NBA Half Season Awards: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić neck and neck for MVP honors

I’m terrible at calendaring and keeping track of important dates, so each year, I rely on NBA.com’s John Schuhmann to let me know when we’ve reached the official midpoint of the NBA season. And because John is very good at his job, he informed us all that Friday — today! — marks that particular spot: the moment when teams have played more than 615 of the 1,230 contests on the annual schedule. (Thank you for your service, John.)

That’s right, gang: We have arrived at the halfway point of the 2023-24 NBA season, and that can mean only one thing: It’s time to hand out some purely theoretical, ephemeral, impossible-to-display-on-your-mantel hardware. It’s time, dear friends, for Half Season Awards.

One quick (but important!) note before we get started: These picks are not predictions of which players or teams will take home the NBA’s official trophies come season’s end. Instead, they’re based solely on performance in these first 40-or-so games. We’ll deal with the future when we get there. Today — together — let’s just be here now.

So let us join and turn our thoughts to praise and celebration, commemorating the good we’ve seen this season, starting in the shadow of the Zakim Bridge (which, if we’re being frank, I find to be a very attractive bridge):

(All statistics as of Friday morning.)

Some of these will require a lot of thought. Others? Not so much.

Boston boasts the NBA’s best record at 32-9 and leads the league in net rating, outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s on pace for the highest differential since the 2020-21 Jazz, and the second-highest since the advent of the KD-era Warriors. Pretty good!

After coming up just shy of a second straight NBA Finals trip last spring, Boston sought reinforcements for the all-world wing tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Enter offseason trade acquisitions Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday, who have partnered with do-it-all guard (and possible first-time All-Star?) Derrick White and the ageless Al Horford to give the Celtics the most fearsome top six in the entire NBA.

The starting lineup of Porziņģis, Tatum, Brown, White and Holiday has annihilated opponents by 118 points in 336 minutes. (Iterations featuring Horford, whether in place of Porziņģis or alongside him, have shined, too.) It’s a collective full of two-way players who can do everything well — equally adept at stretching opponents past their breaking point with shooting and playmaking, and grinding them into dust with all manner of schematic and tactical wrinkles made possible through long arms, quick feet and great instincts. When you’re that good up top, you don’t need much from the back end of your roster; sprinkle in positive minutes off the bench from Sam Hauser (who’s got a kelly green light off the catch, drilling 41.3% from 3-point land on 5.6 attempts per game), Payton Pritchard and third big Luke Kornet, and you’ve got a juggernaut on your hands.

The Celtics are 20-0 at home. They’ve lost consecutive games once all season, and it was more than two months ago. The vibes, it appears, are immaculate:

Halfway through the season, this looks like the best Boston team of the Tatum/Brown era — a worthy odds-on favorite to win the 2024 title.

Honorable mentions: The Timberwolves, who’ve risen to the top of the West; the Thunder, Nuggets and Clippers, determinedly chasing them down; the Bucks, stacking wins even as they wobble; the 76ers, hot on the trail, thanks in large part to …

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Most Valuable Player of the First Half: Joel Embiid, 76ers

I was extremely close to going with Nikola Jokić here. (Like, “put him in the art request” close.)

And there’s one hell of an argument for that! He’s averaging 25.5 points (15th in the NBA), 11.9 rebounds (fourth) and 9.1 assists (fourth again) per game. He’s shooting 58% from the field, leading the defending champions to a 28-14 record and the NBA’s sixth-best net rating. He leads the NBA in multiple advanced metrics, including value over replacement player, box plus-minus and total win shares. The Nuggets outscore opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Jokić on the court outside of garbage time. (They get outscored by 10.9 points per 100 when he sits — the most dramatic on-court/off-court split of any player in the league to log at least 500 minutes.)

But the argument for Embiid’s pretty damn good, too. He’s averaging 35.1 points (a career high and tops in the NBA for the third straight season), 11.6 rebounds per game (fifth) and 6.1 assists (another career high and tied for 23rd) per game. He’s shooting 54% from the field, leading the Sixers to a 26-13 record — 23-6 in games he’s played, a 65-win pace — and the NBA’s third-best net rating. He also leads the NBA in multiple advanced metrics, including estimated plus-minus, player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes. The Sixers outscore opponents by 11.3 points per 100 with Embiid on the floor. (That they still outscore the other team by 4.2 points per 100 when he’s sitting is a damn good argument for Tyrese Maxey being a no-doubt All-Star.)

A reasonable tiebreaker, in sober analysis: Jokić has played 12 more games and 377 more minutes than Embiid, who missed a chunk of time over the last month with ankle and knee injuries. Given how close they are in counting stats, impact stats, team success and pretty much everything else, that’s a perfectly defensible justification for giving Jokić the nod. And on my year-end ballot — the one where my vote (God help us all) can have an actual, significant impact on players’ contracts, salaries and legacies — I might take that perfectly defensible position.

… Right now, though? In this mid-January sandbox where nothing actually matters? I think I’m just going to pick the guy I think has been the best player I’ve watched this season. And that’s Embiid.

I honestly didn’t think Embiid’s usage could get any higher. But here he is, post-Harden, finishing a league-leading and career-high 38.2% of Philadelphia’s possessions with a shot attempt, turnover or foul drawn … and maintaining his scoring efficiency, shooting an obscene 54% on long midrange Js and 88% from the free-throw line, producing a bananas .650 true shooting percentage. He averaged 40 a game in December.

He has adapted beautifully to a reoriented offense under new head coach Nick Nurse, routinely partnering with Maxey in the dribble-handoff game and picking out cutters from the post; his assist rate has jumped 10 percentage points, and his turnover rate has barely moved. He has more frequently cranked up his defensive activity and intensity to playoff level, blanketing the paint and snuffing out shot attempts in the cradle; the Sixers have allowed just 111.5 points per 100 in his minutes, a tick above the Celtics’ No. 2 mark.

The things Embiid did at an elite level, he’s gotten better at; the areas where he could have improved, he has. He has been absolutely overwhelming — even better than last season’s MVP run, and a level that few players in the history of the sport have reached.

This isn’t about watching Embiid take it to Jokić and the Nuggets on Tuesday — though, y’know, that didn’t hurt. It’s about thinking that, minute for minute and pound for pound, he’s been the best player in the league so far … even if the availability argument points toward Jokić.

Maybe, come springtime, those intermittent nagging knocks will have cost him too many games to remain eligible for year-end awards consideration under the NBA’s new rules. All the more reason, then, to give him his flowers now. He’s certainly earned them.

Honorable mentions: Jokić; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose incredible season has pushed him into the mix with the kaijus running roughshod over the league; Giannis Antetokounmpo, quietly playing as well as he ever has in Milwaukee; ditto for Luka Dončić in Dallas; Tyrese Haliburton, whom we’ll get back to.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Rookie of the First Half: Chet Holmgren, Thunder

This very well could wind up being Victor Wembanyama’s award come year’s end. He’s been jaw-dropping from Jump Street, turning a devastatingly bad Spurs team into must-see TV through sheer force of will and managing to remain remarkably productive in spite of the discomforting experimentation and overall lack of talent surrounding him in San Antonio. The trend line for Wembanyama has absolutely rocketed through the roof of late; if he continues averaging nearly 21 points on 50% shooting, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in 27 minutes per game, as he’s done since the Spurs decided to move him to center last month, then what Holmgren has managed in Oklahoma City might not wind up mattering.

It’s not Holmgren’s fault, though, that he landed in a significantly sunnier set of circumstances than Big Vic. All things equal, of course you’d rather be flanked by SGA, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey, Lu Dort and the armada of gifted young shooters, defenders and playmakers that Sam Presti has stockpiled in Bricktown. But it’s not enough to just look like the round peg; you have to actually fill the hole. And it’s awfully tough to overstate just how well Holmgren has done that over the last three months, providing bona fide, All-Star-level two-way impact on what has arguably been the second-best team in the NBA this season.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft is averaging more than 17 points, seven rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 blocks in 30 minutes per game on 54/39/79 shooting splits. He’s been a picture-perfect stretch 5 for this spaced-out Oklahoma City offense, creating more driving lanes for Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams, who in turn create more downhill opportunities for him.

Just as important as Holmgren’s plus play on offense has been the high-end rim protection he offers on the other side of the court. He’s tied for fourth in the NBA in blocks per game, holding opponents to 52.1% shooting on attempts at the basket — 11th out of 181 players to defend at least 75 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum. He also ranks eighth in The BBall Index’s rim-points-saved metric, which measures how much a player’s shot contesting/interior activity lowers opponents’ field-goal percentage below what they’d be expected to shoot; he’s making his presence felt on the shots he doesn’t swat, too.

There’s no doubt that what Wembanyama is doing, shining even through the dismal context in which he’s been placed, is super impressive. What Chet’s doing, though — not only shining in a very big, really important role on a very good team, but elevating that good team to what looks like increasingly legitimate championship contention — deserves plenty of praise in its own right.

Honorable mentions: Wembanyama; Jaime Jaquez Jr., a plug-and-play fit in Miami; Dereck Lively II, who immediately established himself as a core piece alongside Luka and Kyrie Irving in Dallas.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Defensive Player of the First Half: Rudy Gobert, Timberwolves

What a difference a year makes. After spending the first season following the ginormous trade that landed Gobert in the Twin Cities wondering if it would go down as one of the biggest disasters in recent league history, Minnesota has spent most of the first half of Year 2 atop the Western Conference. Fueling that ascent: a league-best defense that, according to Dunks and Threes, which adjusts its offensive and defensive ratings for the strength of opponents that teams have faced, has been nearly two points per 100 stingier than second-place Boston.

And fueling that, as you might expect: the league’s best interior defender.

The Wolves have allowed a microscopic 106.3 points per 100 with Gobert on the floor this season, head and shoulders above even their own league-leading mark. He has looked light on his feet when defending in space, holding opponents to 0.8 points per possession against him in isolation, according to Synergy Sports Technology, shooting 21-for-51 against him on those plays.

Gobert is seventh in the league in blocks, but even that short-changes the degree to which he’s blotting out the sun on the interior. Opponents take way fewer shots at the rim with him on the court and shoot way worse on the ones they do attempt. Trying Rudy at the rim has been, at best, a coin-flip proposition: Opponents are shooting just 50.8% against him at point-blank range, according to Second Spectrum, seventh lowest out of 181 dudes to defend at least 75 shots at the rim.

To Gobert’s credit, he’s quick to point out that Minnesota’s defense isn’t a one-man operation. With Jaden McDaniels, Anthony Edwards and Nickeil Alexander-Walker bringing length and physicality on the perimeter, Karl-Anthony Towns getting more and more comfortable guarding at the 4 spot in the dual-big alignment, Kyle Anderson capable of pulling shifts on scorers of all shapes and sizes and a team-wide commitment to making opponents feel them at the point of attack, the Wolves defend as, well, a pack.

“We got people that can guard,” Gobert recently told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “We got people that can move their feet and take the challenge.”

They can feel emboldened to take those challenges, though, because they know they’ve got Gobert lurking behind them, a menace in the middle capable of cleaning up any mess. Their success starts where so many opponents’ possessions end — with him.

Honorable mentions: Bam Adebayo, who’s been even more suffocating in isolation than Rudy and in whose minutes Miami has clamped down like the league’s No. 2 defense; Embiid; Anthony Davis; SGA, who leads the NBA in steals and deflections and has a case as perhaps the league’s most disruptive perimeter defender this season; Herb Jones, an absolute menace for the Pelicans’ eighth-ranked defense; and I know it’s early, but I don’t think it’s too crazy to mention Wembanyama and Holmgren here. We live in an age of monsters.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Sixth Man of the First Half: Malik Monk, Kings

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t super sure where to go on this one! After much contemplation and prayer, though, I wound up with a pretty classic style of honoree — a source of instant offense off the bench who unlocks his team’s best self … and, for good measure, provides excitement and great vibes in the process.

Among guys who have come primarily off the bench — identified, for the purposes of this exercise, as those who’ve played more than 15 minutes per game in more than 20 non-starting appearances — Monk ranks sixth in points per game. His accuracy in the paint has dipped, but he’s kept his scoring efficiency steady by drilling 39.2% from 3-point land on super high volume; he’s hoisting a career-high 12 triples per 100 possessions, on par with the likes of Duncan Robinson, Trae Young, C.J. McCollum and Desmond Bane.

The Kentucky product hasn’t just had tunnel vision for shot-jacking, though. He’s also second among reserves in assists, posting the best assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio of his career as a source of complementary ball-handling and playmaking alongside De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis:

Monk’s injection of offensive oomph is an integral part of Sacramento’s ecosystem. He’s got the best on/off splits of any non-starting King playing rotation minutes … with the exception of Trey Lyles, who has spent nearly 82% of his minutes this season with Monk. Crucially, he’s helped the Kings to stay afloat when their All-Stars take a breather: Sacramento is plus-3.9 points per 100 when Monk and Fox play without Sabonis, and just about even when Monk and Sabonis play without Fox or Monk runs the show without either of the Kings’ All-Stars.

Things can get a little dicey when Monk’s shot isn’t falling — like on Thursday, when he missed four of his six 3-point attempts and, very weirdly, five of his six free-throw attempts in a loss to the Pacers. But those nights are fewer and farther between for the 25-year-old as he continues to cement himself as the kind of second-unit difference-maker who changes the game’s temperature and his team’s fortunes when he checks in.

To wit: The only other player in Stathead’s database to average more than 15 points and five assists per game in this few minutes per game without starting? Lou Williams, for the Clippers, back in 2018-19 — when he won the last of his three Sixth Man of the Year awards.

Honorable mentions: Tim Hardaway Jr., Naz Reid, Norman Powell, Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Cole Anthony/Mo Wagner tandem in Orlando, Bobby Portis, Isaiah Joe, the pre-trade version of Immanuel Quickley, the post-benching version of Austin Reaves.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

Most Improved Player of the First Half: Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers

This always ranks among the most contentious awards on the ballot, because, like “valuable,” people rarely agree on the most appropriate definition of “improved.” I’m open to the argument that players who’ve racked up a certain level of accolades in the past shouldn’t be considered for this award … but I also believe that the most difficult evolution on the board, and the largest leap that a player can make, is going from very good to the absolute top tier of the sport. That’s why I voted for Dončić in 2020, for Ja Morant in 2022, and for SGA last season … and why I think I’d go with Haliburton this season.

Yes, Haliburton was an All-Star last season. This season, though, he’s been arguably the best offensive player in the entire league.

Haliburton is the driving force behind a Pacers offense that not only leads the NBA in points scored per possession, but has performed like one of the best attacks we’ve ever seen. Indiana has scored nearly 6.5 more points per 100 than a league-average offense this season. According to PBP Stats’ data, that’s the 13th-highest differential of any offensive unit since 2000 — just behind the 2015-16 Durant/Westbrook Thunder team that pushed the 73-9 Warriors to seven in the Western Conference finals, the 2016-17 Warriors team that Durant joined and made invincible, and the 2012-13 Heat team that represented the peak of the Big Three era in Miami.

All of that stems from Haliburton, who has leveled up to a degree that I’m not sure even the most cock-eyed optimist in Indiana fully expected. He’s scoring nearly four more points and dishing nearly four more assists per 100 possessions than he did during his All-Star turn. His accuracy inside and outside the arc are both up, despite shooting at a higher volume. Despite shouldering one of the league’s largest creative workloads — only Jokić averages more touches per game — and standing as the No. 1 threat on absolutely every defensive scouting report, his turnover rate is down.

That’s the kind of stuff that is centrally responsible for keeping your team in the hunt for a top-four seed without any other top-end talent around you; that convinces your front office to push a bunch of chips into the middle of the table to go get you that kind of talent; that moves you from “plucky young fringe All-Star” to “going to wind up on MVP ballots.” That, too, is improvement — and an awfully important brand of it.

Honorable mentions: Maxey, who I suspect will wind up winning this award to recognize the leap he’s made as Philly’s new starting point guard and No. 2 option, which is just fine by me; Alperen Şengün and Scottie Barnes, both of whom I think have a great shot to make their first All-Star appearances this season; Coby White, who’s averaging nearly 23-6-6 on .599 true shooting since Zach LaVine first went down to injury; Jalen Johnson, who almost overnight became the most indispensable piece of the Hawks roster; Dante Exum, who went from “top-five pick who can’t stay healthy or contribute enough on offense to stay in the league” to ironing out his offensive game during a sojourn abroad and is now a 45% 3-point shooter getting major rotation minutes on a dangerous Mavericks team.

Coach of the First Half: Erik Spoelstra, Heat

Listen. Grand scheme? I think we all understand that this is almost certainly going to wind up being Mark Daigneault’s award. He’s got the youngest roster in the NBA two games out of first place in the West with the league’s second-best net rating, seemingly hell-bent on forcing Presti to determine that the Thunder have indeed taken his homie Strict’s advice and finished their breakfast, and that it is time to now take his other homie Joe Kane’s advice about making dinner plans. That is logically sound and rational.

And yet: this happens every year. A team that we didn’t necessarily expect to play great does, and the very good coach that helped it do that gets the award, and then we look up and it is May, and a Heat team no one was sure was particularly good has some poor bastard in an abdominal stretch in the second round, and everyone’s like, “Oh, right.” Cue the stories about the wizard.

That’s the macro argument. Here’s the micro:

And yet: The Heat enter Friday at 24-17, a game out of fourth place in the East.

You don’t have to guess why. You know why.

Lose Max Strus in free agency? OK, just get Robinson playing the best basketball of his career. Caleb Martin’s shelved for half the season? OK, just get 20 or 25 good two-way minutes a night out of Haywood Highsmith. Everyone wants to ship Kyle Lowry and his $29.7 million expiring contract out of town? OK, well, while they wait, get him to help make the offense and defense a little better.

Need an answer when the offense is bogged down? OK, just send Kevin Love in there and watch the walls come tumbling down:

The Heat — who, again, are 20th in offensive efficiency for the full season — have scored like a top-five offense with Love on the floor. And when he checks in for Adebayo at center and Miami goes five-out, they score a blistering 127.3 points per 100, miles above the Pacers’ league-best offense. Seems like pretty good usage of a guy who was on his way out of the rotation in Cleveland this time last year!

None of this invalidates the cases of the slew of other worthy candidates here. But Spoelstra not having a Coach of the Year award to join the two NBA championships in his trophy case cave feels, at this point, like a great and grave spiritual injustice. Giving him a half-season pretend trophy seems like the least I can do to try to rectify it.

Honorable mentions: The aforementioned Daigneault; Tyronn Lue, about whom you could write pretty much the exact same entry I just wrote about Spo; Jamahl Mosley, who’s got the Magic looking more cohesive and competitive than they’ve been in ages; Chris Finch, pulling the right strings for West-leading Minnesota; Will Hardy, who for the second year in a row has a Utah team we mostly pegged for the scrap heap playing really good ball and flirting with a play-in berth.

Biggest Disappointment of the First Half: Draymond and the Warriors’ downward spiral

Six months ago, the franchise fracture resulting from Draymond Green hauling off on Jordan Poole at practice appeared to have set in Green’s favor. Not only did the Warriors welcome him back, but after he played his customary integral role in their run to the second round of the playoffs — which featured a suspension for stomping on Domantas Sabonis’ chest, but nevertheless! — Golden State’s braintrust rewarded him with a new four-year, $100 million contract and banished Poole to Washington.

The Warriors had stabilized, doubling down the sacred timeline built around their veteran championship core. The internecine battle was over, and Green, it seemed, had won.

And yet.

The world has turned and left the Warriors here, hitting midseason under .500, with a bottom-10 net rating and a bottom-six defense since their mirage of a 5-1 start. Chris Paul’s hurt, in accordance with the prophecy, and so’s Gary Payton II. Klay Thompson’s raging, but the light still seems to be dying. Andrew Wiggins doesn’t seem to have much rage to draw on — or much of anything else, for that matter. Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the last remnants of the other timeline, have both raised frustration about their opportunities and uncertainty about where they fit in the franchise’s plans. Steve Kerr doesn’t seem all that sure who to play, when to play them or why to play them.

The Warriors have been outscored with Stephen Curry on the floor; that hasn’t happened since a non-injury-shortened season in 13 years. One big reason for that — not the only one, far from it, but a significant contributing factor — is Draymond spending more than half of the season on the sideline, including 17 games’ worth of suspensions for choking and clocking opponents in incidents that left everyone wondering what the hell was going on with Golden State’s heart and soul, and whether we’d already witnessed the end without really realizing it.

Maybe we haven’t. There’s still half a season to play, and three weeks for Mike Dunleavy Jr. to work the phones, beat the bushes and try to find something. Green’s back now, Paul could be in a few weeks, and Steph is still Steph; hope dies last. Maybe, though, what broke before the start of last season never really healed. Maybe winning that battle cost Golden State the war.

Dishonorable mentions: The Hawks still being under .500 and very underwhelming under Quin Snyder; Ja Morant’s grand opening/grand closing, and all the Grizzlies’ injuries; the Suns barely being able to get their main dudes on the court together; the exceedingly blah post-in-season-tournament Lakers; the Pistons being THIS bad.

Most Pleasant Surprise of the First Half: The Magic!

I’ve got to admit: As much as I respected what Orlando did last season, pulling itself together after a dreadful start to play .500 ball over the final four months, I was skeptical about the Magic building upon that coming into the new campaign. Whoops!

Jamahl Mosley has kept his team’s nose to the proverbial grindstone, turning the fourth-youngest roster in the NBA into its fourth-stingiest defense. Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner have continued their development, submitting bona fide All-Star cases. After two rocky seasons to start his career, Jalen Suggs has made a certified Year 3 Leap, posting career-best shooting numbers at the rim and from beyond the arc while playing some of the most committed, disruptive point-of-attack defense in the NBA. Goga Bitadze, all but forgotten following an underwhelming run in Indiana, has gone from third-string center to linchpin starter, pounding the offensive glass and protecting the rim. Cole Anthony, Mo Wagner and Joe Ingles have provided the playmaking juice for what’s been one of the league’s best second units.

What Orlando lacks in overall firepower — just 24th in offensive efficiency, 29th in 3-point makes and dead last in 3-point accuracy — it makes up in athleticism, aggression and a clarity of purpose. The Magic know their recipe: pressure the rim, win the rebounding battle, force turnovers; athleticism, aggression and attention to defensive detail.

Whether that’s enough to return them to postseason play remains to be seen (though projection models from Inpredictable, Basketball Reference and ESPN like their chances). It is enough, though, to have them over .500 at the midpoint for the first time since 2012. And for a franchise that’s been through as much over the past dozen years as the Magic, that ain’t nothing.

Honorable mentions: The Wolves finally being who we thought they were; the Thunder being so far ahead of schedule; the Rockets transforming into a top-five defense; the Cavs staying afloat amid all their first-half injuries; Tyrese Haliburton’s IST breakout; Coby White flourishing in Chicago; the Jazz winning 15 of their last 20.

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