Does Nikola Jokic deserve to win his third straight MVP? This all-time rant might convince you. Plus, we examine our most disappointing team, a fierce Dunk of the Year race, and more.
With the NBA season officially past its halfway point, it’s time to hand out some make-believe hardware to the league’s most deserving players and teams for their efforts (or lack thereof) over the past three months.
I made my awards picks after watching a ton of basketball, studying every statistical database to which I have access, and talking to people in and around the NBA.
Quick note: My honorable mentions are limited to three candidates despite some of these categories offering more than a half-dozen quality options. So even though you’ll probably still tweet angry words at me for not mentioning whoever it is you adore, please know it couldn’t be more personal and I really do hate everyone you love.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokic
The case for Nikola Jokic’s third straight MVP is a choose your own adventure.
Do you value basic counting stats? Jokic is averaging 24.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.7 assists in just 33.3 minutes per game. He leads the NBA in triple-doubles.
What about efficiency? Jokic is not only third in true shooting percentage (69.0 percent) despite dunking the ball just 12 times all season, but he’s also first in true shooting percentage among all players in NBA history who’ve put up at least 15 shots per game. Over half of Jokic’s shots are away from the rim. Think about it too hard and your brain will become putty. On direct actions, among all players who’ve completed at least 100 of them, Jokic ranks first in isolation, second in the post (shout-out to Domantas Sabonis), and fourth as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll. Great things happen for the Nuggets when Aaron Gordon sets a screen:
Are you into catchall advanced metrics? Jokic ranks or is tied for first in PER, win shares, BPM, VORP, estimated plus/minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s total RAPTOR. He’s third in ESPN’s real plus/minus.
Related to those figures, what about value? There’s a 20.9-point difference per 100 possessions when you look at how good the Nuggets are with Jokic on the floor versus how sorry they’ve been with him off it. That’s the second-largest gap in the league. (Two seasons ago, when he won his first MVP, the net difference was around a third of what it is now.)
The Nuggets register a plus-11.3 net rating with Jokic. The closest All-Stars to Jokic’s number are Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum, at 8.8 and 9.1, respectively. Denver also has the best offense in the NBA, which is nice. Dig deeper. Their attack is the most efficient in league history with Jokic (123.4 points per 100 possessions) and significantly worse than the intentionally terrible Rockets (more on them later) when he sits.
All condensed into plain English: Cleaning the Glass has a stat called “expected wins,” which estimates how many wins every player’s team would log considering their point differential. The Nuggets are a 67-win team with Jokic on the court and an 18-win team without him. Nobody else touches that 49-win gap. If all this keeps up, Jokic deserves to join Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to win its most prestigious individual award three straight times.
Jokic’s statistical profile is a dream, but the bottom line is nobody comes particularly close to elevating those around him like he does. The numbers are only exceeded by the eye test. On a basketball court, Jokic is neurodivergent. Nobody thinks through a game like he does. Nobody creates openings with their mind as effortlessly. He flows through every play possessed by an entrancing amalgamation of nonchalance, momentum, and flair. But nothing is for show. Every Jokic move is made at the altar of efficiency and he doesn’t need or even want to dominate the ball. It’s selfless dominance from someone who knows how to play basketball in its purest, most enjoyable form.
Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero
Let’s not get cute. Banchero is having a marvelous rookie season: 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 7.8 free throw attempts per game is nothing to sneeze at. And, frankly, little else should really matter all that much when talking about someone who turned 20 a couple months ago, and upon entering the NBA was asked to lead a young, joy-starved franchise. Paolo is the only person in his class who could make the All-Star team next season and it wouldn’t surprise anyone.
No coach—who hasn’t already been fired—stepped into this season with higher expectations under extraordinarily difficult circumstances than Mazzulla. As someone who’s never even been a lead assistant at the NBA level, Mazzulla replaced Ime Udoka on Boston’s sideline and, without Rob Williams III (their third-most important player) for the opening 29 games, helped guide the Celtics to some of the best basketball they’ve played in years.
Most Blatant Tank Job: Houston Rockets
The evidence here is both comical and overwhelming. Exhibit A: Houston’s starting lineup has played 426 minutes—more than all but one five-man unit in the league—and been outscored by a league-worst 92 points. Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon, Alperen Sengun, and Jabari Smith Jr. What a crew. I understand seeing what you have, developing chemistry between compatible building blocks, and being patient. Wins aren’t what matter.
Most Improved Player: Luka Doncic
I made the case here and, by a hair, stand with it. There are several other amazing candidates, though. Many listed in that column.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Let’s start here: Jackson has blocked 83 shots in his first 26 games this season. That’s 3.2 per game—Rudy Gobert never averaged more than 2.7—and a whopping 4.4 blocks per 36 minutes. His block rate is an outrageous 11 percent. To put that number in context, if Jackson had played in enough games to qualify for the league’s all-time leaderboard, he would rank first.
Sixth Man of the Year: Norm Powell
I don’t feel too strongly about this one. There are a bunch of solid candidates but no real standouts. Bennedict Mathurin might win as a rookie and he didn’t even crack my honorable mentions list. Hopefully someday we get to a place where the best reserves aren’t graded by how many points they score. But until then, Powell gets the nod because, as one of the cleanest catch-and-shoot threats in the league, he scores a bunch with a 62 true shooting percentage.
Dunk of the Year: Aaron Gordon Over Landry Shamet
Before we get into why this is the obvious winner of my favorite make-believe award, let’s first go through a few other candidates.
Most Disappointing Team: Atlanta Hawks
A few months ago I wrote a column titled “Nineteen Increasingly Bold Predictions for the 2022-23 NBA Season.” In it was a sentence about the Hawks that has aged beautifully: “I love everything about this team.” Coming off a campaign in which they owned the second-best offense in basketball, I assumed they’d mostly sustain what they were, if not eventually improve upon it, having essentially replaced Kevin Huerter with Dejounte Murray. (Keeping Huerter would’ve been cool too, but I digress.)