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.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.