As we enter the month of December and prepare for the holiday season, there is no telling how the 2023-24 NBA season will play out. Nobody had the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic being two of the best teams in the league, yet here we are approaching the quarter mark of the season with these teams on a roll. Both the Eastern and Western Conference standings are very close, plus the NBA award races have their own narratives.
Several players have thrown their name in the hat for this season's MVP award, as we are trending towards another Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid debate. The same can be said about this year's race for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award between Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren.
Perhaps the Most Improved Player award will be the NBA's tightest race all season long, as there are several players who have had breakout performances to this point in the year. Tyrese Maxey, Alperen Sengun, Cam Thomas, and Tyrese Haliburton are just a few of the names that come to mind when discussing who has improved the most this season.
The awards races for Sixth Man of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year are all up for grabs as well, making this NBA season one that could come down to the final few games.
Now is the time where we will begin to learn more about certain players and each team's success, or lack there of. Will a certain player be able to continue building off their early-season momentum? Or was their fast or slow start just temporary? The same question can be asked regarding the Eastern and Western Conference standings.
There is so much basketball yet to be played and there are a lot of unknowns that we don't have answers to yet, but as of right now, here is how each awards race is shaping up this NBA season.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)
There is no wrong answer between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid for the league's Most Valuable Player award right now. On one hand, Embiid has the Philadelphia 76ers near the top of the Eastern Conference standings at 12-6, and the reigning league MVP leads the league in scoring at 32.0 points per game. On the other hand, Jokic has single-handedly led the Denver Nuggets to a 13-6 record in the Western Conference without Jamal Murray for a good chunk of the season and has seven triple-doubles in 18 games.
It is also worth mentioning that Jokic has recorded a double-double in all but one game this season. In that game, the Nuggets star recorded nine points, five rebounds, and five assists in 15 total minutes before being ejected for arguing with the officials.
To me, the Most Valuable Player award is definitely 80 percent statistical, as you have to consistently put up good numbers to be in the running for this award. However, the other 20 percent factors in team success and true value when on the floor versus being off the floor.
Buckle up for a second because we are going to do a deep dive into some advanced stats for both Jokic and Embiid. Aside from the points per game and the rebounding and all that stuff, true impact can really be measured by looking at team success with and without a certain player on the court. Cleaning The Glass does an excellent job of tracking player efficiency through on/off court numbers. When comparing the two MVP frontrunners, it's clear to see that Jokic is more valuable.
According to their numbers, the Nuggets have an efficiency differential of +10.8 when Jokic is on the court. Per 100 possessions, Jokic is improving the Nuggets offense by 22.4 points per 100 possessions, which is a crazy number to think about. As far as expected wins go, Denver is expected to win 64 games with their superstar on the court. The metrics show that Jokic is contributing +49 in win expectancy, meaning that he is responsible for 49 of their expected 64 wins.
Embiid has put up great numbers, but his efficiency numbers are nowhere close to Jokic's. The Sixers have an efficiency differential of +8.6 when Embiid is on the court, and he has improved their expected win total by six games.
The eye test matters and all the other stuff like regular stats and record matter, but at the end of the day, the most valuable player in the league is the one who makes his team better. That is Jokic by a landslide right now.
Rookie of the Year: Victor Wembanyama (San Antonio Spurs)
The battle for the Rookie of the Year award is close between Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren. Detroit Pistons rookie Ausar Thompson has been fantastic and got a lot of love in ClutchPoints' most recent rookie rankings because of what he has been able to achieve on the worst team in the league. However, the league and official voters are not going to sign away the Rookie of the Year award to a player on a team that finishes with below 20 wins unless his numbers really stand out, and they do not compared to the other two.
Wembanyama and Holmgren are the two names to watch moving forward in this race. We'll start with Holmgren first since he is currently the runner-up at the quarter mark in the season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have shocked many, as they find themselves 12-6, looking like a team that can contend for home-court advantage in the postseason. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has played like a true MVP candidate to this point, but Holmgren has really made the difference in the Thunder's approach on both ends of the court. His ability to knock down triples at a high rate on offense and then block shots on the other end is invaluable.
Should the Thunder continue to find success at the top of the standings and Holmgren continues to have 20-point, 10-rebound nights while being amongst the league leaders in blocked shots, it will be hard to leave him below Wembanyama, who is leading a low-win San Antonio Spurs team.
The reason Wemby finds himself in the No. 1 spot for Rookie of the Year right now is because of how he has handled the spotlight. No player since LeBron James has had to deal with more press and pressure than Wembanyama, yet the Spurs rookie looks like a seasoned veteran who is simply having fun. After he started out slow and had a couple of big performances here and there, Wembanyama has turned things on in recent weeks.
In the month of November, Wemby averaged 20.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game while shooting 42.3 percent from the floor. Over his last four games, the rookie phenom is averaging 21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game. Wembanyama is getting better and beginning to be more assertive on offense, which is why he has a shot at being an All-Star this season.
If the Spurs can actually start winning some games, that will only help Wemby's case.
Sixth Man of the Year: Cole Anthony (Orlando Magic)
There are plenty of notable players who come off the bench and have proven to be valuable contributors this NBA season. Tim Hardaway Jr. from the Dallas Mavericks leads all players in points scored off the bench with 285 total points, Immanuel Quickley has been an extension of the New York Knicks' starting lineup through the years, Malik Monk provides the Sacramento Kings with quick scoring, and Bogdan Bogdanovic from the Atlanta Hawks is perhaps the best bench shooter in the league.
The one player nobody seems to want to pay attention to right now in regards to the Sixth Man of the Year race is Cole Anthony from the Orlando Magic. Sure, I get it, the Magic have not been great in recent years and we should take everything seen to this point in the season with a grain of salt. But what we have seen from the Magic and Anthony in his bench role is not going to change. In fact, Anthony is only going to get better in his role.
The Magic are actually real threats in the East not because they put up gaudy scoring numbers or have a handful of stars like the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, but because they have actually bought into each other and have the best team chemistry in the league, at least in my opinion. This young group lost together for years, but now they are winning together due to reinventing their image on the defensive side of the court.
Enough about the entire Magic team, as we will touch on them a little bit later. Anthony is the clear answer for Sixth Man of the Year right now, especially since he is putting up starter-like numbers while coming off the bench. In 18 games off the bench, Anthony has averaged 15.6 points, 4,7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game while shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from three-point range. In terms of bench scoring, he is just five points behind Hardaway for the No. 1 spot in the league.
Orlando is winning games while their third-best player right now is a guy who comes off the bench every night with no complaints. It's about time something good happened to the Magic.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert (Minnesota Timberwolves)
The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert ahead of the 2022-23 season with the intention of creating the league's best frontcourt duo. Last season was a disaster for the Timberwolves, as Karl-Anthony Towns missed almost the whole season and Gobert struggled to fit in. So far this season, everything has worked out for Minnesota, as they find themselves ranked first in defensive rating and at the top of the Western Conference standings with 14-4 record.
Anthony Edwards has grown into a two-way star and Towns is finally healthy for the Timberwolves, which has obviously helped them find success. As for Gobert, he finally looks comfortable playing alongside his two star teammates. Averaging 2.3 blocks per game, Gobert trails only Victor Wembanyama (2.7), Anthony Davis (2.7), and Brook Lopez (2.7) for the league-lead.
Gobert has always been one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, hence why he has three Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name. With Minnesota, Gobert has been the anchor of his team's defense and the French big man currently ranks first in player defensive rating. He is the best defensive player on the best defensive team in basketball, which is why Gobert is the early favorite for this award.
Most Improved Player: Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers)
Even before James Harden was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, Tyrese Maxey was named a player to watch as a potential first-time All-Star. With Harden gone, Maxey has elevated his play to the point where him missing the All-Star Game would come as a shock based on his numbers. With Embiid in the running for MVP, Maxey finds himself in the running for Most Improved Player after averaging 27.0 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 39.6 percent from deep through 18 games.
The Sixers are in a position to still contend for the top spot in the East without Harden on their roster due to Maxey assuming full duties of his team's backcourt. Whether he has the ball in his hands or not, Maxey has been one of the most effective offensive players in the league in terms of helping his team score.
The Most Improved Player award always tends to go to someone who makes their first All-Star Game. This has been the case for each of the last four recipients of the award and the trend will not break this year. Maxey will be named the NBA's Most Improved Player as long as he remains healthy.
Coach of the Year: Jamahl Mosley (Orlando Magic)
Hey, what do you know, we are talking about the Orlando Magic again!
We are just about a quarter of the way into the 2023-24 season and this has already been a magical year for Orlando. Get it, magical season for the Magic? Don't worry, you only have to bare with me for about 200 more words.
The Magic have been playing their hearts out this season and they're doing so while being one of the youngest teams in the league. Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr., Cole Anthony, and Jalen Suggs are the focal points of this roster, yet they are all 24 years old or younger. Inexperience does not matter to this organization whatsoever. This is especially true pertaining to head coach Jamahl Mosley, who is in his third season with the team.
A long-time assistant in the NBA who paid his dues before earning his first head coaching gig with the Mavs, Mosley has the full confidence and support of his team. The Magic know what it is like to constantly lose and they've grown together through the years. This is why they are all of a sudden finding success early onthis season.
There are not enough good things that can be said about the job Mosley has done in Orlando, as we are just now seeing the results of the work he started ahead of the 2021-22 season. Assuming the Magic remain near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, it will be hard to turn down Mosley for Coach of the Year.
However, we should also give a round of applause to the Timberwolves and head coach Chris Finch. Minnesota owns the best record in the Western Conference to this point in the season and Finch has led the Timberwolves to being the best defensive team in the NBA. If you have Mosley or Finch as your pick to win Coach of the Year right now, you understand basketball.