2022-23 NBA award front-runners Vol. 2: MVP, DPOY, ROY, more

2022-23 NBA award front-runners Vol. 2: MVP, DPOY, ROY, more

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 ballots.

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" message here.

Let's have some more fun. 

All stats are for games played since Dec. 14, unless otherwise noted.

Most Valuable Player

Previous order (through Dec.14):

  1. Jayson Tatum
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  3. Nikola Jokic
  4. Stephen Curry
  5. 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 record.

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 spot

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 Year

Previous order (through Dec. 14):

  1. Brook Lopez
  2. OG Anunoby
  3. 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 needed.

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 Spectrum.

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 slots.

On My Mind: Nic Claxton, Jarrett Allen, Giannis Antetokounmpo

Rookie of the Year

Previous order (through Dec. 14):

  1. Paolo Banchero
  2. Bennedict Mathurin
  3. 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 impressive.

On My Mind: Walker Kessler, Jaden Ivey

Sixth Man of the Year

Previous order (through Dec. 14):

  1. Bobby Portis
  2. Malcolm Brogdon
  3. 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 units. 

(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 (13.4).

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. 

Most Improved Player

Previous order (through Dec. 14):

  1. Bol Bol
  2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  3. 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 Claxton

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.

All-NBA Teams

Previous Teams (through Dec. 14):

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

Current Teams:

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 Sabonis

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 see. 
  • 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 blocks. 

All-Defensive Teams

Previous Teams (through Dec. 14)

First Team: Marcus Smart, Jrue Holiday, OG Anunoby, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

Second Team: Derrick White, Alex Caruso, Mikal Bridges, Kevin Durant, Jarrett Allen

Current Teams:

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 respectively. 

All-Rookie Teams

Previous Teams (through Dec. 14):

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

Current Teams:

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. 
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Latest Injuries
Goran Dragic
Dragic is questionable for Monday's (Jan. 23) game against Atlanta.
Chimezie Metu
Metu is questionable for Monday's (Jan. 23) game against Memphis.
Immanuel Quickley
Quickley did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Toronto.
Michael Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Oklahoma City.
Deandre Ayton
Ayton did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Memphis.
OG Anunoby
Anunoby did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against New York.
Kristaps Porzingis
The Wizards announced that Porzingis is week-to-week with a sprained left ankle.
Landry Shamet
Shamet did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Memphis.
Nikola Jokic
Jokic did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Oklahoma City.
Dalano Banton
Banton did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against New York.
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