The regular season is done!
We've reached Play-In Week, folks, which means the fun part of the season is finally here. That also means it's time to drop my final awards piece. The actual ballots are in; might as well drop my fake one.
Much like the first and second 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 least the All-NBA teams will be positionless starting next season.
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 49-game minimum to even qualify. (So, a quick apology to Kevin Durant and Brandon Ingram before we get started.)
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.
For my thoughts on MVP, you can read them here.
Let's have some more fun.
Defensive Player of the Year
Previous order (through Mar. 1):
- Jaren Jackson Jr.
- Brook Lopez
- Evan Mobley
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
This was incredibly tough.
Not because of the merit of Jaren Jackson Jr.'s play. The NBA's preeminent shot-swatter. Ground coverage personified. If "Everything Everywhere All At Once" was a 6-foot-11 cheat code tasked with erasing mistakes – or preventing them from happening.
His improved strength allowed him to bang with brutes a little easier, and, again, his timing as a shot-blocker or shot-contester was absurd all year long.
Leading the NBA in blocks per game (3.0) and only finishing four shy of Brook Lopez for total blocks (193 to 189) despite playing 15 fewer games is wild stuff. Among 51 players to challenge at least four shots at the rim per game, Jackson didn't just lead the NBA in field goal percentage allowed (46.9) – he lapped the field by over three percentage points.
He also remained a viable switch defender. Enemies generated 0.78 PPP when attempting a shot against Jackson in isolation, per Second Spectrum. Put another way, the Grizzlies' big was essentially OG Anunoby (0.76 PPP) in center form.
What made this tough were the drawbacks to his case, namely how often we saw him. Both Lopez and (especially) Evan Mobley lapped Jackson in total minutes. His actual minutes-per-game load felt underwhelming due to the foul trouble he found himself in.
One thing I considered – something that honestly almost made me move him down the list – was which side of the aisle I should fall on in regards to his context. He had Dillion Brooks ahead of him, an #antics-filled wing worthy of All-Defense consideration. But he didn't have a stable of screen navigators like Lopez has in Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter, nor did he have interior help to the level of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Mobley's running mate Jarrett Allen.
Add in the injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, it's fair to argue Jackson has a worse context and heightened level of responsibility compared to the guys I have below him on the list. It makes his on-court impact pop even more.
On the flip side, Jackson's foul issues feel that much more harmful because of the lack of depth behind him. You're inherently hurting your team – season-wide, the Grizzlies' defense fell roughly five points with Jackson on the bench, per Cleaning The Glass – but in light of the absences, so much had to shift without him on the court.
Do you praise him for the higher degree of difficulty? Do you punish him when put himself on the bench with silly fouls?
I found myself more impressed with the responsibility than I was disappointed by the foul trouble. You're more than welcome to disagree with that.
He was the primary driver behind the Grizzlies turning into an elite defense when he made his return. To that point: the Grizzlies had a 108.3 defensive rating in his minutes, on par with the Bucks with Lopez (108.0) and better than the Cavs with Mobley (111.0).
His versatility and, similar to my MVP argument for Joel Embiid, overall responsibility on that end gave him the edge for me over Lopez.
Next Up: Brook Lopez, Evan Mobley
Lopez deserves a hat tip for putting together his best defensive campaign this late into his career, and fresh off a back injury. If we were to factor in last season – and I don't think we should – he'd probably have an even stronger case. The Bucks had to alter what they did defensively to make things work without him; his return directly coincided with them returning to elite territory while also tweaking things to limit threes.
On that front, Lopez's spatial awareness and sense of timing were wildly important. With less help being shown, he really had to nail his responsibility as part of Milwaukee's drop scheme. He did it over and over and over again. He contested more shots than anyone while leading the NBA in total blocks (193) and finishing third in blocks per game (2.5).
I won't go super deep on Mobley since I recently wrote about his growth, but watching him firmly become Cleveland's best overall defender – and the linchpin of their top-ranked defense – was a joy to watch. He has Lopez-like instincts in the drop, is more than willing to switch out onto the perimeter and bother smaller players, and offers similar weak-side value to Jackson when paired with another big.
He's absolutely winning one of these within the next two years if he stays healthy.
On My Mind: Draymond Green, Nic Claxton, Bam Adebayo, Alex Caruso
Rookie of the Year
Previous order (through Mar. 1):
- Paolo Banchero
- Jalen Williams
- Bennedict Mathurin
Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
"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."
That's how I ended the last edition when discussing Paolo Banchero's top spot. Jalen Williams clearly took that personally, actually managing to put a dent in Banchero's case.
I still landed on the Magic forward, whose versatile offensive skill set popped for me all year long. He lived at the line in a way few rookies in NBA history have. The mid-post comfort, both as a scorer and passer, has me confident that the Magic landed a bonafide star in the draft.
It also helps that Banchero regained form across his final 17 games of the season, averaging 20.3 points on 53.4% True Shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists (3.1 turnovers).
I've always felt the offensive responsibility argument between Banchero and Williams was closer than given credit for; it's not like Franz Wagner doesn't exist, and both rookies ranked third on their respective teams in time of possession and frontcourt touches.
There was still a gap though. Banchero was the battering ram. The pressure point. He gets the nod.
Next Up: Jalen Williams, Walker Kessler
Williams deserves the hat tip for making this a conversation. From March 1 onward, he barely trailed Banchero in scoring (18.7) while being much more efficient (64.3% True Shooting), a testament to his ferocious drives, budding jumper (still a work in progress) and timely cutting. His rim pressure, both in the open floor and half-court, shifted defenses in a way that unlocked his passing ability.
Add in the defense and it's hard not to like Williams now, and love what he could become moving forward.
Walker Kessler slots in as the new number three, with a strong argument as the most impactful rookie in the class.
It's difficult to defend in the NBA. It's very difficult for bigs to defend in the NBA. It's extremely difficult for rookies to defend in the NBA. It's darn-near impossible for rookie bigs to defend in the NBA.
That Kessler was able to establish himself as one of the best rim protectors in the league this quickly is insanity. He lands third because of the lack of offensive responsibility, though it's worth noting he did pretty darn well in his screen-and-roll job. Quality, quality campaign for him.
On My Mind: Jaden Ivey
Sixth Man of the Year
Previous order (through Mar. 1):
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Immanuel Quickley
- Norman Powell
Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks
A not-so-fun question that popped up for me as I thought through this award: how do I reckon with Immanuel Quickley playing in 14 more games than Malcolm Brogdon (81 to 67), but Brogdon logging more games off the bench (all 67) than Quickley (60) did?
That took me to another question: how exactly should I approach the starts from Quickley? Thanks to filtering, I can look at what he and Brogdon averaged solely in their bench games. There's also the case to be made that part of being a sixth man is being able to fill gaps when someone ahead of you goes down.
I was then reminded of what I wrote about Bobby Portis in my second awards piece, citing missed time and, crucially, his "relief starts" as a partial reason for moving him down to fourth in my ballot. For what it's worth, the missed time mattered more, but transparency and consistency is important.
That helped me reaffirm my decision to stick to the bench averages and make my argument from there. And ultimately, I narrowly landed on Quickley.
The defense really, really popped for me in a way it didn't for Brogdon. Quickley legitimately turned himself into one of the best point-of-attack defenders in the sport while also providing (underrated) value as a rebounder.
Quickley grew as a decision-maker, particularly when operating in ball-screens. He didn't knock down pull-ups at the same clip as last season (35.1% to 34.5%), but he improved inside the arc. The rim finishing got better. The floater was otherwordly; among 31 players to attempt at least 100 floaters this season, Quickley ranked fifth in field goal percentage (52.1%, up from 46.0% last year), per Second Spectrum.
Possessions featuring a Quickley drive were barely – and I mean barely – more fruitful (1.066 PPP) than Brogdon's (1.065 PPP), just to give you an idea of how close things were.
His two-way impact helped the New York Knicks outscore opponents by over six points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor this season. The Boston Celtics won the Brogdon minutes, but not to the same degree that the Knicks won the Quickley minutes.
(The Celtics were technically better without Brogdon on the floor, but that note speaks to those minutes often featuring Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It's not fair to punish Brogdon for the starters being better; they're supposed to be. It's more valuable to compare what these teams did with Brogdon and Quickley on the floor.)
Next Up: Malcolm Brogdon, Bobby Portis
Brogdon narrowly misses out here but, similar to Most Improved, I wouldn't be surprised or dismayed if he winds up winning this thing.
He shot the leather off the ball all season long, logging a career high in three-point percentage (44.4% on 4.4 attempts). The shooting, both in accuracy and in career-high three-point rate (percentage of shots from three), were the drivers behind his career-best 61.5% True Shooting mark.
Of course, Brogdon also provided value as a driver, and his sturdiness defensively helped unlock some lineup versatility from Boston that should bode well in the postseason.
Portis led all qualified bench players in rebounding (9.1) and ranked ninth in scoring (12.6), making him the only player to finish in the top 10 of both categories. He shot much better from three as a starter (42.5%) than he did as a reserve (34.1%), though some of that boils down to timing and knocking off injury rust. I enjoyed watching him punk dudes on the block this year; the defense was... well, we don't have to talk about it right now.
On My Mind: Norm Powell, Malik Monk
Most Improved Player
Previous order (through Mar. 1):
- Lauri Markkanen
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Nic Claxton
Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
It kinda stinks that the Jazz fell out of the play-in race. Lauri Markkanen missing some time to close out the year took a little steam out of his season. But it's hard to overlook the leap he made when available, which is why he gets my fake vote.
Markkanen exploded for the best scoring season of his career — 25.6 points on 64.0% TS. A late-season dip knocked him off a historic pace, nearly becoming 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), Nikola 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: 25.6 points, 58.5% from two on 9.2 attempts, 39.1% from three on 7.7 attempts
I can't wait to see how he builds off this season.
Next Up: Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander, Mikal Bridges
It honestly wouldn't shock me if SGA ends up winning this thing, especially in light of how the Jazz and Thunder finished their seasons.
Gilgeous-Alexander has obvious merit. He improved his scoring average by nearly seven points from last season (24.5 to 31.4) despite only averaging 1.5 more shot attempts (18.8 to 20.3). He's virtually unstoppable inside the arc; between his unique driving style and increasingly smooth mid-range jumper (42.1% on 3.6 attempts), defenders don't know what to do with him. The answer has mostly been fouling; SGA's 10.9-free-throw-attempts average ranked third in the NBA this year.
How about the growth Bridges showcased 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.
He was given the keys completely after being traded to the Brooklyn Nets, and boy did he respond. Across 26 games – we're not counting the four seconds he played to continue his games played streak – Bridges slapped up 27.2 points on 60.7% TS. Impressive for someone becoming The Guy on a whim.
On My Mind: Nic Claxton
Claxton transforming himself from lob threat and interesting switch-piece to an elite play-finisher and (fringe) Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been such a fun developmental story. I was most impressed by his growth as an intermediate scorer; he converted an absurd 51.1% (!!!) of his shots between 3-to-10 feet, a massive bump from last year (34.7%).
Defensively, he did the loud stuff and did it well. Only Jackson (3.0) averaged more blocks than Claxton (2.5) did this season. No player in the NBA has defended more isolations than Claxton (323), with opponents only mustering 0.861 PPP on trips featuring a clear-out against him, per Second Spectrum.