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NBA First-Quarter Awards and a Tale of Two Nets

LeBron faces a few big hurdles as he chases his fifth MVP, particularly two 7-footers in Philadelphia and Denver. We dish out imaginary hardware to the opening stretch’s biggest standouts, plus highlight the feel-good and feel-bad stories out of Brooklyn.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s time to celebrate our arrival at the season’s first manageable fraction by handing out some awards, based not on projected year-end finishes, but purely on performance thus far. The NBA lopped off 10 games from its typical regular-season schedule, so we’ve hit our standard mile markers faster this season; with most teams either approaching or having already played their 18th game, we’re already a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 campaign.

It’s hard to know how much we can take away from the action we’ve seen so far, as many teams have played at something less than full strength while players miss time due to positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing. Amid all the noise, though, some players and teams have sent strong signals—indications that they’re looking to level up and cement themselves as championship contenders.

These aren’t predictions on who will take home the league’s official individual and collective trophies come season’s end—should we be lucky enough to make it that far—but rather a nod toward what we’ve seen through the season’s opening month. Things can change quickly and dramatically in the NBA under optimal circumstances, and even more so in the current context. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the good stuff while we can.

Team of the Quarter: Los Angeles Lakers

OK, so not everything changes quickly and dramatically.

The Lakers’ lovely parting gift for being the last team standing in the bubble was the shortest offseason of any team in the league save the team they vanquished in the Finals. But while the Heat have been buffeted by injury, illness, and inconsistency and are scuffling below .500 as Erik Spoelstra tries to find a new winning formula, the defending champs haven’t missed a step.

The Lakers enter Wednesday’s action at 14-4, one game ahead of the Clippers, their Staples Center cotenant. They own the NBA’s best point differential, outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—more than double last year’s mark—and boast a regular-season net rating that would be the best of any LeBron James team since the 66-win 2008-09 Cavaliers. They’re winning by an average of just under 10 points per game; the only Lakers team ever to post a higher average margin of victory was the West-and-Wilt-led 1971-72 squad, which went 69-13 and won the franchise’s first championship since leaving Minneapolis. Pretty decent company.

L.A. is one of four teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (no. 1 in the latter), and it is absolutely smothering opponents in the frontcourt. Frank Vogel’s shuffled starting lineup—holdovers LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, joined by newcomers Marc Gasol and Dennis Schröder—has been one of the league’s most dominant units. James and Davis are both playing shorter minutes this season, and AD seems to think he’s sucked this season—or, at least, he did before he hung 37 on the Bulls— but they’re still decimating opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 when they share the court. When the superstars rest, a second unit led by the likes of Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, and Kyle Kuzma keeps applying pressure and keeps the lead, more often than not.

Reasonable arguments can be made for the Clippers, who were absolutely incinerating opponents before Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley all left the lineup, or for the Jazz as they pair their customary elite defense with a newly scorching 3-point shooting attack, or for a 76ers squad that Joel Embiid has propelled to the top of the East. But I feel pretty comfortable sticking with a team that’s beating the brakes off of damn near everyone it faces despite rarely seeming to need to kick it into high gear. I’m open to the possibility that this isn’t the best team in the NBA. I just haven’t seen anything to convince me otherwise yet.

Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Clips, Jazz, and Sixers.

Player of the Quarter: Joel Embiid, 76ers

“Joel Embiid is the type of big man found on almost every dynasty in league history,” my colleague Kevin O’Connor wrote in September of 2016, when Embiid was finally poised to make his pro debut, two long and drama-filled years after Philadelphia drafted him. “And he has the potential to not only lead the Sixers, but to change the NBA.”

If we’re being honest, I remember thinking KOC was full of … er, something.

I didn’t doubt that Embiid had a chance to be really good; he’d generated enough buzz that I trusted there was something pretty enticing there. But the idea that a fully realized version of this long-gestating prospect could be some kind of “What If Hakeem Could Also Turn Water Into Wine” two-way force? It seemed like it had to be … let’s say hyperbole.

Well, a smooth 4.5 years later, it appears my pumped and jacked compatriot was on the ball. This is the best Embiid we’ve ever seen: 27.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.7 blocks-plus-steals in just 31.6 minutes per game, lifting Philadelphia to the top spot in the Eastern Conference and looking every ounce the franchise-tilting game-breaker that the hype suggested.

Embiid remains the league’s preeminent low-block landlord, averaging an elite 1.11 points per post-up possession. In his hands, the least efficient play in the modern NBA becomes the equivalent of an above-average offense. He’s torching the nets from everywhere: 69 percent at the rim, 53 percent from midrange, 40.5 percent from 3-point land, and 83.3 percent from the foul line, which he’s reaching nearly 11 times a night. He’s still developing as a playmaker, with more turnovers than assists, but he’s making quicker and more decisive reads, leveraging all the attention he draws to kick off the sort of swing-swing sequences that tend to end up with a teammate getting a great look.

Down the stretch of several games, Embiid has even taken the role of initiator, essentially running point from the top of the floor to give defenses a new wrinkle to worry about and make it tougher for them to double-team him. Doc Rivers is empowering Embiid to expand his game, and he’s responding by producing more efficiently than ever. Stephen Curry, in his unanimous MVP campaign, is the only player ever to finish a season with a usage rate higher than 30 percent and a true shooting percentage north of .650. Embiid, nearly a foot taller and also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, is somehow on pace to join him.

Despite shouldering such a massive offensive load, the big fella’s still guarding the yard, too. Sixers opponents shoot below league average from nearly every area of the floor with Embiid on the court, an indication of how his imposing presence on the back line emboldens Philly’s perimeter defenders to play tighter and more aggressively up top. Testing him inside is largely a fool’s errand; opponents are shooting just 52.1 percent against Embiid at the rim this season, the 11th-lowest percentage among 76 players who’ve defended at least 50 up-close tries, and his stingiest mark since his abbreviated rookie season.

When Embiid is on the court, the Sixers clamp down like the second-ranked Jazz. When he’s off it, they bleed more points than the Pistons—who, by the way, smacked Philly by 15 on Monday with Embiid getting the night off, running the Sixers’ record to 0-4 without Embiid, compared to 12-2 with him. The divide is even more stark on the other end: Philly scores 14 fewer points per 100 when Embiid sits, the difference between producing like one of the league’s two or three best offenses and its absolute worst.

That roar you hear tumbling down the Rocky Mountains is every Nuggets fan rising to assert that Embiid hasn’t even been the best big man in the NBA this season. Both Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been ridiculously productive, with Embiid the superior scorer and defensive linchpin, while Jokic flirts with averaging a triple-double, leads the league in clutch scoring, and serves as the focal point of a top-tier offense as Denver steadies itself after a rocky start. And if my life depended on winning one game in the playoffs, I’d probably take one of the elite big wings—LeBron, KD, Kawhi—over the Sixers center. During the full first month, though, it’s just been such a delight to watch Embiid work—to see him respond to last season’s disappointments by evolving in real time, and to watch him make the Sixers look like the prospective contender so many of us thought they could be.

Also receiving votes: Jokic; LeBron (just sort of blithely averaging 25-8-7 on career-best 3-point shooting and turning haters to ash IN YEAR 18, AT AGE 36!); Durant (immediately back on the Best Player in the World short list after missing a full year with a ruptured Achilles); the Kawhi Leonard–Paul George duo in L.A.; Luka Doncic (now nearly averaging a triple-double himself); Anthony Davis; Jaylen Brown (the Celtics’ savior throughout Kemba Walker’s injury and Jayson Tatum’s quarantine, averaging a career-best 27.3 points per game while still playing great defense); Bradley Beal (he’s averaging like 35-6-5 on .600 true shooting); Bam Adebayo (21-9-5 on 61 percent shooting while defending five positions and essentially carrying the Heat with Jimmy Butler sidelined); Giannis Antetokounmpo (though it doesn’t really feel like it, does it?).

Charlotte Hornets v Toronto Raptors Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Rookie of the Quarter: LaMelo Ball, Hornets

I took a look at LaMelo’s stellar start as part of a big rookie check-in last week, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. He leads the rookie class in rebounds, assists, and steals per game, and in the catch-all advanced metric value over replacement player; he’s fourth in scoring, despite shooting just 31.2 percent from deep and struggling to finish at the rim. He’s brought an infectious passion for passing to the Hornets, who are creating 10 more points via assists this season than they did last season, and who are squarely in the thick of the chase for a playoff berth among the East’s expanded middle class.

And now let us stuff the stats in a drawer, because I just think it’s pretty fuckin’ cool that he can do this:

Questions swirled during the predraft process about what sort of pro LaMelo would be after eschewing a traditional progression to the league in favor of his dad’s preferred itinerant, reality-show-courting path. So far, it looks like the answer’s awfully simple: “A pretty damn good one.”

Also receiving votes: Tyrese Haliburton, an efficiency machine and immediate difference-maker in the Kings backcourt; Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane, who rank first and second on the Grizzlies in plus-minus and have made key contributions (Tillman as a disruptive interior defender, Bane as a lights-out shooting wing) on an exciting young team in Memphis; Tyrese Maxey, a legit guard who immediately carved out a rotation role on the East-leading Sixers and currently holds the high score in this rookie class; Immanuel Quickley, who’s roundly outproducing veteran Elfrid Payton in New York and might soon force Tom Thibodeau to reevaluate his starting lineup; Devin Vassell, the top rookie according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric and net rating, and an instant-impact perimeter defender on a killer Spurs second unit that’s been one of the league’s most potent lineups.

Reserves of the Quarter: Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson, Suns

I’m going to cheat a little bit here, because I’m still having a hard time wrapping my mind around this one. The Suns—bubble gods, offseason champions, and the trendy preseason pick to crash the Western Conference playoff party after trading for Chris Paul—have stumbled a bit, losing four of their last five. The starting lineup expected to be the engine of their success—Paul and Devin Booker in the backcourt, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder on the wing, Deandre Ayton in the middle—has instead been outscored by 13 points in 200 minutes, hemorrhaging points on the defensive end as one of the least effective big-minutes lineups in the league.

And yet! Phoenix sits at 8-7, with the league’s 11th-best net rating, at 10th in points scored and 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions. How? Because the Suns’ bench has a top-five net rating, busting up opposing second units thanks to big contributions from its pair of Cams. (Shouts, too, to stretch-5 Dario Saric, who was off to a strong start before missing time due to health and safety protocols.)

Draftniks derided the Suns’ selection of Johnson with the 11th pick in the 2019 draft as a Mr. Fantastic–level reach, but the 6-foot-8 shooter quickly emerged as a rock-solid stretch 4, supplanting the injured Kelly Oubre Jr. as a critical part of the squad that blitzed the bubble. He’s made way in the first five for offseason addition Crowder, but he’s continued to fill his role ably, averaging 11.9 points in 24.8 minutes per game while defending every perimeter position. His 3-point accuracy has dipped just below league average, but he’s made up the difference in volume—only 10 dudes are firing more triples per 36 minutes—and by finishing damn near everything inside, shooting 22-for-28 (75.9 percent) in the paint.

This time last year, Payne was trying to work his way back into the NBA, signing with the G League’s Texas Legends after a brief stint in China that seemed to spell the end of his four-year NBA career. But the Suns signed him to add depth for the Orlando restart and he seized the opportunity, convincing Phoenix to keep him around as the backup point guard this season. Payne has continued to outperform expectations, pressuring the rim and shooting 37.9 percent from long distance while posting a 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s rarely flashy, but Payne seems to have developed a knack for settling things down, letting them develop, and making a simple, smart play to keep the offense humming and the defense on its heels.

I’m still bullish on the Suns, largely because I don’t expect that starting five to struggle all season; they’ll get better defensively with more reps, and CP3 won’t keep shooting 28 percent from distance. Credit the Cams—in whose shared minutes the Suns have outscored opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions—for helping them stay afloat as they navigate some choppy early-season waters.

Also receiving votes: Jordan Clarkson, the NBA’s top reserve scorer and a vital source of shot creation for Utah’s elite offense; Shake Milton, blossoming in a higher-usage role for the revamped Sixers; Chris Boucher, having a breakthrough season as a rim-protecting stretch big man in Toronto (who should probably be starting, but nevertheless); Montrezl Harrell, playing for the Lakers like he wants everyone to forget how he played in the bubble for the Clippers; Patty Mills and the whole Spurs second unit, once again carrying San Antonio; Monte Morris, who continues to be one of the steadiest hands in the game, leading the Nuggets in fourth-quarter minutes and boasting a 5.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in that period.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Myles Turner, Pacers

I touched on this a couple of weeks ago when I dug into Indiana’s strong start: Turner’s playing the best, most smothering defense of his career, both at the rim and on the perimeter, using his length and quickness to stall plays high on the floor before recovering to snuff shots out at the rim.

Turner’s blocking a league-leading 4.1 shots per game and rejecting 11 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts; that would be the highest block rate in NBA history. Opponents are shooting 7.5 percent worse against Turner than their regular field-goal percentages, the fifth-best differential among players who have defended at least 100 shots. He’s holding shooters to a microscopic 42.9 percent on attempts directly at the basket, second best among high-volume rim defenders—and, for what it’s worth, a full 10 percentage points lower than Rudy Gobert’s mark. Turner’s presence transforms the Pacers from a bottom-five defense to a top-three-caliber unit.

I wouldn’t bat an eye if you argued for Gobert, who ranks in the top three in blocks per game, block percentage, defensive rebounding rate, and defensive win shares as the centerpiece of the Jazz’s no. 3 defense. Anthony Davis, even in a “down year,” remains the holy terror at the heart of the Lakers’ NBA-leading defense, capable of suffocating an entire offense for a string of possessions that tilt a game. Embiid’s been sensational, too. I’d bet on one of them winding up with the hardware come season’s end. Through the opening month, though, I think Turner has wrecked opposing offenses more consistently than anyone else.

Also receiving votes: Gobert, AD, and Embiid; Kawhi (whose block and steal rates are the highest they’ve been since his first All-Star season in San Antonio), Draymond Green (still as smart and disruptive as they come; Golden State was 20th in defense before he came back, and is 10th since his return), Larry Nance Jr., Ben Simmons, and OG Anunoby (steal-and-deflection-creating Swiss Army knives on teams that are winning on the strength of their defenses).

Houston Rockets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Jerami Grant, Pistons

The Pistons giving Grant a three-year, $60 million deal in free agency two months ago stunned most of the basketball world. It seemed wild that Grant would willingly leave a Western Conference finalist to join a rebuilding team, especially given reports that the Nuggets were willing to match Detroit’s offer of an annual salary more than double what he made in Denver last season. It seemed even more wild that when new Pistons general manager Troy Weaver looked at Grant—a 26-year-old 3-and-D forward—he saw a player who could immediately be a viable no. 1 option.

You know who wasn’t stunned by that? Jerami friggin’ Grant.

In Denver, Grant was always going to be third or fourth in the pecking order, at best, left to find buckets on the break or via off-ball activity in the half court rather than having stuff drawn up for him. In Detroit, he’s still doing that stuff; he’s averaging nearly 1.4 points per possession on off-ball cuts and 1.2 points per possession in transition. But he’s also doing a little bit of everything else: running off baseline screens and pin-downs for catch-and-shoot looks, taking dribble handoffs to attack downhill, working either side of the pick-and-roll, posting up on the block, isolating on the wing, you name it. And as it turns out, Grant’s pretty good at all of it!

He’s averaging 24.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game, all career highs. He’s shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point land, right in line with last year’s mark, despite taking nearly seven attempts per game. He’s doubled his career assist rate while turning the ball over at a career-low mark. And it’s not just “good stats, bad team” stuff; he’s impacting winning. The 4-13 Pistons, a minus-59 on the whole for the season, have actually outscored opponents by nine points in the 616 minutes that Grant has played, scoring and defending like a league-average team as opposed to the bottom-of-the-barrel squad that their record indicates.

It’s fair to wonder whether this is about as good as it’ll get for Grant and Detroit—if a team with him as its no. 1 option, without multiple All-Star-level talents around him, can aspire to only league-average results. But after watching Grant add so much to his game so quickly when allowed to spread his wings, it’s also fair for the Pistons and their fans to dream bigger.

Also receiving votes: The aforementioned Boucher and Milton; Christian Wood (you could argue the improvement really happened last season, but maintaining star-level production still deserves flowers); Collin Sexton (ditto); Jaylen Brown (scoring way more in fewer minutes—averaging the same number of points per game as Luka and more than Giannis!—and shooting 57 percent inside the arc and 44 percent beyond it); Julius Randle (evidently an honest-to-God point forward now, averaging 23-11-6 and sharing statistical space with Wilt, Oscar, KG, Russ, and Jokic, which, sure).

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Way James Harden Forced His Way Out of Houston

I’m giving pretty much the entire NBA a pass on actual on-court matters. Like, sure, the Raptors had a rougher-than-I-expected first three weeks, and Stan Van Gundy hasn’t gotten the Pelicans off the ground as quickly as I thought he might. But given, y’know ... [gesticulates wildly at everything] … I’m inclined to consider those things less as “disappointments” and more as “some stuff that’s happening as the league tries to turn its collar to the cold of a pandemic.” Seems like some grace is in order as everyone tries to do their best to work and stay safe.

That’s why the way Harden left Houston bummed me out. Deciding the team had run its course—that it could not win a championship as constituted, and that it could not be meaningfully reconstituted into a true contender given the talent and contracts on hand—is one thing. It’s not always the most pleasant business, but an elite player reading the writing on the wall and wanting out isn’t new; in fact, it’s become somewhat customary of late. Deciding not to report to training camp isn’t great, but it’s also not necessarily some eternal stain on a player’s character and moral fiber. It’s the trimmings of Harden’s self-imposed shutdown that rankle: the skipping out on workouts to party maskless, the often listless play once he did show up, the sense his teammates had that he was, in word and deed, disrespecting their work when they were trying to make the best of a bad situation. It feels small—beneath the legacy that Harden spent eight years building.

I don’t blame Harden for eyeing greener pastures and using the estimable leverage that comes with his talent to get where he wanted to go. It just sucks that he did it in a way that left such a sour taste, and that put so many noses out of joint in his own locker room. A certain amount of tension on the way out the door is just the cost of doing business when a superstar leaves town. But this particular bit of business didn’t have to be this messy, or handled this callously.

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: Kevin Durant looking like Kevin Durant

I understood the logic for why KD would still be good: A combination of size and shooting nearly unmatched in NBA history; a genius command of the game; enough length, strength, and experience to continue to impact the game defensively even if he’d lost a step. Still, it had been a year and a half since he last took the court in a game that counted—and a year and a half since the false step that ended the Warriors dynasty and put one of the greatest players the sport’s ever seen on ice at the peak of his powers. That’s a long time away, and a long way to fall. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

How thoughtful of Durant, then, to make it crystal clear from opening night that there was no reason for me (or anyone else) to worry. The league’s most beautiful individual game looks none the worse for wear after a year on the shelf; it’s just as pure and pristine and absolutely vicious as ever. Welcome back, old friend:

Durant has wasted no time reasserting himself as one of the two or three most indomitable forces in the league, averaging 30.4 points per game—second most in the league behind only Bradley Beal, and the second-highest average in a career that’s already seen four scoring titles—to go with 7.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.4 blocks. And, as has always been KD’s wont, he’s made it look almost hilariously easy.

Remember when I said that Embiid was about to join Unanimous Steph as the only players to use more than 30 percent of their team’s offensive possessions and post a true shooting percentage above .650? Well, KD’s doing that, too. His production is almost exactly in line with his 2013-14 season; you might recall that he won MVP that year. I feel compelled to remind you, again, that this man suffered the most devastating injury that can befall a basketball player 19 months ago.

This is why you not only try to sign a man who just had the tendon on which his entire career relies reattached, but beg for the chance to pay him as much money as the rules allow, for as long as you are allowed to pay it. This is why you trade every draft pick under your control for a superstar who can help you win right now. Because you can win right now, because you have Kevin Durant, and the other guys don’t. It’s really, really nice to have him back.

Also receiving votes: The young Cavs, Knicks, and Grizzlies all hanging around .500, buoyed by top-flight defenses! Lu Dort suddenly shooting 40 percent from 3 on 5.5 hoists a night! Bam Adebayo suddenly shooting 50 percent from midrange! De’Andre Hunter taking a leap in Atlanta!

An earlier version of this piece misstated the reason for Saric’s recent absence.