2023 NBA Executive of the Year (and other awards like DPOY and MVP)
You're dying to know which President of Basketball Operations takes the crown, aren't you?
**Note: Had a technical issue with the videos when I sent out this post the first time, a few minutes ago. Hopefully, it’s fixed now. Sorry about that!**
My first set of awards are here. Those were the easy ones. But alas, I’ve run out of time to reflect, ruminate, and come up with awkward metaphors. So here are the rest of my choices for Defensive Player of the Year, Executive of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Clutch Player of the Year!
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Brook Lopez
The trapdoor spider hides in concealed holes in the ground, waiting for unsuspecting prey to wander near. The patient arachnid may go months between meals, but when the opportunity comes, it jumps out from behind its silken doors in a flash, dragging unfortunate insects to their doom.
Lopez is the world’s largest trapdoor spider (sorry). He waits, and waits, until foolish opponents wander into his abode. Then, stillness turns to action in the blink of an eye:
Look again at how little wasted movement Lopez exhibits. It’s amazing. Again:
Splash Mountain moves about three inches during the entirety of this play, yet still swallows up Nic Claxton’s dunk attempt.
However, Lopez is a far more prolific eater than the trapdoor spider. Lopez contested 1,362 shots this season, almost 50% higher than second place, Claxton, who barely cracked 900. These aren’t casual handwaves, either: Lopez’s rim dFG% versus expected FG% was -13.4%, the second-biggest differential in the league.
That uncanny combination of volume and efficacy sums up Brook’s Defensive Player of the Year case.
Lopez might be only the fourth-best defender on his own team, but the entire defense is designed around funneling all action toward his painted lair. Draymond Green had a thought-provoking quote earlier this season about how the best defensive players can transcend the system; Brook Lopez is the system. When Lopez was on the floor, the Bucks allowed a 108.0 defensive rating, one of the best marks in the league.
Lopez ranks highly on all the usual catch-all defensive metrics, but his most impressive accomplishment might be avoiding fouls: despite all of those shot contests, he only averaged 2.6 fouls per game.
If you prefer Jaren Jackson’s visceral impact, Evan Mobley’s flexibility, or Draymond Green’s supercomputer processing speeds, I completely understand. But Lopez alters more outcomes more severely than anybody; he’s my Defensive Player of the Year.
2) Jaren Jackson Jr.
Despite all of Lopez’s success, Jackson was likely the most impactful defender on a per-minute basis.
Jaren was the league leader with 3.0 blocks per game, and Jackson had a defensive FG% differential vs. expected of -13.1%, almost the same as Brook’s number.
When he shared the floor with Steven Adams, Jackson was given the green light to roam around and cause havoc. As a center, Jackson’s had to play more traditional anchor defense. He’s excelled in both roles. Lineups with Jackson as a power forward allowed just 108.5 points per 100 possessions; with him at center, just 108.9.
That flexibility has proven even more useful than usual given normal center Adams’ injury. Jaren is one of the best bigs in the league at corralling the pick-and-roll ballhandler, and his long arms and decent foot speed let him keep up with even the speediest guards. He’s also big and bulky enough to stonewall traditional post players.
Jackson has made noticeable improvements reading and reacting to what’s happening around him. He’s quick to diagnose problematic situations and apply some salve. Here, Jackson traps De’Aaron Fox at the top, who passes to forward Harrison Barnes. Barnes is several steps ahead of Jackson with just puny Ja Morant between him and an easy bucket, but Jackson sees what’s coming and sprints full-tilt to make a strong rear-view contest, disrupting the shot:
Plays like that made it hard for me to put JJJ second. Halfway through the season, I had Jaren as the frontrunner, as it seemed he had finally cured the foul-prone ways that had dragged him down in the past.
Unfortunately, as the season went on, the fouls ticked back upward, limiting how much time he could spend on the court. After averaging fewer than 3.0 fouls in his first 20 games, he averaged nearly four for the rest of the season. His lack of availability became the tiebreaker.
But Jackson has gotten better every season, and he’d be a fine pick already. At just 23 years old, he could be a frontrunner for this award for many years to come.
3) Jaden McDaniels
McDaniels’ incredible defensive skill (and improving offensive assertiveness) was set to shine in the postseason, potentially making him a household name…until he inadvertently punched a concrete wall in frustration during Game 82, fracturing his hand and removing him from the team for the foreseeable future. It’s a bummer for all the reasons, and the injury will overshadow one of the best wing defensive seasons in recent years.
McDaniels is a Bball-Index metric superstar: he’s at or near the top of the leaderboards for defensive matchup difficulty, ball screen navigation, and on-ball defense, and even in the 91st percentile for rim points saved (as I wrote in my All-Defensive Teams post, opponents are shooting just 53.5% against McDaniels at the rim, better than most centers).
His 1.6% block percentage is in the 96th percentile for forwards, and opponents are shooting a paltry 33.8% against McDaniels in isolation.
But it’s not just about the numbers: McDaniels uses his 6’10” snakelike frame to slither around screens and stay attached to his mark. His recovery time is outrageous for someone so tall. He has a very quick second jump that lets him gamble for blocks a little more than most players; if he’s pump-faked the first time, Spring-heeled Jaden can still get back up in time to contest again.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the Wolves’ remarkable marketing efforts in trying to rally votes for All-Defensive First Team (which I had him on!): their website features a cursor that turns into the faces of stars like Luka Doncic and Steph Curry, and anywhere you go, a Jaden McDaniels face will appear and cover up the star, like Blinky chasing his elusive foe. I strongly recommend looking at it.
Honorable Mention: Evan Mobley, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, O.G. Anunoby.
Executive of the Year
1) Danny Ainge (Utah Jazz)
Yes, it’s easier to tear something down than build something up. But Danny (and his second-in-command, Justin Zanik) managed to acquire a pirate’s booty of picks AND meaningful players while trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert at the peak of their value, and they made several moves on the margins that could pay quick dividends as the Jazz seek to get back to their competitive ways.
As much as I like both Gobert and Mitchell, it was clear that Utah was never going to reach the heights they wished with those two as the core, and the teardown commenced in earnest this year. In addition to All The First Rounders, Utah also nabbed new All-Star Lauri Markkanen, who at just 25 years old has developed into one of the most effective and versatile scorers in the league, and rookie Walker Kessler, who many think has emerged into a better player than Gobert right now. Another rookie acquired in the Cleveland trade, Ochai Agbaji, continues to impress in a 3-and-D role now that he’s getting extended minutes. Other veterans were later flipped into a top-four protected Lakers pick that may be juicy down the road.
The Jazz even found a potential rehabilitation candidate in Kris Dunn, a defensive-minded point guard who has shown off an improved shot in his 20 games here at the end of the season (I’ve always loved Dunn; this pickup was destined to put Ainge over the top on my ballot).
Lastly, coaching hires often go untalked about in Executive of the Year conversations, but Will Hardy has looked like an absolute gem. Hardy had a team of score-first veterans expecting to be traded buy into a pass-and-cut system. The Jazz were shockingly competitive all season long, and Hardy’s X’s-and-O’s and deft personal touch with players was a big part of that. Ainge and Zanik deserve credit for finding the right guy.
2) Monte McNair (Sacramento Kings)
McNair’s splashiest move happened at last year’s trade deadline, when he acquired Domantas Sabonis to pair with quicksilver guard De’Aaron Fox. But since then, McNair has made several moves to fit pieces around that core, and the results speak for themselves.
First, McNair deserves credit for hiring the likely unanimous Coach of the Year, Mike Brown. Known primarily as a defensive-minded coach, Brown brought over Golden State’s motion-based offense and welded it to Domantas Sabonis’ high-post playmaking to create the league’s most unstoppable attack.
McNair also picked up three players who perfectly fit that philosophy. He traded for Ronald Threesley (Kevin Huerter), signed bench spark plug Malik Monk in free agency, and drafted sweet-shooting Keegan Murray (a somewhat controversial move at the time, as many preferred combo guard Jaden Ivey).
Huerter didn’t miss a shot for the first third of the season, and he and Murray (who set the record for most threes by a rookie) combined to become just the second pair of teammates in league history to both hit 200+ threes on 40%+ shooting from deep (you can guess the other pair). Monk, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the best reserves in the league.
We don’t know how the Kings will hold up in the playoffs, where they have the misfortune of playing defending champs Golden State in the first round. But just ask any Sacramento fan how they feel about the team, and you’ll get nothing but ringing endorsements. McNair deserves mention for nailing all the little things around Fox and Sabonis this year.
3) Koby Altman (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Adding Donovan Mitchell, an ascending superstar still in his prime, is almost always worth the cost. Doing it in a market like Cleveland when other, ostensibly more fashionable teams were in the bidding war is even more impressive.
Mitchell joins Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley to create arguably the most promising quartet of young players in the league. Re-signing good-vibes king Ricky Rubio in the offseason pays off in ways outsiders can’t fully understand. And don’t look now, but Danny Green (remember him?) just dropped 21 points in a tune-up for the playoffs!
Altman deserves all the shine. Superstars as young as Mitchell rarely hit the trade market, and snagging him without having to give up any of their core is a massive win. Many advanced metrics believe the Cavs to be championship contenders as soon as this year; I’m not quite there yet, but I believe they’ll be fighting for the East’s crown sooner than later.
Honorable Mention: Calvin Booth (had him third initially, but some poor decisions at the trade deadline —Thomas Bryant?? — bumped him off my list), Daryl Morey, Brad Stevens, James Jones, Rob Pelinka (superb work at the trade deadline, but hard to reward him too much for cleaning up his own messes), Leon Rose
I laid out the strongest cases I could for each here just a few days ago, so I’m not going to go over the statistical details again. If you’re new here (welcome!), click that link for all the stats and numbers you could ever want.
Honestly, I’m rooting for Joel Embiid to win. I believe in spreading the wealth when the margins between players are this close. It’s going to be weird if Jokic or Giannis has three trophies, the other has two, and Embiid never gets one. A 2/2/1 split (with another MVP up for grabs next year!) more accurately showcases how dominant and how close this trio has been for a half-decade.
I also think Joel will win. I think the narrative above, coupled with explicit voter reluctance to give Joker a third-straight MVP, will be enough to get Embiid over the finish line. That’s what I’m rooting for.
But my hypothetical ballot has to remain true to the spirit of the award, which encompasses this year’s regular season. And in that, I believe one player has been more valuable than the rest… and it’s probably not who you think:
**Insert devious paywall here. Paying subscribers can see my reasoning for MVP as well as a few thoughts on Clutch Player of the Year! It takes time to come up with all these trapdoor spider metaphors, so please consider reimbursing me for the nightmares I gave you. Hmm, I need to work on my sales pitch.**