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NBA Midseason Awards: MVP, Top Rookie, Most Improved Player

Plus, our picks for the most exciting player and the biggest revenge season.

The NBA is more or less at its halfway point of the regular season, with most teams having played somewhere close to 41 games, give or take a few postponements. This deep into the campaign, the awards race has taken shape, with frontrunners emerging for certain honors while the MVP conversation remains heated as ever. Here’s who I would send home with what hardware if the season ended today…

Rookie of the Year: Evan Mobley

This is probably the easiest choice of all. Mobley is averaging 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.7 assists a night for the Cavaliers, who have been the most pleasant surprise of the first half. Cleveland has the best net rating of any team in the East, including the third-best defense in the NBA—and Mobley has been a huge factor in their success. His counting stats don’t leap off the page (he’s fourth in scoring and eighth in assists among rookies, though first in rebounds.) Where he really shines is on the defensive end of the floor, forming a suffocating frontcourt with possible All-Star Jarrett Allen.

Mobley has assuaged concerns about any awkward fit with Allen and fellow forward Lauri Markannen, as his defensive versatility allows him to be unleashed on just about any player in the NBA. Mobley is already an adept help defender, paint and rim protector, and budding perimeter star. The fact that people around the league freely compare him to Kevin Garnett is completely wild. And while his shooting has room for improvement, Mobley is still an impactful offensive player, thanks to his length and quickness. Mobley has been so good so early in his career, don’t be surprised if Rookie of the Year isn’t the only accolade he earns at the end of the season. All-Defense is very much in play.

Coach of the Year: Taylor Jenkins

This is a really competitive field. Jenkins, Erik Spoelstra, and Billy Donovan all have great claims. Donovan has the Bulls in first place in the East, ahead of stalwarts like the Nets and Bucks. Spoelstra has gone 11–4 in games without both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and Miami’s success this season is a testament to his skills in player development. For now, I’ll go with Jenkins, who has guided the Grizzlies to third place in the West. When Ja Morant went down early in the season, Memphis didn’t blink, and so far it’s gone 11–2 without its star guard. The Grizzlies are well ahead of schedule, and Jenkins deserves recognition for helming a squad that can hang with all the veteran-laden contenders on any given night.

Most Improved Player: Miles Bridges

Though he’s cooled off since averaging nearly 25 points a game in the month of October, Bridges is still an extremely worthy recipient of Most Improved. The former Michigan State standout is averaging career bests in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and free throw attempts, which I’m told are important categories for a basketball player. At 6' 7", Bridges has the size and athleticism of a contemporary wing scorer, but he’s much more of a do-it-all forward for the Hornets. He can thrive as a ball handler or screener in pick-and-rolls, hit just enough threes to space the floor, and wreak havoc on defenses as a cutter off the ball, all while picking up tough defensive assignments on other end of the floor.

It’s all added up to Bridges averaging 19.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. The passing is perhaps where Bridges has shown the most improvement. Playing alongside ball dominant guards like Terry Rozier or LaMelo Ball means Bridges doesn’t have to take on a huge playmaking burden, yet he’s proved to be successful as a decision maker with the ball in his hands.

Bridges isn’t quite a lock for this award, though. DeJounte Murray and Jordan Poole are among those with good arguments, and they could get stronger if Bridges can’t find consistency with his outside shot. (Ja Morant also has a case, though I would argue he was already too good to win MIP.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Tyler Herro

Herro is a shoo-in for this award, and possibly even has a fringe All-Star case in the East. He leads all bench players in scoring at 20.7 points a night, while shooting a blistering 38.3% from three. In fact, if you would like to hear one of those annoying, highly specific stats, Herro is one of only three players averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds, and four assists a night, while also shooting at least 38 percent from three on no less than six attempts a game. The other two? Devin Booker and Stephen Curry.

Herro has thrived as the Heat’s go-to man off the bench, especially in the wake of his underwhelming sophomore campaign. His counting stats are at career highs, and his improvement is easy to observe across the board. Herro is a more comfortable pull-up shooter from three, and he’s also shooting more from inside 10 feet than the previous two years of his career. He came into this season in better shape, and it’s allowed him to impose his will better offensively than in the past. Though as his assists have gone up, so have his turnovers. The next step for Herro’s game will be tightening his handle. If that happens, he won’t be coming off the bench for much longer.

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green

Simply put, I’m giving this award to the best defensive player on the best defensive team this season. The Warriors are entering Jan. 14 with a 102.3 defensive rating, which would be the best defensive rating of any team in the NBA since the 2016 Spurs. Green is sublime on that end of the floor. Whatever you ask him to do, he will do it better than most players, and bark out orders to his teammates to make sure they’re carrying their weight as well. Green is the ultimate ace in the hole, a Swiss army knife who unlocks Golden State’s defense. He can guard bigs and muck up a team’s favorite pick and roll combo, or take on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer and hound them physically as well as verbally. Watching Draymond cover ground is like watching poetry in motion. He is constantly one step ahead of offenses, and what he may lack in top-flight athleticism he makes up for in having the fastest working mind in the NBA.

That Green only has one of these awards is kind of shocking. With the Jazz slipping a bit defensively as a team (thus putting a dent in Rudy Gobert’s claim), Draymond is long overdue for a second DPOY.

Most Exciting Player: Ja Morant

Memphis Grizzles guard Ja Morant (12) brings the ball up the court during the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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Okay, we’re going to get to MVP shortly. First, I’d like to take a brief interlude to recognize a couple players who may not win MVP but have come to define this season. First, Morant, who provides a breathtaking moment seemingly every time he steps on a basketball court. His demeanor is so refreshing. From staring down kids in Warriors jerseys or his habit of dribbling the ball a few feet ahead of himself so he can skip toward it, Morant is not only great, he’s having a hell of a lot of fun. Oh, and he’s not scared of trying to dunk on literally anybody. The Grizzlies are a great team. Morant would make them appointment viewing even if they never won a game.

Biggest Revenge Season: DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan has been stuffing analytics nerds in a locker throughout this entire season. His signing with Chicago was heavily criticized. Why are the Bulls paying him so much money? Who are the Bulls bidding against? were common refrains from the summer. I myself was skeptical due to the history of DeRozan’s teams playing better with him on the bench. So far, DeRozan has made a fool of every critic. The Bulls are thriving with him on the floor, and DeRozan is having the best season of his career, scoring efficiently, bullying his way to the free-throw line, and effortlessly sinking game winners. It’s all great for DeRozan, and a reminder to everyone that a player as talented as him should never be so easily cast aside.

MVP: Nikola Jokić

This is an impossible decision to make. Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant are all worthy of winning MVP. Meanwhile, guys like DeRozan, Morant, and perhaps even Chris Paul have arguments to be on the ballot. This is one of those years in which the word “valuable” is really going to be picked apart. Jokić, Giannis, KD, and Steph all have ridiculous statlines that I think are ultimately useless in comparing. Who is providing the most value?

With that in mind, here’s where I’m at with this award at the moment. Steph can still very much win, but his recent shooting slump and the dip in the Warriors’ offense means he’s taken a step back for now. Meanwhile, Giannis and KD have the advantage of playing with other great players. Durant with James Harden and now also Kyrie Irving, and the Greek Freak with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Meanwhile, Jokić has played nearly the entire season without his two best teammates, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

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The stat I keep coming back to is this: The Nuggets are 22.9 points per 100 possessions better with Jokić on the floor than off, per Cleaning the Glass. Denver has a 9.3 net rating when Jokic is playing, and a -13.6 net when he’s not. For context, the Warriors’ league best net rating is 7.8, and the Pistons’ league-worst is -9.9. That means Denver plays like one of the best teams in the NBA when Jokić is on the court, and then basically turns into a college team when he’s on the bench.

Nearly single night, Jokić builds his team a lead, the bench coughs it up, and he has to fight to get it back. With all that, Denver still has a 20–15 record in games Jokic has played, which equates to the fifth-best winning percentage in the West. Even if you gave the Nuggets some of Jokić’s contemporaries’ less heralded teammates, say a Jordan Poole or Patty Mills, Denver would be in significantly better shape than it is now.

For me, it’s hard to deny the value Jokic brings to his team, and that makes him the most important player in the league right now. The second he steps off the floor, his team turns into a disaster. So here’s my ballot as of the midway point of the season.

1. Nikola Jokić

2. Stephen Curry

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

4. Kevin Durant

5. DeMar DeRozan

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