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Why Is This a Thing? Ten Questions at the NBA’s Midseason Point

From the Thunder’s refusal to quit to Kyle Kuzma’s odd style, this is what we’re wondering about heading into the league’s second half

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have a running list on my Notes app of trends that I don’t understand, typed with the intention that I will Google them later. One is oat milk. Still a bit unclear on the “why” there. Most are NBA-related. Some don’t have answers, or if they do, they are answers I don’t have access to. For example: Why do so many Lakers players wear white headbands now except for LeBron, who started the trend in the first place? (This was posed by a friend last week. I was embarrassed to not have an answer considering that knowing the intimate state of each NBA player’s hair is a major part of my job; my best guess is that LeBron’s headband makes his balding look worse, and the others, who I assume don’t use artificial means to cover their patchiness, just like how it looks.) Some do have answers, though. Here are a handful of questions you might be wondering about as we reach the halfway point of the season:

Why isn’t Andre Iguodala playing yet?

Iguodala was ready to move on from the Grizzlies before his time in Memphis even began. “We’re trying to figure out things on both sides,” he said in September. “As of today, we’re on the same page.” (“The same page” meaning an inevitable departure; in the same interview, he talked about potential buyouts.)

Then came Ja Morant. I don’t blame Iguodala for failing to anticipate that the rookie would play like the perfect cocktail of audacity and incivility (it’s nonalcoholic; he’s 20). Did any of us, even Murray State fans, really know he would be so incomprehensibly ballsy against professionals many years his senior? It was love at first poster. Morant is hardly the only enjoyable thing about the Grizzlies. There’s the increasingly delightful Jaren Jackson Jr., the underappreciated De’Anthony Melton, and Jonas Valanciunas, who elevates the entire team as a veteran should. (Don’t be fooled by his slight dip in raw numbers; he’s playing the most efficient ball of his career.)

Memphis is in the thick of the race for the eighth spot in the West. The Grizzlies are, as Paolo Uggetti said on Heat Check this week, the complete opposite of their longtime Grit and Grind predecessors. They’re speedy. They ooze potential. And right now, they’re at real risk of missing out on a playoff bid. Just four games stand between the eighth spot and the 14th. Iguodala is desperate to play for a competitive team and to be their X factor, yet he’s overlooking the ferocious squad right in front of him. I’m begging you, Andre, please play—assuming the Grizzlies would also welcome it—if only before a Lakers trade. Consider the Morant.

Why is everyone making fun of Kyle Kuzma’s style?

I will continue to support his choices. Neither of us will be taking questions at this time.

Why do players still think a shot clock violation counts as a personal turnover?

This has been a thing for a while, but it’s really escalated this season.

You see this misconception play out at the end of some games. If the shot clock is going to expire before the game clock does in a game that’s basically already been decided, then the player with the ball will often hand it off to his teammate at the last second. It’s sneaky and playful, and I really don’t mind it, except for the fact that there’s no reason to do it. Players do this handoff because they believe that a shot clock violation counts as a personal turnover for the individual with the ball in his hands. It doesn’t. Shot clock violations count as team turnovers, which is why there’s sometimes a disparity in total player turnovers and team turnovers in the box score.

Erik Spoelstra clarified this in a postgame press conference earlier this month, after laughing at Bam Adebayo for trying to lose the ball in the final moments: “I had to explain to Bam that it goes as a team turnover. It’s not an individual turnover, because I’ve been on his ass about turning the ball over. So he looked at me and laughed about it.”

That said, let’s hope players continue to ignore this, because these are hilarious:

Why is everyone worried about Ja Morant?

He doesn’t understand how bones work. Or tendons.

Why does Alex Caruso have so many fan votes for the All-Star Game?

Caruso is currently ahead of Donovan Mitchell in All-Star fan voting. Even as a Louisville grad who will blindly support Mitchell even on his bleakest shooting nights, I find this hilarious.

Caruso, 25, is already an NBA cult classic. He’s averaging 5.9 points, 1.8 assists, and two rebounds; he is adorable and balding at 25 and often called “the Insurance Salesman” and “the Bald Mamba.” “I look like I could be a common person walking on the street,” Caruso said in September. That’s not exactly true—Rihanna stared at him for, like, 1.3 seconds:

Only LeBron James gets more than 1.7 seconds of Rihanna lust.

Some context: Mitchell is averaging 24.2 points, 4.4 assists, and 4.3 rebounds, putting him on the fringes of the MVP conversation. Caruso is averaging 5.9 points, 1.8 assists, and two rebounds. Many fans in the Western Conference are upset about Caruso’s high number of votes, just as many fans in the Eastern Conference are upset that Boston’s Tacko Fall—17 total points in 21 total minutes this season; folks, that is nearly a point a minute—is ahead of Bam Adebayo and Gordon Hayward.

Fan voting counts as only 50 percent of total All-Star voting. Players and media make up 25 percent apiece. Caruso and Fall will probably not make their first All-Star Game this year. Your boring is showing.

Why is Andrew Wiggins good now?

There’s an asterisk next to this question, which is that lately, he hasn’t been. We’ll come back to that.

The short answer is that his overall improvement this season is due to increased aggressiveness and better shot selection. Last season, a plurality of Wiggins’s shots (4.4 per game) came from the midrange area. (Farewell, long 2s, you were part of the argument that the arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice.) He still takes 2.8 per game, but the decline should be cherished nonetheless.

Wiggins’s bump is extra appreciated by Wolves fans because of the five years of suffering that came before it. He’s still lousy behind the arc, still feckless off the ball, yet Wiggins is averaging 23.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.3 assists—3.3 assists. Assists! Wiggins is finally conscious of other players, and is passing to them. Setting them up. Setting. Them. Up. For Your Consideration: teammates.

I wrote about Wiggins—and the possibility that he burns us once again—in November. I admit I’ve been very hard on him the past couple of years, partially because I have subjected myself to a great deal of Wolves games since 2014 and needed an outlet, partially because he has the makings of an exceptional offensive talent but has never been able to actually be that player. It’s been a fascinating, frustrating ride, and I applaud those who choose, every day, to remain faithful to him. I nonsarcastically want to give you a cookie. An entire Sweet Martha’s bucket of them. You deserve it.

However … the asterisk. Wiggins’s shooting has regressed lately: He averaged 15.3 points on 35.2 percent shooting during Minnesota’s past 10 games, though Wiggins has also been without Karl-Anthony Towns since December 18 due to a left-knee injury. It’s also worth noting that while the points have gone down, his assists have gone up in the past 10 games, to 4.2 per game.

Why aren’t the Thunder bad?

Oklahoma City has the seventh-best record in the Western Conference. At 23-17, the team is floating above the tight and frankly unsightly race for the eighth seed (the squads contending for that spot are all under .500). After trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook for 307 future first-rounders this summer, the Thunder knew that they could recover in the future, if not immediately. Yet here they are, months later, still among their Western Conference playoff peers.

Chris Paul was expected to be traded, yet that hasn’t happened. He fits well with both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the older Thunder fixtures. OKC is using Paul’s finishing and efficiency with some Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams small ball to allow SGA to shine. OKC is actually having fun again.

Why does JJJ shoot like that?

I don’t know what Leandro Barbosa is up to these days. But I think of him every time I watch Jaren Jackson Jr. shoot. It’s hardly identical, but there’s a hint of Barbosa’s two-handed push, an extra love tap of power that says “I want to give this my all.” I don’t have the perfect comparison—not Barbosa, not Josh Childress, not Kevin Martin. JJJ’s shot is all his own, and it works. He’s shooting 41.5 percent from 3.

Why are the Raptors good without Kawhi?

Crouched behind the greatness of Kawhi Leonard was the very, very goodness of Pascal Siakam, Nick Nurse, and Kyle Lowry. The Raptors have been lauded for their depth for years. (Though they’ve thinned because of injuries on occasion.) Fresh off a championship, Toronto fans have returned to their natural state of being loudly defensive of their team, the perpetually discounted Raps. They were right.

Why are the Jazz better without Mike Conley?

I can’t diagnose whatever is happening with Conley this season. (On the court. Off the court, he’s having issues with his left hamstring and has been out since December 4, returning for one game on December 17.) Utah is 15-3 without Conley, who is averaging 13.6 points on an astonishingly low 36.5 percent shooting. Adjustments aren’t simple, though this is the most talent surrounding Conley in years, and that should make it easier on him. Quin Snyder and the Jazz are prone to slow starts, too, but it doesn’t bode well for Conley that the team hit its stride the moment he was sidelined. It’s fairer to point to Utah’s improvements—Mitchell has taken on far more responsibility—than to try to find out why Conley’s play has dipped. The team found itself without him, but there will always be room for another ball handler when he returns.