With the NBA season officially past its halfway point, it’s time to hand out some make-believe hardware to the league’s most deserving players and teams for their efforts (or lack thereof) over the past three months.
I made my awards picks after watching a ton of basketball, studying every statistical database to which I have access, and talking to people in and around the NBA.
Quick note: My honorable mentions are limited to three candidates despite some of these categories offering more than a half-dozen quality options. So even though you’ll probably still tweet angry words at me for not mentioning whoever it is you adore, please know it couldn’t be more personal and I really do hate everyone you love.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokic
The case for Nikola Jokic’s third straight MVP is a choose your own adventure.
Do you value basic counting stats? Jokic is averaging 24.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.7 assists in just 33.3 minutes per game. He leads the NBA in triple-doubles.
What about efficiency? Jokic is not only third in true shooting percentage (69.0 percent) despite dunking the ball just 12 times all season, but he’s also first in true shooting percentage among all players in NBA history who’ve put up at least 15 shots per game. Over half of Jokic’s shots are away from the rim. Think about it too hard and your brain will become putty. On direct actions, among all players who’ve completed at least 100 of them, Jokic ranks first in isolation, second in the post (shout-out to Domantas Sabonis), and fourth as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll. Great things happen for the Nuggets when Aaron Gordon sets a screen:
Are you into catchall advanced metrics? Jokic ranks or is tied for first in PER, win shares, BPM, VORP, estimated plus/minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s total RAPTOR. He’s third in ESPN’s real plus/minus.
Related to those figures, what about value? There’s a 20.9-point difference per 100 possessions when you look at how good the Nuggets are with Jokic on the floor versus how sorry they’ve been with him off it. That’s the second-largest gap in the league. (Two seasons ago, when he won his first MVP, the net difference was around a third of what it is now.)
The Nuggets register a plus-11.3 net rating with Jokic. The closest All-Stars to Jokic’s number are Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum, at 8.8 and 9.1, respectively. Denver also has the best offense in the NBA, which is nice. Dig deeper. Their attack is the most efficient in league history with Jokic (123.4 points per 100 possessions) and significantly worse than the intentionally terrible Rockets (more on them later) when he sits.
All condensed into plain English: Cleaning the Glass has a stat called “expected wins,” which estimates how many wins every player’s team would log considering their point differential. The Nuggets are a 67-win team with Jokic on the court and an 18-win team without him. Nobody else touches that 49-win gap. If all this keeps up, Jokic deserves to join Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to win its most prestigious individual award three straight times.
Jokic’s statistical profile is a dream, but the bottom line is nobody comes particularly close to elevating those around him like he does. The numbers are only exceeded by the eye test. On a basketball court, Jokic is neurodivergent. Nobody else thinks through a game like he does. Nobody else creates openings with their mind as effortlessly. He flows through every play possessed by an entrancing amalgamation of nonchalance, momentum, and flair. But nothing is for show. Every Jokic move is made at the altar of efficiency and he doesn’t need or even want to dominate the ball. It’s selfless dominance from someone who knows how to play basketball in its purest, most enjoyable form.
The pushback Jokic gets is usually centered on two fair points that intertwine: defense and the playoffs. Jokic is not a traditionally dominant paint presence. Other teams annually gash Denver at the rim when he’s on the court, and this year they’re converting a massive 70.2 percent of their shots in the one area every defense wants to protect.
Some of that is thanks to the void in Jokic’s body where “athleticism” would otherwise go. His legs aren’t the quickest, he doesn’t jump the highest, and if his two options are “pick up a foul” or “permit an open layup” he almost always opts for the latter. But Jokic is not a bad defender. He has fast hands, positions himself well, cuts off angles, and uses his girth as an advantage after a shot goes up and it’s time to grab the rebound. (He might be the best defensive rebounder in the sport.)
When he’s on the court, Denver has a top-10 defense. He functions in a scheme that frequently asks him to stay high with the ball handler in a pick-and-roll and then recover back to his original assignment after, ideally, Denver’s low man rotates over to provide cover. It’s a lot of work and forces constant rotation and movement, sometimes leaving Denver vulnerable from the corners. But when executed properly by everyone involved, with hard closeouts and coordinated x-outs on the weakside, it works.
According to Second Spectrum, the Nuggets allow 0.85 points per chance when Jokic is up to touch against a pick-and-roll. That’s 16th best out of 72 players who’ve defended at least 50 actions in that coverage. The Nuggets also allow 0.97 points per direct play when Jokic drops. That number is better than Brook Lopez and Myles Turner. This isn’t to suggest Jokic is better or close to as effective as those two defensively, and so much goes into those numbers that can’t be quantified (such as the many times Jokic has kicked a pocket pass out of bounds). But the point here is that he’s not a sieve. He’s not even a liability. Narratives die hard, though, especially false ones.
So far as the playoffs go, stuff happens that is beyond any one individual’s control. Jokic has never played with an All-Star and the most talented teammate he’s ever had missed the past two postseasons with a torn ACL. Last year—without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.—was the first time Jokic had ever been eliminated in the first round. He averaged 31 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
It’s not Jokic’s fault that Mason Plumlee botched the last play in Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference finals. Just like, when positing that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player alive because he closed out a Finals with 50 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks two years ago, we’ve collectively moved past the fact that Kevin Durant outplayed him two rounds prior; had KD’s shoe been one size smaller the Bucks would’ve, again, been a playoff disappointment.
Championships matter. Winning at the highest level is obviously very important. But using that criteria to denigrate an iconic all-time superstar who just so happens to play extremely well in the playoffs every year despite some terrible luck that’s out of his control is silly. Maybe some of this is a straw man rebuttal. I know lots of people think Jokic is amazing. But when I talk to people around the NBA about who the league’s best player is, Jokic’s name is often not the first name uttered. And when ESPN’s Tim Bontemps released his first MVP poll a few weeks ago, I was the only voter who had Jokic no. 1 on my fake ballot, despite so many of the numbers in this article still existing then as they are now.
There are so many incredible players vying for this award, but right now Jokic stands above them all. Giannis is a hurricane on defense who’s also averaging 31 points per game. But his team’s offense is substandard when he’s on the court, in part due to his own limitations. His effective field goal percentage is just about exactly league average and he still can’t make 3s or midrange jumpers despite taking several shots from those areas every night.
Be it Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, or Kevin Durant, Jokic is either more efficient, a vastly superior playmaker, or both. He’s as responsible for his team’s success as anyone in the league, without an overwhelming usage rate or need to pad his box score stats. He’s a season-high plus-63 in crunch time and the Nuggets are in first place. End rant!
Honorable mentions: Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, Kevin Durant
Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero
Let’s not get cute. Banchero is having a marvelous rookie season: 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 7.8 free throw attempts per game is nothing to sneeze at. And, frankly, little else should really matter all that much when talking about someone who turned 20 a couple of months ago, and upon entering the NBA was asked to lead a young, joy-starved franchise. Paolo is the only person in his class who could make the All-Star team next season and it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
Honorable mentions: Bennedict Mathurin, Walker Kessler, Jalen Williams
Coach of the Year: Joe Mazzulla
No coach—who hasn’t already been fired—stepped into this season with higher expectations under extraordinarily difficult circumstances than Mazzulla. As someone who’d never even been a lead assistant at the NBA level, Mazzulla replaced Ime Udoka on Boston’s sideline and, without Rob Williams III (their third most important player) for the opening 29 games, helped guide the Celtics to some of the best basketball they’ve played in years.
I could go on about Boston’s success and how its players have responded to Mazzulla’s leadership. But instead of diving in, I want to instead use this space to celebrate something extremely important that’s coincidentally happening right now among a few candidates for this award. There’s a dark crewneck sweater movement happening, and I’m extremely here for it. Mazzulla, Will Hardy, Mike Brown, Mark Daigneault, and a few other head coaches are pulling the look off wonderfully. If anyone wants to mail me one please let me know and we’ll talk sizing. Three-quarter-zip pullovers are a disease.
Honorable mentions: Willie Green, Jacque Vaughn, J.B. Bickerstaff
Most Blatant Tank Job: Houston Rockets
The evidence here is both comical and overwhelming. Exhibit A: Houston’s starting lineup has played 426 minutes—more than all but one five-man unit in the league—and been outscored by a league-worst 92 points. Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon, Alperen Sengun, and Jabari Smith Jr. What a crew. I understand seeing what you have, developing chemistry between compatible building blocks, and being patient. Wins aren’t what matter.
But in the third year of a rock-bottom rebuild, at some point, good habits need to be instilled and some indication of progress or improvement must be gleaned. Instead:
Their playing style is similar to the one adopted by my college rec league team, largely because none of us were in shape and most of us shotgunned Busch Lights 20 minutes before the game in the gym’s parking lot.
To use the phrase “reckless abandon” to describe how Houston goes after its own misses would be kind. They lead the league in offensive rebound rate because of it. It’s a fine strategy in a league full of teams that have mostly punted on second-chance opportunities. And Houston actually ranks 13th in transition frequency after they miss a shot (which is good!). But all that crashing has consequences, and helps contribute to the Rockets allowing more fast-break points than any other team.
Watch how many players charge the glass on this play. It’s basketball kamikaze!
It’s also intentional, which makes it a subtle way for the Rockets to lose without benching all of its best players and making a big show about their race to the bottom. They’ve had three wins in a month. They rank dead last in turnover rate and whenever they do cough it up the opposing team is virtually guaranteed a basket going the other way.
Everything is ugly. The Rockets embody bad decisions. They allow the second-most 3s per game in NBA history. But all this porous basketball will be worth it if Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson call Houston home for the next decade. Until then, it’s the NBA’s worst team racing to the bottom with what can be fairly described as “reckless abandon.”
Honorable mentions: Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs
Most Improved Player: Luka Doncic
I made the case here and, by a hair, stand with it. There are several other amazing candidates, though. Many listed in that column.
Honorable mentions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lauri Markkanen, Tyrese Haliburton
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Let’s start here: Jackson has blocked 83 shots in his first 26 games this season. That’s 3.2 per game—Rudy Gobert never averaged more than 2.7—and a whopping 4.4 blocks per 36 minutes. His block rate is an outrageous 11 percent. To put that number in context, if Jackson had played in enough games to qualify for the league’s all-time leaderboard, he would rank first.
He blocked eight shots in 24 minutes (!) against the Hawks. He swatted another five shots in 22 minutes (!!) in Denver a week later. The Grizzlies function as a top-five defense when Jackson is not in the game, a testament to their personnel and physicality. But when he’s on the court, their defensive rating falls to a pithy 102.6. That’s the lowest number among all players who are averaging at least 25 minutes per game this season.
A mobile solar eclipse, Jackson covers more ground than any other big. So many of his blocks aren’t the product of a scheme that funnels ball handlers towards him in the paint. Instead, he hunts his swats down, swooping across the paint and getting his hand on attempts very few can:
As seen on the play above, the Grizzlies don’t lose the ball after the block. Jackson leads the NBA with 3.49 recovered blocks per 100 possessions. When it comes to lowering opponents’ shooting percentages at the rim—it’s 10.9 percent lower when he’s on the floor—no big is having a bigger impact than JJJ. It doesn’t matter if he’s at the 4 beside Steven Adams or holding things down at center. If Jaren is nearby, you’re better off passing. Those who elect to shoot are making ony 39.2 percent of their attempts.
There are twitchier bigs on the perimeter, but Jackson swivels his hips when he’s on an island against speedy guards. And his closing speed on blow-bys makes no look at the rim feel like it’ll be a clean one. It’s almost futile to drive past him, even when the paint is clear.
The argument against giving him this award, and what may keep him from actually winning it, is playing time. Jackson has already missed 16 games and averages only 26.1 minutes. He’s committing fewer fouls per 100 possessions than ever before, but still hacks at a rate that’s kept him on the bench more often than the Grizzlies would like. Nevertheless, no individual has been as dominant or intimidating on that end. Jackson turns a pretty good defense into a bank vault.
Honorable mentions: Bam Adebayo, Alex Caruso, Nic Claxton
Sixth Man of the Year: Norm Powell
I don’t feel too strongly about this one. There are a bunch of solid candidates but no real standouts. Bennedict Mathurin might win as a rookie and he didn’t even crack my honorable mentions list. Hopefully someday we get to a place where the best reserves aren’t graded by how many points they score. But until then, Powell gets the nod because, as one of the cleanest catch-and-shoot threats in the league, he scores a bunch with a 62 true shooting percentage.
Sprint at him in a closeout and Powell is blasting off toward the basket to make something good happen. He isn’t a natural playmaker but can come off a ball screen, collapse the defense, and know where his outlets are. Powell started the season slowly and the Clippers aren’t exactly blowing the doors off opponents when he’s on the floor, but pound-for-pound he’s as dependable as anyone coming off a bench right now.
Honorable mentions: Malcolm Brogdon, Tyus Jones, Russell Westbrook
Dunk of the Year: Aaron Gordon Over Landry Shamet
Before we get into why this is the obvious winner of my favorite make-believe award, let’s first go through a few other candidates.
1. Shaedon Sharpe has two entries and you could argue for a couple others. But several aerospace engineers told me they found these two putbacks to be particularly inspiring:
2. Ben Simmons owes Joe Harris 200 dinners for doing him dirty like this. Bam Adebayo continues to be a delight:
3. I watched all of Zion’s dunks to prepare for this. My two favorites were his annihilation of Walker Kessler and this double-pump through Bo Cruz, where after eluding a blitz put on by Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby (who does that?) he drives baseline, takes off from outside the lane, double-pumps in midair to avoid the block, and somehow still finishes with a thunderclap:
4. Ja Over Jakob: The Sequel
There’s no “Dunk of the Year” list without at least one entry from Ja Morant, who deserves his own list. If Poeltl decides to never step foot in Tennessee again, no one should blame him:
And then a few days later he uncorked this:
EVERY ANGLE OF JA MORANT'S UNBELIEVABLE DUNK OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE ️ pic.twitter.com/8u1j6ZNH3F— NBA (@NBA) January 15, 2023
Every dunk above is great. None was in overtime to essentially put away a Christmas Day game. Aaron Gordon yanked a pin out of a grenade and then spiked it as hard as humanly possible. It’s hard to top:
Honorable mentions: See above
Most Disappointing Team: Atlanta Hawks
A few months ago I wrote a column titled “Nineteen Increasingly Bold Predictions for the 2022-23 NBA Season.” In it was a sentence about the Hawks that has aged beautifully: “I love everything about this team.” Coming off a campaign in which they owned the second-best offense in basketball, I assumed they’d mostly sustain what they were, if not eventually improve upon it, having essentially replaced Kevin Huerter with Dejounte Murray. (Keeping Huerter would’ve been cool too, but I digress.)
Instead, they’ve plummeted to the bottom third. There are 10 teams in the East with a higher net rating. Young’s outside shot has mysteriously abandoned him, and as a team they rank 27th in 3-point accuracy and 29th in 3-point rate. How much of that antiquated shot selection is to blame for Atlanta’s uneasy season is up for debate. But it certainly qualifies as at least one stitch in an ugly sweater. The Hawks are a mess, to the point where Nate McMillan has reportedly considered resigning from his position as head coach (a report refuted vociferously by Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, but not by McMillan himself.)
Their season isn’t over. There’s still time for the Hawks to get healthy and right the ship; their usual starting five has a plus-10.8 net rating in 19 games. If Trae Young starts making shots—including from the midrange, where his percentages have plummeted—and they swing a trade that creates better spacing, at 21-22, only 3.5 games behind the sixth-seeded Knicks, playoff basketball is not impossible. (Young’s shot splits have been trending in the right direction for about a month.)
But for that to happen, Atlanta would first need to cure what might be the worst vibes (on a team that’s actually trying to win) in the league. Even if Trae makes 25 logo 3s in a row, it wouldn’t solve stuff like this:
It would not fix the fact that they rank 29th in assist rate, either. And if Young doesn’t even make the All-Star team averaging about 27 points and 10 assists per game, what even is he right now? A supremely gifted pick-and-roll playmaker? Yes. One of the premier offensive weapons in basketball? Absolutely. But he’s also not quite good enough to be intractable. Young is running 10 fewer pick-and-rolls per game this year, which makes some sense with Murray onboard. But he’s also coming off fewer off-ball screens than in 2021-22, per Second Spectrum. The percentage of his shots that are catch-and-shoot 3s is lower than it was two seasons ago, and only four players have a higher usage rate. “Fatally flawed franchise player” is an oxymoron, but might be the best way to describe what Young has looked like this season.
Away from the court, Atlanta’s hierarchy is in flux. Think of them as a cruise ship that decided to change its entire deck crew in the face of a brewing storm. The Hawks recently underwent significant turnover in their front office. Their general manager is currently 34-year-old Landry Fields instead of Travis Schlenk, an experienced hand responsible for building a team that was a few unlucky breaks from reaching the NBA Finals two years ago. Atlanta has too much talent and potential to be considered rudderless, but they also lack any encouraging direction.
On top of it all: Ownership is somewhat stingy and glaringly impatient, a double whammy that’s hard to overcome when demonstrated in the same offseason. Trading Huerter to duck a tax bill was shameful. The jury remains out on Murray’s ultimate cost and fit, but three first-round picks is a lot for anyone who functions at the same position as your best player.
Issues are deep. According to a report in The Athletic published Friday, Hawks owner Tony Ressler’s 27-year-old son, Nick Ressler, now has one of the strongest voices in the organization, and it could undo the once-promising Young era before it has a chance to really peak.
That would be unfortunate. There’s a world where the Hawks are awesome now with an even brighter future. Onyeka Okongwu, AJ Griffin, and Jalen Johnson are all promising and all under 23. De’Andre Hunter is 25 and quietly having a monster month. The eminently valuable Clint Capela has been around forever but is still only 28 years old!
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s time for the Hawks to turn things around, get in the playoffs, and push one of the conference’s top teams to the brink. There’s also time for things to get way uglier than they’ve already been.
Honorable mentions: Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns
Stats are current through Saturday’s games.