And we're back:
1. Joey Buckets, 3-point champ
Joe Harris is perhaps the best story of perseverance and growth in the NBA over the past half-decade. He braced himself for a long stint in another league after he underwent foot surgery in January 2016 and the Cavaliers flipped him to Orlando; the Magic immediately waived him.
Brooklyn plucked Harris from the D-League six months later. Kenny Atkinson, the team's coach, suggested Harris watch film of Kyle Korver and installed some of Korver's pet Atlanta sets for him. Harris couldn't believe it. "I was taken aback," he told me in 2017. "I mean, Kyle Korver is the O.G. -- the ultimate shooter."
Two years in the basketball wilderness made Harris timid -- a curse for any shooter. "He was like that battered [deer] you find in the forest," Atkinson recalled. "He had no confidence."
He does now. Harris has drained a preposterous 47 percent from deep. He's comfortable snapping into his shooting motion from a dead sprint, and he has a quick-trigger release to evade defenders trailing him around screens.
He has hit 46 percent of his tightly-contested 3s and 46 percent on pull-ups, per NBA.com. Atkinson loves devising ever more complex ways to spring him -- including this circuitous bad boy:
Harris aborts a double pindown and begins a casual jog across the court, only to U-turn around one last screen while D'Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen draw all the eyeballs. Good luck following that.
Harris can handle, too. Brooklyn has scored 1.21 points per possession any time Harris shoots after dribbling around a screen, or passes to a teammate who lets fly right away -- the second-highest mark among 206 players who have used at least 75 ball screens, per Second Spectrum. That number is not a fluke; it was beefy last season, too.
Most of those aren't pick-and-rolls in the normal sense. They are more like catch-and-rolls; Harris rockets up from the wing to the top of the arc, and catches a pass at the same moment he curls around a screen. He drives from there -- with a head start. His pick-and-rolls continue Brooklyn's offense. Harris hasn't yet shown the ability to resettle that offense when it bogs the way someone like Joe Ingles has. He takes only 0.9 pull-up 3s per game -- 109th in the league.
If those things come, Harris will be primed for a raise from his $8 million salary when he hits free agency next season. He's a feisty, smart defender who relishes when opponents assume otherwise. Teammates and coaches love him.
And he just outdueled Stephen freaking Curry in the dude's hometown at All-Star Weekend. What a story.
2. Andre Iguodala, still a genius
Iguodala is one of the greatest fast-break orchestrators in league history, and perhaps my favorite to watch. When he snares a rebound and begins Golden State's assault up the floor, he bounces -- literally -- with the impatience of a savant who sees an opportunity invisible even to his smartest teammates:
You can see his brain working.
If you're half-watching, it's easy to miss Iguodala's subtle genius. Just before midcourt, Iguodala motions for Curry, running the right wing, to slide up toward him. He turns his body that way, feigning a pass. But it's a ploy. Iguodala knows Curry's cut will draw Chasson Randle -- Washington's last line of defense -- up toward the 3-point arc, and reveal a layup for Alfonzo McKinnie.
After McKinnie scores, Iguodala does not acknowledge him. He points back at Curry, recognizing the cut.
Iguodala in full flight downloads the other nine guys on the floor almost in layers -- as ocean waves cascading around him. He has an uncanny sense for when a wave is about to crash over him, and whom it will leave open in its wake.
"He's as smart as any player I've ever been around," Steve Kerr tells ESPN.com. Iguodala looks rejuvenated (two clutch free throws missed last night against the Kings notwithstanding!). He's shooting 37 percent from deep, and can lock fools down when it matters.
As ever, the Warriors don't become the Warriors -- a blur you hear and feel as much as see -- until Iguodala ambles off the bench. After a slow start, the Death Lineup is plus-60 in just 137 minutes together -- equivalent to a mammoth plus-16.5 points per 100 possessions.
3. Otto Porter, adding new dimensions
Porter won't keep shooting 62 percent for the Bulls -- and 58 percent from deep! -- but he has added a dimension on the wing Chicago did not have:
They had whatever the opposite of that dimension is at small forward, where before Porter they either played small guards; an inveterate gunner (Antonio Blakeney); a big masquerading as a wing (Jabari Parker); or the intriguing but unready (on offense) Chandler Hutchison.
Porter can catch-and-fire on the move. The Bulls leverage that to unlock looks for teammates -- especially Lauri Markkanen, scorching since Porter arrived. Porter fakes as if he's coming off a pindown, and then veers into a surprise screen for Markkanen.
Grades of Chicago's deal for Porter trended lukewarm/slightly negative. I get it. Porter is a complementary player earning a star's salary, and the Bulls do not have a star for him to complement.
But Porter is good, and still pretty young, and the Bulls need good young players -- urgently so at Porter's position. They weren't getting anyone better with their cap space.
Chicago also wagered Porter could do more with the ball than he showed next to John Wall and Bradley Beal. He showed flashes in Washington -- smart cuts, occasional post-ups against smaller defenders, catch-and-go drives after Wall bent the defense.
So far, he has been up for more heavy lifting -- and made life easier for Markkanen, Chicago's most important long-term piece. For extended stretches, Jim Boylen's system has required Markkanen to do too much one-on-one stuff in the midrange. He's mixing in more catch-and-shoot 3s now, and Boylen is finally letting him push in transition.
4. Where is Tyreke Evans?
Indiana won six straight without Victor Oladipo just before the All-Star break, and its scoring margin is about the same whether Oladipo plays or sits. (That understates Oladipo's value; non-Oladipo lineups fed on opposing benches until his injury last month. But Indiana has at least survived without him.)
The Pacers are still (barely) ahead of Boston and Philadelphia. To stay there -- to be a real roadblock for one of the four powerhouses penciled into the second round -- they will need more from Evans.
Evans has just been kind of lost. He's shooting a disastrous 40 percent on 2s -- including 27 percent on long 2s and an unthinkable 49 percent at the rim. He looks fidgety and indecisive, dribbling without a plan -- without going anywhere -- until he lazes into something.
He doesn't take a ton of long 2s, but a lot of them are step-back 21-footers he needs to bag or turn into 3s.
Things don't improve much when Evans penetrates. He looks slower and more ground-bound. The Pacers have scored just 0.79 points per possession when Evans shoots out of a drive, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away -- sixth worst among 163 players who have recorded at least 150 drives, per Second Spectrum.
Perhaps Indiana has too many ball handlers, and too many bigs who live around the paint, for Evans to find his whirling dervish comfort zone.
I pegged Evans as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate before the season. Whoops. Indiana will need that level of play from him to hit their non-Oladipo ceiling.
5. Josh Jackson, at his own rhythm
Jackson is among the toughest young players to project forward. He can do so much more with the ball than Mikal Bridges, and yet his future -- his place on a theoretical good team -- feels so much less certain. We know what Bridges is: a spot-up shooter with the length to defend multiple positions. That skill set is portable.
Is Jackson? Is he good enough at the things he's nominally good at to do them for a winning team? If not, can he improve the stuff at which he's bad? Any team sniffing around Jackson over the next year has to try to answer those questions.
A random cross-positional comparison: The way Jackson moves with a kind of syncopated freneticism reminds of Jabari Parker. He moves at a different rhythm than the typical NBA player. That can be a good thing -- a way to wrong-foot defenses. It can also be tricky to play with someone whose movement patterns are jagged and hard to predict.
Case in point: Jackson releases his floater, perhaps his favorite shot, with quirks of timing and distance that seem to surprise everyone -- from a step farther out than most dare, off the wrong foot, on the way down.
Those long-distance line drives can land with a thud. His pick-and-roll partners -- Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes -- sometimes don't know if they should jump for a lob or shift into rebounding mode.
On the very next pick-and-roll, Jackson might prod more carefully, pull up before drawing help, and loft a pass that isn't there:
Jackson has coughed up the ball on about 13 percent of pick-and-rolls, the 10th-highest rate among almost 200 players who have finished at least 100 such plays, per Second Spectrum.
He's shooting just 30 percent from deep; defenses duck under screens when he has the ball, and ignore him when he doesn't.
And yet! Jackson is 22. He has the tools to develop into a lockdown defender. He has decent passing instincts; he just lacks the supplementary skills to activate those passing instincts as often as he'd like.
Jackson isn't good enough with the ball right now to handle it on a good team, but he's not a good-enough shooter to play off of it. He's a puzzle the whole league is trying to solve.
6. Terrance Ferguson, not afraid
Ferguson looked almost like a token starter for the first month-plus of the season -- someone who would soak up 15 or 20 minutes until Andre Roberson's return (whenever that is), and give way to Dennis Schroder in crunch time.
He has seized a larger role since. Ferguson has logged about 30 minutes per game over the past two months, and he looks more confident firing semi-contested 3s over smaller defenders:
That is a very specific shot type, but it's an important one for Ferguson. A lot of opponents will put their best and biggest wing defenders on Westbrook and George, and stash their point guards on Ferguson. He is Oklahoma City's hiding spot. Even with a limited offensive game, Ferguson has to find ways to exploit that size advantage. The simplest method: shoot over little guys.
It's hard to see anyone in the West touching a healthy and united Warriors team, but no one will come at them with more ferocity than the Thunder.
7. Justin Anderson, bench comedian
Anderson didn't invent the "take cover!" reaction to an enemy brick, but his execution on the bench here -- he's standing in that gorgeous powder blue Hawks alternate warmup -- is as good as it gets:
Anderson goes into his mimicry while Rajon Rondo's shot is airborne, risking minor embarrassment if it somehow rattles in. Great timing. Bonus points for daring to have some fun with a minute left in a close game.
8. Joel Embiid, chase-down king
Is Embiid the greatest chase-down block center ever? Since Bill Russell? David Robinson was nimble and fast enough to earn a place in this discussion. Ben Wallace? Marcus Camby maybe? Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the top three all-time in (recorded) blocked shots, but I don't recall even Olajuwon -- one of the most athletic players of any size, ever -- pulling the chase-down with Embiid's frequency.
Look at this violence:
That is nonsense. That is basketball pornography. Embiid inflicts that kind of devastation with a regularity that should be off-limits to giants; the chase-down has mostly been the province of wings.
Those kinds of plays have a psychic value that can be hard to quantify. They inspire teammates. They demoralize opponents. They shift momentum even more than the score indicates, and the score indicated plenty on this play; Boston could have held for the last shot of the quarter, but Jaylen Brown gambled, Embiid obliterated him, and Jimmy Butler hit a buzzer-beating layup. Those plays swing segments, quarters, even games.
They also scare me given Embiid's injury history -- including knee soreness that will keep him out at least another week, per the Sixers. As I wrote here, the most fundamental argument against the "trade Ben Simmons for 3-and-D guys!" outcry is that doing so now would amount to betting the franchise on Embiid's continued health. It's far too early, and Simmons is far too good, for Philly to go there.
9. OK, fine, a nice thing about Jordan Clarkson
I don't much enjoy watching Clarkson dribble the air out of the ball, but he has been less hoggy since the first three weeks of the season -- when he averaged one dime per game with the assist rate of a lob-catching center. Since then, he has the passing numbers of a normal-ish score-first hybrid guard.
The Cavs don't have many options better than handing the ball to Clarkson and letting him do whatever the hell he wants. He's an artful midrange scorer, armed with tilting floaters that come from odd angles. He's shooting a career-best 67 percent at the rim. The Cavs have scored about one point per possession on Clarkson isolations -- a very good number.
He's also gotten smarter hunting Curry-style relocation 3s:
Clarkson has hit 36 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s -- not great, but acceptable within Cleveland's ecosystem. He has hit almost exactly 30 percent of his off-the-bounce 3s in each of the past three seasons, so shifting toward the catch-and-shoot variety is healthy. The Cavs have almost been kind of fun to watch with Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. on the floor since Nance's return from injury late last month. (Nance has had a sneakily good season.) With Kevin Love back -- even under a tanky minutes limit -- and Cedi Osman hot of late, the Cavs look like a real team again!
With savvier judgment -- and some nominal effort on defense -- Clarkson should absolutely grow into a useful bench gunner on a good team.
10. Jayson Tatum, weak on the weak side
Tatum shattered expectations by walking in the door as a solid defender -- rangy and smart, with a knack for ball denial. He got pushed around a bit as a rookie, but that's typical; he has put on muscle and Boston doesn't go to great lengths anymore to hide him from tough assignments.
One quibble: His focus on the weak side can wane. Smart backdoor cutters already know:
Jared Dudley confuses the matchups there by slinking toward Tatum -- with Tatum perhaps assuming Kyrie Irving will switch onto his man creeping baseline -- but Tatum ends up lost in space. On bad nights, this happens a few times. When Tatum plays with peak focus, the issue vanishes; he's engaged, talking and moving in tandem with the rest of the Celtics. In April and May, every night will have to be a good night.