From the Joker to the Greek Freak: NBA awards explained

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic
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The Process, The Joker, The Greek Freak.

Three decent nicknames, three hyper-uber-talented incredibly tall men with the grace and flexibility of a nimble jungle cat gymnast, all absolutely deserving of the NBA’s top honor this season.

As has been said plenty of places, in any other year, any of the three of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, who those nicknames refer to, respectively, would be worthy of the Most Valuable Player award.

This year, though, all three are putting together historically sensational seasons, and all three have their respective teams in the playoffs.

The NBA awards races have always been largely vague on the parameters for voting, but as advanced metrics and statistics advanced rapidly there are more and more ways to measure and weigh just who is the best or most deserving for each of the six season awards — MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, and Most Improved Player — along with the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.

“I’ve covered the NBA for 25 years, been an awards voter for most of it, and I still can’t proclaim with absolute certainty what the MVP is (though I have my own definition),” said Howard Beck on SI.com.

Leave it to longtime legend David Aldridge of The Athletic to succinctly summarize just which award was the most difficult to pick this year, a season absolutely overflowing with hellaciously great hoops action.

“All of them! This is, in three decades of doing this, the hardest top-to-bottom choices on an awards ballot. MVP, DPOY, ROTY, COTY and on and on. It’s a testament to the incredible talent and depth both on the floor and on the sidelines right now,” Aldridge said in The Athletic’s unveiling of their selections.

Awards are for debating

Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo reacts during a Milwaukee Bucks game.
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The debate over MVP doesn’t end the awards season chaos, though, because two of those tall dudes play what we call center, and the other is as tall as a center but usually is called a power forward.

Well, in position definition of the old days’ standards, they play center. But really, all three play like a point guard at times, like a forward at times, and most definitely like a center more times than not.

While some would like to do away with position specifics, they still stand, especially when it comes time to voting for the All-NBA teams. There are three All-NBA teams, and each of the three has five spots for the top players in any given season. That means there is only one center spot on each All-NBA team, yet two of the best players in the entire league play center.

That means, in 2022, technically speaking, one of Jokic or Embiid could be on second team All-NBA, behind five other players, even though they’re considered top-three at worst.

The NBA fails to address this, passing the onus onto the writers that vote — yes, journalists are the ones who vote to decide such a prestigious award, one that has actual financial ramifications and one that some writers do not feel comfortable with at all. Back to the NBA, instead of making it a “vote for the five best players and disregard positions” for All-NBA, they stick to having two guard spots, two forward spots, and one center spot per team.

Going further in the complicated convoluted unnecessary process, the NBA lets some players qualify for multiple positions. This year, both Jokic and Embiid qualify as a center and as a forward, even though they spend 99.9 percent of their playing time at center.

For one, this means let’s say 30 percent of voters put Jokic at center on their first team, and 30 percent put Embiid, with the other half putting them at forward, then even though they both got practically 60 percent of total votes, the votes would split between positions and if someone got 40 percent of votes at center but none anywhere else, then both Embiid and Jokic would not make the first team all because their votes were split. This is all batshit hypothetical of course, as nobody would receive first team center votes over those two, but it’s a world where if voters want to reward both of them on the first team, there is no unified way to say ok, let’s put this guy at center and this guy at forward, they would still get split somehow. And that’s nothing to say of how that would affect a deserving player at forward from losing votes because of the process.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid reacts during a game against the Boston Celtics.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Let’s take a look at full slate of NBA awards ahead of the NBA Awards Show, which will air sometime in June on TNT after the conclusion of the NBA Finals.

MVP

The consensus here is that one of the three players mentioned above will win it.

Jokic is the reigning MVP, while Antetokounmpo won it the previous two years before that. Embiid is looking for his first piece of hardware, but the trophy might be out of his grasp.

According to almost all the advanced stats, Jokic is just a hair above the other two. On the flip side, Antetokounmpo is considered the best defender of the trio, with a DPOY award to his name already.

“I don’t care who wins. All three are incredible. There is no wrong answer. But each voter must pick one,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said in revealing his ballot pick for Jokic.

It looks like it’ll be Jokic this year in just a quick look around at NBA scribes. Seven of eight voters picked him for CBS Sports, all six went with the Nuggets star for The Athletic, and in ESPN’s Tim Bontemps super-cool and insightful straw poll of 100 media members released on March 29, 62 of them went with Jokic.

Defensive Player of the Year

This award almost always goes to a big man. This year there are several wings who could warrant the trophy.

The award has gone to the tallest player with the most blocks (and even rebounds) far too many times. But as defensive metrics advance, there are ways to measure the impact of players on defense better than ever, along with the eye test. That is leading to some turmoil in how to define the best defensive player — a center has to account for everyone all the time, whereas a wing doesn’t really need to deal with the tall guys too much.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has a few of these already, but the national conversation seems to have turned against him and his team this year for reasons warranted and unwarranted both. The team is not as good, but by every measure, Gobert is as great as ever. For some reason people don’t seem to like him, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole right now.

The others leading the charge to take the trophy are Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, Memphis Grizzlies big Jaren Jackson Jr., and Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo. Golden State’s Draymond Green was a leading candidate for the first half of the year, but injuries seem to have derailed that.

Coach of the Year

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams talks to his huddle of players, including Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This is a weird one every year, in damn near every sport.

The most legendary coaches tend to not win this award very often, because voters like to reward coaches and teams that they thought very little of at the start of the season, and wind up doing really well and surprising everyone. Call it the underdog vote. Also look at how many coaches have won the award, only to be fired a year later.

Meaning, Coach X is always considered one of the very best, and their teams win a lot of games every year, so that’s boring.

Coach Y’s team should lose this year, but, gasp, they won more than we prognosticated, therefore they are amazing (and it’s not just the guesses and predictions that were wrong by the very same writers, that is impossible!).

Occasionally, as with this year, it looks like the coach who actually performed the best will win, and that’s the Suns’ Monty Williams. Last year, Williams was second as the New York Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau undeservingly won the award based on what we laid out above — everyone thought the Knicks would stink, then they kinda-sorta didn’t stink (but still were not great by any means and Thibs did nothing he hadn’t done before). So the voters, who for some reason keep telling us we need the Knicks to be good for the NBA to be good (they haven’t been good in 20 years, and the league seems pretty dandy to me), voted for him because wow, look at what he did to a stinky Knicks team! He’s basically a laundromat and made them all sparkling and nice, he must win! He was, at best, the 10th-best coach last year.

Other candidates for the award this year are wunderkind Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the year-after-year great Erik Spoelstra of Miami.

Sixth Man of the Year

This is another weird one. Meant for the best player off the bench, but only sometimes goes to the best player off the bench.

Almost always it goes to a guy who just scores a lot of points off the bench, and usually this player doesn’t play defense or do much else except score points.

This year there are plenty of great candidates off the bench, but let’s be real, the Heat’s Tyler Herro scored a lot off the bench (as one of the five-worst defenders that plays significant minutes in the entire league) so he’s gonna win it.

Would love to see Cleveland’s Kevin Love or Phoenix’s Cameron Johnson grab the honors, but the man who gets buckets will get it.

Rookie of the Year

One of Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, or Evan Mobley will win this, and they deserve it.

Just like the MVP, those are the choices, and they’re all fine choices.

Rookie of the Year candidate Scottie Barnes of the Toronto Raptors.
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Most Improved Player of the Year

This is a clustershow. Second-year players rarely win it because you are supposed to get better your second season.

Guys who make a “leap” as they call it usually win this, but not often someone considered a star. This year, it could be the Griz’ Ja Morant, but he’s likely considered too good to win this.

Conversely though, the Cavaliers’ Darius Garland has become a star himself, but he wasn’t projected to be a star and the jump he made might be considered bigger, even if Morant is what we’d call more improved as he became an MVP candidate this year.

The Spurs Dejounte Murray fits the same mold as Garland, a guard who was solid and became very close to great this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them win it.

All-NBA teams

Three teams of five, as mentioned above, to be considered the best 15 players in the NBA this season.

Many consider this the benchmark to look back at and have a feel for what happened in any given season — such as “who made All-NBA in 2003?” will tell you a lot about that season.

We went into it above, and with the league so chock-full of talent, there are likely to be about 23 guys deserving of a spot but only 15 to go around.

All-Defense teams

There are only two All-Defensive teams, for a total of 10 players, and the names tend to be the same based on reputation.

There are usually some guys (think PJ Tucker with the Rockets) who every team knows is a helluva defender, and takes on the toughest assignments and challenges, but he doesn’t have the stats for a lazy voter to pick him and they just pick the dudes with lots of steals. This totally disregards the fact that someone with a lot of steals (hello, Russell Westbrook) can jeopardize his team by playing out of position to gamble for a steal, maybe only being successful a few times a game, and otherwise putting the rest of his teammates in a bad position and costing his team in the totality of a game. Just because you got two steals doesn’t mean you played good defense, but it’s not true of everyone as someone like Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso winds up with a handful of steals in lots of games because he knows where to be and anticipate players’ moves, adding to his team’s defense instead of detracting.

Okie dokie, that’s your 2022 NBA Awards primer and then some, now time to plunge into the sea of the postseason.