With just under a week remaining in the regular season, the time has come to make selections for the league’s most prestigious awards. Last year, I gave my opinion on those who were the most deserving candidates for each award, noting that it was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make.
This year has been even more difficult as I anticipate many more deserving candidates being snubbed for these awards. Because of this, I've decided to change the criteria. In years past, team success has played a huge part in these awards; however, for this exercise, I will be selecting strictly the best players for each award. “Best” will denote how much a player’s production and skillset helps a random team win a championship. The only outside factor influencing my decisions will be games played. This will isolate a player’s overall impact from that of their team’s record.
Even so, these decisions were harder than last year. Here are my selections for each award.
Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
This is actually a very difficult decision to make, as Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Jalen Williams’ performance this season makes this award essentially a tossup as the season comes to an end. Banchero’s scoring efficiency has been poor this season, but he is in a difficult situation for a rookie to perform. Compared to Oklahoma City, which has a future superstar on their hands in Shaivonte Gilgeous-Alexander, Orlando has made Banchero the primary focus of the offense.
Banchero has shown maturity as a scorer and has made some bright flashes with his playmaking. The advanced analytics favor Williams over Banchero in this case, but this is a unique situation for two players in two completely different situations. What Banchero has been able to do especially since the All-Star break has been impressive.
Coach of the Year: Mike Brown (Sacramento Kings):
This selection feels like the only no-brainer on this list. The Sacramento Kings are advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They didn’t do so by the skin of their teeth either. They are the third seed in the Western Conference. Since he took over as coach last summer, Brown has taken the Kings from a bottom-five offense to the league’s best offense overnight. He’s done so by making schematic approaches that maximize his star players’ offensive strengths. With his futuristic offensive approaches, Brown has played a huge part in the revitalization of not only the team but also the entire city of Sacramento.
Sixth Man of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon (Boston Celtics)
Of all the contending candidates in the running this season, only one is averaging at least 15 points on 62% true shooting. Brogdon has been a huge scoring boost for the Boston Celtics. In Boston’s 41-point win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Brogdon had an impressive 14 points and five assists in 27 minutes.
What’s even more impressive is his playmaking. His shot creation estimates are in the 84th-percentile of all players, which is extremely impressive for a bench player. Brogdon has played in 65 games this year and is a huge reason why the Celtics have a 54–24 record and are second in the Eastern Conference.
Most Improved Player: Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Last season, Markkanen averaged 18 points per 75 possessions on +1.6 relative true shooting (rTS). This season, Markkanen is averaging 27 points per 75 possessions on +6.3 rTS. Markkanen’s scoring has increased by nine points and his efficiency has almost quadrupled since last season. The law of “skill curves” tells us that as a player’s scoring volume (points) increases, the efficiency decreases. Markkanen is having an outlier scoring season by this law, and this is reflected in his earning his first All-Star appearance of his career. Markkanen absolutely deserves this award.
Clutch Player of the Year: De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)
This is the first year this award is being given out, and it certainly belongs to Fox. Fox leads the league in clutch points this season with 189. He leads second place by over 30 points, which is the largest gap between the top two clutch scorers since the 2008–09 season, 14 seasons ago. The Sacramento Kings lead the league in clutch points per game and clutch field goal percentage, and Fox is the reason for that.
Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY): Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)
This season, Jackson has posted a block percentage of 9.7%. This number would be tied for the third-highest mark in NBA history. At the beginning of the season, Jackson missed significant time with a foot injury. They were the 20th-ranked defense without him and have been the first-ranked defense since he returned.
Jackson leads the NBA in blocks per game, opponent field goal percentage and block percentage. The two other competing candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, Brook Lopez and Evan Mobley doubtlessly have been impressive, but the Grizzlies with Jackson have posted a better defensive rating than the Bucks with Lopez and the Cleveland Cavaliers with Mobley on the court this season. Jackson has always shown DPOY potential, and now is the year he wins it.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić (Denver Nuggets)
Jokić is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history. When you remove Jokić and factor in his supporting cast, there is no reason the Denver Nuggets should have a 127.2 offensive rating. This would be equal to a +12.4 relative offensive rating (rORtg). When you compare the season Jokić is having to Stephen Curry’s iconic 2016 season, where he posted a +12.6 offensive when on the court, it’s truly a marvel how dominant Jokić has been offensively.
Jokić is not only the most efficient player averaging over 25 points this season but also the most efficient mid-range shooter in the league. All the while, he is a top-five playmaker and the best passer in the league. His defense certainly has drawbacks, but, given more time and a larger playoff sample, Jokić will stamp his mark as a top-five offensive player of all time. The only players to win three straight MVPs were Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain, and I think Jokić will add his name to that list this season
All-NBA first team: Luka Dončić, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić
All-NBA second team: Stephen Curry, Shaivonte Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid
All-NBA third team: Donovan Mitchell, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Domantas Sabonis
All-Defensive first team: Jrue Holiday, Ogugua Anunoby, Jaden McDaniels, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brook Lopez
All Defensive second team: Alex Caruso, Luguentz Dort, Evan Mobley, Edrice Femi Adebayo, Nicolas Claxton