NBA roundtable: Experts offer picks on regular-season awards

ByESPN Insiders ESPN logo
Sunday, April 14, 2024

The 2023-24 NBA regular season officially wraps up on Sunday, with teams looking toward the play-in tournament next week to shape the playoff picture.

But NBA awards season is also right around the corner.

Experts around the league are reflecting on the season and the deserving candidates primed to take home the hardware. Are there any players even close to contesting MVP favorite Nikola Jokic? And how long will it take forVictor Wembanyamato take home Defensive Player of the Year?

NBA insiders Kevin Pelton, Dave McMenamin, Tim MacMahon, Andrew Lopez and Chris Herring answer these questions and more, including their picks for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

Jokic is primed to win his third MVP. Who will have the best chance of taking it next year?

Chris Herring: If Jokic is the runaway favorite to win this year, and he had what everyone agrees was a pretty compelling case to win a third straight award last year, this isn't even a question. He deserves to be seen as the favorite until further notice. This isn't to suggest Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid and Jalen Brunson aren't capable of taking it. But Jokic clearly is the guy, and we don't have to pretend that it's a complicated argument.

Andrew Lopez: If it isn't Jokic, it's Doncic. Since the trade deadline, Doncic is averaging a triple-double (33.0 points, 10.5 assists and 10.0 rebounds) in 26 games. While his and the Dallas Mavericks' late-season surge won't be enough to overtake Jokic this year, it could next year. Doncic has been in the top eight in MVP voting ever since his sophomore campaign and first-team All-NBA in that stretch as well. If he can keep those numbers up for the entire season, it might prevent Jokic from getting four in five years.

Dave McMenamin: Doncic is already the titleholder of the "best player without an MVP" distinction. So of course he has to be mentioned. But let's not forget that Embiid was cruising toward his second straight award before his knee injury and hey, how about that Ja Morant guy? Could this year's setback be setting up a major comeback? If the Boston Celtics break through and win it all, could Tatum use that as a springboard to launch into a career year? How about Anthony Edwards, who is already knocking on the door this season. If you're going to have the conversation, you're better off mentioning five names than just one.

Kevin Pelton: MVP voting tends to lag statistical dominance, so the answer should be a first-time winner, and that means either Doncic or Gilgeous-Alexander. A full season of what Doncic did after the All-Star break, with Daniel Gafford offering another lob threat and shooting around them, might make him the favorite. Or it could be Gilgeous-Alexander if he and the Oklahoma City Thunder take another step forward in their precocious development into contenders.

Tim MacMahon:It's a matter of when, not if, Doni will be an MVP. (Also, how many will he win?) The Mavs feel quite strongly that he should win the honor this season, as evidenced by the "PRAVI MVP" T-shirts his teammates and Dallas staffers wore Wednesday night, a campaign that uses the Slovenian word that roughly translates to "real." Led by Doncic, the Mavs made moves to climb to the middle of the West playoff pack and drastically improved their defense. But the bottom line is, it's just difficult to convincingly claim that anyone deserves it more than Jokic.

Who's your pick for DPOY?

Pelton: Rudy Gobert. The Minnesota Timberwolves boast far and away the NBA's best defense, and while wings Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels deserve All-Defensive consideration as well, Gobert's intimidating presence in the paint is the biggest reason. Most teams have to choose between protecting the rim and preventing 3s, but Minnesota has been able to excel at taking away both high-value shots because of a defense built around Gobert.

Herring: After a ton of criticism following his blockbuster trade and the team's underwhelming campaign last season, Gobert has earned the award this season. Yes, he's anchored the league's best defense. Yet so much of what he does is shrouded by his dominance around the hoop; one that prevents players and teams from even trying their hand at short-range attempts when he's on the floor. Just 21% of the shots against Minnesota come from the restricted area when Gobert is on the court -- best in the league. By contrast, when Gobert is off the floor, that number jumps to 26%, a mark that is among the NBA's top 10 most porous defenses.

Lopez: Even the player with the second-best odds to win the award, according to ESPN BET, believes that Gobert deserves to bring home his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award this season. During a news conference in Austin, Texas, Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama (+800) said that his fellow 7-foot-plus countryman would be deserving of the award this but jokingly added it won't be his turn anymore after this season. Gobert has been what the Timberwolves expected after dealing for him last offseason. Minnesota's 107.9 defensive rating is 2.6 points better than the second-place Celtics and the gap between No. 2 and No. 10 is just 2.3 points per 100 possessions.

McMenamin: Having seen him play just about every game he's been in since being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis' season made me think long and hard about the nature of the award. Is it possible that anchoring the No. 17 team in terms of defensive rating is a more impressive performance than in 2019-20 when the Lakers had the No. 3 defense and he came in second in DPOY voting? And should the offensive burden he shoulders be a major consideration when crediting his defense, the same way the defensive side of the ball is sometimes a tiebreaker when it comes to evaluating worthy MVP candidates? Ultimately, I'm comfortable with Gobert winning it -- he's great and the Wolves' defense is great. However, Davis' individual defensive impact might be greater for Los Angeles than Gobert's is for Minnesota, considering the ground he covers and his teammates.

MacMahon: It's Gobert, and it's not a difficult decision. The Timberwolves are in the mix to be the West's top seed primarily because they have the league's best defense, and it's built around Gobert's interior dominance. Opponents shoot only 48.3% within six feet of the rim contested by Gobert, the lowest in the league among 311 defenders with at least 100 field goals contested in that range, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But Gobert also excels as an isolation defender, allowing only 0.74 points per possession, the best among a dozen players with at least 100 blocks. Gobert has earned the distinction of joining Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo in the exclusive club of four-time DPOY winners.

Who's your pick for Most Improved Player?

Herring:OKC's Jalen Williams. He has gotten so much better -- both in terms of his scoring and passing -- and his efficiency has skyrocketed. And no, he's not someone who merely eats off the attention that MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Year hopeful Chet Holmgren receive. Williams hit a winning jumper against the Portland Trail Blazers and has the best field goal percentage in clutch scenarios (69.2%, or 27-for-39) of anyone who's taken at least 25 attempts. And he's put up historically efficient numbers in his midrange, off-the-dribble looks -- ones that have made OKC's offense even more unguardable.

Lopez: I was all set to make an argument for Chicago Bulls' guard Coby White (career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists per game) or even New Orleans Pelicans' All-Defensive candidate Herb Jones (whose shooting has improved dramatically this season) but that was before I watched Tyrese Maxey put up his third 50-point game of the season on Sunday. He truly has improved into one of the best scorers in the league. At 25.9 points per game, he's 12th in the league in scoring (among qualified players) while also picking up the added burden of carrying the Sixers' offense when Joel Embiid was out.

McMenamin: I'm loath to vote for a player winning this award in his second or third season. There's a natural progression that comes in the first few years in the NBA, as players work on their bodies with an NBA training program, and on their minds, with the coaching and film study. The spirit of the award, to me, is recognizing someone who makes a tangible leap after filling out that base growth. Which is why Maxey, in Year 4, doing what he's done for the Philadelphia 76ers -- all the while holding it down with Embiid on the injured list -- is so special. He redefined his brand from being a plucky young talent to a bonafide All-Star who can take over a game.

Pelton: Alperen Sengun, with an asterisk. Because of the NBA's misguided eligibility rules, Sengun will only be eligible if an independent doctor rules he will be unable to play through May 31 due to the injury that ended his regular season two games shy of the 65-game minimum. (Why May 31? A full month and a half after the end of the regular season and just before the start of the Finals? That's a great question for the NBA to answer.) Before his injury, Sengun had become an offensive hub for the Houston Rockets and made strides as a rim protector on what became a top-10 defense.

MacMahon: Atlanta Hawks'Jalen Johnson would have been my pick, but he's not going to hit the 65-game limit. So I'll go with Maxey, who made sure that the Sixers didn't miss James Harden, bumping his scoring average by 5.6 points per game and his assists average by 6.3 since last season. The Sixers' season was interrupted by the knee injury that sidelined Embiid for two months, but Maxey proved that he's a bonafide co-star for the reigning MVP. Philadelphia is 28-7 with Maxey and Embiid in the lineup and has a 122.5 offensive rating with that duo on the floor, numbers that compare quite favorably to the Harden/Embiid pairing a year ago.

Wemby isthe odds-on favorite for ROY. How long will it be before he wins one of the other major awards?

Herring: The safe bet is the 2025-26 campaign for him to land Defensive Player of the Year. But would anyone be surprised if gets there next season? I wouldn't. He's already considered a candidate for the award this season. He's going to finish with the most blocks in the NBA by 75 or so, despite being a first-year player. The Spurs rank near the top of the league in defensive efficiency when Wembanyama is on the court, and again, this is just Year 1. As he learns more tricks, skills and techniques, there isn't going to be anything opponents can do to get shots off.

Lopez: It wouldn't surprise me if Wembanyama got votes for Defensive Player of the Year this season. But I think he's probably the early favorite for 2024-25. The Spurs' defense has vastly improved throughout the season as San Antonio is 12th in defensive rating since the All-Star break. Wembanyama is going to become the second rookie ever (since 1973-74) to lead the league in blocks per game. His 8-foot wingspan deters shooters near the rim and has helped him to a league-best 20 games this season with multiple blocks and multiple steals. And it won't be long until his name is in the conversation for both awards in the same season, either.

McMenamin: This might be my favorite quote from the season so far (and thank you to reporters like Lopez, who have translated some of his answers in French to unearth gems like this). "I know that Rudy has a very good chance of winning it this year, and it would be deserved," Wembanyama said of Gobert's DPOY chances. "Let him win it now, because after that, it's no longer his turn."

Can we already start etching his name on the trophy for 2024-25? Speaking of the trophy, enough with the Lucite paperweight. Let's go back to the classic statuette of the player getting down in a defensive stance.

Pelton: He's the early favorite for DPOY next season. In terms of box score stats, Wembanyama has lapped the field, leading the league in blocks per game (3.6) with the highest average since Hassan Whiteside in 2015-16,according to impact metrics didn't suggest Wembanyama had the same impact, which is typical for a rookie, and the Spurs particularly struggled on defense early in the season. Add a year of development and a full-time role at center from day one and I like Wembanyama's odds of adding hardware soon.

MacMahon: As the saying in Wembanyama's new home state goes, it ain't bragging if it's true. That applies to Wembanyama's recent implication that he will be the DPOY favorite for years to come after his fellow Frenchman Gobert claims this season's award. How soon will Wembanyama be a legitimate MVP candidate? That depends on how quickly the Spurs' front office can construct a decent supporting cast around him. Wembanyama will probably put up MVP-caliber numbers in the near future, perhaps even next season, but the Spurs have to be a playoff team for him to have a case.

Who's your pick for 6th man?

Herring: It was a little tough to wrap my mind around Malik Monk and Naz Reid, undoubtedly a pair of good candidates for the award, but have seen their teams win by greater margins in the minutes when they aren't on the floor. The opposite is true for Bogdan Bogdanovic. Atlanta's been beaten by nearly eight points per 100 possessions when he's on the sideline, but wins by almost three points per 100 when he's on the court. The plus-10.6 swing is significant, and is more than double of any of his teammates. It also doesn't hurt that Bogdanovic, like Monk and Reid, is having a career-best scoring campaign at almost 17 points per night.

Lopez: The Reid hype train made it all the way to Wrestlemania last weekend, and it feels like he's continuing to build up steam for a Sixth Man of the Year push. Reid mostly came off the bench this season until he was pressed into the starting role when Karl-Anthony Towns went down. Reid is shooting 41.9% from deep this season and has made 165 3-pointers after making 225 total 3s in his first four seasons. He is one of the big reasons why the Timberwolves' bench has been the second best in the league this season in plus-minus.

McMenamin: It has to be Monk. It's impressive enough to consider his trajectory -- averaging career highs on his third team in seven seasons with 15.4 points and 5.1 assists. Throw in the fact that those are the most points off the bench for any player on a winning team and the second-most assists (behind T.J. McConnell's 5.4 for the Indiana Pacers) and his full commitment to the role -- every game he's played since signing with the Sacramento Kings has been as a substitute -- and his case is clear. The sprained MCL in his right knee that has sidelined Monk the past couple weeks has only proved his value even more as the Kings have struggled without him.

Pelton: Bogdanovic. The hidden reason behind the Hawks' struggles with Dejounte Murray and Trae Young is actually the absence of Bogdanovic. In fact, Hawks lineups without Bogdanovic -- typically their starting five -- have been outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats. With Bogdanovic supplying volume 3-point shooting and secondary playmaking, Atlanta boasts a plus-2.9 net rating.

MacMahon: Monk is the epitome of the microwave-style sixth man. He didn't start any of the 72 games he played this season, and he leads the league in total points (1,110) and assists (370) off the bench. Monk also impacted winning, as evidenced by the Kings' 42-30 record when he played.

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