Here we go:
1. The pivoty goodness of Nikola Vucevic
Almost no one strings together pivot moves with the whirring, balletic brilliance of Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic:
Oh, baby: three pivot moves in less than two seconds. Vucevic pivots middle searching out his righty jump hook. Deandre Ayton sticks with him. Vucevic then pivots inside for a Kevin McHale-style up-and-under. Ayton hangs, but straightens up onto his tippy-toes. And right there, Vucevic has him. Vucevic spins back into that same jump hook before Ayton can regain his footing.
That is a masterpiece. Vucevic has a little bit of McHale and Jack Sikma in him. “I didn’t have that all mapped out,” Vucevic says after I text him the clip. “I have an idea of what I’d like to do, and if they take that away, I have my counters.”
Vucevic had good footwork as a kid, but he focused on pivot moves when he discovered he couldn’t just shoot over NBA centers, he says. He watched film of footwork masters, including Kobe Bryant.
He doesn’t need to blow by defenders, or fake them off their feet. Tipping them a hair off balance is enough. When Vucevic pivots into defenders’ bodies, some instinctively back away just enough for him to flick a hook over them.
“I try to use my pivots to create a little space,” he says. It helps that he’s nearly ambidextrous. Whatever window you reveal, Vucevic can sneak the ball through it.
The one downside of bobbing under and around defenders instead of powering through them: Vucevic rarely gets to the foul line. That’s one reason Orlando has scored at a middling rate when Vucevic posts up, though some of that is due to teammates missing open looks when opponents double him, per Second Spectrum. He can also pivot himself into the ground. “Sometimes I get stuck,” he says.
Vucevic has actually been more efficient on drives, and fakery helps him there, too. He stops on a dime, fakes a shot, waits for defenders to fly by, and pivots into his counter.
Vucevic is shooting 55 percent overall, and 41 percent from deep. He is the fulcrum of an Orlando offense that ranks 12th in points per possession since Nov. 1. (Anything above average counts as a minor miracle for the Magic. They have ranked 22nd or worse every season since 2011-12.)
They fall apart whenever he sits. Orlando has outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor, but opponents have obliterated them by almost a dozen points per 100 possessions when he rests. The difference — plus-16.2 — is the 11th-fattest among all rotation players, per NBA.com.
Vucevic ranks seventh overall in player efficiency rating, snug between LeBron James and James Harden. Orlando is 12-13 against the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team so far. If they hang around .500, Vucevic may garner enough support for his first All-Star appearance. He’s deserving.
2. Chill a little, Bucks
The one weak spot in the Milwaukee Bucks‘ blistering start: No team has allowed more 3-point attempts as a percentage of total opponent shots. This issue has dogged Mike Budenholzer; his Hawks ranked (in chronological order) 17th, 30th, 14th, 28th and 23rd by this measure, per Cleaning The Glass.
To the Bucks’ credit, they are doing a decent job limiting corner 3-pointers. No team has allowed fewer shots at the rim. They are just hemorrhaging open wing 3s, and over the past few weeks, they have been a touch panicky helping in the middle on drives that don’t require such urgency:
Those side pick-and-rolls present a bunch of bad choices — especially that first one. New York stations three shooters on the right side. Straying from any of them carries risk. Corralling the pick-and-roll two-on-two — without help — asks a lot of both defenders.
But Milwaukee boasts a cast of ball hawks. They also have Giannis Antetokounmpo, wrecking stuff everywhere. They are defaulting too early, and too eagerly, into helping from shooters one pass away. They seem to know this; they played a tick more conservatively against Detroit on Wednesday.
3. The end of Russell Westbrook, 3-point shooter?
Umm … so … Westbrook is shooting 22 percent from deep on five attempts per game after hitting just 29.8 percent last season — and then vowing to spend all summer honing his 3-point shot. Knee surgery cost him some off that offseason; he’ll soon nudge that percentage up toward his career mark of 30.9 percent.
Even so: That puts him on pace to be the worst high-volume 3-point shooter in league history. Only 59 guys have attempted at least 1,000 career triples and hit 33 percent or fewer; Westbrook already ranks 12th on that list in attempts. (Kobe Bryant — of course — has by far the most attempts on this list, having hit 32.9 percent of 5,546 career regular-season 3-point tries.)
You could argue this isn’t a huge problem. A 30 percent-ish 3-point attempt carries more expected value than some 2-point attempts.
But if he’s going to shoot so damned many, you’d prefer he actually make more. Defenders might pay some attention to him off the ball. When Westbrook knows he’s slumping, he will occasionally pass up wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s he should take. That rarely ends well:
Westbrook is 30. It feels like this just isn’t going to happen, at least not until he reaches his geezer Jason Kidd stage.
4. Kyle Kuzma playing some bully ball
As the league trends smaller, more lineups have only one defender who even approximates a physical match for LeBron: their power forward. Against the surging, weirdo Los Angeles Lakers, that leaves wings defending Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma is just big enough to leverage that into a polished, calm bully-ball game:
The Lakers have scored 1.06 points per possession when Kuzma shoots out of the post, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away — 33rd among 112 players who have recorded at least 15 post-ups, per Second Spectrum.
Kuzma has been feistier over the past two weeks chasing wings on the other end. Good thing, because LeBron is firmly in “chill on the weakest offensive player regardless of position” mode until crunch time.
One Laker wrinkle to watch: Both Kuzma and Lonzo Ball have played almost all their minutes with LeBron since Rajon Rondo busted his hand last month. When they all rest, Luke Walton goes without a traditional point guard, using Brandon Ingram in that role. That is what a lot of us craved: Unleash Ingram!
But the offense has looked gummy, and the numbers agree: 100.6 points per 100 possessions with Point Ingram since Rondo’s injury — about equivalent to the league’s clankiest team. Maybe it’s time to hand Lonzo the offense in those minutes? (They may do this anyway after Ingram sprained his ankle Wednesday.)
The Lakers are winning, but they remain a strange team — hard to pin down. Even as they rise in the Western Conference, the future of this roster — including some core players — feels somehow uncertain.
5. The stagnation of Allen Crabbe
Underrated recent NBA subplot: The Portland Trail Blazers bailing the Brooklyn Nets out of their mega-offer sheet for Crabbe, only to have the Nets return the favor a year later by trading for Crabbe at almost the first allowable moment. That is the only black mark on Sean Marks’ Brooklyn resume, but it’s a giant splotch.
Crabbe is a good catch-and-shoot guy; he’s up to 36 percent from deep after canning seven triples Wednesday in Brooklyn’s latest fall-from-ahead gut-punch loss (this one against Oklahoma City).
He just doesn’t do, like, anything else. When defenders run Crabbe off the arc, he takes one or two dribbles before pulling up:
He’s shooting *cleans fake glasses, vomits a little* 24.7 percent on 2-point attempts. Crabbe rarely keeps the machine moving with a drive-and-kick. He averages four drives per 100 possessions — a teensy number for a perimeter player. Only 21 percent of those drives result in a pass that leads to a shot — well below average. (Crabbe dishes one measly dime per game.) Only 2 percent end in shooting fouls — 265th among 276 guys who have recorded at least 20 drives, per Second Spectrum. When Crabbe does pass, he often finds someone on the other team.
This would be fine if Crabbe were an elite multi-positional defender. He’s not. Brooklyn could have found (at least) 80 percent of Crabbe’s production on a minimum contract, or something close.
Also: They cannot continue losing every close game. Someone in ownership will soon grow frustrated enough to demand improvement. That’s just how this works.
6. Bam Adebayo, a moving wall
Do not mess with Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo in the post. Do not attempt to pass the ball to his man, even if that guy appears to have Adebayo pinned. Adebayo will slingshot himself around his man like Lawrence freaking Taylor, while the ball is in midair, to intercept it:
Opponents have scored just 0.74 points per possession on any trip featuring a post-up of Adebayo, the 13th-lowest figure among almost 200 defenders who have faced at least 20 post-ups, per Second Spectrum.
Adebayo can defend almost any position. That versatility has given Erik Spoelstra more flexibility pairing Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk — two nominal centers — and holy cow has it paid off: The Heat have outscored opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions in 192 minutes those two have shared the floor, per NBA.com.
Miami has held teams to just 92 points per 100 possessions with Adebayo and Olynyk on the court, the eighth-lowest such mark among all duos who have piled up at least 175 minutes.
We are all dying to see Adebayo man the center spot solo, but the Heat have cratered when he plays without one of Olynyk and Hassan Whiteside. I’d like to see how Adebayo might fare if the Heat toss in one more perimeter player who mimics Olynyk’s shooting. Perhaps it’s as simple as getting Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson back healthy.
PS: Everyone pokes fun at the long-term mediocrity Charlotte, Detroit and a few other franchises might be staring at. The Heat are 9-14 with a bloated cap sheet and an unprotected 2021 first-rounder out the window. Yeah, they are the Heat, with ringz and the lure of South Beach. But how many teams have bleaker outlooks?
7. John Wall, standing still
Wall has perked up over the past couple of weeks, and the Washington Wizards have battled — or whatever their version of battling is — back into the potato sack race for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. But bad habits persist. Watch Wall bust into a moonwalk in the right corner as the Houston Rockets rush the ball up:
This has been happening for so long. When the Wizards got access to SportVU motion-tracking cameras, one of the first things they did was show Wall how often he stood still during rebounding battles and that pivotal first second of offense-to-defense transition. He’s addicted to the NBA’s version of uselessly pestering the goalie:
Other stars loiter. LeBron and Dwyane Wade are infamous for it. Their coaches hate it, too. But those guys achieved a stature Wall has never sniffed. Right or wrong, NBA Finals MVPs get leeway. When Wall does it — which is a lot — it is demoralizing. Other Wizards see the franchise player loafing, and either roll their eyes or decide it’s OK for them to loaf, too.
The Wiz rank among the league’s leakiest transition defenses. They have the collective first step of a zombie team. In crawling from 2-9 to 11-14 since Nov. 10, they have been 19 points per 100 possessions better (!) with Wall on the bench, per NBA.com. That stat is obviously noisy. Wall has had a few mammoth games, including a 36-point, 11-assist masterpiece against Houston. But Wall’s defense too often flat-lines, and that shows up in these numbers.
8. Kawhi Leonard‘s pull-back dribble
Leonard may have the league’s nastiest version of this — the north-south version of an in-and-out dribble:
His hands are so big, he can extend the ball the full length of his arm, as if he’s going to attack, and yank it back all in one motion. He conjures gobs of space with this single dribble. Everyone bites on it.
Leonard appears to be nearly all the way back, and has played his way into the MVP race after a monster six-game stretch. He’s up to 36 percent from deep, even while testing himself with more high-degree-of-difficulty, off-the-bounce bombs; for the first time in his career, Leonard is jacking more pull-up 3s than the catch-and-shoot variety, per NBA.com. He has hit just 31 percent of those, but stretching himself now will prove useful in high-leverage playoff moments.
9. Devin Booker‘s left hand
The poor Phoenix Suns are team 15 in a 14-team conference. They are getting nothing from the No. 4 and No. 8 picks in a draft that could end up defining their franchise trajectory for the next 10 years. Another No. 4 pick — the frenetic Josh Jackson — was on the fringes of the rotation until T.J. Warren‘s injury. Not great, Bob (Sarver).
So let’s bask in the awesomeness of Devin Booker’s one-handed, lefty gathers:
Being able to do that with either hand saves precious milliseconds. Booker’s gather looks the same whether he winds up for a pass or shot, and like a pitcher whose motion never changes, Booker uses that to confuse help defenders into paralysis:
Booker has spent almost his entire career searching for a role that provides the right balance. He is running about 53.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, fourth-most in the league, behind only D’Angelo Russell (quite hoggy since the Caris LeVert injury), J.J. Barea and Tony Parker, per Second Spectrum. That is too much Point Book. Booker has huge value as an off-ball threat; the Suns can’t access any of it.
Booker has fared wonderfully considering the load he is carrying for a terrible team. The Suns have scored about 1.1 points per possession on any trip featuring a Booker pick-and-roll, an above-average mark equivalent to those of LeBron, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley and other high-wattage names.
Still: Booker should work both on and off the ball. I can’t wait to see him on a team that allows for that.
10. Karate Kid/Roger Federer headbands
Normal headbands are fine, if a little reminiscent of 1980s aerobics instructors and the 55-year-old dude wearing rec specs at the YMCA. A more stylish alternative: the Karate Kid/Federer-style headbands — the wider ones that have to be tied in the back — Jrue Holiday, Andre Drummond, and Montrezl Harrell are bringing back this season.
Holiday has gone with a black headband, but Drummond has flipped between black and red. The red looks awesome. These are cooler than run-of-the-mill headbands. They just are. We are one step away from someone wearing a full-on bandana.
Alas: Bandanas run afoul of league fashion rules. Ditto for headbands with artsy designs. Headbands cannot be wider than 2.5 inches, and must be either solid white, black, or in one of the team’s primary colors, per league rules. BOO! The league is aware of the new headband craze, and is working to design tie-back headbands with the official NBA logo emblazoned on them. We’ll have to settle for that.