The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The front-runners for NBA awards aren’t the usual suspects

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic scored 47 points in a win over the Utah Jazz on Sunday. (Eric Gay/AP)

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

Through the first quarter of the NBA’s pandemic-altered season, the quality of play has been uneven, multiple teams have endured slow starts because of coronavirus-related absences, and consistency has been hard to come by, even for the top contenders.

This widespread unpredictability is reflected in the major awards races, where clear front-runners have yet to emerge and where heated discussion will continue for months thanks to deep casts of surprise candidates. With that in mind, the following are The Washington Post’s award leaders through Sunday’s games. Criteria included: availability, role, impact, individual statistics and team success.

Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are bringing centers back into the NBA MVP conversation

MVP: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Masterful. That’s the best word to describe Jokic, who added an exclamation point to his sensational start with a 47-point outburst Sunday to snap the Utah Jazz’s 11-game winning streak. Jokic has played such a central role for the Nuggets — and done it at such a high level — that it often feels as though there are two of him on the court at the same time. One moment, he is bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense. The next, he is posting up and drawing three or four defenders before kicking out to an open shooter.

Jokic (26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.6 assists per game) is averaging career highs across the board, and he could surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time assists per game record for centers. While it looks different because he is so big and unconventionally athletic, Jokic orchestrates, exploits mismatches and reads the defense as effectively as LeBron James or a prime Chris Paul. Without Jokic’s nightly takeovers and his sheer basketball intelligence to elevate his teammates, Denver (12-8) might be 14th or 15th in the West.

The biggest weakness in Jokic’s MVP case is that he can’t be bothered to campaign on his own behalf, even though he and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid are vying to become the first centers to receive first-place votes since Dwight Howard in 2011.

Besides the two big men, James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo should be in the mix.

Defensive player of the year: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

Turner has played with the ferocity of a man who was sick of hearing his name in unflattering trade rumors. Once the offseason buzz subsided, Turner became the ultimate disrupter for a Pacers team that came charging out of the gates before cooling recently. With Domantas Sabonis empowered to run the offense, Turner has focused his energy on protecting the rim and controlling the paint on defense. Thanks to his mobility, length and instincts, Turner has led the league at 3.9 blocks per game, the highest mark since Alonzo Mourning in 1999. Turner also ranks in the top 10 by Defensive Real Plus-Minus and Defensive Win Shares.

Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis could mount challenges to Turner by season’s end.

Rookie of the year: Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

Haliburton has immediately delivered on his pre-draft reputation for headiness, making the 20-year-old guard one of the few bright spots for the wayward Kings. Like many of his draft classmates, including Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball, Haliburton (11 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists per game) has launched his career in a backup role. Yet reliable decision-making, efficient three-point shooting and a fearless personality have made him a crucial late-game contributor.

Patience is in order all around given the many challenges facing rookies during this unusual season, including their shortened post-draft acclimation. When the dust settles a little more, this race figures to include Ball, James Wiseman, Edwards and Immanuel Quickley, a pleasant early surprise for the Knicks.

Most improved player: Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

While the 24-year-old was a highly ranked high school prospect and the No. 3 pick in 2016, his offensive game was rudimentary until the past 18 months. But the days of pigeonholing Brown as a physical defender who would hit open threes and attack the basket on occasion are long gone. In the wake of Gordon Hayward’s departure to Charlotte, Brown (27.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game) has blossomed as an all-around scorer, creating offense for himself off the dribble and initiating more often for his teammates. Without Brown’s ability to fill in the gaps and maintain excellent scoring efficiency, Boston (10-8) would have struggled to keep its head above water during Kemba Walker’s three-week absence.

Also worth noting: Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Julius Randle and Collin Sexton.

NBA reporter Sekou Smith, who died of covid at 48, is remembered for his kindness

Sixth man of the year: Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz

Consider this a dual recognition of Clarkson’s hot start and of the exceptional depth that has helped power the Jazz to a sterling 15-5 record. After retooling its offensive approach to launch way more three-pointers, the Jazz has improved from 23rd in bench scoring last season to sixth this season. Clarkson (17.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists per game), long known for his eagerness to shoot, has thrived with a green light as the lead guard off the bench, attempting a career-high eight three-pointers per game while hitting 38.4 percent of them. Unlike many gunners, Clarkson’s individual exploits have translated to team success: He ranks in the top 30 leaguewide by Real Plus-Minus, and Utah has one of the NBA’s most cohesive benches.

Chris Boucher, Jarrett Allen and reigning sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrell are off to impressive starts, too.

Coach of the year: Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz

Sustaining success this season has been next to impossible for most teams, but Snyder’s Jazz established a nice rhythm that carried it through January. There were no magic tricks — just discipline, attention to detail and well-honed ball movement. Without A-list superstars to lean on, Utah has refined its four-out offensive system while sticking to its tried-and-true defensive identity around Gobert. The well-balanced Jazz ranks fifth on offense and sixth on defense, grinding out wins with an all-veteran rotation. Snyder has brilliantly played to his players’ strengths and worked around their weaknesses, coaxing a nice bounce-back campaign from Mike Conley while maintaining a positive power dynamic between Donovan Mitchell and Gobert.

Others to consider: Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue.

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