Handing Out Awards for Every NBA Team This SeasonApril 4, 2022
Handing Out Awards for Every NBA Team This Season
With the 2021-22 NBA season drawing to a close, it's time to take stock of every team's best players and most important contributors.
To do that, we'll hand out four awards for all 30 teams. Do the math, and that's 120 (pretend) trophies.
Hopefully, everyone will keep their acceptance speeches short.
Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year will be the old standbys, with Best Newcomer/Biggest Surprise thrown in and a miscellaneous award to cover anything the other three missed.
Let's distribute some hardware.
MVP: Trae Young
Young is putting the finishing touches on the best offensive season of his career, and that's saying something for a guy who's been one of the league's top point-generators since the moment he stepped on the floor in 2018-19.
Nikola Jokic is the only player likely to finish ahead of Young in FiveThirtyEight's Offensive RAPTOR catch-all rating, and all-time-great facilitator Chris Paul is the lone challenger in Young's quest to collect the most total assists in 2021-22.
Young might be the slickest interior passer in the game, his floater is as unstoppable as ever and it feels like an afterthought that he's already set a career high in made threes. If his averages hold, the 23-year-old will become just the third player in history to produce two seasons of at least 28.0 points and 9.0 assists per game.
DPOY: Onyeka Okongwu
If quantity is your thing, Clint Capela is a fine pick here. He has logged more than twice as many total minutes as the constantly overlooked second-year center Okongwu. Based on quality, Okongwu is the clear choice.
He's limited opponents to a lower conversion rate as the primary defender inside six feet and holds up better in space against guards. Okongwu's Defensive Versatility score, via BBall Index, is also higher than Capela's. And though he tends to see more minutes against backups, Okongwu's on/off impact on the Atlanta Hawks defense is significantly better.
Okongwu will inevitably unseat Capela as the starter in the middle.
Biggest Surprise: Gorgui Dieng
Dieng, a center who took at least 93.5 percent of his shots from two-point range during the first four years of his career, is on pace to attempt more threes than twos this season. If his rates hold, he'll become just the fifth center (among those seeing at least 300 minutes) to ever produce a three-point attempt rate above 50 percent.
That's about as niche as surprises get, but any time a player is about to do something we've only seen a handful of times in NBA history, it counts.
We Finally Did It! Award: Bogdan Bogdanovic
For as long as Young has been Atlanta's offensive engine, the Hawks have stalled with him off the floor. Bogdanovic finally killed that trend, leading units without Young to an offensive rating well above the league average—in a sample of roughly 1,000 minutes!
At last, the Hawks can survive without Young orchestrating. Now, if only Atlanta could figure out how to stabilize that bottom-five defense...
MVP: Jayson Tatum
Tatum is on pace to improve his scoring average over last year's mark, which isn't new for him. The three-time All-Star has set scoring highs in every season of his career. The bigger development is that he's upping the volume while being on pace to produce the highest true shooting percentage since he was a low-usage rookie.
That'll be quite the achievement considering how cold Tatum started the year. Through November, he was shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from deep.
He'll close the campaign as Boston's landslide leader in total points, free throws and threes. A hot run could see Tatum finish in the top 10 in Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Estimated Offensive Plus/Minus.
Though the Boston Celtics' season has been defined by its defense, where Tatum is just fine, his impact on the other end sets him apart.
DPOY: Marcus Smart
If you want to advertise that you're not watching the Celtics, just try to make the case that anyone other than Smart is the team's best defender. And if you want to really tick off Boston fans, put together a list of league-wide Defensive Player of the Year candidates that doesn't include the Celtics guard.
Smart is the signal-caller and hustling tone-setter of the NBA's best defense. He switches. He dives on the floor. He takes charges. He piles up deflections. Whatever Boston needs to get stops, Smart provides—always toeing the line between honest aggression and theatrical gamesmanship. Does he go too far sometimes? Only if you're a fan of the other team.
Biggest Surprise: Robert Williams III
Williams' potential as a defensive difference-maker has never been in question. But nobody (other than head coach Ime Udoka) could have foreseen the tactics Boston used to get him to that level.
The Celtics' surge this year coincided with the team gaining comfort with an unusual scheme that kept Williams, the team's center, off the ball and generally uninvolved in pick-and-roll coverage. Pre-switching, timely rotations and Williams' uncommon quickness combined to shut down opposing attacks.
Few bigs have the ability to cover ground like Williams, and almost none of them are as terrifyingly quick off the floor. It's made Williams the league's most destructive help defender and propelled Boston to contender status. A torn meniscus will have a major impact on Williams and the Celtics' playoff chances, but there was no denying his impact during a breakout regular season.
All the Little Things Award: Grant Williams
No Celtics player—not even Smart—has a higher Defensive Versatility score than Williams, a tweener forward whose stocky 6'6", 236-pound frame somehow stays in front of guards and holds its ground against centers inside.
Always in the right place at the right time, despite moving at tugboat speeds, Williams is an underappreciated piece of Boston's terrific defense. That he's up over 40.0 percent from deep and always seems to make the right pass are bonuses.
MVP: Kevin Durant
If not for that month-and-a-half on the shelf because of a sprained MCL (and if Kyrie Irving had been on the floor enough to improve the Brooklyn Nets' 40-38 record), Durant would be getting serious consideration for his second MVP award.
When healthy, KD's scoring prowess was second to none, and he was responsible for keeping the Nets afloat as his surrounding stars and supporting players were either unavailable, injured or disengaged...and then traded.
Scoring 30.1 points per game and in line to finish with a true shooting percentage above the hallowed 60.0 percent mark for the 10th straight season, Durant remains the league's most defense-proof star. There's no individual defender or team scheme that can bother him.
DPOY: Nicolas Claxton
On pace to lead the team in blocks and the only big on the roster with any semblance of versatility, Claxton filled an integral role in an abbreviated season. Though he primarily defended centers, Claxton spent at least 10 percent of his minutes matched up against each of the other four positions. Despite moving around so much, he also held opponents to just 52.5 percent shooting inside six feet, an elite figure and the best on the team among rotation players.
Brooklyn's defense wasn't anything to write home about, but Claxton more than did his part.
Best Newcomer: Seth Curry
The Nets probably wish Ben Simmons had been healthy enough to occupy this spot, but Curry has been much more than a throw-in since coming aboard at the deadline. In the midst of a banner season with the Philadelphia 76ers, Curry shot the ball even better with Brooklyn, canning 20 of his first 41 long-range attempts with the team.
He's on track to average at least 15.0 points per game for the first time in his career.
Better Late Than Never Award: Kyrie Irving
Brooklyn's title chances got a huge boost when New York changed its vaccine mandate, allowing Irving to participate in home games. Though he had been stellar in part-time duty, his regular presence (as long as the Nets avoid Toronto in the playoffs) changes the team's outlook.
Irving probably would have deserved some kind of honor just for the 60 points he hung on the Orlando Magic on March 15, shooting 20-of-31 from the floor. To that point, there had only been five other games in league history in which a player scored at least 60 points in under 35 minutes.
In that game and throughout this season, Irving made the most of his limited time.
MVP: LaMelo Ball
Players who can create offense for themselves and others—efficiently and at high volume—are the most valuable commodities in the league. Ball occupied that high-leverage role for the Charlotte Hornets this season, leading the team in drives, possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and total touch time by huge margins.
He wasn't Charlotte's most efficient player in any of those areas, but he was the one entrusted with primary playmaking responsibility in what will finish as a top-10 offense. Even with that expansive role and heavy usage, Ball improved his points per shot attempt and his assist rate over last year's levels.
Best of all, LaMelo is already the rare facilitator who excels as a play-before-the-play connector. He sees opportunities two decisions away and leads Charlotte in secondary assists by a country mile.
Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges have been terrific; better than Ball as RAPTOR sees it, in fact. And Bridges joins Ball in the Hornets' top three in total points, assists and rebounds. But role matters, and the second-year point guard had the most important one on the team.
DPOY: Mason Plumlee
Cody Martin might have a case on the wing, but role decides this award too. Plumlee gets it because he handled rim protection on a team that ranked in the bottom 10 in opponent attempt rate at close range.
Teams shot and converted at the rim less often when Plumlee was in the game, and no Hornets player decreased opponent effective field-goal percentage more. When he was out: layup parade.
Best Newcomer: Kelly Oubre Jr.
Though his overall numbers won't wind up looking much different from the ones he produced in a disappointing 2020-21 season with the Golden State Warriors, Oubre punctuated his year with a handful of show-stopping performances.
Four of the six highest game scores of his career came this season, including the Jan. 26 win over the Indiana Pacers when Oubre ripped off 39 points and canned 10 threes.
The Leap Award: Miles Bridges
Ja Morant and Darius Garland might be safer bets for the NBA's Most Improved Player, but Bridges has been in the mix for that honor throughout the season. With a bump from 12.7 to 20.3 points per game, Bridges has become a high-end scorer—one who also dramatically increased his assists per game over last year.
The only knock is a fall from 2020-21's 40.0 percent three-point shooting. But Bridges added so much volume to his long-range game that he's actually averaging more made triples than ever. A reserve last season, Bridges may be on course to make an All-Star Game or two in the next half-decade.
MVP: DeMar DeRozan
The Chicago Bulls' late-season slump will prevent DeRozan from getting any serious MVP consideration, but there was a long stretch when he was a reasonable inclusion on many top-five lists.
Remarkable clutch play, which included game-winning threes in back-to-back contests, highlighted a brilliant scoring season for the 32-year-old mid-range master. DeRozan will finish first on the Bulls in total points, assists and minutes. When injuries decimated the defense, DeRozan scored enough to save the Bulls' season on the other end.
DPOY: Alex Caruso
Caruso is the only rotation player who comes anywhere close to DeRozan in terms of positive on/off impact, and all of the guard's plus/minus contributions show up on D.
A relentless on-ball chaos agent, Caruso led the team in deflections and charges drawn per game. He might still get some consideration for an All-Defensive spot, but Caruso would have locked one up if not for the six-week stretch he lost to a fractured wrist.
Best Newcomer: Ayo Dosunmu
You usually don't get much from second-round picks, but Dosunmu bucked the trend by thriving in a major role when injuries removed key guards from the rotation.
Though an extremely low-usage player for his position, the rookie's unflagging intensity on both ends made a real difference in a time of need. Lottery pick Scottie Barnes is the only rookie who's logged more 40-minute games than Dosunmu this season.
Selected 38th overall, Dosunmu will end up on an All-Rookie team.
Pay That Man Award: Zach LaVine
It's a weak free-agent class, and few teams have significant cap space. But LaVine did more than enough this season to earn a max offer—whether that comes from the Bulls or another squad that wants a premier scorer with an increasingly long track record of volume and efficiency.
LaVine is one of a half-dozen players to average at least 23.0 points on over 56.0 percent true shooting in each of the last four seasons. The others are LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyrie Irving.
LaVine accepted a 1B role to DeRozan's 1A this season, showing his game can scale on teams with more than one star. That should only increase his earning potential.
MVP: Darius Garland
Many factors contributed to the Cleveland Cavaliers' breakout season, but Garland's ascent to stardom might be the biggest one. And on a team that lost so much of its opening-night guard rotation, the third-year point guard's leadership at a thin position gives him an edge over a couple of worthy team-MVP candidates.
An All-Star for the first time, Garland battled through back trouble and ankle issues to blow past his previous career high in total minutes. With Collin Sexton lost for the season after a handful of games with a torn meniscus and Ricky Rubio going down with a torn ACL in late December, Garland had no choice but to shoulder an enormous playmaking burden.
His positive on/off differential more than doubled that of any other Cavs player.
DPOY: Jarrett Allen
Allen is this season's rim-protection king, the only player to defend at least 300 shots inside six feet while holding opponents under 49.0 percent at that range. Don't let an underwhelming 1.3 blocks per game fool you. Allen deterred shots inside like few others, with the added bonus of rarely leaping out of position to chase low-likelihood blocks and almost never fouling.
In addition to grabbing 10.8 boards per game, Allen also handled the toughest big-man assignments on the team, which allowed Evan Mobley to wreak havoc as a rover.
Best Newcomer: Evan Mobley
That Mobley warranted consideration for both of the preceding awards says everything about the rookie big man's brilliant season. First-year players are almost always in over their heads on defense, but Mobley grades out as a positive on that end by RAPTOR, D-EPM and Defensive Box Plus/Minus (where he actually tops Allen).
Mobley is alarmingly mobile for someone who's 6'11", 215 pounds and slides around the floor like a guard. He's a five-position defender in the mold of Bam Adebayo, but taller and rangier. Whether at the top of a zone, checking a point guard on a switch or standing tall inside, Mobley showed the league what a future multi-time All-Defensive first-teamer looks like.
The Cavs have a genuine cornerstone.
Feel-Good Renaissance Award: Kevin Love
Love's playmaking off the bench was a quiet key to Cleveland surviving the loss of so many ball-handlers to injury. The 33-year-old forward could finish with his highest assist percentage since those top-option days with the Minnesota Timberwolves nearly a decade ago.
Love has already played more games than in any season since 2015-16. Healthy and contributing to a winner after some dark post-LeBron seasons, the five-time All-Star's resurgence was one of this season's more satisfying stories.
MVP: Luka Doncic
Do we need to do this?
Doncic, 23, leads the Dallas Mavericks in total points, rebounds and assists, and he tops the regulars in usage rate.
On pace to finish with averages of at least 27.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists for the third straight year, Doncic only needs two more such seasons to tie Oscar Robertson's five for the most all-time.
Luka had more help this season, and Dallas' defense was integral in its turnaround after the calendar flipped to 2022. But the Mavericks would be nowhere without the league's best young player.
DPOY: Dorian Finney-Smith
The rare player who doesn't just guard positions 1-to-4 but actually shuts them down, Finney-Smith was the glue to Dallas' defense and filled a vital role in hiding Doncic from tough matchups across the positional spectrum.
Only Luguentz Dort and Matisse Thybulle had higher matchup difficulty ratings, but DFS is going to finish with somewhere roughly 1,000 more minutes than either of those two. Considering volume, you could say Finney-Smith had the toughest defensive job in the league this season.
Best Newcomer: Spencer Dinwiddie
Clutch play may not be predictive, but the Mavericks shouldn't care. Dinwiddie's brilliance earned them a 9-1 record in the 10 close-and-late games they played following his arrival at the deadline. You can't erase those victories from Dallas' record, and they're a huge reason a top-three seed in the West is still within reach.
Two game-winners in a row used to be unheard of. Dinwiddie joined DeRozan in pulling that off this season.
Best Little Big Guy Award: Jalen Brunson
In addition to spending most of the season as the Mavs' second-most important playmaker (and thereby assuring himself of a hefty free-agent payday this summer), Brunson continued to pepper in some of the craftiest mid-post footwork in the league.
He's listed at 6'1", by the way.
Brunson's array of reverse pivots, fake hooks and duck-under shots cancel out his height disadvantage. More importantly, they produce giggle-inducing highlights. There's nothing quite like seeing a smallish point guard go to work like he's a 7-footer from the mid-1980s.
MVP: Nikola Jokic
Jokic may well win his second straight MVP (leaguewide version) this season, and it's basically impossible to imagine him finishing any lower than third. If Michael Porter Jr. (back) and Jamal Murray (torn ACL) had been healthy enough to play all year and nudge the Denver Nuggets' record up a few notches, the race may have been over months ago.
Gains in two-point percentage and a major jump in rebounds per game highlight Jokic's step forward after last year's MVP win. You wouldn't have thought there was much room for improvement after such a phenomenal 2020-21 effort, but Jokic found some anyway.
On pace to become the first player in history to average at least 26.0 points, 13.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists, Jokic has also led the league all year in EPM, RAPTOR, Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares and virtually any other advanced metric you can find.
DPOY: Aaron Gordon
The absence of two top scorers pushed Gordon into a larger offensive role than is ideal for his Swiss Army skill set, but the bouncy power forward managed to carry that load without losing a step on the other end.
Gordon slid across the positional spectrum all season, going wherever the toughest matchup was. Usually, he put the clamps on his man, covering for a team defense that was small in the backcourt and slow up front.
Best Newcomer: Bones Hyland
Trade acquisition Bryn Forbes' spot-up shooting helped space the floor, but Hyland's confident shot-making and general disregard for the concept of deferring to veterans gave the Nuggets a shot in the arm on offense.
No. 2 pick Jalen Green is the only rookie with more made threes.
Sorry, He's How Old? Award: Jeff Green
At 35 and playing for his 11th franchise, Green stepped into a regular starting role and averaged double figures while hitting over half his shots from the field. He even still has some springs.
We should all age so gracefully.
MVP: Jerami Grant
It's tough to hand this award to someone who'll finish the year with just 47 games played, but it's not like the Detroit Pistons had a banner season that produced multiple candidates.
Grant remains the Pistons' top two-way player, even if he was most notable for being the constant subject of trade chatter. His 19.2 points per game led the Pistons, and his 35.8 percent knockdown rate from deep, though modest, was the best on the team among players who got up at least 200 triples.
DPOY: Isaiah Stewart
Hamidou Diallo racked up the steals and posted a higher D-EPM, but Stewart will end the season with something around 500 more minutes of court time. That, plus Stewart's more important gig as a paint protector gives him an edge here.
Beef Stew will finish the year as Detroit's leader in blocks, defensive rebounds and personal fouls. He is also the only Pistons player to very nearly attack LeBron James. We don't award points for attempted violence, but tone-setting and toughness are part of establishing a defensive reputation.
Best Newcomer: Cade Cunningham
It was rough going to start the year, but Cunningham eventually got past his ankle injury and settled in. For most of the season, he validated the Pistons' decision to take him first in the 2021 draft.
Smooth with the ball, already adept at using his size and gifted with a knack for changing pace, Cunningham flashed some Doncic-esque patience and poise in the lane. With a projectable shooting stroke that seems likely to fall more often than it did this season, Cunningham has three-level-scorer potential.
He's on pace to become the 10th rookie to average at least 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds.
Get Them Up Award: Saddiq Bey
With Grant missing so much time and Cunningham taking a while to find his way, second-year forward Bey stepped into a high-volume role and, well...got some shots up.
Bey's percentages dipped, but he got to the foul line more and made strides in getting his own offense. He'll finish the season with more points than any other Piston, and his 51-point eruption against the Orlando Magic on March 17 was among Detroit's brightest moments.
Golden State Warriors
MVP: Stephen Curry
Curry's regular season ended early with a sprained ligament in his foot, but all the usual trends illustrating his greatness were present before the mid-March setback.
He led the Golden State Warriors in scoring, of course, and his plus-15.9 on-court differential was tops on the team by a factor of three (among players who logged at least 700 minutes). The Dubs offense came completely undone whenever he was off the floor, and the Warriors will still finish with a sub-.500 record in games he missed—even if they win out during the regular season.
Steph's gravity and relentless movement opened up opportunities for teammates, making him a superstar even when he didn't touch the ball. Few all-time greats also qualify as underrated, but Curry fits that bill.
DPOY: Draymond Green
Green was probably the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year when he went out with a back injury in January that cost him over two months. When he left the lineup, Golden State was entrenched as the league's top defense, and his high-IQ play was the main reason. He hasn't been the same since returning in mid-March, but the Warriors don't have another clear option.
If Gary Payton II had played more, he would have warranted consideration.
Best Newcomer: Jonathan Kuminga
Kuminga may not even make an All-Rookie team, but he flashed enough athleticism and skill to profile as one of the two or three first-year players with true superstar upside. An overwhelming athlete already adept at seeking contact (and finishing through it), the combo forward produced explosive highlights in almost every game he played.
No rookie tops his points-per-36 average, and Kuminga's ability to play some small-ball 5 only expands head coach Steve Kerr's options.
Though he still spaces out defensively when away from the ball and can only hit threes at a dead standstill, Kuminga's ceiling is too high to see.
Showstopper Award: Jordan Poole
On a team with Curry and Klay Thompson, Poole still managed to stand out for his jaw-dropping offensive repertoire. Ridiculous handles, unbridled confidence, elite finishing craft and a nasty long-range game made Poole one of this season's breakout scoring stars.
MVP: Christian Wood
It feels a little wrong to give a team's highest award to someone who didn't always give maximum effort or exhibit ideal body language, but Wood's statistical case is airtight. And it's not like the cellar-dwelling Houston Rockets are flush with candidates.
Wood is on pace to finish in a small, superstar-filled club of players averaging at least 17.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, and he's made more threes than any of them. Houston's leader in total points, rebounds and blocks, Wood is way out in front of his teammates (among regulars) in Box Plus/Minus and win shares.
DPOY: Jae'Sean Tate
Tate's grit and defensive intensity showed up whether he was in a deep stance trying to stay in front of a guard on a switch or absorbing a hit from a driving center down low.
Among Rockets who defended at least 500 shots, the combo forward had the biggest effect on opponent field-goal percentage and the largest positive impact on the team's defensive rating.
Best Newcomer: Jalen Green
Through January, Green was an empty-numbers contributor—inefficient on offense and inept on defense. That was to be expected from a rail-thin rookie whose athleticism and range (not his feel) got him drafted second overall.
But since February, Green has been a different player. He shot 44.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from deep in that calendar month, and he's going to finish March with even better numbers.
The highlights have been there all along; Green's straight-line burst and explosion are both Grade A. But it looks like shot selection and a better grasp of how to operate in a professional offense are coming too.
Wasn't It Obvious? Award: Alperen Sengun
In April 2021, when draft evaluators were drooling over Cunningham, Green and Mobley, Sengun was getting little consideration as a high lottery pick. Considering he'd just shredded the Turkish league as an 18-year-old, that seemed odd.
The Athletic's John Hollinger noted: "If he fails with this kind of track record in a good overseas league, he’ll be the first of his kind."
Narrator voice: Sengun did not fail.
A deft passer with clever post moves and great offensive feel, Sengun will finish with an assist rate above the 90th percentile for his position. His hands and anticipation make up for a lack of speed, and he'll also grade out in the top quartile in block and steal rate among bigs.
Maybe he won't be a star, but Sengun knows how to impact the game at an advanced level. He'll play his age-20 season next year.
MVP: Domantas Sabonis
If Myles Turner had logged more than 42 games, or if Tyrese Haliburton had spent more time with the team, we could have avoided the awkwardness of giving the MVP to a guy who's no longer on the roster. But Sabonis simply did more to help the Indiana Pacers prior to being traded than anyone else did over the course of a full season.
When you stack up the 18.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game Sabonis averaged across 1,632 minutes (which still has a chance to lead the team if Chris Duarte, who's suffering from toe soreness, doesn't get healthy enough to overtake him down the stretch), nobody else on the team measures up.
Sabonis, long viewed as a sieve, even graded out as a positive on D, improving the Pacers' defensive rating by 9.2 points per 100 possessions.
DPOY: Myles Turner
Though he only played 42 games because of a toe injury, Turner's defensive impact showed up in the usual places. Most notably, he ranked in the 100th percentile (hard to beat that!) in block rate. In addition to the shots he sent away, Turner was also better at altering opponent attempts at close range than any teammate.
Among players across the league who covered at least six attempts inside six feet per game, his 55.9 field-goal percentage allowed ranks sixth.
Biggest Surprise: Chris Duarte
Duarte will wind up leading Indy players (still on the roster) in total points, steals and minutes. No, seriously.
When the team blows up, the guy still standing amid the rubble deserves credit.
Duarte was the oldest first-rounder drafted since 2002, but the 24-year-old carried himself with youthful brashness and was never afraid to take a tough shot.
Immediate Rebuild Award: Tyrese Haliburton
Another reason to give Sabonis Indy's MVP? He was the piece the Pacers sent away to get Haliburton.
The second-year guard thrived as a lead playmaker upon joining his new team, racking up averages of 17.2 points, 9.5 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game while hitting 42.6 percent of his threes.
The Pacers have avoided rebuilding for decades, and the addition of Haliburton means their trip to the bottom of the East standings will be a short one.
Los Angeles Clippers
MVP: Reggie Jackson
In a strange, mostly starless season for the Los Angeles Clippers, choosing an MVP is about more than the numbers. To pick Jackson, who's on pace to make under 40 percent of his field goals, it has to be.
Despite the inaccuracy from the floor, Jackson has been on target as a galvanizing force for a Clippers team missing Kawhi Leonard (torn ACL) for the whole campaign and Paul George (elbow) for most of it.
"He's been our leader all year," Luke Kennard told The Athletic's Law Murray. "He's going to take us all the way to the playoffs, and we're just, we're going to follow him."
It doesn't hurt that Jackson is neck-and-neck with Terance Mann for the high total in minutes, or that he's going to lead the Clippers in scoring by over 300 points. But Jackson's energy and competitiveness are a huge reason L.A. survived without its two best players.
DPOY: Nicolas Batum
Batum handles the toughest opposing matchups and has the highest Defensive Versatility score on the team (excluding the departed Justise Winslow). You have to get past the ugly on/off splits that show Los Angeles defends better collectively when Batum is out of the game, but that's easier when you consider the difficulty of his assignments and the love he gets from D-EPM and Defensive RAPTOR.
Isaiah Hartenstein's sky-high block and steal rates made him a consideration here, but he'll get his due in a moment.
Biggest Surprise: Amir Coffey
By the time the Clippers finally converted his two-way deal to a standard NBA contract, it felt like an obvious decision. But Coffey playing and contributing enough to earn that upgrade was a pretty far-fetched scenario when the season began.
Pressed into duty by injury, the 6'7" wing has produced 22 double-digit scoring games, filling in admirably as a starter for long stretches in January and March. Not bad for a guy who came into the season with a career scoring average of 3.2 points per game.
Dime It Up Award: Isaiah Hartenstein
It makes sense that a former Jokic understudy can pass, but it's not fair to Hartenstein to attribute his facilitating flair to a former teammate. The journeyman center has always been able to move the ball; he's just gotten more opportunity to flash his skills this season.
Hartenstein's assist percentage ranks in the 92nd percentile among bigs. With Jokic listed at 6'11", the only player 7'0" or taller with a higher assist percentage than Hartenstein this season is Joel Embiid.
When you're short a pair of superstar scoring wings, it helps to get setups wherever you can.
Los Angeles Lakers
MVP: LeBron James
There's no runner-up here. No close second. No honorable mention.
For the vast majority of this lost season, James has been the only good thing the Los Angeles Lakers had going for them. In addition to leading the team in scoring, James has accumulated a RAPTOR WAR figure more than twice that of any other Lakers regular.
Ditto for Box Plus/Minus.
James is taking more plays off on defense, but he's still putting up perhaps the best statistical age-37 season in history. Plus, he's going to lead the team in average minutes by a mile, and his impact on offense, as measured by on/off splits, remains substantial.
DPOY: Anthony Davis
The Lakers defend at the equivalent of a top-10 clip when Davis is in the game, and his stints of unavailability are a huge reason the team is ticketed for a bottom-10 finish on that end. The team leader in total blocks despite missing more than half the season, AD is also the only capable rim-protector on the roster.
Best Newcomer: Malik Monk
Monk's high-volume three-point shooting gave James a late-game outlet and helped alleviate spacing problems created by Russell Westbrook. Few Lakers have been better in the clutch than Monk, who's hitting 48.7 percent of his shots and 42.9 percent of his threes in close-and-late situations.
Chuck Norris Award: Austin Reaves
If you can see Chuck Norris, he can see you. If you cannot see Chuck Norris, you may only be seconds from death.
If you can see Reaves, he can see you. If you cannot see Reaves, you may be only seconds from getting your shot spiked into the hardwood or pinned against the board like a bug on a windshield.
You've been warned.
MVP: Ja Morant
We've been using a lot of numbers, alphabet-soup metrics and on-off splits to determine awards so far. While those are mostly favorable to Morant winning MVP here, they don't give him a clear win. Desmond Bane has played more and accumulated a higher RAPTOR WAR, for example. Bane has also added more wins, per Dunks and Threes.
Considering Morant's critical role in the offense, his impending All-NBA nod and a whole mess of absurd highlights, it's not so hard to get past the numbers not loving him. What's harder to overlook is the Memphis Grizzlies' 19-2 record in games Morant has missed.
It's just that you can't overthink these things. The Grizzlies supporting cast is awesome, but so is Morant. Both things can be true. When a lead guard averages 27.6 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game for an ascendant contender in the West, you've got to give it to him.
DPOY: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Long plagued by foul trouble, Jackson has avoided violations much more successfully this year, leading to an uptick in minutes and greater defensive impact. He leads the league in block percentage, is holding up much better on switches and is in line to finish among the league's top 10 in Defensive Win Shares.
Biggest Surprise: Desmond Bane
Bane was a quality rotation player as a rookie in 2020-21, but he's now a high-end starter after doubling his scoring average (up from 9.2 to 18.2 points per game) and losing almost no efficiency. Now, the Grizzlies have one of the league's best high-volume three-point shooters whose physical strength allows him to compete on D against wings and forwards.
And did you see those advanced metrics up in the MVP section?
Big Guys Still Matter Award: Steven Adams
Everybody wants a center who can stretch the floor on offense and switch on defense, but Adams is proving there's still value in those old "immobile hunk of granite" models. The NBA's best offensive rebounder, Adams also leads the league in screen assists and box outs.
Just don't ask him to explain how he gets all those boards.
MVP: Jimmy Butler
Butler's public shouting match with head coach Erik Spoelstra was a bad look, particularly when his team and its locker room leader appeared to take up sides against him. Though that blowup might not augur well for Butler's future with the franchise, it's not nearly enough to diminish his contributions to the team this year.
Despite an increasingly worrisome failure to hit threes, Butler leads the Miami Heat in scoring and remains their best wing defender. His ability to get to the foul line is also vital to an offense that struggles to get good looks in half-court sets.
Butler is one of just eight players in the league putting up a 20-5-5 line on at least 58 percent true shooting.
DPOY: Bam Adebayo
Adebayo's invulnerability against guards is the key to Miami's switch-heavy defensive scheme. The Heat's starting center is perfectly comfortable alone, in space, matched up against a lightning-quick ball-handler.
Butler, P.J. Tucker and Kyle Lowry are all rugged and accomplished defenders, but Adebayo plays the most critical role. He leads the team in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Shares.
Biggest Surprise: P.J. Tucker
Tucker's accuracy from the corners and bullying on-ball defense aren't surprises, even in his age-36 season. Chances are, he'll bring those elements for as long as he chooses to keep playing. What's been less expected, though, is Tucker moving beyond those niche duties.
The Heat are letting him participate in more actions than his previous teams, trusting him to do more than catch and shoot on offense. Tucker's average dribbles per touch have doubled over last year's rates, and his assist percentage is at a career-high level.
It's enough to make you wonder whether Tucker's previous teams, the Rockets and Bucks, should have trusted him to do more than spot-up and defend.
South Beach Career Rehab Award: Caleb Martin
Martin started the season on a two-way deal and will wind up ranking fourth on the Heat in Box Plus/Minus after a breakthrough campaign that reestablished the 26-year-old as a rotation-caliber two-way wing.
That's quite the arc, though we probably should have expected this from the Heat's training staff and player-development track record. Martin is the latest in a long line of success stories that includes James Johnson and Dion Waiters.
Go to Miami, get in the best shape of your life and get your career back on track.
MVP and DPOY: Giannis Antetokounmpo
We won't double up awards often, but exceptions belong to the exceptional.
With Brook Lopez missing most of the season following back surgery, Antetokounmpo spent more time guarding centers than any other position this year. Milwaukee Bucks lineups with Giannis at the 5 are defending at a clip that ranks in the 88th percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions, and those groupings, by definition, don't include Lopez.
Flirting with a career high in Box Plus/Minus, Antetokounmpo is second in EPM and second in RAPTOR. He's been a de facto third-place consideration behind Embiid and Jokic in most MVP conversations but would probably be part of a three-way tie if not for voter fatigue.
Biggest Surprise: Brook Lopez
Back surgeries and 7-footers don't typically go well together. But Lopez returned from several months off looking very much like the same player he was before his injury.
Opponents can't make anything against him at the rim, and Lopez is getting threes up at high volume.
The Bucks now know they can contend with Giannis at center, but Lopez's surprisingly quick return to form only ups their odds of a title repeat.
Forever Underrated Award: Jrue Holiday
Holiday is as stout of a backcourt defender as there is in the league, and he's somehow managed to lead the Bucks to a positive net rating in the minutes he's played without Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton on the floor.
There aren't many players capable of doing all the dirty work to support a star and leading starless groups to success when the circumstances call for it.
Holiday has somehow only made one All-Star appearance in his career.
MVP: Karl-Anthony Towns
Towns has had better statistical seasons than this one, marked by higher scoring and rebounding averages, loftier three-point percentages and more blocks per game. But his efforts this year count for a little extra because his Minnesota Timberwolves are winning.
Even with his numbers coming up short of previous career highs, KAT is clearly the driving force behind Minnesota's success.
His floor-spacing and pick-and-pop gravity strain defenses to their breaking points, creating opportunities for teammates to attack. Defensively, Towns has looked better in the Wolves' new scheme, which brings him up to the level of the screen to bother ball-handlers rather than leaving him dropped in the lane to face downhill drivers. His steal rate has never been higher.
DPOY: Jarred Vanderbilt
Long, quick and endlessly energetic, Vanderbilt has a gift for speeding up opposing offensive players and forcing mistakes. The 6'9" forward's off-ball value shows up in a steal rate that ranks in the 96th percentile at his position, and his on-ball defense is just as important. The Wolves task Vanderbilt with the toughest wing matchups on the team.
Best Newcomer: Patrick Beverley
Beverley is the only Wolves player with a higher Matchup Difficulty score than Vanderbilt, and his ability to shield D'Angelo Russell from overwhelming defensive assignments (which, for Russell, is most defensive assignments) has helped Minnesota produce a defensive rating just decimal points outside the top 10.
Always an irritant and constantly broadcasting his confidence, Beverley has also helped give a mild-mannered Wolves team a bit of an edge.
Calm Before the Storm Award: Anthony Edwards
The full-blown breakout that seemed likely after a stellar second half of 2020-21 never came, but Edwards' quiet progress as a sophomore shouldn't go unnoticed. The incomprehensibly athletic wing increased his defensive impact, upped his three-point accuracy and attempt rate, finished more effectively through contact and bumped his Player Efficiency Rating into above-average territory for the first time.
Remember when Morant's second season showed subtle progress ahead of a third-year explosion? Keep that in mind ahead of Edwards' 2022-23 campaign.
New Orleans Pelicans
MVP: Brandon Ingram
Jonas Valanciunas will finish with more total minutes, points and rebounds than Ingram, but the New Orleans Pelicans' star forward is still the team's biggest difference-maker because his scoring and facilitating from the wing can't be replaced by anyone else on the roster.
Ingram's growth as a passer stood out in ways that went beyond a career-high 5.6 assists per game. His reads have been quicker, and he's more comfortable making decisions at high speed than ever. The uptick in floor-mapping and awareness show up on D as well, where Ingram has increased his activity and positioned himself in the right place more often.
If not for a handful of stretches on the shelf, Ingram would warrant All-NBA consideration.
DPOY: Herb Jones
Jones was one of the most disruptive defenders in the league from the moment he made his rookie debut and will wind up finishing in the top five in stocks (steals plus blocks). Smothering on the ball and omnipresent off it, the lefty forward gives the Pels a shutdown wing with an emerging offensive game.
Taken 35th in the 2021 draft, Jones is going to be a quality starter for a decade.
Biggest Surprise: Jose Alvarado
If Jones' rise to prominence was unexpected, Alvarado's counts as a stunner. The undrafted point guard parlayed relentless defensive intensity and a pass-first mentality into a four-year contract.
Shooting struggles mean Alvarado may never be more than a seventh or eighth man, but he absolutely has a role on the Pelicans.
This Feels Right Award: CJ McCollum
Though Ingram's development suggests he can become the top option on a good offense, McCollum's arrival gave the Pelicans a second lead playmaker they could trust. No longer part of a duplicative backcourt tandem with Damian Lillard, McCollum thrived as New Orleans' operator.
McCollum got to his feathery mid-range game more often with the Pels, and he worked his way to the foul line at higher rates than he did in his Portland days, all while sustaining his dangerous three-point shooting game.
The fit in New Orleans, where the backcourt has long lacked a lethal on-ball threat, feels right.
New York Knicks
MVP: Alec Burks
Julius Randle leads the New York Knicks in minutes, points, rebounds and assists, but fans of the team would sooner pay his way out of town than hand him an MVP award. Randle still commands more attention on offense than anyone else on the team, a quality we've used to illustrate the value of other MVPs. But his boo-inducing play overshadows his central role.
Burks is shooting a hair under 40.0 percent from deep, takes on difficult defensive assignments every night, played the point guard spot when called upon and generally did his best to plug the many holes in New York's rotation.
Yes, he's going to finish with a horrendous percentage from two-point range. And sure, Burks stands out as the least likely team MVP we've covered so far. But he's one of four Knicks with over 2,000 minutes, and he grades out highest among that group in EPM, RAPTOR and Box Plus/Minus.
DPOY: Mitchell Robinson
New York's defense was better with Robinson off the floor, but basically everyone in the starting unit produced negative on/off splits in a season that saw the Knicks' reserves consistently outplay an ill-fitting first five.
Robinson knocked nearly 10 percentage points off opponents' field-goal percentage inside six feet, the biggest decline among Knicks who covered at least 200 shots at that range. With Nerlens Noel missing significant time, Robinson was often the only player on New York's roster capable of deterring attempts inside.
Best Newcomer: Quentin Grimes
Evan Fournier is the only Knicks regular who got up more threes per 100 possessions than Grimes, and the rookie guard's 38.9 percent hit rate showed he was more than just a volume shooter.
That neither Fournier nor Kemba Walker were even a consideration here speaks to how little the Knicks' additions helped this season.
All's Not Lost Award: RJ Barrett
Still just 21, Barrett is on track to become a high-end two-way wing who can guard the opponent's top scorer and generate his own offense. Upticks in free-throw rate and assist percentage, plus a dip in turnover rate, all point to Barrett's improvement with the ball in his hands.
The regression in scoring efficiency is a concern, but Barrett didn't have much spacing around him, and the Knicks' lack of a reliable point guard made easy setups hard to come by.
Few teams fell shorter of expectations than the Knicks, but at least Barrett's quiet growth (in a difficult situation) provides a small bright spot in a dark year.
Oklahoma City Thunder
MVP: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
SGA fell short of last season's 62.3 true shooting percentage, but he did manage to play 21 more contests than 2020-21 while upping his scoring average to a career-best 24.5 points per game.
The team leader in total points and second in assists, Gilgeous-Alexander produced more LEBRON Wins Added, per BBall Index, than the Oklahoma City Thunder's next four biggest contributors combined.
It wouldn't have taken much to win MVP on a Thunder team that played a roster full of unproven young players and journeymen, but Gilgeous-Alexander had another strong year and takes the award handily.
Now, Thunder, get this guy some help.
DPOY: Luguentz Dort
Kenrich Williams leads the team in charges drawn, and the on/off numbers show his presence on the court coincided with a team-best improvement of OKC's defensive rating. But Dort earns the nod because of the degree of difficulty.
No one in the league faced tougher assignments than he did, and those top-flight offensive players shot the ball a little bit worse (0.3 percent) than normal when guarded by Oklahoma City's linebacker-sized wing (6'3", 215 lbs). A tiny difference like that wouldn't usually be worth noting, but it's telling in Dort's case. Say what you will about his substandard work away from the ball, but Dort deserves praise for standing strong against the league's best offensive players.
Best Newcomer: Josh Giddey
Giddey isn't LeBron James, Luka Doncic or LaMelo Ball, but he does resemble the players in that trio in one important way. The rookie guard came into the league with the same rare ability to map the floor and deliver passes most players go their entire careers without seeing.
The Aussie often exploited a defense's expectations by skipping right past the obvious decision and moving on to the one two steps ahead. It was as if Giddey had a sixth sense for when a help defender turned his head, however briefly.
Craft and preternatural instincts will only get Giddey so far if he can't improve as a shooter. But in terms of size (6'8", 205 lbs), body control, IQ and creativity, OKC's first-year guard looks like a true difference-maker.
There's Something Here Award: Darius Bazley
At least once per game this year, Bazley would execute a jaw-dropping move to get himself to the bucket—maybe in the open floor or maybe in the tighter spaces of a half-court set—only to blow the finish at close range. He is the unofficial league leader in million-dollar moves that culminate with 10-cent finishes.
Bazley's struggles to convert inside (24th percentile at the rim among forwards) are partly due to his athleticism. He's had the ability to try ridiculous things in the air since he was an amateur prospect.
The good news: Bazley is improving. He hit over 50 percent of his twos for the first time this year, and his trimmed turnover rate shows he's making better decisions. With great length, straight-line speed and intriguing (if often wild) ball-handling skill, Bazley has the potential to become a unique downhill threat at a frontcourt spot.
MVP and DPOY: Wendell Carter Jr.
In addition to averaging a double-double for the first time, Carter did a little bit of everything for the Orlando Magic.
The 22-year-old center allowed the seventh-lowest field-goal percentage inside six feet (among defenders who covered at least 300 shots), led the Magic in screen assists, had the most positive impact on his team's defensive rating and continued to expand his shooting range.
The threes aren't falling at high volume yet, but Carter was lights-out on long mid-rangers this season. When his three-point range arrives, he'll become one of those rare centers who can score at all three levels.
More simply, Carter has hefty leads on all Magic players in catch-alls like EPM and LEBRON, Win Shares and VORP.
Biggest Surprise: Franz Wagner
Wagner was supposed to be a low-ceilinged three-and-D role player who could contribute immediately.
That turned out to be half right. The part about the ceiling was way off.
The rookie forward is going to wind up leading the Magic in total points while flashing a multifaceted offensive game complete with self-sufficient shot creation. Wagner is a forceful driver with great body control and the ability to sidestep contact or power through it. It usually takes players years to understand the value of slowing down, but Wagner already decelerates with ease when attacking, opening up scoring options against defenders who can't stick with him.
He's also a fine catch-and-shoot weapon. But it was hard to see his on-ball game translating this effectively. At 6'10", Wagner is on track to lead the Magic in drives per game.
Good Problem to Have Award: Mo Bamba
The Magic made the right call when they gave Carter a preseason extension and held off on Bamba, essentially asking him to prove his worth ahead of restricted free agency this summer. There was no sense in committing significant cash to two young centers, and Carter, as the Magic expected, has looked like the better player.
Bamba's fourth season was far from a flop, though. He cracked double digits in scoring average and hit 37 percent of his threes while using his preposterous length to block 1.6 shots per game. At the very least, Bamba looks like a quality backup. If his shooting continues to improve, he might grow into something more.
Orlando is now in a high-leverage position, holding matching rights on Bamba yet knowing it doesn't have to equal unreasonable offers to keep him with Carter already locked up.
MVP: Joel Embiid
Whether he wins the real award or not, Embiid has had an MVP-worthy season.
Despite an unusually heavy diet of jump shots for a physically overpowering big man, Embiid's skill at creating contact produces bundles of free throws. He leads the league in makes and attempts from the line.
Embiid's growth as a passer was key to leveling up this season. His assist percentage ranks in the 96th percentile among bigs, and he's added that facilitation while cutting his turnover rate to a career low.
Unguardable unless doubled and dangerous from everywhere on the floor, Embiid has spent the entire season wrecking defenses with a combination of skill and power that shows up once every 30 years or so.
DPOY: Matisse Thybulle
Tied with OKC's Dort for the league's highest Matchup Difficulty score, Thybulle actually does his best work as a rover. He and Gary Payton II are co-leaders in deflections per 36 minutes, but when you watch Thybulle play, it seems like he alters every pass on the floor.
His block and steal rates are in the 100th percentile among wings. Dribble, shoot or pass at your own risk when Thybulle's around.
Best Newcomer: James Harden
Maybe the lack of burst and diminished ability to finish at the basket are concerning, but Harden is still a colossal midseason addition. Even at, say, 80 percent of his peak powers, this is a premium offensive player we're talking about.
The Philadelphia 76ers will have to hide Harden on defense and hope his foul-drawing trickery holds up in the playoffs. That's part of the Harden experience. Also part of it: an enormous leap in offensive efficiency when he's on the floor. There aren't many players who can put up a 22-10-7 average line on over 60 percent true shooting while looking a little off.
Afterburner Award: Tyrese Maxey
More and more, you notice players on the bench drinking from personalized containers, usually with their names on them. As sports nutrition has become a larger part of the NBA, one-size-fits-all paper cups of water have all but disappeared—replaced by proprietary blends of, well...who knows what?
It would be difficult to confirm, but does anybody else think Maxey's chugging jet fuel on the sidelines?
That'd be one way to explain what might be the most explosive straight-line speed in the league.
MVP: Devin Booker
Chris Paul's thumb injury took the stress out of deciding between him and Booker for this one. Both guards co-piloted the Phoenix Suns to the league's best record while dominating in the clutch. Both will finish the year shooting over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep in close-and-late situations.
Booker will wind up with the easy lead in total points scored and should finish with a few hundred more minutes played than CP3. He'll also get more consideration for a spot on the All-NBA first team than Paul—though both warrant a look given Phoenix's league-best record.
Booker has had plenty of good seasons; this is the fifth straight year he's averaged at least 24.0 points per game. But with the highest PER and first positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus of his career, the 25-year-old is officially a superstar.
DPOY: Mikal Bridges
Basically a lock for the All-Defensive first team, Bridges uses length and speed to envelop ball-handlers like few others in the league. Though he has the type of long, rangy frame that's typically easy to screen, the 6'6" forward is shockingly elusive and stays closely engaged with his assignment no matter how opponents try to pry him loose.
It's extremely difficult for a wing defender to blow up an offense to the degree a paint-protecting big man can, but Bridges gets it done.
Biggest Surprise: Chris Paul
Elite play at 36, especially for a small guard, is a surprise by definition. Nobody at Paul's position has been this good, this late in a career. If he bumps his scoring back up from 14.9 per game, CP3 will be the first player aged 36 or older to average at least 15.0 points and 10.0 assists.
Total Luxury Award: Cameron Johnson
Combo forwards with three-and-D skills are hot commodities in the NBA, and the Suns are so good that they bring one of the very best off their bench.
Johnson is shooting 44.4 percent from deep while handling himself just fine against wings and forwards on defense. And though he'd be a quality rotation piece if he never dribbled at all, he's also improved at attacking closeouts and making one or two-dribble moves into space. Case in point: Last year, 83.7 percent of Johnson's two-point baskets came via an assist. That number is down to 69.6 percent this season.
Portland Trail Blazers
MVP and DPOY: Jusuf Nurkic
In the 1,578 minutes Nurkic was on the floor, the Portland Trail Blazers played to a minus-0.1 net rating. That's good enough for MVP honors in a season that went off the rails early and has since spiraled into a blowout-riddled tankathon.
A foot injury ended Nurkic's season after 56 games, but he managed to average 15.0 points while setting career highs in field-goal percentage (53.5) and rebounds per game (11.1).
Unless Nurkic was in the game as a paint presence, the Blazers surrendered gobs of attempts at the rim and couldn't control the defensive glass. Even with past injuries limiting his mobility, Portland's center had enough size and strength to make a difference in an otherwise flimsy defensive unit.
This is one of the least impressive MVP performances so far, but the abdominal injury to Damian Lillard and the trade of CJ McCollum removed the Blazers' top two candidates.
Best Newcomer: Josh Hart
Hart put up averages of 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists while posting a 50.3/37.3/77.2 shooting split in 13 games after coming aboard in the McCollum trade. Regarded more as a high-energy defender and excellent rebounder at the guard spot, Hart never really featured standout box score stats as part of his package.
You could note the small sample or cite the "somebody's got to get numbers on a bad team" caveat, but the Blazers got great production from the 27-year-old when he was healthy.
This Feels Familiar Award: Anfernee Simons
We'll see if the Blazers are eager to spend big money on a new smallish backcourt so soon after breaking up the old one. The 6'3", 181-pound Simons busted out with averages of 22.0 points and 5.5 assists on 60.0 percent true shooting in 30 games as a starter—well timed given his restricted free agency this summer.
Simons, 22, will deserve a major pay raise, and the Blazers may have to hand it over while also extending Damian Lillard for up to two years and $107 million.
Simons' youth and upward trajectory make the Lillard-Simons pairing a little different than the one between Lillard and McCollum, but Portland will certainly catch itself wondering whether it's signing up for another low ceiling by spending so much on a new backcourt that feels a lot like the old one.
MVP: De'Aaron Fox
A late push got Fox's cosmetic numbers—23.2 points, 5.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game—up into the neighborhood of where they were in his breakthrough 2020-21 season. But the Sacramento Kings' max-salaried point guard still fell short of expectations, getting to the rim less than ever and failing to compete on defense far too often.
That he was still the team's clear MVP due to leads in points and on-court net rating speaks to the disappointing nature of Sacramento's season.
Tyrese Haliburton left the team via trade, so somebody had to win it.
DPOY: Davion Mitchell
Mitchell arrived in the NBA as advertised: a ferocious on-ball defensive weapon who made life tough for opposing guards. The rookie is only third on the team in total steals, but advanced metrics such as D-EPM better reflected his team-best impact on that end. BBall Index also captures Mitchell's heavy lift on D, where he tops Sacramento players in Matchup Difficulty.
Best Newcomer: Domantas Sabonis
Someone needs to rework the "Fox and Ox" nicknames, but Sabonis did pair well with his speedy backcourt teammate upon arriving from Indiana.
Mitchell was a consideration here, but Sabonis is a two-time All-Star who put up 18.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 15 games before a knee injury knocked him out.
Old Reliable Award: Harrison Barnes
Death, taxes and Barnes playing above-average basketball on both ends—three certainties in life.
The 10-year veteran ran away with the team lead in minutes and rebounds while finishing second to Fox in points. With a long-range hit rate that climbed over 40 percent for the first time since 2014-15, Barnes provided spacing on the wing. He also earned easy points for a Kings offense that often made things look difficult, leading the team in makes and attempts from the free-throw line.
San Antonio Spurs
MVP: Dejounte Murray
The 25-year-old Murray earned his first All-Star berth and will become the youngest player to average at least 21.0 points, 9.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game since Oscar Robertson did it in the hyper-speed pace of the 1960s. With a spike into the 90th percentile at his position in assist rate (after hanging around in the 30s the last two years), Murray established himself as a true lead playmaker for the San Antonio Spurs.
Defensively, the 6'4" guard's length produced an elite steal rate for the fourth straight year.
DPOY: Jakob Poeltl
Poeltl is your hipster, know-it-all NBA friend's favorite center. And as annoying as that friend is, they're not wrong.
Of the players who defended at least 400 shots at the rim, only Rudy Gobert and Evan Mobley held opponents to lower hit rates than Poeltl. His impact on opposing offenses was further evident in the shot profiles San Antonio allowed with him on the floor. With Poeltl in the game, the other team's mid-range attempts went way up and, as a result, its offensive efficiency went down.
Murray caused trouble at the point of attack, but Poeltl was San Antonio's last line of defense.
Biggest Surprise: Keldon Johnson
Given his contact-seeking approach and brute strength, Johnson doesn't profile as a player who does his best work almost 24 feet from the rim. But the Spurs forward averaged more three-point attempts than free-throw attempts for the first time in his three-year career this season and, based on the results, it actually worked out.
Johnson is shooting 40.2 percent from deep on 5.1 tries per game, both career highs.
Still just 22, Johnson has time to figure out how to draw more fouls on his hard-charging drives. If he can do that, there's a clear path to his becoming a highly efficient 20-point scorer.
Bon Voyage Award: Gregg Popovich
If this is it for Popovich, what a ride it's been. The long-tenured Spurs coach's future is uncertain. But now that he's got the all-time wins record (plus five championships), it's easier to imagine the 73-year-old calling it a career.
Here's hoping he'll still be available for in-game interviews in retirement. Straight talk is in short supply these days.
MVP: Fred VanVleet
The Toronto Raptors spent the season cramming as many positionless, statuesque 6'8" athletes onto the floor as they could. But it was the little guy who led them.
VanVleet amassed twice the RAPTOR WAR of any teammate, led Toronto in assists and made more clutch threes than anybody in the league.
A deserving first-time All-Star, the Raptors point guard also leads the league in minutes per game.
DPOY: Precious Achiuwa
OG Anunoby can look like the best defender in the league a few times per night, VanVleet spends entire games inside the jersey of the opponent's best ball-handler, Scottie Barnes guards everybody, Chris Boucher blocks everything, Gary Trent Jr. hoards steals and Pascal Siakam's arms erase passing lanes.
This could defensibly be a six-way tie, but we're going with Achiuwa on the strength of his team-best rim defense, mobility on the perimeter and remarkable ability to hold his ground against the league's burliest centers. And yes, Achiuwa's No. 1 team ranks in D-EPM and Defensive RAPTOR helped break the deadlock.
Best Newcomer: Scottie Barnes
Any other first-year Raptors put up a tidy 15-7-3 line, go the length of the floor for a dunk in three dribbles and make intuitive passing decisions you typically see from veteran point guards?
He's All the Way Back Award: Pascal Siakam
Siakam made All-NBA Second Team in 2019-20, and by many measures—assists per game, rebounds per game, field-goal percentage, PER and Box Plus/Minus—he's playing better now than he did then.
A meteoric rise, which led to a Most Improved Player award in 2018-19, a championship and that All-NBA nod might have set expectations too high. Siakam was solid last season, but it felt like a disappointment relative to this upward trajectory in the prior two years.
He's back on track now, and we're going to look back and wonder how he wasn't an All-Star in 2021-22.
MVP: Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell improved his finishing at the rim and leveled up his mid-range accuracy en route to his most complete offensive season yet. He now scores with above-average efficiency for his position from everywhere on the floor, which is a big deal considering his sky-high usage rate.
The Utah Jazz's league-best offense is a collective effort, but Mitchell is the one who makes it work. There really aren't any bad possessions when a worst-case scenario is a self-created Mitchell bailout shot.
Averaging over 26 points per game for the second straight season, the 25-year-old is a lock to finish in the top five in total three-point attempts. His willingness to fire from deep at any moment stretches the defense and clears space for Utah's pass-and-move schemes.
Rudy Gobert would have been a fine pick here, but he's going to (obviously) get his own award in a second.
DPOY: Rudy Gobert
The Jazz have taken a step back defensively, slipping out of the top 10 in points allowed per possession after ranking first last year. Don't put that on Gobert, who holds shooters a dozen points below their average field-goal percentage inside six feet and whose presence on the floor reduces rim attempts to one of the largest extents in the league.
Best Newcomer: Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside comes with known downsides, his inability to defend the pick-and-roll in space being the biggest. But in his first year with the Jazz, the backup center put up higher block and offensive rebound rates than Gobert and generally performed well, particularly on offense, with the second unit.
Lineups involving Whiteside and Mitchell actually had higher offensive ratings than ones with Gobert and Mitchell.
It Just Feels Wrong Award: Joe Ingles
One of the great joys of watching this era of Jazz teams was Ingles operating in second gear on both ends, cleverly finding ways to score and defend against opponents with roughly 19 times his athleticism.
A torn ACL and a trade to Portland later, and it's hard to avoid feeling like Utah, without Ingles, is missing part of its soul.
MVP: Kyle Kuzma
Bradley Beal is the biggest name and easiest pick, but he only played the fifth-most minutes on the Washington Wizards and, by his standards, had a pretty terrible (half-) year.
Kuzma has his flaws. He turns the ball over a ton and is no stranger to a forced shot. But when you tally it all up, he's going to finish first on the team in points and rebounds, second in blocks, third in assists and fourth in steals. Only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will finish with more made triples, and Beal has a narrow edge in free throws.
Kuzma's across-the-board contributions add up. There are some advanced-metric arguments for Beal and a certain second-year forward we'll get to momentarily. But in terms of volume and breadth of impact, Kuzma has a solid case.
DPOY: Deni Avdija
Sturdy enough to bang with bigs and quick enough to stay in front of smalls, Avdija quietly turned in one of the better defensive seasons of anyone in the league. Though he didn't rack up blocks or steals, the 6'9" forward had a knack for beating opponents to spots and positioning himself to make quick help rotations.
Every offense Washington played against spent games wondering how Avdija always managed to be in the way.
Among Wizards, KCP had a higher average matchup difficulty (though not by much), but Avdija was more versatile. D-EPM and Defensive RAPTOR peg him as Washington's best defender.
It shouldn't work this way, but if the ball starts going in on offense a little more, maybe Avdija's defense will get some shine.
Best Newcomer: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kristaps Porzingis loses out on this one due partly to volume, but also because Caldwell-Pope, who's going to lead the Wizards in minutes played, also put together a fine two-way season. Long one of the better defenders against guards, KCP also shot 39.0 percent from deep and averaged double figures in points for the first time since 2018-19.
Though prone to the occasional heat check off the dribble, Caldwell-Pope was a consistent source of shooting for a team that needed it after Beal went down at the end of January with a wrist injury.
You'd Better Be Sure Award: Bradley Beal
Next year will be Beal's age-29 season, and it'll come following wrist surgery and a ton of mileage in recent seasons. He owns the third-highest minutes-per-game average in the league since 2016-17.
The Wizards and Beal appear to be heading toward an extension agreement that could pay him up to $246 million over five years.
Washington was lucky to get out from under John Wall's contract, and then Russell Westbrook's—a two-step Houdini-esque escape job. It had better be sure Beal's will age better than those two did.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass, Dunks and Threes and BBall Index. Accurate through April 2. Salary info via Spotrac.