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NBA Awards Watch: Who Is Leading the MVP Race?

Checking in on where every award race stands entering the new year.

With the Christmas Day slate in the rearview and 2023 just a few days away, the NBA season is officially kicking into high gear. While teams are peeling back the layers of their identity with each week, award cases are starting to be made for players and coaches across the NBA.

The Crossover will be checking in on the leaders in the top six award categories throughout the NBA season. Here’s where the races currently stand entering the new year.

Most Valuable Player

1. Nikola Jokić, Nuggets: A three-peat is within reach for Jokić if he continues his current pace. He is nearly averaging a triple double (25.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 9.4 assists) while leading a team that currently sits second in the Western Conference (22–12). If Jokić keeps this up with the team success to match, he will have a pretty strong case for his third straight MVP award.

2. Jayson Tatum, Celtics: Tatum has been a steady force this season on the best team in the league. He has been elite on both sides of the court, while leading the NBA’s best offense with an average of 31.1 points per game. Voters will have a difficult decision on their hands if both Jokić and Tatum keep up these paces to the end of the season.

3. Luka Dončić, Mavericks: The Mavericks (19–16) don’t have the record to match the Nuggets, Celtics, Bucks and Nets, but Dončić has been out of this world. His remarkable 60-points, 21-rebound, 10-assist performance in Dallas’s comeback overtime win against the Knicks on Tuesday is just the latest example of his special season. Dallas improving on its standing in the West can only improve Dončić’s MVP case.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: Like Jokić, Antetokounmpo is in the running for his third career MVP award. Antetokounmpo stands at fourth in the NBA in points per game (31.7) and continues to be a force in the paint. The Bucks need to prove they can beat the East’s best, though, after recent losses to the Cavaliers, Nets and Celtics.

5. Kevin Durant, Nets: The Nets are surging in the East, in large part due to Durant’s efficiency. Durant is averaging 30.0 points per game on 56.3% shooting while logging 36.4 minutes per game. If Brooklyn continues its streak and holds off Joel Embiid and the 76ers in the standings, Durant will have to be in consideration for his second regular-season MVP award.

Rookie of the Year

1. Paolo Banchero, Magic: Banchero has held the reins on this award throughout the season. The No. 1 pick has performed as advertised, averaging 21.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. Banchero has been a 20-point machine for the Magic and, as LeBron James said, is only going to get better.

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers: The No. 6 pick has been a steady offensive threat for the Pacers, even as defenses have adapted to contain him. Averaging 17.1 points per game on 41.5% shooting, Mathurin has been a key cog in the Pacers’ balanced offense–and is also putting up a case for Sixth Man of the Year.

3. Jaden Ivey, Pistons: Ivey, the No. 5 pick, has been taking advantage of his increased usage in Cade Cunningham’s stead. He’s averaged 15.5 points per game on 41.6% shooting, including a career-high 30-point outing against the Jazz earlier this month.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Brook Lopez, Bucks: Lopez has been the backbone of the Bucks’ top-5 defense this season. He leads the league in blocks per game (2.5) while adding 5.9 rebounds. (He is also averaging his most points per game since the 2016–17 season at 14.9.) Lopez continues to reinvent his game and has a good foundation to win his first DPOY award.

2. Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies: Jackson’s push for DPOY is growing after he missed the beginning of the season while recovering from foot surgery. He has made an immediate impact on the Grizzlies’ defensive effort, and his 3.1 blocks per game (once he logs enough games to qualify) would be good enough to lead the league. Jackson has a chance to edge out Lopez for DPOY if he holds that rate and stays healthy through the rest of the season.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: While OG Anunoby is also in the running for DPOY, Antetokounmpo remains a threat to win the award for a second time. His teammate Lopez has the edge at this point, but Antetokounmpo remains a defensive threat with his size, quickness and ability to pull down 11.2 rebounds per game.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook is the current frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year. 

1. Russell Westbrook, Lakers: Westbrook has embraced his role as the Lakers’ sixth man and may have extended his time in the NBA because of it. He is averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists, but with his inconsistent efficiency, he is by no means a lock for the newly named John Havlicek Trophy.

2. Jordan Poole, Warriors: Poole’s eligibility for this award will depend on how long he will start in Stephen Curry’s stead, but if he remains eligible, he is making a strong case for himself. He’s helping to keep the Warriors afloat offensively while posting 19.8 points per game, but he will have to forfeit eligibility if Curry is out longer than anticipated.

3. Christian Wood, Mavericks: Wood has been on a tear for the Mavericks off the bench, averaging 20.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks on 52.1% shooting over his last seven games, per StatMuse. Wood needs to continue that pace to challenge for Sixth Man of the Year.

Most Improved Player

1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder: Gilgeous-Alexander is having an All-Star–caliber season. He’s averaging 31.5 points per game on 50.5% shooting from the field and 92.5% accuracy from the free throw line on 10.3 attempts per game. That’s up from 24.5 points and 45.3% shooting last season while getting to the line an additional three times per game.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers: A change of scenery has done wonders for Haliburton. In his first full season with Indiana, Haliburton is averaging 20.5 points while leading the league with 10.2 assists per game. His efficiency, while averaging 2.7 turnovers per game, gives him great standing for Most Improved Player.

3. Lauri Markkanen, Jazz: Though the Jazz have cooled after their hot start, Markkanen has played a big part in their unexpected play. He has jumped to scoring 23.2 points per game this season after averaging 14.8 points last year in Cleveland while also adding 8.4 rebounds. Utah’s recent slide hasn’t helped Markkanen’s case, but he has thrived in his new role.

Coach of the Year

1. Joe Mazzulla, Celtics: Mazzulla stepped into a difficult situation and has the Celtics performing at a top level despite the team’s offseason drama. With the NBA’s best offense and record, the Celtics are the team to beat under Mazzulla’s leadership.

2. Willie Green, Pelicans: The Pelicans have been flirting with the No. 1 seed in the West under Green. He has put Zion Williamson in the best position to succeed, helping to form one of the best offenses in the league—and it is showing in the standings.

3. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies: Will Hardy has been in the conversation for Coach of the Year, but with the Jazz sliding to ninth in the West, Jenkins is earning an edge for the award. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies have the confidence that they can come out atop the West, and Jenkins has the defense working at a high level to keep them competitive.