It's that time:
1. Jamal Murray, popping, and the gritty Denver Nuggets
Murray is perhaps the league's most important swing player over the next three seasons. If he becomes an All-Star, the Nuggets could contend for a long time. If he tops out below that, Denver has more work to do.
He's fascinating right now -- young, inconsistent, prone to bouts of self-doubt, and a threat to snap out of them at any moment with an incandescent explosion. He attempts five 3-pointers and 11 2-pointers per game. When Denver and Murray are both fully optimized, that ratio will probably tilt a little more toward 3s.
There are discrete scenarios when Murray should let it fly more. He too often settles for long 2s when big guys switch onto him; he's capable of step-back fire:
When Murray feels good, he launches the second he finds separation bobbing around a pick:
Those are healthy shots, and Murray has delivered more of them lately. He looks like a player on an track to be an All-Star candidate as he approaches his mid-20s.
Murray's 2s-to-3s ratio might be fine as is. A lot of his 2s are productive looks -- including flying layups via the league's deadliest give-and-go partnership:
Denver must lead the league in long-distance layup alley-oops. They effectively work as dribble penetration for a team that isn't great at actual dribble penetration. Their perimeter players cut to the hoop and jump in blind faith that Nikola Jokic will place the ball where they need it. They aren't even really open on the horizontal plane. They leap before their defenders, because they know a pass is coming.
Denver has done remarkable work holding onto the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference amid injuries to Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap. Monte Morris is a stabilizer. Malik Beasley has been a two-way force. Torrey Craig defends his ass off across all three perimeter positions. Mike Malone and Tim Connelly, the team's coach and president, respectively, both deserve consideration for their end-of-season awards.
They are about to be fully healthy. Watch out.
2. DeAndre Jordan, turnover machine
Dallas sported the league's lowest turnover rate last season. They have finished fourth or better every season since 2011-12. Rick Carlisle does not tolerate waste.
They currently rank 29th, ahead of only the Hawks, who are coughing the ball up at a rate that suggests they think there is some reward for it. A prime culprit: Jordan, averaging a career-worst (by far) 2.4 per game. Jordan has vomited the ball away on 22.8 percent of possessions he has finished with a shot, drawn foul or turnover -- the league's third-fattest rate, behind only Draymond Green (uh oh) and Tim Frazier.
Jordan's low number of shots inflates his turnover rate, but that's kind of the point: a big man asked to do so little with the ball cannot give it up so often. Jordan gets too cute threading needles from the elbow, and doesn't anticipate his guy lunging backward to clog corridors:
When he's moving, Jordan's aim goes haywire:
I can't imagine the Mavs are thrilled with the bang-for-the-buck return on Jordan's one-year deal. This doesn't feel like a long-term marriage. Letting Jordan walk would turn the Mavs into a major free agency player.
3. Jusuf Nurkic, closing the gap
When I visited Portland two months ago, a rival executive summed up the Blazers alleged stasis with one cogent line: The gap between their second- and third-best players is too big. He identified a chasm between C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Flash forward, and it's possible Nurkic has been Portland's second-best player this season.
He is averaging career highs across the board, and has looked straight-up nimble finishing on the pick-and-roll:
Considering his behemoth size, Nurkic has been shockingly timid around the rim most of his career. Over the past month, he has started plowing over and through help defenders. He finally realized how damned big he is! He also discovered his left hand!
Rivals watched New Orleans smother Damian Lillard and McCollum with traps in last season's playoffs. For Portland to survive that, Nurkic has to be comfortable catching, passing and finishing in open space. He has succeeded on all counts.
The Blazers have scored 1.18 points per possession on any trip featuring a Nurkic on-ball pick, the 10th-highest figure among almost 175 high-volume screen-setters, per Second Spectrum.
Portland loves clearing one side of the floor for the Lillard-Nurkic dance:
That setup unclutters Lillard's sightlines, and forces help defenders to scurry all the way across the floor.
Nurkic can manufacture offense from the post. He's a deft passer from the elbows.
He is a one-man gang on the offensive glass. Tracking technology measures how likely each player on the floor is to snare any rebound based on his location the moment a shot goes up. Nurkic's offensive rebounding rate is almost 5.5 percentage points higher than expected based on that data -- the sixth-largest bump among rotation players, per Second Spectrum.
He'll never be the main driver of an elite defense, but you can build a solid one around him. This Nurkic is a bargain on a four-year, $48 million deal. Portland snaring Nurkic and a first-round pick for Mason Plumlee will go down as an all-time heist for GM Neil Olshey. (To be fair, Plumlee is doing great work as Jokic's backup.)
Portland is 25-17 against the league's second-toughest schedule, though it has been home heavy. It's easing up. If McCollum gets hot and the wing rotation stabilizes, the No. 3 seed could be in play (again).
4. Searching for Aaron Gordon
Two seasons ago, Gordon appeared to find his niche as a playmaking power forward -- a screen-setter who could pass and dribble, Draymond Green-style, in open space. We have not seen much of that player since.
Gordon doesn't get much run on the other end of pick-and-rolls; he uses only seven ball screens per 100 possessions, about where he was in 2016. He has made incremental progress as a passer and ball-handler, but not nearly enough to work as a No. 1 or 2 option.
That leaves Gordon sort of floating around the offense instead of participating in it. He's not a good enough shooter to thrive in a spot-up role. He scrounges points in transition, and randomly ducks in for post-ups. He's not really good at that, either; the Magic have scored just 0.7 points per possession whenever Gordon shoots out the post or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, per Second Spectrum -- 114th out of 121 players who have recorded at least 20 post-ups.
Gordon is talented enough to stumble into 15 points per game this way. He's a solid rebounder, and a stopper on defense across almost every position if he's dialed in.
There is a better player in here, somewhere. The Magic have shrouded it by shoehorning Gordon into too many wing minutes. But Gordon hasn't developed any one offensive skill to the point that you are certain about what his role should be.
5. Hello, Derrick White!
I come prostrate before the altar of Pop. Six weeks ago, I chastised San Antonio's shot selection. I did not think it was possible to construct an elite offense while ranking dead last in shots at the rim and 3s -- and 20th or worse in both free throw and offensive rebounding rates. In my defense, it should not be.
But it be. It very much be. The Spurs are up to fifth in points per possession after a scorching 14-4 run that culminated in Thursday's 154-point avalanche against the Thunder. Their shot selection in that stretch has barely budged. They are just making everything, moving the ball without turning it over, and flying around on defense. It has been wonderful to watch. Again, I'm sorry, Pop. (I still think their offense will slip back over the coming road-heavy stretch, but I know better now than to predict a huge drop-off. The Spurs are solid.)
The happiest revelation: Derrick White. It is a fun sensation watching someone over extended minutes for the first time, and understanding immediately, "OK, this dude knows how to play."
White just feels the game. He is a cat burglar sidling into open spaces when the defense is focused on DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge. He has already mastered the Manu Ginobili thing of running into the catch:
This is going to sound weird, but White reads feet well. He notices early when a help defender's momentum is skittering too fast toward midcourt, and blows by that victim without pausing:
White has a soft midrange game. He's a semi-respectable 20-of-60 on 3s. He's a sneaky dunker. He's a crafty passer out of the pick-and-roll, and has happily taken the responsibility of defending the most dangerous opposing scorer so Popovich can hide DeRozan and Bryn Forbes.
I can't wait to see the Dejounte Murray-White backcourt.
6. The Grizz, star-less
I can't imagine how Memphis fans handle the suspense and horror of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resting together. Can the Grizzlies survive? How much ground will they lose? Enough that this four-minute stretch effectively costs them the game? Will any shots dent the backboard? Is this one of the 13 games when Shelvin Mack looks like a killer backup point guard -- or one of the other 69?
Memphis has scored just 90.6 points per 100 possessions in 260 minutes with their tentpole stars on the bench. Perspective: Chicago's league-worst offense averages almost 101.
The staggering-stars dilemma is endlessly fascinating. Keeping one on the floor feels safer. But going naked allows you to maximize the double-star minutes. Play the star-less stretches to a draw, and you're in good shape.
The Grizz are 5-13 in their past 18 games, and their one glaring weakness has finally manifested: They lack bucket-getters. Even Gasol is a reluctant scorer at times. They surrounded Gasol and Conley with low-usage scrappers, and the offense predictably meanders into nothingness when both rest.
I'm not sure there is any fix, other than stretching the stars as far as they can go and hoping for the best. Justin Holiday's presence softens the blow of Dillon Brooks' injury. JaMychal Green's hot 3-point shooting has helped. The Grizz might try him at center in place of Joakim Noah, which would make it easier to get Omri Casspi -- and Casspi's shooting -- on the floor. Some Jaren Jackson Jr.-at-center minutes would be tasty, too.
7. Bradley Beal, still here
The "everybody eats!" Wiz are 4-3 since John Wall's season ended, including convincing wins over Oklahoma City and Philadelphia. Bradley Beal is putting his head down and attacking the rim with a new ferocity.
Beal has developed a nifty chemistry with Thomas Bryant on side pick-and-rolls with the other three Wizards stashed across the floor:
The Wiz have scored 1.13 points per possession any time Beal shoots out of a drive, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away -- 23rd among 246 players who have recorded at least 75 drives, per Second Spectrum. That number leaps to 1.3 on drives with Wall off the floor -- a mark that would rank No. 2 among all high-volume ball-handlers (behind only Joe Harris, duh). Almost 27 percent of Beal's shots have come in the restricted area -- a career-high.
Beal is shooting a career-best 55 percent on 2s, and quietly putting up a 24-5-5 line. When he rests, the Wizards become squibs. (That was the case, to an alarming degree, even when Wall remained on the floor.) Beal belongs in the All-Star Game.
8. Try to resist this Miami Heat hype video
I mean ...
When I saw that video on the Jumbotron in Miami last week, I wanted to run onto the court, high-five Chris Bosh in the front row, and chest-bump Heat players until security escorted me out. How could you even arrest me? It's entrapment!
Why is it raining inside? WHO CARES, IT'S AWESOME. And ending with Dwyane Wade, legend and icon, staring stone-cold into my soul and popping the Vice jersey? Come on. I am 100 percent in for any and all Wade nostalgia.
Did I buy my daughter a child-sized Vice T-shirt? YES. YES I DID. (I try to buy something from every arena I visit, so you can't accuse me of bias.)
By the way: No other team should be allowed to play "In the Air Tonight." That is Miami's. Same goes for "Thunderstruck" (Oklahoma City) and "Gonna Fly Now" from "Rocky" (Philadelphia).
9. Milwaukee, shapeshifting
As I wrote Thursday, the gap between Milwaukee's best and second-best players is bigger than that of a typical championship team. One remedy: quality depth that allows for shapeshifting to any style of play a postseason opponent requires. Milwaukee might have it.
George Hill can play alongside one of President Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe -- and even (in short stretches) both. Sterling Brown has hit 59 percent on corner 3s, and defended four positions. He even looks comfortable slithering inside off the bounce when defenders run him off the arc. Tony Snell is shooting 39 percent from deep.
The more perimeter players at Mike Budenholzer's disposal, the easier it is for him to build workable lineups featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo at center -- a look the Bucks will need to navigate multiple playoff rounds.
Want more size? The Bucks have outscored opponents handily when Wilson plays alongside one of Brook Lopez and Thon Maker. Ilyasova can do the same. Antetokounmpo can work as the nominal "small forward" in those double-big alignments.
To win four playoff rounds, you need to be able to play every style. If Brown and Wilson are real, the Bucks will be ready.
10. Positional restrictions on the All-Star ballot
All-Star rosters for each conference must include four guards, six "frontcourt" players and two "wild cards" of any position. Why do I have to list Ben Simmons as a guard? Yeah, he functions as a point guard. So does LeBron James, and James is on the ballot as a frontcourt player. Simmons is huge, and defends everyone. He's not a guard; he's a Ben Simmons!
Why can I use DeMar DeRozan only as a guard? He is a nominal shooting guard, but he starts alongside two smaller players in White and Forbes.
Why are we still doing this? Why does each conference get 12 All-Stars even after the NBA scrapped the East-versus-West format? We should just pick the 24 best players.
Positions and conferences shape how we discuss and conceptualize the sport. They provide a framework for historical comparisons. Scrapping them would be radical.
But fealty is outdated. How about this as a compromise: voters pick one starting five consisting of two guards and three frontcourt players regardless of conference, and coaches then select whatever 19 reserves they want -- again regardless of conference.
With captains selecting teams, the only point of having two "starting" lineups is to designate eight players the captains must pick before anyone else. Being voted in as one of five starters would be a huge honor -- almost like making first-team All-NBA.
Speaking of All-NBA: Simmons' candidacy last season pushed me close to arguing that we should scrap positions for that, too. I'm not quite there yet; there is some appeal in All-NBA teams resembling real teams. But the way the game is trending, it might make sense to just pick the 15 best players.