Ten things I like and don't like, including deadly Steph-KD plays

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Friday, February 2, 2018

1. The Curry-Durant pick-and-roll, coming for us all

Uh oh. Running this play over and over isn't in Steve Kerr's basketball DNA, but he has apparently conceded that it is unguardable -- perhaps the deadliest pick-and-roll combination in the league.

The Warriors kept this bad boy under wraps last season until crisis moments in the playoffs, including the closing stretch of their clinching NBA Finals victory. They ran only 5.8 per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum tracking data via NBA Advanced Stats. In January, they busted it out at almost double that rate -- 11 times per 100 possessions.

The Warriors have scored an insane 1.33 points per possession when that Curry-Durant dance leads to a shot from one of those two, or an attempt from a teammate one pass away, per Second Spectrum. That is the best figure among 301 duos who have run at least 100 pick-and-rolls together.

There isn't a lot the defense can do against this, other than pulling an in-game Gillooly. Curry needs zero room -- the teensiest blip of confusion -- to kill you softly. Switch to eliminate that airspace, and Durant goes to work against a little guy.

Defenses can minimize the switch pain by putting bigger wings (say Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker) on both guys, but that just means you have to hide multiple mismatched defenders -- including on Klay Thompson -- elsewhere. Some bigger wings will have trouble chasing Curry in the first place.

That is one upside to Kerr being so selective with this: Teams won't rejigger the matchups to vaporize this play because they seldom know it's coming.

Curry and Durant learning their two-man game at a deeper level -- and Kerr's willingness to lean on it some -- is a bad sign for postseason opponents.

2. Denzel Valentine's floater

Valentine has the wackiest, most bizarrely accurate semi-long-range floater in the league. I mean, what is this?

Look at that thing! Everything about it -- the angle, the distance, the release -- is implausible, but it seems like Valentine hits at least one in every game. Sure enough, Valentine is shooting 51 percent on "short midrange" shots -- i.e., floaters -- which puts him in the 93rd percentile among all wing players, per Cleaning The Glass.

It almost looks like Valentine rolls the ball up his hand -- as if he folds it underneath his forearm, and then flicks it up in a waving motion. He releases the ball at the very start of his jump -- or before he even jumps at all -- so that shot-blockers aren't even off the ground by the time the ball drops through.

Valentine is a strange, creative, almost apositional player. It's unclear if he can defend in the NBA, but he's shooting 40 percent from deep. Worth watching.

3. The Hawks, against fun

Good news: Mike Budenholzer finally, finally, finally caved to public demand and benched Miles Plumlee in the second half of Atlanta's loss to Charlotte on Wednesday. Bad news: He started Mike Muscala in his place.

I love me some Musky shooting and passing, but the people demand more of the John Collins-Dewayne Dedmon pairing. Collins is a human Pogo Stick who can jump four times in about two seconds, tries to dunk everything, and grabs rebounds when the ball is still above the rim.

The two even partnered on maybe Atlanta's best highlight of the season on Wednesday, when Dedmon went coast-to-coast (!) and tossed an underhand lob to Collins for a ferocious one-handed alley-oop. Both are swing-for-the-fences shot-blockers.

Dedmon and Collins are rim-running centers at heart, but both -- and especially Dedmon -- are versatile enough to make the pairing work. Dedmon is shooting 39 percent from deep, and a little better than that from the corners, so he's comfortable spotting up while Collins rampages to the basket:

Collins has even flashed a soft floater when he can't get all the way there. He has been flirting with his own corner 3, so the two can reverse roles when Dedmon -- a mean dunker himself -- wants to assault the tin.

Collins has shown some nascent ability to switch onto smaller guys. He makes the usual rookie mistakes on defense, but Collins is great League Pass entertainment. Oh, and the Hawks -- the 15-36 Hawks, with the worst record in the league -- are only minus-3 in the 217 minutes Collins and Dedmon have shared the floor, per NBA.com.

I am merely a vessel for people. The people demand more Collins-Dedmon.

4. Steven Adams, destroyer of worlds

The most fun way to watch Thunder games: Track every manic, roaring thing Russell Westbrook does. The second-most fun way to watch Thunder games: Focus on the close-range violence Adams commits underneath the rim on every possession. Look at what he did to poor Marcin Gortat -- a giant human, mind you -- on a free throw the other day:

Adams tosses people out of the way like George Costanza fleeing a kitchen fire at a child's birthday party. He has rebounded almost 18 percent of Thunder misses while on the floor, a monstrous number that tops the league. Adams by himself has a higher offensive rebound rate than the Mavericks do as a team, and he's within armbar-length of a few other teams. Only two rotation players -- Andre Drummond twice and Joakim Noah in limited minutes last season -- have grabbed such a large share of available offensive rebounds in the past decade.

Adams might be made from something other than normal human flesh, blood and organs. People just bounce off of him -- like, far off of him -- as if there is some electrified force field around his body.

Having a one-man wrecking crew gives Oklahoma City the best of both worlds: They grab offensive rebounds without sacrificing transition defense, since Adams can handle the rebounding part solo -- freeing everyone else to run back. Opponents often send two guys to box him out, leaving them short on numbers even if they want to grab-and-go.

Only one team, Milwaukee, allows fewer transition chances than the Thunder, per Cleaning The Glass, and Adams is a big reason for that. (Interestingly, the Thunder allow a hair fewer fast-break chances with Adams on the bench. Their offensive rebounding rate also sinks to league-worst levels without Adams, so it's possible they just don't have anyone crash the glass. Those non-Adams lineups are also small and fast.)

Adams has transformed step-by-step into a perfect supporting player -- the third-best player on the team. Two seasons ago, he got comfortable dunking lobs from Westbrook on the pick-and-roll. Last season, he polished up his floater. Now, he's making quick-hitting reads on the move, and zipping lasers right into shooting pockets.

He's a beast on defense, though he can get overextended a bit when the Thunder ask him to chase pick-and-rolls beyond the 3-point arc (which happens a lot). Overall, he's a wonderful player.

5. Jonas Valanciunas, killing it

Valanciunas -- once alleged trade bait, crunch-time bystander, Toronto's literal NBA dinosaur -- is fighting to reclaim his spot in the league, and just wrapped up the best month of his career.

Valanciunas touches the ball more in Toronto's revamped offense, and the increased involvement has reinvigorated him. He's confident as a passer, and he's even dabbling with a 3-pointer -- much to the delight of Toronto's raucous crowd, which roars encouragement as Valanciunas starts his slow windup. He's moving around with more oomph on defense.

Most important: He's mauling fools in the paint. Valanciunas is shooting 57 percent on post-ups, third-best among 66 guys who have finished at least 50 such plays, per NBA.com. (Ahead of him: Taj Gibson and Regional Manager Mike Scott.) He's inhaling rebounds, and finishing with touch on the pick-and-roll.

Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl have been so good, Toronto can barely get to the lineup that might be its endgame in some playoff matchups: Ibaka at center, with O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, or someone else at power forward. (Anunoby's recent collision with the rookie wall hasn't helped.)

The Raptors need that lineup in the bag; Valanciunas can evolve only so much. He's big and slow. He gets uncomfortable outside the paint on defense -- a problem against teams with a ton of shooting. He can't switch. Those things aren't changing. He still makes sense as a salary-dump candidate if and when the Raptors cut payroll.

But credit Valanciunas for battling against the NBA's tides.

6. Milos Teodosic, importing something stinky

Almost everything about Teodosic is a delight. His perpetual 5 o'clock shadow is one of nature's great mysteries. He is a passing savant, and he will try anything -- up to and including full-court, underhand bombs.

Unfortunately, he imported the most virulent known strain of a virus the NBA should eradicate:

There are three Clippers back on defense, ahead of every Pelican. This is not Teodosic snuffing some emergency. This is Teodosic deciding he'd prefer not to play defense, and hugging an opponent. It is not basketball.

This isn't hard. Legislate these as clear-path fouls, or levy penalties reserved for intentional away-from-the-play hacks.

7. Milwaukee's "cream city" jerseys

The Bucks artistic winning streak continues! Cream is a risk. The danger is that the cream just looks white -- defeating the purpose. (Portland's black-on-black plaid jerseys suffer this same problem. From a distance, they appear to be plain black.)

These babies are clearly and emphatically cream, and they look great. The multi-colored striping was a gamble; shading the top and bottom stripes different colors -- blue and dark green -- creates an unexpected asymmetry. But it somehow works. The stoic, vaguely threatening buck head is always welcome, and the jagged diagonal striping on the shorts -- meant to evoke the negative space inside and under an "M" -- is a gorgeous touch.

8. Al Horford's second contests

There is a certain segment of basketball fandom that laughs at the notion that Al Horford -- 13 points, eight rebounds per game Al Horford -- might be a great player. There is something to that skepticism. Horford is not going to get buckets when the defense has you in a vice grip at the end of the shot clock, and at its most visceral moments, the sport is about guys who can manufacture those buckets. Most of the little Horford things we romanticize don't matter when you're down by one with 15 seconds left, and out of options.

But there are long stretches between those hothouse moments when all those little things count -- fractions of a point here and there that add up to something larger. Pile up enough value on the margins, and maybe there won't be any of those hothouse moments in crunch time.

Horford is a master at those little things. One of my favorites is his habit of sliding in at the last second to provide a second set of arms contesting an enemy jump shot:

Horford rarely reveals his intentions too early. By the time the shooter registers Horford in his airspace, it's too late to change course and kick it to Horford's guy -- who might be semi-open nearby.

Is Horford the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year? Is all the attention on Kevin Durant's swats blotting out another year of sneering, long-armed brilliance from Draymond Green? What about Giannis Antetokounmpo? With injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gobert, the race feels more open than usual.

9. A wacky Wizards frontcourt

Scott Brooks has dabbled of late with playing Mike Scott and Markieff Morris together. This makes some sense. Marcin Gortat's minutes are down, and Ian Mahinmi has never been the same since leaving Indiana. Neither provides any spacing for Washington's attacking guards.

Scott has been on fire all season, and flashed a new, refined passing vision. Morris has long been a clever passer. Both can shoot 3s. When they ping the ball around, Washington's offense hums.

The worries come on the other end. Washington has hemorrhaged almost 130 points per 100 possessions in the 74 minutes Scott and Morris have shared the floor, per NBA.com. Opponents have blitzed the Wiz by 48points in those 76 minutes. That is almost impossible. Could Boston's (or Golden State's, or San Antonio's) four best defenders match that over one half playing four-on-five against a bad Kings lineup? Maybe.

The Scott-Morris tandem carries all the defensive deficits of a typical small-ball lineup without any of the usual benefits. They can't protect the rim or rebound, but they also aren't quite fast enough -- or savvy enough -- to switch across all five positions. That Brooks even goes to this group is a distressing vote of no confidence in two centers earning $30 million combined.

It'd be shocking to see much of this in the playoffs -- assuming the Wiz still get there with John Wall missing at least six weeks. (They should.) When Brooks goes small then, it will be with Otto Porter Jr. or Kelly Oubre Jr. at power forward.

10. Cheering Omer Asik

This was the only happy subplot to DeMarcus Cousins' devastating injury -- a seismic event that could alter Cousins' career and tilt the axis of the league.

The Pelicans suddenly needed Asik again after he missed time due to Crohn's disease, and when he took the floor, New Orleans fans showered him with what seemed like genuine encouragement. They cheered every little thing -- every basket, every rebound, every free throw -- and groaned with the sorrow of nervous Little League parents when he missed chippies. They knew what he had gone through, how low he sunk, and wanted him to rise out of it. (I checked with several folks who attended recent games, and they agree the cheers were sincere -- and not sarcastic.)

It's easy to forget now, but Asik was once a good player -- so good, the Rockets started the bidding for him at three first-round picks. (Spoiler: They did not get three first-round picks.) He set cement-wall screens, rolled to the hoop, and dished canny interior passes. He barricaded the rim, and rebounded everything.

Then he got paid, and became both a punchline and the target of ire from fans who (understandably) grew frustrated with an unproductive oaf clogging their favorite team's cap sheet. Before September, no one really knew what was going on with Asik -- only that he was ill, and not playing.

When he first came back in December, Asik looked alarmingly unready -- almost wobbly on his feet. He was no longer an NBA player.

He has shown glimpses in the past week of the player he used to be. It would be a wonderful story if he got there.

Related Video