I love doing quarterly awards. First-quarter awards are always the most enjoyable, too, since there’s usually some things that deserve acknowledgment but tend to fade over a full season (last year, I had Steph Curry as the first-quarter MVP!).
There is so much basketball played during a year, and I enjoy taking a moment away from the deep analysis to honor what’s been a terrific six weeks. Basketball is fun, and it’s good to remember that.
Reminder: this isn’t a prediction of year-end awards. It’s simply a celebration of the best stories from the season’s first quarter. So let’s go!
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
I’ve heard zero buzz about Haliburton being the Most Improved Player this year, and I’m not sure why. Tyrese Maxey (whom I wrote about early in the season) is the favorite, but Haliburton’s statistical leap is at least as impressive as Maxey’s, and he’s doing it as the clear alpha dog in Indiana — the focal point of every team’s defensive gameplan.
In a scintillating In-Season Tournament quarterfinals game last night, Haliburton dropped 26 points and 13 assists on the best defensive backcourt in memory, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, and did it while committing an astonishing zero turnovers. ZERO. Nada. Emu egg.
Haliburton is now averaging 11.9 assists and 2.4 turnovers in his 17 games. Nobody has ever had that many assists and that few turnovers in an entire season. The Pacers’ frenetic pace slightly boosts Haliburton’s stats, but playing that fast and turning it over so infrequently is even more impressive.
It’s not just the table-setting, though. Haliburton has become an elite chef himself, and he is cooking. Like Maxey, Haliburton has made a massive jump in points per game — 26.9, up from 20.7 last year. Unlike Maxey, though, Haliburton has dramatically increased his efficiency, and he’s averaging career-highs in two-point percentage, three-point percentage, field goal attempts, three-point attempts, and assists. Finger-licking stuff.
In fact, the man with the butt-ugly jumper has been the most efficient star in basketball this season (min. 20% usage). He’s averaging more points per shot attempt than Curry, Jokic, Durant…anybody! And if you consider assist-to-turnover ratio as part of the efficiency equation, Haliburton is having one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time. If Jrue Holiday can get so turned around, how do other defenses stop this:
Haliburton has made a leap from All-Star to one of the five best offensive engines in the league, and he ain’t fourth or fifth. He certainly has a ways to go on the defensive end — but improving on offense by this margin overcomes any qualms.
Maxey has been epic for a shockingly enjoyable 76ers team. Alperen Sengun and Scottie Barnes have taken big strides (on both ends!). Coby White has quietly put together a nice campaign. Cam Thomas and Duncan Robinson deserve a shoutout. But this award is Haliburton’s, and I don’t think it’s close.
(Interior) Defensive Player of the Quarter: Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves
You don’t hear quite as many snickers about the Wolves trading the farm for Gobert this year, do you?
I just wrote about Gobert, so I’ll save a few words here. But Defensive Player of the Quarter is a funny award; kind of like how the MVP of the NFL almost has to be a quarterback, given how much responsibility they have for a team’s success, DPOQ almost has to go to a big man for how much of the defense falls on their shoulders.
So although Gobert is the clear winner, I’ve decided to split the award this quarter. Perimeter stoppers deserve some shine, too.
(Perimeter) Defensive Player of the Quarter: OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
I thought hard about putting Herb Jones here. Jones has been everywhere on the wing, a defensive menace nonpareil.
This is probably my favorite single defensive play of the season. Clock winding down, Pelicans up five, and the Kings trying desperately to get a shot off. Jones starts on De’Aaron Fox, teleports to Harrison Barnes after Brandon Ingram goes slip-sliding away, sprints back to Fox after Ingram bites on a pump-fake, and forces a tough runner that, while it goes in, essentially expires the game clock and preserves the Pelicans win:
That is sweet, sweet jazz. But it’s not quite enough to earn him the coveted (P)DPOQ.
Instead, Anunoby snatches the award like so many loose dribbles. Anunoby and Jones have some similarities, although they go about things differently: Anunoby is stronger, while Jones is more liquid, oozing around screens.
But Anunoby fouls far less often while guarding a tougher slate of opponents than Jones, and he is arguably the most versatile wing defender in the league. The list of the 10 players he’s defended the most is hilariously diverse and overwhelmingly impressive: DeMar DeRozan, Tyrese Haliburton, Victor Wembanyama, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Anthony Edwards, Franz Wagner, Cade Cunningham, and Kevin Durant. Only one shot better than 50% from the field with Anunoby as the primary defender (Haliburton), and Anunoby only committed eight shooting fouls against them combined on those possessions.
And despite his refusal to make mistakes, Anunoby still creates chaos. You want a sicko take? Anunoby might be the best entry-pass defender in the NBA:
If you ever find yourself thinking about who the best entry-pass defenders are, please seek immediate help (but first, comment with your list so I can compare notes!).
Grading perimeter defense is complex. Without intricate knowledge of defensive schemes, it’s hard to know how effectively a player performs their role. Even interior defense has at least a few metrics to consider; perimeter statistics range from incomplete to lackluster to completely misleading.
So if you think that Jones, or Alex Caruso, or Jalen Suggs, or Jrue Holiday, or some other player deserves this, I won’t argue.
For Anunoby, the equation is simple. Lockdown defense + incredible versatility + defensive playmaking + kung-fu master discipline = the (Perimeter) Defensive Player of the Quarter.
Coach of the Quarter: Jamahl Mosley, Orlando Magic
The only way to grade coaching from the outside is to look at results. We can merely speculate on a coach’s ability to connect with players off the court or how much credit he deserves for the team’s X’s-and-O’s, among other things. Instead, we look at the obvious, surface-level things: rotations, effort level given, a coherent overall strategy. Everything else is gleaned from soundbites or locker-room observations from reporters only seeing part of the story.
So adjudicating Coach of the Quarter can be a tricky thing. Do you give it to the coach leading his team to a top seed? Do you give it to the coach most outperforming (possibly flawed) expectations? Do you give it to the coach keeping his team afloat despite a rash of injuries?
This quarter, it’s not tricky at all! My thanks to the one man happily checking all those boxes and making my life easier.
Coach Mosley has the Orlando Magic — the Orlando freaking Magic! — second in the East. The defense has been even better than expected, as I wrote extensively about two weeks ago, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mosley and his staff have crafted a perfect offensive game plan for his limited personnel.
If you had told me before the season that the Magic would have a league-average offense, I would’ve assumed that meant Paolo Banchero had made The Leap into 30-point superstardom. The lack of spacing on this team is sending me into claustrophobic sweats just thinking about it, and it should suffocate a young team like the Magic.
Instead, Banchero and his co-star Franz Wagner have been first among equals in a well-crafted, egalitarian Magic offense emphasizing bull-rushes to the hoop, free throws, and offensive rebounding. It’s a testament to Mosley’s coaching touch that the team keeps winning despite injuries to the starting point guard and starting center.
Banchero has dramatically improved on defense, the team plays fast but unselfishly, and nobody is whining about touches, minutes, or shots. It’s hard to find much to nitpick from a coaching perspective.
Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault deserves some love. The Thunder have rocketed to second in the West, and like Mosley, Daigneault has done a terrific job convincing young, first-contract players to play selfless basketball. Chris Finch has Minnesota on top of the West and revitalized a team that felt disjointed for most of last season. Joe Mazzulla has done well integrating change into the Celtics — just don’t say good things about him to any Celtics fan. Nick Nurse has gotten the most out of his guys (partially by playing them into the ground, but still!).
But the Coach of the Quarter is a runaway.
Sixth Man of the Quarter: Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Caruso’s defense is well-known at this point. But he’s quietly having his best offensive season ever: a career-high 9.7 points per game in just 23 minutes per night while canning 48% from deep on a more-than-respectable 3.6 attempts per game. He’s even nailing an excellent 62% of his twos!
Caruso has been more assertive, and it changes the trade calculus. I previously had reservations about a top-tier contender trading for Caruso. If defenses ignored him entirely, he might be as much liability as asset in the playoffs.
But this Caruso is a two-way problem. More than half of his shot attempts are threes, and most of the rest are rampaging rim runs. He’s not passing up open looks to pointlessly dribble twice and then pass back out. Instead, he’s taking what the defense gives him, and then taking a little bit more:
That level of aggression seldom showed last season.
Advanced stats paint Caruso as one of the league’s best clutch performers (as clutch as someone on a way-below-.500 team can be, anyway) thanks to his two-way efforts.
Sure, other guys are scoring more. Tim Hardway Jr. is shooting the grooves off the basketball in Dallas, as is Bogdan Bogdanovic in Atlanta. Cole Anthony has been arguably the Magic’s third- or fourth-best player while playing the best defense of his career. Naz Reid keeps doing the little things to propel the Wolves to wins. Malik Monk and Immanuel Quickley are major factors for their team.
But at Basketball Poetry, Sixth Man of the Quarter is about more than offense. Sometimes, league-best defense needs credit, too. Caruso gets the nod.
Rookie of the Quarter: Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder
Holmgren has been even better than advertised (as we talked about here).
Chet is averaging nearly 18 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s up to 40% from deep on 4.3 attempts per game while averaging more than three stocks and shooting 61% on twos. He’s a savvy cutter, surprisingly physical, and far more aggressive taking it to the rack than you’d expect a seven-foot, snarling drain snake to be:
Yes, Holmgren can be pushed around a bit. The defensive rebounding will always be a concern. There aren’t many rookies who have A) had a year of injury recovery to learn the NBA game, and B) landed in the perfect surrounding ecosystem. But you can only judge a rookie by what they’ve done in their first year on the court, and Holmgren has met or exceeded every expectation.
Victor Wembanyama has shown flashes of being the VICTOR WEMBANYAMA, ALL-CONSUMER we were promised. But unlike Holmgren, he is stuck on a breathtakingly bad team and encouraged to explore his weaknesses and stretch his game as his teammates do likewise. While that might be good for his long-term development, it’s not so good for winning imaginary quarterly awards from no-name bloggers.
Most Valuable Player of the Quarter: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Honestly, I’m almost tired of writing about Nikola Jokic. Almost.
The big fella combines the old (brutally effective post moves, league-leading rebounding, sledgehammer screen-setting) with the new (jumpers of every make and model, magician vision, ballhandling chops) to create the best offensive player alive and perhaps the most well-rounded ever.
First-quarter Jokic absorbed Jamal Murray’s offensive load into himself like a snowball rumbling downhill, and it turned him into an avalanche. While his shooting percentages have taken a slight hit (now, he’s just really, really efficient instead of historically so), he’s never had a higher usage rate, assist rate, or scoring average. Somehow, Jokic has evolved into an even greater one-man armada.
Defense, his one relative weakness, has been better than ever, even with his heightened offensive load. He’s allowing opponents to shoot 62% at the rim, not an elite number, but better than more highly-regarded defenders like Mitchell Robinson, Mark Williams, and Draymond Green. If you like more traditional metrics, he’s still averaging two combined stocks (steals + blocks).
Jokic’s defense has never been about straight-up rim protection, though. It’s about the quick hands disrupting passing lanes (he leads the league in deflections per game!), the savvy positioning to both contest shots and still get rebounds, and the complete lack of fouls. These all contribute to strong bottom-line defensive numbers even when there is a lack of plays that pop eyes.
Last year, Jokic faded down the stretch, perhaps to save energy for the playoffs and perhaps to purposefully remove himself from the discourse around a third-straight MVP. So there’s no guarantee he’ll keep up this torrid pace. But right now, Jokic is the clear first-quarter MVP.