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Nekias Duncan's 2022-23 NBA award front-runners: MVP, DPOY, ROY, more

Nekias Duncan's 2022-23 NBA award front-runners: MVP, DPOY, ROY, more

We're approaching that weird in-between area of the NBA season. We're more than a quarter of the way through the season, which is enough to formulate some #takes for the masses. There's still 55-plus games to go for just about everyone, leaving plenty of room for movement in the standings and (fake) award ballots.

I don't have an official awards ballot — NBA, if you're reading, holla at me — but I spend an ungodly amount of time thinking about these things. As such, I decided to take stock of the league through the... 1/3 mark of the year? Close enough!

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 the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams tougher than they have 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 that aren't familiar with my award thought process, 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 17-game minimum to 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 fun. 

All stats are for games played through Dec. 13.

MVP

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

I don't think much has to be said about the Tatum pick. If you're averaging 30-8-4 with elite efficiency (career-high 61.1% True Shooting), defending well enough to be in discussion for an All-Defensive team selection, leading your team to the NBA's best record and you're blowing teams out of the water in the minutes without your co-star — plus-15.0 in 267 minutes in games they've played together — the award is yours to lose.

Next Up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic

I don't think much has to be said about Giannis at No. 2, either. He's been a two-way monster, quietly averaging a career-high in points (31.1) despite an uncharacteristic dip as an interior scorer. The defense has been wildly good, and the Milwaukee Bucks aren't far off the Celtics' record.

It's the rest of the ballot that threw me for a loop. I landed on Jokic-Curry-Doncic, but that order could change by Friday, frankly.

Jokic has felt slightly worse on both ends compared to last season — taking his foot slightly off the gas as a scorer, and not being as stout defensively at the level or in a drop. And yet, he's nearly posting a triple-double (24-10-9) while flirting with a True Shooting percentage of 70% (69.0%).

Statistically, the Denver Nuggets go from world-beaters with Jokic on the floor (plus-10) to a group of people learning the sport of basketball for the first time with him off (minus-13.4). A swing of 23.4 points per 100 possessions is absurd, and that's on top of the Nuggets currently holding a top-four seed — 1.5 games out of the top spot.

Curry and Doncic are slight casualties of their records — the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks have each won 56% of their games with their stars, respectively (14-11) — but you could make arguments for either as the best individual player in the league this season.

Curry is somehow flirting with the best season of his career at age 34 (30-7-7, 66.2% TS), and the Warriors have predictably fallen off a cliff without him — plus-7.5 with him on, minus-7.9 with him off. It's hard to overstate just how important Curry is, both on and off the ball.

As Mavs aficianado SJ wrote recently, Doncic is the new face of heliocentric basketball. His offensive burden is immense, but he's produced the following: 33.1 points (59.1% on twos, 34.1% from three on high volume), 8.6 rebounds, 8.8 assists and a surprising 1.7 steals per contest.

His on-off splits aren't as wild as the top-four — plus-5.4 with him on, plus-0.5 with him off — but a cursory glance at a Mavericks game will give you a "the numbers don't do it justice" feel. And for what it's worth, DunksAndThree's Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) has Doncic (plus-8.3) at the top of the table.

On My Mind: Zion Williamson, Kevin Durant, Ja Morant

Williamson has been a big mover, both figuratively and literally as of late. He's at 25-7-4 on the year, but the last 10 games — 28.2 points (69.5% on twos!), 8.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks — has been the stuff of legends.

Inverted ball screens with Williamson have been difficult to defend, as have his post-ups and isolations. He's living in the paint — and at the line (8.7 FTA) — during this stretch. Keep an eye on the defense, too; I had questions about his ability to rotate and close out on the back end of New Orleans' at-the-level style of pick-and-roll defense, but he's holding his own right now.

Quietly, Durant has kept the Brooklyn Nets afloat despite... a #lot #of #things #happening around him. He hasn't been able to rely on a co-star — or co-stars — for much of the season. He's chugging along, though, providing elite scoring chops and strong defense, particularly on the back end. 

Durant has been the NBA's premier mid-range scorer this season — converting an absurd 56.8% of his middies on 7.1 attempts. Zoom out, and he's averaging 30.0 points on 55.9% shooting from the field. Only two other players in NBA history have averaged north of 30 points while converting 55% of their shots: Adrian Dantley (1983-84) and another Utah Jazz forward who's getting no mention from me. Let's just say it's Durant and Dantley.

Morant is another guy who has just about everything you want: Strong numbers (28-7-8), strong impact (plus-8.5 with him on, minus-5.3 when he's off) and a high winning clip when he's played (16-6, 72.7% win percentage). If you have to quibble, his efficiency (55.4% TS) is below league-average, though you shoot him bail for his usage. Ultimately, you can explain the dip by his floater not falling as often; he's converting a career-low 35.9% of his shots between 3-10 feet this year, way down from last season (43.3%). 

Thinking About You Too: Devin Booker, Joel Embiid

Booker has been so, so, so, SO good this season.

The basic numbers are strong — 27-5-6 with a 58.7% True Shooting percentage. The defense has been solid across two positions. We've seen in-the-weeds growth from him when dealing with traps, something the Mavs poked at during the Phoenix Suns' second-round loss last postseason. Up until this weekend, the Suns were the top seed in the Western Conference despite Chris Paul and Cam Johnson (among others) missing significant time.

Booker hasn't done anything wrong — there are simply better cases ahead of him. If there's a weird thing to keep an eye on, it's the on-off split; the offense has predictably fallen off a cliff without Booker (120.9 ORTG with him on, 106.9 off), but the defense has improved by nearly the same degree (116.0 DRTG on, 103.8 off). Opponents have hit more threes with Booker on the court, and there have been some shaky off-ball instances with him. Still, he's been a positive on that end on my eye.

He's really good, man, and the Suns' two-game skid without Booker — in which they've put up a 107.8 ORTG — should further highlight how important he is to their success.

I'm gonna say this up front: Provided he stays healthy, Embiid's going to be pushing for a top-five spot by this time next month. 

The level that Embiid has been at since making a return from a four-game absence is video-game stuff. It's hard to argue against 35.0 points (57.5% on 19.1 twos, 50% on threes), 9.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks over a seven-game stretch. 

On the year, he's essentially dropping 33-10-5 on high efficiency (64.6% TS). The on-off splits are massive in the games he's played — plus-8.4 when he's on, minus-15.7 when he's off. 

I can't get to serious MVP consideration yet — he's appeared in 19 games, and his 675 minutes is easily the lowest mark among the players I've listed thus far. The Sixers are barely over .500 (10-9) in the games he's played in — though, of course, that isn't his fault. Gotta split some hairs in the MVP race is all. 

DPOY

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the stingiest half-court defense in the NBA — 91.8 points allowed per 100 plays, per Cleaning The Glass — in large part due to Lopez.

He makes their drop system work. What Giannis does as a roamer is massively important. The screen navigation from Jrue Holiday, Jevon Carter and others is important. None of it hits the same without Lopez anchoring the middle. 

He leads the NBA in blocks per game (2.9), but that doesn't do it justice. He's contesting more two-point shots (16.1) than anyone; the difference between he and second-place Ivica Zubac (10.3, -5.8 differential) is equidistant to Zubac and Scottie Barnes (4.5), who ranks 50th on the freakin' leaderboard.

The reliable nature of Lopez has allowed the Bucks to be more selective about when and where they send help from. That's a large part of why they rank seventh in opponent three-point rate (33.3% of shots) after finishing 29th (41.8% of shots) last season.

Next Up: OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen

Anunoby has been the best perimeter defender in the NBA. On a team with what feels like 38 players between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-10, it's Anunoby who unlocks Toronto's almost-unrivaled defensive versatility.

He's been tasked with defending up and down the positional scale. His screen navigation allows drop coverage to be tenable. His blend of strength and speed makes switching a viable option. His off-ball instincts — he's tied or flat-out leads the NBA in deflections (101), loose balls recovered (32) and steals (2.4) — make him a fearsome weak-side helper or edge-of-the-zone deterrent. 

DunksAndThree's Defensive Estimated Plus Minus (DEPM) has Anunoby (plus-3.1) at the top of the leaderboard, currently edging out Lopez (plus-2.4, ninth), if that means anything to you. We'll have to see where the Raptors land defensively, and how available Anunoby — currently out nursing a hip injury — will be moving forward.

We have to talk more about what Jarrett Allen is doing for the NBA's second-best defense. He was an elite rim protector and solid switch big last season; he's gotten better in both areas this season.

Among 28 players to defend at least five shots a game at the rim, Allen is allowing the lowest percentage (50.8%). You can still give the edge to Lopez (52.2%) because of the volume (7.7 FGA vs. 5.6 for Allen), but that should give you a clue into how nasty Allen has been. Oh, and he's allowing under 0.9 PPP when attacked in isolation, one of the best marks in the NBA among players who have defended at least 50 of them.

And if, for whatever reason, you'd like to argue that his running mate Evan Mobley is just as impactful, I'd humbly point to the Cavs having a 97.9 defensive rating in the 212 minutes Allen has played without Mobley. Allen ranks fourth in DEPM (+2.9), well within striking distance of the top spot.

On My Mind: Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo

A recent slip has seen the Los Angeles Lakers fall to 10th in half-court defense, though that isn't the fault of Davis. He's been incredible patroling the interior. Whether he's been in a deep drop or playing closer to the level, ball-handlers haven't had much fun or luck trying to attack him.

Among 54 players who have defended at least 200 direct picks as the screener defender in pick-and-roll, Davis ranks third in points allowed per possession (0.81 PPP); only Luke Kornet (0.79) and Giannis (0.8) have been stingier, and Davis has defended more (472) than Kornet (206) and Giannis (220) combined (426).

It's been an odd year for Adebayo in terms of usage. Teams just flat-out aren't going at him as often as they have in years past. It feels like there's been a collective "there's no point in trying this dude" message permeating throughout the league.

After defending 277 isolations last season (5.8 per 100 possessions), he's faced 37 (2.1 per 100 possessions) this season. He's still been a mirror in space; we just haven't gotten to see it that often. The Pacers game on Monday was a nice reminder, though. 

Teams are shooting less frequently (opponent rim rate drops 2.1%) and less efficiently at the rim (-1.1%) with Adebayo on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass. The Heat are posting a 94.0 DRTG in the half-court with Adebayo on the floor, equivalent to a top-10 mark.

Rookie of the Year

Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Banchero is leading all rookies in scoring (21.8 points per game) while ranking third in rebounds (6.9) and assists (3.8). Honestly, we could stop right here. 

The fact that he's been an offensive focal point from Day 1 and responded with these results is insane. Mid-range polish beyond his years, plus-passing chops, bull-strength drives and a free-throw rate (54.5, 8.6 FTA/G) that James Harden would raise his brow at.

He's going to be star.

Next Up: Bennedict Mathurin, Jaden Ivey

Mathurin is putting himself in (on-court) Ben Gordon territory, leading all bench players in scoring (17.7). His blend of movement shooting, driving juice and off-ball feel — he's an incredible cutter already — has been a joy to witness so far.

Ivey has gotten more on-ball responsibility than expected — at least this early — due to the absence of Cade Cunningham. Averages of 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists are nothing to sneeze at. He can get to the rim whenever he wants to, with or without a screen. As he gains greater control of his speed, his passing will pop more. He's going to be really good.

On My Mind: Jalen Williams, Jabari Smith Jr.

Sixth Man of the Year

Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks

Assuming Portis continues to meet the criteria — he's come off the bench in 20 of his 27 games — he's going to have a great chance to win the award.

He's almost averaging a double-double off the pine (13.4 points, 9.8 rebounds), mixing in brutalizing post buckets with silky mid-range jumpers. He's in the midst of his worst three-point shooting season (30.6% on 3.6 attempts), but that hasn't mattered yet. His defensive activity remains solid, with the Bucks often playing him at the level.

Next Up: Malcolm Brogdon, Jose Alvarado

Assuming Brogdon stays healthy, he will also have a great chance to win the award.

Solid averages all around — 13.9 points 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists (1.9 turnovers) — with double-take efficiency (59.6% on twos, 48.4% from three) to boot. He's been an important piece of Boston's small-ball units thanks to his rim pressure, shooting and sturdy defense when defending up a position.

We have to throw Alvarado in the mix. It's genuinely fun watching him pick dudes up full-court and pressure them into mistakes. He's been very good at the point of attack, and his ability to create turnovers helps the Pelicans juice their transition attack.

What's flying under the radar — and why the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions with Alvarado on the floor — is the impact he's having offensively.

Alvarado is able to get two feet in the paint almost whenever he wants, which either leads to shots for himself (53.6% on twos), or acts as the first step in a drick-kick-drive-kick sequence. It also helps that Alvarado is canning 38% of his threes, though defenses aren't treating him like a high-level threat just yet.

On My Mind: Russell Westbrook, Christian Wood, The Maliks (Beasley, Monk)

Westbrook's rim pressure and playmaking has been wildly important for a Lakers team that wants to win inside. He leads all bench players in assists (7.9) by a wide margin, and his scoring (15.2) ranks fourth. The efficiency (50.1% TS) remains well below league average, and it's (still) worth noting how his on-ball decision-making and lack of gravity off the ball affects the Lakers at the end of games. The Lakers are still losing the minutes with Westbrook on the floor — minus-4.8 when he's on, plus-3.1 with him off.

Similarly, Wood's self-creation and shooting have been important for the Mavs. He's third in bench scoring (16.2) while pacing high-volume reserves in True Shooting (62.4%), and ranks second in rebounding (7.6). The defense has been... well... you can guess

A couple of sparkplugs from suprise teams in the West deserve some love. Malik Beasley has been torching the nets in Utah, averaging nearly 14 points per game behind 38.8% shooting from three -- on a ridiculous 8.3 attempts.

Then there's Malik Monk in Sacremento (14.5 points, 3.8 assists), juicing their transition attack with a mixture of pullups and firecracker drives. For more on Monk, I'd highly recommend this feature from our own Spencer Davies. 

Most Improved Player

Bol Bol, Orlando Magic

It's one thing to go from barely playing to logging a bunch of minutes due to roster movement. It's another thing when your lack of playing time is directly tied to your lack of reliability on both ends, and that transforms into a starting and (mostly) closing role.

The latter has been the Bol Bol experience. Things have slowed for him so far this month — 9.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 1.5 blocks — but you would probably take those December averages heading into the year. The fact that those numbers represent a decline is a testament to his earlier work.

On the year, he's at 12.4 points (66.3% from two, 40% from three on too-low volume), 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. That's massive growth from last year, even on a per-minute scale.

Next Up: Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander, Lauri Markkanen

It wouldn't be a shock if either of these two wind up snagging the award.

SGA has shouldered a ridiculous load in a restrictive offensive context. He's improved his scoring average by nearly seven points from last season (24.5 to 31.2) despite only averaging 1.8 more shot attempts (18.8 to 20.6). He's virtually unstoppable inside the arc; between his unique driving style and smooth mid-range jumper (45% on 4.0 attempts), defenders don't know what to do with him. The answer has mostly been fouling; SGA's 10.1 free-throw-attempt average ranks fourth in the NBA.

Markkanen has exploded for the best scoring season of his career — 22.1 points while converting 61.5% of his twos and 40.8% of his threes. This isn't just a volume ordeal, or we would've saw similar production in his second season.

  • 2018-19: 18.7 points, 47.9% from 2 on 8.9 attempts, 36.1% from 3 on 6.4 attempts
  • 2022-23: 22.1 points, 61.5% from 2 on 8.7 attempts, 40.8% from 3 on 6.4 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 looop.

On My Mind: The San Antonio Spurs (Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson), Bruce Brown

All-NBA Teams

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

On My Mind: The Sacramento Kings (Domantas Sabonis, De'Aaron Fox), Paul George, Tyrese Haliburton, The Miami Heat (Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler), LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Kristaps Porzingis, Dejounte Murray

  • There is soooo much talent in the NBA today, man. I can't wait to see how much these teams shift by the All-Star break.
  • I'm anticipating Brown having guard and forward eligibility this year — and it's been an even split between him starting at the 2 or 3, considering Boston likes starting Smart and White together — so I felt comfortable sliding him into a forward spot. 
  • Just want to point out, since he missed the games-played threshold, that Damian Lillard is quietly averaging 28-and-7 on career-high efficiency (63.6% TS).

All-Defensive Teams

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

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

On My Mind: Jose Alvarado, Jordan Goodwin, Jayson Tatum, Evan Mobley, Jaden McDaniels, Draymond Green, [insert really good center here]

  • Anthony Davis being fourth on my DPOY list and not having an All-Defense spot right now speaks to the need for three teams, a looser positional requirement or both. This is an unintended downside to him playing center.
  • Adebayo logging virtually all of his minutes at center makes it tough to justify sliding him on as a forward. Add in the fact that he's been on the perimeter less — the Heat have implemented more drop coverage and zone to keep him near the basket — and you can't even get cute with the assignments argument like you could last season. I mean, you could, but I wouldn't.
  • Mentioned it during the Sixth Man of the Year section, but Alvarado has been filthy at the point of attack.
  • I don't think he'll play enough — or if Washington will win enough or rank highly enough defensively to garner attention — but Goodwin has been hounding dudes in his minutes. 
  • Jaren Jackson Jr. misses the "17 games played" threshold, but he's been monstrous since returning to the lineup. He's going to put himself in the DPOY conversation if this continues.
  • Similarly, Dennis Smith Jr. would have a real case for a guard spot if he didn't get hurt. What a great return story it's been for him.

All-Rookie Teams

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

On My Mind: Dyson Daniels, Tari Eason

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