It’s an honor to be selected as one of the NBA’s 100 award voters again this year.
The ballot goes out to 100 media members selected by the NBA, giving representation to international, national, and local media. With so many writers here in the Utah market — Jazz fans love their Jazz — the award rotates around the various writers; The Tribune’s Eric Walden had it last year, and I last had it three years ago.
But while it’s an honor, it’s not an easy job. While I watch hundreds and hundreds of NBA games, the truth is that it’s impossible to watch all of them. Take the NBA MVP race: In all, I’ve probably watched 10-20 games of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid’s seasons, each. Most of their minutes, then, I haven’t watched. I’d wager that there’s not a single award voter who has watched a majority of both players’ minutes on the floor — it’s just essentially impossible, even for someone whose job and hobby is watching basketball.
Therefore, the statistics really, really help. Stats take into account both what we have seen and what we haven’t seen. Advanced statistics — ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus, DunksAndThrees’ Estimated Plus-Minus, Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares and Value over Replacement Player, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR among them — try to put those statistics into relative context. Most also include a plus-minus component: how much better was your team when you were on the floor?
We all know that stats lie, though. Each statistic has its strengths and weaknesses: the Plus-Minus stats generally use data from multiple seasons, Win Shares values rebounds too strongly, RAPTOR has some wonky inputs with the tracking data, and so on. In general, we just know less about how to evaluate defense statistically. So we have to be careful in their application.
I’m also a believer in strongly considering games and minutes played. Regular-season value, to me, is how good you were multiplied by how often you were able to play. While Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant were among the league’s best players on a per-minute basis this year, their lack of availability really hurt their teams in the standings.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at my awards ballot.
Most Valuable Player
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
For nearly all of this season, I’ve had Jokic winning this award. I voted in ESPN’s straw poll as such, for example. Jokic’s resume is pretty incredible: he finishes well at the rim, but shoots a ridiculous 60% from the midrange — best in the league and ahead of Kevin Durant — and 38% from three to boot. He’s nearly averaging a triple-double, is a top-5 rebounder in the NBA, is a top-5 passer in the NBA, and the Nuggets are the West’s No. 1 seed.
But Embiid has simply caught up. In most of the advanced statistics, Embiid’s now within a one or two win margin, and actually leads in ESPN’s RPM. Generally, I’d still lean towards the stats and favor Jokic, but this is where we have to use some statistical humility.
In particular, by how much is Embiid a better defender than Jokic? The advanced stats love Jokic’s advantage in steals, and note how many shots he defends in the paint. But Embiid is clearly far better at dissuading shots, playing a wider variety of schemes, and, well just blocks more shots. I think it’s probably right to argue that Embiid gives the Sixers a couple of wins per season on the defensive end, and it’s hard to argue Jokic does the same.
When you take into account how the two players and teams finished the season off — Embiid and the Sixers just squeaked ahead of Jokic and the Nuggets.
I also had Tatum ahead of Antetokounmpo for much of this year, mostly on the back of games played. By the end of the season, though, their 11-game difference represented just a 13% difference in minutes. Do I think Giannis was 13% better than Tatum this year? I do, thanks to his defense, his rebounding, his passing, and his higher point totals.
There were a number of realistic candidates for No. 5, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best combination of elite production and team success in my view.
Rookie of the Year
1. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
I am going to get absolutely pilloried for this vote.
To be clear, I think Banchero is likely the better player, and likely will be the better player moving forward. He will certainly win this award this year.
But do you know what we’ve learned in the last couple of decades in the NBA? We’ve learned that high-usage, low-efficiency players in the NBA don’t contribute to winning. And that’s exactly what Banchero was in his rookie season. Banchero shot under 30% from three, under 50% from 2-point range this season. He has a good reason — he fell off in the middle-to-late part of the year thanks to nerve damage in his neck, he said, explaining the downturn in shooting. But the results matter, and Banchero scored with similar efficiency to players like Lu Dort, RJ Barrett, Jalen Green, or Caris LeVert.
The Magic were also much better when Banchero was off the court — among all of their iffy players, only Chuma Okeke had a lower plus-minus differential.
That’s why the advanced statistics favor Walker Kessler by an absolutely huge distance. Kessler certainly had a much smaller role on the offensive end than Banchero. But he made the most of it, leading the league in field goal percentage. Kessler will give you 0.8 fewer made baskets per 36 minutes... while also giving you 7.8 fewer chucks at the rim that can be distributed among other, more efficient players.
Meanwhile, Kessler’s had one of the biggest defensive roles in the NBA, and excelled at it. Remarkably, as a rookie, he was a top-5 rim protector in the NBA. Rebounding and shot-blocking gives him an advantage that Banchero’s lead as a playmaker doesn’t approach. Banchero, meanwhile, was just fine on that defensive end, maybe below-average.
Again, I will be made fun of for this vote. But I truly think it’s the right thing to do: I’d be making this decision even if I wasn’t a Utah voter. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported this on the last episode of the Lowe Post: “Among the people I asked about these awards are analytics people who work for teams, and their response like unanimously is: ‘how are you even debating this? It’s Walker Kessler. Like, it’s Walker Kessler by a mile. It’s Walker Kessler and then everyone else.’”
So I’m going with Walker Kessler. He simply had the better season, the one that pushed his team to more wins.
(Second place goes to Jalen Williams, who has been very good for the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially in the second half of the season.)
Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
Tari Eason, Houston Rockets
Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons
Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers
AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks
Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs
Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Again, the two biggest snubs here are Portland’s Shaedon Sharpe and Detroit’s Jaden Ivey — two absolutely stupendous athletes who probably made their teams worse overall this season when compared to a replacement-level vet. But I believe in their NBA careers to a huge degree; both started to shine most at the end of the NBA season. Houston’s Jabari Smith also deserves a nomination in that same category. The list of most successful NBA players will look very different than my ballot, but as far as who had the best seasons this year, I stand by my vote.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
2. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
This is essentially a quantity vs. quality decision. Lopez played in 15 more games than JJJ, he also defended hundreds more shots.
But Jaren Jackson Jr. was probably just better. Lopez had the benefit of two other all-world defenders on his side, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. Jackson had the benefit of Dillon Brooks’ feistiness ... and a bunch of other averageish defenders. Lopez was absolutely terrific in defending a ton of shots that the Bucks’ defenders funneled to him at center; Jackson was the league’s most shot-by-shot effective rim protector while also playing huge stretches at the four.
It’s honestly really, really close. Truthfully, I love the storyline of Lopez winning the award: at age 35, turning from random post-up big man in the early ‘10s to the league’s best defender in the middle of the twenties. But on the merits, I think I lean towards Jackson.
Alex Caruso was in my thoughts for the 3rd pick (have you seen his block numbers for a guard?!), but in the end, Evan Mobley’s resume as the best defender on the league’s best defense won out. Truthfully, he just has a bigger role than Caruso does, too.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
Jaden McDaniels, Minnesota Timberwolves
Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
There’s no real statistical justification for putting Green at center on the second team and Jones at guard: both played many more minutes at forward. But doing so allows me to put more forwards on these teams, and I thought the forward crop of defenders was much stronger than the guard crop this year. Green’s on-off numbers with the Warriors are stellar, and Jones is one of the biggest reasons the Pelicans managed to finish 6th in the league defensively.
Beyond that, it’s relatively straightforward. Holiday remains terrific, OG Anunoby is both a stopper and a very good help defender, McDaniels was terrific until he broke his hand. Brooks is perhaps the league’s most annoying pest, though he fouls too much.
Coach of the Year
1. Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings
2. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder
Mike Brown is the runaway winner of this award. He turned the most broken culture in American professional sports into a winner overnight. Case closed.
After that ... there aren’t too many teams that exceeded expectations this year and then also finished in the playoffs. And where they did, I thought there were clear reasons: the Knicks got fully-loaded Jalen Brunson, the Thunder got MIP candidate SGA. The Jazz’s Will Hardy was certainly in consideration, too.
In the end, I went to Budenholzer and his job stewarding the league’s best team through Khris Middleton’s injury and some depth issues for second place. Daigneault’s push for the Thunder to get into the play-in pushed him over Hardy and Thibodeau.
Sixth Man of the Year:
1. Malcolm Brogdon, Boston Celtics
2. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks
3. Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies
This is one of the only awards in which the NBA gives a voting prompt, saying that this award is meant to value a player’s contributions as a reserve.
Truthfully, the stats probably show that Quickley had the better overall season (he’s even an enjoyably good defender). But as The Athletic’s John Hollinger pointed out, Quickley’s best games came when he started. Every single one of Brogdon’s games came off the bench. So Brogdon — nicknamed “The President” — comes in first.
Tyus Jones is one of my favorite players in the NBA: the biggest reason the Grizzlies can keep rolling with Ja Morant in and out of the lineup is Jones’ steady brilliance. I think you can make really good cases for other players in third-place here, but Jones’ stood out for the West’s No. 2 seed.
Most Improved Player
1. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
I think many people saw this coming for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, becoming one of the best point guards in the NBA. I do not think many people saw this coming for Lauri Markkanen, becoming one of the best forwards in the NBA.
Surprise isn’t a criteria for the award, but I do think it’s reflective of just how good Gilgeous-Alexander was in his previous seasons. If he stayed healthy, and tuned up a few aspects of his game, this was going to be his path.
Meanwhile, Markkanen went from a 4th-starter type to leading man. He finished in the top 15 in numerous all-in-one stats, even as the Jazz took away all of his supporting cast by the end of the season. He made huge leaps in both efficiency and usage in the same season. He also became the first NBA player ever to have 200 threes and 100 dunks in a season, a remarkable accomplishment that highlights his outside-in versatility. Oh, and he even proved to be a valuable defender, albeit moreso at the rim than the perimeter.
SGA’s the better player today, still. Markkanen’s starting point was much lower, so I gave him Most Improved. He’s the Vegas favorite to win the award.
As for third, I haven’t seen Tyrese Haliburton on many ballots, but he became a first-time All-Star this year, finishing with a remarkable 10.5 estimated wins from EPM despite playing only 56 games. That games-played metric would normally be a bigger downside for me in any other category, but Haliburton did improve the third-most, I thought — he just wasn’t healthy the whole year. Jalen Brunson, probably the player who will actually finish third, was absolutely this guy last season — just ask Jazz fans who watched last season’s playoffs.
Clutch player of the year:
1. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
3. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
This brand-new award has a wrinkle: its finalists are voted on by the league’s 30 coaches. No other award has a similar filtering process.
The coaches chose good finalists, though. The website Inpredictable tracks how players add or remove the most win probability to their team’s games all season long (when you make a game-winner, you can push your team’s winning chances from, say, 50% to 100%.) This year, Fox is the runaway winner, with Embiid second and Jimmy Butler eking out DeMar DeRozan for third. In the end, I made DeRozan my third-place finalist because he would have won this award if it existed last season.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Four of the top five players in my MVP list, plus Doncic, whose offensive production remains otherworldly despite his team’s late collapse.
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
There’s a real case for Mitchell or Lillard to be bumped up to first team, but Mitchell’s efficiency took a downturn at the end of the year and Lillard sat out. Still, their stats are very good, and props to Mitchell for having his most efficient season this year.
Jimmy Butler might have the highest basketball IQ in the league. No other player is as good at drawing fouls, playing smart defense, and avoiding turnovers while running his team’s show when they need it as Butler is. Markkanen ends up in the second team thanks to his combination of efficiency, usage, and a high number of games played relative to the forward competition.
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings
Curry and James would have been on higher teams (probably the first team) if they played more games, but they played 55 and 56 games, respectively. Meanwhile, Randle played 77 games this year, more than unfortunate snubs Anthony Davis (56 games), Kawhi Leonard (52 games), and Kevin Durant (47 games). Those latter three are all better players than Randle (or Markkanen, for that matter), but were they 30-50% better in this particular season? The advanced stats don’t think so.
Meanwhile, Holiday and Sabonis were just absolutely terrific for their winning teams, doing it all. Holiday is an All-Defense player who took on a bigger role with Milwaukee this year while keeping efficiency, rebounds, and assists high. Sabonis is essentially a poor man’s Jokic at this point; his play was the No. 1 reason Sacramento was a playoff team this year.