We're ramping up for the final stretch of the NBA season!
We're nearly three-quarters of the way through, which seems like
a good time to update where I am with each award race. With roughly
20 games to go for just about everyone, there's still plenty of
time for things to shift in the standings and (fake) award
Much like the first edition, I'm going to
follow the ballot rules as closely as possible — top-five in MVP,
top-three for Rookie of the Year, so on and so forth. For the team
awards, players have to be voted in at the positions they play the
most, which really makes picking the All-NBA and All-Defensive
teams tougher than it has to be. In a perfect world, both teams
would be positionless; at the very least, they'd give us the same
backcourt/frontcourt designations as the All-Star teams.
That isn't the world we live in — at least not yet — so those
won't be the rules I follow.
For those who aren't familiar with my award thought process, the
number of games played matters to me. I generally set the bar at
60% of games played for me to even give you thought; in a league as
talented as this one, there has to be a way to limit the pool.
That's an easy one for me, and I understand if you disagree with
it. For the purposes of this article, that means a 37-game minimum
to even qualify.
Also, you can insert the obligatory "I don't hate your favorite
player/team, I am simply higher on the player/team that I listed"
Let's have some more fun.
All stats are for games played since Dec. 14, unless
Previous order (through Dec.14):
- Jayson Tatum
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Nikola Jokic
- Stephen Curry
- Luka Doncic
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Since the first check-in, Jokic has averaged 25.2 points, 12.8
rebounds, 10.7 assists (3.7 turnovers) and 1.3 steals across a
32-game sample. The Nuggets have gone 26-6 in that stretch, good
for an 81.3% win percentage. They've outscored opponents by 396
points in Jokic's minutes, which is the highest cumulative
plus-minus in the league.
His efficiency numbers have been off the chart: 73.0% on shots
at the rim, 60.0% on mid-range shots and a 48.2% clip from three on
low volume. His 71.2% True Shooting percentage is literally unheard
of with a player of his workload.
Defensively, Jokic has mostly held his own. The Nuggets have
been defending at *checks notes* a top-five rate — 111.4 defensive
rating, excluding garbage time, per Cleaning The Glass — with Jokic
on the floor.
It's worth repeating that Jokic is
a limited defender, not a bad one. He's been a
mess in drop coverage. Get him up to the level or higher — where
he's most comfortable utilizing his size, length and quick hands —
and the Nuggets have been legitimately good. Some numbers from
Second Spectrum since Dec. 14:
- Jokic in drop coverage (269 picks): 1.04 PPP, 37th among 52
players with at least 100 picks defended
- Jokic at the level (452 picks): 0.903 PPP, 12th among 55
players with at least 100 picks defended
The box score checks out. Efficiency numbers check out. The
advanced numbers — he leads the NBA in Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM),
Estimated Wins (EW) and FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR metric among
others — certainly check out. The record checks out, as his Nuggets
lead the Western Conference by 5.5 games right now; they're also
one game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the league's best
Nobody should declare the race over, but it's fair to dub Jokic
as the front-runner.
Next Up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid,
Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic
I continue to flip-flop between Embiid and Giannis. As of today,
I'll give Giannis a cat-whisker's edge. Embiid has a slight edge in
games played (29 to 26) during this stretch, and he's had a
slightly better offensive season overall. Giannis has been a better
(or at least, more consistent) defender and is on a wild offensive
run himself, and it's hard to argue against a 15-game winning
streak that has put the Bucks atop the NBA.
The work Giannis has done in a less-than-ideal context has been
remarkable. He's been without his best pick-and-roll partner in
Khris Middleton for most of the season and hasn't always had Jrue
Holiday by his side. He's leaned more into his jumper, to
less-than-stellar results. And still, teams just haven't been able
to stop him.
Giannis remains a battering ram at the rim; he's drawn shooting
fouls on a preposterous 25.3% of his shot attempts during this run
— and 24.6% overall this season, per Cleaning The Glass. Those are
career-high marks for him. The playmaking, especially when driving
against the "wall," remains quality.
He's been a monster defensively, with teams converting roughly
53% of their shots at the rim with Giannis nearby this season —
seventh among 50 players defending at least four shots per
game at the rim.
Embiid's two-way dominance speaks for itself. He's averaging
32.8 points on 63.9% True Shooting over his past 29 games. Though
his mid-range shooting has tailed off some from the beginning of
the year, he remains a terror in the middle of the floor. And any
drop-off he's seen in mid-range efficiency has been balanced out by
living — and thriving — at the free-throw line. Dominating to this
degree while having his (budding) star guards in and out of the
lineup adds some style points.
What's also been fun is watching Embiid patrol the back line.
He's had some tantalizing flashes playing higher up in ball-screen
coverages and has blown stuff up. But on a more quiet note, he's
been directing traffic and making offenses uncomfortable just by
being in the right
Tatum has continued to chug along, ranking fourth in minutes per
game (37.7) during this stretch. The box score has remained stellar
— 30.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists (3.1 turnovers) and 1.0
steals — while the Celtics are mere hours away from reclaiming the
best record in the league.
He's lost a little steam around the margins. Most of it isn't
his fault; the Jokic/Embiid/Giannis triumvirate has simply been
that good while not being drastically off the winning
pace. Some of it is on Tatum. His pull-up triples
haven't fallen at a high clip
(28.3% on 5.1 attempts), putting his still-great overall efficiency
behind those ahead of him during this run. By effective
field goal percentage and TS%:
- Jokic: 67.0% eFG, 71.2% TS
- Embiid: 55.3% eFG, 63.9% TS
- Giannis: 56.5% eFG, 60.5% TS
- Tatum: 52.4% eFG, 59.4% TS
It also doesn't help that, in a race this close, Tatum seemingly
went from, "Keep an eye out for his All-Defense case," to, "Eh, we
know he's good when he ramps it up," based on some of his off-ball
work. Still, it's been a tremendous campaign for Tatum so far.
It feels odd having Doncic as a distant fifth, but only being a
game out of Play-In Tournament territory — and having his defensive
effort slip to the degree it has recently — puts him behind the 8
Ball. Obviously, Doncic has been incredible offensively, holding
the title as the only player that ranks in the top 10 in scoring
(33.2, first) and assists (8.1, eighth) this season.
Defensive Player of the
Previous order (through Dec. 14):
- Brook Lopez
- OG Anunoby
- Jarrett Allen
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
In the first edition, I noted that Jackson — who was barely an
honorable mention due to games played — would find himself high on
the list if he stayed healthy and continued defending at the level
he was showing at the time.
It's safe to say he's done that, and the Grizzlies have
flourished defensively because of it.
Since the first check-in, the Bucks have had the eighth-best
half-court defense in the league (97.5 DRTG), per Cleaning The
Glass; not only are the Grizzlies No. 1, but they also have the
Bucks beaten by six fewer points per 100 possessions allowed (91.2
DRTG). The primary driver of that success has been JJJ, whose
ground coverage and shot-blocking instincts have turned the
Grizzlies' interior into a no-fly zone.
During that same stretch, Jackson has led the NBA in blocks per
game (3.1) while generally affecting shots at the rim at an elite
level. Among 51 players defending at least four shots at the rim
per game, the 44.9% clip allowed by Jackson is the lowest in the
league. Not only that — it's nearly six percentage points better
than Lopez (50.6%, fourth).
It's fair to quibble about the fouls (4.5 per 36 minutes) and
what that does to his minute count (27.3 overall, 27.6 since Dec.
14). It's also worth noting that this is the lowest foul rate of
Jackson's career, and that some of the low-minute stuff is due to
blowouts instead of foul trouble.
You shouldn't write his name in pen — I sure won't right now —
but it's fair to consider him the front-runner.
Next Up: Bam Adebayo, Brook Lopez
An honorable mention in the first edition, Adebayo rises due to
his versatile-and-quiet work. Teams have worked to keep him out of
action; gone are the days where Adebayo leads the NBA in isolations
defended or ball-screens switched. They know what Adebayo can do,
so they attempt to stash him elsewhere.
What that's done, however, is allow his teammates to get more
aggressive. The Miami Heat have led the NBA in opposing
turnover rate (16.9%) over this stretch, and barely trail the
Toronto Raptors (16.8 to 16.6) for the top spot when zooming out
for the entire season. Having pass-lane thieves like Jimmy Butler
and Victor Oladipo is a luxury, but they're even more empowered
because of Adebayo's presence and ability to cover ground when
But when Adebayo is attacked, he remains virtually impenetrable; the 0.88
points per possession (PPP) allowed on trips featuring an isolation
against him is a top-10 mark in the league, per Second
Lopez continues to do his job: Contest more shots than anyone, block a
pair of shots (2.1) and act as the foundational piece of the Bucks'
drop coverage scheme. He slides mostly due to what the two ahead of
him have done; that's not his fault.
It is worth noting the drop with Lopez has
been hit a little more often. Possessions featuring a ball-screen
defended by Lopez have generated 1.012 PPP over the past two
months. That ranks 43rd among 63 players to defend at least 300
picks during that time frame.
Compare that to Jackson (0.972 PPP) and Adebayo (0.935 PPP) —
and consider the layer of perimeter defense they can provide that
Lopez doesn't — and it feels fair to move Lopez down a couple of
On My Mind: Nic Claxton, Jarrett Allen, Giannis
Rookie of the
Previous order (through Dec. 14):
- Paolo Banchero
- Bennedict Mathurin
- Jaden Ivey
Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Banchero is still leading all rookies in scoring (19.7 points
per game) while ranking fourth in rebounds (6.6) and assists (3.6)
per game. His efficiency has dropped quite a bit since mid-December
(18.4 points on 50.5% TS), but it isn't enough to put a real dent
in his lead.
Next Up: Jalen Williams, Bennedict Mathurin
We have a new No. 2!
Williams was a late riser during the draft cycle, made an early
impression during NBA Summer League and didn't waste much time
snagging a starting spot. Since becoming the full-time starter on
Dec. 12, he's posted averages of 13.5 points on 57.5% TS (league
average is 58.0%), 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists (1.6 turnovers) and
1.6 steals per contest.
He's been a bundle of energy on both ends, attacking the basket
with fervor and showing no hesitancy to get into a guy's jersey
defensively. He's a heady cutter and a creative ball-mover when
given the opportunity too. It looks like the Oklahoma City Thunder
nailed this pick.
Mathurin hasn't been able to find his shooting stroke from the
first month-and-a-half of the season, where he drained 40.3% of his
triples on nearly six attempts. Even without the shot falling,
Mathurin's been able to remain a threat because of his unrelenting
— and sometimes overaggressive — attacks on the rim. The way he
chews up space, against a tilted defense or as a cutter, remains
On My Mind: Walker Kessler, Jaden Ivey
Sixth Man of the
Previous order (through Dec. 14):
- Bobby Portis
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Jose Alvarado
Malcolm Brogdon, Boston Celtics
In the first edition, I noted that Brogdon would have a great
case to win if he stayed healthy. Sure enough, he's only missed
four games compared to 11 for Portis since then.
Brogdon continued to ball out over that stretch, posting quality
box-score numbers — 15.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists (1.3
turnovers) per game — with still-good efficiency (49.4% on twos,
45.1% from three), though he's had weird paint stuff going on all
year. He's figured out things at the rim, but hasn't been able to
get floaters or push shots to go with any sort of consistency.
Overall, he remains an important piece of Boston's small-ball
units thanks to his rim pressure, shooting and sturdy defense when
defending up a position.
Next Up: Immanuel Quickley, Norman Powell
I can't give Quickley the top spot right now, but he's probably
been my favorite reserve to watch this season. More specifically,
his growth has been the most fun to track.
He isn't knocking down pull-ups at the same clip as last season
(35.1% to 32.6%), but he's gotten much
better inside the arc. The rim finishing is better. The floater is
otherwordly; among 25 players to attempt at least 75 floaters this
season, Quickley is No. 5 in field goal percentage (51.8%, up from
46.0% last year), per Second Spectrum.
Quickley has grown as a decision-maker, particularly when
operating in ball-screens. And the defense? He deserves his flowers
for sinking his teeth in on that end — and being darn good at it.
His two-way impact has helped the New York Knicks outscore
opponents by over six points per 100 possessions
when he's on the floor this season.
If the season started in December, Norm Powell might be
the front-runner for the award. Inconsistency painted the first
month-and-a-half of his season, but he's settled in nicely as the
Los Angeles Clippers' spark plug, pressuring the rim and bombing
away from deep on high efficiency (44.5% on 5.3 attempts per game).
Since Dec. 14, he's led all reserves in scoring average (18.3
points) while holding up relatively well in LA's switch-heavy small
(I remain worried about his defense when he's off the ball. That
element is why he trails a little behind Brogdon and Quickley.)
On My Mind: Bobby Portis, Russell Westbrook
Portis missing time and logging relief starts — he's up to 15 on
the year, almost more than the Brogdon/Quickley/Powell trio
combined (17) — are why Portis slips, but he was a worthy
front-runner for a reason. He still leads reserves in rebounding
this season (9.6) while ranking in the top 10 in scoring
Westbrook's rim pressure and playmaking were important for the
Los Angeles Lakers, and has proven valuable in the early going of
his Clippers tenure. Like the first edition, his subpar efficiency
(51.5% TS since Dec. 14) and on-off splits hurt his case.
Previous order (through Dec. 14):
- Bol Bol
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Lauri Markkanen
Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
Markkanen has exploded for the best scoring season of his career
— 25.3 points on 65.6% TS. He's currently on pace to become the
ninth player in NBA history to average at least 25 points with a
True Shooting above 65%. The others: Stephen Curry (4x), Charles
Barkley (3x), Kevin Durant (2x), Jokic, Damian Lillard (this year), Amar'e Stoudemire,
Kevin McHale and Adrian Dantley.
This isn't just a volume ordeal, or we would've seen similar
production in his second season.
- 2018-19: 18.7 points, 47.9% from two on 8.9 attempts, 36.1%
from three on 6.4 attempts
- 2022-23: 25.3 points, 59.4% from two on 9.2 attempts, 40.9%
from three on 7.5 attempts
It's been fun watching Will Hardy toggle between giving
Markkanen the freedom to do his own thing and utilizing him in a
multitude of ways to throw defenses for a loop.
Next Up: Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander, Nic
First and foremost: Get well soon, SGA.
Second: He's been absurd.
Gilgeous-Alexander has shouldered a ridiculous load in a funky
offensive context. He's improved his scoring average by nearly
seven points from last season (24.5 to 31.0) despite only averaging
1.4 more shot attempts (18.8 to 20.2). He's virtually unstoppable
inside the arc; between his unique driving style and smooth mid-range jumper (44.6%
on 3.6 attempts), defenders don't know what to do with him. The
answer has mostly been fouling; SGA's 11.1-free-throw-attempts
average ranks fourth in the NBA.
Claxton transforming himself from lob threat and interesting
switch-piece to an elite play-finisher and (currently-fringe)
Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been such a
developmental story. He's leading the NBA in field goal percentage
right now. The rim-finishing helps, but he's also converting an
absurd 50.4% (!!!) of his shots between 3-to-10 feet, a massive
bump from last year (34.7%).
Defensively, he's doing the loud stuff and doing it well. Only
Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.1) has blocked more shots than Claxton (2.9)
over the past two-and-a-half months. No player in the NBA has
defended more isolations than Claxton (259) this season, with
opponents only mustering 0.879 PPP on trips featuring a clear-out
against him, per Second Spectrum.
On My Mind: Mikal Bridges
Speaking of the Brooklyn Nets, how about the work Bridges has
been able to do as a creator? This started in Phoenix, whose injury
woes with Devin Booker (and Chris Paul, and Cam Johnson, and, and,
and...) placed more of the creation burden onto Bridges' plate. He
mostly responded, running more ball-screens than ever, isolating
more than ever and displaying more comfort getting downhill.
Since Dec. 14, Bridges is averaging 19.5 points on 58.8% TS and
3.9 assists (1.7 turnovers) per game — impressive marks for someone
taking on more responsibility on a whim. Filter for just his
six-game Nets tenure, and the numbers (naturally) improve: 23.8
points on 65.8% TS, along with 3.2 assists (1.8 turnovers). His
45-point outburst against the Heat still rings in my mind.
Previous Teams (through Dec.
First Team: Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Giannis
Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic
Second Team: Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Zion
Williamson, Joel Embiid
Third Team: Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander,
Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, Anthony Davis
First Team: Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic,
Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic
Second Team: Ja Morant, Damian Lillard, Kevin
Durant, LeBron James, Joel Embiid
Third Team: Stephen Curry, Shai
Gilgeous-Alexander, Julius Randle, Jimmy Butler, Domantas
On My Mind: Bam Adebayo, De'Aaron Fox, Jrue
Holiday, James Harden, Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George,
Jaylen Brown, Lauri Markkanen, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis
- I'm really curious to see what the eligibility rules end up
being for Sabonis and Adebayo. Neither should get forward
eligibility based on the roles they've played this season, but it
also feels wrong to live in a world where one of them doesn't make
a team. Give the slight edge to Sabonis for now; he's the primary
hub of the best offense in NBA history as of this writing, has his
team higher up in the conference and league standings, and
is currently edging Adebayo out in advanced metrics like EPM (+8.0
to +6.7) and RAPTOR (+3.7 to +2.3).
- Curry and SGA missing time could open the door for Fox and/or
Holiday to slide in over the next 20 games. Curry's already gone
from sure-fire First Team to Third Team for me. We'll
- The sixth forward spot is also going to be so
nasty this year. Butler quietly having the most efficient season of
his career while being the chaos agent of Miami's turnover-forcing
scheme— and blowing the rest of the forward contenders away
in most advanced numbers — gives him an edge for now.
- On that front, we should keep an eye on Kawhi moving forward.
He's at the absolute minimum of games played right now (37), but
he's been a monster over his last 20 contests: 28.5 points on 64.9%
TS, 6.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists (1.6 turnovers), 1.8 steals and 0.8
Previous Teams (through Dec.
First Team: Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday, OG Anunoby, Giannis
Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Second Team: Derrick White, Alex Caruso, Mikal Bridges,
Kevin Durant, Jarrett Allen
FIrst Team: Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Jaren
Jackson Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo
Second Team: Alex Caruso, Marcus Smart, OG
Anunoby, Jaden McDaniels, Brook Lopez
On My Mind: Nic Claxton, The Cleveland
Cavaliers, Jimmy Butler, Dillon Brooks, Draymond Green
- Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are in an unfortunate spot where
they've both been elite defensively, but probably are sixth and
fourth among the forward (Mobley) and center (Allen) groups
Previous Teams (through Dec.
First Team: Jaden Ivey, Bennedict Mathurin, Jalen Williams,
Jabari Smith Jr., Paolo Banchero
Second Team: Andrew Nembhard, AJ Griffin, Keegan Murray,
Walker Kessler, Jalen Duren
First Team: Jaden Ivey, Bennedict
Mathurin, Jalen Williams, Paolo Banchero, Walker Kessler
Second Team: Andrew Nembhard, AJ Griffin,
Keegan Murray, Jabari Smith Jr., Jalen Duren
On My Mind: Jeremy Sochan, Tari Eason
- I'm giving all of the "this is an awful context" bail in the
world to Smith, but I'll be transparent and say I came very close
to having Sochan on the Second Team over him. Here's to hoping he
closes the season out strong.