Settle in for a fresh helping of 10 things:
1. Ben Simmons, freight train
Simmons understands his physical advantages -- the uniqueness of someone so huge being able to dribble and move so fast. He can take elite wing defenders one-on-one without a screen, and without even really beating them off the bounce:
That's Andre Iguodala -- all-time stopper, NBA Finals MVP, one of the only players who can at least make LeBron James acknowledge the humanity of the person defending him. Simmons just plows through Iguodala. When people say they see something of LeBron in Simmons, this is it -- this undeniable freight train element, combined with unteachable two-steps-ahead vision. Unless you have one of the rare wings with power forward size -- or a power forward quick enough to defend wings -- you have to send help.
He is especially LeBron-y in transition. Even when a good defender is in front of him, the other four see Simmons barreling to the rim, panic and converge -- leaving shooters open everywhere. Only the very best fast-break conductors inspire that kind of terror: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, LeBron and maybe a couple of others.
Simmons is shooting 71 percent on transition chances, ninth among 156 players who have finished at least 20 fast breaks so far -- and, fittingly, just one spot behind LeBron, according to Synergy Sports. Philly's bizarro super-big starting lineup -- Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert "Bob" Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid -- is an absolute matchup nightmare. It is unconventional to the point of disruption.
Simmons can guard all five positions, but only one or two guys on the other team have any chance guarding him. If Simmons defends someone else -- say, a point guard -- and Philly gets a stop, the five guys on the other team run around pointing with alarmed looks on their faces trying to normalize the matchups. If they don't, Simmons, Saric or Embiid bulldozes a mismatch in the post.
That group has outscored opponents by an absurd 29 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among all 68 five-man groups that have logged at least 50 minutes, per NBA.com. It is filled with smart passers, and Saric has improved his 3-point shot. Philly has blitzed teams by about 13 points per 100 possessions when both Simmons and Embiid are on the floor, per NBA.com.
They have been vulnerable when one of them rests -- and really whenever Embiid is off the floor -- but Brett Brown is smartly staggering minutes so that they rarely rest together.
Philly is 10-7 after a murderous, road-heavy schedule. That is better than they expected. They should -- at minimum -- stay in the playoff race all season, provided good health and some confirmation that Markelle Fultz still exists.
2. Pearl-clutching referees
Some trash talk has to be OK. I understand the league doesn't want guys mouthing off after every highlight, but there is room for leeway. When Antonio Blakeney, a dude on a freaking two-way contract, dunks on a lottery pick (Julius Randle, sharing a Thanksgiving bounty with us few hearty souls atop Julius Randle Hill) in the middle of the most important hot streak of his life, he should get to mean-mug and unleash a few remarks.
Nope. The referees T'd Blakeney up during Chicago's loss Tuesday in L.A.
Let the man have his moment!
3. Driving Bradley Beal
Beal gets a little better every season. He has made a mini-leap as a ball-handler, adding even more variety to Washington's offense -- and absorbing some of the creative burden from John Wall.
Beal is slicing through tighter spaces, trying new tricks, and finishing with confidence.
Beal is averaging about three more drives per game this season, per Second Spectrum. He and Marcin Gortat are building the same kind of wink-wink pick-and-roll chemistry Gortat shares with John Wall:
That is a pinpoint imitation of classic Wall-Gortat magic: Gortat creeping up to spook the defense into exposing its plan before slinking back toward the rim, behind Thon Maker; Beal raising the ball above his head, faking a pass; and Gortat finally hitting the brakes to slam Maker with what is effectively a wackadoo back screen.
The Wiz have scored 1.12 points per possession when a Beal-Gortat pick-and-roll leads directly to a shot, turnover or drawn foul. (That includes possessions on which a third teammate shoots off a pass from Beal, per Second Spectrum.) That ranks 14th among 125 duos that have run at least 75 pick-and-rolls.
Beal is shooting 72.5 percent at the rim, a career high by a mile, and getting to the line more than ever. When Scott Brooks staggers the minutes of his star guards, Beal should be ready to prop up Washington's offense solo.
Watching them toggle the controls in crunch time will be fascinating. Beal is a more dangerous pull-up shooter, Wall the more dynamic playmaker. Wall isn't as useful off the ball; teams stray far from him on the perimeter, clogging Beal's driving lanes. When Wall runs things, defenses treat Beal almost like it does Kyle Korver. This is a good problem for Washington. One star can break down the defense, draw help and kick it to the other one with a longer runway. Unpredictability is healthy late in games.
4. Brandon Ingram, understanding his length
That other celebrated pick from the 2016 draft -- the even younger one -- is starting to figure out how useful those long toothpick arms can be on both ends of the floor.
About 42 percent of Ingram's shots have come at the rim, up from 27 percent last season. Ingram doesn't have a super-explosive first step, but he doesn't really need one. If he can nudge his defender into retreat mode, his arms are so long, he can sort of drive into the guy's chest and lay the ball in over his head.
He's taking contact in the air, hanging and coaxing in tough shots as his defender returns to the ground. His free throws are up. Ingram has good passing vision. The more damage he does off the bounce, the more passing lanes will become available to him. He walked into the NBA with good passing vision.
The only downside: The uptick in shots near the basket has come at the expense of 3-pointers. Ingram's attempts from deep are way down, and he's canning just 30 percent. Ingram eventually has to become a serviceable 3-point shooter if he's going to play alongside Lonzo Ball. But in the short term, this tradeoff is fine; some young guys improve in increments. Ingram honing one skill now doesn't mean he'll neglect the other one forever.
He is becoming a menacing defender away from the ball. When he spreads those arms, he covers a lot of territory. He's almost in two places at once. He can crash into the paint, and snap back in time to interfere with a pass to his man.
He dissuades some opponents from throwing that pass in the first place, and every half-second of hesitation is a mini-win for the defense.
The Lakers ranking a shocking fourth in points allowed per possession isn't a total fluke. Total flukes don't typically last a quarter of the season. Two of their core healthy big men -- Randle and Kyle Kuzma -- are quick enough to switch onto ball-handlers, and their guards have embraced the dirty work of jostling with big men on the flip side of those switches. Josh Hart is sturdy. Ball is a pest. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ingram are engaged help-and-recover guys on the wing. Everyone has bought in.
I'd still bet on the Lakers falling back toward 10th, and maybe a hair worse. Opponents have hit just 31 percent of their 3s, the lowest figure in the league, and they've been ice cold on wide-open triples. Teams are even bonking around the rim, and the Lakers allow a ton of shots there. (Only Milwaukee has yielded more as a percentage of all attempts, per Cleaning The Glass.) This stuff will revert.
Still: Hanging around the top 10 in defense would be a huge, unexpected success.
5. The Paul George Trade Return Connection
Sabonis has assisted on 14 of Oladipo's buckets over 280 minutes, per NBA.com. Only Darren Collison has supplied more dimes to Oladipo. Sabonis hit Oladipo with just 17 helpers in 1012 minutes last season in Oklahoma City.
The Pacers have already overstayed expectations. They are 10-8 against a road-heavy slate, snug in the playoff race. They are due for some regression on offense. Indy ranks fifth in points per possession despite a shot selection -- 3-phobic, heavy on midrangers -- straight from the 1990s. The Pacers rank fourth in field-goal percentage, and they are shooting well from basically everywhere.
Only the Warriors have outperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage -- based on the location of shots and nearby defenders -- by a larger margin, per tracking data from Second Spectrum. Indiana's defense is not good enough to survive much of a backslide on the other end.
But these guys play hard, share the ball, and run like hell. They are a turbocharged inconvenience for any opponent who wants to laze through a back-to-back.
One wrinkle to watch: The integration of Sabonis and Myles Turner. Sabonis thrived as the starting center while Turner recovered from a concussion. Turner is finding his groove again. They've shared the floor for just 44 minutes, and opponents have outscored Indiana by seven points in that time.
Turner has been the main screen-setter in those minutes, with Sabonis lurking along the baseline. That is probably the right setup, though Sabonis won't be able to dish from the elbows as often.
The tougher challenge will come on the other end. But Sabonis and Turner have been Indiana's two best bigs, and Nate McMillan doesn't trust Al Jefferson and T.J. Leaf for heavy minutes. Sabonis and Turner have to play together some. It's worth exploring.
6. The state of Mario Hezonja
It's painful to watch a player wriggled so deep inside his own brain you can feel his indecision seeping through the television. Hezonja shoots when he should pass, drives when he should shoot, and sometimes hot-potatoes the ball around the perimeter when he could rise for an open triple.
Against Utah this week, he passed up what would have been a decent 3-point look, drove into the lane with his head down -- without a plan -- and belched up a lefty floater that surely drove Orlando's coaching staff insane.
He remains lost on defense. Frank Vogel yanked Hezonja three minutes into the second quarter of that same game after he blew assignments on three straight possessions. We didn't see him again until garbage time -- and then not at all Wednesday against Minnesota.
Orlando shopped Hezonja everywhere before the Halloween deadline to decide on his $5.2 million option for next season. They wanted to foist that choice onto someone else. They found no takers, and declined the option.
Someone should buy low on Hezonja, begin again from scratch, and see if they can mold him into an NBA player. He's 6-8 with some hops, and he can shoot. That's an interesting foundation.
7. Jeff Teague's perfect steals
Does anyone do this as well -- or as often -- as Teague?
He's like a goddamned cobra rising from a prone position to bite some unknowing victim on the neck. He lulls poor Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, in over his head trying to bring the ball up against Teague, into a false sense of security. Teague gives MKG a safe distance. He backpedals, as if easing into half-court defense. And then, boom, it's over.
The coolest thing about these plays is that Teague almost always picks the ball clean. There is no awkward bump, no stumbling, no wayward deflection Teague has to chase down. He just takes the ball and goes.
8. The predatory instincts of the Warriors
No team downloads the chance at a five-on-four, and pounces on it, as fast and cruelly as the defending champs.
Kyrie Irving does nothing reckless there. He loiters around Stephen Curry's hip to whack at the ball. He's not even really behind the play. Against a lot of teams, that would be a harmless gamble. The Warriors leverage any territorial advantage you provide. Curry feels Irving on his hip, and zooms off. In that split second, the Warriors have already won the possession. All the opponent can do is hope someone misses.
Draymond Green is even more ruthless at this than Curry. If he sees an enemy leaping too late for an offensive rebound, the opponent is toast.
P.S.: Irving has warmed up recently, and he has been obnoxious in crunch time for the team with the league's best record. But with apologies to Friend Of The Program Marc Stein and others, he is not the MVP to date. The numbers aren't there. If wins are your thing, a one-game edge on the Rockets isn't enough to propel him over James Harden.
9. Phoenix, without both its creators
Without Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, the Suns have only two guys who can reliably create offense off the bounce -- Devin Booker and T.J. Warren. (On some nights, you can add Tyler Ulis and Mike James, but both are limited; no defense is scared of them.)
The Suns' offense dies when they both sit. Phoenix has scored just 94.4 points per 100 possessions in 182 such minutes -- a hair below Chicago's league-worst overall team mark, per NBA.com.
Maybe it doesn't matter. Phoenix isn't trying to win, even though they've been competitive under Jay Triano. There is developmental value in letting Ulis, Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender stretch themselves. It just isn't fun to watch.
P.S.: Warren is a midrange and floater wizard -- the NBA's Man of A Thousand Release Points -- but it would be nice if he occasionally passed the ball.
Tyson Chandler has suffered so much unrequited lob love during his sad time in Phoenix. Warren is dishing just 1.6 assists per 36 minutes. Meanwhile, he's jacking almost 19 shots per 36 minutes. Only 27 rotation players have ever shot so often while recording so few assists, and almost all of them were behemoth big-man finishers.
10. Making Jae Crowder useful
It has been a rough start in Cleveland for Crowder. He's shooting just 37 percent, and 31 percent from deep, and he has had trouble staying in front of quicker wings on defense. Crowder has logged just 56 minutes in the fourth quarter.
To get where they want to go, the Cavs need to unlock the best version of Crowder. There are easy ways to do that while they start small-ball lineups featuring Kevin Love at center. A lot of opponents slot their power forwards on Love, and stash their extra bulky big man on Crowder -- gifting him a speed advantage.
Crowder isn't the fastest driver, but when he's right, he's smart and decisive enough to make plays -- especially if you give him a head start:
The Cavs cannot allow Enes Kanter types to hide on Crowder without feeling some pain. That doesn't mean going to him on every possession. But run him through some pick-and-pops, let him feel the ball, and give him a green light.