It’s been a wobbly, fraught journey, featuring more than 30 postponed games and more than 50 positive COVID-19 tests since the start of December, but the NBA has made it through the first half of its 2020-21 schedule. Not all teams have completed a full 50 percent of their slates entering the All-Star break; squads like the Wizards, Grizzlies, Hornets, and Spurs, who had to shut down due to multiple positive tests and contact tracing, still have some catching up to do. Since most teams have already played their 36th game, though, let’s celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by taking stock, celebrating the best of the best of what we’ve just watched, and handing out some imaginary hardware.
Before we get underway, a point of clarification: These awards are based purely on performance over the second quarter of this compressed season, the 18ish-game period between the last week of January and this first week of March. Focusing on who rose, fell, delighted, and disappointed during that time, rather than on who has played best through the entire season, better crystallizes the state of play as we enter the second half; it can also help avoid repeats, which keeps things fresh.
One last reminder: These are not predictions on who will take home the league’s official individual and collective trophies come season’s end, but rather a tip of the cap to players and teams at this particular moment. Things shift dramatically in the NBA all the time—this season more than most. All the more reason, then, to shout out the good stuff while we can.
Team of the Quarter: Utah Jazz
Quin Snyder’s club has sputtered a bit this week, but had been downright volcanic for the previous five weeks. The Jazz have ripped off a 14-4 record and outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions since our last check-in on January 27, indicative of just how devastating a two-way buzz saw Utah has been during its run to the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Jazz are burying teams on offense behind a devastating pick-and-roll attack built around the screen setting and rim running of Rudy Gobert, the shot-creating flair of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles, and a deep rotation full of marksmen. Nobody created 3-point shots more frequently than Utah during the second quarter, and only five teams knocked them down more often. They’ve done so while continuing to strangle opposing offenses, too. Utah was the only team in the league during this stretch to rank in the top 10 in preventing shot attempts both at the rim and from beyond the 3-point line, and held opponents to the league’s second-lowest effective field goal percentages on the shots they did concede.
Questions remain for Utah, as they do for every team that has looked tremendous during a regular season before stumbling in the playoffs in the face of a brutal matchup or a singular superstar opponent. My advice for Jazz fans, though? Worry about tomorrow when it comes, and enjoy today while it lasts. Teams hardly ever lock into this kind of groove on both ends of the court—the pristine ball movement, the snare-drum-tight defensive rotations, the knowledge that if one dude has an off night, three others will rise up to get his back—and scarcely ever play this well for this long. We’ll find out come summer whether the Jazz are championship material. Right now, though, they’re both punishing to play against and wonderful to watch. Not a bad combo.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Nets, who have soared to the top of the East behind an offense that was far and away the league’s best in Q2, even with Kevin Durant missing 12 of the last 13 games before the break; the Suns, owners of the West’s best record and second-best net rating in Q2, forcing their way into the Utah/L.A. tier atop the conference.
Player of the Quarter: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Denver’s spent the past five weeks scuffling, seeming to pair every step forward (hey, we blew out the Lakers!) with a dispiriting step back (hey, we lost two games to the Wizards by a combined four points on brutal last-second plays!) to stay stuck in the congested lower reaches of the Western playoff bracket. Don’t let that distract you from the fact that Jokic has remained one of the most unbelievable offensive forces on the planet during this stretch, keeping the Nuggets afloat amid their struggles by sheer will and nearly unparalleled skill.
Since our last check-in, Jokic has averaged 29.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists in 36.2 minutes per game. He’s been the league’s highest-volume offensive hub, and, all told, its most efficient: During this span, he’s shot 60 percent on 2-pointers, 47 percent on 3-pointers, and 94 percent on free throws, with an assist-to-turnover ratio approaching 4-to-1. That’s ludicrous production given his workload, and it’s been the difference between the Nuggets looking like world-beaters and also-rans; Denver has blitzed opponents by 10.7 points-per-100 in Jokic’s minutes during this stretch, and has been outscored by 4.7 points-per-100 in the 12 minutes per game he’s rested. (He’s had help: Quiet as it’s kept, Jamal Murray’s been Bubble God good for about three weeks now, averaging 29-5-5 on 56/48/92 shooting over his past 11 games.)
Jokic’s chances of serious MVP consideration will likely rest on whether the Nuggets can rise in the standings. But the fact that they’re even in the middle of the Western pack despite injuries (Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green have all missed time recently) and inconsistency (especially on the defensive end) serves as awfully compelling evidence of just how good Jokic has been—a legitimate superstar, and a singularly special player.
ARTVIMB: James Harden (averaging 26-9-11 on .652 true shooting as the engine of the NBA’s best offense), Joel Embiid (32-11-4 on bonkers efficiency while also serving as the defensive centerpiece of a Sixers team that still tops the East), Devin Booker (a deserving All-Star—as an injury replacement, but whatever—who was scorching all February long for a damn good Suns team), Stephen Curry (31-5-7 on 50/43/96 shooting during Q2, averaging 5.3 3-pointers per game all by his damn self), Giannis Antetokounmpo (right back to MVP production to push Milwaukee back into the upper echelon of the East), Damian Lillard, Zion Williamson, Zach LaVine, Rudy Gobert, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic … man, there are just SO many incredible players in the league right now.
Rookie of the Quarter: LaMelo Ball, Hornets
Our first repeat winner! The league’s best freshman earned James Borrego’s trust and, with it, a slot in Charlotte’s starting lineup at the beginning of February. He’s taken the reins of the Hornets offense—he leads the team in touches, time of possession, and usage rate in this span—and responded by averaging an efficient 21-6-7 in 35 minutes per game for one of the league’s most entertaining and exciting teams.
The Hornets have scored 3.3 more points-per-100 with LaMelo on the court than off it in Q2. He’s shown a flair for the big moment, taking over in the second half to help push Charlotte to a road win in Phoenix, and becoming a mainstay in the crunch-time lineups that have been the league’s best in “clutch” situations. With Gordon Hayward, Devonte’ Graham, and Cody Zeller all sidelined on Monday, Ball stepped up, going toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famers Damian Lillard and Carmelo Anthony to the tune of 30 points on 10-for-18 shooting with eight assists, six rebounds, and four steals. With the Hornets starting to drag in their fifth game in eight nights on an extended West Coast road trip, Ball brought the juice his team needed, turning what easily could’ve been a schedule loss into a competitive affair, and earning some respect along the way:
Carmelo Anthony and LaMelo Ball swap jerseys after the game. ✊— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) March 2, 2021
Carmelo Anthony on LaMelo Ball also being called Melo: "LaMelo is going to be in the league for a long time so you might as well use it. For me, it's an honor."— Sean Highkin (@highkin) March 2, 2021
On LaMelo doing the 3 to the dome: "I embrace it. I blessed him. He can do it."
And so it is, from the man himself.
Ball continues to show incredible feel, poise, and skill for a 19-year-old, and he just seems to keep getting better the more responsibility Borrego heaps on his plate. Whether or not Charlotte’s got the goods to stay in the playoff chase in the East through the second half remains to be seen, but Ball certainly seems to have what it takes to help propel this franchise into consistent relevance for the first time in ages.
ARTVIMB: Immanuel Quickley (UNLEASH HIM, THIBS!); Tyrese Haliburton; Anthony Edwards (the shooting percentages are still rough, but he’s up to 16.4 points and 3.3 assists per game as a starter, and has looked even better with Karl-Anthony Towns back in the lineup); Saddiq Bey and Desmond Bane, both shooting over 40 percent from 3 on volume and looking like 3-and-D keepers in Detroit and Memphis, respectively; Devin Vassell, already an ace perimeter defender and a key part of the Spurs’ hammer second unit.
Reserve of the Quarter: Jordan Clarkson, Jazz
The Jazz traded for Clarkson just before Christmas 2019 because they had a hole that needed filling: Nobody in their second unit could reliably create a shot. Clarkson, whatever his warts, always has been eager to fill that particular hole; he’d averaged nearly 19 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in the two seasons preceding his arrival in Utah. The marriage was an immediate success, leading the Jazz to pony up $52 million to bring Clarkson back in free agency. One of the cleanest, coziest fits in the NBA has continued to pay dividends during Utah’s rocketship ride to the top of the West.
Clarkson has averaged 19.1 points per game during the second quarter, tops among rotation reserves and second on the Jazz behind only Mitchell. He’s been happily following Snyder’s edict to “shoot the fucking ball,” firing 12.9 3-pointers per 36 minutes of floor time—which, over the course of a full season, would tie the highest number in NBA history. Given that kind of volume, it scarcely matters that Clarkson’s making a below-average 35.8 percent in Q2 after being closer to 40 percent through the season’s opening month. Even if he’s not knocking down every long ball he launches, the sheer pressure he applies with both the constant threat to pull up off the bounce and his ability to beat tight coverage to get to the rim—he’s averaging 10.1 drives per game in this stretch, shooting 58.8 percent on them—compromises defenses, stretching them past their breaking points and helping create easier shots for teammates.
That Utah has scored 2.4 more points per 100 possessions with Clarkson off the floor than on it during this raucous run doesn’t matter; what matters is that they’ve still scored at a top-five rate in his minutes, and have continued to torch opponents even if Mitchell and Conley aren’t on the floor. Before his arrival, opponents got a breather when the Jazz’s starters went to the bench; now, though, that hole is filled, leaving nowhere for defenses to run to, and nowhere to hide.
ARTVIMB: Thaddeus Young (continuing to do his best Draymond Green impersonation in Chicago); Patty Mills and the gang in San Antonio; Bobby Portis (shooting 55 percent from the floor and 57 percent from deep as a strong instant-offense frontcourt fit in Milwaukee); Lou Williams (bouncing back from a sluggish start to average 15.5 and 4.6 on 44/43/88 shooting); Jalen Brunson (arguably Dallas’s second-best player behind Luka Doncic of late); Haliburton and Quickley (the kids are all right, man); Malik Monk (finally fitting in and balling out in Charlotte); Cam Johnson (briefly moved into the starting lineup, now back out and continuing to contribute to Phoenix’s killer bench).
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Ben Simmons, 76ers
The Sixers aren’t at the tippy-top of the standings in defensive efficiency; seven teams allowed fewer points per possession in Q2, including several paced by worthy candidates. Rudy Gobert led the league in blocks in this span, and ranked third in contested shots and fourth in defensive rebounding rate. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo’s ability to smother threats of all kinds has helped get Miami back on track after a rough, COVID-wracked start. Draymond Green remains the bellwether of a Warriors defense that’s been a top-five unit since his return. Few players in the league take on tougher individual assignments on a nightly basis than Luguentz Dort, the relentless middle linebacker at the heart of the Thunder’s ninth-ranked Q2 defense, or Mikal Bridges, the long arm of the law locking down the perimeter for no. 3 Phoenix.
But I’m not sure anybody’s doing everything on defense as well as Simmons is right now for the East-leading Sixers. Over the past five weeks, he’s been the primary point-of-attack defender on no. 1 options of all sizes and shapes—LeBron James, D’Angelo Russell, Malcolm Brogdon, Gordon Hayward, De’Aaron Fox, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Collin Sexton, and Luka Doncic—and has tamped down on them all. (The only dude to really cook him in this span: Devin Booker, who, to be fair, is cooking everybody these days.)
Simmons can make the loud plays that call attention to his defensive excellence—the moments when he shoots the gap to fill a passing lane, catches an unsuspecting ball handler napping, or straight up rips the ball out of some poor sap’s hands for a pick-six that either he or a teammate take all the way to the house:
But while Simmons tied for second in the league in Q2 in deflections and tied for third in loose balls recovered, and tied for 18th in steals, he often makes his biggest impact in quieter ways—or, more to the point, in the way his man stays quiet. It’s when Russell, Minnesota’s primary source of offense with Karl-Anthony Towns injured, takes just one shot with Simmons on him, and Brogdon, needing to elevate Indiana as Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner battled with Joel Embiid inside, takes only two. It’s when Doncic, one of the league’s most lethal and polished pick-and-roll playmakers, suddenly can’t even find enough oxygen to ask for help:
Really nice defensive possession on Luka Doncic by Ben Simmons pic.twitter.com/53rMyVbM49— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 26, 2021
Simmons hardly ever gives up a clean look off a screen, using his size and quickness to leave an ever-present fear lingering in the back of his mark’s mind. He’s holding opponents to 43 percent shooting on isolations and 32 percent on spot-up chances. Only six players who have defended ball handlers in the pick-and-roll as frequently as he has are allowing fewer points per possession on such plays.
The former no. 1 pick also pairs his gift for disruption with nearly unrivaled adaptability. According to Krishna Narsu and Andrew Patton’s defensive metrics at the BBall Index, only a half-dozen big-minutes players more frequently guard all five positions. Of that group, the only ones who regularly face more difficult matchups are Toronto’s OG Anunoby and Dallas’s Dorian Finney-Smith—both excellent defenders, but also both 6-foot-7, and thus potentially vulnerable against more towering bigs in a way that the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Simmons isn’t.
The best of the best are going to get theirs regardless, especially in a modern-day game in which optimized offenses consistently terrorize defeated defenses. The trick is finding a way to dampen those offenses and their varied signature stars, just a little bit, night after night—and there’s no better, more reliable, and more versatile answer right now than Simmons.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Kelly Oubre Jr., Warriors
OK, so technically, Oubre might not fit the definition of “improvement” in the context of the NBA’s award. The level that he’s played at recently isn’t necessarily stunning; it is, in fact, pretty solidly in line with his production during the season and a half he spent in Phoenix, where he emerged as an above-average slasher, scorer, and perimeter defender after a few promising but up-and-down seasons in Washington.
Given the abject desolation of Oubre’s start to life as a Warrior, though, mere regression to the mean constitutes one hell of a leap:
Even amid his early struggles, it was clear that Oubre was eager to find his fit in Golden State. He hustled on both ends, brought energy and effort to his nightly defensive assignments, and didn’t make a ton of glaring mental errors. It was just that his shot wasn’t falling, which made him a glaring net negative in lineups already featuring a terminal lack of spacing, which in turn put immense pressure on the shot-creating genius of Stephen Curry. A couple of get-right games against the woeful Wolves helped prime the pump for an explosion in Dallas: a career-high 40 points on 14-for-21 shooting, including a 7-for-10 mark from 3-point range, to go with eight rebounds, a pair of dimes, a steal, and a block.
Oubre might not pop for 40 again this season, but if he’s able to confidently step into and drill jumpers, he’s an awfully valuable role player. He can drive past aggressive closeouts by defenders who can no longer leave him alone at the arc, and can take advantage of Draymond’s playmaking precision and the extra defensive attention Steph draws by moving opportunistically into open space; through the full season, he’s averaging 1.45 points per possession used after making a cut, shooting 70 percent on those plays.
He’s a disruptive defender—1.6 steals plus blocks and 2.1 deflections per game in Q2—who at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan has the length and athleticism to guard every perimeter position, as well as the tenacity and rebounding chops to hold up as a small-ball 4. When the Warriors get into games that count and need an offensive jolt, it’d be fun to see them run the Steph-Draymond-Oubre-Wiggins quartet with another 3-and-D ball mover, like Kent Bazemore or Juan Toscano-Anderson. Not exactly the Death Lineup, I’ll grant, but it might be as dynamic as this roster can offer.
Oubre’s good, tough, versatile, solid—the kind of player you can win with, and the kind who responded to hard times with harder work. “When I was shitty, I was just getting better each and every day,” he recently told reporters. “In the gym, working out, working on my craft, adding tools to my bag. In due time, those tools will be able to blossom and show.”
ARTVIMB: Darius Garland (averaging 17 points and six dimes per game in Q2 while shooting league average from deep in Cleveland in a very strong bounceback from his rocky rookie season); Lonzo Ball (the arrival of Point Zion has pushed him back into his proper off-ball role, and he’s thriving, averaging just under 17-5-6 while shooting 46 percent from 3-point range on eight attempts a night); Monk, shining in Charlotte; Kyle Anderson (who’s gone from never looking at the rim to averaging nearly 15 points per game on 44 percent 3-point shooting in Q2, and has been arguably Memphis’s most reliable player this season); T.J. McConnell (now a bona fide difference-making table-setter and defender, averaging eight points, eight assists, four rebounds, and two steals in 29 minutes per game off the Indiana bench in the second quarter).
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Celtics Floundering
It’s not especially difficult to understand why Boston’s stumbled to a sub.-500 record and a negative point differential over the past 19 games. Marcus Smart missed all but two of those contests with a calf injury. Jayson Tatum is pretty openly struggling with his conditioning and consistency after contracting COVID-19 earlier this season. Kemba Walker had a bear of a time getting back into the flow of things after returning from knee surgery. Those issues shone a bright light on a wafer-thin roster suddenly dependent on Daniel Theis–Tristan Thompson twin-towers frontcourts, and betting that someone like Semi Ojeleye, Javonte Green, rookie Aaron Nesmith, or the ghost of Jeff Teague will come through on a regular basis.
Those bets, perhaps unsurprisingly, haven’t paid off as handsomely as Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens might’ve liked. Whether you view that as poor planning or bad luck likely depends on your overall worldview. Either way, though, a Celtics team that looked like it might be poised to take off after fully tossing the keys to Tatum, Smart, and Jaylen Brown has instead slipped out of the top tier of Eastern Conference contenders, and down into the glut of teams jostling on the fringes of play-in territory. That’s not what anyone in Boston had in mind coming off their third Eastern Conference finals berth in four years.
The glass-half-full take: The luck of the Irish might be changing. After losing six of eight, the C’s have won three in a row. Walker’s looked like his old self in those victories, averaging 26 points and 6.7 assists while shooting 45 percent on nearly 10 3-pointers per game and earning six trips to the line a night. Smart should return soon after the All-Star break; so, too, should sophomore wing Romeo Langford, who has yet to suit up in 2020-21 after offseason wrist surgery, and who would provide another option on the wing. Ainge could look outside the organization to bolster the rotation, too, by using the mammoth $28.5 million trade exception Boston got for letting Gordon Hayward walk to add some high-priced help before the trade deadline.
Last season, Boston outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Smart on the court; this season, they’ve barely logged 50 shared possessions total. Get those four healthy and on the floor together for a while, and before too long, this disappointing stretch might be a distant memory.
ARTVIMB: The Hawks falling off due to injuries and inconsistency, then making Lloyd Pierce the fall guy; the Kings responding to excitement about De’Aaron Fox’s All-Star push and Tyrese Haliburton’s stellar rookie campaign by rake-stepping their way to losing 10 out of 11 in a fashion that puts Luke Walton squarely on the hot seat; the degree to which Christian Wood’s injury absolutely tanked the Rockets, who promptly lost 12 straight and now find themselves in the depths of rebuilding hell.
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Knicks Keeping It Up
A confession: When I wrote about New York’s strong start in the first week of January, I did it in part because I figured I should take the opportunity to accentuate the positive while it lasted. I mean, really: How long would Julius Randle play like an All-Star point forward? How long would Immanuel Quickley look like the steal of the 2020 draft? How long would Tom Thibodeau be able to transmogrify a defense that had ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession for four straight years into a top-five unit?
The answer, it turns out, is “at least half the season.” Randle remains one of the league’s best individual stories: an undeniably talented player who’d never quite lived up to his potential putting it all together in his seventh season to average 23-11-5.5 (which are, no joke, Wilt/Oscar/Bird/Giannis/Jokic numbers) and earn his first All-Star berth. Quickley’s averaging just under 24-5-5 per 36 minutes of floor time, nailing 39 percent of his 3-pointers on heavy volume, and looking for all the world like the sort of rare talent who should prompt Thibs to rethink his whole “play the steady veterans a million minutes” philosophy.
Sophomore RJ Barrett continues to develop into a solid all-around player, averaging 15.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in Q2 while playing strong perimeter defense across multiple positions and—perhaps most importantly—shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range. Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks continue to drill 3s; Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose have been stabilizing agents in the second unit. Despite losing shot-swatting starting center Mitchell Robinson to a broken hand, New York has gotten even stingier, leading the league in defensive efficiency and opponent effective field goal percentage since our last check-in. It’s been incredible, in both senses: extraordinarily cool to see and difficult to believe is actually happening.
There are reasons to believe it might not continue. The star performers could cool off, and opponents could heat up. New York continues to have the NBA’s widest gap between opponents’ actual effective field goal percentage and the eFG% you’d expect them to have based on where they’re attempting their shots. The Knicks’ defensive shot profile has been one of the league’s worst, owing to how often they allow opponents to take shots at the rim and fire away from beyond the arc; if other teams start knocking down more of their open 3s, New York’s fortunes could change. Similarly, New York played one of the league’s easiest first-half schedules, and will face one of its half-dozen toughest after the All-Star break—one big reason why, despite sitting at .500 and just a half-game out of fourth in the East, several playoff probability models peg the Knicks’ postseason chances as very unlikely, pretty unlikely, or closer to a coin flip than a lock.
We don’t read stories just for their final lines, though; what comes before matters, especially to the degree that it can spark joy. Nobody saw the Knicks being even average this season, and certainly not arriving at it this way. Seeing Randle, Quickley, Thibs, and the rest mount a successful start to the massive project of turning around what has been the league’s worst franchise over the past two decades has been an unexpected delight. Whatever might come next, that much is well worth savoring.
ARTVIMB: The Suns vaulting themselves into the ranks of legitimate contenders; the Hornets, Spurs, and Wizards all bouncing back to play .500-or-better ball in Q2; Stan Van Gundy leaning into Point Zion, thus supercharging the Pelicans’ offense; the Raptors getting right after their 2-8 start behind the stellar play of Fred VanVleet (who should’ve been an All-Star!); Justise Winslow finally getting back on the court after 14 months away due to injuries, and showing some intriguing flashes in the early going for the Grizzlies, who are still in the playoff hunt despite Jaren Jackson Jr. missing the entire first half after tearing his meniscus in the bubble.
Stats through Tuesday’s games.