By Rob Mahoney
With the first quarter of the season behind us, and the regular award updates already squared away by our own Ben Golliver, I instead opted to partake in the long-existing Internet practice of handing out made-up awards. Read, applaud politely for the winners and dispute away in the comments:
I was entirely prepared to chalk up this matchup of new crosstown rivals as an overhyped attempt to kindle the fires of a should-be rivalry, but the Knicks and Nets managed to turn a narrative plot point into a game of note. Neither team was necessarily at its best, but the playoff atmosphere, competitive margin and split crowd helped to turn this into one of the high points of the season.
• MOST UNEXPECTED SKILL IMPROVEMENT: Evan Turner's three-point shooting
Tons of players have added new wrinkles to their games this year, but no development has been more astonishing than Turner's 45.9-percent shooting from beyond the arc -- a mark that more than doubles his 22.4 percent of last season. Turner has some interesting facets to his game, but going into this season it was difficult to envision what a successful role might look like for such a strange player. A good isolation option, but not the most effective wing within a conventional offense, his skills often overlapped with Jrue Holiday's, making it tricky to manage the pair offensively at times. But the ability for Turner to spot up on the three-point line -- especially from the corners -- has been a wonderful surprise for the Sixers' offense.
• THE 'CAN'T STOP, WON'T STOP' AWARD: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook's playmaking vision and judgment are improving by the day, but the evolution hasn't quelled the underlying fury of his game. It's as if a dead sprint is Westbrook's sole response to any amount of open court, and a full, complete effort the only option his body will allow. Sport VU's optical tracking data will tell you that other players cover more ground, but I'm consistently impressed with how aggressively Westbrook approaches the hustle game, and how completely he refuses to use his superstar status as a convenient out.
• THE 'CAN STOP, OFTEN STOPS' AWARD: Dwyane Wade
Wade had a style similar to Westbrook's earlier in his career, which is part of what makes his waffling effort so stark. The Heat guard is still an incredible player and fully capable of providing all that Miami needs of him -- from scoring to playmaking to defensive intensity. But at this point in the season (and coming off a playoff run in which he fought through injury at every turn), Wade can only be troubled with getting back on defense in transition every so often, and he clearly couldn't care less about keeping with opponents who spend their offensive possessions working without the ball.
• MONTA ELLIS OF THE YEAR: Josh Smith
This award, named in honor of Ellis' tenure with the Warriors, is given to the player with an offensive style so ambitious that it hedges significantly against his production. There's no question that Smith is a vital piece of Atlanta's operation and a big part of why the Hawks are third in the East at 12-6. But Smith's overall contributions can't overcome his lapses in judgment and mistakes with the ball, both of which have strained the limits of his game and the Hawks' offensive efficiency. With Atlanta still trying to figure out its most prudent offensive options in light of a massive roster turnover, Smith has returned to some of his worst habits (nasty shot selection, wild passes, forced drives, etc.).
As much as I'd love to highlight Jeremy Evans' block/dunk pummeling of Ronny Turiaf, I just can't bring myself to anoint a preseason play with the top honor. So Barnes gets it by default, and he's no less worthy a victor. What really sells this play for me (aside from the A+ celebration by the Warriors' bench): the flailing of Barnes' limbs, as if he were using every muscle in his body to demoralize Pekovic.
• LEAST CONCERNING STEP BACK: Ty Lawson
It's not at all uncommon for young players to hit a wall in their development, and Denver's Lawson seems to have run full-speed into a 10-foot block of solid stone. The point guard derives his value from his innate ability to balance scoring and passing, and the natural efficiency that manifests as a result of that balance. But with Denver's offense still cluttered, Lawson hasn't been able to access either side of his game on a consistent basis.
He's still managing 14.1 points and a steady 6.9 assists per 36 minutes, but his shooting percentages have all dropped and he's turning the ball over at the worst rate of his career. That said, Lawson's speed and discretion haven't disappeared; those strengths are merely masked by the organizational problems of the team's offense. A little more spacing (or a little more direction from George Karl) would likely get Lawson back on track pretty quickly.
• ALL PULL-UP JUMPER TEAM
I teased this idea in Monday's installment of The Fundamentals, but thanks to some considerable help from the Twitterati (a gracious tip of the hat to all who offered suggestions), I've managed to hammer out a top 10 among the league's preeminent pull-up jump shooters.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
Even with two nominal point guards on the floor, I wouldn't have pegged this lineup to have some of the best ball movement in the league. Anthony has improved dramatically as a swing passer, Kidd's unselfishness has rubbed off on even his most shot-happy teammates and both Chandler and Brewer have slid perfectly into low-usage roles. This group just completely overwhelms opponents with scoring, and it has enough defensive flexibility to keep things from getting out of hand on that end, too.
Even though Phoenix isn't particularly talented or especially well coached, I think many assumed that the Suns' most-used lineup would put up a slightly better fight than this. Beasley has been made the scapegoat, but the troubles on both sides of the ball are too exaggerated to be attributable to any one player. This is simply a bad mix playing even worse basketball than expected, the combination of which reportedly has the Suns in panic mode.
• TOP BENEFICIARY OF STATISTICAL NOISE: Lamar Odom, whose individual net rating is +12.2
To be fair: This is only the second-worst season of Odom's career. But the Clippers' forward is milking the effects of playing with Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe and putting a scoop of garbage-time success on top to pad his statistical totals. Watch Odom play and it's clear that he's not offering all that much (save some rebounding). But divorce this single number from consideration or context, and the guy's a rock star.
• THE EARLY LEAPER: Andre Drummond
The splash that Drummond has made suggests he's a better player than he currently is, but that shouldn't discount the importance of his immediate production and fairly dominant rebounding for Detroit. He's a project in the way that all rookies are (his defensive play is a bit of a mess), but he's coming along when given the opportunity and proving that he's capable of producing at a high level.
• THE QUICKEST DISCARD: D.J. Augustin
It's hard to imagine why the Pacers opted for Augustin over Darren Collison. Augustin shares all of Collison's flaws and then some, shooting a miserable 26.6 percent from the field this season, turning the ball over on nearly a fifth of his possessions and offering no floor-spacing benefit whatsoever for a team that seemingly acquired him for his three-point range. Coach Frank Vogel has every reason necessary to demote Augustin from the rotation, and Ben Hansbrough will reportedly get a shot at the gig in the Pacers' upcoming games.
I wanted to pick one player over the other for this nonexistent award, but Novak and Battier are averaging nearly identical shooting numbers (1.4 corner threes made per game on 2.5 attempts, for 55 percent). Novak (27-of-49 on corner threes) has a 0.1 percent advantage in terms of shooting accuracy from the corners, but I'm willing to grant Battier (22-of-40) the tie on the grounds of it being too close to call. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.