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The NBA’s Best Supporting Cast, Best Level-Up, And More Of Our Midseason Awards

There have been 672 NBA games played so far this season, which means we’re just south of 55 percent of the way through the year. That makes this as good a time as any to check in on the annual awards races — but with a twist. 

Rather than Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year, we’re making up our own awards and handing them out to the best and brightest from the first half(-ish) of the season.

Best Supporting Actors: Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.

After defeating the Chicago Bulls in their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day game and then dropping a road game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night, the Memphis Grizzlies are 31-16, good for the third-best record in both the Western Conference and the NBA. Their chances of making the playoffs are greater than 99 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based predictions model, which has them finishing the regular season at 52-30. They sport a 3 percent chance of winning the title and have far outpaced preseason expectations.

The lion’s share of the credit has gone to superstar point guard/burgeoning MVP candidate Ja Morant, but it’s worth noting that Memphis went 10-2 when Morant was sidelined with a knee injury. The performances of Bane and Jackson have been instrumental in the Grizzlies’ success, particularly with second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks playing in less than half of the team’s games.

Though he just entered health and safety protocols, Bane has been a permanent fixture in the starting lineup this year after coming off the bench for most of last season. He’s averaging 17.7 points per game with 47-42-89 shooting splits, largely maintaining his sparkling efficiency even while increasing his usage rate by 6.8 percentage points. Considering the typical usage-efficiency trade-off, that’s quite an impressive feat. Bane has been especially valuable in transition: Among the 486 players to have appeared in at least 25 games this season, he’s one of just 17 averaging at least 3 fast-break points per contest.

Memphis small ball is working with Jackson this season

Net rating for the Memphis Grizzlies with Jaren Jackson Jr. playing center

Season Possessions Net Rating
2021-22 1,034 +6.9
2020-21 299 -17.6
2019-20 1,892 -1.0
2018-19 729 -9.8

Excluding garbage-time possessions.

Source: Cleaning the Glass

Jackson’s shooting numbers are actually down a tick, but his increased activity and commitment on defense has improved the viability of the team’s small-ball lineups. In the first three years of his career, Jackson-at-center units were consistently outscored by their opponents. That’s not the case this season: According to Cleaning the Glass, that configuration is plus-6.9 per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. That’s a big change from the previous few years.

Best Newcomers Who Look Like They’ve Been Together Forever: The Bulls

The Bulls have only two players (Zach LaVine and Coby White) left over from the team built by the previous front-office regime of Gar Forman and John Paxson. They have assembled their reimagined team over the past year or so, with the Nikola Vučević trade, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball sign-and-trades and Alex Caruso signing locking in most of their core players. Yet the Bulls have looked like a well-oiled machine essentially from Day One. They kept winning while they had players in health and safety protocols. They are 28-15 and first place in the Eastern Conference, despite having lost four of their last five games while playing with a skeleton of their regular rotation. They’ll likely need to trade for another rotation piece before long to stay at the top of the conference, but what they’ve done so far is mighty impressive.

Most Surprising Rookie: Herbert Jones

The 35th overall pick in last year’s draft, Jones has emerged as not just a valuable rotation player but a starter for the Pelicans. New Orleans began the season just 3-16 but is 13-12 since he entered the starting lineup full-time on Nov. 24. During that time, he’s played 31.6 minutes a night, averaging 11.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s already a terrific defender, and he routinely takes on the most difficult matchup. Among 277 players who have played 500 or more minutes,1 Jones is tied for third in Bball-Index’s Matchup Difficulty metric, ranking in the 99.9th percentile.

Best Level-Ups: Seth Curry, Bobby Portis, Dejounte Murray

While his brother’s team lives near the top of the standings, Seth Curry is busy working on the best season of his NBA career. He’s largely been a Designated Shooter type for the majority of his time in the league, but Seth has stepped up his game for the Philadelphia 76ers as a ball-handler and creator in the absence of point guard Ben Simmons. Since Dec. 1, Curry is averaging 5.4 assists a night. And he’s still bombing away, both from long distance (41.7 percent on 5.5 attempts per game) and in the midrange. He’s shooting 58.6 percent on pull-up twos this season, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Pressed into starter duty for the Bucks with Brook Lopez out since the first game of the season, Portis has responded with the best year of his career on both ends of the floor. He has made a career-high 33 starts and is averaging a career-high 28.6 minutes, 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. He’s connected at a 42.9 percent clip from beyond the arc, and he has proven himself a valuable defensive player. The Bucks no longer have him drop back in pick-and-roll defense all the time, instead leveraging his athleticism to chase ball-handlers out on the perimeter while Giannis Antetokounmpo lurks behind as a help defender. It’s done wonders for Portis’s usefulness on the less glamorous end of the floor.

On track to become just the 10th player in league history to average at least 18 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game, Murray is still an All-Defense-caliber defender and has stretched his offensive game to match his defense. The San Antonio Spurs point guard has never had this much responsibility for creation, as evidenced by his career-high 26.2 percent usage rate and 38.8 percent assist rate. He has kept his turnover rate down despite the dramatic increase in usage, and he remains arguably the NBA’s best rebounding guard.

Best Use Of A Minimum Deal To Raise Future Market Value: Malik Monk

The Los Angeles Lakers have been a disappointment this season — at least compared to public expectations. (Our preseason predictions model was notably lower on L.A.) One of the few Lakers who has not been disappointing is Monk.

Signed for the league veteran minimum, Monk has emerged as one of the team’s most valuable offensive weapons. It’s happened in exactly the way you’d think it would, given Monk’s skill as a shooter and the fact that he is on a team featuring LeBron James. LeBron creates a ton of open shots for Monk, who consistently takes advantage of the space he’s afforded by defenses trained on the generation’s best player.

After starting the year slowly (10 of 32 from 3-point range in the first nine games), Monk has been scorching nets. He’s shot 42.4 percent from deep on 5.7 attempts per game since that point. In his recent stretch as a starter, Monk averaged 18.4 points on 51-50-91 shooting splits. Most importantly, he has formed a potent pick-and-roll combination with James: Among 479 teammate pairs that have run 50 or more ball screens this season, the LeBron-Monk duo checks in seventh in points per possession.

Being able to fit in alongside stars — and accentuate their talents — is a valuable skill, and Monk has it. He’s likely made himself a bunch of money by latching onto James, just as many Designated Shooters have done before. (Why, exactly, Monk was shifted to the bench for the last few games as the Lakers moved back to bigger lineups is beyond me.)

Best Dollar-for-Dollar Value: Caleb Martin

The Miami Heat signed Martin away from the division rival Charlotte Hornets on a two-way deal this offseason. With the team ravaged by injuries throughout the year, Martin has been pressed into heavy action as a rotation player. He’s been on the floor for 805 minutes already — only 13 off from his career-high.

He’s also been quite productive during that time on the floor. Martin has made nine starts, shot 37.9 percent from deep and played solid defense. According to RAPTOR, he has been worth 2.4 wins above replacement so far this year.2 A two-way deal pays $462,269 this season, which means Martin has made around $192,612 per WAR. That’s the single-lowest figure among the 277 players who have played 500 minutes or more so far this season. (He also doesn’t even count against the Heat’s books, as two-way contracts do not affect the salary cap.)

Martin gives the Heat a lot of bang for their buck

NBA players with the lowest salary per RAPTOR win above replacement earned, 2021-22 season

Name TEAM WAR SALARY $/WAR
Caleb Martin Heat 2.4 $462,269 $192,612
Amir Coffey Clippers 1.4 $462,269 $330,192
Garrison Mathews Rockets 2.6 $1,093,598 $420,615
Jalen Brunson Mavericks 4.2 $1,802,057 $429,061
Aaron Wiggins Thunder 0.8 $462,269 $577,836
Austin Reaves Lakers 1.6 $925,258 $578,286
Herbert Jones Pelicans 2.9 $1,700,000 $586,207
Gary Payton II Warriors 3.3 $1,939,350 $587,682
Desmond Bane Grizzlies 3.2 $2,033,160 $635,363
Cody Martin Hornets 2.8 $1,782,621 $636,650

Through games of Jan. 17.

Sources: NBA.com, Basketball-Reference.com

Most Heartwarming Career Revival: Kevin Love

A five-time All-Star, Love played only 103 of 219 possible Cleveland Cavaliers games from the start of the 2018-19 season through the end of 2020-21, often appearing miserable both on and off the floor. The Cavs were an awful team, with LeBron James’s departure sending them spiraling to the bottom of the standings.

Of course, this year’s Cavs are much different — and much better. And Love’s resurgence is a big factor. Love is anchoring bench units as a No. 1 scoring option, with his highest usage rate since 2018-19, and he is demolishing opponents in the post. He’s one of just 35 players with 75 or more post-ups this season, according to Second Spectrum, and he’s fifth among that group in points per chance on those plays.

For the first time since LeBron left, the Cavs are outscoring opponents with Love on the floor. His willingness to both come off the pine and play far fewer minutes than he did for his entire career is admirable, and he’s been a revelation for one of the most surprising teams in the NBA.

Best Experiment That Shouldn’t Have Worked But Is Working Anyway: Cavaliers Big Ball

Speaking of the Cavs … how on earth is the Jarrett Allen-Evan Mobley-Lauri Markkanen front line actually working?!? The Cavs are plus-8.6 per 100 possessions in 531 minutes (!) with their monster-sized trio on the floor. Their offense has not been particularly good, but their 101.4 defensive rating in those minutes is the equivalent of the best defense in the NBA by nearly a full point per 100 possessions. Allen and Mobley covering huge swaths of the floor with their mobility helps cover up for Markkanen’s lack of foot speed in open space, and the sheer size of all three players makes it remarkably difficult for opposing players to venture into the paint — or finish at the rim when they dare attempt it.

Best Lineup: The Timberwolves’ Starters

Shout-out to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann for spotting this one and tracking it throughout the season. Patrick Beverley, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns have shared the floor for 204 minutes, and they have outscored opponents by 125 POINTS during that time. That’s like winning by 29 points a night. Their 30.7 net rating is almost equal to that of the two  next-closest five-man lineups with 150-plus minutes played. In the past decade, only three five-man units3 have recorded a better per-possession scoring margin, including the original version of the Warriors’s Death Lineup, which outscored opponents by 40.2 points per 100 during the team’s 73-win season.4

Best User Of The Regular Season As A Lab Experiment: Steve Nash

The Nets have used 22 different starting lineups in 44 games. Some of that tinkering is obviously due to injury-, COVID-19- and refusal-to-get-vaccinated-related absences, but in recent weeks, Nash has seemed to throw stuff at the wall, just to see what does and doesn’t work. Rookies Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe have started each of the last five games, for example, after appearing in only eight and 14, respectively, prior to that point. As early as the first game, Nash indicated that he would spend the season exploring different lineup combinations, even going so far as not using one of his most impactful players (Bruce Brown) simply because the Nets already know what he gives them and how he works alongside their stars, and they need to see how the new guys fit in. For a team that knows it is going to the playoffs and has aspirations of a championship, getting as much information as possible throughout the regular season is a good strategy.

Best High-Wire Act: The Wizards

The Wizards are right in the thick of the play-in race, sporting a 23-22 record that is eighth-best in the Eastern Conference. It hasn’t been easy, though. Washington has played 24 games that have entered clutch time, according to NBA Advanced Stats — tied for fifth in the league. The Wizards are an incredible 18-6 in those 24 contests, which means they are just 5-16 otherwise. They’re 8-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, compared with just 6-11 in games decided by double-digits. This likely means that Washington’s to-date performance is not particularly sustainable moving forward, but the wins they’ve banked still count. They just need to be better down the stretch.

Best Defending Champion Flying Totally Under the Radar: The Bucks

Remember these guys? They began the season 4-6, and they’re 24-13 since despite losing six of their most recent nine games. They’ve had so many players miss time, though, that they haven’t much of a chance to be themselves. They’ve had all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in the lineup for only 19 of their 47 games this season, and they are a ridiculous 16-3 in those contests. That should be very, very scary to other contenders.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of Jan. 17.

  2. Through games of Jan. 17.

  3. Minimum 150 minutes.

  4. The others were a 2016-17 Cavaliers lineup that appeared in only 12 games and another lineup from the 2014-15 Warriors.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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