncic’s shots have come at the basket, by far the lowest mark of his career.
Powell doesn’t do enough on either end. Dorian Finney-Smith is shooting 26% from deep, and is skittish working his pump-and-go game. Porzingis doesn’t look ready to anchor a good defense as solo big man. Put it all together, and it’s hard right now to see a Mavs team with enough two-way balance to win three playoff series. It’s in there, somewhere, but not accessible today.
Everything will look better when Doncic finds his verve. He has a ton of pet moves too; this is an under-the-radar favorite:
Doncic should patent this U-turn, moonwalking 3. He keeps those semi-circles around his screener tight.
3. A little too much Cam Reddish for the mid-rangy Hawks?
You know when a team feels secure in its identity — when everything flows in an organic way — and when it is searching amid jagged, arrhythmic play. The 4-8 Hawks are searching.
Trae Young might be adjusting to new officiating dictates; he’s shooting 42%, and his 3-point volume has dipped. Clint Capela is recovering from an Achilles issue; defenses are focused on vaporizing his lob dunks. Atlanta’s defense has cratered into the bottom-five.
Injuries have robbed backup units of any continuity. Atlanta’s bevy of wings are jockeying for shots and minutes. Depth can be a secret sauce in the regular-season. It fosters competition. But such competition — and hovering contract situations — can build stress that manifests in minor shot-chasing.
That could be infecting Reddish, jacking about four pull-up jumpers per game — well above his career average.
Reddish has made only 30% on career pull-up 3s, and 33% of pull-up 2s — not enough to justify inside the arc and hoisting with plenty of time on the shot clock:
Only the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns have launched more mid-rangers than Atlanta. The Hawks are a good mid-range team — Young is the floater king — but they’ve squeezed too much offense inside that space. (Anecdotally, it seems like the Hawks could use some Phoenix-style off-ball spice — screening and cutting — around Young pick-and-rolls.)
This one counts for three, but it’s a contested step-back going left with 15 on the shot clock:
Reddish has 10 assists in 12 games. It’s hard for any perimeter player to record so few dimes.
The Hawks have scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions with Reddish on the bench, and 95.9 when he plays — larger than the gap between the league’s best and worst offenses.
That’s not all on Reddish, of course. Atlanta’s bench mob lineups are pretty punchless. But it’s somewhat telling that Atlanta’s offense with Reddish has been about as bad regardless of whether Young is out there too, per NBA.com.
Reddish has scoring oomph you can’t teach. He is a solid defender. In Atlanta’s last two games, he has seemed determined to bag some pull-ups in favor of drives and passes that keep the machine moving. More of that!
It wasn’t Kuzma’s fault that some in the media labeled him the Los Angeles Lakers’ third star — hyperbole that could only shine upon Lakers’ role players. Kuzma was never going to meet such hype, but he has grown into a solid all-around starter.
Kuzma developed into a smart cutter in Los Angeles, and has settled in as a league-average 3-point shooter after an up-and-down L.A. tenure. He dialed in on defense there, hounding everyone from sharpshooting guards to bulky power forwards — whatever was convenient for the Lakers (and LeBron.) A lot of good defense lies in the absence of mistakes, and Kuzma rarely makes scheme-busting errors.
Now, he’s rebounding at near-center levels: nine per game, including well-timed crashing on the offensive glass.
He has reached a new level as a passer:
Kuzma spies a fast-closing window as Steven Adams and De’Anthony Melton re-switch — and fires a laser to Daniel Gafford. You only make that pass thinking one step ahead.
Kuzma spots Montrezl Harrell with a mismatch, and zooms into position for that lob. He doesn’t like the initial angle; he dribbles right, and rises as if he’s going to shoot a banker. Surprise! It’s weird, but it works.
Kuzma is a gap-filler. Whatever supplementary skill any lineup needs, Kuzma can shape-shift to provide it.
Kuzma was one of six players — almost literally an entire functioning team! — the East-leading (!) Wiz acquired for Russell Westbrook, now shooting 41% for the Lakers and gagging 5.3 turnovers per game. Westbrook will surge. He always does. But it’s indisputable that Washington from its perspective won John Wall and Westbrook trades in consecutive offseasons.
5. The Charlotte Hornets’ leaky perimeter defense
Charlotte skeptics — and I was not one — fretted about porous defense, and so far, they’ve been proven right; the Hornets are neck-and-neck for dead stinking last in points allowed per possession.
Their shot chart is a horror show. Only five teams are allowing more 3s. Only the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets have given up more wide-open 3s, per NBA.com. About 33% of Charlotte’s opponent shots have come at the rim — a bottom-10 mark, per Cleaning The Glass. Opponents have made 69% of those shots, third-highest.
The Hornets are bleeding offensive rebounds — baked into their small-ball structure — and fouling the bejesus out of everyone.
They have been a little unlucky; opponents have hit 45% on mid-rangers and 81% from the line — two of the league’s fattest marks. (How could Charlotte improve its free throw defense? Perhaps have Hugo the Hornet bust out the old “jump through the flaming hoop” bit along the baseline? What if Michael Jordan stood underneath the basket stanchion and stared down enemy shooters? Who’s telling him to move?)
But this goes beyond luck. Charlotte’s perimeter defenders cannot keep anyone in front of them, and those blow-bys cascade into desperate fouls, drive-and-kicks, drop-offs for dunks.
Charlotte wagered its switching defense could wall off the paint. They have an army of big wings and tweener forwards in LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre Jr., Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Cody Martin, and Jalen McDaniels. Terry Rozier has a 6-8 wingspan.
None of those guys consistently stiff one-on-one drives. Ball has an upright stance and a penchant for gambles. Hayward, Bridges, and Washington are better defending up in size than dancing with jitterbug guards. Rozier is inconsistent. Oubre looks the part — and has nights when his long arms and appetite for confrontation produce sound results — but isn’t as nimble as you’d expect.
Ball takes circuitous routes around off-ball screens:
Bridges has been forced into more center duty with Washington injured, and he doesn’t have quite as many reps defending traditional screeners:
The Hornets don’t have the roving helper or rim protector to put out fires.
Don’t panic. The Hornets rank 7th in points per possession, and a top-10 offense feels realistic.
They haven’t busted out as much zone defense as last season; I’d expect more soon. Charlotte has played a tough schedule, including a league-high nine road games. They come home now for bellwether tests against the Knicks, Wizards, and Indiana Pacers.
Only die-hards notice role players at Holiday’s level. He’s a good 3-point shooter — 36% career — but not a great one. He’s a solid defender, but not a long-armed stopper. On good nights he approaches 80% of Mikal Bridges, but that missing 20% is everything — the 20% that makes Bridges a $20 million player, at home logging 35 minutes in the Finals.
But Holiday is pretty good at lots of things, the kind of guy you appreciate when injuries nudge him into an elevated role — as has been the case with the weird, uneven Pacers, who have somehow clawed their way to 5-8 after a win Thursday in Utah. Opponents may not fear Holiday, but Holiday’s coaches don’t spend one second worrying about him.
Holiday is always cutting at the right moments, and skulking along the arc when the defense turns its back — creating passing lanes from scratch.
That play is going nowhere until Holiday sidles into the corner. The key is how Holiday waits to fill that vacated space. He doesn’t move in sync with Myles Turner’s roll to the rim — as the defense might expect. Instead, he lingers to see how the defense rotates — and if his man, Bryn Forbes, gawks at the action. Forbes peeks, Holiday goes.
Most trailing shooters stop at the arc. Holiday is smart about mixing in sprints to the rim — rumbles that suck in the defense, and unlock triples for teammates. Holiday sprinkles in these hard cuts on the back side of pick-and-rolls, too. Indiana has scripted motion sets for Holiday, including some in which he assumes Doug McDermott’s role in actions with Domantas Sabonis.
7. The Pelicans’ broken offense
Welp. We may be done with the meaningful part of the 2021-22 season in New Orleans. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are the centerpieces of the Pelicans’ teardown. The rest of the return from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades — both of which were well-reviewed — consists of kiddos and future picks. Those things don’t help you win.
They exchanged some of that return in an ill-fated run at Kyle Lowry last summer, and in the draft-day deal that swapped De’Andre Hunter for Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The jury is still deliberating that one, but Hayes and Alexander-Walker have been massive negatives this season. The pivot from Lowry and Lonzo Ball (shooting 45% on 3s and guarding some No. 1 wing options for the bounding Chicago Bulls) made little sense then, and has played out even worse than expected.
With no fulcrum, the Pelicans offense is an aimless morass. Possessions take forever to get going. Basic spacing eludes them:
Jonas Valanciunas flashes for a high-low, but help is there, and Herb Jones cuts directly into Valanciunas’s passing lane to Alexander-Walker.
There are so many instances like this, when one defender can guard two or three Pelicans. You can catch poor Willie Green directing traffic, screaming for players to move around.
Josh Hart should have a driving path, but Alexander-Walker clutters it by drifting next to him after aborting a flare screen.
Green has compounded things by sitting Graham and Valanciunas at the same time during Ingram’s absence; the Pelicans are minus-36 in 40 such minutes over those six games.
The Pelicans are 26th in offense and last in defense — without Williamson, a liability on that end. It shouldn’t be this bad.
8. Take-foul vengeance
As long as the league subjects us to gross take fouls, we must celebrate ball handlers who skirt them and defenders who refuse to participate in such nonsense. On Tuesday, Jrue Holiday crafted a six-second wordless argument against take fouls:
Lots of players in Holiday’s position wrap up Shake Milton there. Not Holiday. He’s good at defense, and opts to (gasp!) play basketball instead of not playing basketball.
The result? A clean pick and fast break that almost ends with one of the world’s most electrifying athletes dunking an off-the-backboard pass. But, sure, let’s keep short-circuiting such excitement in favor of hugs.
The flip side: when someone unknowingly hug-hacks with his team in the penalty. Whoops!
Sorry, Mo Wagner, but the basketball gods smiled.
9. Oh, hey, Giannis is still awesome
The Milwaukee Bucks have fallen off the radar. They have no drama. They have been without four starters in several games; no one worried when they were 4-6.
Opponents threw even more attention at Giannis Antetokounmpo with Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Donte DiVincenzo out. (The latter three remain out.) That may help Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the long run, because you can see the two-time MVP demanding more of himself as a playmaker.
Every time Antetokounmpo faces a wall, he asks himself: Should I hit that open shooter now, or is the defender leaning back that way? Should I take one more dribble to see who commits?
He’s answering with more care and variety.
Antetokounmpo sees Grayson Allen (playing really well!) to his left, but two defenders — Georges Niang up top and Furkan Korkmaz near the paint — are in position to pounce on Allen as Antetokounmpo approaches the arc:
One hard dribble, and Allen is wide open. He misses, but Antetokounmpo snares the board and whips it to Bobby Portis. Antetokounmpo had the floor mapped before that rebound hit his hands. He sees everything faster now.
The choice between getting off the ball earlier and continuing to prod is one of the thorniest for No. 1 options. Defenders in the NBA are really good, and really smart. It can look as if passing early is the right call, only for defenders to recover while the pass is airborne.
But more and more, Antetokounmpo is finding the right balance. At full health, the Bucks are going to be awesome. I like their vibe. They have zero fear of anyone, including the Nets.
10. Farewell, stodgy suits
I must declare Candace Buckner of the Washington Post — a wonderful writer and reporter — a mortal enemy because of her recent misguided screed against the NBA’s new casual coaching attire.
Buckner’s lament for overpriced (and sometimes oversized) suits includes needless potshots at en vogue quarter-zips — which commit the sin, I guess, of being comfortable and easy to pack.
Dress suits lent faux weightiness to the act of helping sweaty athletes throw a round object into round hoops inside sweaty gyms populated by sweaty, loud, and buzzed fans. We’re not hitting the club or filing into a white-shoe law firm. It’s freaking basketball. Dress for it.
Suits imbued some coaches with elegance and authority: Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, and assistants who put care into their wardrobe. For lower-ranking assistants, fancy suits were a real and onerous expense; every assistant has stories about ill-fitting hand-me-downs, bulky off-the-rack mishaps, and relying on the generosity of wealthier superiors for shopping sprees. Making it as a coach is stressful enough without worrying about how you look scrunching into the second row behind the bench. And don’t get me started on the shoes! Expensive dress shoes on a basketball court is dumb!
Let’s keep the matching casual look. The uniformity carries enough seriousness. Sorry, Ms. Buckner. You lose.