Let’s plant ourselves in the lane for 10 NBA things:
1. Jimmy Butler and the Heat, cutting you to pieces
The post-LeBron James Miami Heat adapted to their superstar void by crafting a whirring motion offense designed to add up to more than the sum of its parts. They cut and screened and led the league in handoff plays — including fake handoffs that functioned almost like quarterback keepers.
Butler can both exist outside that system and enhance it. Savvy, bruising off-ball cuts have always been the most underrated part of his game.
Butler cuts with purpose. He cuts to inflict pain — often by bulldozing smaller players:
Even amid the blur of an urgent cut, Butler does not lose track of teammates.
Bam Adebayo has been the most obvious beneficiary of Butler blending into this pass-and-cut ethos. Adebayo is blossoming as a high-post distributor, averaging 4.5 assists per game. That kind of passing from a center has an explosive compound effect. If opponents press him, they remove their center from the basket area — opening cutting lanes for everyone else. It keeps Miami’s most important defender — Adebayo — engaged on offense and motivated to give everything on the other end.
Butler embracing this style has also been a boon for Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and even Dragic. None of those four can be the alpha dog of a good NBA offense, but they are more than standstill spot-up threats. They are shifty screeners and movers, capable of letting fly after one or two dribbles if they catch the ball with some airspace — the kind of head start Miami’s motion is designed to generate.
They are smart about screening for each other away from the ball and bursting apart in unpredictable patterns.
Only one team — the Phoenix Suns — has finished more possessions than Miami via cuts, per tracking data. The Heat have assisted on 64% of their buckets — fifth overall. Butler is dishing seven dimes per game, double his career average.
The Heat might not be quite as good as their gaudy 18-6 record; they have played an easy schedule and eked out close home wins this week against Washington, Chicago and Atlanta. But they are really good, and their players are amplifying each other.
2. Davis Bertans panic
No healthy 3-point shooter inspires more wide-eyed, hair-on-fire panic among defenders than the 2019-20 version of Bertans. Dude is shooting with guys almost literally crawling up his jersey.
He will jack from 30 feet. He is a laughable 25-of-61 on tightly guarded 3s, per NBA.com. He has hit 46.7% of both catch-and-shoot and pull-up looks, and he already has made almost as many of the latter (14) as he did in the prior three seasons combined with San Antonio (20). He might start shooting lefty just for fun.
When you get Kawhi Leonard running at you as if he is rescuing someone from a burning building, you know you’ve made it:
Sometimes, the mere sight of Bertans holding the ball inside half court causes two or even three defenders to forget their assignments and swarm:
Bertans is shooting 46.5% on almost 11 (!!) 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. Here is the list of players who have tried 10-plus treys per 36 minutes and canned at least 40% in any season:
That’s the list. Curry has done it four times. His best hit rate in those seasons: 45.7%. Curry’s attempt profile was obviously tougher than Bertans’, but Bertans is enjoying one of the greatest seasons of long-range shooting.
The Wizards have scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions with Bertans on the floor. That would rank second among teams. Don’t bother rebutting this by pointing out Bertans rains fire against opposing benches or that Washington’s defense stinks regardless. Don’t be that guy. The 2019-20 Wizards are not a vehicle for serious analysis. They exist only to entertain, and they are succeeding thanks in large part to the Latvian Laser.
If Bertans isn’t in the 3-point shootout at All-Star weekend, what are we even doing? Right now, there are four non-stars that absolutely need invites: Bertans, Duncan Robinson, Joe Harris (defending champ should get an automatic berth, and Harris deserves it) and Devonte’ Graham.
By the way: Graham is averaging 20 points and eight dimes per game. Has any player ever appeared in the 3-point contest, whatever the rookie-sophomore abomination is called now and the actual All-Star Game in the same season?
3. Hurt someone, Mo Bamba!
The rush to proclaim Bamba a bust is a little much. He is 21 and only recently cracked 1,000 career minutes. His 3-pointer has improved. Opponents are shooting only 49% around the rim when Bamba is nearby. The Magic are about even with Bamba on the floor — a step up from last season. Sure, the Magic would probably rather have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — drafted five spots lower — but let’s give Bamba a fair shot.
Bamba defends like a 7-footer. Would it kill him to occasionally play offense like one? Bamba has to do better than this punishing switches:
Bamba has recorded only 11 post touches this season, per Second Spectrum. Those touches have produced a grand total of zero points for Bamba or teammates who receive his passes. (Given Bamba’s turnover rate, opponents have probably scored more off those passes than the Magic.)
He shows a similar passivity when little guys rotate to meet him at the rim:
Bamba has attempted 12 free throws all season. Twelve. It is really hard to be this large and get to the line so rarely.
Embrace your inner bully, big fella!
4. Phoenix’s all-arms wing combination
Phoenix’s performance with Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. together doesn’t budge from their overall numbers, but damn is it fun — if only for the sheer amount of arms happening. Oubre’s shooting has never matched his boundless confidence — he has hit 32% from deep as a Sun — but he is channeling his mania in more productive directions.
Oubre pulsates with hyperactive energy. When he doesn’t have the ball, he bounces and vibrates in anticipation of getting it again. In past seasons, he would catch the ball and pause, overwhelmed at all the possibilities before him (the more adventurous, the better). Now he is directing that pent-up excitement into lightning-quick, catch-and-go attacks that dust flat-footed defenders:
He is an addicted ball-watcher on defense. He can barely take his eyes off that thing. The thirst is palpable. Over his career, that has led to lots of steals — and lots of opposing players sneaking behind him for layups. He has been more attentive this season, without any drop-off in steals or deflections.
Bridges’ arms are preposterous. They are somehow in multiple passing lanes at once. (He and Oubre both rank among the top-40 rotation players in deflections.) Bridges is one of the league’s best cutters. Turn your back, and he’s gone.
Bridges rarely gets in the way or jumbles the paint at the wrong moment. He knows how to cut in ways that trigger specific rotations and unlock shots for teammates — as he does for Cameron Johnson above. His cuts are more acts of sacrifice than avarice.
Alas, solid defense and heady cuts are not enough to make Bridges into a starter-level player. He has to, like, do stuff with the ball. If only the basketball gods had split confidence a little more evenly between Oubre and Bridges.
But over the past three weeks, Bridges has dipped his toe into more on-ball aggression. He is hunting pump-and-go drives. He has bumped his usage rate over the past 10 games from “wait, did Mikal Bridges play tonight?” levels to those of a Danny Green-type fourth/fifth option. Progress!
5. Cleveland’s forward situation
The Cavs knew they risked redundancy drafting Collin Sexton and Darius Garland back-to-back. Their kiddo starting backcourt is averaging 5.2 assists combined per game. Things got so bad during a gazillion-point loss in Philly on Saturday that Kevin Love parked himself in the lane and called for the ball, hand raised high, for almost six consecutive seconds until officials finally blew the whistle. It was the greatest three-second violation in league history. It certainly appeared Love was making a point.
Sexton and Garland are 20 and 19, respectively. They are fine.
Love is on the trade market. Every big man in Cleveland’s rotation save maybe Larry Nance Jr. is a mercenary. Cedi Osman is a smart, selfless player, but he’s almost 25 and averaging nine points per game on 41% shooting. Playing him at power forward has proved untenable. Kevin Porter Jr. has been Cleveland’s most interesting prospect on a lot of nights, but he is undersized as a small forward alongside both Sexton and Garland.
Cleveland is still early in its post-LeBron rebuild. We’ve yet to see Dylan Windler. The Cavs surely will draft a forward or center this season. But they have lots of holes to fill.
6. Jaxson Hayes, unseen horror movie villain
Have you ever stood in a crowd that starts buzzing about something you can’t see? You know something is coming — you feel it — but you don’t know what.
That sensation happens once or twice in every New Orleans broadcast, and it usually involves Hayes lurking just off your television screen:
Hayes is over there somewhere, gathering momentum for something dangerous. The crowd sees it, but you can’t. Hayes with a head of steam is legitimately scary. He already is one of the league’s most violent dunkers, and he wants to dunk everything — no matter how far from the rim he is upon takeoff or who stands in his way.
JJ Redick flying off screens from Hayes is a problem; if both defenders lunge at Redick, Hayes rolls free toward the rim. Alvin Gentry has souped up that action by clearing one side of the floor for Redick and Hayes, forcing help defenders to traverse long distances in trying to outrace Hayes:
Good luck. Almost everything has gone wrong for the banged-up, disorganized Pelicans. They can take heart in Hayes’ rookie campaign.
7. The greatest video tribute of all time
In an era of vanilla tribute videos for vanilla players, the Raptors deserve huge credit for crafting a special one for a special player. They nailed the Kawhi Leonard tribute. When the time came to commemorate Leonard’s series-winning Game 7 mega-shot against Philly, the Raptors paused the scoreboard tribute as it displayed a title card reading: “The Shot Heard Around The World.”
The arena went dark. Matt Devlin’s play-by-play call blared: “Tied at 90 …”
Some in attendance surely wondered: What was happening? Had there been a glitch? The suspense of that moment — the confusion and uncertainty — was meant to almost mirror what fans felt as Toronto inbounded the ball that fateful Sunday evening, Raptors officials said.
And then: Footprints appeared on the floor, one by one, white spotlights tracking Leonard’s path toward the right corner. Devlin’s voice rang out: “For the win …” The audio went silent for five full seconds as a spotlight lit the basket and the broadcast zoomed in on the rim from above. The silence lasted longer than the actual four bounces. That was intentional, said Jerry Ferguson, head of brand and creative for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment — to give fans time to process what was happening. The crowd’s collective realization — “Oh, I get it!” — was the closest the Raptors could get to the transition from anxiety to euphoria that fans experienced as Leonard’s shot dropped.
The Raptors got the idea for the footprints after the success of this video the team created tracing the shot from Leonard’s perspective, Ferguson said. The Raptors are fond of saying Leonard “left his mark” on the franchise; the footprints were a visual representation of that mark, Ferguson said.
They knew they had to make their Leonard tribute different.
“That shot is the most iconic moment in Toronto sports history,” Ferguson said.
They researched tributes across several sports leagues for inspiration and to make sure their plan was unique.
“A lot of these tributes are pretty traditional,” Ferguson said. “This was a big moment. We wanted to do something special.”
Timing was a challenge, Ferguson said — shutting the lights at the right instant and making sure each element flowed into the next without any gaps. The team had to spend a lot of time with its broadcast partners, including ESPN, to make sure viewers at home could follow along.
“We rehearsed all day,” Ferguson said.
It paid off.
8. Golden State’s Keystone Kops defense
For five-plus seasons, Golden State was the league’s smartest, most connected defensive team. The Warriors orchestrated complex rotations and switches — in-the-moment reads involving all five players — without exposing any openings. They operated in winks and nods — and sometimes without any signals at all. It was as if they shared a brain.
Rival coaches often asked Steve Kerr’s staff for tips they could use in teaching their own players to switch without blips of confusion. Golden State’s coaches would shrug and suggest signing smart players.
Everything about watching Golden State this season has been jarring, but nothing has been as strange — almost surreal — as seeing the Warriors bumbling around on defense. Going from those dynastic teams to this is like flipping from “The Wire” to “Two and a Half Men”:
These Warriors botch switches constantly. They walk away from dangerous shooters.
Two Warriors rotate to the same enemy player, leaving giant holes elsewhere. Sometimes, they run into each other, Keystone Kops-style. I’m not sure how Draymond Green — a genius accustomed to the company of geniuses — is surviving this without extensive counseling.
Golden State’s defense actually has improved over the past few weeks, but the Warriors still rank 25th in points allowed per possession.
None of this is surprising. It is what happens when a bunch of marginal players with no experience playing together join up. A high draft pick — and the trade options it brings — is coming, along with Curry and Klay Thompson. In the meantime, the games are weird.
9. Give Karl-Anthony Towns the freaking ball
Towns’ usage rate has crept down since his explosive opening 10 games. It is now below last season’s level. It has been nice watching Andrew Wiggins become (at times) a genuinely helpful scorer, but the Wolves need to get back to basics and feed Towns.
Yeah, that’s perhaps harder than it sounds. Big guys are always dependent to some degree on guards to get them the ball. No one on the Wolves can throw a functional entry pass.
But it’s not that complicated to turn a mismatch into something more profitable than this:
Towns has Dillon Brooks on him with 17 on the shot clock, and no one seems to realize or care — including Towns! Wiggins puking up a midranger over Bruno Caboclo is almost the worst-case outcome after earning that switch.
There are a bunch of reasons Minnesota has lost six straight, including games against Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Utah with potential playoff implications. Not enough Towns is one of them.
10. The improved craft of Aaron Holiday
Boy, was I wrong about the Pacers. Even against an angel food cake schedule, Indiana starting 16-9 amid a wave of injuries is super impressive. Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren have exceeded expectations — even on defense in Warren’s case. Domantas Sabonis is as steady as any big man in the league.
Over the past month, the quartet of Aaron and Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott has stabilized Indiana’s bench-heavy units. The foursome doesn’t always work well together — lineups with both McConnell and Aaron Holiday are hit or miss — but stick three of them with two starters and the Pacers are usually money.
The junior Holiday has chilled his shot selection and his desire to hurtle full speed at the basket on every drive. He is shooting less often than he was during an irregular first few weeks, and he is hitting more — including 39% from deep. He also is flashing more start-and-stop craft on the pick-and-roll:
This version of Holiday is easier to play with, which makes for happier, well-fed teammates. He has his head up, searching for passing outlets. Indiana might have trouble playing all of its guards when Victor Oladipo returns, but Holiday has earned minutes.