Haberstroh's NBA midseason awards: MVP, best coach and rookies

Haberstroh's NBA midseason awards: MVP, best coach and rookies

As most teams hit the 41-game mark this week, what better time to hit the pause button and see how the award races are shaping up?

With All-Star break about a month away, here’s one person’s opinion on the major awards. 

Most Valuable Player: James Harden 
Runners up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Joel Embiid

Harden checks every box. Traditionalists will love his eye-popping scoring average (he’s leading the scoring title by full 5.0 points, which would be the largest gap since Michael Jordan's 1986-87 season when he averaged 37.1 to Dominique Wilkins' 29.0) and triple-doubles combined with the narrative that he’s “carrying” the Chris Paul-less Rockets. The nerdier voters will appreciate his freakish efficiency (his current true-shooting percentage tops Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s best) and off-the-charts offensive RPM. Both ends of the spectrum can get behind Harden.

Put it this way: Who has raised a team’s championship odds more this season? 

You could make a strong case for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks have the NBA’s best net-rating at plus-9.2. But the addition of head coach Mike Budenholzer, who overhauled both ends of the floor, muddies the picture for the Greek Freak. Who deserves credit for the Bucks’ rise?

That question is easier to answer for the Rockets. It seems like a lifetime ago, but only one month has passed since Houston general manager Daryl Morey came on The Habershow podcast with the 11-12 Rockets reeling in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony debacle. Rather than retreat, Morey doubled down: “We feel like we can be better than last year. I know I sound crazy saying that.”

Shortly after that, Paul got hurt, and the Rockets went on a tear, Harden leading the way. Over the past 14 games, Harden has averaged 40.3 points and 9.4 assists while shooting 40.2 percent on a whopping 14.9 3-pointers per game. To put that into perspective, Harden averaged 30.4 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 36.7 percent on 10 3-pointers per game during his MVP campaign last season.

The difference between last year’s campaign and this one? Harden has turned the step-back 3 into a basketball superpower. He’s getting defenders off balance and routinely racking up three-shot fouls, which is the most profitable play in the game. Peruse the Basketball-Reference logs and you’ll find that Harden has accumulated 38 three-shot fouls this season. That’s more than Damian Lillard (16), Stephen Curry (10) and JJ Redick (8) combined. He used to hunt for the three-shot foul in pick-and-rolls, but the league started cracking down on it. Now, he’s getting it with the step-back 3.

While Harden has my vote for first-half MVP, I’m a tad concerned that he’ll wear down. He’s leading the league in minutes per game and the Rockets are paper-thin at the guard position. Case-in-point: Free-agent pickup Austin Rivers is averaging a team-high 38.5 minutes per game in his eight contests with the team. Harden’s MVP candidacy may be dented by Paul’s eventual return, but they need more bodies to win at the highest level.

Antetokounmpo may have taken the lead in the larger MVP conversation after Wednesday’s victory over the Rockets, but I’m still leaning Harden, who is averaging 20.2 assist points per game in addition to his own scoring. Also in the running is Joel Embiid, who is putting up Shaq-like numbers for the Sixers, and Paul George, who might be the best two-way player in the game. Speaking of George...

Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George
Runners up: Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday

The Thunder have the NBA’s best defense by a good margin despite not having Andre Roberson, who might've been the best perimeter defender in the league last season.

George has snatched that distinction from Roberson this year. Here’s a list of guys he’s guarded for at least 10 possessions this season: James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Luka Doncic, Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson and Devin Booker. That versatility enables the Thunder to blanket opponents on the perimeter while Steven Adams mans the middle and owns the backline. George’s on-court defensive rating of 99.9 is second-best for any player among the 84 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Some of that is due to Adams, but George leads all players in deflections and loose balls recovered. He’s everywhere.

Gobert may end up winning this award again now that the Jazz have overcome a funky start on that end of the floor, but his on-off splits haven’t been nearly as stark as last season. Embiid, for his part, has defended the most shots at the rim in the NBA and held opponents to a crazy-low 54.2 percent on those shots. Holiday is a 6-foot-4 straitjacket, but for this award, I can’t ignore that the Pelicans have a bottom-six defensive rating.

Ultimately, George has earned this spot. In today’s 3-point-heavy league, lock-down perimeter defenders are more valuable than ever. With Kawhi Leonard sitting out games to rest, George has ascended to become the gold standard on that end of the floor. 

Coach of the Year: Dave Joerger
Runners up: Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers

It feels odd to hand this award to the coach of a team that’s been hovering around .500 all season, but the Kings might hit their Vegas over/under projection before the All-Star break. 

It’s not just some lucky wins here and there. Joerger has completely overhauled their playing style and tailored it for young legs. Last season, their offensive possessions lasted 15.4 seconds on average, the third-slowest pace in the league, per Inpredictable.com. This season? Joerger has handed the keys to De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield and the results are a group averaging 13.1 seconds on offense, which is the second-quickest rate in the league. They’re running teams out of the gym.

Despite the fifth-youngest roster in the league, the Kings are also holding their own in clutch situations. Per NBA.com tracking, the Kings are 14-10 when the game is within five points in the final five minutes, a better record than the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the LeBron-led Los Angeles Lakers. 

Who says young teams can’t win in the NBA? To me, the Kings are the biggest surprise of the season and this award reflects that.

Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis
Runners up: Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick Rose

This guy is an absolute stud. The 22-year-old has been a monster for the Pacers’ nasty second unit along with Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph. Over the last 10 games, the son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis is averaging 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds on 60.7 percent shooting and providing stout defense up front. He doesn’t have Anthony Davis’ wingspan, but he doesn’t need it to make an impact defensively. He has allowed the fewest points per possession on plays against him (.771), according to Synergy tracking (minimum 300 plays defended).

The only red flag here? Sabonis might not be a bench player for long. Thaddeus Young just won an East Player of the Week award, but Sabonis deserves the starting gig, and soon. Sabonis is averaging 21.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes this season with great touch around the rim and a nice pick-and-pop game in the mid-range. If he can re-discover his 3-point stroke, he could be Kevin Love 2.0 (who also came off the bench at the beginning of his career).

With Myles Turner, Young and Sabonis, Indiana suddenly has a logjam in the frontcourt, but don’t be surprised if the Pacers -- who also have Kyle O’Quinn as insurance -- make a move to free up some starter minutes for Sabonis. He’s earned them.

If Sabonis does move off the bench, there are several other candidates of consideration. Spencer Dinwiddie is the new Lou Williams (who also deserves plenty of votes). Derrick Rose has started over a third of his games, which might disqualify him in many eyes, but he’s been a revelation this season. When it comes to picking between Sabonis or Montrezl Harrell, you’re splitting hairs at this point. Both have been incredible supersubs, but Sabonis’ playmaking and rebounding gives him the edge. 

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic
Runners up: Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr.

You could make a case here for a few guys in this loaded class and I wouldn’t mind. But to me, no one has been more dominant than Doncic, who is the only rookie in the top 50 of ESPN’s RPM. As last week’s BIG Number illustrates, Doncic, as a teenager, is putting up numbers we haven’t seen since LeBron James. Only James Harden tallied more free throws than Doncic in the month of December, which is downright absurd for a teenager.

Like Harden, Doncic has used the “slow” or “unathletic” label to his advantage -- starting and stopping on a dime and capitalizing on the defender’s overeagerness to draw fouls. Doncic’s expert tempo and court awareness has more than made up for a perceived lack of athleticism. Only 6.6 percent of Doncic’s 2-pointers have been blocked this season, per pbpstats.com, which is lower than that of leapers like LeBron James (7.0), Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.0) and Andrew Wiggins (8.8 percent) -- and nearly half that of Zach LaVine (13.6). 

In any normal year, Ayton, Jackson and Carter Jr., could win but not when Doncic is averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists for a team that holds a positive point margin. The seemingly slow Doncic has picked up the NBA game mighty quick.

Most Improved Player: De’Aaron Fox
Runners up: Pascal Siakam, Monte Morris, Thomas Bryant

Often times, Most Improved Player is misinterpreted as Most Minutes-Improved Player, but you can’t say that about Fox, who is just plain better than he was last season. The 21-year-old went from averaging 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.7 free throw attempts per game last season to 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 attempts per game this season (he’s only playing 3.9 more minutes per game). Usually, we see turnovers soar with the larger burden, but not in Fox’s case.

There’s some pace inflation in those stats because of the Kings’ new run-and-gun offense. But you know who makes all that possible? That’s right: Fox. Despite only playing 31.7 minutes per game, he’s sixth in the NBA in total transition points, per Synergy Sports tracking, while also helping Buddy Hield rank second on that same list. This season, Fox has posted a higher player-efficiency rating (19.0) and win-shares total (3.0) than his draft classmates Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Who saw that coming?

Fox often times looked lost in his rookie season. This year, Fox has often looked like the best player in his class. That’s improvement.

Some feel that sophomores shouldn’t win this award because improvement is almost expected after a rookie season. If that’s your philosophy, then Siakam is your guy. The third-year forward has become a go-to scorer for the Toronto Raptors, who have gone 8-2 without Kawhi Leonard this season in no small part because of Siakam’s continued improvement. Denver’s Monte Morris and Washington’s Thomas Bryant were G-Leaguers last season but have rescued their teams with their stellar play this season at the NBA level. 

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Through titles and dark moments, Chris Bosh changed the NBA

Chris Bosh wanted to pick Kevin Garnett’s brain. 

It was the 2010 All-Star Game in Bosh’s hometown of Dallas. The East All-Star locker room was quiet and the superstars were lacing up. Garnett, the 33-year-old All-Star starter and NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, wasn’t in the heat of battle, spitting obscenities at Bosh. For the moment, Garnett and Bosh were anointed allies in the pregame locker room, a most-sacred place in sport.

“At the time, I wasn’t a threat,” Bosh tells me during an hour-long conversation, “so we could talk.”

This was the time and place, Bosh thought. Older veterans had turned down Bosh’s inquiries before -- “I won’t tell you who” -- but in that Dallas locker room, Garnett seemed open to talk, not smack, but life.

So Bosh went for it.

How did you know it was time to leave Minnesota?

Bosh knew the question might make him seem small and vulnerable, like he didn’t have all the answers. This was his fifth All-Star Game and the loud, dreadlocked big man was averaging 24.4 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Didn’t he have it all figured out? Truth is, he didn’t. His mind was a mess. Free agency was coming up and he didn’t know what to do. 

The Raptors had one winning season in Bosh’s seven years. Garnett had won a title in his first year with Boston only 20 months prior and two of Bosh’s peers from the 2003 draft class -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- had already reached the NBA Finals. Bosh felt isolated in Toronto and hungry for more, something bigger. 

“Everytime I come here [to All-Star], I am always looking at two or three guys from the top team in the East, or the top two or three teams in the East,” Bosh recalls. “Around that time, there was always this buzz and excitement, like, ‘Are you guys going to win it? Who’s gonna win it?’ And me … it was just like … I’m just here.”

Didn’t KG feel that in Minny? 

Garnett did not blast him for asking. Instead, he offered some sage advice that, months later, would seal the deal for Bosh to go to Miami.

“You want to play with people who can take pressure off you, that way you don’t have to worry about other things,” Bosh remembers Garnett telling him. “You can just play basketball.”

Bosh didn’t decide to leave Toronto right then and there. But the conversation with Garnett gave him strength in knowing that other stars too had felt this weight, this stress, this anxiety. He wasn’t alone.

Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony with the Miami Heat on Tuesday, March 26, Bosh is sitting in the garage of his Miami home, reminiscing and thinking about how Miami’s Big Three -- he, James and Wade -- helped launch the era of player empowerment, where stars switching teams in free agency is commonplace. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard have all engineered exits in recent years, making it known they’d like to take their talents -- and their careers -- elsewhere.

“It’s huge,” Bosh says of the trio’s pioneering role. “A lot of people don’t like it, that’s the funniest part.”

Don’t like what?

“An athlete with brains.”

When we talk about Bosh’s place in NBA history, this is where it should begin: Humanizing the star.

* * *

Everything changed after Bosh and James joined Wade in Miami.

NBA players controlling their own destiny in free agency was and is a worthy endeavor. But when they take matters into their own hands to pursue a championship, the scrutiny you’ll face will be magnified beyond anything you’ve experienced before.

As one third of one of the most famous trios in the history of professional sports, Bosh for the first time found himself in the fishbowl, surrounded by a storm of criticism and high expectations.

On ESPN, he was nicknamed “Bosh Spice” by Skip Bayless, a misogynistic barb that Bosh would later confront Bayless about on “First Take.” The Big Three were often called the Big Two-and-a-half. And when Bosh, in a

moment of candidness, said that Heat players wanted to “chill” on off days while coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to work, it became a national scandal. That particular controversy became the third installment in Bleacher Report’s running series headlined “Everybody Hates Chris.”

And all of that was before Bosh sobbed on national television.

It happened in the moments directly following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. As the Dallas Mavericks celebrated the franchise’s first NBA title on Miami’s homecourt, the Heat retreated to lick their wounds following a turbulent first season together. An exhausted Bosh was held up on the walk to the locker room by teammates Erick Dampier and Wade. Then, overcome by emotion, Bosh collapsed to the red carpet, sunken on his elbows and knees, and cried.

The intensely personal moment was broadcast to the millions watching. Bosh knew it would haunt him, but it was too late.

“I looked up and saw the camera right there,” Bosh remembers. “And I was like, awww, they’re going to kill me.”

Bosh changed again after that Finals defeat, after that moment of despair was shared around the world. The double standard for the pro athlete was laid bare to him. Sports are supposed to mean something to pro athletes, but not enough that it makes you weep. Do everything you can to win a championship, but only if it’s on management’s terms, not your own. Be authentic, but only if it fits neatly within the carved-out narrative.

“That’s one of the things I had to learn, was to just be myself,” Bosh says. “Just going through that process, just really seeing the different levels and different flavors of people’s reactions and their opinions. It gave me confidence just to say, ‘Alright, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m just going to be myself. And that’s great enough.’ It’s about what you do on the court and it’s not about pleasing everybody.”

It’s a hard lesson to learn. Even now, Bosh says he wishes he had just kept his emotions in check for just for a few more steps until he let it all out in the privacy of the locker room. Instead, his emotion became something of a punchline.

No matter how hard he tried to block out the noise on social media and on TV, Bosh admits, that in his darkest moments he would slink back and listen to it all. In Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, Bosh limped off the floor with an abductor muscle strain, sidelining him indefinitely in the middle of their redemption tour. The injury forced him to stay home when the team went on the road to Indiana. 

Bosh watched the series unravel just like the rest of the basketball world.

“We go in and we lose Game 3 in Indiana and I’m just watching,” Bosh says. “I’m supposed to be ready to play in two and a half weeks. I can’t walk. We go down 2-1 on the road. Oh, D-Wade was awful that game. We just had a stinker.”

During Game 3, cameras caught Wade and Spoelstra having to be separated on the sidelines during a heated exchange. Lance Stephenson infamously gave a choke sign to LeBron after the Heat star missed a technical free throw. The Heatles were crashing and Bosh felt helpless. In the throes of his funk, he flipped on ESPN and watched what they said about him and the Heat. It drove him deeper into despair, so much so that he just about wanted to quit. Until his wife, Adrienne, pulled him out of it.

“My mistake was listening to the TV,” Bosh says. “I was listening and it just got in here [pointing to his head] and I pretty much gave up. I pretty much gave up and my wife was like nuh-uh-uhh.”

In the regular season, he and his wife had watched DVDs of NBA Classics that told the story of champions overcoming adversity. Bosh told his wife to pay attention because there would be times of adversity. 

Don’t get too down, Adrienne. 

And of course, the tables turned in the playoffs. Adrienne delivered the pep talk, telling Chris, hey, the lows are part of the journey.
 
“I’m like, ‘Ah I did say that?’,” Bosh recalls telling her. “I guess I’m gonna have to pull myself together.”

Bosh and the Heat turned adversity into an opportunity. Rather than start two traditional bigs against Indiana’s formidable frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert, Spoelstra decided to go small and start Shane Battier at the power forward position. The switch was something Spoelstra had thought about doing in the series anyway, but Bosh’s injury forced his hand. With Battier and James alternating as the power forward, the Heat won the next three games to earn a spot in the East Finals.

The opponent? Garnett and the Boston Celtics. After three weeks of arduous rehab and emotional turmoil, Bosh returned to the lineup in Game 5, coming off the bench for just 14 minutes. The Heat lost, going down 3-2 in the series, as Garnett scored 26 points to Bosh’s nine. And it seemed like as good a time as any to give up.

Instead, with Bosh manning the center spot -- a position he never envisioned he’d play on a winning team -- the Heat went on to win six of the next seven games en route to a 2012 Finals win over Oklahoma City. After losing that Game 5 against Boston, Bosh averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds with a plus-48 in the plus-minus column.

Bosh’s presence changed everything. In Game 7 of the conference finals against Garnett, Bosh made 3-of-4 3-pointers, totaling 19 points and eight rebounds. In the Finals, Bosh sliding over to the five next to Shane Battier and James was a game-changer. Bosh discovered his 3-point shot and a new position. The NBA would never be the same.

* * * 

Bosh’s career went on to reach towering heights. The Heat defended their 2012 championship by winning 27 straight games during the 2012-13 regular season and later took down the San Antonio Spurs in one of the most memorable Finals in NBA history. Bosh was at the center of it all, grabbing perhaps the biggest rebound in franchise history and blocking the Spurs’ final attempt. No one was calling him Bosh Spice anymore.

But a rocky three-peat quest in 2013-14 ended all those good vibes. James left in the summer of 2014 after the Spurs took their revenge. Bosh re-upped with a five-year, $118 million max contract but hit the dark place once again. In 2015, doctors found a blood clot in Bosh’s lungs that ended his season at the All-Star break. A year later, blood clots returned, this time in his calf, ending his season prematurely once again. A year ago, Bosh was still trying desperately to return to an NBA that now appeared tailor-made in his image.

But after hearing so many no’s from doctors and spending days without teams returning phone calls, Bosh decided to hang it up for good in recent months. On his terms.

“You know, you have to deal with that stuff,” Bosh says. “Just a bunch of thoughts, a bunch of dark stuff, just comes in and pops in and then ‘Yo, where’s this coming from?’ You deal with it.”

It’s tough for Bosh not to think about what might have been. As pace-and-space (a term coined by Spoelstra) and the 3-point shot gained in popularity, and importance, more and more big men have followed the blueprint Bosh helped pioneer in Miami. By the end of his time in Miami, Bosh was averaging 4.2 3-point attempts per game, seventh most among big men. Now, 18 big men shoot that many in 2018-19, underscored by Bucks center Brook Lopez attempting more than six 3-pointers a night for the East’s best team.

“That was one of the things I used to really have trouble with last year watching the game,” Bosh says. “I had to bounce back from that. I was in a really dark place, trying to rebound from that, to be honest with you.”

It’s understandable. If Bosh’s blood clots hadn’t forced him out of the league, he could’ve entered this summer as a free agent, alongside the likes of Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler -- the same players he unknowingly helped all those years ago. It’s a fact that has haunted him to this day.

It still hurts, but Bosh isn’t afraid to talk about that now. This is about being himself.

“I’m happy for the guys,” Bosh says. “I’m happy to look back and even if people don’t know, to say, hey, you know what, I had a little bit to do with changing the league.”

Bosh changed the game off the court, too. I ask him, does Durant leave OKC if Bosh and the Big Three don’t choose to team up in 2010?

“No,” Bosh says now. “That put pressure on him.” 

Earlier in March, Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke that basketball “will never fulfill me.” It’s a sentiment that Bosh agrees with. Bosh thought he’d be fulfilled when he became an All-Star. That wasn’t enough. A championship? Not enough. Two championships? Still not fulfilled. 

“There’s more [to life],” Bosh says. “If you’re fulfilled, then pretty much just give up on life and die after that, right? If you’re fulfilled? That’s a great statement that he made. I think it’s telling people as well, this is just my interpretation, but it’s like, ‘Yo, chill’ because everybody puts the onus on that championship. It’s not going to fulfill you. And that’s one of the big secrets about it.”

For Bosh, dark places came after titles, too. You strive to get that high again, like another hit of a drug. But basketball can be cruel. 

“People on the outside looking in might say if you win a championship, it’s all good; it’s not,” Bosh says. “You still have a long life to live. When you win a championship, it just means a bigger X on your back.”

* * * 

Bosh heard commissioner Adam Silver’s comments to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. 

“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”

Bosh last played in 2016, but he’s stunned by how rare it is that young players consult him about navigating the fishbowl. Social media has connected just about every star, but they’re feeling as disconnected as ever.

“Nobody reaches out,” Bosh says. “Guys don’t want knowledge. Nobody has come to me, and said, ‘Hey, man how’d you do that thing?’ It’s cool. I’m not putting pressure on anybody. But me coming up as a player, one of the most important things was to seek knowledge, even if people turn you away. I got turned away, believe it or not.”

That curiosity and thirst for knowledge drove Bosh to seek Garnett’s counsel at the 2010 All-Star game and setting the wheels of multiple championships and a jersey retirement in motion.

“And I do get it, we do live in an age of anxiety,” Bosh says. “But that’s because everybody cares about what everybody thinks. I do not care. As long as it’s positive, I’m not going to be a jerk, but if you don’t have anything good to say, I’m really not going to listen to it.”

Bosh is the first to admit that blocking out the noise and criticism isn’t easy. He used to scroll Twitter and Instagram to seek validation, to hear people talking about him, to make him feel relevant, to make him feel alive. But he doesn’t go there anymore. In down times, he talks to his wife and family instead, his foundation. Social media and 24-7 media became a toxic place, a landmine for which Bosh learned to avoid.
     
“It took a while to get there,” Bosh says. “It’s exciting at first, but then after a while … it’s like what the Lakers are experiencing this year. I’m sure last year they were lovable because nobody really expected things from them. But then you get the expectations and it changes. These same talk shows you’re getting killed all of a sudden. Now you’re getting hate tweets. People on Instagram are leaving nasty comments.”

“But you can’t worry about that. It’s hard not to, but what’s your alternative? The fact that the commissioner was even talking about happiness was crazy. Adam [Silver], just the fact that he even felt compelled to say something about that, which is true. You see guys competing for championships and they’re not happy. It’s not a happy time to be honest with you. A huge part of it is knowing, first, sucking it up, and then knowing that a championship is not going to complete me as a person as an athlete or as a public figure.”

Now, ahead of his jersey retirement, Bosh is at peace with his career. Bosh is eligible to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2021 along with Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, making it likely the best class ever. According to a Basketball-Reference.com algorithm, Bosh’s Hall of Fame probability stands at 99.5 percent. Without his locker room talk that led to career autonomy and two championships, who knows whether Bosh would’ve reached these heights.

And when the Heat raise his jersey into the rafters on Tuesday, Bosh insists there will be no thought of dark places.

“All highs.”

Watch Haberstroh's full sitdown with Bosh here.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Garbage Time All-Stars

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NBC Sports

Garbage Time All-Stars

(Note: All statistics are through Monday, March  11.)

Welcome to Spring League, NBA fans.

This is the part of the regular season that most closely resembles the NBA’s Summer League exhibition series, where many franchises focus more on getting an extended look at young prospects and giving their stars a break.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers, for example. With the playoffs all but out of reach, LeBron James was placed in a “load-management” protocol by the Lakers, whose 2019 first-round pick becomes more valuable every minute that James does not play. The Lakers also signed 33-year-old G League journeyman Andre Ingram to a 10-day contract after he became a national sensation last season. No disrespect to Ingram, but the Lakers, like the New Orleans Pelicans, are making the organizational choice to not try to win games.

As such, there’s going to be a whole lot of non-competitive stretches in the final month of the season. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at Garbage Time Heroes that could help you win your fantasy league or choose what to watch every night.

I’ve broken it down into three categories. First, I was curious about which stars have the largest differential in how they score when the scoreboard is tight compared to when the game gets out of hand. For those, I looked at each of the top 25 scorers and analyzed their points per 36 minutes when the score is within five points versus when the lead or deficit is over 15 points (garbage time). The players with the biggest jumps in scoring during garbage time are listed below.

Secondly, I identified a few players who could see big numbers down the stretch as their teams go into full-out tank mode. And lastly, I listed three G League call-ups that could make some noise down the stretch as good teams rest their stars for the playoffs and bad teams rest their stars for the draft lottery.

Let’s get to it.

Opportunistic Stars

Klay Thompson

Of the top 25 scorers, no one saw their scoring numbers jump during garbage time more than Thompson. He scores 29.5 points per 36 minutes when the Warriors are either leading or trailing by more than 15 points compared to 22.7 points per 36 minutes when it’s within five or less. That’s not just a matter of touches. Thompson’s field-goal percentage also drops from 54 percent to 46 percent when the games are more competitive, a decline anchored by a 3-point percentage that sinks from 49 percent to 36 percent in the same situation.

This isn’t an isolated case, either. Though he’s certainly had his playoff moments (sorry, OKC), Thompson has also seen his scoring shrink in the playoffs when the competition is stronger than in the regular season. The sharpshooter has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the previous four regular seasons but has reached that plateau just once in the past four postseasons.

It could be that playoff teams try to take away Thompson first and then deal with the rest of the Warriors. Teams could also be keying in on Thompson a lot more when the game is close and loosen their grip when the game seems out of hand. But either way, Thompson’s scoring rate jumps 6.7 points in garbage time, the highest in this group.

Zach LaVine

LaVine has fought the label of being an overrated “good stats, bad team” guy. While such criticism is unfair for a guy who just turned 24 years old and tore his ACL two years ago, these numbers certainly doesn’t help his case. LaVine has scored 161 points in 199 minutes of garbage time this season, a rate of 29.1 points per 36 minutes. But when the game is close, LaVine’s scoring average plummets to 23.2 points per 36 minutes, a difference of 5.9 points, the second-largest gap on this list.

Most of LaVine’s scoring surge in garbage time can be attributed to his overt aggressiveness. In those less-competitive minutes, he’s shooting 21.2 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, compared to just 18.4 in tighter situations. He’s actually sharper from 3-point land in close situations (41 percent vs. 30 percent), which further emphasizes that this is more about usage than it is about efficiency. Still, scoring 23.2 points per 36 minutes in competitive circumstances ain’t bad.

Bradley Beal

No star has scored more points in garbage time than Beal (278 points). Most of that is because the Wizards get blown out a ton, but that’s hardly Beal’s fault. Case in point: Since the All-Star break, the Wizards are plus-47 with Beal on the floor and minus-46 with him off the court. Beal’s scoring average in garbage-time situations is 27.3 points per 36 minutes, which is 4.6 points larger than when games are tighter.

That being said, I still think he should be in the All-NBA conversation (I laid out his candidacy in this week’s BIG Number video). Even if Beal has a scoring surge in garbage time, those situations only make up 15 percent of his minutes this season. The guy has played more minutes than anybody in the NBA this season. If he’s ball-hogging a bit in blowouts, so be it.

CJ McCollum

Fun fact: McCollum is a card-carrying member of the 50/40/90 shooting club -- as long as we’re talking about garbage time. (For those who don’t know, the 50/40/90 shooting club is reserved for those who shoot at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from deep and 90 percent from the line. This is the elite of the elite). The Portland shooting guard is shooting 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from deep and 91 percent from the charity stripe in these blowout situations. He fits the same profile as Thompson -- an elite shooter who rarely gets to the free-throw line. He’s also someone who, until last postseason, had struggled to put up the same caliber of numbers in the postseason as the regular season.

McCollum is still a super talented scorer in tighter situations (21.4 points per 36 minutes), but he finds himself on this list because both his usage and efficiency rise when the game’s stakes are lowest. This is best illustrated by his whopping 25.4 points per 36 minutes in garbage time. The Blazers would probably benefit by figuring out how to have McCollum more involved in crunchtime simply to lessen the burden on Damian Lillard and make the offense more democratic.

Russell Westbrook

Of all the top 25 scorers, no one saw a larger gap in field-goal percentage according to the scoreboard. In close situations, Westbrook has shot 39 percent from the floor, an ugly figure for a go-to scorer. In garbage time, Westbrook’s field-goal percentage soars to 50 percent, a difference of 11 percent.

Continuing this trend, Westbrook’s shooting percentages have tumbled in postseason play over the last few years, as he failed to shoot above 40 percent in each of the last two playoffs -- both first-round exits for the Thunder. Westbrook has come up huge in the playoffs before (2016 Western Conference finals Games 3 and 4 against Golden State is a place to start, as is OKC’s 2012 run to the Finals). The Thunder hope to get more of that Westbrook in this upcoming postseason. Interestingly enough, Westbrook’s 2.7-point jump in garbage time (24.1 vs. 21.4) isn’t a matter of shooting more; he actually has seen his field-goal attempts per 36 minutes fall from 20.4 in close situations to 18.1 in garbage time. He’s just vastly more efficient when the game’s not out of hand.

Tank Pilots

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Luka Doncic is limping to the finish line and could be shut down soon. Dirk Nowitzki’s hinting that he’s giving it another go so there won’t be a last-hurrah scoring binge, a la Kobe Bryant. Throw in the fact that the Mavericks lose their first-round pick to Atlanta if it falls out of the top five on draft lottery night and you have the makings of a Tim Hardaway Jr., scoring binge.

Hardaway Jr.’s minutes have fallen from 32.6 per night in New York to 28.9 per night in Dallas, but if they pull the plug on the season, THJ could fill it up. He sees his scoring rate skyrocket when he’s not playing with Doncic, going from 15.4 points per 36 minutes with the rookie sensation to 23.0 points per 36 minutes with Doncic on the bench, per NBA.com. The icing on the cake? The Mavericks also get blown out by 11.6 points per 36 minutes with Hardaway on the floor without Doncic. Tank pilot, indeed.

Julius Randle

Tim Hardaway’s situation would only get more tanktastic if he was a free agent trying to get paid this summer. This guy, Randle, on the other hand? He’ll nuke his $9 million player option well before July 1 with the way he’s playing. This used to be Anthony Davis’ team. Then it was Jrue Holiday’s team. Now, with Holiday ailing, it’s Randle’s team -- for the next month.

Randle is an undeniable talent on the offensive end, but he gives up just as much defensively. Randle is averaging 23.8 points per game since Davis’ tanking, err, load-management program went into effect on Feb. 12. Since that point, the Pelicans surrender 110.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team when Randle is on the floor, compared to a stingy 102.8 points per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. As long as Randle is playing, there will be buckets.

Joakim Noah

He’s back. Since the trade deadline, Noah is averaging 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in just 22.4 minutes per game. Translated per 36 minutes: 18.6 points, 13.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He’s not just filling up the box score with hollow numbers; he’s genuinely made Memphis a better team since it took a flier on him earlier this season.

The Grizzlies have him on a one-year veteran’s minimum contract so it’ll be interesting to see how they feature him down the stretch. With the way it’s going, he might play himself into a pricier contract than the Grizzlies will be willing to pay. Part of me just wants to see Noah firing up 3-pointers for the heck of it. The Grizzlies only keep their 2019 first-round pick if it falls in the top-eight. They’re currently sitting with the seventh-worst record in the NBA. I’m praying for Noah 3-bombs.

G-League Call-ups

Andre Ingram

After a disastrous season in Los Angeles, Ingram is the last hope to end the season on a high note. Brandon Ingram (not related) is out for the season with blood clots. Lonzo Ball is likely finished. Kyle Kuzma is battling a bum ankle. James is on The Brow program. It’s Andre’s time to shine.

The Lakers obviously don’t think he’s going to help them win games, otherwise they’d sign him earlier to help with a genuine playoff push. Nonetheless, it’s a heartwarming story for basketball’s Crash Davis, having made his NBA debut as a 32-year-old rookie last season. Ingram scored just 12.8 points per 36 minutes for the South Bay Lakers this season with a G League career-low 35.7 percent from 3-point land, but the Lakers figure to give him every opportunity to recreate the magic from Staples Center last April. Don’t forget about Dre.

Christian Wood

This guy can fill it up. The 23-year-old averaged 28.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game in the G-League this season and currently ranks No. 1 all-time in career PER for the G League (yes, that’s a thing).

Here’s the issue: He’s buried on the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench. The top-seeded Bucks called Wood up from the G League last Friday, but he hasn’t gotten any burn as they try to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the team contracts the injury bug or rests its bigs down the stretch, keep a close eye on Wood. He could be the next Hassan Whiteside, just waiting for his big-league opportunity.

Jordan McRae

The NBA journeyman is someone to watch if the Washington Wizards are finally eliminated from the playoffs. McRae actually got garbage-time burn during the 2016 Finals with the Cavs and he torched the G League this season on a two-way contract with the Wizards, averaging 30.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 35 percent from deep for the Capital City Go-Gos.

McRae wasn’t a great fit for a championship contending Cavs squad, but if he gets some run with the Wizards down the stretch, he could put up big scoring numbers. He’s nursing a sore Achilles at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule out a big April from the 27-year-old NBA champ. He scored 20 points in 26 minutes in a win over the Atlanta Hawks last month. More of that could be in order.

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