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Handing Out NBA Awards for the First Quarter of the Season

With 20 games (give or take) in the books, it’s worth honoring the teams and players that have highlighted this inflection point of a season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With all but two NBA teams having played at least 20 games—we hope you’ve enjoyed the extra rest, Dallas and Detroit—we’re now one-fourth of the way through the 2018-19 season. Perhaps you think that might be too early to say that a team has looked good, or that a player is doing great, or that something very cool is happening in [insert non–Bay Area NBA city here]. Perhaps you believe waiting to see whether the good/great/cool thing is For Real is the most prudent course of action. Perhaps you would prefer to pause on praise until the playoffs start, or the title’s won, or the NBA doles out trophies at some hangar in Santa Monica two and a half months after the regular season ends.

Well, nuts to that! It’s better to be early than late, and life is too short and frequently awful not to give shout-outs when you can. So, let’s celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by handing out some awards based purely on performance thus far. Maybe the state of play will change so drastically that these plaudits will all look silly come April, or even the All-Star break, but that’s kind of the point. The NBA moves pretty fast. (Especially now.) If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Team of the Quarter: Toronto Raptors

Toronto has the NBA’s best record and second-best efficiency differential. Its two starting lineups—Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam at forward, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green in the backcourt, and either Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas at center—are two of the NBA’s four most-dominant big-minute groups. Siakam has burst off the screen in a larger role, looking like a star in the making, and Lowry’s playmaking has soared in better-spaced lineups; he’s pushing Kemba Walker for the title of the East’s best point guard. A dodgy reserve corps has started to stabilize with Fred VanVleet back from turf toe and Delon Wright finding his form after dealing with a groin injury: Toronto has outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions when the backup guards share the floor with Valanciunas and second-year swingman OG Anunoby.

There are reasons to question the team: a soft early schedule that might have inflated their numbers a bit, a decisive loss to Milwaukee on a night when neither Leonard nor Giannis Antetokounmpo played, spotty outings that resulted in final-second drama against Detroit and Orlando, that time they just straight up couldn’t stop Kyrie Irving, etc. But those are minor flaws within a diamond of a roster, one that’s already the league’s best even without Leonard being fully integrated yet. The Raptors are scary enough with Leonard not playing in back-to-backs and missing two-thirds of his 3-pointers. Before long, they might be downright terrifying.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers

Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

I thought hard about picking Joel Embiid, who has been absolutely extraordinary for the 76ers. He’s been everything Philadelphia could have hoped for, posting prime Shaq- and Kareem-type numbers while tangibly strengthening his weaknesses (the assist rate’s up, the turnover rate’s down) and remaining his team’s single biggest bellwether; Philly has the point differential of a 55-win contender when he’s on the court, and of a still-Processing 18-win team when he sits, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Honestly, I also thought about picking Stephen Curry. His individual production has been unbelievable; his per-minute/per-possession scoring and shooting efficiency are up from his unanimous-MVP 2015-16 season, even though Kevin Durant plays on his team now. And while the fact that he’s missed 11 games obviously matters, I think that cuts both ways. That the Warriors have been so ordinary with him out—outscoring opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays, compared to a negative point differential when he doesn’t, even with Durant available—has been jarring enough to make me think about casting a vote for the value of a player whose presence turns his team into one of the best ever.

But while there are a lot of good answers to this question, there’s also probably only one right answer.

Antetokounmpo is posting career offensive highs in basically everything but 3-point percentage. He ranks in the top five in the league in just about every individual advanced statistical category. He’s become young Shaq and young LeBron at the rim, he’s getting to the free throw line and dropping dimes at the highest rates of his career, he’s running the no. 1 offense, and the Bucks have been nearly 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off it. After the arrival of coach Mike Budenholzer over the summer to modernize the Bucks’ schemes on both ends of the floor, we expected this to be Giannis’s season. Things don’t have to be surprising to be amazing.

ARTVIMB: Embiid, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker

Rookie of the Quarter: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

It seemed almost impossible that Doncic would live up to the hype that attended his arrival from Real Madrid after winning virtually everything there is to win in European basketball while still a teenager, but he’s doing it. Nineteen games into his NBA career, he’s already become must-see TV.

Here’s the list of players who have averaged 19 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game as rookies: Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Grant Hill, and Sidney Wicks. Here’s the list of rookies who have shot 45 percent from the floor, 39 percent from 3-point range, and 79 percent from the free throw line while finishing more than a quarter of their teams’ possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover: Bird and Kyrie Irving. Doncic is on pace to join both lists, all while serving as the leading scorer, crunch-time creator, and patient playmaking catalyst of a Mavericks team that has wildly outperformed expectations.

No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton has been phenomenal on offense and on the boards in Phoenix. He’s on track to become the first freshman since Blake Griffin to average more than 16 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists per game, and he’s doing it while shooting a scorching 61.5 percent from the field on 11.6 attempts per game. Jaren Jackson Jr. is off to a remarkable start in Memphis, leading all rookies in blocks and ranking third in steals while shooting nearly 35 percent from deep as a key cog in the NBA’s best defensive lineup. There have been some stellar rookie performances. But this isn’t really that close.

ARTVIMB: Ayton, Jackson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Reserve of the Quarter: Domantas Sabonis, Pacers/Montrezl Harrell, Clippers (tie)

I know, I know: The tie is the refuge of the cowardly takesman. But you try to separate these two, their production, and the impact they’ve had on their playoff-hopeful teams.

Both take, almost exclusively, high-percentage and high-value shots. Both make them at elite rates, with Sabonis ranking third in the league in effective field goal percentage and Harrell sitting fifth. Sabonis has become one of the NBA’s most voracious rebounders and is the superior passer. Harrell’s a more versatile and disruptive defender, and his relentlessness inside has made him a foul magnet; among players who have logged 300 minutes, only Rudy Gobert and Tyson Chandler have a higher free throw rate.

The Pacers have been without All-Star centerpiece Victor Oladipo for the past six games and have barely missed a beat, thanks in large part to Sabonis (averaging 17.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in 25.7 minutes per game in that stretch) continuing to completely dominate opposing defenses. Harrell’s snarl and ever-revving motor have been as integral to L.A.’s stunning start as the efficient scoring of Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, or the playmaking of Lou Williams and Gilgeous-Alexander. They’ve been better than the bigs they’re backing up.

ARTVIMB: Williams, Derrick Rose, Julius Randle, J.J. Barea, Shelvin Mack, Evan Turner, Cory Joseph, Monte Morris … man, there have been a lot of really good backups this season.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies

Six years after he won Defensive Player of the Year, Gasol is once again piloting one of the NBA’s stingiest outfits. The Grizzlies rank third in half-court defensive efficiency and fifth in points allowed per possession (discounting garbage time), according to Cleaning the Glass. While several key offseason moves (drafting Jackson, importing rangy veterans Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple) have played a major role, it’s been the Spaniard at the center of the resurgence. Gasol’s combination of length, patience, instincts, and experience has meant everything.

“He’s communicating so well with us, which allows him to be in the right positions,” longtime teammate Mike Conley told The Athletic. “He’s so smart with everything he does.”

In an era when switch-heavy defenses are all the rage, the Grizzlies mostly keep things simple. They expect defenders to match up one-on-one, fight over the top of screens, and stay connected to their men, while their off-ball teammates shrink the floor and take away passing lanes. Gasol finishes things off, sinking back into the lane to wall off the front of the rim.

It’s a scheme that blends conservatism and aggression, and one in which things can go very wrong if everyone’s not connected. Gasol ensures that the Grizzlies stay on the same page, barking out help responsibilities and on-the-fly adjustments, and giving his teammates the confidence to do their jobs knowing that they’re not alone. His word-and-deed leadership kicks Memphis’s point prevention into overdrive; the Grizzlies allow nearly four fewer points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court.

ARTVIMB: Robert Covington, Embiid, Antetokounmpo, Davis, Rudy Gobert, Paul George

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: De’Aaron Fox, Kings

I know, I know: Guys are supposed to get better from Year 1 to Year 2. Not this much better, though.

At 6-foot-3 with a lightning-quick first step, Fox showed signs as a rookie that he could be something special. (My personal favorite: an extremely cool game-winning putback dunk in Miami.) But like a cross-sport Luis Mendoza, he couldn’t always harness all that speed, or take advantage of the space created to make defenses pay. Over the summer, though, Fox got stronger, worked on changing gears, and hoisted about a million jumpers. It was time well spent.

Freed from the limitations of a plodding, low-post-centric offense, and handed the keys to an attack predicated on space and speed, Fox has been a much more dangerous player this season. He’s averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. He’s now confidently stepping into and drilling 3s off the screen and off the catch, hitting 38.5 percent of his long-distance attempts.

He’s started to figure out how to command a half-court possession—to read the chessboard, take his time, set things in motion, and then strike:

He’s also still good at that “just burst past them” thing.

Fox sets the tempo in Sacramento, leading a roster full of young athletes eager to sprint to keep up. How far he can get them remains to be seen, but he—along with backcourt partner Buddy Hield, another worthy contender for Most Improved honors—has already led them out of the wilderness and onto the path to relevance. Not a bad start.

ARTVIMB: Caris LeVert (get well soon), Siakam, Sabonis, Harrell, Tobias Harris, Zach LaVine

The Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: Los Angeles Clippers

Before the season, Vegas set the Clippers’ expected win total at 37.5; through 21 games, they’ve got the point differential of a 53-win team, according to Cleaning the Glass. I wrote about the Clips’ surprising start to the season on Monday, and they’ve kept rolling with strong showings against the Suns and Kings, using the same formula to continue putting up points in bunches.

The ever-improving Tobias Harris has become one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers, and may well make his first All-Star appearance if he keeps this up. A healthy Danilo Gallinari is once again one of the league’s half-dozen best shooters. Even mired in an early-season shooting slump, Lou Williams remains one of the game’s premier fourth-quarter scorers. Montrezl Harrell is producing far beyond the boundaries of what an “energy guy” is supposed to chip in. Rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has flashed poise and playmaking chops beyond his years, earning a spot in Doc Rivers’s starting lineup (which, incidentally, has been dynamite since his insertion).

It feels like the center can’t hold here, like Harris’s and Gallinari’s shooting will trail off, like the league-leading free throw rate could tail off if refs call things a little looser as the season wears on, and like Harrell might stop producing on a per-possession basis at levels reached by only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and pre-injury Antonio McDyess. But let those be tomorrow’s worries. Right now, the Clippers are one of the deepest, most potent teams in the NBA. If you’d seen that coming two months ago, you could’ve made a looooooot of money.

ARTVIMB: Sacramento Kings (maybe for real!), Charlotte Hornets (Kemba!), Orlando Magic (they’re not bad!), Dallas Mavericks (Halleluka!)

The Yiiiiikes! Award for Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: Boston Celtics

This season has offered no greater reminder than the Celtics that the NBA isn’t fantasy basketball or a game of 2K. You can’t just take a team that went toe-to-toe with LeBron in the playoffs, graft on two All-Stars, and just count on simple arithmetic—hey, they can both average 20 a night!—to create a juggernaut. Perhaps it was short-sighted of us (and I do mean us) to expect the Celtics to just stomp their way to 60-odd wins.

But surely they should be better than this, right? Boston is sitting at 11-10, tied for sixth in the East, with the NBA’s sixth-worst offense, still trying to figure out who should play with whom and how to consistently generate quality looks on a team featuring at least a handful of guys who can get their own shot.

Even after allowing a grace period for experimentation with a wildly gifted roster, the Celtics crossed the line from “understandable growing pains” into “no, seriously, what the hell is going on?” territory at least a couple of weeks back. Only a top-flight defense has kept the misfiring Celtics from sliding toward the bottom of the conference, and even that’s been a bit of an illusion of late. Boston ranked first in defensive efficiency two weeks into the season, but has fielded a barely top-10 unit over the past month, and had an especially tough time preventing scoring guards like Jamal Murray, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker, and Trey Burke from going off on them. No amount of Kyrie off-the-bounce brilliance can save the Celtics if they can’t smother opponents. The math just doesn’t work.

Even so, given the sheer amount of talent on hand, it seems likely that Boston needs some small tweaks rather than wholesale changes. Coach Brad Stevens made a few on Tuesday against New Orleans, sliding hard-nosed forward Marcus Morris Sr. and hustle talisman Marcus Smart into the starting lineup, and giving the bruising Aron Baynes 20 minutes of floor time for just the second time this season. The early returns were overwhelming—Boston stomped the Pelicans, with the defense looking nasty, Irving in his bag running the show, and Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier seeming as comfortable as they have since the middle of the Eastern Conference finals.

With the Marcuses stepping in to add spark and toughness, and an upcoming schedule featuring games against the Cavs, Knicks, Bulls, Pelicans, Wizards, Hawks, and Suns before Christmas, Boston’s fortunes could soon turn. Savor the flavor, Masshole haters: While the Celtics have stumbled off the line, they might start looking like the team we all expected to see before too long.

ARTVIMB: Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz