NBA Second-Quarter Awards: Nets emerge as legit title threats and Nikola Jokic is still a wrecker of worlds
Every NBA team except for the Sacramento Kings has now played at least 40 games. As of Tuesday night, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, more than 615 of the 1,230 contests on the regular season slate are officially in the books. That means we’ve arrived at the halfway point of the 2022-23 NBA season, and that can mean only one thing:
It’s time to hand out some purely theoretical, ephemeral, impossible-to-display-on-your-mantel hardware. It’s time, dear friends, for Second-Quarter Awards.
One quick (but important!) note before we get started: These picks are not 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 our last check-in — the 20ish-game period between Nov. 22 and Jan. 10 — with the goal of allowing us to momentarily slip the surly bonds of the season’s perpetual forward motion and properly savor what’s just transpired.
So let us come together, swarm like bees (and sting too), to commemorate and consider what we’ve seen recently, starting in the borough where they paint murals of Biggie:
(All statistics as of Wednesday morning.)
Team of the Quarter: Brooklyn Nets
What a difference a couple of months makes. After opening the season 2-6 amid on-court dysfunction and off-court controversies, the Nets got healthier, stopped shooting themselves in the foot, and started shooting the lights out. In the process, Brooklyn righted the ship, saved its season and finally transformed into the devastating collective we’d hoped it one day might.
The Nets have gone an NBA-best 19-4 since our last check-in, outscoring opponents by 7.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — the league’s second-best net rating in that span, behind only the Grizzlies. Kevin Durant ascended to a ludicrous-even-for-him level of offensive efficiency, averaging 29.2 points per game while shooting 65% on 2-pointers (despite one of the toughest shot diets in the sport), 40.4% from 3-point land and 95.3% from the free-throw line. Kyrie Irving returned from suspension and fit snugly into his role as an offensive 1A, averaging 26-5-5 on 50/40/90 shooting splits.
Nearly everybody in Brooklyn’s rotation who regularly takes 3-pointers drilled them at an elite clip, helping fuel an attack that trailed only the Nuggets for the top spot in offensive efficiency in Q2. More notably: New head coach Jacque Vaughn got his Nets to get stops, leveraging the length and collective IQ of a healthy perimeter rotation (Ben Simmons, Royce O’Neale, T.J. Warren, Yuta Watanabe, Joe Harris, et al.) to unlock a high-level switching defense that finished fourth in points allowed per possession in Q2.
As always, Brooklyn’s championship chances rest on Durant’s shoulders — or, more accurately, his surgically repaired 34-year-old legs. But if early optimism surrounding his most recent knee sprain bears out, Durant’s on the shelf for closer to a couple of weeks than a couple of months, and Vaughn’s able to keep the good vibes (and the offense) rolling in his MVP candidate’s absence, the Nets could stay in the thick of the playoff hunt in a wildly competitive Eastern Conference. If they can hit springtime with a healthy KD and a fully operational supporting cast, this recent stretch suggests they’ve got an excellent chance of taking down anybody they face. When you can both get tightly contested buckets against the toughest defenses and clamp down on the other end, you’re not just a force to be reckoned with. You’re a bona fide title contender.
Also receiving theoretical votes in my brain: The Grizzlies, who weathered the absence of Desmond Bane while jockeying for position for the top spot in the West; the 76ers, who played .700 ball despite Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey all missing time; the Nuggets, owners of the league’s best offense in Q2; the Celtics, still top five on both ends and now with a healthy Robert Williams III; the Pelicans, who are the real deal.
Player of the Quarter: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
I almost went with Durant, in acknowledgment of how transcendent he’s been during Brooklyn’s rise. I thought hard about going with Joel Embiid, who has missed a half-dozen games in this stretch, but who’s been absolutely sensational when he’s on the court, putting up just under 35-10-5 a night on 54/42/87 shooting while anchoring a near-top-five defense for the ascendant Sixers. I considered a repeat vote for Luka Doncic, who followed up his Q1 win by averaging 35-8-9 on .623 true shooting while effectively carrying the Mavericks to the No. 4 spot in the West.
But as incredible as they and so many other players have been during a remarkable run of individual performances over the past couple of months … I mean, it’s pretty hard to go away from the guy who averaged a 27-point triple-double while shooting 62% from the field for the team with by far the NBA’s best offense and the West’s second-best record in Q2:
Add the buckets that Jokic scores himself to the ones he creates through his passing and screen-setting — as the Points Created metric introduced by The Ringer’s Zach Kram does — and the full measure of his offensive dominance comes into view. The two-time MVP created a whopping 63.4 points per 36 minutes of court time in Q2 — head and shoulders above Doncic (59), Ja Morant (54.9), Giannis Antetokounmpo (52.6), Embiid (50.9), Zion Williamson (47.5), Durant (44.3), Jayson Tatum (42.9), Donovan Mitchell (39.9) and anyone else you might’ve heard getting “best in the world” buzz over the past couple of months.
Scoff at the very notion of screen assists if you’d like. (Lord knows plenty of people outside of Salt Lake City sure have over the years.) But the fact that Jokic can comfortably function as the kind of traditional big man who plants his feet and dislodges a defender is part of the package that makes him maybe the NBA’s most maddening game of Whac-A-Mole for opposing defenses. He slides seamlessly from role to role within the Nuggets’ half-court offense, forever forcing the defense to shift its focus and opening up opportunities all over the court in the process.
Jokic works either end of the pick-and-roll, creating fresh air and driving lanes for the Nuggets’ guards or contorting defenses into brutal mismatches as they try to have their smalls navigate unfamiliar screen defense principles with a battleship bearing down on them. Try to hang back to take away his passing lanes, and he’ll pivot into dribble handoff actions with one of Denver’s many capable curl-and-drive perimeter players, or maybe just pull up and dot your eye with a jumper (48.6% in Q2).
Press up on him, and he might just drop the ball over the top to a cutter (only the Kings and Magic score more points per possession on cuts than Jokic’s Nuggets) or use his handle and strength to put the ball on the floor and take you to the basket (he shot 70% on drives in Q2). If you play him straight up on the block, he’s either bulldozing or pirouetting his way into the paint to finish — he’s scored nearly as efficiently as Embiid in the post on higher volume — and if you bring extra help, he’s slinging lasers all over the court to open shooters just waiting to cash out.
He should definitely shoot more, considering his shot chart’s got more green than Ted DiBiase. He can control a game while barely looking at the rim, though, as he did in taking only five shots while notching an easy-breezy triple-double in Monday’s win over the Lakers, which featured yet another optical illusion of a find in traffic:
WHAT THE HELL IS THIS JOKIC pic.twitter.com/aWNRj59h51
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) January 10, 2023
Reasonable people can disagree over how much the Nuggets’ questionable defense dings Jokic’s case — though, in fairness, they’ve defended at a top-10 level with him on the floor — and we’ll have plenty of time to discuss whether Jokic should join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as only the fourth player in NBA history to win MVP three years in a row. (If you’re interested in getting an early start, though, Yahoo Sports’ Ben Rohrbach recently considered the Joker’s case.) What’s long since been clear, though — and what Jokic has reminded us night in and night out while leading Denver to the top of the West — is that, trophies or no trophies, he’s an absolute nightmare. A quietly silly, Gru-dressing, horse-loving nightmare.
ARTVIMB: All of the aforementioned fellow members of the MVP conversation; Domantas Sabonis (averaging about 20-13-7 on 63% shooting with a busted thumb); Bam Adebayo (quietly playing excellent two-way ball to help the Heat climb out of their early-season hole); Julius Randle; Lauri Markkanen (more on him in a sec); Pascal Siakam (a white-hot bright spot in a dim first half in Toronto); DeMar DeRozan (an absolute machine helping keep the Bulls steady), Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler, if they’d played enough games.
Rookie of the Quarter: Paolo Banchero, Magic
Our first repeat winner! The No. 1 overall pick’s scoring efficiency has dipped a bit from his roaring start to the season, but 20.2 points on 42.2% shooting to go with 6.2 rebounds and four assists per game since returning from a left ankle sprain still leaves him as the top scorer in the rookie class, as well as a top-five rebounder and table-setter.
Banchero’s athleticism and fluidity leaped off the screen from his very first game; he wasted little time proving that he had the size, strength and agility to make an impact at the NBA level. Even as he scuffled a bit with his finishing in recent weeks, though, the Duke product flashed a more advanced floor game, improving his assist rate while showcasing better touch from deep (33.6% on 4.5 3-point attempts per game, up from 25.6% on 3.9 attempts in Q1). He’s also showcased great court vision, with a real knack for picking out cutters and hitting Orlando’s armada of big men with high-low feeds, both in the half-court and running the floor in transition:
Midway through his first pro season, Banchero already looks the part of a legit No. 1 option: a big wing scorer who can command double teams, read and break down coverages, and beat you with both physicality and finesse. If he keeps developing from the perimeter and as a playmaker, the question won’t be whether he starts making All-Star Games — it’s when.
ARTVIMB: Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard, vital big-minutes contributors to a surprising postseason hopeful in Indiana; Jalen Williams, whose great feel for the game and heady two-way play have opened some eyes and earned him a starting spot in Oklahoma City; Jaden Ivey, overtaxed and straining under the weight of Detroit’s shot-creation burden with Cade Cunningham sidelined, but still charging hard; Keegan Murray, shooting a scorching 44% from deep on 5.6 attempts per game in Q2; Jalen Duren, a board-crashing, rim-running menace who dunks everything he can with malicious intent for the Pistons; Dyson Daniels and Walker Kessler, ready-made defensive contributors for better-than-many-expected squads.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
I wrote last month about how Jackson’s arrival after missing the first 14 games of the season rehabbing a surgically repaired foot had helped transform the Memphis defense from quotidian to contender-quality. Evidently, I was underselling it.
The Grizzlies led the NBA in defensive efficiency by a mile in Q2, allowing just 106.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s 3.8 fewer points-per-100 than second place — the same distance as between the No. 2 Cavs and the No. 15 Timberwolves. (Strip out garbage time, as Cleaning the Glass does, and it’s nearly the size of the gap between second place and the No. 20 Pacers.) And they’ve been at their stingiest with Jackson on the floor, allowing a microscopic 102.3 points-per-100 with JJJ roving around, menacing ball-handlers and drivers all over the half-court, and blocking a metric ton of shots.
Jackson averaged a league-high 3.2 blocks per game in Q2. He swatted 10.4% of opponents’ 2-point shots and is on pace for the first double-digit block percentage by a player who doesn’t primarily play center. (He’s spent more minutes at the 4 next to either Steven Adams or Xavier Tillman than he has at the 5, and nearly three-quarters of his floor time defending non-centers, according to The BBall Index’s game-charting.)
On the rare occasions when he doesn’t get the block, he’s still making a massive impact. Grizzlies opponents have shot significantly worse from virtually every area of the court when Jackson’s on it and managed a minuscule 40.9% at the rim when he was the closest defender in Q2, by far the lowest mark among 145 defenders to contest at least 50 up-close shots. Combine that with the additional disruption of three steals-plus-deflections per 36 minutes of floor time and a curbed foul rate — 4.3 whistles per-36 in Q2, which would be a career best for a full season — and you’ve got a devastating defensive weapon … and, if he keeps this up, maybe the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year.
ARTVIMB: Dillon Brooks, the perimeter destroyer who pairs so beautifully with Jackson to pace the Grizz; Brook Lopez, our Q1 winner, and still an excellent choice; O.G. Anunoby, probably Brooks’ stiffest competition for best perimeter defender in the NBA this season; Nic Claxton, who’s right there with JJJ in a bunch of statistical categories for a Brooklyn defense that soared up the charts in Q2; Draymond Green, anchor of the top-10 D that helped keep Golden State upright with Steph sidelined; Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, twin-tower backbones of a top-tier defense; Embiid and Adebayo, still holy terrors at the heart of top-10 units; Marcus Smart, the snarling switch-everything “stretch-6” who makes it all work in Boston; Mitchell Robinson, who’s been excellent in the middle for the Knicks; AD, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, if they’d played enough games/minutes.
Reserve of the Quarter: Russell Westbrook, Lakers
I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t think it was going to shake out this way.
I wrote this summer about Westbrook coming to the moment of truth in his career that so many players, like spiritual antecedent Allen Iverson and erstwhile teammate Carmelo Anthony, had reached before him. It’s the point at which a superstar’s shine has dimmed enough that doing the same thing the same way is no longer sustainable, and he must either adapt to a new role — a smaller role, likely outside the starting lineup — or get left behind. I was somewhat skeptical that a player as proud and fierce as Russ would take kindly to that sort of suggestion.
I grew even more so as he attributed a hamstring tweak to coach Darvin Ham deciding to bring him off the bench for the Lakers’ final preseason game, claiming that the disruption to his age-old routine had left him unsure how to warm up properly. And when Westbrook — back in the starting lineup, natch — missed 22 of his 26 shots in consecutive losses to the Clippers and Trail Blazers amid a horrid shooting start for the Lakers, I wondered whether, like A.I. in Memphis and Melo in Houston, the former MVP might soon find himself exiled and outside the league.
But then, Westbrook did what a lot of us weren’t totally sure he could: He changed.
Well, OK, maybe “changed” is too strong. Westbrook’s still high-usage, high-octane, low-efficiency and low-effs-given; he still takes more threes and turns the ball over more than you’d like. But since that disastrous opening week of the season, he seems to have grown comfortable with coming off the bench … and, in a second-unit role for a Lakers squad that needs all the help it can get producing points without LeBron James or Davis on the floor, it turns out that Westbrook’s persistent interest in deploying himself as a blunt-force object has some real value.
Russ with authority 😤 pic.twitter.com/6Zo32U0M6u
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 8, 2023
Westbrook led all reserves in assists in Q2 while also finishing second to Bucks big man Bobby Portis in rebounds and third in points behind Mathurin and the Pistons’ Alec Burks; he was the only player to average better than 10-5-5 coming off the pine in Q2. Even as his shooting percentages continue to dip, Westbrook remains an important offensive engine for L.A., tying for 10th in drives per game in Q2 and dropping more dimes off those forays into the paint than anybody but Darius Garland.
He’s never gotten the same kind of plaudits as some of the other future Hall of Fame point guards he’s played against over the years, but Westbrook is an experienced and gifted playmaker in his own right. He’s adept at penetrating and drawing a second defender to spoon-feed a lurking big man and skilled at slipping passes through thickets of arms in the paint; only Jokic and Trae Young set up more buckets directly at the rim in Q2 than Westbrook did, according to PBPstats. On that point, he’s developed a nice chemistry with center Thomas Bryant; L.A. outscored opponents by 4.1 points-per-100 in their minutes in Q2.
That was part of an overall trend: The Lakers scored 116.3 points-per-100 with Westbrook on the floor in Q2, equivalent to a top-six rate, and performed 3.6 points-per-100 better with Westbrook in the game than on the bench, ahead of all rotation regulars save for James, Davis and Austin Reaves. When you’re apportioning credit for L.A. bouncing back to play above-.500 ball over the past month and a half, you should start with the run Davis was on before his injury and the run James has been on since. (A little soft spot in the schedule of late doesn’t hurt, either.) Westbrook deserves his share, too, for finding a happy medium between staying true to himself and adapting to his circumstances — and, in the process, finding a way to help a team that needed all the help it could get.
ARTVIMB: The aforementioned Portis, Mathurin and Burks; Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams, the linchpins of the league-leading Celtics’ second unit; Jose Alvarado and Larry Nance Jr., who continue to make major contributions every time they check in for the Pelicans; Malik Monk, reborn in a picture-perfect role in Sacramento; Tyus Jones, now lapping the field in the Best Backup Point Guard in the Biz category (shouts out to John Konchar and Brandon Clarke on that Grizz bench, too); Norman Powell, who’s done his level best to help things level out for the Clippers; Georges Niang, a slow-motion flamethrower who’s played great in Philly (as has Shake Milton, although his best play in this stretch came as a starter); the Nets’ whole reconfigured second unit; Immanuel Quickley, whom the Knicks definitely shouldn’t trade; Caris LeVert; Rights to Ricky Sanchez hero-turned-Thunder sniper Isaiah Joe.
Most Improved Players of the Quarter: Lauri Markkanen, Jazz; and Killian Hayes, Pistons
There were definitely people who thought Markkanen could be something more than he showed during his time in Chicago, a fits-and-starts tenure with three coaches in four seasons, none of whom really created a context in which the 7-foot Finn could quite find his niche. There were some who thought his stopover in Cleveland — a campaign that saw him prove he could credibly slide across all three frontcourt positions on defense while shooting at above-league-average efficiency for what looked like a playoff team before injuries scuttled the end of the season — augured brighter days ahead, too.
I’m not sure, though, how many people truly believed Markkanen could become this:
Markkanen built on his fast start in Salt Lake City by stomping the gas to the floorboards in Q2. The 25-year-old averaged 26.4 points and 8.5 rebounds in 35 minutes per game on scorching shooting: 70% at the rim, 47% from mid-range, 44% beyond the arc and 91% at the charity stripe.
He’s never finished this many of his team’s offensive possessions, and he’s never turned them into points this efficiently. The list of other players in Q2 with a usage rate and true shooting percentage as high as Markkanen is four names long: Durant, Jokic, Williamson and AD. In Will Hardy’s free-flowing offensive scheme, Markkanen is deputized to do more than space the floor. He’s running pick-and-rolls and slicing through seams, giving and receiving dribble handoffs, setting and running off off-ball screens, taking smaller defenders into the post and facing up to attack slower ones in isolation … and, as it turns out, he can do all of that, like, really well.
The aforementioned company Markkanen was keeping in usage and efficiency is eye-popping. Even more so is the fact that, when you add in his defensive rebounding and the versatility offered by his size and quickness, he’s been somewhere between a top-10 and top-30 player so far this season, according to a number of advanced statistical metrics. All-Star-caliber — and, if he keeps this up, maybe even in the All-NBA discussion.
Maybe you saw that coming. I sure as hell didn’t. Please take this fake award, Lauri, as my humble apology.
And if I’m being honest about things I didn’t see coming … well, hello there, Mr. Hayes:
Even with a season-high 5 TOs, Killian Hayes was the Pistons most impactful player last night:
18 PTS | 7 AST | 5 STL | 64.3 TS% 🔒
It's getting to the point where I'm surprised when he misses a pull-up middy 🔥 pic.twitter.com/e64f0Oxmcc
— Jack Kelly (@jack_kelly_313) January 7, 2023
To be clear: There’s no good part of Cunningham needing season-ending shin surgery just 12 appearances into his sophomore campaign. (Well, not yet, anyway.) But while the exit of Detroit’s primary playmaker has meant more reps for hard-driving No. 5 overall pick Jaden Ivey, it also opened the door for Hayes — the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA draft who struggled mightily during his first two pro seasons and looked like he might be on his way out of the Pistons’ future plans — to get another crack in the rotation. And he’s really made the most of it.
Hayes scored more than 15 points in a game just twice in his first two seasons; he did it nine times in Q2. He’d dished seven or more assists 20 times in 92 career games heading into this season; he did it 11 times in 23 games in Q2. And after shooting just 28.3% outside the paint through two seasons, Hayes has started flashing a more dependable jumper, knocking down 46% of his mid-range tries and 34% of his triples in Q2.
Those shooting numbers, combined with an 83% free-throw stroke, offer cause for optimism that more growth in the shot could be coming. Combine that with a healthy 3.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and the size (6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) and temperament to be a disruptive defender — Hayes averaged nearly five combined steals and deflections per-36 in Q2 — and he suddenly looks the part of a rotation guard. If the shot really comes along, and if more strength and experience help him improve his finishing on the interior, then Hayes — who’s still just 21 years old — might look even better than that before too long.
Whether Hayes ever winds up becoming a player of consequence on a team playing for something real very much remains to be seen. But this recent stretch — well, outside of the part where he kinda, sorta rabbit-punched Moe Wagner — provides a fresh font of hope that he might … and, perhaps, an always-welcome reminder not to consider dudes busts before they can legally buy a beer.
ARTVIMB: Claxton, who’s been playing at an All-Defensive level in Brooklyn while also leading the league in field-goal percentage; Naji Marshall, averaging nearly 13-4-3 while playing great defense across multiple positions for the Pelicans, just sort of all of a sudden becoming a legit starting-caliber two-way wing to help minimize the loss of Brandon Ingram; Josh Giddey, who took 40% of his shots at the rim and shot 38% from 3 in Q2, which are the kind of leaps in shot profile and shooting efficiency that could really unlock his game; and, in a slightly different vein, Anthony Edwards, who put up about 25-6-5 on more accurate shooting with better playmaking in Q2 while effectively establishing himself as The Guy in Minnesota with Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined.
Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter: The Suns, setting
Jae Crowder wanting to go play somewhere else wasn’t great, because it’s never good to just remove a quality starter from your rotation, but it wasn’t the end of the world, because Cam Johnson was more than ready to step into his starting spot. Johnson tearing his meniscus wasn’t great, considering Phoenix’s lack of depth on the wing, but it wasn’t the end of the world, because Devin Booker was cooking.
But then Booker missed a couple of games with hamstring tightness before returning and straining his groin, an injury that will likely sideline him through at least the end of the month. That wasn’t great, considering Booker had been playing like an MVP candidate through the first month and a half … and, actually, that one kind of was the end of the world.
The Suns went just 3-11 without Booker (including a Christmas Day loss in which he played just five minutes before bowing out) in Q2, getting outscored by 1.9 points-per-100 with him off the floor largely because they just couldn’t score. Phoenix managed a measly 108.9 points-per-100 in non-Book minutes in Q2; the worst offense in the league in that span, the one belonging to the seemingly adrift Houston Rockets, managed 109.6.
That wasn’t supposed to happen to the Suns, because the Suns didn’t have just one offensive star. Not with Chris Paul on the ball, and Deandre Ayton paid, and Mikal Bridges growing. Except …
One star team. https://t.co/xLBdTzwnOk
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 14, 2022
The 37-year-old Paul’s long-range shooting has ticked up of late, but he just hasn’t been able to consistently generate enough offense to hold up his end of the All-NBA backcourt bargain in Booker’s absence. At a time when the Suns have needed Ayton to chip in more than his customarily efficient 19 and 10, Ayton has … chipped in his customarily efficient 19 and 10. Bridges has kept stroking corner threes, but prior to a pair of strong showings against Cleveland and Golden State, his accuracy everywhere else had plunged without a high-gravity star to suck defenses in and create space for him to operate.
Reserve guards Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet have had a tough time making shots when they’ve been healthy. Dario Saric is still slowly finding his way back into the fold after missing all of last season rehabbing a torn ACL. With the occasional exception of Duane Washington Jr., hardly anybody can seem to find an easy bucket on a team that ranked 25th in drives to the basket, 28th in shots at the rim and 29th in free-throw attempts in Q2. It’s all just felt like such a slog; combining that lack of offensive pop with what’s been a snare-drum-tight defense over the past two seasons slipping down to the middle of the pack has been a recipe for disaster.
It’s possible that this all winds up being just a blip on the radar: that Monday’s short-handed win over the Warriors rallies the troops, that Booker, Johnson and the other members of a now-injury-ravaged roster get healthy, that president of basketball operations James Jones finds a deal to add help that works within Phoenix’s unique set of ownership circumstances, and that Monty Williams’ two-way machine reboots and resumes rolling in time for the Suns to once again loom as a serious threat to come out of the West. Given how the last six weeks have gone, though, and given how tough the wounded Suns’ upcoming schedule looks, it feels equally possible that this might just be how things fall apart: bit by bit at first, and then all at once.
ARTVIMB: The Raptors and Hawks remaining surrounded by static and continuing to putter around below .500; the ongoing and increasingly interminable wait for the Clippers; the Bucks having a bottom-five offense in Q2 despite Giannis Antetokounmpo hanging like 40 and 20 every night; that injuries prevented Williamson and Brandon Ingram from playing a single possession together in Q2 (not that it’s hamstrung New Orleans all that much); the Blazers sliding back to the bottom 10 in defense (thank goodness Gary Payton II is finally back).
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Quarter: The Kings, sticking around
I was bullish on the Kings heading into the season, writing and saying that, between the offensive upgrades they made on the wing and the arrival of experienced defensive head coach Mike Brown, I thought Sacramento had a pathway to a top-10 offense and maybe a league-average defense … which, in theory, would make it a playoff team. For most other franchises, that wouldn’t constitute much of a hot take; then again, other franchises don’t own the longest postseason drought in NBA history.
Even as the Kings roared out to a stirring start that turned “Light the Beam” into a household phrase, though, I felt myself wondering when the other shoe would drop. Maybe it would be defenses coming up with schematic answers to their multifaceted dribble-handoff game; maybe some of the shooters scorching the nets would start to cool down and clang; maybe an injury or two would disrupt the rotation rhythm Brown had found. Something would jump up to bite the Kings and derail this delightful story … right?
Well, a lot of those things happened. After shooting 38% from three as a team through their first 15 games, the Kings dipped to 35.1% in Q2, 19th in the NBA, with top guns Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox all slowing down following their fast starts. The Kings dropped from seventh in turnover rate to 18th in Q2, turning possessions that had previously produced good looks into runouts going the other way; they gave up nearly 10 more points per 100 transition possessions in Q2 than they did in Q1. And, right before Christmas, Domantas Sabonis — the frontcourt playmaker who’d been providing exactly what the Kings hoped for when they traded Tyrese Haliburton for him in a deal we’ll probably be talking about for quite a while — broke his thumb.
And yet, as we hit the midway point … Sacramento is still here.
Watch every three from the team's franchise record setting W 💦 #BeamTeam pic.twitter.com/HAn0EEz7Fl
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) January 10, 2023
The Kings maintained the West’s seventh-best record and sixth-best net rating in Q2. They’ve been just below the top 10 on offense despite the shooting dip, and just below league-average on defense despite the uptick in turnovers and transition buckets. Sabonis, bless his heart, decided to play through the avulsion fracture, and has put up a ho-hum 22-12-7 on 62.6% shooting since the injury. (NOTE: Please do not try to break your own thumb to see if you can achieve similar results.)
Ol’ reliable Harrison Barnes has predictably found his level. Murray is shooting the lights out, looking more comfortable by the minute. Backup center Chimezie Metu has flashed. Tight losses like the ones to Atlanta and (especially) the Lakers hurt, but even with them, Sacramento’s finding ways to stay solid and keep pace; the Kings enter Wednesday night just a half-game out of fourth in the West, with multiple postseason projection models seeing them as likely to at least make the play-in tournament and give themselves a chance to end the drought rather than extending it. That kind of hope, this deep into the season, isn’t something Kings fans have had all that often over the past couple of decades. It’s pretty cool that it’s back.
ARTVIMB: The Nets managing to just be about basketball for a couple of months; the Cavs and Sixers playing great and rounding out an absolutely brutal top-five in the East; the Knicks somehow fielding top-six units on both sides of the ball despite being bad at shooting and giving up a ton of threes; the Pelicans, Warriors and Lakers all persevering despite huge injuries, making a deep and crowded West even tougher to call heading into the second half.