Defensive Player Of The Quarter: Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Many observers mistake activity for solid defense, but too often, that activity is reactive, making up for positional miscues by flying to a new position, legs ascramble and arms pinwheeling.
If a defender is heady enough, knowing precisely where to be a second before they have to be there, then there’s no rush. Stop for a cup of coffee on the way. It won’t look impressive, but it’s more effective than dashing hither and yon.
Lopez is never shuffling unnecessarily, never flailing his limbs. He just waits, lurking in his painted lair, arms outstretched and unmoving — until they have to, and then they spring forth like a trebuchet to splat some unfortunate basketball into oblivion. Watch him patiently bide his time until Aaron Wiggins commits to the shot, not even flinching on the pump fake:
He takes less than a dozen steps in that entire clip even as the ball flies around.
Lopez’s complete tranquility can sometimes camouflage him. You wouldn’t think a 7-foot, 282-lb giant could hide, but you wouldn’t think an orange-striped tiger would be a master of disguise, either. The human eye’s peripheral vision is well-equipped to deal with movement but nearly useless in the absence of motion. In a bygone era, this is where Josh Giddey would’ve been pounced upon for the killing blow:
That clip needs a Sir David Attenborough voiceover.
Brook Lopez might be the fourth-best defender on his own team, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s the most important piece in the league’s most suffocating defense. I went in-depth on the Bucks here, so I won’t repeat myself too much except to say that Lopez’s defense is at its best with what you don’t see.
Honorable Mention: O.G. Anunoby, Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis (!), Jarrett Allen, Rudy Gobert, Justise Winslow, Alex Caruso, Paul George, Draymond Green, Ivica Zubac, the entire Bucks team. DPOY is going to be a bloodbath this year.
Rookie Of The Quarter: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
I have been remiss in going long-form on Paolo Banchero to start the year, possibly because I overdosed on the Magic in the run-up to the season. But **** me if this doesn’t look like the beginning of something special!
Paolo would be the fifth player to average 23/7/3 on at least 45% shooting as a rookie. Here’s the list:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Oscar Robertson
- Blake Griffin
- Terry Dischinger
- Paolo Banchero
That’s two Hall of Famers, Blake Griffin (who’s still active and has a 50/50 shot at the Hall), and a guy named Terry. Pretty good company (Terry’s here for the vibes).
But on the offensive end of the floor, one comparison seems increasingly apt: LeBron James.
Like James, Paolo has an uncanny combination of size and skill. How many other players can transition between chase-down block artist and full-court distributor in the same play?
The Magic have been smart enough to stretch Paolo, letting him run plenty of point forward, and although he’s made mistakes, the highs are Everest:
When seeking his own shot, Paolo is already better than James was at using his size and physicality to impose his will on smaller defenders. He’ll even go right into and through the chest of barrel-chested tree stumps like Grant Williams:
Let’s be clear: Paolo isn’t LeBron. He’s not nearly the overall athlete, and he doesn’t have that same passing skill. And the defensive end may always be a struggle. But the fact that there’s even a streetlight-in-the-fog hazy resemblance to a rookie King is impressive in and of itself.
Honorable Mention: Bennedict Mathurin, Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
There are a lot of players who have made substantial leaps this season that I’d love to discuss. Desmond Bane keeps turning the heat up on his flamethrower, Bol Bol has come out of nowhere to be a legitimate rotation piece for the Magic, Lauri Markkanen is finally living up to the promise he showed as a rookie, De’Aaron Fox has been his best self for the Sacramento Kings, and Devin Vassell looks like a foundational piece for San Antonio going forward.
But the answer here is easy: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who in his fifth season has broken through into the upper ranks of the NBA’s elite. Despite playing on a team with very little shooting, SGA is on pace to lead the league in drives per game for a third consecutive year, wiggling his way through the defense time and again. He’s finishing at career-best levels at the rim, too, a big part of why he’s third in the NBA in scoring at 31.1 points per game. But we knew he could attack.
What’s different is that he’s also drawing a ton of free throws (9.3 per game, third-most in the league) and playing fantastic defense. He’s averaging 1.7 steals per game AND 1.2 blocks per game, and using his length to bottle up opposing ballhandlers and chase over screens with a brand-new enthusiasm. Here’s Detroit’s shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic in a waking nightmare, pump-faking ghosts before finally getting his shot stuffed by SGA:
SGA always profiled as a potentially strong defender, but never brought the attitude required. That’s clearly changed this season, and it’s a huge part of why he’s the frontrunner to win this award.
Honorable Mention: We already covered this at the top.
Coach of the Quarter: Will Hardy, Utah Jazz
It has to be Hardy, the helmsman of the shocking Utah Jazz. The Jazz are returning to Earth (five straight losses, even against a brutal schedule and without Mike Conley, tends to dampen enthusiasm), but just being above .500 this late in the season is a miracle, so I want to honor Hardy’s work before it’s too late.
After the offseason trades of long-time franchise tentpoles Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, most people, myself included, assumed the rest of the team would be immediately dismantled for spare parts and draft picks. It’s hard to motivate veteran players when they believe they could be traded at a moment’s notice, and yet that’s exactly what Hardy has done.
The offense is freewheeling but motion- and passing-heavy, a wonderful surprise for a roster largely consisting of shot-first players. Jordan Clarkson has turned into a bonafide point guard, Talen Horton-Tucker actually is playing point guard, Kelly Olynyk keeps the wheels moving, and Collin Sexton is passing at career-best levels. One player showing new abilities could be an outlier; a whole team doing so is a sign of strong coaching.
Hardy’s done an incredible job of putting his players in positions of strength while mitigating weaknesses, and an “everybody eats” ethos has contributed to the fun. Even after the losing streak, they have the fourth-best offensive rating in the league.
An unraveling defense drags down the potential for this group, but it’s hard to fault Hardy here: Utah has arguably the least defensive talent in the league. It’s still looking possible — likely, even — that the Jazz will still ship out valuable parts for more chances at future ping-pong balls. But that’s out of the coach’s hands, and overall, it’s impossible not to be mighty impressed with how Hardy has performed.
Honorable Mention: Joe Mazzulla (possibly the frontrunner in Boston despite his interim tag designation?), Rick Carlisle, Mark Daigneault
Sixth Man Of The Quarter: Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Ok, this award really belongs to Bennedict Mathurin, the Pacers’ sharp-shooting rookie who’s averaging nearly 20 points per game off the bench while leaving fiery footsteps everywhere he walks. He is on track to become just the second rookie to ever win the award (Ben Gordon won it, coincidentally for the Bulls, in 2005). But I wanted to highlight the incredible impact that Caruso has made for Chicago.
It’s been a disjointed season for Chi-town, who are 8-11 despite two recent wins over both the Celtics and Bucks. One bright spot has been Alex Caruso, who despite early offensive struggles has consistently brought hustle and heart to a team in sore need of both.
Hustle and heart aren’t empty platitudes with Caruso. They are tangible, real things with a quantitative value: on a per-minute basis, he’s first in the league in deflections, third in steals, top-10 in three-point shots contested, and top-20 in charges drawn. He averages more blocks per minute than Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bam Adebayo despite standing 6’5”!
Chicago’s defense is nearly six points per 100 possessions stingier when he takes the floor, an excellent mark, and he guards the other team’s best scorer 1-4. His most common defensive matchup this season is Jayson Tatum despite giving up at least five inches (and he’s held the star to 27% shooting!).
Caruso won’t win this award at year’s end, which almost always goes to the highest scoring bench player (hello, Mathurin!). But his efforts need acknowledgment.
Honorable Mention: Mathurin, Kevin Love, Christian Wood (perhaps not long for this role), Bones Hyland, Russell Westbrook (!!!)
Most Valuable Player: Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
I said two weeks ago that Curry’s numbers were MVP-worthy, but Golden State would have to rattle off a few wins for him to enter the conversation.
Well, Golden State is 8-3 in their last 11 games and fresh off a first-quarter demolishing of the daunted Minnesota Timberwolves. Coach Steve Kerr has Draymond steadying the second unit now, and that’s shored up the bench enough to keep the Curry-less minutes afloat.
Golden State didn’t need much from their bench to stabilize the situation, since Curry is somehow having the best season of his career at the age of 34. Look at his stats now compared to his two previous MVP seasons:
Curry leads the league in every advanced stat: win shares, Value Over Replacement Player, Estimated Plus/Minus, RAPTOR. He’s even playing as well defensively as he ever has, although that’s harder to quantify.
More than any other player, Curry elicits feelings in viewers (*cut to Cleveland fans telling me where I can shove those feelings*). There has never been and still is nothing like watching Curry get on a roll, spraying three-pointers and happiness in equal measure (unless you’re the poor sods playing against him).
Golden State is famously trying to manage Two Timelines at once: competing for championships now while simultaneously developing the next generation of studs. Unfortunately, one prong doesn’t seem to be panning out: the Next Timeline’s main characters don’t seem likely to become franchise-carrying superstars, as all of Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, and James Wiseman have struggled so far this year (and even sixth man Jordan Poole hasn’t looked the same after getting punched in the face by Draymond Green in the preseason).
But with Steph playing like this, who knows? Maybe Klay, Iguodala, and Green will be replaced by Poole, Moody, and Kuminga in a few years, and Curry will keep the good times rolling anyway. Maybe he’s the one constant in both Timelines. At this point, nothing is unbelievable.
Honorable Mentions: Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander