The second quarter of the 2021-22 NBA season has come to a close, and it’s now time to give out some very special awards.
Highlight of the Quarter: Ja has jets for legs
It’s better if you watch this without any warning first:
I will never forget this play for the rest of my life. That’s a maybe-6’3”-in-heels guard rocketing into the stratosphere and hitting his head on the backboard while blocking a shot with two hands. He was going to catch that shot if he hadn’t concussed himself! Absolutely bananas play.
Team of the Quarter: Memphis Grizzlies
These guys have the NBA’s best record in the last 24 games at 20-4…and more impressively, they got almost half those wins without their superstar, Ja. And you just saw what he can do!
Coach Taylor Jenkins may very well be the frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year. The Grizzlies have miraculously moved up to third in the West, surpassing the Jazz (who have struggled badly without Rudy Gobert).
Ja’s three-point shooting, as we talked about early in the season, is still holding up, and it has eliminated any hope defenses have of containing him. He’s perfectly balancing scoring on his own and throwing lobs to the pack of bouncy Bears around him. He exudes joy when he plays, and it’s contagious even through the TV.
Desmond Bane has made a sensational leap in his second year, making the Bane-Morant backcourt one of the best in the league. Dillon Brooks adds some teeth to the defense (even though he’s struggled with injuries), Jaren Jackson Jr. has played well on both sides even without his three falling, and the Grizzlies’ various bench players have all impressed.
I don’t honestly believe Memphis is in the championship conversation, as some do. I’m not sure their second-ranked offense will hold up in the playoffs. I know that their 10th-ranked defense won’t. But they are a lot closer to being contenders than I would’ve guessed before the season, and their future is suddenly very, very bright.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: Atlanta Hawks
You’ve undoubtedly heard about the Knicks’ struggles this year. And yet the Atlanta Hawks, the team that beat the Knicks en route to the Eastern Conference Finals, are significantly worse and seemingly declining by the day.
At just 6-14 in their last 20 games, the Hawks have plummeted to 12th in the standings despite having the sixth-best offense in the league. GM Travis Schenk has gone on record saying that “it wasn’t such a great idea bringing everybody back,” which is about as harsh a public condemnation as you’ll ever see a GM make about his team.
The defense is horrendous, John Collins is back to grumbling about his role (perhaps fairly!), Clint Capela has been a shadow of himself, and the Hawks’ much-vaunted depth has been injured or ineffective for most of the year. Something has to change, as I noted less than two weeks ago.
And now something has:
Reddish’s trade value was always a little unclear, but Hawks fans have to be disappointed that all they get back is a heavily protected first-round pick and Kevin Knox, who’s most famous for being ripped and dunked on by Zion Williamson.
It’s possible that consolidating minutes to fewer guys will result in happier, more productive players. However, it seems more likely that this is the precursor to another, bigger trade. We’ll have to wait and see, but things can’t get much worse than they already are for Atlanta.
The Hawks made the playoffs last year on the back of a massive second-half run, and they still believe they can do so again. But they’re going to have to flip that switch soon.
Most Confusing Team of the Quarter: Dallas Mavericks
I don’t know what to make of the Mavericks. This team looked aggressively mediocre for the first 25 games or so but has turned it on of late, particularly defensively. They had the 14th-best defense in the league on Dec 14th, exactly a month ago.
Since that time, Dallas somehow has the best defense in the league. The schedule hasn’t been particularly difficult, but they looked great against a full-strength Warriors team (82 points) and Bulls team (99 points). That’s super weird!
Interestingly, mid-December is exactly when coach Jason Kidd inserted second-year player Josh Green into the regular rotation. Although playing fewer than 20 minutes per game, Green has done a great job on both sides of the ball, filling in the gaps and doing the little things that rarely get acclaim.
This play against the Bulls is hysterical. Green (#8 in white) initially shows good awareness by switching off of and then coming back to the Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan, and Green tries to draw the charge. DeRozan doesn’t fall for it and passes to LaVine, who drives to the lane. To his horror, Green has teleported in front of him and is taking another charge! LaVine can’t adjust in time and crashes into Green, committing the offensive foul:
Hustle plays like that are the straw that stirs a defense’s milkshake.
The Mavs have also benefitted from opponents forgetting how to shoot jumpers (opponents are shooting bottom-five percentages from the mid-range and deep), so some shooting luck regression will likely occur. But Kidd has the players working hard and has prioritized the playing time of defensive-minded players more than former coach Rick Carlisle.
Dallas has led the league in defensive rebounding over the past month, too, despite only Luka being an above-average positional rebounder. I don’t know if all of these things are sustainable, but Dallas’ offense, despite some early-season struggles, will always be a threat in the playoffs, thanks to Luka’s transcendent brilliance. If their defense really can be top-10, this team might finally make good on its annual promise of being the West’s dark horse contender.
Seventh Man of the Quarter: ???
The Sixth Man gets too much credit in the NBA. I wrote a piece about the NBA’s most underappreciated role, the Seventh Man, at HoopsHabit. Check it out here.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Gary Payton II
He seems to always cause a key play at the end of quarters, when the clock is ticking down and offenses usually look for an isolation or quick-hit play. Note to teams: don’t have your point guard isolate on Gary Payton II in late-clock situations; it won’t end well.
Rookie of the Quarter: Evan Mobley
It’s going to be Mobley every quarter until someone wrestles it from his vice-grip hands. On the season, Mobley averages 15 points, eight rebounds, almost three assists, and 2.5 combined stocks (steals + blocks), on 51% FG%. These numbers are eerily similar from the first quarter to the second.
He’s already getting All-Defensive Team buzz for the end of the year, which is nearly unheard of. Tim Duncan was the last rookie to make an All-Defensive Team, precisely 25 years ago. Not bad company to be in.
Thanks to injuries, Cleveland has only one player left who can dribble a basketball, the ascendant Darius Garland (whom you might’ve heard of), so their current season outlook has dimmed some. But a future with Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and Garland is starting to look quite bright, indeed.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Amir Coffey
This is always a tricky award to give out, particularly for quarter-over-quarter improvement. There are plenty of deserving candidates, from Jalen Brunson, Pascal Siakam, and RJ Barrett to Kyle Kuzma and Jaden McDaniels. Should I give it to any of a bunch of 10-day contract players who have overperformed and revitalized their NBA careers? Heck, half of the Miami Heat team qualifies for this award!
But my winner is someone that 99% of NBA fans have never heard of. Amir Coffey has been the Most Improved Player from the first quarter to the second quarter.
Coffey has played 30 games this year. In his first 15, he averaged six minutes per game. In his last fifteen, thanks to Paul George’s injury, he’s over 25, capped by a 43-minute outing several nights ago against the Nuggets.
He’s started eight games recently. In those games, he’s averaged a cool 11/5/3 while shooting 48% from three on a Clippers team desperate for offensive production. It’s not just the case of a player playing more and correspondingly producing more, either; he’s shown a vast improvement on his previous per-minute numbers, as well, as he gains confidence and experience.
Coffey’s shooting efficiently, passing well, never turns the ball over, and is one of the team leaders in estimated plus/minus and on/off point differential. He can play any position from shooting guard to power forward and provides consistent defensive effort and hustle every night. He’s forced the Clippers’ broadcast team to dive deep into their bag for more coffee-related puns.
Plus, his sister Nia is ALSO a professional basketball player in Los Angeles for the Sparks, and she had her own breakout season last summer. So that’s fun.
Coffey’s long-term outlook remains uncertain, but he’s proven that he deserves steady minutes on a quality NBA team going forward.
Coach of the Quarter: Willie Green, Pelicans
The Pelicans had the worst start to the year imaginable. Off-court drama, a surprise Zion surgery (we still have no timetable for his return), and a 1-12 start (that’s one win in thirteen tries, folks) had the Pelicans looking dead on arrival.
But rookie coach Willie Green never gave up, and after vigorous mouth-to-mouth, the Pellies have been resuscitated!
From playing two centers together to changing rotations, Willie has pulled some creative levers to get his team back on track. However, nothing was more important than his sit down with Brandon Ingram to get BI’s head back on straight. After years of frustrating fans with inconsistency and some head-scratching decision-making, Ingram has looked the part of a true All-Star in this quarter.
The Pelicans started the season 1-12. Now, they are 16-26 and a half-game out of the final play-in spot. I don’t know if Zion will return. I don’t know if the Pelicans will make the play-in. But I do know that it’s a testament to Green that he didn’t lose the locker room. He’s managed to turn the saddest story in the league into a competent basketball team playing above .500 ball in the last twenty games, and for that, he’s the undisputed Coach of the Quarter.
Most Valuable Player of the Quarter: Jokic
Nikola Jokic is in the top-10 on a per-minute basis for points, assists, and rebounds.
He leads the league in Cleaning the Glass’ on/off point differential.
He leads the league in Estimated Plus/Minus, the most well-regarded publicly available value stat, by an outrageous amount.
He leads the league in Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus/Minus.
He leads the league in 538’s Wins Above Replacement stat.
He’s even the second-most-impactful defensive player in the league, according to 538.
Statistics are not a goal, in and of themselves (unless they are, in which case you end up with Russell Westbrook). They try to describe the impact a player has on the court to varying degrees of success. They can’t capture everything, and each statistic has its own strengths and weaknesses.
But when every single statistic is saying the exact same thing, you need to take notice.
Nikola Jokic is the MVP of the second quarter.
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