2022-23 NBA Awards, Part 1: Most Improved Player, Coach, Rookie, and Sixth Man of the Year

Awards season is the best.

The content resonates strongly with readers, unlike deep-cut profiles on John Konchar. Awards are fun to read and write about while still allowing some room for substantive analysis, and there are many different ways to frame the conversation.


This year’s crop of honors isn’t shaping up to be particularly difficult to choose, with two exceptions: Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player will go down to the wire. Clutch Player of the Year is new this year, too! Given the tightness of the standings, I have a feeling plenty of clutch opportunities will come up soon, so I’ll save that one for later.

But Most Improved, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Sixth Man aren’t close enough that the last four-ish games will matter. So let’s knock those out now and save you from having to ignore a 5,000-word email later.

Coach of the Year

Winner: Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings

2nd: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

3rd: J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach of the Year is usually one of the most challenging categories to pick, and most voters tend to buy a ticket for one of two thought trains: reward the coach of an elite team, or select the chief whose squad most overachieved.

In Sacramento, Mike Brown neatly fills both lanes. The Kings are the three-seed in the West (with a very long shot to snag the second seed) and have outperformed preseason expectations to a ludicrous degree (Vegas set the over/under for Sacramento at 34 wins; they currently have 47 with four games to play). They also own the best offense in the league despite not having a single top-15 player.

It’s not just the results that have impressed; the process has been fantastic. For example, despite possessing a tailor-made pick-and-roll duo in Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, Brown instituted a Golden State-style motion offense that enables Sabonis to operate as the primary playmaker from the elbow (often from one of Sacramento’s vaunted handoff sets).

Although Sacramento’s defense has not been up to Brown’s par, he’s holding players accountable. Brown has delivered more blistering tirades than you might expect from the league’s happiest surprise, and his guys are trying hard to overcome size and skill disadvantages on that end.

Brown is an easy choice and will be the overwhelming winner. But, as always, other coaches deserve a nod, too.

Mike Malone has finally had all his toys to play with, and the result has been the top team in the West with a bullet. He continually tweaks his strategies in exciting ways (this year, it’s getting Jokic the ball on the move to let him attack scrambling defenses), and he’s even cobbled together a slightly-better-than-average defense despite starting three “meh” or worse defenders in Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr.

Third place goes to the very deserving J.B. Bickerstaff. I haven’t heard much buzz about Bick for this ballot, but he’s improved more as an individual coach in the last half-decade than any other head honcho. He’s getting terrific buy-in from his players on both ends and has built the league’s best defense atop two smaller guards who have been poor defenders in the past. Despite having four players of similar-ish value fighting for the last major rotation spot, a situation that can often lead to in-fighting and resentment, Bickerstaff has successfully managed minutes and egos to prevent any drama from derailing this exhilarating Cavaliers season.

I thought hard about putting Mark Daigneault in the third spot. I love what he’s done with a roster that’s crazy young, and he’s shown some innovative offensive principles that help spring Shai Gilgeous-Alexander despite little shooting around him (outside of Isaiah Joe, anyway). In addition, his player development chops are quickly becoming some of the best in the league. But there’s still a chance the Thunder miss the play-in, so I’ll have to save my plaudits for Daigneault for next year when I anticipate the Thunder leaping.

Honorable Mentions: Daigneault, Taylor Jenkins (keeps the Grizzlies winning no matter how many injuries or suspensions happen), Will Hardy (quickly proving to be a beautiful offensive mind; it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with more talent), Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers, Joe Mazzulla (doing a stellar job in odd circumstances)

Most Improved Player

Winner: Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

2nd: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City

3rd: Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets

I am sky-high on the Most Improved race this year. There has been a bevy of hugely deserving candidates that fit entirely different molds, and it’s fun to discuss the merits of each. Like Sixth Man, I love that the MIP usually focuses on players outside the traditional awards discourse, giving us a reason to celebrate players having awesome years even if they aren’t tippy-top superstars.

I should point out that I am a firm believer that MIP should not be given to day-one superstars. That way, we avoid misguided selections like Ja Morant last year, who cared so little about the award that he literally gave it to his teammate (he didn’t make my hypothetical ballot).

This year, thankfully, we have several deserving candidates.

Lauri Markkanen has had the most unexpected and delightful leap. In his sixth year, the seven-footer is averaging 26 points per game on 50/39/88 shooting, ridiculous numbers, for a Utah team without much proven surrounding talent. The Jazz were expected to be a bottom-dweller this year after pivoting from the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert-Quin Snyder trio. Instead, the Jazz have hovered around the play-in race all season, even after jettisoning two of their best players at the trade deadline. Markkanen is the engine.

Coach Will Hardy gets Markkanen the ball in many creative ways, and Lauri has proven adept at stacking up buckets from anywhere and everywhere on the court (to emphasize: he recently became the first player in NBA history with 200 threes and 100 dunks in a season!). Here, he comes off an exceptionally snug pick-and-roll at the block to get a catch at the charge circle for an easy lay-up:

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If that play didn’t look particularly impressive, well, that’s sort of the point.

Want something splashier? Here’s a 30-minute highlight reel of Markkanens’ top plays from this season:

This is a guy who averaged fewer than 15 points last year and had never topped 18.7 in a season (back in his second year!) suddenly looking like one of the ten best scorers in the league.

Lauri’s previous year in Cleveland working as a big-ball small forward has paid dividends on the defensive end, and Markkanen has evolved from a walking bullseye into a capable, versatile defender.

It’s extremely rare to see a player make a jump like this so far into their career and so far removed from their previous best season. Markkanen is a worthy winner.

He’ll have stiff competition from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In his fifth year, the 6’6” point guard (?) has exploded into the national consciousness by trading deep shots for forays to the rim. He’s fourth in the league in scoring at 31.5 points per game, and he continually adds new wrinkles to his game (this year: a de-emphasis on the floater in favor of more physical finishes, leading to a drastic increase in free throws attempted).

Defensively, his improvement has been even more drastic. Gilgeous-Alexander has turned himself from a defensive liability into a chaos engine. He’s blocking jumpers, pickpocketing lazy dribbles, and generally flying around. SGA is handling as large an offensive burden as anyone but has drastically increased his effort level on defense, a refreshing change from many of his peers.

The leap from star to superstar is the hardest to make. If you want to reward SGA, I won’t stop you. It might even be the right call. But as I stated earlier, I’ve always liked rewarding players lower down in the pecking order, the men who don’t receive as much attention. I’m sticking with Markkanen.

Mikal Bridges has been a revelation in Brooklyn, but the signs of change came before that, as I detailed in naming him my Most Improved Player of the Third Quarter.

Since I wrote that article a month ago, however, we’ve assembled a far larger sample. It’s been 23 games since Bridges was traded to the Nets, and he’s averaging 27.6 points on contact-high-inducing 50/41/91 percent shooting splits.

Is it possible that this superhero is Bridges? It’s been more than a quarter of a season at this point, longer if you include the tail end of his Phoenix tenure when he started showing these flashes, and if he’d been traded earlier in the year, he might’ve been the frontrunner for this award.

Rookie of the Year

Winner: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

2nd: Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

3rd: Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Despite much hoopla around Jalen Williams, Paolo gets the nod here.

In a vacuum, it’s possible to make a strong statistical case for Jalen. His averages of 14.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists don’t necessarily scream Rookie of the Year, but that’s partially due to a slow start, and he’s only getting better as the season goes along.

In 27 games since January 1st, Jalen has averaged 17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on Larry Bird-like 54/42/86 percent shooting splits. He’s increased his scoring every calendar month so far and arguably surpassed Josh Giddey to become the second-best player on the Thunder.

Williams is versatile and smooth. He has sublime timing, and he’s already developed fantastic chemistry with the pass-first Giddey. In fact, Giddey’s dropped a team-leading 64 dimes to Williams this season, 15 more than second-place Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

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Williams is a strong passer in his own right, and he’d have more assists on a team that funneled him the ball more often.

Defensively, Williams has a knack for highlight plays. His fundamentals could use a little work (like all rookies, he struggles with screen navigation), but he’s been better than most. Despite standing 6’6”, Williams has a 7’2” wingspan, helping him rack up steals, blocks, and deflections.

Those same long arms help Williams finish at the rim; he’s hitting 70% of his shots there, a superb figure. He already has a little Shai to his game, with a deep bag of off-speed dribbles, hesitations, and unorthodox finishes.

In short, there isn’t much he can’t do. But he still comes in second.

Paolo doesn’t have nearly Jalen’s efficiency numbers, but Banchero is also the primary offensive engine for an Orlando team without any shooting. Defenses load up on him as if he’s LeBron James, and he’s still finding ways to make Magic happen.

He certainly has his warts. Paolo’s passing instincts are terrific, although he sometimes recognizes the opening a beat too slow or tries to thread a too-fancy pass into a nonexistent opening, resulting in a turnover. This will improve over time. Likewise, Paolo will likely never be a defensive stopper, but he’s so big that he should end up acceptably mediocre. Concerns about the three-point shot are real.

But Banchero is already one of the best free-throw generators in the league. We talked last week about Bennedict Mathurin’s historic foul-drawing abilities; Paolo, by virtue of his sheer size, is even better. He’s shooting 7.9 free throws per 36 minutes, eighth-most of all rookies in the modern era.

He’s equally capable of pirouetting around smaller defenders as he is bulldozing through bigger defenders, and no, I didn’t get that mixed up:

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Paolo is averaging 20.0 points, 6.9 rebounds (respectable considering he’s often playing with two other near-seven-footers in Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter), and 3.7 assists with 43/30/74 percent shooting splits. A LOT of noise was made when Paolo went 1-35 from deep over a hideous late-winter stretch; but very little echoed back now that he’s shooting 39% from deep in his last fifteen games.

Paolo came out of the gates blazing, and his fire’s never stopped raging even amidst uneven shooting. He’s the ROY.

Utah’s Walker Kessler has climbed to third with his calm, collected defensive play. He’s not quite All-Defensive caliber yet, but he will be as soon as next year.

Honorable Mention: Bennedict Mathurin

Sixth Man of the Year

Winner: Malcolm Brogdon, Boston Celtics

2nd: Norm Powell, Los Angeles Clippers

3rd: Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

I’ll be honest: this year’s 6MOY race is not inspiring.

I usually love picking out the best player who isn’t good enough to start. (That’s a gross oversimplification, but even still, there aren’t many leagues that choose to celebrate backups.) It’s fun, quirky, and leads to interesting discussions about the value of different reserve archetypes.

But this year, there aren’t any outside-the-box picks that can be credibly made, despite several similar-quality candidates. As much as I love Naz Reid, it’s hard to say he’s been a better or more critical Sixth Man than Brogdon or Powell. And even the frontrunners don’t feel as essential to their team as Tyler Herro did for the Heat just last year.

With that depressing preamble aside, there have certainly been several high-performing reserves, and they still deserve praise.

As I wrote in naming Brogdon the Sixth Man of the Third Quarter, Malcolm is good at everything. He can run a pick-and-roll, credibly defend three positions, spot up from outside, and even score in isolation. He’s shot well from all over the floor, particularly from deep (44%!), and gives the Celtics a steady hand to run the ship on those nights when Marcus Smart is being a bit too much Marcus Smart.

Powell is the quintessential Sixth Man, a microwave scorer out there to rip nets. He’s shooting 48% from the field and 41% from deep and lights it up no matter which Clippers are on the court with him. His ability to consistently put up points efficiently despite a fat rotation heavy on scorers is laudable.

Quickley’s hard charge in the last month or two nabs him the final spot over Christian Wood. His efficiency isn’t quite as good as the two above him (45% from the field and 36% from deep), but his defensive effort this year has been notable. Quickley may be the most important of these three players to his team, but that perhaps says more about the Knicks than Quickley himself.

Honorable Mentions: Christian Wood (losing minutes when your team is fighting desperately for their play-in life is a bad look, whether it’s fair or not), Malik Monk, Bennedict Mathurin, Bobby Portis, Cole Anthony, Naz Reid, Tyus Jones, Trey Lyles

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.