Four-Point Play

THE QUARTER-MILE NBA AWARDS

Most Valuable Player: This is the year Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo makes every Buck around him better, best evidenced by his stellar playmaking numbers, his outrageous plus-minus metrics along with Milwaukee’s rise up the charts.

All-NBA First Team

C Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: A.D. is the NBA’s most complete centerpiece, hands down with the most complete stat line around—27 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks per game.

F Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: Past MVPs Kevin Durant and LeBron James long ago predicted Giannis would have a year like he is having now–a very KD-like, LeBron-like season with a 28-plus Player Efficiency Rating alongside double-digit On and On-Off plus-minus ratings.

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F Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: The outside noise never distracts KD from playing his game at the highest level, which keeps the Warriors’ banner flying high even as All-Stars Curry and Draymond Green miss a combined 19 games.

G Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: The playmaker makes 59 percent of his 2s and 36 percent of his 3s. No other guard does that and leads the League in assists per game (10.2) like Lowry.

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G Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: Yes, we know he missed a dozen games, but Steph makes this list for what he did in his team’s first dozen games—30 points per game on a .681 true shooting percentage. Historic efficiency.

All-NBA Second Team

C Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: The Joker deserves to play in his first All-Star Game after leading his Nuggets to the upper echelon of the West, while averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists per game from the post position

F LeBron James, L.A. Lakers: If LeBron can lead Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson to the NBA Finals, he certainly can lead Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to the playoffs, right? Right???

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F Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder: Through Russell Westbrook’s shooting struggles, George and teammate Steven Adams have kept Oklahoma City strong with defense-first leadership.

G Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Dame has become as reliable as a Kevin Durant free throw. Or should I now say, a Damian Lillard free throw.

G Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: If I would have told you, Charlotte would have a top 5 offense and Kemba would become a Top 5 scorer as well, would that be something you might be interested in?

All-NBA Third Team

C Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: His 28-13-3 points-rebounds-assists stat line only begins to illustrate how much he means to the Sixers on the court (+6.1 On, +12.7 On-Off).

F Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: The 24-year-old Raptor has a 20.1 Player Efficiency Rating, .688 true shooting percentage, +14.9 on-court rating and a +19.0 on-off rating. Seems like the young power forward who does all the little things on the court is also capable of doing the big things too, now that he is logging 642 minutes in 22 games.

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F Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: The Claw may miss games here and there (six, so far), but he has shown signs that his two-point game is back, his defense is getting there and all remain optimistic that his three-point stroke will return soon.

G James Harden, Houston Rockets: After years of running defenses ragged in Houston, Harden got off to a slow start for a reigning NBA MVP, though he is still doing well enough to earn All-NBA honors in our book.

G Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: It is good to know Boston head coach Brad Stevens can always count on his defense on one end, while entrusting the ball in Kyrie’s hand on the other.

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Defensive Player of the Year: Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams has always been willing to ride shotgun or backseat while other teammates grab the accolades. But the example he sets as a sacrificial big has finally rubbed off on his teammates in the right way. Now everybody in OKC plays D. That is why they are No. 1 in defensive efficiency and the Thunder have Adams and Paul George to thank for that (But mostly Adams).

Rookie of the Year: Ask us for our ROY and we’ll say our All-Rookie first team consists of Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Ask us again, “Who is our ROY?,” and we’ll say, “Pick one of those five.”

Sixth Man of the Year: Toss a coin. Or better yet, let Clipper Montezl Harrell and Pacer Domantas Sabonis share the award since both are enjoying stellar seasons. Both actually deserve All-Star status that is seldom given to reserves who average 15 points per game.

Most Improved Player: Magic center Nikola Vucevic remade himself last summer into stretch 5 Moneyball prototype by adding the perimeter three-point shot to his already expansive repertoire.Without stepping into The Steph Zone, there is not a pocket on the NBA half-court now that intimidates The Vooch, whether it’s a perimeter 3s, long-ball 2s or in-the-paint, seven-footer-contested buckets.

Coach of the Year: Clippers head coach Doc Rivers wins the COY over the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer because his team sits atop the wild West and he doesn’t have an All-Star on his roster. The Clippers probably are going to have to draw straws to see who goes between Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari.

Executive of the Year: Clippers exec Lawrence Frank pulled the trigger and traded Blake Griffin—probably at the recommendation of newly-hired consultant Jerry West—despite the fact team ownership and management promised Griffin he’d be a Clipper-for-life when they resigned him. Well, broken promises aside, the trade has worked out for L.A., with the team clearing off future cap room while continuing to win nonetheless with their island-of-misfit-toys lineup. Who would have thought Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could grow into closers. Go figure.

THE ROCKETS’ SECRET WEAPON

How a 65-win team like Houston has collapsed into a 9-11 mess is anybody’s guess.

Sure, they miss Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson like anyone else would.

Yes, assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s defensive expertise was missed at season’s start, and thank God he returned to hopefully save the day.

Indeed, Carmelo Anthony’s sincere efforts to fit in with Houston’s unique offense simply did not work out.

And let’s face it: NBA MVP James Harden and nine-time All-Star Chris Paul have not been playing to last season’s gold standard.

Still, not everything has gone south in Texas, and you probably would be surprised to hear where our hope of optimism can be found.

You would not believe it if I told you, but Houston has a secret weapon on its roster that, to this point, has been left largely untapped.

How do I know this?

Why do I know this?

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Let’s just say that for years, I have been a leader of the I HEART HARTENSTEIN secret society, which consists of a small group of followers who believe Houston Rockets rookie Isaiah Hartenstein is one of the best kept secrets in basketball.

In our 2017 NBA Draft preview, I ranked Hartenstein as the draft’s sixth-best prospect.

He ended up going 43rd.

That is the mainsteam gulf between my opinion and NBA valuation.

Still, 2018-19 on-court metrics show Hartenstein has become Houston’s secret weapon in his rookie season because of the impact he makes on both defense and in floor spacing on offense (he has a +13.9 On-court rating, which means Houston is +14 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the court, and +19.7 On-Off court rating, which means Houston is +20 points better per 100 possessions when you compare his On-court numbers to his Off-court numbers).

Furthermore, the 7-0, 249-pound rookie ranks first in Houston in plus-minus with a plus-52 score, even though he has only played 166 minutes in 2018-19.

Compare that to his compadres and Hartenstein really stands out (P.J. Tucker, +18 in 723 minutes; Gerald Green, +9 in 265; Eric Gordon, +9 in 567; Harden, -10 in 636; Paul, -11 in 522; Capela, -39 in 659).

I like to call Hartenstein the 7-foot Shane Battier, in that this big lefty offers so much more than his box-score stats show (2.2 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.5 blocks in 8.6 minutes per game, with a .575 true shooting percentage).

When coaching and management decided Melo was no longer a part of their program, and told him to stop dressing for games, Hartenstein got an uptick in playing time, playing 10-plus minutes in five consecutive games, starting November 11.

Houston won all five contests.

That is no coincidence.

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Hartenstein is doing everything we thought he could when we wrote in our NBA Draft preview, “He is a great defender for his age—in the post and on the perimeter—because he is good on his feet, getting up and down the court like a forward. On offense, he is coming along, but you’ve got to like his potential because he is so young.”

It is not a coincidence that 11 of Houston’s top 28 two-man plus-minus combos all feature Hartenstein and a different Rocket.

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Hartenstein is the common link in every Rocket’s limited success this season.

It is not a coincidence that two of Houston’s top three cumulative plus-minus lineups feature Hartenstein, despite the fact that the rookie only played 12 minutes alongside Tucker, Gordon, Harden and Clark for a 48-25 scoring discrepancy (+23) or 10 minutes alongside Paul, Gordon, James Ennis and Gary Clark for 24-9 scoring discrepancy (+15).

AND HE’S ONLY 20 YEARS OLD!

Hartenstein played this way in Rio Grande Valley last season, excelling for the Rockets’ G-League squad as a 19-year-old.

And he did the same before that as an American-born German prospect playing amongst men for Lithuania’s Zalgiris basketball club in the EuroLeague.

It is only a matter of time until everyone discovers Houston’s secret weapon because the Rockets cannot keep him off the floor anymore.

He played 34 minutes in five Rockets games in October.

He then played 131 minutes in 14 Rockets games in November.

The Rockets are recognizing the rook is ready for more time. It is high time the League took notice of its next big thing, even though the secret should remain safe for awhile.

IN DEFENSE OF INDY

With apologies to injured Victor Oladipo and reserve Domantas Sabonis, we did not put any Indiana Pacers on our Quarter-Mile All-NBA teams up above, even though Indiana has the fourth-best record in the East (13-8).

We hope they would understand and still accept our All-Star invitations at the midseason classic.

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It is just that this particular Pacers team has been winning on a combination of depth and defense that normally does not preclude itself well to All-NBA awards shows.

After all, the Pacers rank fourth in the League in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.0 points per 100 possessions, and have built a nine-man rotation that features nobody with a Player Efficiency Rating under 12.

No other NBA team has that kind of depth.

When a 2017-18 All-NBA player like Oladipo goes down with a knee injury and misses six games, this team does not go in the tank, continuing to win three of those six games in his absence.

That’s how deep Indiana is—able to give thriving rookie prospect Aaron Holiday some of Oladipo’s minutes in his absence, while point guards Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and wings Tyreke Evans, Bojan Bogdanovic and Doug McDermott also fill the void.

Then for cappers, head coach Nate McMillan has the luxury of rolling out one of the best trios of bigs in the East in starters Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and supersub Sabonis.

If he wanted, McMillan could virtually rely on that big-man triumvirate for a cumulative 96 minutes a game and never have to play any of his third-string big men, barring injury.

That is how loaded Indiana is—their best player this season just may be their sixth man Sabonis, who does receive a Quarter-Mile Award from us for that, thank you very much.

THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION

Nobody thought the Chicago Bulls would do anything this season, and those expectations only amplified when young starters Kris Dunn (MCL), Bobby Portis (MCL) and Lauri Markkanen (elbow) went down with extensive injuries in October.

But if nothing else comes from the Bulls’ 2018-19 season, where Chicago is off to a 5-17 start, at least management now knows their No. 7 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft is one of the most talented teen centers to enter the League.

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Indeed, the 6-10, 255-pound Wendell Carter is quietly taking the League by storm, averaging 10.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 25.2 minutes per game. But that only begins to tell the story of his efficiency at such a young age.

Carter, who turns 20 a week after the season ends in April, joins Dwight Howard as the only full-time centers (24-plus minutes per game) in League history to post a Player Efficiency Rating of 16 or better as a 19-year-old (Howard had a 17 PER in 2004-05; Carter, a 16 PER in 2018-19).

As a result, executive Gar Forman and head coach Fred Hoiberg are getting excited about how they can work the recovering starters back into the fold to maximize everyone’s game with Carter’s accelerated growth.

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This 2018-19 club has gotten by thus far with an inexperienced lineup featuring Ryan Arcidiacano, Justin Holiday, Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker alongside Carter.

Not exactly a murderer’s row of NBA talent, with Chicago ranking dead last in offensive efficiency this season (100.6 points per 100 possessions).

But in Carter, at least, the Bulls know they have a center that can score in the paint at effective rates, despite playing on a team designed to tank.

With Dunn, Portis and Markannen all returning in the coming days, do not be surprised if Carter’s game rises another level where he begins garnering Rookie of the Year votes away from Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton or Jaren Jackson.

Carter is that good.

Back in June in our NBA Draft preview, we wrote that the Duke product combined the best talents of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, saying, “Though he is young, Carter should be able to step in and play right away for any team that lands the unsung hero.”

He has done just that, while also exhibiting a passing savvy, foretelling basketball I.Q., and rebounding prowess, showcasing round-ball toughness, that most young men do not develop until age 23 or so.

Once Carter’s long-ball game becomes as dominant as his paint game (he is not afraid to shoot the 3s), we might start seeing the Bulls make a push toward .500 status once again.

Hey, and if 21-year-old Markannen, 23-year-old Portis and 24-year-old Dunn start to meet their expectations this season, then we just might start to see that Bulls’ resurgence as soon as the new year.