The NBA regular season is officially over. In the most wide-open NBA I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, selecting winners for each major award was a gargantuan task. Now, I don’t have a vote (if you guys keep reading my articles, maybe someday I will), but as a thought exercise and topic of discussion, I’ve put together my entire hypothetical ballot. Here you’ll find my Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player picks — along with four runners-up for each and my All-NBA and All-Defense teams.
I took games played into account more than some others might, and this is especially true for my All-NBA team selections, where I left off some first-team candidates due to the extensive time they missed. Additionally, given that I write for a Wizards-focused site, I should acknowledge in advance that the only Wizards mentioned in the entire article is Delon Wright, who was an honorable mention for the All-Defense team. Now on to my picks.
Most Valuable Player
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Joel Embiid
- Nikola Jokić
- Domantas Sabonis
- Jayson Tatum
This has been the closest MVP race in history, and it’s a shame that Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Jokić can’t all win it. As fans of the game, we have been drowned in debates about the MVP all season long, and I do not want to bog down what has already become a worn-out discussion, so I’ll keep it brief. All three players deserve it, but Giannis is the best defender of the three and was the best player on the team with the league’s best record. Embiid may have scored more points per game than Giannis, but those two extra points did not tip the scales for me. Jokić, of course, was also brilliant as always.
I would like to touch on my fourth and fifth place finishers, however. One of the most interesting things to look at each season is who comes in fourth and fifth for MVP, because more often than not, they are not actually on the shortlist of the league’s best players (Devin Booker finished fourth last year!). I picked Sabonis as my fourth-place finisher because of how valuable he is to everything the Sacramento Kings do. Sabonis was a massive factor in Sacramento snapping their 16-year playoff drought, and he averaged 19 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists per game while shooting 61.5% from the field.
Tatum battled his usual inconsistency demons this season, but he was nonetheless far more consistent than he’s ever been. He averaged 30 points and nine rebounds as one of the driving forces of a Celtics team that finished with the second best offense and the second best defense this season (and the best net rating overall).
Honorable mentions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Donovan Mitchell and De’Aaron Fox
Rookie of the Year
- Paolo Banchero
- Jalen Williams
- Walker Kessler
- Keegan Murray
- Bennedict Mathurin
Despite Williams’ late-season push, Banchero winning the Rookie of the Year has been the biggest foregone conclusion of the season, and he should do so unanimously. Banchero averaged 20 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the season while playing solid defense for a rookie. Whether or not this should count toward the award, he also contributed to winning — after a dreadful 5-20 start to the season, the Magic finished the year out by going 29-29 and coming within striking distance of the Play-In Tournament.
Williams, to his credit, has been brilliant. He averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for the Thunder while typically taking on the toughest defensive assignment. If defense is your thing, Kessler is a great pick as the ROTY runner-up. For a strikingly competent Jazz team, Kessler blocked 2.3 shots per game, good for fourth in the league.
Murray drained the most three-pointers for a rookie in league history while shooting a scorching 41.4% from deep. He also started 77 of his 79 games for a Sacramento Kings team that came out of nowhere to grab the third seed in the Western Conference, and his timely contributions to the Kings’ success should not be overlooked. Lastly, Mathurin was an early candidate to usurp Banchero for ROTY before cooling off as the season progressed, though he still averaged 16.6 points per game off the bench.
The common thread tying all of these rookies together is their impact on their teams — the Magic, Thunder, Jazz, Kings and Pacers all hugely outperformed expectations for this season, and the five rookies atop my ROTY ballot all played pivotal roles in that success.
Honorable mentions go out to Jaden Ivey, AJ Griffin, Andrew Nembhard, Jeremy Sochan, Jabari Smith Jr. and Jalen Duren.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Jrue Holiday
- Jaren Jackson Jr.
- Brook Lopez
- Evan Mobley
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
For me, Defensive Player of the Year was the most difficult award to decide on. There are few truly effective defensive statistics, so most of this award comes down to the eye test. Sometimes, if the eye test isn’t yielding results, voters just give it to a great defender who has never won the award (see: Marcus Smart, 2022). I was not able to watch every single game this season, so take the DPOY section of this article with a grain of salt.
Since my vote is not actually being counted anywhere, I ended up making a spicy pick and going with Jrue Holiday. Holiday suffocates opposing guards on a nightly basis, and if my life was on the line and I inexplicably needed someone to get a stop to save me, I would choose Holiday. The second guy I would choose is Jaren Jackson Jr., who is averaging a mind-blowing three blocks per game as the anchor for the third best defense in the NBA. The underrated aspect of Jackson’s defense is that he doesn’t comically swat balls into the stands Dwight Howard-style — his rim protection is more practical, and he typically keeps the ball in-bounds for one of his teammates to recover.
Like Jackson, both Lopez and Mobley are fantastic shot blockers. Lopez contested more shots than anyone else in the NBA this year, while Mobley is not only a fantastic shot blocker but also an amazingly switchable defender, especially for his size. Giannis may be the single best defender in the league, but Holiday and Lopez relieved him somewhat of his typical defensive burden this season.
Honorable mention: OG Anunoby
Sixth Man of the Year
- Immanuel Quickley
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Norman Powell
- Malik Monk
- Bobby Portis
This year’s Sixth Man of the Year race was shockingly boring. Quickley is my pick to win the award because of his stellar two-way play and hustle for the Knicks. Even though he is probably the third best player on the Knicks, Quickley came off the bench for all but 21 games this season and averaged 15 points per game. Brogdon was a steady stopgap piece for the Celtics, although he was far less important to the team than guys like Derrick White and Grant Williams, which is why I give the edge to Quickley.
Powell had the highest scoring average of all bench players, while Monk racked up the most total points off the bench this year. Portis, meanwhile, kept the Bucks steady while Lopez or Giannis rested and put up 14 points and 10 rebounds to boot.
Most Improved Player
- Lauri Markkanen
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Mikal Bridges
- Jalen Brunson
- Nic Claxton
Most Improved Player is a confusing award, but the choice here is clear-cut. Markkanen was a fringe starter in Cleveland last season averaging 14.8 points per game on 45/36/87% shooting splits. This season he jumped up to almost 26 points per game and not only made his first career All-Star Game but started in it. Markkanen’s jump from role player to shoo-in for All-NBA (spoiler!) is one of the most impressive season-to-season improvements we’ve ever seen. It’s not just one of those flash-in-the-pan seasons, either — typically when a player improves their scoring average in an increased role, their efficiency takes a hit. Markkanen, however, has improved to a near 50/40/90 player, and I project him to be a perennial All-Star going forward.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s case for MIP is strange, and it underscores the two schools of thought when it comes to the award. Should it go to the guy who came out of left field to become a star (Markkanen) or to the guy who’s been a stud and finally made the leap like we all projected (SGA)? SGA poured in an absurd 31.4 points per game on 51% shooting from the field while dragging a way-ahead-of-schedule Oklahoma City Thunder team to the Play-In Tournament. My argument for not giving SGA the award is the same as Draymond Green’s argument that Ja Morant should not have won the award last year: “Ja Morant isn’t the Most Improved Player. He was f—king incredible last year.” With that line of thinking, it might be more of an honor for SGA not to win the award.
Bridges is and has been the second best perimeter defender in the league behind Jrue Holiday for a couple years now. After arriving in Brooklyn at the trade deadline, Bridges averaged 26.1 points per game, and it appears there is more to his game than anyone had previously thought. The same goes for Brunson, who has been the best player on a really solid Knicks team all season. Brunson averaged a highly efficient 24 points and 6 assists per game as he led New York back to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Lastly, Claxton has evolved from a serviceable pinch starter to a defensive stalwart and DPOY candidate who swatted 2.5 shots per game this season.
G - De’Aaron Fox
G - Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
F - Giannis Antetokounmpo
F - Jayson Tatum
C - Joel Embiid
G - Luka Dončić
G - Donovan Mitchell
F - Lauri Markkanen
F - Jaren Jackson Jr.
C - Nikola Jokić
G - Ja Morant
G - Jrue Holiday
F - Evan Mobley
F - Julius Randle
C - Domantas Sabonis
All-NBA teams this season are utter chaos, and the only two names I have written in pen are Giannis Antetokounmpo for first team and Domantas Sabonis for third team. Everyone else has been dynamically jumping around on a daily basis, and I’m still not even confident I’ve made the right choices. The most important thing to keep in mind is the depth of the guard position — there are multiple guards who are contenders for All-NBA first team who didn’t make All-NBA at all. That’s how good guards have been this season. Additionally, to make selections easier, I put a hard floor on games played: if you played fewer than 60 games, you were automatically eliminated (this cleared up a four-way scrum between Tyrese Haliburton, Ja Morant, Steph Curry and Jrue Holiday for the two third team guard spots).
I felt like most of my selections were fairly standard save for a few, so I’ll focus on some of the more controversial ones. First off, Embiid and Jokić are a coin-toss for first team, but I put Embiid there since he finished higher on my MVP ballot.
When I was trying to think of the two best guards of the season while taking team success into account, there was one name I couldn’t get out of my head: De’Aaron Fox. His cold blood in the clutch and his much-improved three-level scoring ability made him the second best of all qualifying guards this season, in my opinion. I bumped Fox to first team when the Mavericks’ dumpster fire of a season ended with Dončić being shut down.
Lastly, over the last few weeks of the season, Damian Lillard fell all the way from my first team to all the way off my fake ballot. Yes, he scored 71 points in a game this year, but the late-season tailspin into just 33 wins was enough for me to drop him from my list. Oh, and he played only 58 games.
Omissions due to games played: Stephen Curry, Tyrese Haliburton, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
The toughest cut: Damian Lillard
Honorable mentions: Ooh boy. Jaylen Brown, Jalen Brunson, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kawhi Leonard, Darius Garland, James Harden, Pascal Siakam
Jrue Holiday, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Evan Mobley
Mikal Bridges, OG Anunoby, Jaden McDaniels, Alex Caruso and Walker Kessler
My All-Defensive first team is the same as my DPOY ballot, so see please see there for any explanations.
Deciding who the sixth through tenth best defenders in the NBA were this season was a gargantuan task. I ultimately settled on the suffocating perimeter foursome of Bridges, Anunoby, McDaniels and Caruso as the most trusted perimeter disruptors in the league, and I rewarded the rookie Kessler with an All-Defense nod for his magnificent rim protection this year.
Honorable mentions: Nic Claxton, Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green, Delon Wright, Isaac Okoro, Dennis Smith Jr., Derrick White, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
What did you think of my hypothetical ballot? Leave a comment below or contact me on Twitter @MarcoGacina to let me know!