With just six weeks remaining before the start of the 2020 NBA playoffs, all 30 teams have played at least 60 games, meaning we are now officially three-quarters of the way through the 2019-20 campaign. And that means it’s time for us, as we did when we hit the first- and second-quarter marks, to hand out some awards for exceptional achievement in the field of professional basketball! (And, in one case, for something less than that.)
One thing to note before I begin divvying up this highly sought-after and purely theoretical hardware: These awards are based on what transpired during the third quarter of the season—read: the stretch between Game 40 or so in mid-January and this week—rather than on the entire season to date. Zooming in on player and team performance during this most recent period will help us highlight who’s rising and falling as we head into the stretch run; it also might help us avoid repeats.
Team of the Quarter: Milwaukee Bucks
That’s three straight quarterly crowns for the NBA’s best team, which has gone 16-3 since we last convened, fueled by an almost comically dominant defense. During this span, the Bucks have held opponents to a microscopic 100 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, 6.6 points per 100 fewer than second-place Toronto. The gap between no. 1 and no. 2 is nearly identical to the gap between the Raptors and the Kings—who sit at 18th over the same period.
The Bucks haven’t been perfect; they’ve faltered a bit offensively, ranking a pedestrian 16th in points scored per possession since our last check-in because of a drop-off in transition (from 122.9 points per 100 transition chances down to 116.5-per-100) and some slight slippage from beyond the arc (George Hill, it turns out, wasn’t going to make half of his 3s all season). They’ve mitigated it, though, by punishing teams so much on the defensive end—preventing them from shooting at the rim better than anybody else and holding them to the league’s lowest field goal percentage on the up-close tries they do take—that they have still maintained by far the best point differential in the league, even with only two players (Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo) averaging more than 30 minutes per game in this span. Other teams are playing well; the Bucks are playing for history.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Raptors (17-4 even with Marc Gasol missing two-thirds of those games!), Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, Thunder
Player of the Quarter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
I did my due diligence. I looked at Russell Westbrook, who put up an efficient 33-8-7 while serving as the rim-battering small-ball catalyst of the Rockets’ surge into the race for the West’s second seed. And at Damian Lillard, who had arguably been even more unbelievable in keeping Portland afloat—37.4 points and nine assists on 50/47/89 shooting splits despite taking nearly 25 shots a game—before suffering a groin strain. And at LeBron James, who averaged 25 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists per game for a Lakers squad tightening its stranglehold on the West. And at Kawhi Leonard, who put up 28-8-5 for a Clippers team that’s now healthy and looking like the proper intra-arena nemesis we envisioned them being.
There are so many dudes who have been playing out of their minds of late: Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum, Middleton (24.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game in this span on bonkers 53/47/94 shooting!), and on and on. One of them is the reigning MVP, who averaged 32.8 points, 18.9 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per 36 minutes of floor time during this span; he did this while also acting as the most versatile and fearsome defender in the sport. The Bucks outscored opponents by 22.2 points per 100 with him on the court in Q3, according to NBA Advanced Stats, the best net rating of any player who made at least 10 appearances and averaged more than 2.2 minutes per game (we salute you, Justin James).
By all means, let’s make cases for why other players belong in the MVP conversation. Let’s just also acknowledge that it’s going to be a pretty short fuckin’ conversation.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: All of the above, with shout-outs to Bradley Beal (who scored nearly 100 more points than any other player in the league during this period), Trae Young (we are with the funnies, and also with the “averaging just under 31 points and 11 assists per game,” defense be damned), Kristaps Porzingis (putting up 28 and 11 on 50/40/84 shooting over Dallas’s past 15 games, helping the Mavs stay afloat amid Luka Doncic’s ankle sprain) … and the guy to whom we turn our attention next
Rookie of the Quarter: Zion Williamson, Pelicans
It’s a rare and beautiful thing when something everybody’s been waiting for actually lives up to the hype. After a 44-game delay following meniscus surgery, Williamson finally began his NBA career on January 22, promptly turned in one of this season’s most exciting stretches of basketball, and has only picked up steam since.
Zion’s averaging 24 points on 58.2 percent shooting to go with 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 29.5 minutes per game; he’d be the first rookie to average 24 a night since David Robinson did it 30 years ago. Look harder at the numbers, and the comps get even more eye-popping: The only rookies to average 29 points and eight boards per 36 minutes are Zion and Wilt Chamberlain; the only ones to put up 38 and 10 per 100 possessions are Zion and Joel Embiid; and the only ones to average 20 per game on 55 percent shooting are, as my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted, Zion and Shaquille O’Neal.
Learned doctor and man of letters Brian Phillips recently called Zion “the greatest pure generator of writerly hyperbole in contemporary professional sports,” and as someone who recently described the 19-year-old—sweet Jesus, he’s 19—as “a Nissan Cube that can teleport and comes with the flamethrowing guitar player from Fury Road, standard,” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Someone that big moving not just that fast but that way bends brains just as surely as it bends baskets.
It’s bending the playoff race, too: The Pelicans were 17-27 before Zion’s debut and have gone 9-9 since, with the league’s seventh-best efficiency differential. They’ve blitzed opponents by 10 points per 100 with Zion on the court, getting back within striking distance of the West’s final playoff berth. The Pelicans still have some work to do to catch the eighth-place Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant, who has played nearly 40 more games than Zion, won the past two quarterly titles, and will likely take home the actual Rookie of the Year award come season’s end. (If Memphis stumbles out of the postseason, and Zion pushes the Pelicans into it? Well, all bets are off.) That New Orleans is even in a position to make a late charge, though, is remarkable, and it’s thanks largely to the impact of this nigh-on-impossible teenage godsend.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Morant (who did his level best to keep the Grizz treading water as injuries and trades rocked them), Michael Porter Jr. (please resume letting the kid cook, Coach Malone), Brandon Clarke (get well soon, young fella), Terence Davis (shot 43 percent from 3 and defended his tail off, cementing a rotation spot on an excellent Raptors team), the Darius Bazley–Luguentz Dort combo in OKC (Sam Presti’s preference for young athletes strikes again!), Kevin Porter Jr. (the jury’s still out on the point guards the Cavs took in the top eight in consecutive drafts, but the sweet-shooting lefty guard they got at no. 30 last year looks like a keeper)
Reserve of the Quarter: Buddy Hield, Kings
The Kings were stuck in the mud in late January, losers of six straight games—and 15 out of 18 in a truly dire stretch—when Luke Walton sent Hield to the bench, searching for a spark that would shake Sacramento out of the doldrums and back into playoff contention. The fourth-year shooting guard didn’t like the decision, of course; you wouldn’t expect anything different from a player who’d started all 82 games last season and the first 44 of this one, who went through a somewhat contentious negotiation to ink a four-year, $86 million contract extension on the eve of the season, and who had spoken publicly about the “trust issues” plaguing the Kings as they spiraled.
“Stuff like that, they don’t start you, and after that everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s the problem,’” Hield told Jason Jones of The Athletic. “You just let everybody know what the fuck is going on. That’s what I’ve been doing. … If I’m happy or not happy, I’m not going to show it out on the court. I’m going to go out and play my minutes.”
Whatever his motivation, Hield’s not just playing those minutes—he’s thriving in them.
The former Oklahoma standout has averaged 19.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game since moving to the bench—almost exactly what he was averaging as a starter, but in eight fewer minutes per game. He’s been on fire, shooting a blistering 46.2 percent from 3-point range on 9.3 attempts per game (again: He’s not even playing 30 minutes a night) and 97 percent from the foul line. Among players who’ve come off the bench at least 10 times in Q3, only Thunder guard Dennis Schröder is scoring more than Hield, and no reserve is matching his mix of usage and efficiency. Hield’s finishing nearly 28 percent of Sacramento’s possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover, and he’s posting a scorching .639 true shooting percentage. For the full season, only nine players have a usage rate north of 25 percent and a TS% above .600; seven were All-Stars, and the other two have major roles on playoff teams.
It’s funny: Replacing Hield with Bogdan Bogdanovic didn’t suddenly adrenalize Sacramento’s starting five. The version with Bogdanovic alongside De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Dewayne Dedmon was plus-2 in 71 minutes after the switch; the version subbing Harry Giles in at center after Dedmon got traded to Atlanta has been an unsightly minus-33 in 111 minutes. But pairing Hield with defensive-minded table-setter Cory Joseph and giving him a neon-green light, along with quality contributions from trade deadline additions Kent Bazemore and Alex Len, has worked wonders; the Kings’ reserves have the fifth-best plus-minus of any bench group in the league during this stretch.
That second-unit boost has helped the Kings win 12 of their past 17 to get back within striking distance of Memphis. This isn’t the role Hield thought he’d play in that kind of chase; if the Kings start to wobble down the stretch, he might once again start grumbling and looking for a ticket out this summer. For now, though, it’s working, giving Sacramento at least a puncher’s chance of ending the NBA’s longest postseason drought—and Hield a fresh opportunity to show that whatever problems the Kings might have, he ain’t one of them.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Schröder, the George Hill–Donte DiVincenzo backcourt combo in Milwaukee, perennial Sixth Man candidates Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in Toronto, actually-good-for-the-whole-season Dwight Howard and much-more-than-a-mascot Alex Caruso with the Lakers
Defensive Players of the Quarter: P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, Rockets
OK, OK, I know. From an empirical perspective, the answer here should be a Buck—either Giannis, the menacing free safety and five-position defender who paces Milwaukee’s historically excellent defense, or Brook Lopez, the towering shot swatter who anchors that unit by turning the paint into a no-fly zone. But screw consistency and empiricism; these fake awards are ungoverned and ungovernable, and the defensive story I’m most interested in right now is the one unfolding in Houston.
When Daryl Morey put Clint Capela and a first-round pick in a four-team megadeal to bring back 3-and-D wing Covington, we knew Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets were committing wholeheartedly to an all-small style aimed at stretching defenses, launching even more 3-pointers, and playing a style that dictated the terms of engagement. So far, so good: Houston is 10-3 since Capela’s final game as a Rocket, with road wins against the Lakers, Celtics, and Jazz, and the Rockets boast the NBA’s no. 3 offense since adding Covington at the trade deadline.
Everyone wondered, though, how these Rockets—a team that, if all goes according to plan, won’t play anyone taller than 6-foot-8—would protect the rim, get stops and rebounds, and generally function as an NBA defense. The answer: surprisingly well! (Well, except for the rebounding part. They’ve been the worst team in the league at grabbing boards since the trade.) Houston has also ranked in the top 10 on defense since the deadline, thanks in large part to a beautiful partnership between the 6-foot-5 Tucker and the 6-foot-7 Covington:
This is nutty.— Disney Gary Clark (@Itamar1710) March 2, 2020
-Rockets blow up the first action, Hayward isolates and PJ Tucker just takes the ball away from him
-Robert Covington walks into a deep transition 3
-Tatum tries to isolate on Covington, gets rejected and the Rockets secure the ball
I'm in love with this duo. pic.twitter.com/blb5TFVOFd
The Rockets are giving up just 102.5 points per 100 possessions with Tucker and Covington on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass; only the Bucks have turned in a lower defensive efficiency mark in a full season. All of those minutes have come with at least one of James Harden or Russell Westbrook on the court, and give credit where it’s due: For all the crap the former MVPs take about their defense, they’ve held up their end as stout and snarling quarries when bigger opponents try to bully them on the block, and they’ve played an important part in disrupting passing lanes and helping in the paint. They’ve combined to average 3.6 steals and 6.3 deflections per game since the deadline.
You’d expect such a small 4-5 combo to struggle with keeping opponents away from the bucket. But Tucker and Covington combine quick feet, strength, active hands, length, and smarts better than most frontcourt tandems in the league. Houston gives up a roughly league-average share of shots at the rim in the Tucker-Covington minutes, and as a team is holding opponents to just 59.1 percent shooting within 4 feet of the cup. The two veteran stoppers are switching assignments, offering timely help, and generally pouring sugar in the gas tank of opposing offenses.
Houston’s recent run has reminded us that Tucker, even at 34, is one of the league’s most effective big men (well, “big” men) when it comes to switching onto guards, staying in front of them, steering them into traffic, and forcing them to take a tough look. Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor reported that, according to NBA Advanced Stats, Tucker led all wings and forwards “in deterring his matchup from scoring or assisting.” Not bad for a “tweener.”
It was also revealed that Covington has a burglar’s hands when it comes to stripping the ball on a driver’s gather …
… and that, when he’s not stationed 27 feet away from the basket on an elite wing, he turns into goddamn Fun-Size Mutombo:
Whether the Six-Sevens or Less Rockets will be able to continue getting away with league-worst defensive rebounding in a playoff series very much remains to be seen, though forcing turnovers at the NBA’s fourth-highest rate would seem to be a good start. (As Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight notes, “If you force a turnover before your opponent even attempts a shot, there’s no chance of them grabbing an offensive rebound.”) What does seem clear, though, is that Houston didn’t just go all in on scoring with its decision to downsize; it also rolled the dice on a bet that a swarming, switch-heavy defense could be more effective than one backstopped by a traditional big man. The past month has provided the proof of concept; the question now, as always for these Rockets, is whether Morey and D’Antoni’s stuff can work for four consecutive rounds in the postseason.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Giannis or Brook, Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo (sure, the Heat’s defense has fallen to earth, but watch Bam go heads up with Giannis and tell me you’re not thinking about voting for him), Marcus Smart, Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, Ben Simmons, Myles Turner
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
My esteemed associates Rob Mahoney and KOC both recently detailed Tatum’s breakout, and I think my boss might have had a thing or two to say about it, so I won’t belabor the point too much. It’s worth repeating the numbers, though, because holy crap:
Jayson Tatum’s Leap
|PTS PER TOUCH
|PTS PER TOUCH
|First 39 Games
|Last 17 Games
Tatum is driving to the rim more, finishing at a higher clip, and getting to the foul line nearly twice as often as he did through the first half of the season. While defenders worry about him getting to the rim, he’s found more room and opportunities to pull up for jumpers, canning 45.7 percent of them, and nearly 47 percent from long distance. He’s become an absolute terror of a three-level scorer, all while defending four positions at a high level. (He’ll even take a turn on some 5s, pulling spot duty on the likes of Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Nikola Jokic when called upon, according to NBA.com’s matchup data.)
It’s not like Tatum wasn’t good before this; hell, I picked him as an All-Star reserve based on his performance before the surge, not what came after it. To jump up this much during the season, though, is truly wild. One minute, he’s a pile of enticing tools who produces a lot, but is also prone to some occasional foibles and miscues. The next minute, he’s … I don’t know, a 6-foot-8 Adrian Dantley who is a deadeye from deep? Glen Rice, but Make It All-Defense? Not Kevin Durant or Tracy McGrady, but damn, also not nearly as far from those sorts of comparisons as anyone would’ve expected two months ago?
The question now is whether this is Tatum riding the hottest streak of his career, or if it’s something like the bleeding edge of his new normal. If it’s the former? Well, savor the flavor while it lasts, Celtics fans. If it’s the latter? We might be watching the real-time arrival of a bona fide superstar.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Deandre Ayton, playing defense to go with 20-and-12s on a Suns team that was looking pretty frisky before Kelly Oubre went down; Collin Sexton, who might not be a point guard, but who averaged 24-3-4 on 49/46/87 shooting splits, which ain’t nothing; Malik Monk, who finally seemed to be putting it together as a microwave scorer and complementary playmaker before his suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy; Shake Milton!
The Yooooo! Award for Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Thunder!
Shame on me for finding this surprising. After all, I wrote a couple of months ago about how dope it is that Oklahoma City has turned what many expected to be a gap year into an exceedingly fun playoff push. I guess I just figured that, at some point, something would reach out, grab the Thunder, and pull them down. Maybe an injury to a key veteran. Perhaps some growing pains for 21-year-old ace Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or some shooting regression for career-year-haver Schröder, or some stumbling from the many young athletic wing types Billy Donovan is deploying—guys like Bazley, Dort, and Hamidou Diallo.
Turns out, I was wrong. (Imagine that!) Rather than slowing down, Oklahoma City went 15-6 during Q3, tied for the fourth-best winning percentage in the league during that span. Rather than fading away, the Thunder are still here, still stacking Ws with crunch-time guile and panache, still somehow on pace for the 50 wins that Russell Westbrook and Paul George couldn’t deliver during their two-season test drive.
His name is Chris Paul & it was the 4th quarter. What else do you need to know? pic.twitter.com/O9bznJURzj— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 28, 2020
Back-to-back drillings by the Bucks and Clippers clearly mark OKC as a team below the upper echelon of contenders. Recent wins suggest the Thunder could absolutely still go toe-to-toe in an opening-round series against just about every team outside of L.A.—and maybe, depending on the matchup, even win a series for the first time since Durant left town. It still seems like far too much to expect from a team in transition, but at this point, we doubt CP3 and Co. at our own peril.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Raptors navigating all their injuries; Russell Westbrook’s evolution; Zion being everything we could’ve asked for; Giannis and the Bucks somehow continuing to get even better, LeBron somehow continuing to be the non-Giannis MVP in Year 17
The Yiiiiikes! Award for Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Jazz
Since rattling off 10 consecutive wins from Christmas through mid-January—a span that, as you might recall, dovetailed with struggling veteran point guard Mike Conley out of the lineup—Utah’s been up and down like a seesaw, alternating winning and losing streaks week by week. A team that’s long hung its hat on the defensive end has struggled to get stops, ranking a Wizardian 21st in points allowed per possession in Q3, with Rudy Gobert looking less like the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year and more like someone frustrated with his team’s ongoing issues.
I still believe there’s a really good team inside that Jazz roster; I’m just not sure I believe it’s the one we envisioned heading into the season, with Conley and Donovan Mitchell sharing playmaking duties, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic spacing the floor, and Gobert screening and diving. The Jazz need to find their best five and, perhaps just as importantly, get everybody else on board with it. (Whatever led to players being informed that Conley was going to the bench, only to send Ingles to the pine instead after the story went public, needs to be resolved and not repeated.) These things take time, but the West won’t wait for Utah to sort its shit out.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Sixers’ ongoing woes, injury and otherwise; Dame getting hurt while absolutely wreathed in flames (nice to have him back!); that Bradley Beal doesn’t have just a little more help to throw some uncertainty into the dreary and static lower Eastern Conference playoff bracket; that there’s no such thing as a cure for rapacious greed, and thus that there might not be a dollar figure high enough to ever convince James Dolan to finally, at long last, cut the shit and just sell the goddamn team