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The Small Sample Size Awards

The best of the best in the NBA … based on less than two weeks of information

NBA Small Sample Size Awards Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are almost two weeks into the NBA season, which means most teams have now played six or seven games. Some might say less than 9 percent of a season isn’t enough to draw major conclusions. Those people are 100 percent correct. But amid the wild data points are some potentially intriguing trend lines.

Here are the heroes of the small sample sizes so far:

The “I Make 3s Now” Award

Winner: Aaron Gordon

It wasn’t like Aaron Gordon hadn’t dabbled in an outside shot before this season. It was just that he had died by the 3 far more often than he lived by it. Gordon never shot above 30 percent from behind the arc in his first three seasons, despite steadily increasing his attempts (from 1.0 per game to 3.3) and makes (0.3 to 1.0). Five games into this season, he’s taking more than four 3s per game and making them at a ridiculous 59.1 percent clip.

That success rate is not sustainable, but the way in which Gordon is confidently downing these long-range shots makes you think he’s hit this shot all his life.

Though Gordon hit just 42.2 percent of his free throws in his lone season at Arizona, he has improved his free throw shooting every season in the NBA, all the way up to 73.7 percent this season. A shot to go along with his elite athleticism could turn Gordon into a far more dangerous offensive player.

Honorable Mention: Blake Griffin (42.4 percent on 5.5 3-point attempts per game)

The “We Play Defense Now” Award

Winner: Portland Trail Blazers

Describing the Blazers’ defense last season as poor was like saying an early January day in the Northeast was “chilly.” Portland’s defense ranked 21st and allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions. Of teams that made the playoffs, only the Cavaliers had a less efficient defensive unit.

This season, the Blazers are a little stingier. Through seven games, in which they are 4-3, the Blazers are holding teams to 98.7 points per 100 possessions (seventh-best in the league).

What sparked such a turnaround? So far, it looks like a lot of noise. The Blazers beat the dysfunctional Suns by 48 in their season opener. They played the Suns again Saturday and allowed 107 points. This is not to say that the Blazers haven’t improved on defense. A healthy and slimmed-down Jusuf Nurkic, plus a more determined Damian Lillard, may be all they need to be at least average defensively. Are they a top-10 defense? Probably not. But they might not be a bottom-10 team either, and that’s important progress for a team that, despite Monday’s six-point second quarter, has slipped no lower than 11th in offense the past five seasons (including this one).

Honorable Mention: Washington Wizards (20th in defense last season, eighth this season)

The “More Than a Role Player” Award

Winner: Victor Oladipo

The shadow that Russell Westbrook casts is apparently gigantic—so big, in fact, that it swallows role players left and right and repurposes them for Westbrook’s own statistical benefit. That was Victor Oladipo last season. But after being traded to Indiana as part of the much-maligned Paul George deal, Oladipo is flourishing in his post-Westbrook environment.

In five games this season, Oladipo has slashed and dashed his way to 25.5 points per game—10 more points than his scoring average last season on only four more shots per game—to go along with a career-high 46.9 percent rate from deep, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. On Sunday, he scored 23 points in 29 minutes, led a comeback against the Spurs, and hit the crucial game winner.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said postgame. “I feel like I belong here.”

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris (20.9 points per game on 49.6 percent from the field, 46.3 from 3, and 84.6 percent from the line)

The “Playoff Redemption” Award

Winner: LaMarcus Aldridge

There was no more perfect way for the season to start than with Aldridge looking like a midrange savant instead of the guy we last saw devoid of confidence and effectiveness in the playoffs. Sports are weird.

Aldridge has been legit, though. Following Gregg Popovich’s outright admittance before the season that he wasn’t using the former Blazer right, Aldridge has thrived in a suddenly very ’90s Spurs offense that is eschewing 3s in order to feed Aldridge. As a result, their big get from the 2015 offseason is averaging 23.6 points and 8.4 rebounds.

Aldridge’s version of “But can he do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke?” is “But can he do it in the playoffs against the Rockets and Warriors?” We likely won’t find that out anytime soon, but as long as the Spurs can keep imposing their slower style on teams, Aldridge will have the opportunity to continue to redeem himself.

The “Premature Revisionist History” Award

Winner: Jayson Tatum

Spoiler alert: Jayson Tatum is good. The Duke product’s biggest allure going into draft night was that his offensive game was so polished it could immediately translate to the NBA. So far, so good. Tatum has been pouring it in, shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line on 9.1 and 2.9 attempts, respectively. He’s already scored 20 points or more in two games this season.

Tatum has the choice combination of athleticism and skill to present an immediate problem for defenses and perimeter guards. He fits well in small-ball lineups. Without Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have had to rely on Tatum more often than not, and so far he’s delivered.

Honorable Mention: Lauri Markkanen (he can shoot 3s!)

The “Next Wilt Chamberlain” Award

Winner: Clint Capela

Here are the top four players in PER so far this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo (duh), Anthony Davis (of course), Stephen Curry (sure), and Clint Capela (huh?).

Capela, the Rockets’ 6-foot-10, rim-running big man, has been uber-efficient this season, posting 13.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game on just 24.1 minutes per game. He’s making almost 75 percent of the shots he takes from the floor, and his true shooting percentage (74.1 percent) is the best in the league among players who average at least 20 minutes per game.

How has Capela been so efficient? Mostly by shooting only when his shoes touch the paint. He’s missed his only attempted 3, he’s hit 14 of 18 free throws, and only 3.1 percent of his total made shots have been in the midrange. Everything else has been inside and near the rim, and most of it has been a product of a deadly pick-and-roll with James Harden.

Capela’s rebounding (16.8 boards per 36 minutes) has also been essential to the Rockets’ ability to not allow second-chance points (fourth-best in the NBA). They haven’t been as good as you’d expect at turning that advantage into fast breaks—Houston is somehow one of the 10 slowest teams so far—but Capela could be crucial to kicking up the pace and optimizing Mike D’Antoni’s fast and free-flowing offense.

Honorable Mention: Jordan Bell (30.29 PER, fifth-best in the NBA)