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Ten NBA things I like and don’t like, including Michael Porter Jr., Zion Williamson and a power rising in the East

Here is one more batch of 10 things — actually, 12 things — I like and don’t like as we reach the end of seeding games during the strangest season in NBA history.

1. Michael Porter Jr. and math

Porter has been the breakout star of the bubble, averaging 22 points on 55/42/93 shooting. Porter is a capital-S scorer, but unlike most young scorers, he doesn’t force it — or battle math. About 76% of his shots have come at the basket or from deep. Tracking data has recorded only 43 Porter isolations — about the same as PJ Washington, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Shaquille Harrison, per Second Spectrum.

Porter hunts efficient shots within the flow. He cuts for dunks, and flies inside for putbacks. He trucks little guys:

You know who’s good at tossing those entry passes? The best big man passer in history — Nikola Jokic.

Jokic’s game cries out for Denver to surround him with shooting, but the Nuggets have never quite managed that. Gary Harris has hit 33.5% from deep combined over the past two seasons. Will Barton is average. Paul Millsap, stretch power forward, never happened. Jamal Murray, ace gunner, probably will happen but didn’t yet; Murray is at 34% on 3s this season, and 35.7% for his career.

Give Jokic the ball at the top while the other four guys screen and cut, and someone will pop open. Jokic will find him. Denver would be lethal with more catch-and-shoot marksmen.

Porter appears ready. Michael Malone has deployed him as the lone starter in bench-heavy lineups, and Porter in those minutes has worked more as the screener in pick-and-rolls. He likes fading for corner 3s:

A lot of screen-setters drift into long 2s. Porter already seeking the coffin corner is a great sign.

Early in the season, the question was whether Malone would trust Porter with postseason rotation minutes. Porter changed the question: Is it time for him to start full-time? If so, should he replace Harris, Barton, or even Millsap? Malone told ESPN’s Doris Burke on Wednesday that Porter is the team’s starting small forward now, but it is unclear what might happen if both Harris and Barton return.

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The Nuggets should start Porter regardless, as I discussed with Jeff Van Gundy on the Lowe Post last week.

Denver with its normal starting five was a good team, but the Nuggets were missing something ineffable — some oomph and high-octane unpredictability. Porter injects that. It might come at the expense of Denver’s defense, but Porter’s size and rebounding compensate for some positional mistakes of youth.

The safest bet would be starting Porter in Barton’s place. Denver needs defense from Millsap (and Jerami Grant) at power forward. Harris is their best wing defender. His jumper was finally coming around in March. Barton’s slashing is tailor-made for the role of bench sparkplug who still plays a ton of crunch time.

MORE: Everything to know about every NBA playoff team

2. Austin Rivers’ first step

I’ve always felt sympathy for Rivers. For some reason — his last name, Duke hype, his general disposition — critics reveled in Rivers’ early struggles and branded him a bust by the time he was 22.

Rivers is a useful hybrid bench guard who has hit 36% or better from deep in three of the past four seasons. He has drained at least 36.7% of pull-up 3s in three of those seasons. He defends hard.

He has a nasty first step, and he showcased it with Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden missing games. He sets it up with twitchy shoulder fakes:

Yeah, that’s Marco Belinelli, but Rivers dusted the rising Keldon Johnson with this same move a few minutes later.

His acceleration out of hesitation dribbles has the same effect:

Rivers is good at finding Houston’s shooters when the defense converges.

The Rockets become a different team if they get 15 good bench minutes from Rivers or Ben McLemore — and a real threat when both play well.

3. Deandre Ayton, rolling

Gimme more of this next season, when the rising Suns will reasonably hope to crash the postseason party for the first time since 2010:

Ayton set about 49 ball screens per 100 possessions during Phoenix’s scorched-earth run — up from 42.8 before, per Second Spectrum. That makes sense: With Cameron Johnson starting as the nominal power forward, Phoenix has a readymade spread pick-and-roll attack. It has been nice to see Ayton mix in more rim-runs.

Ayton loves little half-rolls, where he catches at a standstill around the foul line. He can do stuff there. He’s a decent midrange shooter and smart passer.

Ayton does little of everything, which makes him tricky to evaluate. There is a tendency to shoehorn centers into archetypes. Ayton doesn’t have to become prime Tyson Chandler or present-day Brook Lopez — rim-runner or stretch 5 — to hit his apex on offense. That would be a waste of some skills. There is also a human element. To get Ayton’s best on defense — where he has made incredible strides in Year 2 — the Suns need to indulge him on offense a bit. Potential All-Stars get that sort of leeway.

Just tilting Ayton’s game 5% or 10% in the right directions — more rim-runs, gradually trading pick-and-pop 2s for 3s — would put him on a starrier trajectory. Hunting tin would bump up his free-throw rate — the weakest part of his game.

4. The next step for New Orleans’ two young centerpieces

What a bubble disaster. New Orleans was a mess on both ends. Lonzo Ball’s jumper deserted him (again) until it was too late.

Even so, this roster is primed to rise next season provided good health, time to coalesce, and more coherence on both ends. (Whether the latter requires a coaching change is a decision New Orleans may face soon. Alvin Gentry has a year left on his contract, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who also mentioned Ty Lue and Jason Kidd as potential replacements.) Zion Williamson’s explosion as a No. 1 option should slot everyone into their appropriate places on offense.

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If Ball remains in New Orleans — and remains engaged — he could evolve into a tweener guard specializing in kick-aheads, extra passes, lobs to Williamson, and (basketball gods willing) just enough spot-up 3s. Jrue Holiday will find his water level as an on-ball creator. Brandon Ingram can channel his game a little less toward Kobe Bryant, and a little more toward Scottie Pippen (not that Ingram will reach those levels).

But the Pelicans are not making any real jump unless they commit to defense. That starts with establishing some bedrock principles, and getting buy-in from their two young centerpieces.

Williamson was awful in the bubble — lead-footed, lacking any urgency. Given the circumstances — the long hiatus, Williamson leaving and returning — he should probably get a mulligan.

New Orleans was an unthinkable minus-58 in 104 bubble minutes with Williamson on the floor. They allowed almost 130 points per 100 possessions — not quite the level where you’d be better off fouling the worst opposing free throw shooter, but not all that far away. It appears New Orleans’ improvement on defense with Williamson on the floor in February and March was part illusion — built on (among other things) random bricky 3-point shooting from meh opponents.

As hoops savant Mo Dakhil noted on Twitter, some guys just move faster on offense than defense. (Karl-Anthony Towns comes to mind.) Maybe it’s the types of movements required. Maybe it’s that the game unfolds in a different way on each end depending on their role on offense.

The dissonance translates to rebounding. Williamson is a fiend on the offensive glass, but his defensive rebounding rate is frankly pathetic. Tracking data indicates Williamson is dynamite at snaring defensive boards when he starts off with a positional advantage, and inactive otherwise.

Williamson has quick feet. His passing tells you he reads the game well. He should grow into a capable defender. The Pelicans must determine what scheme fits Williamson best, and that question is tethered to the larger one of which position — power forward or center — he plays within each lineup. Can he protect the rim at all? Would be he better off switching? Regardless, the first steps are conditioning and effort.

Ingram isn’t good enough on that end, either. In New Orleans’ most dispiriting bubble loss — an Aug. 6 blowout against the Kings — Sacramento targeted Ingram via very rude Harrison Barnes bully-ball. Ingram wilted.

Ingram is skinny. Bigger forwards overpower him. That isn’t changing. But Ingram has to fight. His arms are so long, he can give ground and still challenge shots.

He has shown he can navigate screens and be a menace disrupting passing lanes. He needs to hit that gear more often. I bet he can.

5. Jrue Holiday’s one flaw

Holiday is a wonderful all-around player, but his penchant for strange passing turnovers has always made it hard to lean on him as primary ball handler.

Holiday coughed up 26 turnovers in six bubble games. New Orleans had no margin for that. The Pelicans ranked 29th in turnover rate, ahead of only the Cleveland Cavaliers, and their transition defense leaked oil all season.

Holiday tries to squeeze passes that aren’t there.

Something is a hair off at the intersection of vision and timing.

The Pelicans faced a thorny decision last summer with Holiday: Keep a very good player 10 years older than Williamson and seven years older than Ingram, or trade him for assets that better fit the timeline of their young stars. The Pelicans wagered they would be ready to chase the playoffs, and even though they face-planted in Orlando, they were right. They probably would have made the playoffs had Williamson been healthy all season.

They may face the same question again now. Holiday fits this roster well. He is by far the Pellies’ best defender. They are equipped to play him more off the ball on offense.

The Pelicans with Holiday profile as a playoff team next season, but nothing is guaranteed in the West — where rosters stand now, all 15 teams might harbor playoff ambitions.

6. Ja Morant against switches

The 29 other head coaches must have organized a Zoom meeting and agreed to treat Morant like Ben Simmons. Teams in Orlando are ducking several feet under picks for Morant, walling off the paint, begging him to launch 3s.

It’s working. Only about 39% of Morant’s shots have come at the basket in Orlando, down from 51% before, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s 9-of-40 on 3s.

The Grizzlies counter the go-under strategy by rescreening for Morant; it’s hard to duck two or three screens without falling behind. Defenses resort to switching, and in what looms as a more troubling sign, Morant has struggled horribly against switches.

Big men back away, inviting Morant to hoist jumpers or dribble right into them. Morant does not want those 3s; he often steps in for long contested 2s. He’s athletic enough to rev up and finish through some big men, but that is tough sledding against good defenders.

The Grizzlies have scored a putrid 0.799 points per possession when Morant shoots against a switch, or passes to a teammate who fires right away — 114th among 129 ball handlers who have faced at least 50 switches this season, per Second Spectrum. Opponents in the bubble are switching against Morant on about 10 screens per 100 possessions, up from 6.2 before.

This is the scouting report now. Morant will solve it — maybe soon. He was shooting 37% on 3s before the hiatus. His form looks fine.

7. Boston channeling Stephen Curry

Boston has been the dominant non-Suns team of the bubble, including an absolute thumping of the Raptors that may have revealed clues about a potential second-round series between the two. (Also fun: Boston playing its full roster Tuesday against Memphis, and bumping up the Grizzlies’ chances of missing the playoffs. Boston owns Memphis’ first-round pick provided it falls outside the top six. If Memphis misses the playoffs and moves up in the lottery, the pick rolls to next season — unprotected.)

Boston ranks second in points per possession in the bubble, trailing only the desperate Portland Trail Blazers. The Celtics’ drive-and-kick game looks crisp. They are generating about two more corner 3s per game, with the trade-off coming mostly from midrange shots.

The Celtics appear to be hunting the kind of pass-and-relocate 3s Stephen Curry made famous:


I love Jayson Tatum’s reaction to that Kemba Walker triple. The Celtics brought a certain spirit to that game: steely, cocksure, finding joy in the success of others. Tatum erupted in another celebration — snarl and fist pump — when Jaylen Brown fired a 45-foot bounce pass on the money to Gordon Hayward for a layup.

It sounds hokey, but that stuff matters. Tatum began the season pressing to establish himself as an All-Star. He’s now secure enough in his status as one to revel in plays that don’t involve him.

Of course, that’s easy when you’re ahead by 20. Postseason adversity is the real test of team culture. Boston seems ready.

8. Thomas Bryant’s bubble defense

A big question for Washington’s medium-term plans: Can Bryant be a starting center on a team with second-round ambitions? He should get there on offense. Bryant is a ferocious rim-runner who dunks like he wants to rip the basket down. He has a nice perimeter touch, and he’s turning more long 2s into pick-and-pop 3s; eight of his 11 highest-volume 3-point games came in Orlando.

He’s a surprisingly nifty passer given his (somewhat deserved) reputation as a chucker. He picks out cutters and has nice handoff chemistry with Bradley Beal.

It will come down to whether Bryant can defend the lane against good teams. His performance in Orlando was encouraging. He was nimbler corralling ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, more alert to where the offense might go next, and way, way more willing to make hard multiple efforts:

Bryant challenged more shots at the rim in Orlando, and opponents hit only 53% of them with Bryant nearby — a stingy mark, down from about 60% before, per NBA.com.

Washington’s defense still stunk, but that had less to do with Bryant.

There is a lot (like, a lot) of work left. (The Wiz should probably sign a defensive-oriented veteran center just in case.) Bryant’s footwork can go haywire when he changes angles in tight spaces; he almost looks as if he’s going to trip over his own feet. He’s unreliable on the glass, overeager chasing blocks.

But Bryant just turned 23 and has logged only 2,700 NBA minutes. We are talking about the hardest part of any big man’s job. Washington stole Bryant from the Lakers; the Wiz basically became L.A.’s Triple-A affiliate, only they can keep the players. They retained Bryant on a three-year, $25 million deal that has a chance to really pay off.

9. A nice thing for Kings fans

The Kings went #Kangz, extending their playoff drought to a humiliating 14 seasons — which is really hard to do when 16 of 30 teams make the postseason. In a vacuum — and the NBA is not a vacuum, but still, this is fun — the chances of that happening are about 1 in 40,000, our Kevin Pelton confirmed.

I’m inclined toward forgiveness. The coronavirus hit the Kings hard. Richaun Holmes, their starting center, had to miss several practices after breaking quarantine (#Kangz) to order delivery (#KANGZ!) — resulting in a Twitter scolding from his mom that still might be the Tweet of the Bubble.

Holmes was exactly what the Kings envisioned when they signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal. He had a career season across the board. This 21-second sequence is emblematic:

That is high-level center goodness: corral one pick-and-roll; stay in front on a switch; disrupt that layup; sprint for an early seal; sling a laser to the corner. Holmes is ultra-fast for his position. He’s a lob-catcher, and he shot a sizzling 51% from floater range — mostly with his patented push shot. Holmes ended with the best net rating of all Sacramento regulars; the Kings outscored opponents with Holmes on the floor.

Holmes doesn’t have the bulk to bang with Joel Embiid/Jokic types, but he established himself as a viable starter.

10. Team announcer affection for ex-‘teammates’

It is so distasteful when local announcers notice a player’s flaws only once that player is on another team — and then go out of their way to poke fun at them.

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That’s why I smiled every time Chris Marlowe, Scott Hastings, and Katy Winge — Denver’s trio — referred to Jusuf Nurkic as “Nurk” during last Thursday’s Portland-Denver game. They still have affection for the big fella, even though Nurkic’s tenure in Denver did not end well.

They were evenhanded evaluating Nurkic’s game — just as they were when he was a Nugget. It’s a small thing, but it matters.

11. Speaking of Nurkic …

Nurkic is a rock-solid two-way player. He is light on his feet and can really pass — from a standstill, and on the move. Nurkic’s presence completely changes the Blazers.

He appears to have lost nothing over a year of rehab — and that unfortunately includes his maddening habit of bonking layups:

Come on, big fella! Go up strong!

Give Nurkic credit for consistency. Nurkic has never converted more than 61% of shots at the rim in a season — or ranked above the 21st percentile among centers in that metric.

I have no idea what’s going on. It’s not like Nurkic lacks touch. Does he not want to get fouled? (He’s a career 67% foul shooter, though he’s 31-for-35 in the bubble.) Is he doing a bit? Does he have selective yips? Does he just enjoy a challenge? Luckily for the Blazers, Nurkic finished almost everything in crunch time of Thursday’s thrilling season-saving win. They needed every point.

12. Let’s say nice things about a guy on the Nets’ B-team

Did anyone notice Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot hit 38% of his 3s this season on decent volume — almost seven attempts per 36 minutes? That’s a real thing! Luwawu-Cabarrot punctuated a meaningful season with a 5-of-9 performance from deep in Brooklyn’s spirited loss to Portland Thursday.

Luwawu-Cabarrot has looked like an interesting NBA wing from Day 1 — long, fast, bursting with athleticism. He’s a sneaky cutter. He can rebound, and run the wing in transition. But before this season, he had been a little too wild for anyone to trust with real rotation minutes. His jumper merited no attention from defenses.

Maybe that 38% mark will prove a fluke. But TLC did not compile it entirely on wide-open 3s. He chanced some contested ones — some under such tight pressure, it was legitimately shocking to notice Luwawu-Cabarrot was the one flinging them up. A lot of them went in. If that’s real, the Nets may have found something.

MORE: Everything to know about every NBA playoff team

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