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NBA midseason awards: Has Chet Holmgren overtaken Victor Wembanyama?

Oklahoma City forward Chet Holmgren, left, battles Mavericks guard Luka Doncic for a loose ball during a December game in Dallas.    (Tribune News Service)
By Ben Golliver Washington Post

With the inaugural in-season tournament dominating December and trade deadline season off to a fast start thanks to the Toronto Raptors, it would be easy to forget that it’s the midpoint of the NBA’s regular season.

The 2024 title chase’s front-runners include bankable contenders such as the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, as well as party-crashers such as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder. Similarly, the leading award candidates are composed of perennial favorites and some very tall and very impressive newcomers.

Here’s a look at which players are most deserving of the halfway hardware.

MVP: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets – The fourth consecutive year of MVP debates involving Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid received a jolt last Tuesday, when the 76ers center drew first blood by scoring 41 points in a 126-121 home win over Jokic’s Nuggets. Embiid is leading the NBA in scoring for the third straight season, and his 76ers remain near the top of the standings despite their bitter divorce from James Harden in October.

Nevertheless, Jokic (26.1 points per game, 11.9 rebounds per game, 9.1 assists per game) earned top billing on this ballot: The two-time MVP is again flirting with a triple-double average while leading the NBA in a host of advanced metrics, such as win shares, real plus-minus and value over replacement player. There has been no hangover following his 2023 championship and Finals MVP; on the contrary, Jokic’s scoring workload has increased because of a nearly month-long injury absence for Denver guard Jamal Murray.

At the moment, Jokic’s top MVP competition is Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (31.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.3 apg), who has raised his game again after finishing fifth last season. The 25-year-old Canadian not only captains a top-five offense with his pretty isolation scoring and drive-and-kick passing, but he leads the NBA in steals on a pesky defense that punches well above its weight class. Oddsmakers pegged the rising Thunder (29-13) for 44.5 wins – a healthy bump from last year’s 40-42 record – yet Gilgeous-Alexander somehow has his team on pace for 56 wins, which would be Oklahoma City’s best showing since Kevin Durant’s 2013-14 MVP season.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Embiid fill out the top five. Tatum is back with another ho-hum year of excellence for the Celtics, who rank first in winning percentage and net rating, while Antetokounmpo continues to post numbers that rival Embiid’s while carrying the new-look Bucks through some early season choppiness.

Defensive player of the year: Rudy Gobert, Timberwolves – Though charismatic scoring guard Anthony Edwards has emerged as the face of the Timberwolves, stingy defense has Minnesota (30-12) sitting atop the Western Conference standings and on track for the best season in franchise history. Gobert (13.2 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 2.1 blocks per game), a three-time defensive player of the year, has reemerged as the backbone of the Timberwolves’ top-ranked defense after his impact slipped noticeably last season.

Gobert, who arrived in Minnesota via a polarizing 2022 trade with the Utah Jazz, has plenty of assistance on a roster that blends savvy veterans with excellent young athletes such as Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. Even so, the 7-foot-1 Frenchman ranks first in the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares, and tied for fifth in defensive real plus-minus. His resurgence as a shot-blocker is notable given that he is 31 years old and had seemed headed for age-related decline. Minnesota’s approach of playing Gobert with fellow big man Karl-Anthony Towns will be tested in the playoffs, but Gobert has played like the game-changing force the Timberwolves thought they were acquiring when they sent all those draft picks to the Jazz. Better one year late than never, especially when Gobert is earning $41 million this season.Kudos also to Anthony Davis, who is authoring his best all-around season since joining the Los Angeles Lakers, and Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs, the former Gonzaga Bulldog guard who is simply tenacious.

Rookie of the year: Chet Holmgren, Thunder – Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft who missed all of last season with a foot injury, and San Antonio Spurs big man Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick in 2023, are neck-and-neck in the fiercest rookie of the year race in recent memory. While Scottie Barnes narrowly beat Evan Mobley two years ago in the closest race of the past 20 years, Holmgren, who played his lone season of college basketball at Gonzaga, and Wembanyama have already established themselves as all-star candidates and project as higher-ceiling players than anyone from the 2022 class. With nearly three months left to go, this is shaping up to be the most compelling and weightiest rookie debate since LeBron James held off Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04.

The 7-4 Wembanyama (19.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg) boasts slightly gaudier individual numbers, but the 7-1 Holmgren (17.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 bpg) deserves the nod because he has played 23 percent more minutes and – most importantly – all of his games have had playoff stakes. Holmgren isn’t just along for the ride in Oklahoma City: The long-armed shot-blocker has anchored a sixth-ranked defense and stepped in as an ultraefficient secondary scoring option for a well-oiled attack.

“(Holmgren’s) rim protection distracts people from his switchability and mobility on defense,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said last week. “He can go step for step with people. It makes him a very rangy defender because he can guard out on the water on the perimeter and is a great rim player as well. It gives us a lot of options.”

It’s no fun to penalize Wembanyama for his poor supporting cast, nor is it fair to reward Holmgren solely for his team’s success. If Holmgren and Wembanyama switched places, there’s a strong argument that Oklahoma City would be even better and San Antonio would be worse. Even so, reality should take precedence over hypotheticals as long as both players deliver similar box score numbers.Voters should keep an open mind until April, especially if Wembanyama can shake free from his minutes limit and go on a tear down the stretch. Miami Heat forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II deserve honorable mention in this two-horse race.

Most improved player: Tyrese Maxey, 76ers – A lot would have to go wrong for Maxey to lose his stranglehold on this award, which he had seemingly wrapped up by Thanksgiving. Philadelphia has long been in desperate need of a feel-good story, and Maxey (25.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.7 apg) has played so well during his breakout campaign that memories of the ill-fated Ben Simmons and Harden eras have faded to black.

Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun (21.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.9 apg) is running a distant second, with Atlanta Hawks forward Jalen Johnson also in the trail pack. Sengun, a dynamic scoring and passing big man, would have a stronger case if the upstart Rockets could work their way back into the playoff mix.

Sixth man of the year: Naz Reid, Timberwolves – As high-volume scoring guards with starter-level talent, Dallas’s Tim Hardaway Jr., Sacramento’s Malik Monk, Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin and Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic are conventionally strong candidates. Nevertheless, Reid (13 ppg, 4.7 rpg) embodies what this award should be about: sacrifice for the betterment of a winning team.

The 24-year-old big man, who went undrafted out of LSU in 2019, re-signed with Minnesota last summer despite a crowded frontcourt rotation that includes Gobert and Towns. Making the most of his narrow opportunity, Reid has married his signature hustle plays and physicality with an increasingly efficient scoring game.

Coach of the year: Mark Daigneault, Thunder – With all due to respect to Boston’s Joe Mazzulla, who has done well with the NBA’s most loaded roster, the early coach of the year favorites come from the top two teams in the Western Conference: Minnesota’s Chris Finch and Oklahoma City’s Daigneault.

Finch entered the season with a warm seat following an underwhelming 2022-23 campaign and quickly set about providing strong answers to Minnesota’s major lineup fit questions. There’s plenty to like about his work: Edwards has thrived as an alpha scorer, a healthy Towns has accepted a complementary role, and veterans such as Gobert and Mike Conley have exceeded expectations. Given Minnesota’s stable defense and strong home record, Finch should enjoy real staying power in this race as the Timberwolves eye their first playoff series victory since 2004.

For now, though, Daigneault has positioned the Thunder as the league’s biggest overachievers. Just two years ago, Oklahoma City won 24 games and seemed destined for an excruciating rebuilding process. Now, Gilgeous-Alexander, Holmgren and 2023 rookie of the year runner-up Jalen Williams have Thunder fans salivating over the possibility of a deep postseason run, a la Durant’s push to the 2011 Western Conference finals at age 22. Daigneault’s culture of hard work, internal development and unselfish play has produced a young team that is a joy to watch on both ends: Oklahoma City makes the extra pass, shoots the three well, scraps after offensive rebounds and forces turnovers with a pestering defensive style