Halfway through the 2022-23 NBA season, there’s already a good indication of who are the top teams and who are the top players — a handful of whom will be collecting individual hardware when the regular-season schedule wraps in April.
Already, 12 different players have scored at least 50 points, highlighted by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell’s career-high 71 points against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 2. The Cavs are back and title contenders once again.
LeBron James joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to reach 38,000 career points, and he’ll presumably pass “The Captain” on the all-time scoring list in February. Abdul-Jabbar’s league record of 38,387 points was thought to be unattainable. James is now just 316 points from breaking it.
The NBA is nearing its Feb. 9 trade deadline and All-Star break. It’s time to hand out midseason awards to the deserving players who’ve been ballin’ out through mid-January.
Most Improved Player: Lauri Markkanen, F, Utah Jazz
No one in the league has made a more significant leap forward this season than Markkanen, the 2017 No. 7 overall pick who was part of the seismic offseason trade that sent Mitchell to Cleveland and brought Markkanen to Salt Lake City.
The Finnish forward is averaging a career-high 24.6 points (17th in the NBA) along with 8.6 rebounds on 51.9/413/86.9 shooting splits. The only other players in NBA history who averaged 24 points and eight boards with those shooting numbers are legendary forwards Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki, according to StatMuse.
Last season in Cleveland, Markkanen averaged 14.8 points and 5.7 rebounds on 44.5/35.8/86.8 splits. His numbers are noticeably up, primarily his scoring, and that is more than enough to justify his case for Most Improved Player.
Markkanen has been punishing his opponents all season, having dropped a career-high 49 points in a Jan. 5 win over the Houston Rockets. His revenge games have been something, too. The 7-footer produced 25 points and 16 rebounds against the Cavs on Jan. 10, and he went for 28 points against the Bulls on Jan. 7 when he did this to Nikola Vucecvic.
The 25-year-old Markkanen is certainly deserving of this award and his first All-Star Game selection.
Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero, F, Orlando Magic
Indiana Pacers wing Bennedict Mathurin and Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey are having fantastic first years, but Banchero continues to show why he was the top overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft.
Through 37 games, the 20-year-old has averaged 21.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 steals for Orlando. He’s the only rookie averaging over 20 points, and he already has four 30-point performances.
With Banchero in the mix, the Magic are doing better this season with a 16-28 mark through mid-January after going 22-60 last season. At this rate, Orlando should win 30 games with the versatile 6-foot-10 Banchero leading the way. He might be a rookie, but he’s the best player on his team and isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Coach of the Year: Jacque Vaughn, Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn was the center of attention last offseason when Kevin Durant unexpectedly requested a trade. After putting that fire out, coach Steve Nash was fired due to a poor start. The Nets considered bringing in suspended Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who would’ve been a controversial hire, but they ultimately named Vaughn the interim head coach.
But wait, there’s more!
Ben Simmons has shown promise in his first season in Brooklyn, often looking like his old self by pushing the ball in transition and displaying defensive versatility, but he has missed 11 games with ongoing back issues.
And now, Durant is out with an MCL sprain and likely won’t return until around the All-Star break.
Despite all the drama, injuries and adversity, Vaughn has led the Nets to a 27-16 record (14-9 on the road), good for fourth in the Eastern Conference. They won 12 straight at one point and rank third in opponent field-goal percentage (45.1), fifth in the NBA in points allowed per game (110.5) and ninth in defensive rating (111.2 points per 100 possessions).
Vaughn weathering the storm in Brooklyn is an impressive feat, and this award acknowledges what he’s done to turn around the Nets.
Sixth Man of the Year: Russell Westbrook, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Before the season began, I joked with some friends in our group chat that Westbrook would win Sixth Man of the Year. I felt the only way he would fit on the current Lakers team would be in a reserve role, and I assumed Darvin Ham would make the necessary adjustment. He did, and boy has it worked out for all parties.
Westbrook has thrived coming off the bench, averaging 15.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists in 41 games, 38 of them as a reserve. Not only does he have the most triple-doubles of all time, but he also has the most triple-doubles ever off the bench. He provides the Lakers with instant offense and has changed his narrative after a dismal 2021-22 season.
Imagine the former MVP winning 6MOY — it’d be one hell of a story.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaren Jackson Jr., F/C, Memphis Grizzlies
JJJ missed the Grizzlies’ first 14 games to recover from foot surgery. Since his season debut in mid-November, he has been hosting nightly block parties, swatting 3.3 shots per game — over a half-block more than official league leader Nic Claxton’s 2.7 average. (Jackson has not reached the minimum number of games to be included on the NBA stat leaderboards.)
In 27 games, “Big Trip” has recorded 89 blocks (third in the league) while anchoring a Memphis defense that’s No. 1 in defensive rating (108.9 points per 100 possessions). Jackson also ranks first in defensive win shares (.152) and block percentage (11.2), marks that top fellow DPOY candidate Brook Lopez (.130, 6.7).
The Grizzlies big man also is averaging a steal per game, often showcasing his ability to get in the passing lane and defend guards on the perimeter. His lateral quickness is impressive for his size.
If JJJ remains healthy for the remainder of the regular season, he’ll have a good chance to claim top defensive honors just as former Memphis center Marc Gasol did in 2013.
Most Valuable Player: Luka Doncic, G, Dallas Mavericks
This is the hardest award to determine because there’s a legit case for about five players — Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant. You can throw Joel Embiid in the mix, too, and perhaps Ja Morant and Mitchell.
After going back and forth between Doncic and Tatum, the former ended up being the choice by the slimmest of margins.
Both superstars are putting up ridiculous numbers for their respective teams. Doncic is averaging 33.8 points (first in NBA), 9.0 rebounds (19th) and 8.8 assists (fourth), and Tatum is averaging 30.3 points (third), 8.3 rebounds (30th), 4.3 assists (47th) and 1.0 steals.
The Boston Celtics possess the best record in the NBA at 33-12, but if you took Tatum off the team, they would still be in the playoff mix thanks to a talented roster that also features Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams III. The Mavericks are 24-21, and if you took Doncic out of the equation, they would be a play-in team at best.
Christian Wood (18.3 points per game) and Spencer Dinwiddie (16.6) share the scoring burden, but Doncic creates most of Dallas’ offensive opportunities and is often singlehandedly willing his team to victory. Clearly, the loss of Jalen Brunson in free agency put more responsibility on the shoulders of the Mavs’ franchise star.
In other words, Doncic is doing more with less. So he gets the nod for MVP.