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Who’s eligible?

That question has never crossed the lips of NBA voters before, but it’s an important one this season. With the new collective bargaining agreement specifying that players must play at least 65 games to be eligible for major awards or all-league honors — with a couple of asterisk situations thrown in and the exception of Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man — it creates an entire class of players whose seasons can’t be rewarded by voters regardless of their feelings.

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You can get an All-Star team of players who aren’t qualified for honors. That list leads off with Joel Embiid, obviously, who was having a season for the ages before his knee injury but only ended up playing 39 games. His PER of 34.1 would have shattered the league record, and in terms of more traditional stats, he averaged more than a point a minute, 34.7 points per game in 33.6 minutes of burn. In Embiid’s 39 games, in which the the Philadelphia 76ers went 31-8, they were plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and minus-0.2 per 100 with him off.


In short, he was so awesome that he had a case to make one of the All-NBA teams despite only playing 39 games. Voters, however, won’t be given that chance. Nor will they get to decide on the candidacies of Karl-Antony Towns (62 games), Jimmy Butler (60), Jamal Murray (59), Kristaps Porziņģis (57), Donovan Mitchell (55), Lauri Markkanen (55) or Trae Young (54), among others. OG Anunoby was awesome defensively this season but only for 50 games; scratch him from the All-Defense and Defensive Player of the Year lists, along with Draymond Green (55) and Jonathan Isaac (an absolute monster for the Orlando Magic but only for 58 games).

Perhaps most bizarrely, voters can’t select Houston’s Alperen Şengün for Most Improved Player. Or can they? His season ended after 63 games, but according to the CBA, if an independent doctor rules his injury would have kept him out past May 31, he becomes eligible. There was no announcement from the league, but I’m told he is indeed on the ballot. Toronto’s Scottie Barnes (60 games) is ineligible after making his first All-Star team, as is Atlanta’s breakout forward Jalen Johnson (56).

Fortunately, a great many players did clear the 65-game hurdle. I don’t have an official ballot, but here’s a look at how I would vote for the major regular-season awards and honors:

MVP: Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets

Jokić has a great many data points in his favor for this, but let’s start with this one: The general consensus, the default starting point for any further argument, is that Jokić is the best player in the league. Knocking him off the MVP pedestal requires presenting a winning counterargument.

This isn’t just a mea culpa for last season either; just using the results of this regular season and nothing more, Jokić has a fairly overwhelming case. He led the league in PER and BPM, the latter by a wide margin. He had quality on top of quantity, playing more games and more minutes than any other serious MVP candidate.


Additionally, there’s the matter of his team being a champion with him on the court and turning into moldy soup with him off it. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions in the Joker’s minutes but were crushed by 8.6 per 100 with him off the floor, a staggering 20.4-points-per-100 swing that you might think was a fluke except it happens every year.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander presented a strong case, helping the rising power in Oklahoma City up its win total by 17 and take the top seed in the Western Conference. He made the biggest shot in the biggest game this year, the game-winner in the comeback victory over Denver that effectively landed the Thunder the top seed.

Still, you would have to either be sick of voting for Jokić or massively over indexing on West tiebreakers to conclude that Gilgeous-Alexander is more deserving than the Joker. Statistically, the individual and impact stats put him in closer company with Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo than with Jokić. Eye-test wise, Gilgeous-Alexander controls a game as well as anyone in the league except perhaps Dončić and … Jokić. I’m sorry I can’t be more exciting here, but the answer is Jokić until further notice.

I have Gilgeous-Alexander second on my list, followed by Dončić and Antetokounmpo. They were close statistically, almost across the board. Dončić played the fewest games but the most minutes and had the best BPM, but the worst on-court vs. off-court difference. Giannis had the best PER. And in all these categories, these guys were margin-of-error close to one another; effectively, there was no difference between their overall statistical output. We’re splitting hairs. Gilgeous-Alexander, however, won the most games, and as the de facto leader of a Thunder squad that led the league in vibes, he gets extra credit.

Dončić is a magician, though, and went miles deep in his bag of trick shots and crazy passes in the second half of the season once he had Daniel Gafford’s rim runs and a healthy Kyrie Irving by his side. Nobody will be shocked if Dončić wins the award next year, but right now, it’s still Jokić’s time.


And in fifth? Can we give a shout out to the team that ran away from the league and won 64 games? Jayson Tatum didn’t have his best individual season, but that may be a feature and not a bug. His getting off the ball and letting other guys cook meant he only had the league’s 14th-highest usage rate, but he was the head of the snake for a Boston drive-and-kick 3-point rope-a-dope nobody could stop.

  1. Nikola Jokić, Denver
  2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City
  3. Luka Dončić, Dallas
  4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
  5. Jayson Tatum, Boston


First team

The same five as my would-be MVP ballot. Reminder: All-NBA teams are now positionless. I won’t repeat myself here as far as the first team, and I don’t think writing in these five names was all that difficult.

Second team

LeBron James tries to drive past Kawhi Leonard during a Lakers-Clippers game earlier this year. (Jonathan Hui / USA Today)

My second squad over indexes on Los Angeles, with Davis — who played 2,700 minutes(!), ranked fifth in PER and was one of the best defensive players in the league — being the toughest omission from the first team. James, unbelievably, is still a dominating force at 39, with the help of a career-best year from 3 (41 percent) and a brain that has seen everything.

Leonard wasn’t quite his peak San Antonio version, but he was still a two-way beast who carried the Clippers to a massive midyear run. And he even played 68 games!

Brunson was another easy call, not only because he led the Knicks to a 50-win season and the second seed in the East, but also because he became the entire offense once Julius Randle went out. Brunson handled that load to the tune of 2,726 minutes — and needed to because New York’s offense absolutely cratered any time he checked out (121.2 points per 100 on court, 104.2 off). Though a small guard without crazy pop, he also added value on defense by drawing an absurd 75 offensive fouls this season.

The last spot is hard. There’s a temptation to give it to Anthony Edwards because Minnesota won a bunch of games, but the Timberwolves’ success was more driven by an ensemble cast of really good players than one superstar dragging them to glory. His individual stats can’t hang with a couple other candidates, and the Wolves still won his off-court minutes handily.


I’m going with Booker, who had another outstanding season despite being pressed into service as a fake point guard, helping the Suns slug out 47 wins in the West despite limited depth and prolonged absences from Bradley Beal. Don’t let that “68” in the games played column get you twisted, either — Booker’s 2,447 minutes were more than any viable contender for this spot except Edwards.

Third team

I wrote down the first four names pretty quickly. I discussed Edwards above; he was situationally awesome on defense and carried a heavy load for an elite team on offense. Haliburton had an ironclad case for second team and was pushing for first until a midyear hamstring injury slowed him down. Cap nerds will note both Haliburton and Edwards will get converted to supermax extensions next season if they make All-NBA.

Durant wasn’t quite his peak self of yore but was still terrifying on the right night and played 75 games. Similarly, Curry has diminished but was fantastic in the clutch and still causes havoc with his mere presence because of his shooting threat.

For the fifth spot, I wavered. People want to write Boston’s Jaylen Brown here as a nod to the Celtics’ 64-win season; trust me, that stuff does not age well. The Celtics won big because they have more top-75-caliber players than you, but Brown wasn’t one of the top 25 players in the league this season. He already got a massive extension out of this same thought process a year ago; he’ll be fine.

Instead, I went with George, who was just consistently good all season while plugging into different roles at different times, depending on who else was on the floor. Nobody in the league moves as seamlessly from go-to guy to glue guy, and his defense always comes along for the ride.

Apologies here to a few centers. Victor Wembanyama was awesome by April, but this is a full-season award; he also fell a bit short of the competition on total minutes. Rudy Gobert had a bounce-back year and then some defensively but wasn’t a top 15 player. Finally, there’s Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis, who has his limitations but — in addition to being generally really effective — was a clock sponge who played 2,982 minutes and all 82 games.


If I had a fourth team, I’d list those three and Embiid and Mitchell — it’s my fourth team and I can vote whoever the hell I want on it.

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Minnesota

New York’s OG Anunoby would have a real case here if he had qualified for the award; the Knicks’ defensive stats with him on the floor post-trade were mind-boggling. The other notable player to talk about that isn’t on my list is Wembanyama; again, he was amazing by the end and probably will win this award next year, but this is a full-season honor, and there were too many warts in the first half of the season where the Spurs were getting blown out every night. Even late in the year, some physical post players gave him problems, most notably Şengün.

The default assumption here has been Gobert since about Christmas, but before we get to him, can we talk about Alex Caruso? Remind me again why I’m not allowed to vote for him?

Oh wait, I am! Caruso actually played 65 games this year! In fact, he played a career-high 71 and was by far the best defensive guard in the league. He led the NBA in steal rate (2.9 percent) and deflections, blocked 70 shots — the most of any guard except Derrick White — and was fourth with 42 offensive fouls drawn.

Pound for pound, Caruso is the best defensive player in the league; I would argue the difference between Caruso and a standard issue starting point guard is much greater than that between Gobert and your typical starting center. That Chicago finished 21st in defensive efficiency is crushing for Voting the Narrative, but in the non-Caruso minutes, the Bulls were 30th; Chicago had no rim protection and really no other good defenders.

Alas, the other thing that hurts Caruso’s case is that Gobert played 553 more minutes. You have to be pretty awesome to offset a 25 percent difference in availability. Gobert has had other years when he blocked more shots, but he was a rock for Minnesota who deterred opponents from trying at the rim in the first place; his ownership of the defensive glass is an underrated factor, too, since he eliminated second shots.


Minnesota finished first in defensive efficiency by more than two points; the difference been the Wolves and second-place Orlando was bigger than the difference between second and 10th. It takes more than one player to produce that performance, as my Caruso example above shows, but Minnesota’s defense was one of the league’s biggest stories this season, and Gobert was very clearly the catalyst.

Finally, let’s talk about Miami’s Bam Adebayo, The Heat were a disappointment, but they finished fifth in defense despite often playing ragtag lineups due to injuries. Adebayo stayed in the lineup for 71 games, though, and remains the game’s premier switching big. He gets the nod for third on my ballot over Davis.

  1. Rudy Gobert, Minnesota
  2. Alex Caruso, Chicago
  3. Bam Adebayo, Miami
Rudy Gobert blocks a shot by Rockets forward Dillon Brooks in the fourth quarter of a game in Minnesota. (Matt Blewett / USA Today)


There’s a temptation to just take all bigs now that teams are positionless, but it’s easy to see how valuable perimeter players — especially ones like Caruso — are if you grade their impact relative to typical perimeter players. I cheated where I could — putting Bam on my first team as the four, for instance — but didn’t want to get too outrageous.

First team

  • Alex Caruso, Chicago
  • Derrick White, Boston
  • Jalen Suggs, Orlando
  • Bam Adebayo, Miami
  • Rudy Gobert, Minnesota

Second team

  • Herb Jones, New Orleans
  • Aaron Gordon, Denver
  • Anthony Davis, L.A. Lakers
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
  • Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio

I’ve talked about several of these other players in other places, but let’s shout out the new faces.

Suggs jumps all the way into the first team as a frenetic pest who will not be screened; his emergence has been a big factor in the Magic’s leap to second in defense this season. White is more of a known quantity after two-plus years in the spotlight in Boston, a 6-3 guard who somehow has elite rim-protection skills and is constantly in the right spots. On my second team, I tabbed Jones and Gordon in a year when it was hard to find big wings who were both good and played enough games to qualify.

Tough omissions? Oh, we got ’em. Let’s start with Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez; while it was a weird year in Milwaukee and the Bucks were only 19th in defensive efficiency, there is a lot of similarity to Caruso’s argument above. With so many meh or downright pitiful defenders, you could make a good case Milwaukee would have been 30th without Lopez and Giannis.


Also, shout out to Minnesota’s Jaden McDaniels, who looked awesome at times but didn’t quite have the impact stats to move these other guys off the list, and New York’s Isaiah Hartenstein, who had amazing analytics but didn’t quite match the other bigs on the eye test. Houston’s combo of Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks brought instant impact to what had been a comedy routine defense. And it feels weird not to write Jrue Holiday’s name in my top 10.

Finally let’s give some shine to high-usage players who still brought it on defense, most notably steals leader Gilgeous-Alexander. Tatum, Edwards, Leonard and George also warrant praise in this category.

Rookie of the Year: Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio

Not much to discuss here; this part of the ballot should take voters about two seconds to fill out.

After some early season drama, Wembanyama pulled away from the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren, who had a year that normally wins Rookie of the Year by a mile and might end up the rare “unanimous second-place finisher” in a voting category. Miami’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. was a strong early contender for third here before tailing off in the second half of the season, while third pick Scoot Henderson didn’t get rolling until it was too late. That leaves Charlotte’s steady Brandon Miller as the obvious choice for third.

If you’re trying to build an All-Rookie team, take the three names below and add Golden State’s Brandin Podziemski and Houston’s electric Amen Thompson.

  1. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio
  2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City
  3. Brandon Miller, Charlotte

Sixth Man of the Year: Bogdan Bogdanović, Atlanta

Accuse me of homer bias, but to me, Bogdanović was an unusually impactful version of the second-unit scorer/sieve who typically wins this award.

My colleague Seth Partnow always calls this the “Yay, points!” award, and Bogdanović has the requisite scoring average at 16.9 per game, playing effectively both on and off the ball. Additionally, his 2,401 minutes are insanely high for a bench player, meaning he made more impact over the course of the season than some others.


While Bogdanović has a rep as a weak defender, advanced metrics suggest he was pretty decent this year; the Hawks were terrible on defense but actually were massively better with him on the court (improving nearly six points per 100, per You’d think that might be due to his often replacing Young, but even Bogdanović-Young units were quite solid.

I was extremely tempted to vote Isaac first here. There are no games played minimums on this award, and Isaac was awesome; despite his playing just 954 minutes, his monstrous defensive presence in those minutes seemed far more impactful than the league-average gunners (if that) who will commandeer most of the votes.

Instead I have Isaac third behind Bogdanović and Naz Reid. Reid didn’t play as many minutes as Bogdanović but had a greater impact on team success, hitting 41.4 percent from 3 and mixing in some spicy dribbles and one-handed passes you don’t normally see from a player of this size. He also stepped in and kept the Minnesota machine rolling after Towns’ injury. He has to be on the ballot someplace.

  1. Bogdan Bogdanović, Atlanta
  2. Naz Reid, Minnesota
  3. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando

Most Improved Player: Alperen Şengün, Houston

Şengün made a big jump at the defensive end, in addition to becoming more comfortable and less turnover-prone at the offensive end. That defensive part hasn’t received enough attention, but he went from being a flammable pick-and-roll defender to somebody who was fairly comfortable in a variety of coverages. He also cut his foul rate, helping him stay on the floor longer. He’ll never be an awesome defender — he lacks elite length and needs to load up off two feet to challenge shots — but he reads the game well and has good hands.

Alperen Şengün bumped his scoring average almost seven points this season. (Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

Offensively, he bumped his scoring average from 14.8 points per game to 21.1, helped by the Rockets changing their offense to feature his post-ups more often, and deleted a lot of the wild passes out of his game. Şengün is still incredibly creative, but his turnover rate went from 17.3 percent to 12.5 percent.


Just before his injury, he had his pièce de résistance when he hung 45 on Wembanyama, wrecking him with a series of spins and post-ups.

I want very badly for Tyrese Maxey to win this, because it would mean that not only did I get a prediction right about something, but also that I did so in the extremely unlikely category of picking the MIP before the season even started. Maxey for MIP was my bold prediction before the year, and he did bump his scoring average by five points per game while making his first All-Star team. I just don’t think his jump rivaled Şengün’s.

I listed Indiana’s Aaron Nesmith third; I think he quietly became a very important two-way piece there this season after it seemed like his career was on life support when he was traded from Boston. There was a lot of early momentum for Chicago’s Coby White for this award, which was more reasonable before his output started trailing off sharply in the second half of the season. At this point, his year-end numbers aren’t all that different from a year ago.

I’m not a big fan of voting for second-year players for this, but if I did, Oklahoma City’s Jalen Williams would certainly be a strong contender here. Also, shout out Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga, who went from being benched in the 2023 playoffs to becoming an indispensable starter for the Warriors.

  1. Alperen Şengün, Houston
  2. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia
  3. Aaron Nesmith, Indiana

Coach of the Year: Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City

If he keeps having this kind of success, everyone will have to learn how to pronounce his name. (People think it’s just “Mark” but actually the “a” is silent.)

Daigneault vaulted the Thunder from 40 wins to 57 with the help of talent, yes, but also by spamming guard-guard screens and not really worrying about rebounding or even playing with centers sometimes, and throwing in zones and other curveballs at random points in games. He’s openly admitted to the trade-off on rebounding but has won the bargain handily, with the Thunder finishing third in offense and fourth in defense despite landing 29th in rebound rate.


There’s more here — Daigneault is the best in the league at using challenges both successfully and impactfully, and under his reign, the Thunder’s better young players have made steady progress developmentally. The next step is proving he can handle the adjustments of a playoff series, but few coaches have proven more flexible about changing strategies in mid-game than him.

Miami’s Erik Spoelstra has never won this award, and you can argue he should just win it every year. He’s the league’s best coach if we’re starting a team from scratch, but his best work has tended to come in the playoffs, and we vote on this at the end of the regular season. As a result, I have him third.

The other guy to push him down is Chris Finch. He did something really hard, figuring out how to make a two-big system with Gobert and Towns work, and then throwing another center (Reid) heavily into the mix on top of it. The Wolves ended up winning 56 games, one year after the trade for Gobert looked like a bust.

  1. Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City
  2. Chris Finch Minnesota
  3. Erik Spoelstra, Miami

Executive of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston

Stevens could have just left well enough alone, brought back Marcus Smart and made another run at it. He said to hell with that, deal Smart to Memphis, worked another deal for Kristaps Porziņģis and then doubled down further by swapping Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon to Portland for Holiday.

It worked to the tune of 64 wins and one of the most dominant victory margins in NBA history. The Celtics also have been smart around the edges, getting good contract extensions with Al Horford and Payton Pritchard (we’ll see about Brown’s deal…), and finding value on minimum guys like Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet.

The next two names on my list here are Sam Presti and Leon Rose. Presti’s landing here is more of a broader acknowledgment than a one-year honor; after some wobbly years at the tail end of the George-Russell Westbrook era, this organization has righted the ship and then some. Nailing the Holmgren and Jalen Williams picks was huge, plucking Isaiah Joe off waivers paid off handsomely and Daigneault has proven an inspired hire. Obviously, the Thunder are still reaping the benefits of previous moves as well and will long into the future; for instance, the George trade already delivered them Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams and the Clippers aren’t done paying them off until 2026.


Finally, there’s Rose. The Knicks have gone from a laughingstock franchise to one that hardly misses a trick, nailing midlevel exceptions signings like Donte DiVincenzo and Hartenstein, hitting the jackpot in free agency with Brunson and landing Josh Hart and Anunoby via the trade market. The Knicks have also steadily accumulated draft capital and are in position to make another pounce move should the market provide one.

  1. Brad Stevens, Boston
  2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City
  3. Leon Rose, New York

(Top photo of Nikola Jokić and Victor Wembanyama: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

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