Spring has sprung in the NBA, and as the weather warms, the chaotic and compressed 2020-21 regular season has started moving more briskly toward its conclusion. Some teams seem to be coming into the home stretch like lions; others appear more content to sink into the lottery like lambs. It’s not quite the most wonderful time of the NBA year—not with all those stumbling-through-the-second-half blowouts, anyway—but we can see it coming on the horizon.
Just about every team is now or soon will be 75 percent of the way through its 72-game schedule, and you know what that means. It is now time for us, as we did at the first- and second-quarter marks, to celebrate our arrival at a manageable fraction by taking stock, to praise the best of the best of what we’ve just watched, and to hand out some purely theoretical hardware.
Before we do so, a brief note: This set of awards is based entirely on performance over the third quarter of the season, meaning the 18ish-game period between the first week of March and mid-April, and not on the whole season to date. Dialing in on how players and teams fared during this most recent period will help us highlight who’s rising and falling as we head into the final few weeks of the season and the playoffs.
Let’s divvy up some imaginary trophies:
Team of the Quarter: Phoenix Suns
After playing .500 ball for about the first month of the season, the Suns have been arguably the NBA’s best team, charging toward the top of the Western Conference fueled by both brilliance and balance. Over the past six weeks, Monty Williams’s club has gone 15-4, the league’s top record in Q3, while outscoring opponents by nearly nine points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. Only three teams posted a better point differential during this stretch: the East-leading 76ers, the Jazz, whom the Suns beat head-to-head last week in one of the best games of the season, and the Clippers, who outlasted Phoenix the following night behind 60 points from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as Phoenix ran out of gas late.
Like both the Jazz and Clippers, the Suns enter the home stretch with an impressive regular-season résumé ... and, like both the Jazz and Clippers, they’ll bear the burden of proving they can carry that success over into the postseason. It’s a familiar argument: We won’t believe Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and the rest of the young Suns will hold up to playoff scrutiny until we see them do it, and we won’t believe a Chris Paul–led team will make the Finals until we finally see it happen. And I get that; given the depth of fantastic teams up and down the Western standings, it’s more likely that the Suns will lose in the first round than win the conference.
That doesn’t mean it’s unlikely that Phoenix will survive the march. FiveThirtyEight’s projections give the Suns a 11 percent shot of making the Finals, while Baskeball-Reference.com’s model puts their odds at 17 percent, and that better-than-a-puncher’s-chance—an opportunity born out of Paul’s peerless playmaking, Booker’s imperial swag and scoring touch, and the floor-raising confidence that comes when a team believes it can be more than the sum of its parts—makes Phoenix one of the most interesting teams in the league. All season long, skeptics have been waiting for the Suns to stumble, to show that they don’t really belong in the ranks of the NBA’s elite. And all season long, the Suns have just shrugged, smirked, told us to keep waiting, and gone right back to winning.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Jazz, who had the league’s best Q3 net rating and continue to own its best record overall; the Nuggets, who won the trade deadline by importing perfect-fit forward Aaron Gordon and ran neck-and-neck with Phoenix for the league’s top Q3 record; the Nets, who stayed near the top of the East despite both James Harden and Kyrie Irving missing time and Kevin Durant barely playing; the 76ers, who stayed right there with Brooklyn despite Joel Embiid missing a dozen games; the Clippers, whose NBA-best record against top-10 opposition was mitigated somewhat by shaky losses to the Wiz, Pelicans, and post-deadline Magic; the Bucks, who still don’t look quite as good as last season, but are still right there in the big Eastern Conference picture.
Player of the Quarter: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
You’ll have to forgive me for repeating myself, friends. Sometimes, though, the most appropriate answer is the same one you just gave.
The third quarter saw some attrition in the ranks of the elite, with a veritable All-NBA team—Durant, LeBron James, Embiid, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry—all missing a half-dozen or more games. Several other superstars, like Harden, Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Luka Doncic, missed a handful, too, taking a bit of the luster off of their otherwise sterling cases.
I thought hard about Devin Booker here. The two-time All-Star averaged roughly 27-5-5 in Q3, with some big performances against playoff teams—35 vs. Portland, 26 and 9 against the Lakers, 35 in the OT win over the Jazz. As vital as Chris Paul’s arrival has been to Phoenix’s success this season, Booker’s per-minute production in this span was virtually identical whether CP3 was on the court or not. He is the polished and pugnacious centerpiece of an excellent team, and I can’t wait to see this new iteration of Booker in the playoffs; my guess is the sport’s grandest stage will suit his skills and temperament just fine.
In the end, though, I decided to make the safe, boring, but ultimately correct pick: the 6-foot-11 point-mountain who averaged a ho-hum 24-11-9 in Q3 while shooting 60 percent inside the arc and 42 percent outside it, anchoring one of the NBA’s hottest teams, ensuring the seamless integration of a vital new piece without interruption, and helping propel Denver to within striking distance of the third seed in the West. They might not get there, after a two-game skid capped by a frightening non-contact left knee injury to running buddy Jamal Murray, but they’re only close because he pushed them there.
I know: totally chalk. I’ll try to be adventurous next time—provided Jokic stops putting up literally unprecedented numbers by then.
ARTVIMB: The aforementioned Booker, Harden, Irving, Giannis, and Luka; Rudy Gobert, still the two-way linchpin of the team with the NBA’s best record; Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 24-7-5 with a pair of steals on .626 true shooting for a hiding-in-plain-sight title contender; Jimmy Butler, who put up similar numbers to Kawhi to help stabilize a Heat team that’s now in the hunt for the East’s fourth seed; Damian Lillard, the offensive engine and crunch-time titan of the go-go Blazers; Zion Williamson, now living his best life as Point Shaq.
Rookie of the Quarter: Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves
I just wrote glowingly about Edwards’s ongoing growth alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and under new head coach Chris Finch, so I won’t belabor the point here. The no. 1 pick averaged 10 more points per game in Q3 than any other rookie not named LaMelo Ball, who was limited to only a half-dozen appearances by a fractured wrist. Edwards also tied for first among all freshmen in steals per game, ranked seventh in rebounds and tied for ninth in assists, and had a discernible impact on Minnesota’s quality of play; the Wolves, who are very bad by all measures, were about two points per 100 possessions better with Edwards on the floor than off it.
He’s a heat-seeking missile pointed straight at the rim ...
… who’s also developing pretty good touch as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll:
One more fun stat: Edwards was one of just 16 players to average at least 23 points, five rebounds, and two assists per game during this stretch. Twelve of the other 15 have made at least one All-NBA team; all 15 have made at least one All-Star appearance. They’re all much more efficient scorers than Edwards, of course, but it’s worth noting that the 19-year-old’s .549 true shooting percentage was a dramatic improvement over his first- and second-quarter marks, despite cranking his usage rate up to “no. 1 option star” level. Given how rapidly he’s adapting and proving capable of overwhelming even good NBA defenders, it’s anybody’s guess just how high his ceiling might be.
ARTVIMB: Tyrese Haliburton, still the steadily efficient complementary scoring and playmaking backcourt piece Sacramento desperately needed; Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, cementing themselves as hard-defending and increasingly sweet-shooting building blocks in Detroit; Théo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski, joyously commanding the tank in Oklahoma City; Chuma Okeke, the brightest spot in a dark time in the Magic Kingdom; Jae’Sean Tate, a furious fire hydrant of a defender coming into his own in rebuilding Houston; Kira Lewis Jr., getting a chance in Stan Van Gundy’s backcourt and making the most of it; Jaden McDaniels, who looks like an absolute steal of a two-way forward in Minneapolis.
Reserve of the Quarter: Montrezl Harrell, Lakers
It’s been a rough few weeks for the defending champions, who have been furiously treading water without both of their All-NBA linchpins. That they’ve held up even this well—9-8 in Q3 despite AD being out for its entirety, and LeBron missing 12 games—is due in large part to Harrell, who has remained a vital source of offense and activity off the L.A. bench.
As you’d expect, nearly every makeshift starting lineup that Frank Vogel has trotted out has struggled without LeBron or AD to steady it. That has made production off the pine even more pivotal, and Harrell has provided it. He was L.A.’s second-leading scorer in Q3, averaging 15.6 points on 61.0 percent shooting to go with 7.2 rebounds and just under two combined blocks and steals in 25.3 minutes per game. (Those marks all likely would’ve been a bit higher had Trez not gotten run from the Lakers’ win over the Raptors after just 2.5 minutes of burn for coming to the aid of teammate Dennis Schröder during his scuffle with OG Anunoby.)
Harrell made one start after Davis’s injury. But after an underwhelming performance in a 10-point loss to the Suns, he asked Vogel to return to a reserve role, saying he preferred to watch the opening minutes to get a sense for the flow of the game and how it was being officiated. You can understand why that might matter for a physicality-and-energy-first player like the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, whose ability to scrounge for points—as an elite dive man in the pick-and-roll, as a board-crashing generator of second-chance points, as a font of free throw attempts who draws fouls on nearly 20 percent of his shot attempts—has been vital for an L.A. offense desperate for sustainable sources of offense without James and Davis. Yes, the Lakers still scored only 106.2 points per 100 possessions with Harrell on the court in Q3, according to NBA Advanced Stats—a bottom-five offensive rate. But they managed just 104.4 points-per-100—a bottom-two rate—with him off of it. That boost has been just enough to allow a defense that remains one of the toughest in the league to hold up, and to keep the Lakers within hailing distance of Denver for the West’s no. 4 spot.
With LeBron and AD still reportedly weeks away from returning, Vogel and Co. can’t stop treading water just yet. But if the Lakers are still in the race for home-court advantage by the time their superstars come back, it’ll be a credit to the work that Harrell and the rest of L.A.’s grinders did in keeping the team’s head above water.
ARTVIMB: Jalen Brunson, an absolute godsend for Dallas in the backcourt; Nic Claxton, the switch-everything low-usage finisher who gives Steve Nash yet another option on a Nets team teeming with them; Danilo Gallinari, shooting 43 percent from 3-point range over his last 15 games and finally looking like the game-changer the surging Hawks hoped he’d be when they landed him in free agency; TJ McConnell, leading all reserves in assists in Q3 while shooting 60 percent from the floor, logging nearly twice as many deflections as turnovers, and making obscure history in Indiana; De’Anthony Melton, who flirted with 50-50-80 shooting in Q3 while remaining a defensive menace and posting the best net rating of any rotation player on the fun-as-hell Grizzlies.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Utah has earned plenty of deserved praise for its high-octane offense this season, riding a historic hail of 3-point attempts and accuracy to the NBA’s best record. The team’s tilt toward offensive juggernaut hasn’t come at the expense of its defensive spine, though: The Jazz remain one of the stingiest squads in the NBA, with only the Sixers, Knicks and Lakers conceding fewer points per possession in Q3.
As it has for the last half-dozen seasons, it can all be traced back to Gobert’s presence in the paint. Nobody blocked more shots during this span than Gobert, who averaged three swats per night, headlined by a nine-rejection domination of the Bulls on March 22:
Opponents shot just 50 percent at the rim in Q3 when Gobert was contesting, tied for the fourth-best mark among 91 players to defend at least 75 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. And they shot just 41.7 percent from the field overall against the Jazz with Gobert on the court in that stretch.
Utah has a bunch of good, smart, capable perimeter defenders: Royce O’Neale locking onto opponents’ top options, Mike Conley still a disruptive tip-of-the-spear point guard, Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors providing length and savvy off the bench, etc. But everything Utah does revolves around Gobert’s ability to not only swat away shots from drivers who dare to venture into the lane, but to dissuade even more from trying. In Gobert’s 566 minutes during Q3, the Jazz allowed a microscopic 99.6 points per 100 possessions—miles below what even the league-leading Sixers conceded during that span.
You can quibble with the value of a massive drop-coverage big man in playoff matchups against ace pull-up shooters if you’d like. But there’s a reason Gobert may be well on his way to a third Defensive Player of the Year award, and it was on display night in and night out during Q3.
ARTVIMB: Mikal Bridges, who went mano a mano with the likes of Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, and just about every other team’s top scorer for a Suns squad that ranked seventh in defensive efficiency in Q3; Matisse Thybulle, an absolute chaos agent—110 combined blocks, steals, and deflections in just 390 minutes!—to key a Sixers defense that kept Philly humming while Embiid was out; Nerlens Noel, who led the league in blocks at the rim in Q3 while stepping in for the injured Mitchell Robinson for what remains a top-five defense in New York; Jimmy Butler, locking down elite threats all over the floor and leading the league in steals per game; Myles Turner, whose Defensive Player of the Year campaign has lost steam, but who remains the shot-blocking heart of the Pacers’ defense.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: De’Aaron Fox, Kings
You could argue that I’m giving Fox the short shrift. After all, he’s been pretty damn good for a couple of seasons now: a third-place MIP finisher back in 2018-19, one of only 10 qualifying players to average 20 points and six assists per game last season, and an arguable All-Star snub this season. It’s not like he’s suddenly starting to figure it all out.
Watch the Kings these days, though, and it’s hard not to get struck by the feeling that the 23-year-old has jumped up a level:
Only four players averaged more points per game in Q3 than Fox: Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, and Kyrie Irving. He had nearly as many 30-point performances in this six-week stretch (10) as he had in the first three seasons of his career (10).
Fox’s long-range game remains a work in progress—just 30.8 percent from 3-point land in this span—but he’s been a nightmarish cover everywhere else. Even with defenses giving him a cushion, he still averaged more than 18 drives per game in Q3, scoring 15.1 points per game off of those forays to the basket. He’s become an excellent finisher, shooting 71 percent at the cup in this stretch and drawing fouls on just under 18 percent of his attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass.
He’s developed the touch and countermoves to convert even when he can’t get all the way to the tin, too, shooting 51 percent from floater range and 46 percent on midrange tries. That evolving and expanding bag has made Fox one of the league’s most bankable crunch-time threats this season; he scored 40 points in 34 “clutch” minutes during Q3, fourth best in the league, shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 85 percent at the line. And the more attention defenses have to pay to trying to shut down Fox’s dribble penetration, the more openings there are for him to find teammates; only nine players created more points via assist in this span than the Kings’ table-setter, according to PBPstats.com.
Add it all up, and Fox has been a more dangerous offensive threat than ever. He averaged 29.1 points, 6.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game in Q3, posting a .589 true shooting percentage on 32 percent usage—a level of production that only bona fide offensive mega-engines have managed over the past couple of seasons. With Fox on the court, the Kings scored 114.4 points per 100 during Q3, equivalent to a top-10 offense; when he sat, they barely scored a point per possession, a league-worst rate.
Fox’s offensive leap hasn’t been enough to keep Sacramento from sliding down the Western standings; unless he and the rest of a team that ranked 26th in defensive efficiency in this span gets serious about getting stops, the NBA’s longest-running active postseason drought will continue unabated. If this run of form holds, though, and the Kings become even somewhat respectable on the other end, this version of Fox could be the sort of bucket-generating weapon who can elevate a half-decent defense into an awfully tough out.
ARTVIMB: Terance Mann, averaging just under 10 points and five rebounds in 23 minutes per game is precisely the sort of athletic rim-pressuring threat the Clippers needed; Rui Hachimura, quietly averaging 16 points and six boards per game in Q3, shooting 71 percent at the rim, 44 percent from midrange, and 37 percent from deep, and defending all five positions as a real bright spot for the scuffling Wizards; Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who’d been drilling 40 percent of his triples on high volume and earning his way into the Pelicans’ rotation before spraining his ankle; Kenrich Williams, developing into an awfully helpful reserve wing in Oklahoma City; Nic Claxton and Jaxson Hayes, a pair of bouncy young bigs showing new facets to their game every time they’re called upon.
Biggest Disappointments of the Quarter: LaMelo Ball Going Down and the Raptors Getting Decimated by COVID-19
Two very different things, two very big bummers.
You don’t need me to tell you how much fun LaMelo had been to watch through the first three months of the season. The Rookie of the First and Second Quarter made immediate waves with his court vision and passing flair. He quickly proved worthy of a starting role in Charlotte; his extra-pass effervescence and audacious pursuit of The Big Play rubbed off on the Hornets, turning a franchise long devoid of intrigue into this season’s most beloved League Pass darlings. I mean, look at this:
To the Hornets’ credit, they have held fast since losing Ball to a fractured wrist in late March, going 7-4 with a positive point differential and top-10 defense without a player who seemed to have Rookie of the Year honors all but sewn up before his injury. That they’ve persevered through even more major losses—star forward Gordon Hayward and finally-figuring-it-out swingman Malik Monk hit the injured list shortly after LaMelo—speaks well to both the culture that head coach James Borrego has built and the talent of the players who are holding the fort, like guards Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham. It’s awesome that the Hornets are still within arm’s reach of the fourth seed in the East, and that they haven’t packed it in; it’d just be a hell of a lot cooler if they still had one of this season’s most thrilling players in the fold to help bolster the push for home-court advantage. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we haven’t seen the end of LaMelo’s rookie run just yet.
And the Raptors … man.
After a brutal start to their season-long residency in Tampa, the Raptors had just started to get it going, winning five of seven from mid-February through the beginning of March. That included a pair of wins over the Bucks (without Jrue Holiday, but still) and one over the 76ers in which they harassed Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris into 12-for-37 combined shooting. Things weren’t perfect—that whole “replace Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka with Aron Baynes and Alex Len” wager didn’t exactly pay off—but they’d climbed from 2-8 to 17-17, riding an excellent small-ball lineup back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase. And then, the thing that everybody has spent this whole season praying wouldn’t happen to them happened to them.
COVID-19 absolutely wrecked the Raptors. Coaches and players tested positive and landed in contact tracing, leading to postponements and games where the Raptors couldn’t muster anything close to a full squad. Starters Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby all missed significant time, overtaxing an already thin rotation. The losses mounted—13 in 14 games in March—and a proud group that has grown accustomed to 50-win seasons and deep playoff runs suddenly found themselves hoping they could get enough guys back to be able to make the play-in tournament.
One bad week, a few bad tests, and that’s it—there’s your season. The Raptors aren’t the only team to suffer that fate this season, but they are the only one to suffer it in the context of a campaign that had already featured so much upheaval for so many members of an organization that doesn’t know when it’s going to be able to go home. That it happened right after Nick Nurse and Co. seemed to have gotten on track—right after Raptors fans got the brief glimmer of hope that the squad might yet have something to say about the way the top of the playoff bracket shook out—just seemed extra cruel.
ARTVIMB: The Warriors’ stumbles and the prospect of wasting a phenomenal Stephen Curry season; that staggered injuries prevented us from seeing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden lining up together for even one single stinkin’ minute during Q3; Victor Oladipo only playing four games in Miami before suffering a right knee injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season; the Bulls getting drilled in Zach LaVine–Nikola Vucevic minutes after their big deadline deal.
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: How Many Teams Still Look Like Legitimate Finals Candidates
The playoffs start in less than six weeks, and there are eight teams that feel like perfectly reasonable candidates to win their conference. Say you showed up in my apartment tomorrow, telling me you’d traveled back in time from the end of July, and that you wanted to share with me news of the near future—specifically, which team won the 2021 NBA championship. I would, of course, be surprised and have questions. Most of them would focus on how our society made such rapid and seismic advancements in both the technology of time travel and its widespread distribution.
But if you told me that the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Sixers, Nets, Nuggets, Lakers, or Bucks wound up hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, I don’t think I’d have too many follow-ups. (Well, if you told me the Nuggets won, I might ask whether that means Murray’s knee injury wasn’t as bad as it looked.) I probably wouldn’t bat an eye, unless the process of rending the fabric of reality would dump a bunch of allergenic space-time dust into my living room. All of those outcomes seem at least plausible to me.
Utah’s been the best team in the NBA, front to back, just about all season long, and Phoenix has been right on their heels nearly every step of the way. Brooklyn clearly has the highest ceiling; it would also not stun me even a little bit if you told me that Joel Embiid figuratively fed the Nets’ rogues’ gallery of big men into a wood chipper, or that the Bucks’ Big Three defended Brooklyn’s just well enough to be able to take a seven-game classic. I wouldn’t require additional information if you just told me that Kawhi Leonard just became the best player in the world (again) for two months, and that it changed everything; ditto for Nikola Jokic. “LeBron and AD got healthy” would seem similarly self-explanatory.
An awful lot about this season—the positive tests, the postponements, the absence of fans (and, in some cases, their return), the tightly packed schedule—has felt tumultuous, and mentally and emotionally draining. This part, though—the fact that, as the postseason nears, so much still feels possible (including, perhaps, some other team going on a hellacious run and stunning us all!)—is pretty rad. If we all knew what was going to happen, none of this would be worth the time. Let’s savor that unpredictability for as long as it lasts.
Also, for the record: I don’t think I’d try to gamble on the NBA’s outcome that Future You had just told Present Me would eventually happen. That’s a little thing called ethics.
ARTVIMB: The Mavericks showing signs of life on defense, inspired by 10 pounds of gold; the Grizzlies, even with Jaren Jackson Jr. still not back and Justise Winslow struggling on offense, continuing to stay in the play-in hunt behind their incredible depth; the Sixers, Lakers, and Hornets hanging tough without their injured stars; Isaiah Thomas getting back in the league.