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First Quarter NBA Awards
MVP, Sixth Man, biggest surprises and disappointments, etc.
Today I’m going to give out my first quarter awards, both real and made-up, for the 20-ish games that have already passed. These are not predictions, but rather merit awards for this slice of the season. Also, please follow me on Twitter, as apparently, it’s a necessity for ostensible sportswriters to have a steady online presence. Who knew? If the link above doesn’t work, I’m @bballispoetry. Thanks!
Biggest Surprise: The Warriors and Suns are the two best teams
Sure, Frank Jackson’s mustache is startling:
But even the most optimistic fans of the Warriors and Suns couldn’t have seen this coming. The Suns are on a 17-game win streak, and the Warriors are somehow STILL ahead of them in the standings!
Neither team has played a particularly demanding schedule, but you don’t win that many games by accident. The Warriors added a few bench pieces to last year’s mediocre group, but even the starters are playing at a far higher level. The Suns have virtually the same team as last season’s runner-up squad and have come back from their Finals defeat intent upon proving that last year wasn’t a fluke.
Both teams are playing excellently on both sides of the ball. The best part? They play each other twice this week, Tuesday night (tonight!) and Friday night. So I’ll save my deep thoughts on these teams until we’ve seen them play each other. For now, here’s a piece I wrote determining who the MVP of the Suns has been thus far.
Biggest Disappointment: Indiana Pacers
This team wasn’t expected to be a contender, but they’ve been a playoff or play-in team several years in a row. Hyped coach Rick Carlisle was supposed to bring the juice that could finally unlock this squad’s potential and get them out of the first round.
Instead, the Pacers are 9-14 (despite a positive point differential) and have been the most painfully boring team in the league. They’ve lost nearly every close game they’ve been in and haven’t been able to find a groove at any point. The Myles Turner-Domantis Sabonis pairing has actually been pretty solid, but it feels like that partnership has hit a firm ceiling on a southern ranch home.
They’ve been beset by injuries, like always, and TJ Warren has yet to play a game for them. Indiana’s underlying stats aren’t as bad as their record would indicate. But in a revived and crowded Eastern Conference, it’s hard to see them climbing out of the muck, and they’ve easily been my most disappointing team at the quarter-way mark.
Most Confusing Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves entered the season with cautious optimism, which was the first warning sign. Minny fans know better than to be hopeful. Then team GM Gersson Rosas was fired right before training camp, and the Wolves got off to a 4-9 start that included a seven-game losing streak. It felt like another wasted year in Minnesota.
But a savior emerged:
Jarred Vanderbilt was inserted into the starting lineup to provide some defense, hustle, and energy into a lackluster Wolves team. It worked. The Wolves are 8-4 since the change, including a five-game win streak, and Vanderbilt is making a legitimate case for an All-Defensive team this season. He’s a switch-everything big man who can easily alternate between blocking dunk attempts and corraling opposing ball handlers in the pick-and-roll.
This team still relies too much on spring-heeled second-year guard Anthony Edwards, who struggles with shot selection and decision-making, and needs to do a better job of emphasizing Karl Anthony-Towns’ sublime shotmaking skillset. The defensive numbers seem far too strong for the personnel on this roster, Vanderbilt or no Vanderbilt. But the Timberwolves’ starting lineup is outscoring opponents by so many points that it looks like a data error.
What should we believe? I don’t know if this is real. History says that Minnesota, like Sacramento, can never be trusted. But in the weakest Western Conference in years, Minnesota has the most straightforward path they’ve ever had towards making a playoff push.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Washington Wizards
I wanted to pick Tyler Herro, who’s taken a leap as the offensive engine for the Heat this season. But Harrell’s impact on the surprisingly great Washington Wizards cannot be overstated. He was somehow the top-10 on Basketball-Reference’s MVP tracker until literally this morning, which, huh, Paul George would like a word.
But he has one of the fattest on/off numbers in the league, and the Wizards dominate when he’s on the floor and get wrecked when he’s off. Trez has infused the Wizards with his brand of energetic disregard for other rebounders, rules, opponents in general, and the idea of losing.
Harrell’s even doing a good job on the defensive end of the floor, something that we’ve never seen from him in sustained stretches before. It’s clear that, after losing his confidence on the Lakers last season, Harrell’s recaptured the magic that made him 6MOTY for the Clippers two years ago, and he’s earned it again through the first quarter of this season.
Plus, I saw this quote from teammate Deni Avidja about Harrell the other day and I can’t stop thinking about it:
“He’s got a knife between his teeth, for sure.” Man, that’s good. I wish I was half the writer that Deni is just speaking off-the-cuff. Look for me to steal that phrase and use it in the immediate future.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Draymond’s defensive genius isn’t necessarily in his rim protection, like Rudy Gobert, or the individual one-on-one lockdown highlights, like Ben Simmons last year, although he’s capable of both of those things.
Instead, it’s in the way he brings the entire team together and creates a cohesive whole. The Warriors had one of the best defenses in the league last year, despite having no other above-average defenders on the roster aside from Andrew Wiggins, and this year they’ve taken things to a new level. The additions of Andre Iguodala and Gary Payton II and the overall defensive improvement of the rest of the roster are like giving new toys to a kid on Christmas.
Golden State has the best defense in the NBA this year by a metric mile. Draymond is the best help defender in the league, sniffing out potential trouble before it happens and snuffing out plays that never had a chance to develop. This year, he’s been even more comfortable improvising and adjusting, confident that his teammates will recognize what he’s doing and be able to cover for him.
The Warriors have been putting Draymond on weaker opposing players to allow him more free reign to wreak havoc while helping, something like the free safety approach the Bucks often take with Giannis. If his man’s stashed in the corner, Draymond can help and still use his ridiculous wingspan to recover like nobody else. If he’s directly involved in a play, Green might just blow the whole thing up. It’s a catch-22.
Green has suffered from loss of motivation in previous seasons, but it’s safe to say that being a championship contender once again is bringing out his best. Nothing we’ve seen this year suggests that it’s a mirage. I said previously that this column wasn’t a predictions column, but in this case, after just 20 games, I’m confident that Draymond is taking this award home for real.
Most Improved Player: Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
Here’s one where my pick for the first quarter doesn’t seem likely to hold for the year. Bridges exploded onto the scene this year after ending last season on a hot streak. He’s currently averaging 20 points per game after scoring just 13 last year. He’s setting career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, and he was the Hornets’ clear best offensive player through the first 10 or so games.
Bridges’ shooting has come down significantly in the last week or two, but he still dropped 35 against the Hawks before Thanksgiving. The way he’s scoring is different, too. He’s creating much more for himself and has shown no mercy pounding smaller players in the post.
The Hornets have a deep roster with a lot of mouths to feed, so Bridges’ scoring opportunities may always be limited, barring injury to other rotation players. But the increased skill level he’s shown will be there, and he looks like a foundational building piece for the Hornets moving forward. Miles also earned himself quite a lot of money after refusing a low contract extension this offseason.
Coach of the Year: Wes Unseld Jr., Washington Wizards
The rise of the Wizards has been one of the most intriguing storylines of the season. They’ve played worse in the last two weeks, but are still eking out wins, and every player fights like hell. This is a team full of decent-to-good ballers, like Harrell, playing at career-high levels and one borderline superstar in Bradley Beal who hasn’t performed particularly well. They remind me a lot of Grizzlies East, but instead of Memphis’ uneven start, the Wiz are 13-8 and putting teams in a straightjacket in crunch-time situations.
The Wiz are somehow 10-1 in close contests (when the score is within five points with five minutes or fewer remaining). Clutch performance is often attributed to luck, but in this case, I’m inclined to give some credit to Wes. For example, here is a lovely SLOB (sideline out-of-bounds play) for a Kuzma gamewinner:
That is gorgeous. The best plays force defenders into picking between two bad choices, and that’s exactly what the play above does. The Cavs’ Jarrett Allen can’t decide whether to help on Beal or stick with Harrell. Beal turns the corner and looks to have a layup, so Kuzma’s man has to decide whether to help there or stay with Kuz. Bad choices, all around.
Also, note how hard the Wizards run it. All it takes to ruin a play is one player half-heartedly jogging instead of sprinting, and the timing for everything can be thrown off. To see all five guys jetpacking around is a sign of good coaching.
Most Valuable Player: Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
It’s hard to argue against this. Nikola Jokic actually has an incredible statistical case, better than you would imagine, but he’s missed five of 20 possible games. Durant’s been a machine offensively, but the Nets have merely been very good, as opposed to transcendent.
The numbers are almost beside the point, although they are impressive. Steph is somehow still doing things we’ve never seen. How does a falling down, triple-teamed three taken with 18 seconds left on the shot clock sound to you?
No other player in NBA history would even attempt such a ludicrous shot. This was the third triple Steph made in a span of about two minutes after getting a technical foul - the man hates getting T’d up. Curry has a knife between his teeth, for sure.
Steph is passing and defending as well as he ever has in his career. He plays a unique brand of basketball for an elite player. He spends more time off-ball, cutting hard, screening (a novel concept for most point guards), and just generally acting as a decoy than any superstar ever has. A lot of players say they’ll do anything to win, but what they mean is that they want to win their way. Steph is willing to play with or without the basketball, go minutes between dribbles, slide in to take a charge, and make the right pass. It’s all about maximizing his individual talents to help the team gain whatever edge it can.
The offensive style that coach Steve Kerr has developed is objectively the most beautiful basketball that has ever been played, and it wouldn’t be possible without the singular talents of Steph Curry. Please take the time out of your day to watch as much Warriors basketball as you can, even if you’re a Cavs fan with lingering bad feelings.
You can start tonight with the most anticipated early-regular-season game in years, as the 17-3 Suns host the 18-2 Warriors in a battle to determine who the apex predator in the league is (yes, it’s on TNT). They play again on Friday (although the Suns have to play the Pistons in between on Thursday, which could be a huge detriment). No matter the outcome, Steph is guaranteed to do something that will blow your mind.
Until next time, enjoy basketball.
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