The NBA All-Star break is here — and as is our tradition, that means it’s time to hand out some awards. For some reason, we in the NBA media still call this the “midway point” of the year, even though teams have played nearly 75 percent of the games. It’s not actually midseason, though, so even though we’re going to give out a bunch of superlatives here, we’re not actually going to call them our midseason awards. Think of them more like the post-midseason awards. Or the pre-postseason awards. Or some sort of better name than those.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s give out some imaginary hardware …
Most Outstanding Performance in an Expanded Role: Lauri Markkanen, Jalen Brunson, Joe Mazzulla (three-way tie!)
It was hard to settle on just one candidate in this category, so the awards committee (i.e., me) has decided to allow a trio of winners.
“All-Star (replacement) starter Lauri Markkanen” is probably not something anybody had on their bingo card at the beginning of the season, but here we are. Shattering the typical usage-efficiency curve, The Finnisher is posting career highs in both usage rate (25.4 percent) and true shooting percentage (0.657), spurred by the development of his off-the-bounce game to complement what he’s always provided as a perimeter sniper. He’s already attempted nearly twice as many shots after at least three dribbles as he did last season, and he’s making them at a career-best clip. He’s also vastly exceeding the shooting efficiency we would expect based on the particulars of those shots (according to Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality metric):
This is just not the kind of stuff we ever saw him doing (or that his teams wanted him to do) before this year.
Speaking of shattering the usage-efficiency curve, we also have Brunson, who is posting by far the highest usage rate of his career (27.2 percent) and scoring more efficiently than he had in all but one of his prior four seasons. He’s launching threes at a career-high rate (4.7 per 36 minutes) and making more of them than ever (41.1 percent), and posting a career-high assist rate (he’s dimed up 29.2 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor) while turning it over less often than ever before (9.1 percent turnover rate).
The fears that New York would surround Brunson with poor shooting have come to fruition (the Knicks are 23rd in 3-point percentage), and that has unsurprisingly affected his shot quality (it’s at a career low, according to Second Spectrum), but it just has not mattered. Brunson just keeps making shots, in all situations, and especially in crunch time: Only De’Aaron Fox has scored more points in the clutch this season, per NBA Advanced Stats, and Brunson is carrying a 50-40-82 shooting line in the final minutes of close games. He is already easily the team’s best point guard since, I don’t know, Mark Jackson? He’s also got the Knicks entering the break in position to avoid the play-in tournament and sporting the league’s eighth-best point differential.
Finally, there’s Mazzulla, whom the Celtics named permanent head coach on Thursday, removing the interim tag after he led the team to a league-best 42-17 record prior to the break. Mazzulla didn’t even know he’d be coaching the team full-time until late September, but under his leadership Boston is the only team in the NBA with a top-five offense (third) and defense (fifth), leading the NBA in overall point differential, as well as when you adjust for pace and/or opponent strength. That’s just about as good a coaching job as you could ask for — especially considering the Celtics have been without Robert Williams III for most of the season, as well as Marcus Smart for a significant chunk of it. Remaining among the league’s top-five defenses despite that duo playing only 55 percent of possible games and sharing the floor for only 144 minutes is quite the accomplishment.
Best Third Act of a Trilogy: Nikola Jokić
The two-time reigning MVP is now a pretty heavy favorite to capture the award for the third consecutive season. (He just ran away with the latest version of Tim Bontemps’ MVP Straw Poll at ESPN.com.) For context, the only players in history to win three MVPs in a row are Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. Jokić is averaging a freaking triple-double (24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists a night) while shooting an absolutely outrageous (and career-best) 63.2 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from deep. He is once again leading the NBA in PER, win shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, total RAPTOR, Estimated Plus-Minus and a whole lot more.
The Nuggets’ starters (Jokić, Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.) have outscored opponents by 150 points in 416 minutes. Among the 75 five-man units that have spent at least 100 minutes on the floor, the version of that group with Bruce Brown1 in place of Murray has the second-best pace-adjusted scoring margin at plus-20.5 points per 100 possessions, while the Murray unit is fifth-best at plus-16.6 (and the group with Brown in place of MPJ is 21st at plus-9.2 per 100). That sextet of players is going to make the Nuggets extremely scary come playoff time, where Jokić has consistently raised his game in his career to date.
Most Overlooked Fantastic Season: Darius Garland
He has been overshadowed by new teammate Donovan Mitchell, but Garland has been just as good as he was during his breakout season a year ago — if not better. In 2021-22, Garland poured in 21.7 points per game on 46-38-89 shooting, along with 8.6 assists a night. This season, Garland is again at 21.7 points per game, this time on 47-42-86 shooting, to go along with 8.0 assists a night. His true shooting percentage is up, his turnover rate is down and he’s getting to the line more often. He’s been a top-20 player in the league so far this year by total RAPTOR, adding just 0.1 fewer points per 100 possessions to the Cavaliers’ scoring margin than Mitchell. The Eastern Conference guard crop being as deep as it is kept Garland off the All-Star team this year; it does not have anything to do with his level of play.
Best Job of Making Himself Indispensable to a Team That Seemed Skeptical: Immanuel Quickley
For some reason, the Knicks for a while seemed intent on finding someone, anyone, who could play ahead of Quickley. That was true during his rookie season, when they traded for Derrick Rose while Elfrid Payton was clearly struggling as the starting point guard. It was true last season, when they started Alec Burks at the point for most of the year after Kemba Walker washed out of Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. And it was even true this season, when they spent the first portion of the year giving Quickley even fewer minutes than he got in his first two NBA seasons.
Yes, Quickley had a dreadful first month of the season, during which he shot just 35.6 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc. But since the Knicks adjusted their rotation in early December and finally gave Quickley the playing time he had clearly earned, he’s been dynamite: 14.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 30.9 minutes per game, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from deep. New York has once again been considerably better with Quickley on the floor than off, and if he keeps up this level of play he could make a push for the Sixth Man of the Year trophy.
In particular, the unlocking of Quickley’s floater game has turned him into a much more effective offensive player. He is one of the highest-volume floater-takers in the NBA, and this year, he’s finally been one of the best at converting those shots.
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On defense, though, is where Quickley has really shined. He’s got the best defensive RAPTOR of his career; New York’s defense has been 11.4 points stingier per 100 possessions with him on the floor than on the bench; and he has been one of the league’s most effective pick-and-roll defenders. According to Second Spectrum, opponents have averaged just 0.868 points per play when Quickley’s man has been the ball-handler in a pick and roll, the second-best mark among 88 players who have defended the action at least 500 times so far this season.
Best at Fattening Up Against the Dregs of the League: L.A. Clippers
The Clips are in fifth place in the West. Since returning from his early-season injury management plan and playing more regularly, Kawhi Leonard is averaging 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals in 34.1 minutes per game, shooting 51 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep and 87 percent from the line. In other words, he looks a whole lot like Peak Kawhi. During the same stretch, Paul George is at 22.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.4 steals in 34.1 minutes per game with 46-39-89 shooting splits. In other words, he looks a whole lot like Peak PG.
And yet, if you take a deeper look at the Clippers’ track record so far this year, you might see something a bit concerning: L.A. is 23-8 against teams with sub-.500 records … and just 9-20 against teams at .500 or better. All the wins count, but that’s not exactly an encouraging win profile for a team heading into a playoff push.
Best Job of Single-Handedly Winning a Trade for His Team: Walker Kessler
When talking about the Rudy Gobert trade, the first thing most people reference are the FIVE first-round assets (four picks and one swap) the Utah Jazz received from the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the future, though, we might be talking about Kessler first and foremost.
He should be a decade-long fixture, despite basically being an afterthought in this deal. In his 23 games as a starter, Kessler has averaged nearly a double-double (10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds) and blocked an average of 2.3 shots a night. He’s shooting 71 percent from the field, he ranks inside the top 30 in defensive RAPTOR, his rim-protection numbers are actually better than Gobert’s this year and he will cost Utah less than $13.4 million during the run of his rookie contract as the No. 22 overall pick in last year’s draft. You could make a decently convincing argument that receiving Kessler for Gobert straight-up is enough to consider the Jazz the winners of the swap, given the difference in age and salary between the two players.
Best Assemblage of Future Talent That Should Scare the Rest of the NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a full-blown superstar, a player who is absolutely impossible to stop from getting to the basket. SGA is leading the league in drives per game (by a lot), and while his sudden aversion to shooting threes is cause for mild concern, you can’t argue with his sky-high free-throw rate and outrageous midrange shooting numbers.
Even if the Thunder just had Shai, they would be scary. But they flank him with Josh Giddey, who since the calendar flipped to January is putting up 18.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists a night while shooting better than 51 percent from the field; and Jalen Williams, who since becoming a permanent fixture in the starting lineup is at 13.3 points, 4.8 boards, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals a night and converting 50 percent of his shots … as a rookie, mind you. The combined size of this trio (Shai is 6-foot-6 with a 6-11 wingspan; Giddey is 6-8 with a 6-8 wingspan; and Williams is 6-6 with a 7-2 wingspan) is outrageous, and likely to cause all kinds of problems for opponents.
Oh, and they’ll add Chet Holmgren to the mix next year and beyond. If you could build a player in a lab to fit alongside the aforementioned three players, it would look a lot like the 7-foot-1 Holmgren, who is both an elite rim protector and a plus shooter from the outside. Scary hours, folks.
Honorable mention here goes to the Orlando Magic, who just need some better guard play to take Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner to an even higher level. Man, are those two guys fun to watch.
Best Ending We’re All Hoping For: The Kings make the playoffs
The last time Sacramento made the postseason was 2006. Two thousand and six!
Do you know how long ago that was? Like, in basketball terms? That Kings team featured a 29-year-old Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who is now 46 and has been the president of the G League for four-plus years. That’s how long ago it was. The Kings offense that ranked 10th in the NBA in scoring that season averaged 98.9 points per night. This season, 29 of the league’s 30 teams are averaging at least 10 more points per game than that.
So now that we’ve established that Sacramento’s last taste of success came in another geologic eon, let’s get the Kings back to the playoffs, folks. The real playoffs, by the way. Not the play-in. (They’re 2.5 games ahead of seventh place heading into the break.) We need this to happen.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.