After the Spurs take on the Trail Blazers on Thursday, every NBA team will have played at least 20 games this season, putting us about 25 percent of the way through the 2021-22 schedule. This can mean only one thing: It’s time, as we have in each of the past three seasons, to hand out some fictional, intangible, and impossible-to-store-in-a-display-case hardware to celebrate the end of the campaign’s first quarter.
An important note: These picks are not projected year-end finishes and are not intended to serve as predictions of which players or teams will take home the league’s official trophies. They are, instead, based purely on performance so far—a tip of the cap (and, in one case, a wag of the finger) to what we’ve seen through the first six weeks of the NBA’s 75th campaign.
So let us come together like the Rockets exhorting Kevin Porter Jr. to grab the rebound that they hoped would grant him his first career triple-double (shame on you, league office!) to commemorate the good stuff we’ve seen, starting with the hottest team in the NBA:
Team of the Quarter: Phoenix Suns
For a team coming off an NBA Finals appearance, the Suns had a pretty miserable start to the season. They lost three of their first four games, including a 29-point blowout in Portland and a buzzer-beating defeat in Phoenix. Newly minted Olympic gold medalist Devin Booker wasn’t shooting like himself, Chris Paul wasn’t getting to the rim, and Deandre Ayton, fresh off the frustration of not getting a lucrative contract extension during the offseason, suffered a right leg injury just as Phoenix was starting to find its rhythm. Hanging over all of it, like an anvil or the sword of Damocles: ESPN’s lengthy and explosive report delving into what many former and current Suns employees described as a culture of racism, misogyny, and toxicity during Robert Sarver’s 17-year tenure as the franchise’s owner.
The team had to face repeated media inquiries about the report, parse its own feelings about the contents, and try to solve on-court problems to avoid getting behind the eight ball early. So the players and coaches huddled, vented, and commiserated and got back to controlling what they could control.
In the process, they rediscovered something they learned during last season’s incredible run to the Finals: When you’re as talented, smart, deep, and well-drilled as the Suns are, you can—on the court, at least—control damn near everything.
No loss November— Book (@DevinBook) December 1, 2021
Phoenix hasn’t lost since that Harrison Barnes buzzer-beater and shares the NBA’s best record with the Golden State Warriors at 18-3. The Suns are scorching, tying a franchise record with 17 consecutive wins, the most recent being the most notable: an impressive 104-96 victory over the Warriors, with superstar guard Booker sidelined for the entire second half by a strained left hamstring.
It was a masterful performance, encapsulating so much of what makes the Suns so special. Their elite defense (third in the NBA in points allowed per possession) throttled an excellent offense through discipline, aggression, and suffocating length, with Mikal Bridges staking his claim to an All-Defensive team selection by leading the effort to smother Stephen Curry. Their patient and precise offense (sixth in points scored per possession, even with Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne struggling from deep, and tied for eighth in turnover rate) poked, prodded, and manipulated Golden State’s no. 1-ranked defense until they found the shots they wanted: Ayton with deep position in the post or sealing off a smaller guard on a switch, Cameron Johnson or Landry Shamet waiting in the corner to fire off the catch, and, whenever the game called for it, CP3 winding his way to his sweet spots to create:
The Suns can beat you playing slow, ranking fourth in half-court efficiency with all-time tactician Paul (averaging a league-leading 10.1 assists per game as he puts together perhaps the most effective age-36 season ever for a guard) and the ever-sharpening Booker (shooting 73.3 percent without a turnover in the clutch) at the controls. This year, though, they can beat you playing fast, too: After finishing 18th in pace last season, according to PBP Stats, they’re up to fourth in 2021-22, and sit second in points scored per transition possession, according to Synergy. (Bridges, in particular, has become a menace on the move. Of the 75 players who have finished at least 50 transition plays, he ranks first in points scored per possession and third in field goal percentage, shooting a red-hot 71.7 percent on the break.)
The Suns’ combination of length, athleticism, IQ, and familiarity in head coach Monty Williams’s defensive scheme helps them prevent opponents from taking the kinds of shots they want to—seventh in attempts per game allowed in the restricted area, fifth in corner 3s conceded, 11th in “open” triples allowed and 12th in “wide-open” triples allowed, according to NBA.com’s shot tracking—and force them into midrange attempts more often than any other team in the league. And they don’t much mind you coaxing them into the same sort of shot profile, thanks to Paul and Booker combining to drill just under 50 percent of their 10.5 midrange tries a night.
Backup center, a glaring problem against Milwaukee in the Finals after losing Dario Saric to a torn ACL, has been a strength, with JaVale McGee and the now-injured Frank Kaminsky forming a very solid platoon. Cameron Johnson continues to produce as a complementary wing off the bench. Offseason acquisition Shamet is shooting 37.8 percent on nearly nine 3 tries per 36 minutes, fitting in well as a fourth guard. Ayton (16 points and 11.5 boards per game, shooting 81 percent at the rim and 45 percent from midrange) seems motivated to get the bag that the Suns denied him last summer; Bridges (54/39/84 shooting to go along with his elite defense) seems eager to prove that, if anything, $90 million might have been a discount.
Everywhere you look, there’s an answer: a means of solving whatever problem opposing teams construct and responding with something even nastier for them to crack. A lot of teams in the Suns’ position—coming off a disappointing Finals loss, with a shaky start and tons of off-court rancor—might’ve wobbled. Phoenix stood firm—and now stands as the best team in the NBA.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Warriors, and then after a sizable gap, the Jazz, who are 14-7 with an even better efficiency differential than when they blitzed to the no. 1 seed last season. Unfortunately, just like the Bucks before they won it last year, nobody will care about that until the playoffs.
Player of the Quarter: Stephen Curry, Warriors
If I was basing this purely on the statistical record, I’d have pulled the lever for Nikola Jokic, who consistently makes miracles amid the roiling injury chaos in Colorado. A sprained right wrist interrupted the reigning MVP’s remarkable start to the season and derailed Denver, which suffered a six-game skid to drop under .500. Jokic picked up right where he left off when he returned on Monday, though—24 points on 14 shots, 15 rebounds, and seven assists in a win over the Heat—and continues to rank first or second in just about every advanced metric there.
This doesn’t seem like it should be true, but it is: The Serbian superstar is actually scoring more points per 100 possessions, and on higher true shooting and effective field goal percentages, than Curry, a two-time scoring champion who is, y’know, the greatest shooter of all time. That’s how incredible Jokic has been so far. It’s not his fault his second and third options (Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) are gone; he deserves immense credit for carrying a limping and ramshackle supporting cast to a massive plus-13.0 net rating when he’s on the court.
And yet … Steph.
There were concerns in some circles over whether Curry would return to championship contention and the “best in the world” conversation after Kevin Durant left, Klay Thompson got hurt, and Curry fractured his hand during a lost season that ended with him watching the 2020 playoffs from outside the bubble. We now know those discussions were unwarranted. Like, extremely, extremely unwarranted. After leading the league in scoring and finishing third in Most Valuable Player voting last season, Curry is second in the league in scoring, just behind old mate Durant, and now the favorite to win his third MVP trophy.
Steph remains Steph: taking more 3-pointers than ever and drilling more than 41 percent of them. He’s a tick off the league lead in third-quarter scoring to boost a team that’s become a post-halftime juggernaut, knocking many opponents out well before crunch time. He’s creating openings for teammates just by virtue of his attention-demanding presence on the court; he’s the league’s premiere source of panic attacks for opposing coaches and defenders. The only reason this season’s performance—more than 27 points, six assists, and five rebounds per game, an elite .627 true shooting percentage—isn’t the best of his career is because of how sport-shatteringly ludicrous he was during his unanimous MVP season. And to hear Steph tell it, he’s flat-out better now—as a defender, rebounder, facilitator, and everything else—than he was back then.
Your mileage may vary on that assessment, but everything else about Curry is pretty hard to argue right now. He’s the white-hot sun at the center of the league’s most blistering attack, the rising tide that lifts all boats in the Bay, and the best show in whichever town the Warriors happen to be playing. It seems impossible that, at age 33, Steph might be better than ever; then again, few players in NBA history have more successfully shattered “impossible” as a concept than no. 30.
Also receiving votes: Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo (authoring his own killer encore for a Bucks team that’s getting hot now that it’s healthy), Kevin Durant (the indefensible constant for the Nets, who have weathered Kyrie Irving’s absence and James Harden’s sluggish start to sit atop the East), the Devin Booker–Chris Paul combo in Phoenix, Jimmy Butler (scoring more, and more efficiently, than ever as the Heat’s two-way engine), Rudy Gobert (shooting 73.1 percent from the field, vacuuming defensive boards, and protecting the rim for the customarily excellent Jazz), DeMar DeRozan, Paul George.
Rookie of the Quarter: Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
With apologies to Scottie Barnes, who’s off to an excellent start in Toronto and leads all rookies in points and rebounds per game, Mobley deserves to sit at the head of the 2021 rookie class for his work in helping elevate Cleveland back to competence.
“He’s special, and he will be special,” veteran guard Ricky Rubio recently told reporters. “We don’t even know how [high] his potential can be.”
The former USC standout seemed to enter the NBA in an awkward position, tucked between a pair of 7-footers—$100 million center Jarrett Allen, and $67 million sign-and-trade acquisition Lauri Markkanen—in the kind of jumbo lineup rarely seen in recent years. It’s worked, though, with Cleveland outscoring opponents by 18 points in 181 Allen-Mobley-Markkanen minutes due largely to how effectively the 20-year-old can slide seamlessly between assignments and responsibilities.
Mobley is a disruptive defender who covers a ton of ground, with the size to guard bigs and the foot speed to bottle up guards on switches. He leads the league in contested shots per game, holds opponents to just 45.9 percent shooting, and ranks seventh in the NBA in blocks. He’s also a patient, intuitive playmaker and capable of operating as a connector who can serve as a hub for dribble handoff actions with Cleveland’s guards and make smart reads on the short roll:
Mobley isn’t the sole cause of the Cavs’s surprisingly solid start: Allen and Darius Garland have blossomed in more central, higher-usage roles, and Rubio has been fantastic as a stabilizing veteran presence in the second unit. It feels notable, though, that Cleveland has been 3.4 points-per-100 better with the beanpole rookie flying around out there. It also doesn’t seem coincidental that the Cavaliers’ recent losing skid started in a game when Mobley struggled mightily (0-for-11 from the field against Boston) before spraining his elbow. That streak continued during the four games he missed and ended promptly upon his return. The Cavs have a pulse for the first time since LeBron’s second exit. Mobley, with his combination of poise, polish, and panache, is the biggest reason why.
Also receiving votes: Barnes, Franz Wagner (an instant do-it-all fit in Orlando, plugging gaps on both ends of the floor, sometimes very loudly), Cade Cunningham (averaging about 15-7-5 since a rocky first few games and looking much more comfortable), Chris Duarte (sixth in the rookie class in scoring, shooting 36 percent from deep on steady volume, an immediate cog in Rick Carlisle’s rotation), Josh Giddey (tops among rookies in assists per game and third in rebounds as part of a fun-as-hell young backcourt in OKC), Herb Jones (an absolute lockdown artist in New Orleans, averaging more than two steals and four deflections per 36 minutes; he’s giving up just 0.72 points per possession defended in isolation, 13th best out of 60 players to defend at least 20 isos), Alperen Sengun (putting up 17-9-5 per 36 on strong shooting efficiency and, more importantly, doing some highly cool shit just about every time I look in Houston’s direction).
Reserve of the Quarter: Tyler Herro, Heat
Pegged for stardom following his breakout performance during Miami’s run to the 2020 Finals, Herro battled through an up-and-down sophomore campaign that ended with Milwaukee stomping the Heat in a four-game sweep. Eager to prove he wasn’t a flash in the pan, Herro started the season red-hot, with 27 points in 24 minutes to beat the Bucks in Miami’s home opener. He hasn’t looked back since, averaging just under 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game on strong 45/39/88 shooting splits as the top option in the second unit for fifth-seeded Miami.
The arrival of Kyle Lowry to complement incumbent All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo boosted the overall level of shot-creation talent on the Heat’s roster, and now that Herro is virtually always sharing the floor with at least one table-setter, he’s been unleashed to hunt for his own looks without fear or remorse. Nearly 60 percent of the third-year man’s makes have been unassisted this season, up from 45 percent last year and 39 percent as a rookie; he’s one of only 16 players in the NBA using more than 29 percent of his team’s offensive possessions; he is the only reserve in the league who’s taking the most shots on his team. Which is to say: Your man Tyler’s doing kind of a lot right now.
He’s doing it, though, because it’s working—because he’s not brazenly breaking the offense to do it, because he’s produced efficiently (an above-average true shooting percentage, a positive assist-to-turnover ratio) despite the dramatic uptick in workload, and because the Heat go from scoring like a bottom-10 offense to an elite unit with him on the floor.
With Lowry pestering ball handlers at the tip of the spear, Butler and P.J. Tucker wreaking havoc on the wing, and Adebayo protecting the paint (once he comes back from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb), Miami will be a holy terror on the defensive end of the court come the postseason—the kind of team that can grind opponents down and win ugly, provided it can find the right spark of shot-making and creative confidence at the right time. Like, for example, the sort that comes from a fresh-dipped-in-Louis 21-year-old who didn’t stutter when he said he believes he’s every ounce the rising star that Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Ja Morant are, and who’s hell-bent on proving it every time he checks in. So far, so good.
Also receiving votes: Montrezl Harrell (a constant shot of adrenaline who’s putting up 17 and 8 on 66 percent shooting to fuel the surprising Wizards), Jalen Brunson (who’s bounced back from a woeful playoff performance to be arguably the steadiest hand on the good-but-wobbly Mavericks), Derrick Rose (and, really, the entire Knicks reserve corps that has kept the team above .500), Alex Caruso (the defensive tone-setter pacing the second unit in the Second City), Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge (just what the doctor ordered in Brooklyn), Rubio (the smiling shepherd helping bring the bright young Cavs along).
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Draymond Green, Warriors
As sources of motivation go, “shutting up your kids” ain’t half bad.
“They kind of get on my ass if we lose,” Green recently told reporters. “And I think for me, also, I’ve been shitty the last couple years. And so my kids don’t really understand how good I am. And I want them to see how good I am so they’ll have an understanding.”
Here’s hoping Draymond’s daughter and son are sprinkling in some game film between episodes of Bluey and Octonauts—or whatever’s most frequently streaming in the Green household—because holy cow, is Dad not shitty this season:
After muddling through the “mind-fuck” of falling off the mountain and losing interest in the game during Golden State’s injury-ravaged post-KD year in the gutter, Green has come out the other side, every bit as ferocious and all-encompassing an offense-wrecker as he was at the height of the Dubs dynasty. Now working within a revamped roster, he is the heart of what has been the NBA’s best defense by a mile—according to Cleaning the Glass, the gap between the Warriors and second-place Suns is nearly as large as the one between the Suns and the no. 13 Pacers. He looks for all the world like a man for whom last season’s return to the All-Defensive first team wasn’t quite good enough.
“I want to be a Defensive Player of the Year again,” he recently told reporters. “I want to be an All-Star again.”
Green’s posting his highest block percentage in four years and the best defensive rebound rate of his career. The 31-year-old’s looking as lithe and lively as he has in ages: directing traffic and barking out coverages, flying around the court to stall dribble penetration, nailing rotations to douse fires before they can start, recovering to protect the rim, clearing the defensive glass, and doing it all again with a smile. (OK, sure, sometimes it’s a sneer.)
Andrew Wiggins has earned Steve Kerr’s trust as Golden State’s first line of defense against top wing scorers, but Green remains the trump card Kerr plays when he really needs someone’s water shut off. It’s Draymond who wrestles Anthony Davis and chases stretch bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr. 28 feet away from the rim; it’s Draymond who fights through screens to harass Kevin Durant all over the floor, and dares smaller magicians like CP3 and Damian Lillard to try to pull something on him.
When he’s not bodying up the best of the best, Draymond lays back, surveys the chessboard, and plots a checkmate. Few players in league history have ever been better at reading the floor, diagnosing an offense’s preferred plan of attack, snuffing it out, and forcing them to try something else—one reason a microscopic 23.7 percent of Warriors opponents’ shot attempts have come at the basket with Draymond on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass, nearly 10 percent lower than the league average.
There’s a pure joy in the way Draymond can dismantle a game plan, and in all the dust he can kick up as he’s doing it; as the man himself likes to put it, according to Anthony Slater of The Athletic: “I fuck up opposing offenses.” Nobody’s doing it better right now. So take that, kids.
Also receiving votes: Mikal Bridges (the tip of the spear for the Suns’ no. 2-ranked defense, making the NBA’s toughest perimeter covers absolutely miserable every night), Rudy Gobert (again anchoring a top-six defense and holding opponents to just 42.2 percent shooting at the basket, the stingiest mark in the NBA among players to contest at least 100 such shots), Giannis Antetokounmpo (forced by Brook Lopez’s injury to play about 60 percent of his minutes at center, right behind Gobert in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, with the Bucks preventing points like the league-best Warriors when Giannis is in the game), Myles Turner (leading the league in blocks per game and smothering shots for a Pacers defense that clamps down at a top-five clip in his minutes).
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
I understand the sentiment that it’d be more in the spirit of this sort of award to highlight a player who’s gone from underwhelming to impressive, or from the fringes of the rotation into a central starting role—someone like Tyrese Maxey in Philly or Cole Anthony in Orlando (though some would argue that they fall under the broader “second-year players are supposed to get better” umbrella). To me, though, the hardest and most significant improvement a player can make is to go from good to great—from not yet an All-Star to, potentially, an All-NBA nod.
I’m not sure Morant’s there yet; it’ll be awfully tough to take one of the six guard spots in a field featuring monsters like Steph, Paul, Booker, Harden, Trae, Doncic, DeMar, and Zach LaVine. I am sure, though, that he’s better, in ways that matter and are loud and awesome, than he was during the two seasons he led Memphis to the play-in tournament. I wouldn’t rule out him being good enough to lead the Grizz quite a bit further than that.
Morant’s tailed off from his incredible opening week of the season, because nobody could keep that up. The decline was minimal, though: He’s still one of only seven players in the NBA averaging more than 24 points, five rebounds, five assists, and a steal per game—a list that features four MVPs and two former All-NBA first team selections. He’s shouldering a massive offensive workload for Memphis, with the NBA’s fifth-highest usage rate, according to Cleaning the Glass, and yet he’s been more efficient this season, slicing his turnover rate while turning in an above-league-average true shooting percentage, thanks to career-best finishing.
That includes a healthy 38.6 percent mark on pull-up triples—the kind of shot that defenses have thus far gladly granted Morant, preferring to let him fire away if it meant keeping him from detonating on them at the rack, but one that he’s worked hard to refine. If he can cash those consistently enough to force defenses to play him tight beyond the arc, it’s going to be all but impossible to keep him from torching them off the bounce and getting right into the lane—a downright terrifying thought, considering Ja’s already averaging 20 drives to the rim and 14 points in the paint per game with defenses loading up the box against him.
Morant’s on ice for a couple of weeks after spraining his left knee, and it remains to be seen whether he can maintain his stellar early-season form after some time on the shelf. It’s possible that he can’t; after all, the only other players ever to produce this much and this efficiently by age 22 are friggin’ LeBron and Luka. It’s also possible, though, that the Grizzlies team he returns to—one with Jaren Jackson Jr. seemingly starting to heat up, Dillon Brooks back in the fold to D up and get fits off, and Desmond Bane continuing to shine—is better positioned to support its signature star. And if that happens, maybe Ja’s ascent is just getting started.
Also receiving votes: Anthony, Maxey, Miles Bridges, Herro, Dejounte Murray (averaging 19-9-8 as the closest thing to a go-to guy in San Antonio while still playing elite defense), OG Anunoby (similarly expanding his offensive game while continuing to clamp down).
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Pelicans, Crashing on the Launchpad
Ah, media day. An event when everyone’s undefeated, when every player’s in the best shape of his life, when every coach vows to play faster, and hope springs eternal ... unless, of course, the general manager begins it by revealing that the franchise player had a secret foot surgery.
David Griffin and Zion Williamson put a brave face on it, suggesting the young superstar would be back in time for the regular season. Although actually, technically, Griff never said the start, he’d like you to note—which is why we’re sitting here, six weeks in, still wondering when the cornerstone of the entire Pelicans project will be able to move from cleared for team activities to actually playing NBA basketball.
That, in effect, was that. All it took to dash hopes that Zion might take another leap after a stellar sophomore campaign, and that he might propel the Pelicans back to the postseason for the first time since 2018, was a single press conference, on the first day of the preseason, handled with a “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to see here (pssssst, there is SO MUCH TO SEE HERE)” vibe that seemed positively Process Sixers-ish. It sucked!
New Orleans has mostly looked and performed about how you’d expect a team without its All-NBA-caliber centerpiece to look and perform. The Pelicans enter Thursday at 6-18, in second-to-last place in the West, with the NBA’s 26th-ranked offense and 29th-ranked defense. They’ve been bad at almost everything but rebounding and preventing shots at the rim—which is nifty shorthand for Jonas Valanciunas, the board-crashing, drop-coverage-playing center acquired from the Grizzlies this summer, being very good. (And also the best 3-point shooter in the league?)
Beyond that, though, it’s been brutal, sapping almost all of the excitement out of what looked like a fascinating and compelling season. Basketball-Reference.com’s model and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index both peg the Pelicans’ chances of postseason play at less than 2 percent, while FiveThirtyEight’s a bit more bullish at 16 percent. Woof.
I say “almost all of the excitement” as a hedge, though, because as daunting as those projections look, there are slivers to cling to. The Pels are in line to have the easiest strength of schedule in the league the rest of the way, which could help them make up some ground after falling 5.5 games back of the final play-in berth. After winning just three times in the season’s first 19 games, New Orleans has won three of its past six, faring better with a new starting lineup: Valanciunas, Brandon Ingram, and rookie defensive ace Herb Jones up front, with Josh Hart and Devonte’ Graham in the backcourt. That lineup has played opponents about even through 90 minutes. And while it’s anybody’s guess how long it will take Zion to regain his conditioning and rhythm whenever he does come back, his sheer presence could do wonders for a Pelicans team that’s clearly been starving for both an infusion of talent and an organizing principle.
“We haven’t had Z this season. [We’re] really waiting for him. We need him,” Valanciunas recently told reporters. “He’s gonna be the big piece for us offensively, defensively. The game is gonna change in a good way, big time.”
Hope might not spring eternal in New Orleans anymore. But as long as the big fella’s return appears to be drawing nearer, it can hang around a little longer.
Also receiving votes: The Lakers being bad even when LeBron and Anthony Davis are on the floor together; the Kings’ persistent inability to build any kind of momentum toward consistency and competence; the ongoing absences of Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, who I’d like to watch play basketball at some point; the Knicks’ starting five; Blake Griffin playing his way out of the rotation in Brooklyn; Memphis’s abysmal defense; Detroit’s dismal offense; the Rockets bolting past “fun young team!” and barreling straight into “nearly unwatchable on many nights.”
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Wizards!
It took years of wandering through the proverbial desert and a pair of high-priced, high-profile, high-risk trades, but one of the NBA’s most land-locked and shallow teams now has depth, direction, and options. Washington wears that versatility well: After outlasting the Timberwolves on Wednesday, the Wiz are 14-8, their best record this deep into a season since 2014, and just 1.5 games behind Brooklyn for the top spot in the East. Concerns about the sustainability of a hot start against a soft schedule be damned!
In years past, Bradley Beal had to bear an inordinate amount of the offensive burden just for the Wizards to be competitive. This season, though, Washington’s winning with Beal scoring 22.7 points per game—more than eight points below his average over the past two seasons—and shooting just 27 percent from 3-point land, because GM Tommy Sheppard used the Russell Westbrook trade to restock the roster with dudes who can play, and new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has deployed those resources to overhaul a defense that hadn’t finished in the top 10 in points allowed per possession since 2015. (This year’s model is knocking on the door, at 11th.)
Spencer Dinwiddie looks like a great playmaking complement to Beal, averaging 5.5 assists per game and just 1.6 turnovers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been plug-and-play on the perimeter, knocking down 39 percent of his 3s and taking tough wing assignments every night. Kyle Kuzma, once seen as something of a one-dimensional scorer, has turned into a grinder—well, a high-fashion grinder, I guess—making his living on the boards, on defense, and running the floor. And Montrezl Harrell, freed from the frustration of his year as a Laker, has been attacking the rim like a man possessed:
Trez is making two-thirds of his shots, pulling down a near-career-high share of available rebounds on both the offensive and defensive glass, and serving as a supplementary facilitator in the frontcourt, dishing dimes on 14.9 percent of his teammates’ baskets; that’s the highest assist rate of his career, and the ninth-highest of any big man to play a qualifying amount of minutes this season.
The sorts of all-in-one metrics we use to try to quantify players’ overall contributions—value over replacement player, box plus-minus, win shares, player efficiency rating, stuff like that? Well, they mostly say that Harrell’s been somewhere between a top-six and a top-26 player this season. That’s a bit steep, I think, but all that signal is capturing the degree to which his relentlessness and efficiency have helped the Wiz rack up W’s, and just how much he (and the rest of Washington’s new additions) has been a breath of fresh air for a franchise that desperately needed a refresh.
Also receiving votes: The Cavs being pretty good! The Wolves and Bulls having top-10 defenses! The Magic having one of the most effective lineups in the league despite being pretty bad! Valanciunas shooting 48 friggin’ percent from 3! Gary Payton II!
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Suns lost a buzzer-beater in Sacramento; the team lost that game in Phoenix.