One week into the 2022-23 NBA season, Steve Nash was still coaching the Brooklyn Nets and the Portland Trail Blazers had the league’s best record at 4-0. If that doesn’t make it clear how unreliable these early-season samples are, nothing will. Things change drastically over the course of 82 games, and at no other point in the season would we let two or three games so drastically shape our opinions.
But first impressions tend to be strong ones. After waiting four months to see all of these players and teams take the floor for the first time, we’re bound to react strongly to even unsustainable trends. So let’s lean into this a little bit and try to pick award winners based solely on the first week of the season. These are not the players likeliest to actually win the awards when the season ends, but simply the players whose opening weeks most closely fit the criteria we’re looking for.
Most Valuable Player: Luka Doncic
Nikola Jokic has a viable case on strength of schedule alone. Both the Mavericks and Nuggets have played the Grizzlies, but Denver’s wins over the Lakers, Thunder and Jazz are more impressive than Dallas’ victories over the Spurs and a Nets team that had to play without starting center and primary rim-protector Nic Claxton. Jokic’s performance seems more sustainable, and the Dallas defense may yet drag Doncic down, but for now? The numbers are just unassailable.
Doncic is averaging a ridiculous 39 points, 9.7 assists and 11.7 rebounds per game. He is shooting 55.6% from the floor and 48.6% from 3-point range, and his game-winning banker against the Nets is almost certainly going to go down as one of the season’s best clutch shots.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) October 28, 2023
The Nuggets have the NBA’s second-best net rating through one week, and they’re doing it against good teams. Dallas has played close games against underwhelming opponents. But Doncic is carrying a Mavericks team that plenty of people projected to struggle just to reach the play-in round. Jokic is leading a defending champion. If Doncic can keep playing like this on a somewhat uninspiring roster, he’ll have a real chance at his first trophy.
But if you’re looking for a favorite over the next six months? It’s Jokic without question. He never gets hurt. His superior roster will probably lead to more winning. He’s won this trophy twice. Even the NBA pegged Jokic over Doncic with its first Western Conference Player of the Week award. They’re both off to terrific starts, and Doncic has a ways to go before he can unseat a former winner, but right now, he has the lead by a hair.
Defensive Player of the Year: OG Anunoby
This is typically a rim protector’s award, but none of the big men have stood out early in the season. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Evan Mobley are both struggling to adjust to life without their starting centers. Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo are having to put out too many fires started by their own backcourts. Minnesota’s defense is thriving, but against weaker competition, and Rudy Gobert’s numbers and metrics don’t scream Defensive Player of the Year at the moment, especially after Monday’s collapse against Atlanta. Kristaps Porzingis has quietly been incredible at the rim, but Boston’s defense is loaded and, though opposing shooting luck is behind this, has been roughly average in efficiency this season.
So with no obvious big man (yet), let’s turn to by far the best perimeter defender of the early season. According to NBA.com’s matchup data, OG Anunoby was the primary defender on 28 shots in his first two games. His matchups made five of them. Here’s how the data breaks down:
Obviously, it’s difficult to give this award to someone based on three games of film, and Toronto’s defense as a whole has looked terrific. Jakob Poeltl’s rim protection has been a significant addition, Dennis Schroder has been better than Fred VanVleet was, and Scottie Barnes has taken a significant leap. But that unit starts with the league’s best perimeter defender, and Toronto’s entire offense relies on the defense to generate turnovers so it can live in transition instead of the half-court. Perimeter players rarely win this award, but a healthy Anunoby on a defense this good is going to make a serious run at the trophy. A couple of big men will eventually separate themselves and probably crowd him out of the running, but Anunoby has been the standout of the first week.
Rookie of the Year: Chet Holmgren
If Victor Wembanyama was part of a better team defense and could be relied upon to play 65 games, he might already be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. As of Monday, opponents were scoring just .208 points per possession on shots in which Wembanyama was the primary defender, the lowest figure in the entire NBA, according to Synergy Sports. Of course, Holmgren is no slouch defensively either. Jokic may have had his way with him on Sunday, but he blocked seven shots against the Cavaliers on Friday, and while it’s too early to tell if it was an outlier or a trend, he hasn’t been forced into foul trouble yet as Wembanyama was in his debut. There’s a gap here, but it’s not a significant one.
Wembanyama has been asked to do more on offense, and it’s reflected in the numbers. They’re scoring a similar number of points, but Holmgren is shooting over 15 percentage points higher from the field. That’s a reflection of their roles to some extent, and so is the fact that Wembanyama is turning the ball over three times as often. But it still matters in this race.
Over the long haul, Rookie of the Year is an award that tends to prize individual creators. It’s typically a guard award, but with our two best candidates clearly big men, it could help Wembanyama out down the line. For now, Holmgren gets the edge for more easily fitting into a winning infrastructure. He’s making a good team great. The Spurs have no intention of being good or great this season. Their whole goal is letting Wembanyama explore and develop his talent. He’ll do so, and it might eventually result in this award, but Holmgren gets the slight one-week edge.
Most Improved Player: Cam Thomas
Historically, this is the first-time All-Star award. That typically isn’t the best representation of actual improvement. Players like Ja Morant will frequently win the award going from “very good” to “great”, leaving players who went from “total obscurity” to “very good.” This year provides a candidate that comes a bit closer to checking both boxes. He wasn’t well-known before the season, and it’s not as if he’s added many tools to his skill set, but he’s getting far more opportunities this season and he’s making the most of it.
Cam Thomas wasn’t totally off the radar last season. He had three 40-point games in four days in February. But he only reached 20 points 11 times and saw inconsistent playing time down the stretch and in the playoffs. Jacque Vaughn was hesitant to play him because, despite his scoring prowess, he brought very little else to the table. That hasn’t exactly changed, but the Nets, as a team, have.
Brooklyn is committed to playing Ben Simmons significant minutes. With Nic Claxton at center, the half-court offense is going to be cramped, but the defense should be very good. Thomas is the perfect counterbalance. He needs an elite defensive roster to protect him and he needs a dedicated playmaker to create looks for others so that he can focus on doing his thing. And boy, has he done that this season, averaging 33 points in his first three games.
Thomas was always a bucket. We saw that last season, so it’s a bit disingenuous to suggest he improved substantially as a player. But he averaged 10.6 points in around 17 minutes of playing time last season. He’s tripling his scoring total right now and playing a significant role for the Nets this season. That makes him an easy candidate for an award that has always favored circumstantial statistical growth over skill improvement.
Sixth Man of the Year: Chris Paul
Thomas came off of the bench for Brooklyn on opening night, but has started ever since due to Claxton’s injury. If he goes back to the bench when Claxton returns, he becomes the favorite for this award. If he keeps playing as he has though, It would be hard to justify starting Spencer Dinwiddie over him. Another candidate is in a similar boat right now. Jalen Johnson came off of the bench for two games, but started on Monday. Given how well he is playing, he should never surrender that spot. So for now, we’re looking for players who are actually going to stay on the bench. Ironically, we’re turning to someone who was almost exclusively started in his career to get there.
Chris Paul does not fit the typical statistical profile of a Sixth Man of the Year winner. The award almost always goes to one of the league’s best bench scorers, and the Warriors have already been robbed of one deserving winner outside of that mold in Andre Iguodala. Paul is averaging only 10.5 points per game so far this season. But who cares? Golden State is currently plus-31 with Stephen Curry off of the floor. To give you a sense of how preposterous that is in context, the Warriors are minus-1,311 in all non-Curry minutes since Steve Kerr took over as Golden State’s coach.
Paul has already started two games this season. Injuries might force him to start more. But stabilizing Golden State’s bench units is quietly among Paul’s most impressive feats in a brilliant 18-year NBA career. It would take a lot to deprive him of this award if that continues.
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Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel
Picking this award after one week of games is borderline impossible. Evaluating coaches requires a ton of context. We have almost none of it through three or four games, so this choice means by far the least among the awards we’re handing out. Still, let’s give a shoutout to Frank Vogel, who has a Phoenix roster built entirely for offense ranked No. 2 in defense. Granted, he needed a fair bit of shooting luck to make that happen, as Suns opponents are making the second-lowest percentage of their 3s in the league, but even average felt unlikely for Phoenix coming into the season. If Vogel can get this team to defend, he’ll have a great chance at a top seed and a bit of individual hardware.