Ten things I like and don't like, including Houston taking advantage
Lowe loves 'Houston's nerdy math in action'
Let's close out standard time with 10 Things:
1. The end of the Pistons
To their credit, no one with the Detroit Pistons has spun this free fall as something they saw coming -- the predictable result of a mega-trade that gutted their wing rotation. They traded for Blake Griffin to make the playoffs. Now their chances are nearing zero.
Detroit is 6-10 since acquiring Griffin, and every one of those wins -- including Griffin's first four games -- came at home against teams on the second end of a back-to-back.
The Pistons are hemorrhaging 3-pointers on defense, and they rank 24th in points scored per possession since the trade. Five of six teams scoring at a worse rate are trying to lose. Their most-used starting lineup, now mothballed, included one 3-point shooter -- Reggie Bullock -- and Detroit has him barfing up long 2-pointer after long 2-pointer in sets Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wore out years ago.
Detroit might argue absorbing Griffin didn't cost much, since they would have paid Tobias Harris a ton in free agency next summer. Baloney/bologna. Harris won't make as much as Griffin, and he's three years younger. Coughing up a lottery pick -- the ultimate evidence Detroit expected a playoff push -- is a gut punch, especially after using their previous two on Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard. (It's unclear what those guys will be -- I'm more bullish on Johnson than most -- but it is clear Detroit failed to maximize either pick.)
Griffin and Andre Drummond can (kinda) fit -- just not with this surrounding talent. Bad news: Detroit is in cap hell through 2019-20, with no realistic means of rejiggering that surrounding talent. The Pistons executed nice trades for Reggie Jackson and Harris, but undid that good work by overpaying role players out of a self-defeating belief that no one would ever choose Detroit otherwise. (The same logic pushed them to jump the market on Griffin, a fine player on a giant contract that carries too much downside risk for what Detroit paid.)
One move they have, other than potentially separating from Stan Van Gundy: flipping Drummond while his value is still neutral-ish, and recentering around Griffin. Detroit has a fascinating summer ahead.
2. Victor Oladipo, in attack mode
Everyone takes on a different posture when they sprint. Oladipo transforms into a different person:
Oladipo bears down on the rim with Russell Westbrook's leaning, coiled rage, but his head and shoulders bob with a bounce that is all his. It's almost hypnotic.
It has been fun listening to everyone struggle to explain how the Indiana Pacers are nine games over .500. They're mediocre on defense. They're not deep. Other than Oladipo, only Domantas Sabonis has wildly outperformed expectations. (Darren Collison was in the midst of a splendid season before undergoing knee surgery, but his numbers are only a tick higher than in the past couple of seasons.)
And then, Occam's razor: Oladipo isn't just having a feel-good season. He has been a superstar. That's it. The Pacers outscore opponents by about seven points per 100 possessions with Oladipo on the floor; that number sinks below its inverse when he sits. The Pacers are 0-6 without Oladipo, and 37-22 -- a 51-win pace -- when he's available.
Related: The battle for the six All-NBA guard spots is a bloodbath. It's possible Oladipo and both Raptors get left out.
3. Houston's math in action
The mathematical foundation of the Houston Rockets is obvious: 3 > 2. The real fun is in watching them leverage that on a possession-by-possession basis:
The Rockets engineer this sequence of events more than any other team. They do not worry about Aron Baynes posting up Eric Gordon after a switch. They know his flippy shots will go in something like 45 percent of the time. We can all do that math.
They also know that if Baynes misses, they've jumbled the matchups, making it hard for Boston to track Houston's shooters in transition. The score over those 12 seconds is 0-0. The expected score favors Houston. Repeat that a half-dozen times, and the Rockets have a real edge.
They'll even risk it against more polished post players:
Houston sends Gordon more urgent help against Al Horford. That should unlock an easy kickout pass, but Boston has both Marcus Smart and Baynes crowding the paint. The Rockets swarm without consequence.
The math is a little more complicated than two versus three. Switching onto behemoths takes a physical toll. It puts Houston at a disadvantage on the glass, and teams score really well after offensive rebounds.
Houston has run those numbers. Only the Mavs have faced more post-ups this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, and the Rockets have defended all those prodding attacks well by any measure.
This is low-hanging strategic fruit. For 45 minutes of every game, it makes sense. Crunch time is a different beast. In those fraught final minutes, the game is not about small edges that add up over time; there is no time left. Sometimes, you -- or your opponent -- need only one or two points. (Daryl Morey has acknowledged this often.)
It will be fascinating to see how Houston plays on both ends in those pressurized playoff moments.
4. Josh Richardson in the rearview
Say it with me: Richardson is the Miami Heat's best all-around player. He is a threat both on and off the ball -- must-have versatility for a star-less team that compensates by turning all five players into live-wire threats.
He is a terror on defense, quick enough to chase point guards and rangy enough to jostle bigger wings -- and even some power forwards when Miami goes super-small. (They rarely do so now that they are almost -- the vibe on Waiters Island remains subdued -- fully healthy. Erik Spoelstra faces some thorny rotation choices.)
Richardson is among the very best at trailing ball-handlers around screens, lurking behind them, and swatting at the ball:
Coaches call that a rearview challenge. In his Indiana prime, George Hill was perhaps the preeminent rearview challenger among point guards. Richardson is longer, springier and meaner. He's like a horror movie villain: Even if you can't see him, you hear his footsteps and feel his presence.
Richardson has swatted 59 shots, about one per game -- a huge number for a guy listed at 6-foot-6. Among all players 6-7 or shorter, only Draymond Green has blocked more shots.
5. Damian Lillard, in control
Sometimes you know a player has made a mini-leap even if the numbers don't show it. Statistically, Lillard is the same player he was last season. But something is different. He has mastered almost every skill-within-a-skill on offense, and he knows it.
The pull-up 3 has always been there. Lillard has learned to change pace and direction, on and off the ball, testing defenders until they wobble. Patience and craft have transformed Lillard's lefty hesitation dribble into one of his deadliest weapons. He has seen every defense; he knows where bodies will be, and when. That knowledge translates to a deeper bag of passes he throws earlier, ahead of rotating defenders, across more daring diagonals.
More from ESPN.com
Zach talks to the NBA's Monty McCucthen about player-referee relations, crunch-time officiating, his biggest mistakes, flops, tricky rules, and more. PodCast
Two specific proposals for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs are circulating at the league's highest levels. Here's what it means. Story
The legacy of the pioneering Croatian and Nets guard -- his skill, his fight, his joy -- still runs through the NBA and Europe. Story
When you can do everything -- and when you know you can do everything -- it frees you from worrying about how defenses scheme. You can start with whatever move you prefer, confident you have a counter for any response.
Lillard is playing with an icy, manipulative calm. Steph Curry has displayed a similar evolution this season. It doesn't really show up in the numbers -- beyond perhaps a jump in Curry's free throw attempts -- but from the opener, you could just tell he had the game on a string.
Lillard is there now, too. Since returning full-time on Jan. 10, he's averaging 29 points per game on 48 percent shooting -- and 40 percent from deep. He is 17-of-35 in the last three minutes when the scoring margin is within three points -- the fifth-best percentage among 40 guys who have attempted at least 20 such shots, per NBA.com. (Ahead of him: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Josh Richardson.) What he did to the Lakers in the fourth quarter Monday should be illegal. Dude hit a triple from the "S" in the "Lakers" midcourt logo.
Since his Jan. 10 return, the Portland Trail Blazers have scored 1.33 points per possession anytime Lillard drives -- the second-highest such figure among 113 guys who have recorded at least 100 drives in that span, according to Second Spectrum tracking data via NBA Advanced Stats. (Kevin Durant is No. 1.)
He's not a sieve on defense anymore, either. His positioning and effort are sound. He battles in the post against mismatches. Lillard is never going to be a plus defender, but he's approaching average. Given his insane offense, average would be fine.
One happy byproduct of all this: Portland is handily winning the minutes Lillard plays without CJ McCollum -- once a shaky spot (and still a little shaky in the reverse situation).
6. Entitlement shots
You see this all the time: A player snares a steal or an offensive rebound, and feels entitled to finish the resulting possession:
Sometimes, this is fine. If a good shooter intercepts a pass in the backcourt, he should launch an immediate open 3 if it materializes. Have some elbow room after snagging an offensive rebound? Go back up with that sucker. I'm all for rewarding big men who disrupt shots on defense, and run hard the other way -- provided someone else brings the ball up.
Bad entitlement shots just waste possessions.
P.S.: Can the tanking Magic give Isaac more minutes, including in a small, ultra-modern power forward-center combination alongside Aaron Gordon? Those two have played one minute together -- one stinking minute -- without one of Orlando's centers.
7. When Phoenix forgets that shooting is a thing
The Phoenix Suns are awful regardless of who is on the floor, but when they sit both Devin Booker and Dragan Bender, they somehow manage to trot out lineups featuring precisely zero capable 3-point shooters. In 2018, you should get a trophy for that.
Talent and smarts can make up for a shooting deficit, but you need at least some spacing to function. I don't really care how much off-the-bounce juice, old-school spunk and distracting hair a grouping of Elfrid Payton, Josh Jackson, TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss, and Alex Len (or Tyson Chandler) brings to the table. They are not going to be able to score.
The Suns have managed 98.0 points per 100 possessions when both Booker and Bender sit, per NBA.com -- almost two points below Sacramento's league-worst team mark. Since they acquired Payton -- one of the league's brickiest point guards -- that number has cratered to about 86.5 points per 100 possessions. Even in a tiny sample -- just 63 minutes since the trade deadline -- it is hard to be so futile. Opponents have outscored the Suns by 56 points in those 63 minutes. Sickening. (Thankfully, Phoenix didn't sabotage themselves with any such minutes until garbage time Thursday against Oklahoma City. Troy Daniels also provides a shooting buffer at times.)
Bender has games in which he doesn't do anything, but he's shooting 38 percent on 3s. Defenses at least have to honor him.
Payton was worth a low-cost flier -- and perhaps a longer look depending on his market in free agency. But entering its eighth consecutive draft lottery, Phoenix still has a gaping hole at point guard and an alarming shortage of 3-point shooting. It is almost astonishing how much Booker has improved his playmaking in this environment. The second he turns the corner on a pick-and-roll, he sees four and sometimes five defenders walling off every pathway to the basket.
8. Nic Batum to Dwight Howard, sure
Batum and Howard have a nice wink-wink chemistry on lobs:
What a strange season. None of their players have been abjectly bad, save for Batum in his first month back from injury. Even he has looked decent since, though we haven't seen anything close to Contract Year Batum. Marvin Williams is shooting 43 percent from deep. Frank Kaminsky is up to a career-best 37 percent on 3s. Howard has been better than the Hornets expected, though raw numbers mask massive underlying weaknesses on both ends.
And yet: The team is not good. (You might not know it watching their Pravda-esque local broadcast, in which Howard is 2011 Dwight and Walker is referred to as "the captain" more often than apex Derek Jeter ever was.)
A five-game losing streak has obliterated their faint playoff hopes. Charlotte has the league's easiest remaining schedule, but they are six games back of the No. 8 spot with severe tiebreaker disadvantages. Good thing they're almost at the luxury tax.
9. Andre Iguodala, kinda back?
For about a month there, even those of us who should know better -- who understand Iguodala hoards juice for May and June -- started worrying he was washed up. He wasn't shooting. He looked slow, old, disinterested. In prior seasons, even chill-mode Iguodala would flash glimpses of his joyful, one-step-ahead game.
It's easy to dismiss role players on a team with four superstars, but peak Iguodala matters. The Golden State Warriors assumes its true identity when he steps onto the floor. The Warriors become the Warriors -- a position-less hydra that completes four passes before the defense even digests the first one.
Bad news for the rest of the league, assuming the wrist injury Iguodala suffered Tuesday is minor: That guy is kinda back, infusing the Warriors with his brand of intelligent chaos. Over the past month-plus, Iguodala has been dishing dimes, defending with energy, and occasionally revving the engines in transition.
Since late January, Golden State has outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor -- well above their league-best overall margin. He has revived the vaunted Death Lineup. That group -- Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green -- is a meager plus-20 for the season, but it has blitzed opponents by 34 points in 64 minutes since Jan. 25, per NBA.com. Half of its total minutes have come in that stretch.
Iguodala isn't all the way back. He still doesn't shoot 3s; he's a troubling 23-of-92 for the season, and there will be playoff moments when the Warriors need him to can open looks again.
But something is brewing, and the Warriors are gearing up for the postseason -- if only Curry's ankle would cooperate. This is getting worrisome.
10. Jerry Reynolds and Grant Napear, making a bit out of everything
Is there a Nobel Prize for endurance of spirit? Can we give it to Napear and Reynolds? These guys have seen nothing but trash basketball for 15 years, and they somehow continue to analyze it with objectivity, intelligence and humor.
Their tolerance is remarkable. During the nadir of the Nick Young/Andray Blatche/JaVale McGee comedy tour, Steve Buckhantz, Washington's play-by-play legend, sounded at times like he was going to start weeping. (Side note: Remember when Ted Leonsis, the Wiz owner, referred to John Wall, Jordan Crawford, and Blatche as the team's "new big three?" Leonsis appears to have deleted that blog post.)
They poke fun at themselves as much as they do the Kings. Reynolds is 74, and when reading promos, he has to stick his face almost against the monitor to see the text. They decided to make a bit out of that by actually showing Reynolds squinting while Napear grades his performance:
Reynolds, master of the intentionally bad pun, recently referred to a Skal Labissiere basket as "skalicious." These two are such a delight. I hope the Kings give them a good team to discuss before one of them retires.