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NBA Awards: Our pick for MVP, Sixth Man, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and more

Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like almost every NBA end-of-season award is going down to the wire this year. There hasn’t been an MVP race this close in decades, especially between two centers. But this year has proven to be a stark shift from the last two decades of dynasty contenders.

Several players took quantum leaps into stardom, while others solidified their “all-time” stature as one of the greats. We’ve selected our winners for the six major awards, including the newly announced “Clutch Player of the Year,” while linking previous articles that cover the winners in-depth.

Coach of the Year

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Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings

It’s hard to believe it’s the same Mike Brown doing such an impressive job in Sacramento, leading the Kings to their first NBA playoff appearance since 2006. This is the same guy who got canned as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and is now on his way to winning his second Coach of the Year award. He won it once in 2009, leading the Cavs to 66 wins. This time, he doesn’t have James GOAT coattails to ride. This time, he’s earned it all on his own.

After getting fired by the Cavs in 2014, he spent the next six years as an assistant coach to Steve Kerr in Golden State, where he sat on the bench for their last three championships. It appears he learned a lot, humbling himself in an assistant role next to one of the greatest head coaches of all time. He incorporated the five-out offense that made the Warriors a dynasty and the dribble hand-off action with Domantas Sabonis, which made Draymond Green an elite orchestrator at the center position. That action has allowed guys like Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk, and Keegan Murray to curl for wide-open threes, powering the Kings’ No. 1-rated offense.

Brown was often maligned as the benefactor of having James on his team in his first head coaching stint. And that’s a fair assessment. But just like players, coaches evolve too. They get better. And Brown has proven to have gained the ability to come into a team with no superstar, raise the level of play from their best player to their 15th guy, and earn the No. 3 seed in Western Conference in the process.

Sixth Man of the Year

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Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

Despite being only 21, Immanuel Quickley has already established himself as a valuable player off the bench for the Knicks, providing a much-needed spark to the team’s offense. In his third season, he’s become a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, impressing with his scoring ability and fearlessness on the court. In addition, he’s the team’s best point-of-attack defender and third-best offensive player. Quickley’s statistics this season are impressive, averaging 12.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game in just 24 minutes of play. He has also shot 38.5 percent from the three-point line and 89.4 percent from the free-throw line.

When starting point guard Jalen Brunson has sat with injuries, Quickley has starred in his role, averaging 22.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 19 games as a starter this season. But it’s off the bench where he shined.

When he comes into the game, he gives the Knicks an instant spark as a one-man fast break for the Knicks, who rank 26th in pace. This season, Quickley has become the Knicks’ best facilitator, breaking down defenses as he drives to the hoop before either nailing a mid-range floater or finding corner shooters. As the team’s best two-way player, he’s instrumental in the Knicks maintaining their third-best offensive rating while guarding the opposing team’s best wing player. He’s due for an extension this summer.

Most Improved Player

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Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

“Overpay.” “Daddy’s boy.” “Overrated.” “A backup.”

These were the derogatory signifiers piled on Jalen Brunson when he signed the four-year,
$104 million contract with the nicks. Many derided the Knicks for signing Brunson after years of missing out on major free agents, overpaying a career backup to be their starting point guard. But Knicks fans, especially those who watched the Dallas Mavericks the last few seasons, knew Brunson filled exactly what the Knicks were missing.

Even today, as the Mavs finished 11th in the West, owner Mark Cuban is still peddling the “daddy’s boy” excuse for losing Brunson last summer. Cuban said last week, that “things went south when the parents got involved” in negotiations.

This season, he’s been one of the top two reasons the Knicks are the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and 47-35. He’s averaging career-highs across the board, 24 ppg, 3.5 rpg, and 6.2 apg on 49.1 percent field goal shooting and 41.6 percent shooting from three. He was the biggest All-Star snub and should be All-NBA this season. While individual success has been apparent in every capacity, his impact on winning has garnered the most attention.

In just one season with Brunson as their leader, they went from a 23rd offensive rating to third. Brunson has also been a dynamo in crunch time, maintaining a top-five position in clutch points all season and holding with 4 PPG during that stretch, good for fourth in the NBA. Brunson has added leadership, scoring, and stability at the game’s most crucial position, filling a three-decade hole for the team. And on a valuable contract to boot. Out from under Luka Dončić’s shadow, he shows he is a superstar.

Defensive Player of the Year

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Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Sometimes players act coy with individual accolades, professing their ambivalence towards winning awards at the season’s end. Not Jaren Jackson Jr., who has said loud and proud how much he wants Defensive Player of the Year. He told ESPN recently, “I definitely think I’m Defensive Player of the Year. I just think I put together something special, and I want it bad.”

The Grizzlies have allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor. They have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, mainly in part to how dominant Jackson has been on that side of the ball. Jackson is topping the NBA charts with an average of three blocks per game, the highest among all players. This is an improvement from last year, where he also led the league in blocks per game with an average of 2.3.

Additionally, when Jackson is on the court, he has blocked 9.7 percent of his opponents’ field goal attempts. He ranks as the sixth-highest recorded since the NBA officially recognized blocks as a statistic almost five decades ago. Offensively, he’s finally living up to the fourth overall selection in the 2018 Draft, averaging 18.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and 1 spg, on 50.2 percent shooting.

Rookie of the Year

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Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

While Jalen Williams of Oklahoma City and Bennedict Mathurin of Indiana made valiant late season pushes for the award, neither could match the star power or impact on winning as Orlando’s Paolo Banchero. Neither sees the double teams and defensive pressure Banchero does as the Magic’s number one option.

No matter what defenses try to throw at him, he continues to score. Banchero leads his rookie class in points, field goals per game (6.7), free throws (5.5), and 30-point games (6). Mathurin, likely the runner-up for the award, has only managed two such games. The next three highest-scoring rookies have six games of 30 points combined. Banchero’s scoring consistency is further highlighted by his 31 games with 20 points or more, which is seven more than Mathurin and the most in the league.

Banchero’s season averages read like a fourth-year star — 20 ppg, 7 rpg, 3.7 apg, and 0.8 steals. His shooting efficiency has dipped since the first half of the season, 42.7 percent field goal shooting and a putrid 29.8 percent from three. Some of that is due to a terrible month of February, where Banchero left the door open to these two competitors for the award with a stat line of 16.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg on 37.4/3.0/71.1 shooting splits. But Benchero has bounced back as of late.

Even though the Magic started 5-12, since the halfway point, they have amassed a .500 record, showing Banchero’s impact in his first year with the team. And while Williams is making an impressive case through advanced metrics of his impact, he doesn’t hold a candle to the usage rate Banchero is tasked with in comparison, 27.2 percent to Williams’ 18 percent. If Banchero finishes the season at his current statistical rate, he would be just the sixth rookie in the last 50 seasons to average at least 20 points, six rebounds, and three assists.

Clutch Player of the Year

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De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

At the front of the Kings’ resurgence stands the 6-foot-3 De’Aaron Fox, the sixth-year guard leading the NBA in clutch points (180) with 5.0 clutch points per game. He’s appeared in 34 “clutch” games, converting 53.0 percent of his shots in those moments.

By showcasing his crunch-time talent, the 25-year-old Fox demonstrates that he can serve as the franchise’s cornerstone. The Kings were wise to offer him a sizable extension, as he will receive over $30 million annually for the next three years. After earning his first All-Star selection, Fox has helped the Kings reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.

Fox is averaging career highs, 25.2 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. The Kings’ success revolves around the two-man game between Fox and Domantas Sabonis, who they traded Tyrese Haliburton for in the middle of last season. It was a controversial move then, but it has elevated the Kings into the No. 1 offense in the league. Fox has thrived alongside an elite passing big man in pick-and-roll action. Having Sabonis as a decoy in crunchtime has allowed Fox to utilize his three-level scoring and hit game-tying and winning shots when it mattered most.

Most Valuable Player

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Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

It’s time to give Joel Embiid his flowers.

Embiid is the MVP this season. Why? Because, unlike Nikola Jokic, Embiid dominates on both sides of the court. Jokic is one of the worst paint defenders in the NBA (no matter what the advanced metrics tell you), while Embiid is one of the best. He has been dominant on defense, averaging 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. Offensively, he’s averaging 30.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting an impressive 52.1 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from the three-point line.

Embiid’s impact on the Sixers’ success cannot be overstated. He has been an unstoppable force in the post, using his size and strength to overpower opposing defenders while finally striking the perfect balance between perimeter and post play.

At present, Embiid is the top scorer in the league, with a slight edge over Luka Dončić. In addition, he plays a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s defense, as he ranks sixth in the league for shot-blocking while protecting the paint. Embiid set a Sixers’ record by hitting 30 points in 10 consecutive contests while boasting a 65.3 percent true shooting percentage on a 37.1 usage rate. And he’s doing this as a big man with a deft touch and guard-like skills. It’s not a stretch to say he’s the most dominant player in the NBA.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo