We’re back with more awards!
As a reminder: these awards are for the third quarter only, which I’m defining as from Jan 10th, 2023, through yesterday. They are not predictions of the actual year-end awards. Also, for Most Improved, I’m looking for players who have shown better form since the first half of this season, not since last season, so there may be different names on here than you’ll see on other awards lists.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Three of the Bulls’ starters are Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. All three are good offensive players (to varying degrees), but all three are rather bad defensive players (to varying degrees).
And yet, the Bulls had the best defensive rating in basketball this quarter. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls gave up just 107.1 points per 100 possessions. How is that possible?
Coach Billy Donovan is an unheralded defensive mastermind, and he’s managed to build a terrific defense despite starting three turnstiles. No other defense in the league has been as successful at leaning on perimeter strength to cover up interior weakness.
The Bulls have an unusual defensive shot profile. They give up loads of attempts from deep and at the rim, usually a bad combination. Opponents are converting at average levels close to the hoop but have only shot 31.5% from deep against the Bulls.
Usually, this is where I’d say that opponent three-point shooting is heavily luck-dependent. But most teams don’t have Alex Caruso haranguing shooters all over the court.
Caruso is a master at the dig-and-recover, helping Chicago’s beleaguered big men down low before sprinting back out to surprised shooters. He’s quicker than his solid frame would suggest, and he can use his 6’6” wingspan and impressive leaping ability to cover ground and bother even taller marksmen.
Caruso uses those same attributes to be one of the greediest ballhawks in the league. According to Bball-Index, Caruso has the best passing lane defense of any player — period. Guards are afraid to sling the rock around him (Caruso is second in the league in deflections with 3.6 per game, just 0.1 behind OG Anunoby despite playing 12 fewer minutes per game). Unconfident ballhandlers are scared to execute even a simple dribble handoff, for good reason:
Caruso is the rare player who can gamble for “stocks” without sacrificing proper defensive positioning. He almost walks on tiptoe, always on the balls of his feet, sneaking up on people like Elmer Fudd stalking rabbits. Unlike his fellow baldy, however, Caruso is a great hunter:
Want advanced stats? Caruso’s got advanced stats. He tops the Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus leaderboard. He leads the FiveThirtyEight Defensive RAPTOR leaderboard. He’s second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus.
Generally speaking, I believe the rim-protecting big is the most impactful defensive archetype in the league. Certainly, those players are more able to rack up a solid statistical case for defensive recognition; perimeter defense has traditionally been harder to quantify. But Caruso and the Bulls are proving that tenacious point-of-attack defense can be a foundation for elite defense, not just window-dressing.
Honorable Mention: Too many to name. I’ve already said it, but DPOY will be a bloodbath this year. Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the frontrunner for now, but I don’t think it’s nearly the open-and-shut case many people claim it to be.
Rookie of the Quarter: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Yet again, this is Paolo Banchero, even with a dip in efficiency. Spoilers: he’s a lock for end-of-year Rookie of the Year, and I’ll talk more about him then, but for now, I’d rather highlight a different rookie who’s done well.
Almost Rookie of the Quarter: Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
The game is slowing down for Ivey, and he responded with his most efficient quarter to date: 16 points, six assists, and more than three rebounds per game on 44% from the field and 36% from three. He also drew more than five free throws per game, with a foul-drawn percentage in the 97th percentile for combo guards league-wide.
Ivey looked overwhelmed at the start of the year. An athletic freak, Jaden would frequently launch himself at the rim with abandon and without a plan.
Well, in the third quarter, Ivey still couldn’t finish at the rim for anything (a classic rookie issue), but he shifted about 10% of his total shot volume to the midrange and three. Ivey is the rare player who benefits by settling for more jumpers instead of barfing up a hopeless layup attempt: somehow, he shot a higher % on long midranges (a blistering 67%) than attempts at the hoop (45%).
Ivey was a shooting guard in college, but with Cade Cunningham’s injury early in the year, coach Dwane Casey has been playing Ivey heavy minutes at point guard. It took some time for Ivey to learn the intricacies of the position, but we’re seeing the payoff happening in front of our eyes. Forcing Ivey to run the offense has resulted in a more calculated, controlled player.
This play from the most recent game against the Raptors stood out. Ivey takes a pick, and instead of sprinting to the rim, he slows down a bit, surveying his options. He then puts on a burst right at the end to sell the shot fake before slinging a laser to an open Hamidou Diallo at the charity stripe:
This isn’t necessarily special, but that’s the point. It’s the mundane but high-level read that all elite guards do regularly, and it’s something Ivey is still developing. He has all the physical tools in the world, but like Rose before him, he still has much to learn. It’s encouraging to see him evolving in real-time.
Honorable Mention: Walker Kessler, Jalen Duren (Ivey’s teammate! Detroit has something brewing…I’m just not sure what), Jeremy Sochan, Bennedict Mathurin, Jalen Williams, Keegan Murray, Malaki Branham (I might need to write about the Spurs’ rookies soon)
Sixth Man of the Quarter: Malcolm Brogdon, Boston Celtics
Brogdon was a popular preseason choice for Sixth Man of the Year, but he elevated his game in the third quarter.
In just under 30 minutes per game, Brogdon averaged 17.6 points on 52% shooting from the field and an astonishing 50% from deep on more than five attempts per game. The former Rookie of the Year (remember that?) was his usual steady self on both ends, but he took on a bigger minutes load as the Celtics dealt with a few injuries, namely to Marcus Smart.
It is an insane luxury for the Celtics to bring Brogdon off the bench. He can play point guard or shooting guard with equal adeptness, and he’s big enough to hold his own against wings. Synergy rates Brogdon as an above-average player on pretty much every type of play: in the pick-and-roll, spotting up from outside, in isolation, coming off handoffs… his well-rounded skillset makes him a perfect plug-and-play option for Coach Mazzulla in any role.
After Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Brogdon is the only Celtic player reliably capable of initiating his own offense. His presence ensures that the Celtics can always field at least two high-level offensive creators, something they struggled with at times during their Finals loss to Golden State.
Despite a strong quarter from Norm Powell, among others, Brogdon was, to my eyes, the most impactful Sixth Man of the last few weeks.
Honorable Mention: Norm Powell (20 points per game on hot shooting percentages for the Clippers is no joke; it’ll be interesting to see how his role changes with the integration of Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, and Bones Hyland to the Clips’ guard rotation), Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Malik Monk
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets
Note: my MIPOQ is a non-rookie who has improved since the second quarter, not since last season. I try to consider things like injuries, opportunity, etc., as best I can.
This quarter, Mikal Bridges unlocked something in himself that people weren’t sure existed. Of course, we’ve seen what he’s done since he was traded (dropping 45 on Miami in a tantalizing performance), but even before that, he was becoming more confident and more productive in his on-ball capabilities.
After Devin Booker’s injury on Dec 9th, Bridges was asked to assume more creative burden. The experiment crashed and burned at the start: in 12 games without Booker before Jan 10th, Bridges averaged 15 points and 3.5 assists while shooting a blindingly bad 37% from the field. He looked hesitant and uncertain about how to create for himself or others. Putting Mikal in the Devin Booker role opened up a lot of midrange touches. Unfortunately, many looked like this:
But Bridges never stopped working, and something clicked when Chris Paul missed a string of seven games starting in early January. With no Booker and no Paul, Bridges had to get better, and fast, to keep the Suns afloat. Despite his customary All-Defensive-caliber efforts, he could no longer afford to be a background figure on offense.
Mikal rose to the occasion, and after Jan 10th, Bridges averaged 22 points and 4.3 assists per game on 49% shooting from the field (and 40% from deep). He also drew nearly five free throws per game, a massive boost for a guy hitting nine out of every 10 freebies.
The Nets are still in the thick of the playoff race. For them to get there, Brooklyn Bridges will need to keep playing like the All-Star he’s shown flashes of becoming.
Honorable Mention: Fellow Brooklyn flamethrower Cam Thomas, Immanuel Quickley, De’Aaron Fox, Klay Thompson, Terance Mann
Coach of the Quarter: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee went a league-best 17-3 since Jan 10th despite Giannis missing six games and Khris Middleton missing eight. They had the league’s best net rating by a mile during that stretch (a massive +10.1 points per 100 possessions), and they are currently in the midst of a 14-game winning streak.
I thought about being cute here and picking the Magic’s Jamahl Mosley. But when NBA quarters are roughly 20 games long, a 14-game winning streak gets you the award pretty much every time.
It’s difficult to grade coach performance over a single quarter. So much of the regular season is built around experimentation and finding what works. A top coach can quickly look like an idiot when he’s purposefully rolling out lineups that perform poorly or tries a funky new defensive scheme that implodes. Injuries and scheduling luck play a massive factor in team performance, too.
Bud overcame injuries to the aforementioned stars and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Bobby Portis. He elevated and empowered Jevon Carter and tweaked the team’s defensive schemes. He integrated Joe Ingles seamlessly and is doing the same with Jae Crowder now. Add it all up, and Budenholzer hasn’t missed since the quarter started.
So while I like when coaches outperform expectations and get the most out of a ragged or developing roster, I also appreciate when teams dominate over long periods. I don’t know if Bud will be my end-of-the-year pick, but if the Bucks end the season on a 30+ game win streak, I might not have a choice.
Honorable Mention: Jamahl Mosley, Tom Thibodeau (!), Monty Williams, Doc Rivers
MVP of the Quarter: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
I thought this would be a tough choice between Lillard, Jokic, Giannis, Tatum (a rebounding monster of late), and Embiid. Then I watched Dame go full Chronos and drop 71 against the pathetic Rockets a few nights ago.
Call my pick recency bias if you want, but Lillard has averaged 39 points since Jan 10th and played 20 games, more than any of the men above. 39 points over a 20-game stretch! Only James Harden, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan have done as much scoring for as long a span since the merger.
He’s not chucking, either: his FG% is almost identical to Embiid’s (52%), but he’s also hitting 40% of his triples on a mindblowing 12 attempts per game. His seven dimes and five rebounds are cherries on top.
There’s not much need to go into a full-blown profile here. Sometimes, the highlights really do tell the story:
Yes, the Blazers are just 10-11 in that stretch (losing their only game without Lillard), but it’s hard to fault Dame. The Blazers traditionally finish seasons strong when Dame is healthy, and with the morass of teams stuck in the middle of the standings, there is an opportunity to climb quickly.
Honorable Mention: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum