More than two-thirds of the NBA has now played at least 41 games, with the remaining squads set to join them this weekend, bringing us to the midpoint of the 2019-20 season. (Technically, we got there Thursday night. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Thursday’s schedule featured the 615th game on the league’s 1,230-game calendar, making it sort of the NBA’s winter solstice; from here on out, the days will get longer and the season will get shorter.) So, as we did back when we hit the first-quarter mark, let’s celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by handing out some awards!
One thing to highlight before we start distributing imaginary hardware: These awards are based on player and team performance during the second quarter of the season—the 20ish-game period between early December and the second week of January—rather than on the first 41 games as a whole. Focusing on who rose, fell, delighted, and disappointed during this most recent period will help establish the lay of the land as we pass the halfway mark and start barreling toward the postseason. It also might help us avoid repeats of our most recent installment.
Then again, it also might not.
Team of the Quarter: Milwaukee Bucks
At the start of December, the Bucks were tied with the Lakers for the NBA’s best record, owned the NBA’s best net rating, and were riding a winning streak that would reach 18 games (the league’s longest in four years). In the six weeks since, Milwaukee has … the NBA’s best record and net rating, with wins in 13 of its past 15, eight of which have come by at least 20 points.
Mike Budenholzer’s club ranks fifth in offensive efficiency and first by a mile in defensive efficiency during that stretch, according to NBA.com. The only other team in the top five in both categories is the Lakers (second and fourth, respectively), who merit strong consideration for this fake crown, but whose four-game late-December losing streak bumps them down just a tick. Utah is the hottest team in the NBA, having won 10 straight games before Thursday’s OT loss to the Pelicans. But while the Bucks and Jazz have both feasted lately on an extremely tasty stretch of schedule, Milwaukee has notched three quality wins (over the Clippers, Lakers, and Pacers) in that span, compared to just one for Utah (Clippers).
At the quarter mark, the Bucks were on pace for one of the greatest regular seasons in history. At the halfway point, that hasn’t changed; if anything, that pace has only quickened in the past 20 or so games, with Milwaukee cementing its status as the favorite to win its first NBA championship since 1971.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Jazz, Lakers, Nuggets
Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
I know, I know: Again, I repeat myself. But sometimes, what’s right isn’t particularly original. Antetokounmpo followed up his MVP campaign with an even stronger start to 2019-20, and has only boosted his production as the season has worn on. Check this shit out:
Giannis’s first 20 games: 34.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 4.5 turnovers per 36 minutes of floor time; 60.7 true shooting percentage; 1.46 assist-to-turnover ratio; plus-14.2 net rating
His past 20 games: 36.1 points, 15.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 3.3 turnovers per 36; 61.9 true shooting percentage; 1.91 ATO; plus-14.8 net rating
Other great players have shined in the past six weeks, too. James Harden has averaged nearly 37 points per game on sparkling 44/37/86 shooting splits while attempting more than 13 3-pointers and 12 free throws per game. Rudy Gobert is shooting 70 percent from the field as the screen-and-roll hub of what has been a top-two offense, and the paint-patrolling centerpiece of the Jazz defense. Donovan Mitchell has fueled Utah, too, turning in some of the best play of his career as Utah’s new point guard in the absence of the injured Mike Conley.
Nikola Jokic has bounced back from a sluggish start, drilling 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers and getting to the free throw line nearly twice as often since the start of December, to kick-start Denver’s offense. Luka Doncic has continued to flirt with averaging a triple-double while keeping the upstart Mavericks within hailing distance of a top-four seed even with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined. So has LeBron James, who remains the league’s leader in assists and is the playmaking fulcrum of the best Lakers team in at least a decade.
I considered all of them; they have been wonderful. They just haven’t been Giannis, who’s doing even more on offense (while remaining the space-erasing, off-ball-havoc-wreaking linchpin of the NBA’s best defense) for a team sprinting toward a 70-win season.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: All of the above, plus Kawhi Leonard, who’s kind of quietly averaging around 27-7-5 on 49/42/93 shooting splits since the start of December
Rookie of the Quarter: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
I was trying to find a too-clever answer here—an attention-grabbing zag that would establish me as an arch tastemaker, somebody else to tell you about.
But then this happened:
I mean this guy Ja went out there and called out James Harden in the 1st quarter (TELL THIS MF ABOUT ME) then went out there and went 4-4 in the 4th for 11 points, while Harden was 0-7. Grizzlies have never had someone with this much *justifiable* off-the-charts confidence pic.twitter.com/QlJcNwedq2— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 15, 2020
… so, instead, I’m going to tell you motherfathers about Ja again.
As he did in the first quarter, Morant led all rookies in scoring (17.4 points per game) and assists (7.4) during the second. He’s shooting 56.7 percent inside the arc since the start of December—a 10 percent increase from the start of the season, and an eye-popping number for a guard—including 62.4 percent inside the restricted area. During that same span, according to pbpstats.com, he’s 18th in “Moreyball” assists—passes leading to buckets at the rim or from beyond the 3-point arc—which is miles ahead of the next-closest rookie (Darius Garland of the Cavs, in 44th place).
Morant has been the engine of a Memphis offense that has ranked among the 10 most efficient units in the past six weeks, propelling the Grizzlies—a team widely expected to contend more for the no. 1 pick than the postseason—toward an unlikely playoff berth and earning himself some high praise from a Hall of Famer:
That any projection system would have the Grizz with nearly a 20 percent chance at making the eighth seed at the halfway mark would’ve been unthinkable in September. What we’re learning, though, is that Ja Morant is capable of some pretty unthinkable shit. You should be watching him do it … and then, maybe, telling some mofos about him.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Michael Porter Jr., Kendrick Nunn, Brandon Clarke, Grant Williams, Terence Davis, Matisse Thybulle, Jaxson Hayes, Sekou Doumbouya (it’s been only eight games, but they’ve been eight pretty impressive games!)
Speaking of Grizzlies we should be telling people about …
Reserve of the Quarter: De’Anthony Melton, Grizzlies
Through the first six or so weeks of the season, Melton—a second-round draft pick of the Rockets in 2018 who was shipped to Phoenix before his rookie season, then traded to Memphis with a pair of second-round picks so the Suns could jettison disappointing former top-five pick Josh Jackson—had logged 11 DNPs and topped 10 minutes of floor time just twice. Before December, Memphis’s bench was getting blitzed by nearly five points per 100 possessions of floor time, one of the worst marks in the league. At the start of the month, though, first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins inserted the 21-year-old guard into the Grizzlies’ rotation. And as I recently wrote, the results have been unbelievable: Memphis now boasts one of the best benches in the league, with the 6-foot-2, 200-pound, defense-first 2-guard emerging as the most important piece in that puzzle.
With his long arms, quick feet, and fantastic instincts, Melton’s knack for defensive disruption has been his calling card since his days at USC, and it’s been unleashed in Memphis; he’s averaging 2.4 steals and 4.5 deflections per 36 minutes since getting into the rotation. Short-circuiting possessions has helped a Grizzlies defense that can struggle to get stops in the half court. Memphis is allowing 7.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Melton on the court, roughly the difference between a top-10 defense and a bottom-five unit. He also kick-starts Memphis’s transition game: The young and high-flying Grizz play way faster and get out on the break way more frequently with Melton in the mix, a key factor in their recent offensive improvement.
De'Anthony Melton does a great job here denying a look to Robinson. He lucks into a steal while defending a cut, leading to another Jaren three as Adebayo struggles to get back. Everyone on the court making plays in this first half pic.twitter.com/hbxD8Hy1Ti— Grizzlies Film Breakdowns (@GrizzFilm) December 20, 2019
There are certainly other deserving candidates—chiefly Dennis Schröder, who’s been a huge part of the three-guard lineup that’s fueling the Thunder’s surprising rise; Donte DiVincenzo, who has emerged as a vital do-it-all contributor for the Bucks; and Derrick Rose, who’s been forced by injury and ineptitude into being essentially the sole bankable source of offense for the Pistons. But I’m giving Melton the nod because of just how meteoric his rise has been during the period in question, and how massive an impact he has made in Memphis’s push toward ahead-of-schedule postseason relevance.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The aforementioned Schröder, DiVincenzo, and Rose, plus Montrezl Harrell, the Dwight Howard–Alex Caruso tandem in L.A., Derrick White, Enes Kanter, Ben McLemore, Mitchell Robinson, Jordan Clarkson! … this one’s always the most overstuffed category, so if I missed your favorite reserve, please know that I hold a special place for him in my heart, if not on this list
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
(This case is, admittedly, a bit easier to make on mornings that don’t immediately follow nights when Brandon Ingram repeatedly drives right at Gobert on his way to a career-high 49 points in an overtime win to snap Utah’s 10-game winning streak. Alas!)
Utah has rocketed up the Western standings thanks more to an offensive explosion than its ongoing defensive dominance; in fact, the Jazz rank just above the middle of the pack in points allowed per 100 possessions since the beginning of December. The bulk of the damage has come with Gobert off the court, though. When he’s on it, they’re allowing 105.9 points per 100, which would be tied for third in defensive efficiency during that span.
The presence of a 7-foot-1, 258-pound red light in front of the basket deters a lot of drivers from taking a crack at attacking Utah’s defense; for the seventh year in a row, opponents are attempting a lower share of their shots inside the restricted area with Gobert in the middle than when he’s off the floor. The Jazz lead the league in what Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass calls “location effective field goal percentage”—essentially, a measurement of how well teams force opponents to take lower-value shots than high-percentage looks—and Gobert’s value as a near-constant deterrent is the single biggest reason:
slowing this down for the casuals.. either the nets are literally allergic to the paint or RUDY GOBERT is the most intimidating player in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/bAH1GFkp6i— Jake Lee (@jacobrexlee) January 15, 2020
When the braver sorts have challenged him of late, Gobert has gladly reminded them why discretion might be the better part of valor. He’s tied for fourth in the league in blocks during the second quarter, defends more shots at the rim per game than anybody else, and holds opponents to just 48 percent shooting at the cup when he’s contesting—an elite mark among high-volume poster-preventers.
Come season’s end, this might be another battleground between the Bucks (Antetokounmpo) and Lakers (Anthony Davis, who drops off a bit here thanks to missing four games due to injury and the Lakers defense staying mostly steady without him) for supremacy. For the moment, though, we’re giving the honor to the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, who keeps doing his part to remind us all why he’s got that mantel full of hardware.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Antetokounmpo, Davis, Ben Simmons, Jonathan Isaac (get well soon, young fella), Robert Covington (why exactly should the Wolves be trying to trade a viable 3-point shooter on a good contract who is also the linchpin of the no. 2 defense in the past month, again?), Kris Dunn (currently posting the highest steal percentage of any rotation player in the past five years), Derrick Favors (no coincidence that the Pelicans started looking much more like a real team as soon as he got right), Kawhi Leonard, Bam Adebayo
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
In-season improvement can be tough to gauge. Sometimes, what might look like a player bursting into bloom is really just someone doing the same things he’s always been able to do, but in a heavier dose of minutes, or in a redefined and more comfortable role. Case in point: The pick this time last season was Justise Winslow, who may or may not have gotten dramatically better from October 2018 through January 2019, but who did flourish when reimagined as a power point guard. In the following quarter, it was D’Angelo Russell, who didn’t suddenly become a drastically different player, but thrived when called upon to be Brooklyn’s no. 1 offensive option after injuries struck.
Gilgeous-Alexander probably won’t land an All-Star spot, like Russell did as an injury replacement in the East last year, and it’s not necessarily like he’s been flashing a host of new skills during the past six weeks. It’s more that he’s seemed to be doing everything a little better, a little more consistently, and a little more confidently. And when you’re already a 6-foot-6 guard whose patience and unorthodox rhythm constantly wrong-foots opponents, who can credibly defend players ranging from Ish Smith to LaMarcus Aldridge (and do so while avoiding fouls at an elite rate), and who can fit seamlessly into nearly any lineup and assume whatever responsibility a possession calls for, “a little more” can get you pretty close to stardom:
Gilgeous-Alexander manages to simultaneously exist as Oklahoma City’s point guard of the future, shooting guard of the present, and small forward of the team’s best lineup, without ever seeming to stumble or strain. He can find every crack and crevice in a defense like water on pavement, get wherever he wants to go in the half court, and make the right play when he gets there, whether for a teammate or, increasingly, for himself. He’s averaging 21.4 points per game since early December, nearly double the scoring average from his rookie season. The 20-20-10 game dropped jaws, and understandably so, but what was most eye-opening about it—and about everything SGA is doing in general—is how it all just seemed perfectly natural. The kind of thing you’d do if you could do everything, too.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Jaylen Brown (putting up legit star-level offensive numbers while also playing great defense for one of the league’s best teams), Lonzo Ball (back in the starting lineup and averaging 14-7-7 and shooting 37 percent from 3 on seven attempts per game in the past month), Jordan Clarkson!
The Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: the Grizzlies!
That’s three awards for the Grizz, and after having already spent about 700 words singing the praises of Morant and Melton, I think we can keep the acceptance speech short here. If you had told me in October there would be any one-month stretch in which the Grizzlies would have a better record than the Rockets, Lakers, Clippers, Raptors, and 76ers, I would’ve asked you which grim techno-reaper had engineered a new bubonic plague, and why it had chosen All-NBA players as its target. (Either that, or whether you’d gotten your hands on some of those good gummies during your most recent trip to Waiters Island.)
And yet, here we are—tuning in for what is, right now, the most exciting show in the league.
You truly love to see it.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Thunder having their cake and eating it, too; LaMarcus Aldridge suddenly starting to shoot 3-pointers and completely invigorating the Spurs offense; the Pelicans stabilizing after their rocky start to stay within striking distance of the eighth seed as Zion Williamson gets set to debut; the Raptors staying in the top-four mix in the East amid their spate of injuries; Sekou Doumbouya’s strong start to life in the Pistons’ starting lineup; Markelle Fultz, plugging along, and sometimes doing a hell of a lot more than that
The Yiiiiikes! Award for Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The 76ers, Slipping
This is not meant as an indictment of the Sixers at large. But man, is their penchant for pairing impressive performances with bummerific stinkers getting to be a bit much. They bracketed a five-game winning streak with defense-optional road losses to the Wizards and Nets. And they squandered the good vibes of big home wins against the Bucks, Thunder, and Celtics with six consecutive losses away from Wells Fargo Center.
Even with Al Horford struggling and Joel Embiid missing time, this team going just 12-10 since the start of December isn’t exactly how Philly had things drawn up before the season—especially with the Jimmy Butler–led Heat, Kawhi-less Raptors, Kyrie- and Horford-less Celtics, and Oladipo-less Pacers all holding serve behind Milwaukee, too. (I’m guessing Brett Brown going full Daniel Plainview in conceding failure on the Please, Ben Simmons, Shoot More 3s Project wasn’t part of the blueprint, either.) Even after all the wheeling, dealing, and spending the past two years, the Sixers still need a guard better than Trey Burke who can run a pick-and-roll and create a quality shot in the half court, and a frontcourt shooter more reliable than Mike Scott. But when it comes to going all in at the trade deadline, again, the concern is that the cure might not be better than the disease.
I still think the Sixers are quite good. They have the capacity to give every team they might face in the playoffs fits due to their widespread ability to bulldoze size mismatches on offense, and their combination of suffocating length and an elite rim protector on defense. It’s just … you’d like it if it looked that way more often, and if it didn’t look as frequently like a collection of Iron Giants unsure of their purpose. You’d like an answer as to whether this team will be what it seems like it can be; as Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice recently put it, “Exactly 41 games into the season, the 2019-20 Sixers have done a remarkable job of infuriating absolutely everyone who watches them night-to-night.” The ongoing absence of clarity and consistency is disappointing, even if the Sixers’ overall record isn’t the end of the world.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Hawks cratering into a directionless morass after a promising start; the Kings doing the same after looking like they’d regained their footing a bit; the Bulls continuing to just be kind of nothing; that Jonathan Isaac got hurt before he could go full Kirilenko with a 5x5 (and he’d gotten so close twice already this season); that so many have been so starved for transactional news that Andre Drummond’s trade value and eventual free agency became a leading topic of conversation for, like, a week