It's that time:
1. Chris Paul, getting nuts
My favorite subplot of the season: watching Paul adjust to the pace and freedom of Mike D'Antoni's offense. You can see his brain working: "OK, I'm dribbling fast. Look at me go! Oh, here's Clint setting me a screen 35 feet from the hoop. My guy went under! Wait, I'm supposed to shoot, aren't I? But there are 19 seconds on the shot clock and I haven't signaled a play or yelled at anyone yet. Should I really shoot? I guess so. WHEE!"
He's like a sheltered college freshman being dragged to his first frat parties. "The beer is ... free? My parents wouldn't like this. Maybe I'll try one sip." Five minutes later, he's doing keg stands.
His midrange attempts are even way down!
It's working. Houston has hung neck-and-neck with Golden State by any measure. They are scoring 118 points per 100 possessions with Paul and James Harden on the floor, even though the stars are figuring out how to complement each other. Paul has accepted a secondary role, but he can't be a bystander. He knows that. He and Harden are working on two-man actions.
Paul has soared without Harden. The Rockets are a ridiculous plus-54 in 70 minutes Paul has gone solo, and they are playing faster in those minutes, per NBA.com. (Houston has sped up after a slow-poke start.) Paul is dribbling and holding the ball less, per tracking data, and whipping it all over the floor. He always knows where Ryan Anderson is.
Anderson lost weight, and is defending preposterously well by his standards -- even when switched onto little guys. When Houston wants to amp up the defense, they pull Anderson in favor of wing-heavy lineups with two of the PJ Tucker/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute/Trevor Ariza wrecking crew. Clint Capela smothers pick-and-rolls high on the floor, and Houston switches a ton -- in part to confuse the matchups when they rush from defense to offense.
Skeptics want to see Paul and Harden advance to the conference finals. That's fair, though some forget Harden already has been there (and beyond). Houston's offense hasn't been as prolific in the postseason during the Harden era. But the Paul-Harden thing is working, and these guys are a problem.
2. LeBron and the bench, making Cleveland fun again
Sometime during their fourth-quarter comeback in New York, with LeBron undressing Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Korver draining everything, the Cavaliers became fun again. Deigning to try helps. Cleveland ranks seventh in points allowed per possession since Nov. 10 -- a span of 10 games. They aren't the peak Duncan-era Spurs, but they're establishing the baseline competency they'll need to get through the East.
Their weirdo veteran bench -- plus LeBron -- has driven the change. Cleveland is just plus-54 for the season, but a gargantuan plus-133 when both Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver are on the floor, per NBA.com. The LeBron/Wade/Korver trio is plus-117 in 174 minutes, obliterating teams on both ends.
The most entertaining Cavs lineup: LeBron, Wade, Korver, JR Smith, and Kevin Love. It is a bizarre variation of one lineup type that has always worked: LeBron surrounded by three shooters and one slasher/cutter/roller (Wade) who knows how to play off of him. (Tristan Thompson, out since Nov. 1, normally fills that spot.) An alternative version with Crowder in Smith's place has been almost as good, albeit in a tiny sample size.
Traditional centers have zero chance to hang with Love, and he is feasting in the post when teams switch wings onto him.
Since ditching the bricky LeBron-Wade-Derrick Rose lineups, Cleveland has gotten back to burying teams under an avalanche of 3s. They're up to fourth in attempts per game, and only the Rockets and Nets jacked more in November.
Love is trying on defense, even when Tyronn Lue asks him to attack pick-and-rolls at the 3-point arc -- a challenge for any plodder. Korver and Jose Calderon won't stop anyone one-on-one, but they know where to be; Korver tussles for rebounds and deflections.
These lineups don't represent the endgame for Cleveland. They won't defend well enough to hang with Golden State -- if we get Cavs-Warriors IV: The Burner Account. The Cavs will search out better two-way balance with groups featuring Crowder, Thompson, and Isaiah Thomas.
But it's a long season, and it has been fun watching Cleveland work itself out of a fog.
3. The less predictable Pistons
Detroit finished last season 26th in points per possession, with perhaps the league's most predictable offense. It seemed like they toggled between three choreographed sets: limping Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls; rote post-ups for Drummond; or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope zooming up from the left corner to take a handoff at the elbow.
The Pistons have injected some new randomness, and it has invigorated them. They are smoking teams with Warrior-style "split actions," usually involving Avery Bradley screening for someone on the wing while Drummond surveys. If Bradley senses his man cheating, he'll abort the pick and zip to the rim:
Some players cut at half-speed if the cut isn't designed for them to get the ball. That sabotages an offense. Strollers don't draw the extra help that gets teammates open.
Bradley might be the league's fastest, most fearsome cutter. He zigzags in sudden diagonal jolts; his sheer speed unnerves defenders. If Bradley spooks one help defender into lurching toward him, a teammate will have daylight:
Detroit's players are running about a half-mile more combined per game on offense this season over last, per NBA.com. They are throwing almost 20 more passes per game. Put it all together, and Detroit ranks seventh in points per possession.
Bradley and Drummond have refashioned Detroit's entire look and feel -- Bradley by cutting, Drummond with his willingness to step away from the post. Three-pointers have accounted for 33 percent of Detroit's shots this season, up from 26 percent last year, when they fought an uphill battle against math.
Jackson is healthy, and getting to the rim more of late. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Drummond survived last season's morass intact. Detroit's maligned starting lineup played opponents almost dead even in November, and has surged over the past five games. It has looked better than its numbers all season. Perhaps things are normalizing.
The Pistons spent most of last season in angst, fighting injuries and each other. A year later, they are the best story in the NBA.
4. Jeremy Lamb, evolving
One positive story from a desultory, injury-riddled season that could bring major change if Charlotte finishes in the lottery: Lamb has emerged as a solid all-around wing after slinking in and out Steve Clifford's doghouse over the past two seasons.
He has filled in for both Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and those starting groups have blitzed opponents. Most encouraging: Lamb is finally showing interest in the selfless parts of the game -- the stuff that wins.
He's averaging 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, almost double his career high. He's tossing hit-aheads in transition, tic-tac-toeing extra passes, and making plays as a secondary pick-and-roll guy -- including tough dishes to the opposite corner.
He's working harder on defense, and gobbling up rebounds.
Lamb is another reminder of how quickly things can change in the NBA, and that thinking you know it all about a player or a team at any moment is unwise. When Charlotte signed Lamb to a three-year, $21 million extension two years ago, it was perceived as a proactive move that could turn into a bargain under a rising cap. When he struggled, it looked like an overpay. Now it's an asset again.
5. Kara Lawson, telling it like it is
A few weeks ago, some hapless defender bit on Tim Frazier's pump fake, allowing Frazier to saunter for a layup. Steve Buckhantz, the Wiz play-by-play legend, praised Frazier. After a beat, Lawson interjected: "I'm not sure anyone should be biting on Tim Frazier's pump fake." You could hear her stifling a chuckle. Frazier is a career 31 percent shooter from deep.
With one remark, Lawson showed she will exceed high expectations as Washington's new analyst. If you want funny, unbiased commentary along with instant X's-and-O's analysis, tune into Lawson.
6. Skal Labissiere's post game
This has been as hard to watch as any Tracy Jordan Oscar bait:
Labissiere is shooting 32 percent on post-ups, 54th among 58 players who have finished at least 20 such plays, per Synergy Sports. (The four guys below him: Wade, Marcus Smart, Russell Westbrook, and Alex Len.) Most of his attempts have been awkward face-up shots -- wayward baseline jumpers, and running hooks Labissiere flings from tricky in-between distances because he can't dislodge NBA big men.
Letting Labissiere stretch himself is fine. The Kings are awful regardless. But they are force-feeding him to a degree reserved for beasts who know what the hell they are doing down there. Only four guys average more post touches per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum: Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph.
Living in that sort of company doesn't feel like the future of Labissiere's game in the modern NBA. His struggles have turned the power forward spot into a sinkhole for Sacramento. Randolph is effectively a center -- he starts there alongside Labissiere -- and when Dave Joerger pulls Labissiere, he usually plays two of Randolph, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos in retrograde lineups.
Those groupings are horrible. Opponents have outscored the Kings by an unthinkable 19.9 points per 100 possessions in the 288 minutes Randolph and Cauley-Stein have shared the floor. That ties for the worst figure among 250-plus duos who have logged at least that many minutes, per NBA.com.
The pairing neck-and-neck with them? George Hill and Randolph! (It's still unclear what Hill is doing in Sacramento. He barely shoots. He slow-dribbles the ball around the arc, passes it, and daydreams about playing for a good team. Are you ready for Hill to pout his way out of Sacto?)
I'm still bullish on Labissiere as a future rotation guy. He has a soft touch, and he reads the game well. The way the Kings are using him is weird.
7. The kids in Toronto, smart beyond their years
They are smart, stay within themselves, and execute the little things that win. Watch Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl switch and re-switch between three Atlanta players in a few seconds:
That looks easy, but it isn't. It requires deep knowledge of opposing personnel, anticipation, instinctual hoops IQ, and in-synch communication. It is beyond most first- and second-year players.
Siakam is everywhere, all the time -- a hellhound guarding all five positions, and showing nascent playmaking ability. He fits almost any lineup; the Drakes have outscored opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor.
Poeltl isn't a leaper, but he has smart feet and soft hands. He has worked well alongside Siakam.
VanVleet has been a revelation in Delon Wright's absence. OG Anunoby usurped a starting spot, and has massive potential as a long-armed, switchable 3-and-D menace with passing feel. He enveloped Harden in Toronto's win in Houston. Norman Powell should rediscover his verve coming off the bench.
None will be stars. Toronto will need one of those once Lowry and/or DeRozan cycles out of the organization. But they are nice complementary players on this good Toronto team, and they will be even better complementary players on the next one.
(Pour one out for Bruno.)
8. Dennis Smith Jr., slinging fire
The Smith hype has waned, even with Dallas hitting a spate of classic Rick Carlisle weirdo friskiness over the last two weeks. Only a Carlisle team could win starting Maxi Kleber (I swear, that is a real NBA starter!), with copious amounts of a revived Dwight Powell and the J.J. Barea-Yogi Ferrell sub-6-foot pairing.
Smith is shooting just 39 percent, and 30 percent from deep. He has 86 assists and 63 turnovers -- a blah ratio.
But with most rookies, you should evaluate the individual building blocks of a play rather the play in its entirety. Maybe a rookie can't scoot around a pick, freeze the defense with a hesitation dribble, and sling a cross-court laser right into the shooting pocket of a sniper in the corner. But can he see the pass? Can he make it on time, if not on target? Does his stroke look good on off-the-dribble 3s, even if they aren't going in often enough?
Smith has one building block down: one-handers to corner shooters, unleashed both lefty and righty:
They aren't always accurate. Sometimes they go to the other team. But Smith seeing them, and flicking them on time with either hand, is a good sign.
9. The state of the Villain
The Blazers are 13-9, somehow threatening to overtake Boston as the league's stingiest defense -- and it doesn't even seem like they've hit their stride. (Playing the league's easiest schedule has helped. So has a fanatical devotion to limiting opponent 3s, now a Terry Stotts hallmark. Portland has the lowest expected opponent effective field goal percentage in the league based on the location of each shot and the closest defender, per Second Spectrum.)
One downside: Evan Turner, the third-highest-paid player on an expensive roster, has been left behind. He's shooting 39 percent, and just 8-of-39 from deep. He has logged 20 or fewer minutes in five of Portland's last eight games, even with Al-Farouq Aminu injured (until returning Thursday) and Maurice Harkless benched.
Pat Connaughton, cutter extraordinaire, is starting, and Shabazz Napier has eaten into Turner's time. Save for a two-month stretch at the end of last season, Turner has struggled to find a consistent fit next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Defenders stray far from him off the ball, cluttering up driving lanes. Turner is a cagey ball handler -- and a solid defender -- but not dangerous enough to justify siphoning much of the offense away from the stars, one of whom is always on the floor.
He has never really looked comfortable for any extended period. Portland is winning anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter unless you worry about Paul Allen's financial health. But big, problematic contracts carry other costs -- especially for teams up against the tax. Dumping money to duck the tax can cost valuable future assets -- including draft picks.
10. DeMarre Carroll, rebound thief
Brooklyn probably didn't maximize the predatory power of its cap space over the summer. They didn't extract a single pick -- not even a second-rounder -- for relieving Portland of Allen Crabbe. (They did offload Andrew Nicholson's toxic -- and much smaller -- contract.) They effectively paid $30 million in Carroll's salary for a Toronto first-rounder that will almost certainly fall in the 20s, and one solid second-round pick.
They could have squeezed for more -- either last summer, or later.
But the Nets like Crabbe and Carroll. They did not view Carroll as dead money.
So far, they have been right. Carroll has become the player the Raptors thought they were getting -- a multi-positional slasher who drains 3s, defends, and skulks into dead zones around the rim when no one is watching.
A fun one -- Carroll has a knack for sneaking up on opponents after they snare defensive rebounds, and knocking the ball away:
The league has been waiting for a successor to Pablo Prigioni as King of the Sneaks. Perhaps it is Carroll. Big fellas: Keep that ball up, and your head on a swivel, after you grab a board against the Nets. Carroll is lurking.