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NBA First-Quarter Awards and 2020’s Other Big Races

It’s overwhelming to try to choose among Giannis, LeBron, Luka, and Harden for the NBA’s MVP one-fourth of the way into the season. We make the tough calls and hand out some hardware for the best and worst performances from the first two months.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It feels like the new NBA season just tipped off, but what’s “new” isn’t really “new” anymore: After every team passed the 20-game mark last week, we’re already more than one-fourth of the way through the 2019-20 campaign. Maybe you’re still not sure whether what we’ve seen so far constitutes a significant enough sample to base projections on for the rest of the season; maybe you’re already waiting in line for your commemorative 2019-20 Phoenix Suns Commemorative Aron Baynes Playoff Beard.

Either way, there’s now enough season in our rearview mirror to take stock of the league at large, so let’s celebrate our arrival by handing out some awards based purely on performance thus far. We’re all out here trying to tiptoe our way around losses in this world; in the words of the esteemed professor Nemanja Bjelica, “Fuck it. We deserve this win, man.”

Team of the Quarter: Milwaukee Bucks

They haven’t gotten quite as much publicity as the resuscitated glamour franchise 2,000 miles away, but at 21-3, the Bucks sit knotted with the Lakers in the race for the NBA’s best record. They’ve won 15 straight games, tied for the league’s 21st-longest streak since the introduction of the 3-point shot, and one victory shy of matching the second-longest run in franchise history. Milwaukee ranks first in defensive efficiency and second in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com; no other team sits in the top five on both ends of the court. (The Lakers and Celtics just miss out, with L.A. sixth in D and Boston seventh on the other end.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s remarkable MVP season has somehow reached even greater heights. Confronted by the one-two punch of the departure of key backcourt cog Malcolm Brogdon and an early-season injury to All-Star running mate Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo responded by simply doing more of everything and doing it even better. He’s had help, too. Brook Lopez remains one of the league’s premier interior deterrents. Eric Bledsoe has stabilized, returning to regular-season form after another shaky playoff run. George Hill has slotted in as one of the NBA’s best backup point guards. And a mix-and-match corps on the wing—Wesley Matthews, Pat Connaughton, Sterling Brown, Kyle Korver, and Donte DiVincenzo—provides complementary shooting, defensive work, rebounding aid, and playmaking juice to keep the hammer down on opponents.

Skeptics interested in pumping the brakes on the Bucks might point to a middle-of-the-road strength of schedule (though they’re 9-3 against teams currently in playoff position, with two wins over the Clippers and one in Houston), a defense that’s been somewhat leaky and permissive in transition, and a broader lack of faith in any Buck not named Giannis being able to consistently punish opponents in the postseason. To whatever extent those are problems, though, they are tomorrow’s problems. Right now, Milwaukee’s average margin of victory—13.38 points—would be the highest in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference.com. The Bucks haven’t just been the team of this first quarter. They’ve been one of the best early-season teams the league’s ever seen.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Clippers, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors

Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

After I wrote about Antetokounmpo authoring a ludicrous early epilogue to last season’s MVP run, one reader responded with disdain and despair ...

… and, honestly, I get it. Harden’s doing something very similar, besting a performance that basically broke basketball last season. He’s averaging 38 points per game—which would be the highest single-season scoring average in nearly 60 years, and the fifth-highest ever—and inspiring defenses to basically abandon all hope of playing conventional basketball in favor of trapping him as soon as he crosses half court and forcing his Rockets teammates to make plays. Harden has been sensational, the Rockets’ lifeblood and lifeline. Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and gets outscored by 7.3 points per 100 when he’s sitting, according to CtG—a 15-point net rating swing, one of the league’s largest on/off-court differentials.

LeBron James’s impact has been even larger, a whopping plus-16.6—a testament to how summarily he still controls every aspect of the game, even as he cruises into his 35th birthday, and to the fact that he remains the Lakers’ bellwether, no matter how great Anthony Davis has been. (And holy hell, has he been great.) Luka Doncic, oddly, sits on the other side of the coin; the Mavs actually have a better point differential with him off the floor than on it. That’s due to Bench Tetris legend Rick Carlisle reshuffling his rotation to forge an elite second unit, though, and should cast no shade on the performance of the 20-year-old supernova who’s piloting the NBA’s no. 1 offense in a bid to unseat Derrick Rose as the youngest MVP in league history.

As amazing as they’ve all been, though, I can’t shake Giannis taking another gargantuan leap in offensive dominance without an attendant hit in his efficiency—he’s using 37.6 percent of Milwaukee’s offensive possessions with a true shooting percentage of .615, a two-fer only Harden has pulled off—while also turning in Defensive Player of the Year–caliber work for the NBA’s stingiest unit. This time last year, I wrote of Antetokounmpo, “Things don’t have to be surprising to be amazing.” At the risk of repeating myself … well, that. Again.

ARTVIMB: Harden, James, Doncic, Davis

Rookie of the Quarter: Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Three days after I wrote that Morant plays like “a swan with a bomb strapped to his chest,” the no. 2 overall pick reinjured the back he’d hurt by getting knocked into a cameraman on a pell-mell drive, an aggravation that wound up costing him the next four games. Upon his return Monday night against Golden State, Ja quickly resumed being an absolute must-watch lord:

Morant leads all rookies in points and assists per game. I realize that’s not always the best measurement of on-court impact—Charlotte’s PJ Washington, Toronto’s Terence Davis, fellow Grizzly Brandon Clarke, and New Orleans center Jaxson Hayes share the rookie lead in win shares; 76ers wing Matisse Thybulle paces all freshmen in value over replacement player; Heat two-way-contract forward Chris Silva tops the charts in box plus-minus, and so on. But while a lot of rookies have looked good and contributed positive minutes in the early going, Morant’s game carries with it the whiff of instant stardom in a way the others don’t. In fact, it doesn’t just “carry” it; it screams it, insists it, bangs its shoe on the table and demands you take notice of it.

Morant told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that, after that collision with the cameraman under the basket, he’s been thinking about how he has to “do more controlled jumps now.” I’m all for that—whatever the 20-year-old needs to do to keep himself healthy and on the court. But I’m betting that when Ja gets into the paint with a head of steam and a defender between him and the rim, he’ll be thinking about creating chaos a hell of a lot more often than he’ll be thinking about trying to maintain order.

ARTVIMB: Washington; Clarke; Davis; the Kendrick Nunn/Tyler Herro/Silva collective in Miami; Eric Paschall; and, oh man, maybe just go read the big thing I wrote a couple of weeks back about a bunch of super cool rookies.

Reserve of the Quarter: Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

After watching Harrell go from a solid rotation big man to one of the most important second-unit pieces in the league last season, it was fair to wonder how he might fare on a revamped Clippers team suddenly flush with MVP-caliber wings who might siphon off some of the opportunities that the Louisville product gobbled up in his breakout season. Instead, the opposite has happened: Harrell’s playing more minutes, attempting more shots, posting a career-high usage rate, and thriving as a vital piece on a legitimate championship contender.

Harrell’s still making beautiful music in the two-man game with old partner Lou Williams, but he’s also benefiting from the arrival of new buddies Kawhi Leonard and Paul George—and all the attention they draw. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, both career highs and both second among players who have primarily come off the bench (behind LouWill in buckets and DeAndre Jordan in boards). He’s doing the dirty work, too, ranking second in the league in charges taken, sixth in shots contested, and 12th in screen assists. And while the 6-foot-7 Harrell doesn’t profile as a menacing shot-swatter, opponents are shooting just 51.1 percent against him at the rim this season, down from 56.3 percent last season, and the ninth-best mark in the league among defenders who face at least five up-close shots per game. He’s also fouling less on a per-minute and per-possession basis than he ever has—vital for a player Doc Rivers relies heavily on, who gives the Clips big minutes and bigger performances against the best of the West.

Sixth Man of the Year tends to reward high-scoring guards who offer instant offense when they check in; Williams has become the modern era’s quintessential microwave, slithering around all those Harrell screens to get wherever he wants on the court to pour in baskets. But the more the spotlight gets shined on these Clippers—and there’s going to be plenty of it as the season wears on—the more appreciation Harrell’s going to get for all the ways, quiet and loud, that he impacts the game, no matter whom he’s playing alongside. “I think people think that Trez is good, only because of Lou,” Rivers recently told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “And I think that they are starting to see Trez is good. Period. There is nothing else after that.” He’s the Clips’ second man off the bench, but when it comes to their frontcourt rotation, Harrell’s clearly their no. 1 option.

ARTVIMB: Davis Bertans (shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range on 8.6 attempts per game for the go-go Wizards!), Devonte’ Graham (such a pleasant surprise as a reserve that the Hornets had to start starting him!), Lou Williams, George Hill (51.6 percent from distance in Milwaukee!), and the dynamic duo of Delon Wright and Maxi Kleber, who combine to give Dallas the five-out spacing off the bench that’s helped the Mavericks reach another level of late.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

I thought hard about going with Anthony Davis here. He’s been sensational, leading the league in blocks, ranking 10th in steals, and acting as the interior linchpin of a Lakers defense that has improved from 13th in defensive efficiency last season to sixth in 2019-20. He’s the terminus for opponents’ possessions, the period at the end of a declarative sentence—“Nah, dude, that shit’s not going to work today.”—and a 6-foot-11, 253-pound colossus with a 7-foot-6 wingspan who can chew up and spit out quarries as disparate as Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in quick succession and with equal ruthlessness.

AD’s been unbelievable; if he’s your pick, I will not fight you in a public square. And yet: We’re running it back.

Your argument against Giannis might start by noting that he rarely spends his time guarding the opposing team’s best player. He can—he spent most of his time on Pascal Siakam when Milwaukee played the Raptors in early November, and on Blake Griffin when the Bucks beat Detroit last week—but he usually picks up a more straightforward positional opponent rather than check the most dangerous perimeter weapon. On the Bucks, those assignments often go to Bledsoe, Middleton, or Matthews, who aim to funnel ball handlers and drivers into a Lopez, whether Brook (who ranks third in the NBA in blocks per game and is holding opponents to 47 percent shooting at the rim) or Robin (whose 45.3 percent at-rim defensive field goal percentage just edges out his brother, which must make him very happy). It’s a good system.

As has been noted before, though, the system only really works because Giannis is forever prowling on the back line or the weak side, ready to explode into frame as a possession-ending nightmare. He’s one of only three players with more than 30 blocks and 30 steals this season, along with Davis and the always disruptive Andre Drummond, and he’s been an absolute terror as a rotating defender at the basket: Opponents are shooting a microscopic 41.6 percent at the rim when he’s the defender, which ranks second out of 112 players to contest at least three such shots per game.

In Giannis’s minutes, Milwaukee has conceded a scant 96.8 points per 100, head and shoulders above even their league-leading mark; with him on the pine, the Bucks are allowing 103.9 points per 100, equivalent to the league’s no. 7 unit. Brook Lopez’s presence in the paint is huge for the Bucks … but, according to lineup data from pbpstats.com, they’ve been even stingier when Giannis plays without “Splash Mountain.” Mike Budenholzer has a bunch of good defenders at his disposal. They’re all made better because the best one in the league’s always looming as an ever-present threat.

ARTVIMB: Davis, Marcus Smart, Brook Lopez, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, Jonathan Isaac, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Drummond

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Reasonable people can define “most improved” in a bunch of different ways. Maybe you think the honor should go to someone who moves from the fringes of the league into a more prominent role, like Devonte’ Graham in Charlotte. Maybe you prefer a known-quantity veteran who’s taken a significant leap in one particular area—say, knocking down 3-pointers—that has unlocked both his individual game and the best version of the team he plays on, like Aron Baynes in Phoenix.

Maybe you like young guys establishing themselves as two-way monsters, like Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac, Toronto’s OG Anunoby, or Miami’s Bam Adebayo. Or players seizing their chance to shine when pressed into duty as their team’s no. 1 option, like Malcolm Brogdon with the Pacers or Brandon Ingram with the Pelicans. Honestly, you can combine both of those elements to make the case for Siakam, 2018-19’s MIP winner, making a repeat bid after becoming a reasonable (if less efficient) facsimile of Toronto Kawhi or Year 4 Giannis to lead the Raptors and cement himself as a surefire All-Star.

As hard as all of those leaps are to make, though, I’m not sure anything’s harder to do than become a top-five player in the league. Doncic has—for right now, at this specific moment—done exactly that.

Before this season, only 13 players had averaged more than nine rebounds per game in their age-20 or younger season; nobody had ever averaged 30 points or nine assists per game before turning 21. Luka’s doing all of that at the same time, while serving as the pick-and-roll maestro at the controls of the league’s most explosive offense and putting Dallas in position to return to the postseason after a three-spring hiatus.

He’s gone from just south of the All-Star Game to one of the five best players in the league, and he’s done it in less than a year. Guys are supposed to get better from their first season to their second. There aren’t that many guys, though, who have reached the rarefied air Luka’s living in as quickly as he’s gotten there.

ARTVIMB: All of the above.

The Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Raptors

Back in October, I wrote a big-ass list of things I’d like to see this season. It included things like “The Magic Kick Ass,” “No Major Injuries,” “The Hawks Click,” and “Mike Conley Finally Makes an All-Star Team.” It is not going great!

One thing I did have the temerity to hope for, though: Toronto responding to the loss of Leonard by mounting a proud title defense in his absence, reorganizing themselves around the newly maxed-out Siakam, the wit and wisdom of Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, and a roster split between championship holdovers and buy-low contributors. On that score, things look quite a bit sunnier.

Toronto’s still a clear tier below Milwaukee, the class of the East, but at 16-7 with a top-six point differential, the Raps are very much in the mix with Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia for home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series. Siakam has slowed some since his red-hot start, but he’s still averaging 24.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, shouldering a star’s offensive burden on solid offensive efficiency. Fred VanVleet stepped in when Lowry went down with a fractured thumb, removing any doubt as to whether he’s a starting-caliber point guard, and putting himself in line for a massive payday when he hits the unrestricted market in what promises to be a dismal free-agent summer of 2020.

Gasol’s had an absolutely brutal offensive start inside; he’s the first center playing significant minutes to make less than a third of his 2-point tries in nearly 20 years, and just the seventh since the advent of the shot clock. But he remains a genius-level defender, quarterbacking a Raptors unit that ranks fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions and that gives up seven more points per 100 when he’s not on the court. Sprinkle in steps forward from Anunoby and Norman Powell, impressive work from new faces like Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and a Coach of the Year–caliber performance from Nick Nurse as he shuffles the deck, and the Raptors have found a recipe for remaining not only relevant, but potentially dangerous, in a post-Kawhi world. You truly do love to see it.

ARTVIMB: The Heat (who I thought might be the third-best team in the East!) being a legitimate contender; the Pacers (who, um, I thought might miss the playoffs) starting 15-9 without Victor Oladipo; the Nuggets surviving their early-season struggles thanks to a top-three DEFENSE; the Wizards somehow STILL having a top-five offense!; the Wigginssance!; Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony returning in style.

The Yiiiiikes! Award for Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Jazz

So, to answer that question we posed over the summer … nope!

Pegged by many to challenge for a top seed in the West, the Jazz have instead staggered off the starting line, dropping six of their past eight to fall to 13-11 on the season. A Utah squad that has hung its hat on defense ever since Rudy Gobert took over for Enes Kanter in the middle ranks a comparatively pedestrian 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions. An offense that was expected to significantly improve after a trade for ex-Grizzlies ace Conley and the signing of sharpshooting forward Bojan Bogdanovic has instead stagnated, ranking 21st in passes per game—they finished first, first, seventh, seventh, and sixth in coach Quin Snyder’s first five seasons on the bench—and just 24th in offensive efficiency. Sitting sixth in the West with a negative point differential is, to put it mildly, not what Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey had in mind when he made Utah’s two big swings this summer.

Things could change. After taking some time to rest an ailing hamstring, Conley could rediscover his burst and rhythm. Joe Ingles, who has shot 45.2 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from 3-point range over the past four seasons, is probably going to climb out of the disastrous low-to-mid-30s in both areas at some point. A trade or two could help bolster what’s been a wildly unreliable bench, and a brutal season-opening schedule is going to give way to a softer slate. Before long, Utah could be poised to make the sort of second-half surge that leads certain wide-eyed optimists to wonder whether Donovan Mitchell and Co. are the sleeping giant in the West come springtime.

In the here and now, though, the Jazz look less like a juggernaut in waiting, and more like … well, a team whose search for things to feel good about results in shit like this:

With all due respect to our man Georges Niang, that’s pretty disappointing.

ARTVIMB: The rash of injuries that took so many stars and exciting players off the board in the season’s opening month; the Spurs’ defense and overall struggles; Chicago’s stumbling offense; the Knicks failing to be regular, Garden-variety bad, and instead careening toward fabric-of-space-time-rending dysfunction and buffoonery, which is not necessarily unexpected, but is still not what you want to see.

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