Ten things I like and don't like, including The Beard's TD passes

Originally Published: February 17, 2017
By Zach Lowe | ESPN.com

Let's zip around the NBA before All-Star Weekend:

10 things I like and don't like

1. The Hornets

  

Everything folks worried about after Charlotte turned down Boston's Godfather offer for the Frank Kaminsky pick has come to bear. The Hornets are 7-19 since just before Christmas, and they have one of the bleakest long-term outlooks in the league. That hurts to say.

The moment they traded Noah Vonleh for Nic Batum, the Hornets trapped themselves in a dilemma: Either let Batum walk, or pay him close to the max just as the cap would skyrocket -- lifting max deals with it. You could justify the deal. Batum is a very good player in his prime, and Charlotte is not a destination that could bank on luring anyone better.

But it's clear Batum is miscast as a second option next to the dogged and always-improving Kemba Walker. Batum is shooting a career-worst 44 percent on 2s, and an ugly 35 percent out of the pick-and-roll -- with a ghastly turnover rate on the play. Batum has coughed up the ball on 26.5 percent of his pick-and-rolls that have ended Charlotte possessions; among 150 guys who have run at least 50 of those suckers, only five have worse turnover rates, per Synergy.

You cannot give him the ball and expect him to get a bucket, and holy hell, do the Hornets need a bucket-getter.

Only about 12 percent of Batum's shots have come in the restricted area, the lowest mark of his career, per Basketball-Reference. He averages just 2.3 drives per game. Only 26 of the 86 guys logging at least 30 minutes per game record fewer drives -- and all but six of those 26 are big men.

Batum is a gifted all-around player -- a triple-double threat. But the Hornets need more. On too many nights, Walker is their only source of oxygen -- the only guy who can break his man down, get into the lane, and create something. Defenses happily switch across every other position, confident Batum, Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won't do any damage against smaller players.

Everyone around Walker has plateaued or declined. Williams' 3-point shooting is down after a career year. The MKG leap hasn't happened; smart teams hide plodding power forwards on him, stick quicker wings on Williams, and switch all of Charlotte's buzzing Williams-centric screening action.

Charlotte compensated early in the season with a heap of free throws, but that well has dried up a bit.

In the bigger picture, every move Charlotte has made over the past three years has screamed: PLEASE BASKETBALL GODS, LET US WIN 45 GAMES! That's meant turning down four picks, including one of Boston's Brooklyn picks, to draft Kaminsky; going all-in on Batum; flipping last year's No. 22 pick for Marco Belinelli; and most recently, swapping two backup centers on short-term deals for one -- Miles Plumlee -- carrying a long-term eight-figure salary.

Charlotte could be capped out through 2019. That's hard to do. We all know the defense for the Belinelli swap: picks in the 20s typically return very little, and Belinelli is a proven rotation player. But he's a proven backup who's not moving the needle for a so-so team. He's not Thaddeus Young -- a proven starter for whom Indiana swapped the No. 20 pick in the same draft.

And for a team with so few long-term building blocks, a 25 percent chance at someone who might matter in five years -- and serve the first four of them on a cheapo rookie contract -- is more valuable than a veteran with a 100 percent chance of being a serviceable reserve today.

Plumlee is a nice backup center. So is Kaminsky.

Things will get better. The Hornets really miss Cody Zeller. He's their Patrick Patterson -- a middling stats jack-of-many-trades who makes life easier for everyone around him with vicious screens and relentless rim-running. But a 24-32 team counting on Cody Zeller as a savior is in a dark, dark place.

Kaminsky will be a different player when his 3-point shot comes around. Steve Clifford is a great coach. Rich Cho and Chad Buchanan, the top dogs in the front office, are smart dudes who will nail a draft pick in the middle of the first round at some point in the next few years.

In the meantime, Charlotte should resist the temptation to trade another future pick for a 30-something quick fix like Lou Williams. Search out smaller moves, try to rally for the No. 8 spot, and take a swing in the lottery if you don't pull it off.

2. Foul play in Phoenix

For what feels like at least the fifth straight season, you should allot an extra 30 minutes when watching any Phoenix game. The players and coaches change, but these dudes cannot stop hacking the bejesus out of the other team.

Only the Grizzlies allow more free throws per opponent shot attempt. Phoenix has finished 29th, 23rd, and 24th in that category in the three prior seasons, per NBA.com. When he was the coach there, Jeff Hornacek chalked the hackery up to that classic youthful combination of aggression and inexperience. His young guys liked to reach and bump, and when they found themselves out of position amid a flurry of rotations, they bailed out by whacking people. Others in the organization offered the usual rumblings about referees not respecting young players.

The roster is still young, so much of this applies under Earl Watson. Phoenix ranks 27th-worst in points allowed per possession, and when the kids are on the floor, mistakes happen -- miscommunications, botched rotations, and all the usual young guy mishaps. The breakdowns leave Phoenix with two choices: Let someone jaunt to the rim, or lunge at him in hopes of somehow getting in the way without fouling.

P.J. Tucker is one of those chest-to-chest guys who dares the officials to call a foul on almost every possession. Sometimes, they ding him.

There are reasonable explanations for the Suns' annual foul play. There is nothing in the water in Phoenix. But it would be nice for the Suns to focus even harder on foul avoidance, so they don't start every game in a hole.

3. DeMar DeRozan, master of the re-screen

When guys duck under screens against you, it can be hard to drive into the paint. That's the whole point of the strategy: The defense forms a wall, pins you on the other side, and dares you to heave midrange jumpers.

DeRozan is good at those, but he's still hit only 39 percent of his long 2-pointers. An offense subsisting on that will wither. DeRozan knows he has to hunt better stuff in the lane, and he has all sorts of tricks to wriggle there. If the defense builds a wall, he'll either sneak around it, or force them to break it apart it and move it a few feet. In that moment, he springs forward.

His best tactic: the re-screen.

It's easy to slip under one pick when you see it coming, and brace yourself. Try pulling that trick again when the screener advances forward a few feet, flips around, and sets that sucker again.

The key for DeRozan is how smoothly he flows from one screen to the next. He barely pauses. The criss-cross is almost one continuous motion, and the defense has minimal time to prep for the second wave.

Once he sees an advantage -- a switch, some airspace, a soft trap -- DeRozan becomes a cruel predator.

4. Dario Saric's left hand

I already love the guy Philly fans call The Homie. I get the reasons some are more skeptical. Saric's 3-point shooting stroke comes and goes. He's not the most athletic cat. It takes every ounce of speed in those legs to beat some power forwards off the bounce, which means he has little chance to blow by wings. It's unclear how he'll fit on either end alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. When it all shakes out, Saric may be a high-end backup -- the sort who plays 25-plus minutes at multiple positions, filling every lineup hole.

I don't care. The guy plays with such fire. He's feisty on the boards, and on defense. He gets more done in tight spaces than it looks like he should be able to. One reason: He has a nasty left hand. It gives Saric more options for finishing spinny flip shots around the basket from strange angles. He can get the ball up on the glass before defenders expect it there. His game has a purposeful arrhythmic quality.

Being almost ambidextrous unlocks more passing lanes when Saric drives into a crowd. He doesn't have to switch hands, so he can sneak the ball through a teensy crevice before it closes.

This guy is skilled, and fun. Embiid has missed almost half of Philly's games now. Malcolm Brogdon has fallen off a bit. Is Saric going to be our Rookie of the Year?

5. The improved passing of Myles Turner

Turner's assist rate has nudged up only a hair, but with big man passing, it isn't always about the numbers. It's about the quality and timing of Turner's passes:

Turner is making more advanced reads, and he's making them faster -- even while gliding through heavy traffic. Turner can map the floor in the heat of a pick-and-roll. He's increasingly confident flinging cross-court lasers to corner shooters, or dropping slick interior dimes to a big man partner loitering along the baseline -- a Thad Young speciality.

Oh, and the numbers are coming, too: Turner is dishing about two dimes per game in February, almost double his season average. Baby steps, people.

Don't overlook this guy in the big man unicorn discussion. If he played in New York, he'd be a household name.

6. Washington's 'Stars and Stripes' alternate jerseys

How in the world are these not the Wizards' regular home uniforms? They are so much better than Washington's drab day-to-day duds. Flipping jerseys requires more lead time than fans realize, but someone in the organization needs to be on this now.

The sharp blues and reds explode against the bright white. The little ball at the top of the slanted "i" evokes the classic Bullets logo in which hands extend out of the two L's and reach for an airborne Spalding.

The stars and stripes along the sides are perfect. Shifting to these jerseys, with "Washington" across the chest, would move the team even further away from "Wizards" branding, but that horse is out of the proverbial barn.

7. A cool Bulls play amid a deluge of long 2s

Sometimes, amid the hail of midrange jumpers, bonked open 3s from terrible shooters, and caveman bully ball, Chicago hits you with a moment of hoops artistry:

There is some Broadway-level choreography in the way Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott start their runs from the baseline toward the top of the key at the exact same time -- Portis to set a ball screen for Rajon Rondo, with McDermott zipping around a pindown from the massive Cristiano Felicio. They really nailed it!

The Portis run is a decoy, designed to lure his man, Nemanja Bjelica, away from the rim and toward Rondo. That removes the only help defender close enough to pinch in on the McDermott-Felicio two-man action. The Wolves have to patrol it 2-on-2, and if McDermott finds daylight around Felicio's screen, those two defenders face a choice: let McDermott fling an open jumper, or trap him -- and risk Felicio rumbling unfettered to the hoop.

They trap, and Felicio crams. That is the beauty of basketball: Even the retrograde Bulls can be fun.

8. James Harden touchdown passes

Houston has turned on the jets after jogging at about a league-average pace over the first weeks of the season; since Jan. 1, they are neck-and-neck with Golden State for the most average possessions per game. One reason is James Harden has embraced his inner Wes Unseld:

What a beauty. Harden puts just the right amount of height and pace on his bombs. They fly high enough to clear every outstretched enemy arm, but zoom so fast along the horizontal plane, those same defenders can't outrun the ball in the air.

Harden never got his due as a passing savant before this season. That was partly his fault. He loves to dance with the ball, and even if he's doing it with one eye locked on teammates who might come open, it still grinds the offense to a halt. It looks selfish. Sometimes, it is.

But stars get to be selfish because they are efficient at it. And this season, Harden has found a little more balance to his game. Everyone appreciates what a savvy, calculated passer he is -- how he uses shoulder fakes and jab steps to coax help defenders into that one fatal step that leaves another Rocket free. His victims don't realize how Harden is manipulating them.

That's the complex, subtle stuff in the half court. The outlets are just big fun -- with pinpoint accuracy.

9. The fearlessness of Brandon Ingram

It has been a rough season for Ingram. He's shooting 36 percent, and just 30 percent on 3s. He hasn't cracked 20 points in a game yet. Most future franchise players don't start out this way. Some teenagers do, though. Check out Dirk Nowitzki's rookie numbers.

With that implausibly spindly body, Year 1 in the NBA was always going to be a tough. Good news: There are no outward signs that fear, panic, or insecurity have infected Ingram's game. He still plays with a calm confidence. He launches from deep when he's open, and dares to explore the possibilities of a pick-and-roll. He sees the floor well.

He hasn't cowered, or gone the opposite direction and pressed to justify his draft slot. He doesn't take bad shots, or rush into reckless drives ending in fancy no-look dishes. He just plays, and there is something refreshing in that for L.A. fans. Ingram may never be a star, but he should be a good player for a long time.

10. Parachute pizza

Some arenas drop bundled T-shirts from parachutes released along the catwalk above the court. It's a tranquil, less predictable riff on the T-shirt toss and T-shirt gun -- you never know where the breeze will take the shirt, and you have time to track its trajectory.

The Pistons drop boxed slices of pizza from parachutes. I do not trust parachute pizza. I don't know enough about its origins, or how long it has been on the catwalk. I would back away from a floating treat like a cowardly big man sidestepping a Blake Griffin dunk.

Zach Lowe

ESPN Senior Writer
Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

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