NBA First-Quarter Awards: Celtics, Luka Doncic make statements in early part of season
After a 12-game Wednesday slate, the NBA will take Thanksgiving off. When it puts the turkey and stuffing away to get back to work this weekend, though, most of the league’s 30 teams either will have played or will be approaching their 20th game — which puts us about 25 percent of the way through the 2022-23 season.
This can mean only one thing: It’s time to hand out some purely fictional, intangible and unable-to-be-displayed-in-a-trophy-case hardware. It’s time, dear friends, for First-Quarter Awards.
One quick (but important!) note before we get started: These picks are not intended to serve as predictions of which players or teams will take home the NBA’s official trophies come season’s end. Instead, they’re based solely on performance since opening night — an opportunity to push pause on the breakneck pace of the season, take stock of what’s transpired, and celebrate it. (Well, except for this one category. We’ll get to it.)
So let us come together, forming like Voltron, to commemorate the good stuff we’ve seen, starting with a squad that seems to have found the cure for the dreaded Finals hangover.
(All statistics as of Tuesday morning.)
Team of the Quarter: Boston Celtics
Heading into the season, I wondered whether Boston — the favorite to win the 2022-23 championship, according to BetMGM — would be able to “withstand the internal upheaval now rocking the franchise” after the suspension of coach Ime Udoka, the elevation of young assistant Joe Mazzulla, and a worrying knee injury to center Robert Williams III. Well, so far, so good: Even with key pieces in and out of the lineup, the Celtics boast the NBA’s best record at 13-4 (with two of those three losses coming in overtime to a tough Cavs team) and its second-best net rating, outscoring opponents by 6.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Most of the attention lavished on Boston during its dominant run in the second half of last season understandably went to its meat-grinder defense. It’s worth noting, though, that the Celtics also led the NBA in offensive efficiency from mid-January on — a level of point-producing effectiveness that Mazzulla and Co. have kept rolling since the opening tip. The C’s sit atop the NBA in half-court scoring efficiency and 3-point frequency, taking nearly 45% of their shots from beyond the arc. They’re also top five in assist-to-turnover ratio and secondary or “hockey” assists, the extra passes that set up the open shots they keep knocking down.
Whatever static surrounded the Celtics at the start of the season has long since given way to the noise that Jayson Tatum (a legit MVP candidate) and Jaylen Brown (who could be on his way to a second All-Star nod) make on a nightly basis. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart continues to ably run the show, posting the highest assist rate of his career while averaging fewer than two turnovers per 36 minutes. Derrick White has shined as a plug-and-play starter, Malcolm Brogdon has been just what the doctor ordered off the bench, and Al Horford and Grant Williams have more than held down the fort up front in Time Lord’s absence. Which, by the way, sounds like it might soon be at an end — a sobering thought for opponents who have watched Boston play like a top-10 defense after a rocky first five games, even without its All-Defensive Second Team shot-swatter.
Even pricing in some regression — Horford, Grant Williams and newly minted folk hero Sam Hauser probably won’t keep hitting half of their 3-pointers — Boston seems poised to stay at or near the top of the East. Talent, shot creation, continuity, defensive versatility and roster-wide buy-in is a hell of a recipe for success, and it’s got the Celtics looking like strong contenders to make another championship push.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Suns, who have similarly shaken off their abysmal-vibes summer and Jae Crowder’s trade request to get off to a strong start even with Chris Paul and Cam Johnson injured; the Bucks, hot on Boston’s tail even with Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton in street clothes; the Cavaliers, who have integrated Donovan Mitchell pretty freaking seamlessly on their way to the East’s No. 3 seed; the Jazz, who we’ll get to a bit more later.
Player of the Quarter: Luka Doncic, Mavericks
I wouldn’t fight you in a public square if you opted for Stephen Curry here. (I mean, honestly, I’m a 40-year-old father of two; I’m probably not going to fight you in a public square over much.)
It’s basically been a coin-flip to this point between the All-NBA offensive dynamos. Curry and Doncic have essentially run neck-and-neck in per-minute and per-possession productivity. They rank first and second in a slew of advanced metrics, including value over replacement player, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating, estimated plus-minus and FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement. Curry gets the nod in overall efficiency, leading everybody except for low-usage/catch-and-finish types in points per shot attempt. Doncic takes the cake in sheer volume, leading the league in scoring while ranking second in usage rate and assist percentage.
In the end, I went with Luka not as a slight against Curry effectively replicating his unanimous MVP numbers at age 34, but in recognition of just how special it is that Doncic is entering that kind of rarefied air at age 23.
A Dallas team lacking in complementary ball-handling and shot creation after the exit of Jalen Brunson has needed Doncic to shoulder an even heavier playmaking load, and he’s been more than up to the challenge — even when it comes to doing the dirty work inside. While your first-blush image of Doncic might conjure up a picturesque stepback 3 fading to the left, he’s actually taking more than 60% of his shots inside the foul line this season, shooting a career-high 60% on 2-point tries (including a brisk 65.6% on drives to the basket), and getting to the charity stripe a whopping 11.4 times a game.
Doncic will use his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame to bulldoze smaller defenders in the post, and his handle, first step and strength to blow past slower ones in isolation. He’ll patiently run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll to find his preferred matchup on the perimeter; when he finds it, he’ll collapse the defense with dribble penetration before firing an inside-out laser to spoon-feed an open teammate a Pop-A-Shot-quality look. And he’s pairing that mastery with an increased level of attentiveness and activity in Jason Kidd’s defense, notching more steals and deflections than ever while playing a team-high minutes load for a Mavericks squad that ranks fourth in points allowed per possession (granted, with some caveats).
It’s reasonable to view it as a problem that Dallas asks Doncic to do this much — with Brunson now in New York, Tim Hardaway Jr. struggling mightily to return to form after a season-ending foot injury, and Kidd searching for offensive answers in a brutal West — that a Mavericks team capable of some truly ugly losses so often resorts to just getting Doncic the rock and asking him to save them. It’s undeniably remarkable, though, that he so often can. Five years into his NBA career, Doncic has the tools to dismantle every coverage a defense can throw at him, and he’s doing it at a level that few players in the history of the sport ever have.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Steph; Tatum; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (we’ll get back to him later); Nikola Jokic (a two-time MVP almost quietly averaging 21-10-9 on 61% shooting); Kevin Durant; Joel Embiid (get well soon, big fella); Ja Morant; Devin Booker; Giannis Antetokounmpo; Paul George; Donovan Mitchell.
Rookie of the Quarter: Paolo Banchero, Magic
According to Stathead, only one rookie in the last 40 seasons has averaged at least 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game: Blake Griffin, during his postponed introductory campaign with the Clippers. Before he was sidelined by an ankle injury, Banchero was on track to become the second … which kind of tracks, because how many other 6-foot-10, 250-pound dudes can you think of that could move, handle and dish like this?
Paolo Banchero drops a 🔥 dime!
Cavs - Magic Q3 action Live Now on the NBA App
📲 https://t.co/1pomQZN8Pi pic.twitter.com/0kj08wrz06
— NBA (@NBA) October 27, 2022
The No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft leads the rookie class in scoring and rebounding, and ranks second in assists. Orlando has outscored opponents by 3.7 points-per-100 when Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. share the court — something of a miracle, given how uneven and injury-wracked the Magic’s backcourt rotation has been all season. He gives Orlando what it has desperately needed ever since Dwight Howard left for L.A.: an organizing principle, and a stable foundation on which to build a sustainable offense for the future.
What Banchero lacks in shotmaking at this stage — just 11-of-43 from 3-point range, and only 36-of-110 on jumpers overall — he makes up for with a voracious appetite for contact (his 8.3 free-throw attempts per game rank ninth in the league) and an ahead-of-schedule capacity to initiate offense from all over the floor. The list of other players in the league this season with usage and assist rates as high as Banchero’s, and a turnover rate as low as Banchero’s, reads like an All-NBA ballot.
Banchero isn’t the only member of the class of ’22 to come flying out of the gates. Bennedict Mathurin has been sensational in Indiana, scoring in bunches, shooting 42% from deep and attacking the rim with reckless abandon off the bench for the much-better-than-expected Pacers. But Banchero stepped into the league looking like what so many projected him to be when he arrived at Duke: a no-doubt-about-it, true-blue star with the game to elevate a franchise.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Mathurin.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Brook Lopez, Bucks
Milwaukee finished 14th in defensive efficiency last season — the first time in four years that the Bucks didn’t crack the top 10. It was also the first time since 2018 that Brook Lopez missed significant time, as a back injury kept the starting center off the court from opening night through mid-March.
I’m not necessarily saying that correlation equals causation there. Watch the once-again-healthy Lopez lock down the lane for this year’s model of Mike Budenholzer’s club, though, and you get the sense that the two might be connected.
Even though All-Star swingman Khris Middleton and top reserve wing Pat Connaughton have yet to play a second this season, and despite their offense ranking 21st in half-court effectiveness and dead last in transition scoring — mind-boggling, considering they employ Giannis — the Bucks are 12-4, jostling with Boston for Eastern Conference supremacy. They’re there because they boast the NBA’s stingiest defense, and that’s thanks largely to Lopez, one of the few defenders in the league who’s burly enough to bang with bruisers like Embiid, while also nimble, patient and disciplined enough to ace the cat-and-mouse game in the pick-and-roll against the league’s most dangerous ball handlers.
For years, the Bucks’ commitment to dropping their bigs back and aggressively helping to pack the paint and wall off the basket came at the cost of giving up a ton of 3-point shots to less-threatening shooters or opposing bigs in the pick-and-pop — a strategy that came back to bite them when Grant Williams went 7-of-18 from three in Game 7 to send the Bucks home in the second round of the 2022 playoffs. This season, Budenholzer and his staff decided to try dialing back the help, aiming to take away the 3-point line by sticking closer to shooters on the perimeter while entrusting Lopez and the rest of Milwaukee’s bigs with taking care of the paint.
It’s working. Only two teams allow a smaller share of shots from beyond the arc than the Bucks, nobody is giving up corner threes less frequently, and Milwaukee still ranks fourth in limiting attempts at the rim and fifth in field-goal percentage conceded at the cup. That’s because when the Bucks funnel ball handlers into the middle, Lopez has been equal to the task of snuffing them out.
Nobody contests more shots per game than Lopez, who also leads the NBA in total blocks and has held opponents to 52.1% shooting at the rim — the 10th-best mark among 86 players to defend at least 50 shots at the basket, according to Second Spectrum tracking. (Who’s allowing the lowest shooting percentage in that group? Giannis.) The Bucks allow 10.6 fewer points-per-100 with Lopez patrolling the middle, a gargantuan number. And while Milwaukee’s defense inarguably benefits from the presence of difference-makers like Jrue Holiday, Jevon Carter and MarJon Beauchamp at the point of attack, and from Antetokounmpo forever lurking as a roving menace on the weak side, it’s notable that the Bucks have still gotten stops at an elite rate when Lopez has played without Antetokounmpo and without Holiday.
Add it all up, and Lopez grades out by multiple metrics as perhaps the league’s highest-impact defender on a per-possession basis — as big a reason as any why the Bucks have stayed afloat amid their early-season injury woes and scoring struggles.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: O.G. Anunoby, leading the NBA in steals and seventh in deflections while guarding everybody and wreaking havoc in Toronto; Ivica Zubac and Jarrett Allen, the rim-protecting anchors of top-five defenses in L.A. and Cleveland; Embiid, who shook off those early doldrums and transformed back into a holy terror before getting injured; Rudy Gobert, who, for all the drama, HAS gotten the Wolves playing like a top-three defense in his minutes; usual suspects Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green and Mikal Bridges; unusual suspect Kristaps Porzingis, looking better than ever for the Wizards’ surprisingly stout defense.
Reserve of the Quarter: Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald never really wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives?” According to Kirk Curnutt of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, what the famed author of “The Great Gatsby” actually wrote was, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days.” Which is A) a meaning that is basically diametrically opposed to the more commonly used misquote, and B) pretty much precisely how Love’s career in Cleveland has wound up playing out.
What once looked like a toxic situation featuring a once-proud All-Star miserable on a franchise that no longer needed him has transformed, with a shift in perspective and better health, into a font of good vibes. Love has found new life as a sage veteran (and silver fox!) who can mentor youngsters like Darius Garland and Evan Mobley while also providing the kind of knockdown shooting and playmaking sense that helps Cleveland’s second unit hum:
HI KEVIN.@kevinlove | 21 PTS, 10 AST, 8 REB pic.twitter.com/9e1OWGIT4H
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) November 5, 2022
After finishing second to Tyler Herro in Sixth Man of the Year balloting last season, Love has continued his post-prime resurgence, averaging better than 18 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per 36 minutes off the bench for a Cavs team with its sights set on a deep playoff run. He has fully bought into his role as a floor-spacing connector, taking 73% of his shots from long distance and drilling 40.4% of them — his highest mark since 2017-18, when he made his last All-Star appearance as part of LeBron James’ last hurrah with the Cavs.
A half-decade later, Love now plays a complementary role to Cleveland’s All-Stars rather than vying for another berth himself; he plays it beautifully, though. Nobody grabs a higher share of available defensive rebounds than Love, who brings additional value on the offensive end just by virtue of making quick, sharp decisions to either fire away or keep the ball moving. It’s not a coincidence that the Cavs’ assist rate jumps and turnover rate drops when Love’s on the floor, or that he and fellow reserve sharpshooter Cedi Osman have triggered so many “Cavalanches” after checking in.
Guys who have built arguable Hall of Fame careers — five All-Star nods, a pair of All-NBA selections, a key role on three NBA Finals teams, a championship, Olympic and FIBA World Championship gold — and cleared more than a quarter of a billion dollars in NBA salary don’t always take kindly to coming off the bench and just trying to help the ball club. Love, though, seems to have found joy in both redefining himself and recommitting himself to a franchise that might have a chance to do something special in the years to come. As second acts go, that ain’t half bad.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Christian Wood, who’s loving life alongside Luka; Malcolm Brogdon; Jose Alvarado and Larry Nance Jr., defensive menaces and effusive sources of complementary offense in New Orleans; Bobby Portis; Bones Hyland; the Alex Caruso-Goran Dragic backcourt in Chicago.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder … And Also, Viewed Through a Different Lens, Dennis Smith Jr., Hornets
It’s not necessarily true that Most Improved Player is the most hotly contested award on the NBA’s year-end slate. (For God’s sake, have you seen the way people talk about MVP? Or, for that matter, anything?) It might, however, be the honor with the most passionate arguments over what kind of player merits recognition.
One position you could stake out holds that the most important leap a player can make is from good to great: from not-quite-All-Star to All-NBA favorite and possible MVP candidate. If that’s where you’re coming from — and, full disclosure, it’s where I am, putting Doncic, Julius Randle and Morant at the top of my ballot in the past three years — then SGA’s your
slam dunk slinking and slaloming scoop layup of a selection. I recently went long on Gilgeous-Alexander’s glow-up, so I won’t belabor the point here; suffice it to say that when you’re just suddenly fourth in the NBA in scoring on career-high usage and true shooting, and when you perform so overwhelmingly that estimated plus-minus slots you in between Embiid and Antetokounmpo as a top-10 player in the league thus far, and you haven’t done those things before, it is fair to say that you have improved. Like, a lot.
I’m nothing if not a generous and benevolent fake award-giver, though, so I’m open to the idea that there’s a more deserving flavor of improvement — one coming from players who, several years deep in their career, go from out of the conversation (and possibly nearly out of the league) into real roles as solid big-minutes contributors in a team’s rotation. On that score, it’s hard to find a better candidate than Smith, the ninth pick in the 2017 draft — four spots ahead of Mitchell, five spots ahead of Adebayo — who had played in 94 games for three teams in the past three seasons before catching on in Charlotte and making the most of his new opportunity.
Supplanted by Doncic as the Mavericks’ point guard of the future and cast aside by Rick Carlisle, then shipped to New York for Porzingis and Detroit for Derrick Rose, Smith slogged through inconsistent play, battled a series of injuries and appeared to lose his confidence in his shot and floor game. After a torn ulnar collateral ligament prematurely ended his 2021-22 season in Portland, it seemed like Smith might find himself on the outside of the league looking in. But when early-season injuries to LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier opened up minutes for a playmaker in Charlotte, Smith seized them, playing hellacious point-of-attack defense to earn more opportunities for defense-first head coach Steve Clifford. He’s tied for second in the league in steals and fourth in deflections, and has paired that disruption with a strong 3.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio — a near-top-10 mark among rotation guards — and career-best 66% shooting at the rim.
Time and injuries might have sapped some of the explosive athleticism that got Smith invited to the Slam Dunk Contest, and the high hopes for stardom that accompanied him out of NC State might never be fulfilled. What Smith is now, though — a 25-year-old pest with a steady set of hands who can initiate offense, get downhill, finish at the cup and play with a high motor off the bench or as a spot starter — has real value, and it’s earned him a new place in the league. Considering Smith was seriously considering trying to break into the NFL a few months back, that seems like a pretty significant improvement, too.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: Tyrese Haliburton, who’s averaging 20 points per game, leading the league in assists, and flirting with 50-40-90 shooting while leading the Pacers to a 10-6 record and a top-eight offense; Desmond Bane, whom Morant thought should’ve won it last season, and who’s followed it up by averaging just under 25-5-5 on scorching shooting; Lauri Markkanen, playing himself into Legitimate Future Piece territory in Salt Lake City; Bol Bol, thriving on both ends in Orlando’s menagerie of long-armed curiosities; Devin Vassell, stretching out his game in San Antonio; Nick Richards, who has turned into an offensive-board-crashing, pick-and-roll-finishing mauler off Charlotte’s bench.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Wolves Having the Problems That Pretty Much Everyone Predicted
OK, fine: This one’s on me. I’m the one who looked at the action figures on the floor and thought, “Hey, maybe it’d be cool if you kind of mashed the Hulk and Mr. Fantastic into one guy,” and then yadda-yadda’d the part where it’d probably be pretty hard not only for the howling rage monster to learn how to control his newly stretchy limbs, but also for everyone else to figure out how to safely and comfortably maneuver around them.
(For the purposes of this analogy, Rudy Gobert is Bruce Banner, Karl-Anthony Towns is Reed Richards, and Chris Finch is … I don’t know, Doc Samson, I guess? Let’s move on.)
(Wait, one more thing: Anthony Edwards is absolutely The Human Torch in this scenario.)
As interested as I was in seeing how the Wolves intended to make their big bet on Gobert pay off, the returns in the first month-plus of the season have been … well, not all that interesting, because they’ve been something like the sum of most observers’ preseason fears.
Minnesota has scored at league-worst levels with Gobert and KAT sharing the court; has scored like gangbusters but defended like garbage in KAT-no Gobert minutes; and has clamped down on D but gone totally anemic in Gobert-no KAT time. As my colleague Ben Rohrbach recently detailed, the Wolves’ new hoped-for bread-and-butter pick-and-roll partnerships have struggled mightily to find a rhythm, with Edwards registering his discomfort with the cramped confines of the Wolves’ twin-towers lineups and D’Angelo Russell seemingly unable to make a shot for weeks at a time. Towns has frequently looked lost defending in space, figuratively leaving his teammates to defend 4-on-5; Russell literally did that, forgetting to check into a game. (There has been one surprise, at least, but it’s not a pleasant one: Despite playing at least one All-NBA center for virtually the entire game, including one who’s been arguably the best defensive rebounder in the league for the past half-decade, the Wolves rank a dismal 26th in cleaning up opponents’ misses. No bueno.)
There are reasons for this: the sheer enormity of the on-court change demanded by the introduction of Gobert; the lack of vital preseason preparation time thanks to Towns’ viral infection and Gobert coming off his summertime stint with the French national team; the sudden realization that replacing a pair of culture-setting/defense-first contributors in Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt on the fly is tricky, no matter how good Gobert is; etc. And there have been silver linings — most notably the play of a second unit led by Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince, and the fact that the principals have all seemed to perk up during a four-game winning streak that’s seen Minnesota score at a top-five rate while knocking off the Cavs (albeit without Mitchell and Allen), Sixers (albeit without James Harden and Tyrese Maxey), and Heat (albeit without Jimmy Butler and Herro).
Maybe this is the start of Finch and Co. putting everything together — of the Wolves’ top four locking into the sort of two-way rhythm that’d allow them to be the sort of 50-win team that could be a legitimately tough out in the playoffs. Here’s hoping; it would kind of kick ass to see the Hulk with stretchy arms, after all.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The constant swirl of bulls*** around Brooklyn; the Warriors’ destitute second unit; the Clippers’ bottom-five offense, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense, and the Heat’s overall sludginess; that injuries have conspired to keep us from seeing Morant, Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Dillon Brooks share the floor for even a single possession yet; Cade Cunningham getting hurt before he could really start to take off; that SGA’s teammates are only shooting 43% off his passes (please get this man some shooters and finishers!); that the Knicks will reportedly consider trading Immanuel Quickley, which must be some kind of misprint intended specifically to hurt my feelings.
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Jazz!
There is a kind of story I like, and it is unfolding in Salt Lake City:
There's no WAY this ragtag team of misfit players with questionable talent levels will ever get it together in time to win the big game!
Unless ... https://t.co/teqW7llFUr
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) July 25, 2022
Granted, “questionable talent levels” isn’t exactly fair to a roster that features six lottery picks and a Sixth Man of the Year. Still, though: Few things are as thrilling as when a roster full of cast-offs gets its “Major League” on, becomes more than the sum of its parts, and flouts everybody’s expectations. Bless these Jazz for refusing to accept the agreed-upon punditry that they didn’t have enough to win — that a roster full of combo guards and not-that-powerful power forwards couldn’t turn into something more.
First-year head coach Will Hardy looked at that roster and focused less on the defensive limitations of a Markkanen-Kelly Olynyk frontcourt than on the possibilities it might hold — like, say, as the starting point for a devastating five-out motion attack in which every player can dribble, pass and shoot, and everyone’s empowered to grab the ball off the rim, push it in transition and attack closeouts off the bounce. Utah ranks third in the NBA in possessions finished off off-ball screens, fifth in total distance covered on offense, seventh in assists per game and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio — all indicators of a freewheeling, egalitarian and tightly connected approach to capitalizing on mismatches to generate good looks. It’s working: After trading Mitchell to Cleveland, Utah actually has a better offensive rating (fourth) than the Cavs (sixth).
Markkanen, too often neither fish nor fowl when cast as a stretch-4 or small-ball 5 in Chicago, has blossomed as a 7-foot big wing, averaging 22.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 64.2% inside the arc and taking nearly five free-throw attempts per 36 minutes — all career highs. After having to work overtime to get used to feeding a screen-and-dive big man like Gobert, Mike Conley looks much more in his element working with pop partners like Markkanen and Olynyk, orchestrating like he did in Memphis to the tune of 7.9 assists against 1.5 turnovers per game. A shift into the starting five has recalibrated Jordan Clarkson’s shoot-first instincts; he’s posting the highest assist rate of his career while still chipping in 19 points a night. Malik Beasley has slid into Clarkson’s role as Utah’s top reserve gunner, shooting 41.4% on more than 10 triples per 36 minutes off the bench, and Olynyk’s wheeling, dealing and shooting 50% from distance.
Everyone looks completely at home in Hardy’s multiple-action, pace-and-space scheme, and the result has been a stunning and genuinely thrilling brand of basketball. Whether that’s enough to keep overcoming those aforementioned defensive limitations — Utah’s 24th in points allowed per possession, 29th in defensive rebounding rate and dead last in points allowed in the paint — remains to be seen, and there’s always the chance that head honcho Danny Ainge decides to sell high and tear the roster down to the studs ahead of February’s trade deadline. There’s a chance, though, that the über-competitive Ainge lets it ride and keeps the good vibes rolling, preferring to lean into the increasingly high likelihood — pegged at 80% by FiveThirtyEight and 95% by Basketball Reference — that he’s built an honest-to-God playoff team. Maybe it’s not one you’d pick to topple one of the expected powers in the Western Conference. At this point, though, when it comes to the Jazz, maybe we should start expecting the unexpected.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Sacramento freaking Kings fielding the most explosive offense in the NBA; the Pacers vying for home-court advantage in the East; the Pelicans flirting with the top five in offensive AND defensive efficiency; Anthony Davis maybe kind of sort of quietly being back (25.6 points, 12 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and more than three steals-plus-blocks per game on 55% shooting, with the Lakers outscoring opponents by 5.1 points-per-100 when he plays without LeBron); the Wizards being awesome whenever Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma are on the floor together, even without Bradley Beal!