clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NBA First-Month(ish) Awards

From Most Valuable Player to Saddest Team, we take a way-too-early look at some real and imaginary award races

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re somehow already (just about) one month into an NBA season that has made no sense in the best and worst ways, depending on who you ask. The sample sizes remain small, but there’s also enough action in the books to draw a few respectable conclusions about where the league stands. To take stock, here’s a way-too-early look at the NBA’s award races—some real ones and some made-up ones. So without further ado …

MVP: Luka Doncic

Apologies to Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, and Nikola Jokic, but Luka has had the most impressive start to this season.

The historic, dome-peeling numbers will melt your face off. He averaged 34.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.1 assists with a 60.4 true shooting percentage through his first 10 games. Those averages were even higher before a couple (relative) flubs against the Magic and Wizards, but they have never been matched by any player in NBA history for an entire season.

Throw in a couple of steals, a few no-look passes that defy rational convention, and a bucket full of post-ups that enervate and mortify whoever’s guarding him, and what you have, ladies and gentlemen, is a generational player deciding it’s time to demolish whatever ceiling anyone previously thought he had. (Remember when Sacramento passed on Luka because certain people in the organization believed he was already nearing his ceiling? Whoops!)

He leads the league in scoring, PER, usage, win shares, BPM, and VORP with the highest true shooting percentage and free throw rate of his career. Whenever he runs a pick-and-roll that results in him shooting or passing the ball, Dallas scores 1.28 points per possession, which is (1) 19th out of 123 players who’ve run at least 50 pick-and-rolls, and (2) absolutely incredible considering Luka is initiating more ball screens than anyone else in the league.

But the stat that should most terrify the rest of the league is the percentage of Doncic’s shots that are coming at the rim: 35 percent, which is up from 19 percent last year. A bunch of those crafty floaters and in-between push shots he manufactured over the past couple of years have now turned into bunnies. This is pure devastation.

Also, the new effort Doncic has shown on the defensive end is real and encouraging considering how the Suns treated him in last year’s conference semifinals. Luka’s steals and deflections are up, along with his general buy-in on the ball. There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Mavs fan, and plays like this should be at the top of the list.

If Luka’s ridiculous numbers stay where they are and Dallas remains in the hunt for a top-four seed, it’ll be hard to build a better case for any other player. If his participation on defense is real, it may be impossible.

Honorable mentions: Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, Nikola Jokic, Devin Booker, Ja Morant

Coach of the Year: Will Hardy

An explanation isn’t really necessary here. The Jazz were 10-4 heading into Sunday night’s game in Philadelphia, with a first-year head coach and the second-best offense in the NBA. Their roster is full of players the Timberwolves and Cavaliers no longer wanted. Very little of it makes sense. No coach is more deserving than Hardy.

Honorable mentions: Joe Mazzulla, Chauncey Billups, Gregg Popovich

Defensive Player of the Year: O.G. Anunoby

There’s a chance O.G. Anunoby isn’t even the best defender on his own team. (Holy Koloko!) I don’t care. Anunoby is everywhere, doing a little bit of everything. The Raptors forward regularly assumes the most difficult assignments within a scheme that can best be described as “organized confusion” and currently ranks in the top five in defensive rating with him on the court.

The man is a pickpocket ar-teest, snatching a league-high 2.9 steals per game. He’s also third in total deflections and recovers more loose balls per game than anyone else. Anunoby is a brick wall defending the post against those who actually test him—few bother—and will sometimes unleash enough ball pressure on the perimeter to convince you that the matchup is personal.

When the Raptors hosted the Hawks on Halloween, I was curious to see how Anunoby would act toward De’Andre Hunter, another burly wing who had just received $23 million more on his contract extension than Anunoby got back in 2020. (Yes, the cap is higher now than it was two seasons ago but that’s still quite a big difference!) Then stuff like this happened, (possibly) confirming my suspicions:

The beauty of Anunoby is that he can do it all. He’s both versatile and strong. He knows when to thwart a drive in the gap and when to rotate back to the perimeter to force a drive. He’s a fire-repellant blanket, snuffing out sparks before they incinerate Toronto’s defensive effort. Of course, sometimes he gets burned on closeouts, reaching for a steal, or freelancing off his man in search of an interception. But the Raptors would have a much harder time playing how they want (blitzing the second-most ball screens per 100 possessions) without his impulsive activity.

Honorable mentions: Bam Adebayo, Mikal Bridges, Brook Lopez

Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero

The no. 1 pick in June’s draft turned 20 years old on Saturday. He leads all rookies in points and rebounds, and is second in assists. If his current numbers hold, Banchero will be the first rookie since the merger to average at least 23 points, eight rebounds, eight free throw attempts, and 3.5 assists per game. (Don’t sleep on those eight free throws: Only seven players have attempted more this season!)

This pick is an easy one.

Honorable mentions: Bennedict Mathurin, Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey

Sixth Man of the Year: Kevin Love

Here are Kevin Love’s per-36 minute numbers this season: 20.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 10.6 3-point attempts on 40.7 percent shooting from deep. As of Saturday morning, Love led the league in defensive rebound rate and was plus-99 in plus/minus, second in the NBA behind only Devin Booker.

His efficiency in a lesser role is off the charts, a story line that every aging star should pay attention to. The numbers are nice—his true shooting has never been higher—and he’s moving like he did before a buildup of several injuries almost ended his career. But the little things are what make Love so valuable to a Cavaliers team that, for the time being, looks like a contender. He’s a five-time All-Star and NBA champion who’s played in more big games than everyone else on Cleveland’s roster combined. That experience matters, and helps explain why the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and getting outscored by 0.3 when he’s not.

Some of that veteran savvy showed up late in the first quarter Friday against the Warriors. After failing to feed Evan Mobley down on the block, Darius Garland gave up and reversed the ball to Love along the perimeter. In one motion, Love caught the pass and then immediately lobbed his own entry pass to Mobley that looked a lot harder than it actually was.

At 34 years old, showing acute awareness of where he is in his career and how he can make the most of it, Love is exactly what Cleveland needs.

Honorable mentions: Christian Wood, Malcolm Brogdon, Collin Sexton

Most Improved Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Two years ago, SGA was handed the keys to an Oklahoma City offense that was suddenly driverless after losing Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder. He responded with a breakout campaign—a 23.7-point scoring average and deadeye 3-point shooting off the bounce—that was ultimately dampened by the Thunder’s race to the bottom and SGA missing the season’s final 29 games.

What Gilgeous-Alexander is doing now, though, can’t be ignored. He currently ranks seventh in points per game, sixth in PER, first in drives per game, first in 2-point baskets, tied for third in steals, eighth in win shares, ninth in estimated plus/minus, and seventh in usage rate on a would-be-tanking Thunder team that’s outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays.

SGA always has been a savant getting downhill, but his body control on drives to the rim is more advanced now. The way he changes speeds makes guarding him feel like you’re trying to sip an open mug of hot coffee in stop-and-go traffic. All pump fakes, pivots, and sharp shoulders. His Euro-step might as well take place on a cloud, an airy hop into his teardrop floater. It’s this lithe combination of strength, deceleration, length, and unbridled creativity that makes stopping Gilgeous-Alexander’s progress one of this season’s hardest tasks.

If reports of him getting antsy in Oklahoma City prove true, several backcourt-needy teams with assets to burn (think Pelicans, Knicks, Heat, Wizards, Raptors, and … Jazz/Spurs?) would be very wise to invest. Gilgeous-Alexander was really good coming into this season. Now he’s one of the most unstoppable scorers in basketball and very well could be a front-runner in the next category, too, if he played for a team that wasn’t likely to be terrible by the time All-Star voting closes.

Honorable mention: Desmond Bane, Devin Vassell, Anfernee Simons, Bol Bol

Most Likely to Make His First All-Star Team: Desmond Bane

Not even one week into this season, I had already seen enough. Throw in the towel. Stop the fight. End the debate. Ja Morant and Desmond Bane are the best backcourt in the league. Everyone knows what Morant brings to the table as an acrobatic All-NBA fireworks display, while all Bane has done is become a historically great shooter who annually turns his shortcomings into strengths. Bane’s rise is meteoric. His usage is up. His assist rate is up. His efficiency is up. His free throw attempts per 36 minutes have more than doubled.

The man is nearly averaging 25, 5, and 5. As a rookie, 82 percent of Bane’s baskets were assisted. That number is now down to 55 percent, which is largely thanks to his emergence as one of the best pull-up shooters in basketball. Bane is shooting over 45 percent from deep at one of the highest volumes in the league! It’s unfathomable.

And, even more importantly, he’s growing as a playmaker. In nine of the Grizzlies’ first 12 games he’s initiated at least 10 pick-and-rolls, after doing so in only 18 of his previous 144 games. Those possessions have been bumpy at times, as he learns how to steer Memphis’s offense against opponents now focused on slowing him down. But simple plays like this—when he blows by Kevin Huerter with a quick hesitation dribble and then freezes Brandon Clarke’s man before hitting him with a pocket pass—show how diverse Bane’s offensive contributions can be.

Honorable mentions: Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Maxey, Lauri Markkanen, Tyrese Haliburton

Saddest Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves have several built-in caveats that should shield them from earning this distinction—like an ill Karl-Anthony Towns missing most of training camp after their new front office made one of the most shocking trades in modern NBA history—but they’ve looked more disorganized than even the biggest pessimist could’ve predicted (Sunday night’s near monumental collapse against a Cavs team that didn’t have Donovan Mitchell or Jarrett Allen doesn’t inspire much confidence, either).

The Wolves are currently 18th in offense and 20th in net rating, with a punchless starting five and an utter misunderstanding of how words like “sacrifice” and “selflessness” impact winning.

It’s a tad dispiriting when you’re 6-8 against the league’s second-easiest schedule, your most important players aren’t on the same page, and every other game seems to generate a calamitous blooper or foot-in-mouth statement about how the roster was constructed or what another man likes to eat. There was one play during a recent loss when an incredulous Kyle Anderson barked at a moping Towns for not quickly inbounding the ball after he got scored on. The momentum from last year is roadkill. Vibes this bad can be hard to overcome without a potentially incompatible on-court fit.

The Wolves are being outscored by 4.61 points per 100 possessions when Towns, Anthony Edwards (who will almost definitely not make his first All-Star team), and Rudy Gobert share the floor. Those lineups can’t score, which is a problem considering the exponential cost to put this group together. And when the first two play without Gobert, Minnesota’s defense sets itself on fire. Gobert leads the league in rebounding and the Timberwolves are still one of the five worst defensive rebounding teams in the league.

There’s some good stuff. Jaden McDaniels is aggressive off the bounce, suddenly unafraid to dunk on people. Towns has already assisted 20 of Gobert’s baskets at the rim—nearly the same as Trae Young to Clint Capela. And their 3-point defense probably won’t be this bad all season.

The Edwards-Gobert pick-and-roll has definite potential, especially when the strong-side corner is empty. But their spacing is a work in progress as they aim to strike the right balance between offense and defense (i.e. plugging Anderson in for D’Angelo Russell).

Gobert is shooting only 61.6 percent from the floor, which is noticeably lower than his career average. Now adrift from the comforting spread pick-and-roll system Quin Snyder built around him in Utah, he looks out of sorts. This shot was a cry for help.

Someone please give Rudy a compass.

According to Second Spectrum, Gobert is setting 50.4 screens per 100 possessions, the lowest mark of his career. (By comparison, he was at 67.9 screens per 100 possessions last year. Now it’s down to 45 screens per 100 possessions with Towns on the court and 60.9 when Towns is on the bench.)

The more I watch the Timberwolves, the easier it is to believe they should’ve just drafted Walker Kessler—a rookie rim protector who, well, just look at what early on/off numbers say about his defensive impact—and called it a day. Why, again, did they need to go all in on a polarizing center after losing in the first round to a Grizzlies team that’s still significantly better than them?

If the awkwardness holds, trading Towns during the offseason is Tim Connelly’s best and only path forward. Instead of building around KAT and Edwards, roll with Ant, Gobert, and the young pieces/draft picks you get back from another blockbuster deal: The Knicks (and former Timberwolves executive Gersson Rosas) have a ton of assets and young talent they’d be happy to fork over. RJ Barrett + Obi Toppin + Quentin Grimes + several draft picks is a pretty good offer. If that sounds dramatic, I kindly invite you to come up with a better solution.

The Wolves gave up unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025, and 2027, plus a top-five protected pick in 2029, a pick swap in 2026, and several rotation players who helped them make the playoffs last season … for a 30-year-old center whose best days might be in the rearview mirror. There’s still plenty of time for Minnesota to turn its season around, but if this spiral continues, we’re looking at a full-on catastrophe.

Honorable mentions: Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers

Most Complete Player: Jayson Tatum

This label does not mean Tatum is the best player in the world. Instead, view it as a way to mark his remarkable development. It’s Year 6 and the fat has been sizzled entirely out of his game. No star has fewer weaknesses.

Tatum can shoot, pass, dribble, rebound, defend, read the floor, draw fouls, and score from all three levels in myriad ways—posting up on the block, isolating on the wing, functioning in pick-and-rolls as both a ball handler and screener—at an elite level. He’s averaging a whopping 32.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from the floor, 59.6 percent inside the arc, and 38.7 percent from 3-point range on 9.5 tries a night.

As a bona fide MVP candidate who would scoot past Luka in this very column if his supporting cast wasn’t so much more impressive than Doncic’s—whose best teammate this season has been Spencer Dinwiddie—it’s all coming together. Tatum has touch, footwork, every ballhandling counter in the book, and a brain that seamlessly combines all of it without wasting any movement. He’s taking 4.4 more free throw attempts than his career average and shooting 81.4 percent at the rim.

Again, this doesn’t mean he’s “better” than Doncic, Curry, or Jokic, but none are ever asked to guard the other team’s best player, or able to help (he’s currently averaging the same number of blocks per game as Jarrett Allen) like the conservatively measured 6-foot-8 Tatum can. This doesn’t mean he’s better than Giannis. But when defenses load in the paint, Tatum has no problem creating a high-percentage shot by himself from the perimeter, then reliably making eight (not six) out of every 10 free throws. (It’s hard to think of any other player better than Tatum right now.)

Tatum controls games without dominating the ball. His fingerprints are all over this four-point swing:

He enhances Boston’s actions with the selflessness of a star who understands when to impose himself on a game and when to turn a defense’s aggression against itself.

Whenever healthy over the past few years, Kawhi Leonard was this guy, an all-around menace whose skill set was a perfect mesh of dominance and malleability. The closest thing to a create-a-player who turns every category up to 95. Tatum has officially grabbed that torch, and at 24 years old is still getting better. Nothing looks hard because he can now do everything so well.

Honorable mentions: Paul George, Kevin Durant, LeBron James

The Bill Simmons Podcast

The Derrick White Game, the Miracle Play Hierarchy, and a Game 7 Preview With Ryen Russillo

The Ringer Gambling Show

The Hundred: Presenting Our Best NBA Bets Every Day Through the Finals

Off the Pike

Derrick White Saves the Celtics’ Season

View all stories in NBA