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The Extra Pass: Our awards at the quarter pole, plus Monday recaps

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Believe it or not, we’re nearly at the quarter mark of the NBA season already. That means it’s time to start believing a little more in what we’ve seen so far, and maybe even time to dish out a few awards.

Remember, these aren’t predictions for what will happen at the end of the season. These awards are based solely on performances thus far.

MVP of the Quarter: LeBron James, F, Miami Heat

I almost went with Chris Paul or Paul George here, but it all felt a little too Karl Malone for my taste. Maybe we’re just a little bored by LeBron’s dominance at this point, but once again he’s been the best player in the league.

James is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, he has a true shooting percentage of nearly 70 percent (which only two players in NBA history have ever achieved over a full season), he’s first in the league in PER and the Heat are 14-3. There are trendier choices out there, but this is LeBron’s award.

Coach of the Quarter: Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

This one is a no-brainer. The Portland Trail Blazers have been the surprise of the league thus far, as most pundits didn’t even have them pegged to break .500 or make the playoffs. Stotts has built one of the best offenses in the league, and the incorporation of multiple new players off the bench has been seamless. Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich deserve praise at every turn, but Stotts trumps everyone right now.

Rookie of the Quarter: Michael Carter-Williams, G, Philadelphia 76ers

This hasn’t been much of a race. Victor Oladipo is the only competition at this point for Carter-Williams, but he’s averaging more turnovers per game than assists.

Carter-Williams has been the better distributor and has the higher PER on the year, and it’s also pretty impressive that he currently leads the league in steals per game. He’s been a great fit in Philadelphia’s uptempo offensive system, and believe it or not, the 76ers are only one game back of a playoff spot.

Sixth man of the Quarter: Isaiah Thomas, G, Sacramento Kings

DeJuan Blair has done a fantastic job off the bench in Dallas, but there’s a reason this is an award traditionally reserved for scoring guards. Thomas has legitimately been Sacramento’s best player next to DeMarcus Cousins, as he’s putting up 17 points a game and a gaudy PER of 21.2.

Thomas’ PER and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes is higher than J.R. Smith, James Harden, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry in their Sixth Man of the Year winning seasons. Thomas may not have the benefit of playing for a winning team, but so far he’s been one of the best bench players we’ve seen in years.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers

Blocks are generally a bit overrated as a stat, but it’s hard to overstate just how good of a rim protector Hibbert has been. Hibbert’s ability to remain vertical and stay out of foul trouble has made Indiana even stingier defensively than last season, which is no easy feat.

It’s hard not to reward the anchor of the league’s most dominant defense here, particularly because Hibbert’s ability to man the paint allows everyone else on the floor to stay home and defend one-on-one. He’s been a complete game-changer.

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Arron Afflalo, G, Orlando Magic

There’s a tendency to hand the Most Improved Player award to a young player who has received a spike in minutes or opportunity, but I find that to be a little silly. This should be an award that recognizes a player who improved their game and didn’t just benefit from outside factors, more exposure or a natural maturation process.

Afflalo fits my criteria as a 7th year player who is posting career highs in PER (20.7), points (21.4), rebounds (4.4), assists (4.4) and three-point percentage (48.1%) even though he’s playing close to the same amount of minutes as he did last year. Afflalo has turned himself into a post-oriented guard who is also a dead-eye spot-up shooter from behind the arc, and that’s proven to be a deadly combination.

—D.J. Foster

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Wizards 98, Magic 80: With the win the Washington Wizards are 9-9 — they are at .500 for first time since Nov. 3, 2009. The reason they won this game is the reason after a slow start to the season they are even now — coach Randy Wittman is just leaning on his starters. There isn’t much depth for the Wizards’ starting five Monday played 20 minutes and they were +18. Trevor Ariza was red hot for Washington with 24, Arron Afflalo had 21 for the Magic.

Pelicans 131, Bulls 128 (3OT): No Derrick Rose. No Anthony Davis. This game was supposed to be a disappointment and it turned into one of the more epic clashes of the season. Despite the stars being out both teams got plenty of offense on the night (Chicago had 109.4 points per 100 possessions, the Pelicans 115, via NBA.com). Luol Deng had 37 points and Taj Gibson 36 for Chicago. For the Pelicans Ryan Anderson had another big game with Davis out and had 36 points, Eric Gordon had 23. But the Bulls had a big defensive breakdown on the final play of the game, a clever design from Monty Williams that had Jrue Holiday getting to the rim for an and-1. Quality road win for New Orleans.

Spurs 102, Hawks 100: Mike Budenholzer has seen Tim Duncan rip the hearts out of teams for years as a Spurs assistant, I don’t think he liked it as much from the other bench. The Spurs were a bit sloppy in this one and the Hawks almost made them pay with a balanced attack — Jeff Teague led the way with 19 including an amazing pull-up three to tie the game at 100-100. But Duncan was too much and rescued the Spurs, finishing with 23 points, 21 rebounds and one dramatic game winner.

Jazz 109, Rockets 103: Gordon Hayward had 17 first quarter points, Trey Burke added 10 and it was everything that has been wrong with Houston’s perimeter defense this season in one shining quarter. And it cost them, Utah was up 36-23 after 12 minutes. The Rockets battled back, even took the lead for a stretch, but they had given the Jazz confidence by that point. Houston couldn’t get stops. James Harden did finish with 37 points and 8 assists. Hayward had 29 on the night, Burke is finding his groove and had 21, as did Alec Burks. Quality win for the 3-15 Jazz. Houston should feel sick.

Trail Blazers 106, Pacers 102: Great win for the Trail Blazers, who were able to come from behind on Indiana (who was on the second night of a rough back-to-back after facing the Clippers). LaMarcus Aldridge played like an All-Star despite Roy Hibbert being in his path all night, scoring 17 of his 28 points in the second half. Damian Lillard had 14 of his 26 in the fourth quarter and hit a lot of big shots. Paul George almost turned the fortune of this game himself, scoring 43 points on 30 shots and looking like an MVP candidate.

Portland did it again with offense, scoring at a 107.6 points per possession pace on the best defense in the league.

Larry Sanders considering making NBA comeback soon

Larry Sanders
Associated Press
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It was one year ago that Larry Sanders came to terms for a mutual parting of the ways with the Bucks, a buyout of his contract that let him get away from basketball. He had personal demons to deal with. Sanders had played just 50 games the previous two seasons for the Bucks, had been a nightclub brawl left him with an injured thumb in need of surgery, been charged with animal cruelty, had been suspended a couple of times by the league for marijuana use, and the list went on. It was best for both sides to walk away.

Sanders checked himself into a hospital program for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. At the time, he wrote he still loved basketball, but he needed better coping skills to handle the pressure and lifestyle.

“If I get to a point where I feel I’m capable of playing basketball again, I will.”

We may be reaching that time. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports:

After accepting a buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks to step away from the NBA last season, Larry Sanders told The Vertical he plans to pursue a return to the NBA once his off-court ventures stabilize.

“Once my art, music and passions off the court feel stable, I will look into coming back,” Sanders told The Vertical. “I still love basketball. I want stability around me, and part of my mindset to leave was not to put all my eggs in one basket.

“I feel highly valuable on any team. There aren’t a lot of people who can bring my game to a team. I still play basketball all the time, staying in shape. I will need to make sure the situation is right for me.”

Sanders would draw interest from teams (he already has this season), there aren’t a lot of athletic 6’11” defenders in the league. In the 2013 season, before he signed his contract extension, Sanders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. Teams would be willing to roll the dice.

Sanders is now working on his music, plus running a management company for artists. His buyout from the Bucks will give him $1.9 million a season until 2022, so a return to the league is not necessarily about the cash.

If he does come back, I hope for his sake his head is in the right space and can handle it. He needs to take care of himself first.

Will Phil Jackson ultimately leave Knicks to run Lakers?

Phil Jackson Jeanie Buss
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Phil Jackson has been thrust back into the New York spotlight with the firing of Derek Fisher for not being ready to be an NBA coach — who could have seen that coming? — and speculation about what moves he’ll make next. While you can point to misfires as the guy with the hammer in the Knicks organization, he nailed the Kristaps Porzingis pick and no doubt this Knicks roster is in far better shape than the one he took over. Plus, he’s kept owner James Dolan out of the basketball decision-making process, which is a huge step forward.

But if/when he gets the chance, will he bolt New York to team up with fiancée Jeanie Buss and run the Lakers?

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports writes there is a “strong belief” in some quarters that it will happen.

Golden State assistant Luke Walton is closest to a legitimately coveted candidate with ties to Jackson and the triangle – and he’s still largely unproven, too. Walton intrigues Jackson, but truth be told: Why would Walton come East without an assurance Jackson is committed to the long run in New York? There’s still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and Walton could be reunited there.

Would Jackson leave the Knicks? The better question is, did anyone think he would stay the entire five years of his contract? Not many around the league did. Knicks fans should be legitimately concerned about who is next.

Lakers fans would welcome Jackson’s return because it means no Jim Buss. Fairly or not, Buss has become a scapegoat for a healthy segment of the fan base.

But this would be far from simple.

Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ operation as empowered by the complex trust his father Jerry Buss used to leave the team to his six children. They all have roles, they all have pieces of the team, and truth be told they all have big aspirations. It sets up like a Shakespearean drama. Jeanie Buss is the ultimate power and the person the league recognizes as the owner for official votes of the board of governors, but this is not like other ownership situations where she has ultimate power and can fire whomever she wants and replace them — she can’t just ax family members and sideline them. Again, it’s a complex trust with shared power and responsibilities.

Jim has said if the Lakers are not a contender by 2017 he would step aside, although how he defines that time (the end of the summer of 2017, at the earliest) and how Jeanie defines it (more like early 2017, before that loaded free agency summer) differ. Nothing that happens with the Lakers will be clean and bloodless.

But if Jim steps aside and lets Jeanie bring in her own basketball people, Phil Jackson could well return to L.A.

Then we can have a discussion if that’s really best for the Lakers’ brand.

Add Kobe Bryant to don’t change hack-a-player crowd

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant gestures after hitting a three point shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LeBron James is already there. So is Kevin Durant. Same with a lot of other old-school GMs and coaches around the league.

Their response to the rapid rise in hack-a-player (shouldn’t it always be hack-a-Shaq?) instances is “tell the guy to hit the free throws.”

Add Kobe Bryant to their ranks, reports Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

Personally, I hate the “won’t somebody please think of the children” argument — plenty of people have said emulating Kobe’s penchant for isolation basketball and contested jumpers was bad for children growing up playing the game.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is starting to feel differently. He realizes he runs an entertainment business and a parade of guys to the free throw line because of a non-basketball play — you can’t begin to tell me fouling a guy 50 feet from the ball is a basketball play in the spirit of the rules — is bad for business. It is unwatchable. And while every coach in the NBA  says “I hate to do it” they all do it with increasing frequency. There will be more than twice as many instances this season of hack-a-player fouls as there were a year ago, with more and more players involved. Because it works, and because those coaches are paid to win, not play beautiful basketball.

Change is coming. Old-school types always bemoan change, and that’s not just a basketball thing. But the rest of the world has rules in place to stop this because they realize it’s not basketball, it’s gaming the system. And it needs to change.

Timofey Mozgov with maybe “best” missed dunk of the season (VIDEO)

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On this play the Sacramento Kings played defense like only they can — and you wonder why George Karl’s job is in danger — and gave Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov a wide-open lane right down the middle for an easy dunk.

Ooof.

LeBron James had a triple-double (the 40th of his career) and the Cavaliers got a needed easy win, but this is the play you’ll remember.