Jokic is undoubtedly the MVP, plus more NBA awards picks

The NBA has taken its lumps this season on everything from a flat in-season tournament atmosphere to a forgettable All-Star Game. But the league deserves credit for its new rule requiring end-of-season awards candidates to play at least 65 games.

Vocal critics of the games played threshold, including some players who were worried that it would compromise their ability to achieve major contract incentives, must acknowledge that none of the leading candidates for MVP, defensive player of the year or rookie of the year honors were disadvantaged by the rule. Joel Embiid was unable to defend his 2023 MVP award, but the Philadelphia 76ers star was no longer a viable candidate after he underwent knee surgery that sidelined him for weeks. Though Jimmy Butler, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyrie Irving are among the notable players who will fail to play 65 games, there are still plenty of qualified candidates for awards and the all-NBA teams.

Meanwhile, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Zion Williamson and Tyrese Haliburton will meet the 65-game threshold this year after falling short in 2022-23, and Commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday that stars missed 15% fewer games this season. That progress qualifies as a clear victory for fans.

After sifting through tall stacks of qualified applications, here are The Washington Post’s picks for seven major awards. Criteria for selection include availability, individual production, advanced statistics, team performance and impact on winning.


1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

5. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Embiid was correct when he noted recently that this year’s MVP debate has been “kind of boring” and less “toxic” than others in recent years. That’s no accident: Jokic, already a two-time winner, has been so consistently dominant during Denver’s 2023 title defense that he squashed any chance at the emergence of an alternative candidate once Embiid underwent knee surgery in February.

Jokic (26.6 points per game, 12.4 rebounds per game, 9.0 assists per game) should win because he has been, without question, the NBA’s best player, ranking first in major advanced statistics such as Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player. While plenty of stars have posted eye-popping numbers, no player has exerted as much control over games as Jokic. Indeed, the last time any player orchestrated at Jokic’s level was James during his second tour with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Any reluctance on the part of voters to make Jokic a three-time MVP should have been erased during his fourth straight brilliant season and his reputation-elevating run through the 2023 playoffs. It now feels appropriate to mention Jokic in the same breath as three-time MVPs Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Nuggets become just the fourth repeat champions of the past 20 years.

The 25-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander (30.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 6.2 APG) has the most complete case to be the runner-up. His Thunder is the NBA’s most pleasant surprise, he has guided a top-five offense with machine-like scoring efficiency, and he has led the league in steals as a two-way impact-maker.

Doncic (33.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 9.8 APG) puts up video game numbers with regularity, but it must be noted that his stat line is unprecedented in NBA history. What’s more, the Slovenian guard is on track to win his first scoring title and has led his Mavericks to a playoff spot after they didn’t even qualify for last year’s play-in tournament. With slightly better health and slightly more winning, Doncic could have given Jokic a run for his money.

Antetokounmpo (30.4 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 6.5 APG) was a workhorse all year, but his forceful paint dominance wasn’t enough to help Milwaukee live up to sky-high preseason expectations.

Tatum (27.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 4.9 APG), the best player on the team with the best record, should fill out the ballot. The fact that his scoring and usage declined from last season should be viewed as a good thing: His willingness to sacrifice touches unlocked a more balanced Boston attack and created room for newcomers Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is a favorite to win his third NBA most valuable player award. Associated Press

Defensive player of the year

1. Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves

2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Gobert’s case has proved to be a winning one in the past. He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best defense. Those superlatives might actually undersell what he has accomplished this season — Minnesota’s defense is ranked No. 1 by a mile. Consider: The gap between the Timberwolves (108.1) and the No. 2 Boston Celtics (110.5) in defensive efficiency is larger than the gap between the Celtics and the No. 10 Houston Rockets (112.8).

During a season defined by a scoring boom, Gobert (13.7 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 2.1 blocks per game) captained a big, long and physical defense that powered Minnesota from last year’s play-in field to the race for the West’s top seed. The 31-year-old center enjoyed near impeccable health, improved his block rate noticeably and ranks first in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares. This was the defensive centerpiece the Timberwolves thought they were getting when they forked over all those draft picks in their 2022 blockbuster trade with the Utah Jazz.

Very few young big men are capable of serving as the linchpin of an elite defense in the modern era, yet Holmgren (16.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG) bounced back from a foot injury that cost him all of last season to boost the Thunder from 13th in defensive efficiency in 2022-23 to fourth this year. The 21-year-old butters his bread as a shot blocker, but he’s also comfortable defending guards and wings on the perimeter.

Unfortunately for Davis (24.5 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 2.3 BPG), who still has a strong case as the league’s most talented defender, the Lakers just couldn’t muster enough support to vault him to his first defensive player of the year award. Los Angeles ranks 19th in defensive efficiency — worse than last year — and has struggled mightily to stop anyone when Davis is on the bench or sidelined with injury.

Most improved player

1. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Coby White, Chicago Bulls

With Antetokounmpo, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ja Morant and Lauri Markkanen winning most improved player honors over the past decade, the award has become a ticket to the “welcome to the stars” club. Maxey (25.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 6.3 APG) fits that profile to a T. After breaking out in his third season and stepping into the lead guard role following Philadelphia’s trade of James Harden, the 2020 first-round pick posted career highs across the board and formed one of the league’s most explosive inside-outside duos with Embiid. Though his scoring efficiency took a predictable hit with his increased volume, Maxey earned his first All-Star selection and did his best to keep the 76ers afloat during Embiid’s absence. The 76ers loom as potential spoilers in the East — a No. 3 or No. 4 seed masquerading as a likely play-in team. Whichever favorite draws Philadelphia must contend with Embiid and Maxey, who is a threat to score in transition, at the rim off the dribble and from beyond the arc.

Williams (19.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.6 APG), last year’s rookie of the year runner-up, made a strong second-year jump. The 2022 lottery pick has enough all-around offensive game to function as a team’s leading scorer, but his real value comes from his willingness to serve as a lethal secondary scorer and playmaker alongside Gilgeous-Alexander.

While Maxey and Williams were popular preseason picks, White (19.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 5.2 APG) came out of nowhere. Making the most of an expanded role following Zach LaVine’s season-ending foot injury, the 2019 lottery pick nearly doubled his scoring average and helped keep the mediocre Bulls from a complete midseason collapse.

Rookie of the year

1. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs

2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Brandon Miller, Charlotte Hornets

It was obvious by midseason that Wembanyama and Holmgren were engaged in a rookie of the year duel for the ages. While Holmgren had the edge on this ballot in January, patience was in order.

After the Spurs spent a few months easing him into NBA life and carefully managing his minor injuries, Wembanyama (21.3 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 3.6 BPG) has performed like a top-10 player since the All-Star break. While the Thunder lords over the Spurs in the standings, Wembanyama has outpaced Holmgren by comfortable margins in all five major statistical categories. Importantly, he also has narrowed what was once a wide gap in minutes played that had favored Holmgren.

Wembanyama, 20, is the first player since Shaquille O’Neal to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks for a season, and his averages across the five major stats — adding steals and assists — have only been matched by Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing during the three-point era. Forget rookie of the year; he has been the rookie of the decade — at least.

Credit to Holmgren for having such a complete rookie season that Wembanyama’s selection even needs to be explained. The Gonzaga product hasn’t missed a game since redshirting his 2022-23 campaign with a foot injury, hitting the ground running by ranking third in scoring, first in rebounds and first in blocks for one of the West’s top teams.

Miller (17.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.4 APG) gets a courtesy third-place nod in a two-horse race for flashing occasional highlights during an otherwise dismal Hornets campaign. The No. 2 pick in the 2023 draft ranks first in his class in minutes, second in points, 10th in rebounds and 10th in assists. But when the 21-year-old forward will get to play his first meaningful basketball remains an open question.

Sixth man of the year

1. Naz Reid, Minnesota Timberwolves

2. Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings

3. Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks

Homer fans overrating a high-energy role player developed by their favorite team is a time-honored NBA tradition. That said, Timberwolves fans who sing Reid’s praises are right on the money. Reid (13.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG), a 24-year-old big man who went undrafted in 2019, can leave a mark on a game in countless ways. He’s a crafty scorer, an improved outside shooter, a disruptive defender and a reliable ball of energy. Karl-Anthony Towns’s recent knee surgery further clarified Reid’s value: Minnesota has gone 12-6 since losing its All-Star forward, with Reid picking up a good chunk of the slack. Bucket-getting guards usually dominate this award, but Reid is a worthy exception to that rule.

Monk (15.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 5.1 APG) is a quintessential microwave scorer who has grown as a distributor during his two seasons in Sacramento. The Kings boast a well-balanced starting lineup, but Monk’s ability to create shots and score in bunches has carried a second unit that has relatively limited firepower. His late-season knee injury has left the Kings looking overmatched with the playoffs approaching.

The Bucks have been one of the hardest teams to figure out, but Portis (13.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG), who finished third for this award last year, has continued to deliver as a bruising power forward. His production almost perfectly mirrors his past two seasons in Milwaukee despite a midseason coaching change, the arrival of Damian Lillard and several new faces around him in the second unit.

Coach of the year

1. Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder

2. Jamahl Mosley, Orlando Magic

3. Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves

Daigneault received some well-deserved praise from JJ Redick on a recent podcast with LeBron James, which could help boost last year’s runner-up in this category to his first win. The unassuming Daigneault is a five-tool coach, excelling as an in-game strategist, lineup-builder, culture-setter, communicator and talent-developer. While optimistic preseason oddsmakers projected Oklahoma City to win around 44 games, Daigneault’s team could hit 56 or 57. That remarkable improvement — the Thunder’s third straight jump in wins — is a credit to Gilgeous-Alexander’s MVP leap, Holmgren’s instant impact, Williams’s sophomore jump and a no-nights-off philosophy that pairs great ball movement with disruptive defense.

Similarly, Mosley has guided Orlando from a 22-win season in 2021-22 to the cusp of a guaranteed playoff spot this season. His claim to fame is constructing a top-three defense from a roster loaded with young pieces, which is a lot more easily said than done. If Paolo Banchero and the upstart Magic win a first-round series, it would be the franchise’s first since 2010.

Finch expertly picked up the pieces after a messy 42-win season in 2022-23 that ended with a fight between teammates Gobert and Kyle Anderson and a quick first-round exit. Among his many victories: Minnesota’s defensive intensity has been excellent, Anthony Edwards has taken another step toward superstardom, and Towns’s injury hasn’t significantly affected the team’s chase for the West’s top seed.

Executive of the year

1. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers

Of the team execs who took big swings last summer, only Stevens can say his trade gambles paid off. At the time, critics might have looked at the Celtics’ deal for Porzingis as a high-risk maneuver and their trade for Holiday as a mere consolation prize after the Bucks snagged Lillard.

But Boston’s newcomers have fit in perfectly, reducing the offensive burden on Tatum and Jaylen Brown while helping to fill out a veteran rotation that has crushed all comers en route to 62-plus wins. Stevens was honest about his team’s shortcomings after a series of disappointing playoff exits, and he arrived at creative, well-considered solutions that improved Boston’s consistency and chemistry. By extending Brown, Porzingis and Holiday — who agreed to a four-year, $135 million deal Wednesday — Stevens made sure he will boast the league’s deepest collection of talent this summer, even if the Celtics face-plant in the playoffs.

Presti deserves mention for completing a full-scale rebuild in record time. After cycling through Harden, Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Paul George and Chris Paul, the Thunder is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2020 and has a good chance of winning its first series since 2016.

The bottom fell out for the Pacers two years ago, and the small-market franchise seemed to be headed for a decade of misery. Since then, Pritchard hired Rick Carlisle, traded for a franchise guard in Haliburton and landed Pascal Siakam in a pre-deadline deal with the Toronto Raptors. As a result, Indiana boasts the NBA’s second-ranked offense and is clinging to the last guaranteed playoff spot in the East.

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