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NBA First Quarter Awards: MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved, and More

With 20 or so games in the books for each team, it’s time to hand out some hardware to the players (and coaches) who’ve stood out most so far

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’ve hit the 25 percent mark of the 2023-24 NBA season, which means it’s time to hand out some awards. MVP, Most Improved, Rookie of the Quarter, and more are up for grabs. Note that these aren’t revised award predictions, but rather evaluations based on the first 20-ish games alone.

Most Valuable Player

Michael Pina: This award belongs to Nikola Jokic. He’s far and away the most important, skilled, and dominant player in the sport, head and shoulders above a league that might have more talent than ever before. Jokic is first in total rebounds, third in total points, and second in total assists. That defies logic and precedent.

He isn’t as efficient as last year and is less accurate around the rim and behind the arc than normal. But that’s understandable when you consider how much higher his usage rate is (up about 6 percent from last year) and the fact that he’s leading the NBA in field goal attempts. Here are Jokic’s per-game numbers: 28.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.6 assists. He leads the NBA in a barrelful of catch-all metrics (win shares, VORP, box plus-minus, estimated wins, DARKO, etc.), while his turnover rate has plummeted.

A case can be made for several great players who are off to incredible starts this season—Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrese Haliburton, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, to name a few. But there’s only one MVP. Because there’s only one Nikola Jokic.

Howard Beck: Is it boring to type “Nikola Jokic” here? Fine, call me boring. Look, at this early date, you could name a half dozen perfectly reasonable candidates. Reigning MVP Embiid might be better than he was last season. Tatum, SGA, Luka, and Giannis are all dominating, per usual. Haliburton has certainly earned some “in the MVP conversation” love. But I’ll go with Jokic, who is scoring at a career-high clip, leading the league in rebounding, and again flirting with averaging a triple-double. His efficiency has dipped a tad, but that’s mostly because he’s carrying a heavier load during Jamal Murray’s extended absence.

Danny Chau: Jokic. As an aside, I’ve been on a bit of a Matsuo Basho kick lately—this is my second reference to the 17th-century Japanese haikuist on The Ringer in a week. It happens from time to time, around year’s end: Reading austere Zen poems serves as a sort of reset for the mind. I hope you don’t mind if I present one, as translated by Robert Hass:

The oak tree:
not interested
in cherry blossoms.

Rob Mahoney: I’m willing to hear arguments for a select few, but right now nothing is moving me off of picking Jokic, a masterful orchestrator doing about as much to lift his team as any player could. Jokic has carried a hefty tactical burden for Denver this season, engineering all manner of quality offense no matter which of his teammates are on the floor. His influence on the game has never been clearer; on most nights, you can see Jokic pointing his teammates through the choreography of a possession, guiding them into cuts and screens until a wide-open look suddenly reveals itself. Those are the results Jokic wants, but this season he’s also been more accepting of the fact that sometimes the best offense isn’t quite so elegant. There’s a time for the beautiful game, and there’s a time to bust the ass of the dude right in front of you. The happy medium between those approaches has brought about the best, most balanced version of Jokic yet: not as purely efficient as in seasons past, but assertive in a way that’s made him more dangerous than ever.

Zach Kram: This isn’t as much of a slam dunk choice as it would’ve been a week ago, before Jokic suffered through the worst two-game stretch of his career. But he’s still the best all-around player in the league and its most irreplaceable star: Denver is 24.3 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic on the court this season, per Cleaning the Glass—the best differential among players with at least 250 minutes.

Defensive Player of the Quarter

Beck: Remember when we used to say Rudy Gobert was a walking top-10 defense? As if you could just plug him into any lineup, anywhere, and instantly make that team elite? It would seem that guy is back. And he’s helped turn Minnesota into the league’s most suffocating defense—perhaps vindicating the most controversial trade of the past half decade. Maybe Gobert isn’t quite at the same athletic and activity levels we saw during his peak Utah years, but it’s close enough. He’s blocking 2.5 shots per game, his highest rate since 2020-21, and just generally looks bouncier than he did last season, his first with the Wolves.

Kram: Gobert. The centerpiece of the best defense in the NBA always deserves close consideration for this award—doubly so when that best defense is powering the team with the best regular-season record. Only the Warriors are allowing fewer points at the basket than Minnesota this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats (and Minnesota might be no. 1 if not for a weird quirk of tracking at Warriors games), and Gobert’s the main reason. He scares opponents away from even attempting too many shots near the basket, and when they do decide to test the three-time DPOY, they don’t often succeed. Opponents are shooting only 48 percent at the rim when Gobert is the closest defender; only Walker Kessler (47 percent) has been better among players with at least 100 shots defended.

Pina: This was a coin flip between Anthony Davis and Gobert (the top defender on the best defensive team). I ultimately settled on AD. His rim protection is ridiculous. He might be the fiercest rebounder in the league. He can disrupt pick-and-rolls, block shots outside the restricted area, and control entire games without scoring a basket.

When he’s the closest defender to a shot in the paint, opponents make just 45.4 percent of their attempts. That’s the second-lowest mark in the league among all players who’ve defended at least 100 of them, per Second Spectrum; his on-off impact is seen when you look at how much less successful shooters are at the rim and in the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass.

Davis is comfortable all over the floor, switching out on the perimeter or stifling a post-up. His wingspan and timing are an unreasonable deterrent, while he does as good a job as anyone at concealing mistakes made by teammates—like D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and Christian Wood—who regularly need his assistance. Even LeBron James, on possessions when the 19-time All-Star needs a break, is thankful for AD’s back-line security.

Chau: Gobert. One of the perks of assessing the defining players by each quarter season is simply eliminating the anxiety of a future that has not yet presented itself. How Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and multi-time postseason scapegoat, will fare in a best-of-seven series has no bearing on the monumental impact he’s had in year two in Minnesota. Gobert’s absurd length on defense has always influenced airspace and pick-and-roll navigation, but it’s different in Minnesota. Utah’s rotations were often lopsided, overcompensating for perceived holes in its offense while leaving Gobert on an island. A whole season of familiarity has helped Minnesota coalesce its defensive philosophy around Gobert and the latent defensive talent around him—and that’s been largely without defensive polymath Jaden McDaniels so far this season. After years of serving as the jaws of a hyper-funnel defense, Gobert is no longer the be-all, end-all. And, word to Wemby, Gobert’s playing free in that universe. He can exhale and feel secure in the reality of the Wolves’ blistering start: On a league-best defense that overwhelms with length across the board, Gobert remains the King of Limbs.

Mahoney: Gobert’s return to form has changed everything for the Wolves, seeing as their top-ranked defense doesn’t really function without him; it’s his size that makes Minnesota so sturdy in rotation, and his grasp of the game that makes a jumbo-sized front line work through all its complicated dynamics. McDaniels and Anthony Edwards can be aggressive in pursuit when they have a 7-foot safety net behind them. Karl-Anthony Towns might not always have an ideal defensive matchup, but every assignment is a collaboration with the rim-protecting center who makes his life easier. It’s remarkable how much Gobert is able to contest without fouling and how many opponents are turned away from the rim by the mere fact that he looms so large around it. That might be the best endorsement of Gobert as the premier defensive player in the league thus far: When in doubt, trust in the fact that no driver seems to want anything to do with him.

Rookie of the Quarter

Mahoney: It’s a thorny proposition to compare Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama given the vast differences in their roles, but I err toward Holmgren based on the fact that he’s delivered on everything the Thunder have asked of him and more. Are some parts of his job simpler because he’s playing with an All-NBA teammate in a more fully realized lineup? Of course. But Chet is one of the definitive reasons that lineup works so well in the first place and why the Thunder have climbed their way up the West standings ahead of schedule. Working as a modern big isn’t easy—Holmgren just makes it look that way, navigating through all sorts of actions on both sides of the ball with remarkable ease. It’s one thing for a player of Holmgren’s size to have this much skill. It’s quite another when that player, at 21 years old, seems to intuitively understand how to put all of those skills to best use.

Chau: Holmgren. He’s been everything that was promised, and then some. A 7-foot-1 space-erasing leviathan who is tied for second in the league in block percentage (and is behind only fellow rookie Victor Wembanyama)—and who also drills catch-and-shoot 3s at a 42 percent clip and hits free throws at a higher percentage than Trae Young. Holmgren’s presence on both ends of the floor has elevated a postseason hopeful to one of the best teams out West. He’s in a two-horse race with Wemby, one of the greatest theoretical wonders in professional sports history, but a quarter of the way through the season, it’s OKC’s application of Holmgren that has been one of the brightest developments.

Pina: Apologies to Holmgren (and future Hall of Fame inductee Jaime Jaquez Jr.), but what Wembanyama is doing, on a team that clearly does not want to win games, is more impressive to me at the quarter mark. Efficiency matters. Winning matters. Holmgren has a significant edge in both those areas, and if he and Wembanyama stay on their current trajectories for the rest of this season, I’ll probably give Chet my Rookie of the Year vote. But right now, the contextual divergence in their respective situations is too wide to ignore. Degree of difficulty matters, too.

Holmgren is a full-time center surrounded by 3-point shooters, competent (at worst) individual and team defenders, and an MVP candidate in OKC’s backcourt. His usage is way lower than Wembanyama’s—whose usage is higher than LeBron’s and Damian Lillard’s—and his role is more clearly defined. In San Antonio, Wemby spends nearly 67 percent of his minutes beside another big man. His starting point guard, every night, is someone who’s still learning how to play the position. Devin Vassell, the Spurs’ highest-paid player, came off the bench for five straight games after his return from a three-game injury-related absence. In San Antonio, it’s a season defined by “development,” which is code for a deprioritization of winning basketball.

The Spurs defense goes from by far the league’s worst to about average when Wembanyama is on the court. That’s one of the more positive impacts any player is having on that end this season. As a deterrent, his effect on shot frequency at the rim ranks in the 99th percentile, and players shoot much worse than would otherwise be expected when defended by Wemby.

Even though his own team often props up greater obstacles than the other team ever could, Wembanyama is already one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the world. He’s nearly averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game. That sounds like a Rookie of the Year.

Kram: Holmgren and Wembanyama have posted roughly comparable surface stats this season. But one of them is doing so on 52/38/88 shooting splits, as the second-best player for one of the best teams in the league; the other is much less efficient (43/25/81 splits) for the worst team in the West. Given his two-way performance and broader team context, Holmgren shouldn’t just be the new Rookie of the Year favorite—he should probably be an All-Star, too.

Beck: In an alternate universe—one where Wembanyama was born a year later, or took up pickleball instead of hoops—we’d all be gushing and oohing and ahhing over Holmgren and calling him a mutant alien unicorn who will change the course of history and cure cancer along the way. In this timeline, it’s Wemby who’s generating all the wild hyperbole as a transformational 7-footer, but it’s Chet who’s having the better rookie season. Wembanyama has a modest lead in scoring and rebounding, but they’re dead even in most other box score stats, and Holmgren is by far the more efficient scorer (albeit aided by a stronger surrounding cast) and a major reason the Thunder are a top-four team in the West.

Most Improved Player

Chau: Haliburton. I’ve said my piece about how special Haliburton is. But some of the figures bear mentioning and repeating—he is on historic pace on multiple fronts. No one in NBA history has ever averaged as many points and assists per game as he has through 18 regular-season games. No one has ever averaged as many assists as he has and turned the ball over as infrequently. Only Steph Curry and Duncan Robinson have finished a season shooting 44 percent from 3 on at least eight attempts per game. The transition from star to superstar is the most difficult leap there is in professional sports. Haliburton received one All-NBA third-team vote last season; he’d be one of the strongest candidates for first team if the season ended today. It’s hard to think of a bigger improvement than that.

Mahoney: It’s a bit passé to point out that Tyrese Maxey picked up right where James Harden left off, but I think we need to punctuate the fact that a 23-year-old guard with minimal on-ball experience has functionally replaced a future Hall of Famer and then some. It’s honestly ridiculous. Maxey has turned himself into one of the toughest covers in the league by yo-yoing defenders out of balance this season, rocking them on their heels with the threat of the drive and then reeling them back in with his stepback 3. That dilemma plays out like a Harden iso at 1.5x speed—trading the methodical for the explosive. Yet somehow, Maxey has managed to rev up the Sixers’ new, rebalanced offense without many missteps at all. The stakes in Philly were high going into this season. The degree of difficulty for Maxey, in particular, was considerable. You’d just never know it from his clean, easy production en route to one of the least dramatic Sixers seasons in recent memory.

Pina: To leap from “intriguing All-Star and franchise point guard” to “driving force behind a historically efficient offense who’s on pace to have a better season than two-time MVP Steve Nash ever had” is worth some type of award. Compared to his magnificent breakout season in 2022-23, Haliburton is averaging 5.6 more points and 1.9 more assists per game (bringing him to a league-best 12.3). His usage and true shooting percentage are both up, while his turnover rate is down; there might not be three better offensive players in the league.

Last year I voted for Gilgeous-Alexander, who made a similar status jump. Haliburton has become a superstar in every sense of the word, improving in ways that completely alter the trajectory of both his career and his team. It’s not easy, it’s far from inevitable, and it doesn’t happen very often. If Hali’s numbers are sustained over the next few months, his name will be etched on the Most Improved Player trophy, backed by a unanimous vote.

Beck: Maxey was my preseason pick, and he’s doing everything possible to validate it by averaging career highs across the board: 27.0 points (up from 20.3 last season), 6.7 assists (up from 3.5), and 4.1 rebounds (up from 2.9) per game. He’s also taking (and making) more free throws. You could qualify it all by saying that Maxey is benefiting from more minutes and responsibility, but that’s also the backbone of his case. He’s earned the Sixers’ faith—and made everyone quickly forget about that perpetually discontented dude with the bushy beard who forced his way to L.A.

Kram: Before the season, I predicted that Maxey would win this award because he averaged 27 points and six assists per 75 possessions when playing without Harden last season. Well, what do you know—Maxey’s now averaging 27 points and seven assists per game, while retaining his strong efficiency numbers. Advanced stats like box plus-minus rate Maxey as a top-10 offensive player this season; he hasn’t made just the largest leap of any player in 2023-24, but also one of the largest leaps in NBA history.

Sixth Man of the Quarter

Beck: It’s hard to stand out on a team headlined by LeBron (especially when he defies the laws of physics on a near-nightly basis), but Austin Reaves somehow does it. He’s been the Lakers’ third-most important player, a reliable playmaker, shooter, and clutch-time performer who once again proved his value during the in-season tournament. Reaves is averaging career highs in scoring, assists, and rebounds, but the most illuminating stat is this: The Lakers are 11-4 since Reaves joined the second unit (after a 3-5 start).

Chau: Cole Anthony, who has blossomed as a sort of new-age Lou Williams in Orlando. In his fourth season, with a consistent role and a more assured sense of self as a player, Anthony’s shot diet and craftwork have improved significantly. Where many contemporaries of his ilk have become Moreyball automatons—3-point specialists with explosive play finishing around the rim, but not much in between—at only 6-foot-2 Anthony has become a true three-level scorer. He has great touch from the midrange and on floaters; has strong legs, balance, and in-air body control on forays around the rim; and is (rather unfortunately) one of the team’s most reliable options from behind the arc. Lining up alongside gifted playmakers up and down the positional spectrum has both alleviated the pressure of running point and given him a freer license to make plays for others. An impressive quarter season from a relatively unexpected challenger to the award.

Kram: Isaiah Joe. The best on-off differential in the league among players with at least 250 minutes, per CtG, belongs to Jokic; second is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shares many of his minutes with Jokic. In fourth place is LeBron. But in third, nestled right at the top of the leaderboard, is Joe, who was waived by the 76ers just 14 months ago and is now helping propel the Thunder to the top of the standings. Joe’s a tremendous shooter (44 percent on 10 attempts per 36 minutes) and capable defender, and the Thunder are 23.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. Between SGA for MVP, Holmgren for Rookie of the Year, Mark Daigneault for Coach of the Year, and Joe here, the Thunder could nearly sweep the award ballot through the quarter mark.

Mahoney: Alex Caruso might not be eligible for this award for much longer, so let’s give credit where it’s due while we still can. It’s abundantly clear from Caruso’s impact on the game that he should have been starting for the Bulls in the first place. Not many bench players are this hellacious on defense or this savvy on offense, and those that are typically don’t make (a career-best-by-a-mile) 46 percent of their 3s. There just isn’t a possession that goes by where Caruso isn’t blowing up an opponent’s plan or building meaningfully on whatever Chicago has in store, turning up winning connective plays as if they’re second nature. This award almost always goes to a more productive scorer than Caruso (who’s averaging a modest 9.5 points), and players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cole Anthony have strong cases in their own right. They’re just not shaping games the way Caruso is—as evidenced by the fact that Chicago really couldn’t afford to keep him on the bench anymore.

Pina: Isaiah Joe’s individual numbers—10.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game—don’t make him an obvious candidate for any award. Who cares? He’s a plus-minus prince. The Thunder have outscored opponents by 203 points when Joe is on the court, which is far and away higher than the rate for every other bench player in the league and tied (with fellow Thunder guard Gilgeous-Alexander) for first among all players in the league.

There’s noise here, sure. It’s miles from a coincidence, though. Joe is a consummate spark off the bench, not just because of how he scores, but because of the gravity he brings into OKC’s offense without ever turning the ball over. Thanks to his quick release and ability to knock 25-footers down on the move—Joe’s shooting 44.1 percent from behind the arc—slip screens with Joe and either Gilgeous-Alexander or Jalen Williams are impossible to guard.

He isn’t a one-way player, either. Joe has great hands and quick feet. He rotates on time, has terrific instincts, and never hesitates when it’s time to take a charge. This isn’t the most talented player coming off the bench right now, but it’s hard to find anyone who makes life easier for all his teammates on both ends of the court.

Coach of the Quarter

Beck: The Timberwolves have the NBA’s best record. Yes, the team in Minneapolis, the place with all the lakes and skyways and such. That one. I repeat, the Timberwolves—the franchise with ZERO playoff series victories in the past 20 years—has the NBA’s best record. In December! So let’s give the fictional quarter award to Chris Finch, who has deftly melded Gobert with Towns in year two of that oft-criticized experiment, while carefully shepherding the superstardom of Edwards. We knew the Wolves could be legitimately good this season. But contending-for-top-seeding-in-the-West good? Truly impressive.

Chau: Jamahl Mosley. What the Magic have become is such a far cry from the bottom-feeding team that Mosley inherited in his first two seasons on the job: In that span, only the Pistons and Rockets had lost more games than the Magic. The Orlando Magic are the fourth-youngest team in the NBA—and that’s with a 36-year-old Joe Ingles weighing the average down. Despite that, they are one of the three best defenses in the NBA thus far, outscoring teams at a top-five rate per 100 possessions. It’s a true testament to Mosley’s structure and management that the Magic have been able to maintain coherence and consistency in their lineup effectiveness even with significant injuries to two starters in Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter Jr., and it’s a true reflection of the culture instilled when the Magic beam with ebullience on a nightly basis after busting ass at home, where they’re 11-2. After years in the wilderness reaching for max reach, Orlando finally has something worth holding on to.

Mahoney: Mark Daigneault. Getting a young team up to speed and fully synergized is one of the most challenging jobs in basketball—a battle against the ambitions of an entire roster. When every player has something to prove, the game plan can easily drift out of focus. Not so for the Thunder. You don’t see players swerving out of their lanes in OKC, which is a testament to the vision that Daigneault has sold his players—a vision the Thunder are already bringing to fruition. Daigneault has this team playing with a perfect blend of confidence and discretion—pushing the limits of what it can be while turning the ball over less often than almost any other team in the league. It’s not just the jump in wins that should get him the nod for Coach of the Year. It’s the way the Thunder are winning, paying off every time the organization refused an easier, quicker path for the sake of building something real.

Kram: Despite injuries to multiple starters and a roster almost devoid of shooting, the Magic are tied for second in the Eastern standings and fifth in the league in net rating. With patience and a sunny outlook, Mosley’s molded an elite defense out of youngsters, which is no small feat; he knows and leans into his team’s strengths and crafts game plans to limit its weaknesses. His players love him. That’s all you can ask from a coach.

Pina: Mosley. The Magic are 16-7, tied for second place, and this season’s most pleasant surprise. They have wins over the Celtics, Nuggets, and Pacers, with one of the best defenses in the league and an offense that somehow lives at the rim despite its dearth of 3-point threats.

On television, most Magic games are elevated by Mosley’s voice as it booms from the sideline. Listening to him bark instructions at his young team, then watching, in real time, as they respond, is a joy within the action. “High hands!” “Over!” “Stay home!” “Deny!” “Load up!” Mosley is far from the only coach who does this, but his commitment coalesces with an infectious energy that makes it seem like he’s in the fight. Magic players react as such. You almost root for them to follow his lead, and it’s so satisfying when they do. That’s good coaching.