Let’s punctuate the waiting game with five things from actual NBA games:
1. Bring back great starting lineup introductions
This is one of the most important takeaways from “The Last Dance”: We need to restore starting lineup introductions to their Jordan-era glory. All these years later, I still get goosebumps when that pulsing, spaced-aged opening to “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project gathers momentum into: “AND NOW, THE STARTING LINEUP FOR YOUR WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO BULLS!” (A small masterstroke: the way Ray Clay, the Bulls’ legendary public address announcer during the title runs, accelerates into a crescendo at the end so “Chicago” and “Bulls” run together. And “the man in the middle” for Chicago’s centers — a tradition that appears to have started under Tommy Edwards, Clay’s equally legendary predecessor? Come on. Pure genius.)
That is not hyperbole. I get literal goosebumps. The hairs on my arms stand on end. I get fidgety during that pause between the fourth man — John Paxson/B.J. Armstrong in the first run, Ron Harper in the second — and Michael Jordan in the anchor spot. And then: “FROM NORTH CAROLINA!”
People who attended those games will tell you the arena was so loud by the time Harper was introduced, they couldn’t hear anything Clay said after. When “FROM NORTH CAROLINA!” hits, I am just about ready to run through a wall. If I’m sitting on my couch and I hear “FROM NORTH CAROLINA!” I might pop up with a steely look on my face, jog across the living room, and start high-fiving family members. If there are no family members, I will high-five furniture and walls.
It’s ridiculous. I am a 42-year-old father. I don’t care. I can’t help it.
Chicago’s starters leaned into the theatricality. They waited for their names to be called, stood on cue, high-fived reserves lined on either side of them, and took their places next to each other — bouncing on their toes until Jordan brought the group together.
Teams today work really hard on JumboTron hype videos that run before the starting intros. They are mostly good. Some get you amped up. But they all blend together: dunks and fancy passes interspersed with players screaming into the cameras and doing basketball things with, like, fire around them or something.
We need more variety. The cartoon bull rampaging through Chicago on the United Center JumboTron could have been cheesy — it kind of was, actually, on its own — but combined with the music, the voice, and the players involved, it worked. It stood out. Heck, during the first three-peat, the scoreboard flashed an embarrassingly pixelated Bulls head logo during the intros. That’s was it. It didn’t matter. The whole thing was still cool.
Too many of today’s stars shy away from the starting five spectacle. I blame Stephen Curry. He tails Klay Thompson off Golden State’s bench, so that by the time the Warriors’ PA announcer begins introducing Curry — the most popular and important player in Golden State’s history — he’s already concealed within the team’s dancing huddle.
Boo. Embrace the pageantry! You don’t have to smile, or glare, or perform complex dance moves. Just wait your turn, and revel in your five-second moment as the NBA version of a heavyweight boxer striding to the ring.
Television networks — including ESPN — need to show the full starting lineup introductions for every big game, or at least create an option for viewers to see them. Nobody would complain about this.
2. Will T.J. McConnell take a full-on jump shot from underneath the rim?
Is McConnell the best in the league at short midrange shots? He is for sure the most unusual such shot-taker. McConnell takes full-on jumpers — strong two-footed leap, extended follow-through — from 8 and 10 feet out. Most guards loft floaters from that range. McConnell winds up as if he’s jacking a 30-footer:
Major points for style and originality. A full 41% of McConnell’s attempts this season have come from between the restricted area and the foul line — a share that ranks above the 99th percentile among guards, per Cleaning The Glass. McConnell broke the site’s database. He has hit 51% of those weirdo shots — an elite figure.
McConnell is aware the all-jumpers-everywhere approach is rare. “Teammates tease me about it all the time,” he said. At practices, Jeremy Lamb sometimes dribbles to the edge of the paint, bends his knees, pushes off with all his might, and “heaves” jumpers with an exaggerated form: legs straight, arms outstretched.
McConnell doesn’t really use floaters. His theory is that defenders are so convinced he penetrates only to pass that they yield him enough space to load his regular jumper.
McConnell brings spunk and electricity to productive Indiana bench groups. The Pacers play much faster with McConnell on the floor. The foursome of McConnell, Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday, and Domantas Sabonis — the lone starter on Indiana’s core reserve-heavy units — has outscored opponents by eight points per 100 possessions. McConnell’s energetic, pass-first style has proved a snug fit alongside ace shooters and a canny screen-setting hub in Sabonis.
Victor Oladipo‘s return in late January placed one of McConnell and Aaron Holiday in danger of losing a rotation spot, but Indiana needed both after Lamb tore his ACL. Both produced. The Pacers soldiered on, as they do.
Bad news: McConnell has spent some of the current hiatus watching film of Tony Parker, and honing a floater. Resist peer pressure, T.J. Stay golden!
3. The bad habits of Houston’s star guards in transition defense
Houston’s transition defense has improved a ton since the Clint Capela-for-Robert Covington swap, per Cleaning The Glass. The Rockets are smaller and faster, and no longer playing a big man who hangs underneath the opposing basket.
But on a couple of possessions every game, the bad gambling habits of their star guards cost the Rockets points:
Russell Westbrook chasing that rebound is fine. When he flies in from nowhere and snares an offensive board, it sucks away some of the opponent’s will. But he lurks too long nipping at Kristaps Porzingis — the NBA version of pestering a goalie. James Harden compounds that by lurching for a steal. Harden might lead the league in this. He is sneaky good at it. Even so, his hit rate — especially against good teams who know his tendencies, and can punish Houston in transition — doesn’t quite justify how frequently he risks it.
Westbrook sometimes jogs when a crisis requires urgency. His first step can be shockingly slow; watch him along the near sideline:
Houston will be more attentive in the postseason — if we get one. But habits are hardened over time. Against the stiffest competition, small things decide quarters, halves, games, series.
Houston has very little margin for error. The Rockets rank 12th in points allowed per possession since mothballing centers. That’s a tick above where they were before, but not quite good enough to get out of the West unless they go supernova on offense over multiple series.
They are dead last in defensive rebounding post-Capela. That is baked into their center-less style, as are several methods of compensating — including winning the turnover battle. They just can’t afford much slippage anywhere else.
4. It’s time for Thomas Bryant to take the next step
Bryant has the potential to be a really good offensive center. He is a destroyer finishing on the pick-and-roll. He dunks like he wants to hurt the rim. He has hit about 80% at the basket over the last two seasons, one of the best marks in the league.
He takes too many long 2s, but he has hit 46% of them this season. It’s hard to make the pick-and-pop 2 a weapon defenses adjust to take away, but it’s a handy tool at the end of the shot clock. That 46% mark hints at the possibility of turning some of those 2s into 3s. Those bend defenses.
Bryant entered the league as something of a chucker, but he has made strides as a playmaker. He developed a nice handoff chemistry with Bradley Beal. He can make the requisite passes for any pick-and-roll dive man. He has a knack for spotting shooters (Davis Bertans) and cutters (Troy Brown Jr.) in scramble situations, including after offensive rebounds.
But Bryant will never be a starter on a good team unless he takes a giant leap on defense. That will have to come mostly at center; Bryant isn’t agile enough to defend power forwards. Washington has been horrendous on defense for the last two seasons, and even worse with Bryant on the floor.
He can be overeager chasing blocks. He often ends up paralyzed between competing impulses:
Bryant wants to swat at Pascal Siakam‘s drive, but realizes halfway there he is too late. That ill-fated mini-slide exposes an uncontested putback for Serge Ibaka. Bryant has two basic choices: contest Siakam’s shot, or box out Ibaka. Because he chooses late, he ends up doing neither — the cardinal sin. That is not uncommon with Bryant.
He can be a little leaky on the glass, with shaky technique warding off opponents. His footwork is unsteady, mechanical:
Bryant is just 22. He has played only 2,400 career minutes. Big man defense in the NBA is really hard. He will get better. He is already good enough on offense to work as a backup center for a long time. He surely wants to be more than that. The Wizards want him to be more than that. Bryant has a lot of ground to cover to get there.
5. Is this the best Derrick Rose shot?
Is this now the most Derrick Rose shot — the one that pops into your head first when you close your eyes and think of the recent versions of him?
Rose may not be as explosive as he was before tearing his ACL in 2012, but he’s fast enough to freak defenders into panicked backpedaling — with the dexterity to stop on a dime, pivot-spin, and flip this baby up.
Rose’s per-minute numbers this season are remarkably similar to those of his MVP campaign in 2011 and in the following year — when the Bulls ranked fifth in points per possession, snagged the No. 1 seed for the second straight season, and looked poised for a five-year nip-and-tuck rivalry with LeBron James and the “Hollywood as hell” Miami Heat.
A full 39% of Rose’s shots in Detroit have come at the rim — almost identical to his MVP peak. He has hit 64% of those — even better than in those glory years. His finishing cratered from 2014 to 2016, his first seasons back from two lost years. He barely dunked. When I was in Chicago in December 2015 to write a feature on that angsty Bulls team, word spread that Rose had dunked in shootaround. It was an event. People within the team whispered about it, as if they were afraid to jinx what that dunk might portend.
By 2017, he looked like a broken player — perhaps on his way out of the league. He proved doubters — this one included — wrong with a resurgence in Minnesota under his old baritone pal, Tom Thibodeau. Rose has been just as good as a Piston. He has assisted on 40.5% of Detroit’s baskets while on the floor — the highest mark of his career, though also the byproduct of injuries that robbed Detroit of almost all its other playmakers.
Rose has obviously lost some hops. He has dunked just twice this season. He doesn’t get to the line as often as he did pre-injuries, and he can’t play nearly as many minutes. But on a per-minute basis, he is closer to the player he once was than you might think.
Rose will be a unicorn Hall of Fame case. Pile up four or five more seasons at this level, and he will finish with something like 16,000 points and 4,500 assists. Those numbers put him in something of a netherworld consisting of very good guards who aren’t Hall of Famers (Sam Cassell, Jeff Hornacek, Mike Bibby, with Terry Porter and Andre Miller in the same general neighborhood despite much higher assist totals); players a slight tick higher who got in, or have a very good chance, in part because they won titles (Chauncey Billups, Joe Dumars, Kyle Lowry, Andre Iguodala); and a few guys who you just knew from watching them were Hall of Famers — and champions (Walt Frazier, Manu Ginobili).
None of those guys has a regular-season MVP. Every MVP other than Rose is either in the Hall of Fame, or a cinch to make it when eligible. Several of the above names fall short of Rose’s three All-Star appearances. That’s on the very low end by Hall of Fame standards, but there are a few in Springfield with one, two or three All-Star nods. (There are a whole bunch with four.)
On the flip side, that list contains several elite defenders. Rose is a minus on that end, and always was.
Perhaps the spiciest comp is Grant Hill: 17,137 points, 4,252 assists, zero NBA rings, and a case built at least somewhat on success outside the NBA. (Rose’s college achievements were essentially erased after the NCAA ruled he had played while academically ineligible.) Does one NBA MVP equal two college titles for Hall of Fame worthiness?
Hill made seven All-Star teams, though one is kind of bogus; fans voted Hill as a starter in 2001, when he appeared in only four games. Still: His peak lasted longer than Rose’s.
I don’t quite see a case for Rose if he continues on his current trajectory, but there will be a spirited debate. (There is a spirited debate about everything now.) That MVP stands out.