With the play-in tournament underway, it’s time to reveal my official NBA awards picks. This was probably the toughest ballot, top to bottom, I’ve ever filled out. Four of the six individual awards came down to the wire, and the All-NBA teams — coming out tomorrow — were tougher than usual, due in part to superstars missing so many games.

After poring over the data, watching a gazillion games, and talking to coaches and executives across the league, here’s where I ended up.

Most Valuable Player

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

5. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

What an epic race — three all-time superstars posting all-time seasons. In a way, the hardest part — the one that felt most absurd — was writing one of these three names into the third-place slot. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP, the best player on the team with the best record, wrapping a 31.1 point-11.8-rebound-5.7 assist masterpiece — and finished third? How?

In a normal year — and even amid this convergence of three historic seasons — Antetokounmpo has a clean case to win. He is the best defender among these three, though Embiid at full throttle gives him a run. Even one of the relative weak spots in Antetokounmpo’s dossier — finishing with almost 300 fewer minutes than both centers — is at least partly the result of the Bucks being so good, and so deep, as to not need to push Antetokounmpo. Should we really “punish” Antetokounmpo because of the stability of Milwaukee’s roster?

Debating players at the highest level is always splitting hairs; minutes matter as a tie-breaker. Antetokounmpo also appeared in fewer games than Jokic or Embiid, and suffered a drop-off in shooting on 2s, 3s and free throws.

In the end, it was the two centers — the two-time defending MVP and greatest passing big man of all-time, and the game’s most majestic giant since prime Hakeem Olajuwon. The race flip-flopped all season. Twenty games in — and this somehow feels like two seasons and five MVP races ago — I had Stephen Curry as frontrunner. Injuries torpedoed his case — and that of Kevin Durant, who would have been on the short list in alternate universes in which he stayed healthy and a giant sinkhole did not open underneath the Barclays Center.

Jokic owned the next 40 games, flirting with a triple-double average and shooting at efficiency levels usually reserved for Curry or centers who only dunk: 63% overall, 38.5% on 3s, 67.5% on 2s. Those numbers don’t look real.

Embiid backers argued Jokic’s pickiness — his refusal to commandeer the offense the way Denver needed him to — propped up those numbers.

That never held water. You can’t average 25 points — even in this go-go NBA — being super choosy. The notion that Jokic’s teammates required him to score more indirectly undercut Embiid’s case — implying Jokic’s supporting cast was weaker, and Jokic therefore perhaps more valuable. Embiid, after all, has a top-75 all-time player feeding him buckets. (Neither the Sixers or Nuggets had a second All-Star, but I selected James Harden on my personal Eastern Conference roster.)

You have to be cautious over-rewarding a player because the surrounding roster is allegedly weak. The Nuggets outscored opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, and lost the non-Jokic minutes by 10 points per 100 possessions — a 23-point chasm.

The first number — margin with the player on the floor — is more important than the second. Imagine a theoretical player’s team is plus-1 per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-10 when he sits. He might be a star. Is he the MVP? Probably not. An MVP should ideally transform a good team into an elite team.

Jokic does that. Embiid does too; the Sixers blitzed opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court, and were minus-2.6 per 100 possessions when he sat — a 12-point gap. That’s not as mammoth as Jokic’s splits, but the differential is much narrower on the positive side. We are talking levels-within-levels of greatness here.

I’m not totally sure Embiid’s supporting cast is that much better than Jokic’s, either. Harden played 58 games, and was probably his peak 2022-23 self in something like 40 of them. Tyrese Maxey missed 22 games and came off the bench in one-third of his appearances — deflating the minutes he shared with Embiid. Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker were pretty blah, the rest of the team hit-or-miss.

The Nuggets have no one quite on Harden’s level, but the triumvirate of Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. is pretty darn good. (I had Gordon on my West All-Stars.) They are cutters and shooters who fit Jokic’s pass-happy style. None of Philly’s other players are regarded as effective off-ball players, aside from run-of-the-mill spot-up shooting. Harden acted for a decade — until mid-way through this season — as if taking catch-and-shoot 3s were against the rules.

There is a chicken-egg mystery here: Would Embiid’s supporting cast move and cut more if he were a better passer? Do the other Nuggets play the way they do because Jokic is a passing wizard? The answer to each is probably “yes,” but the degree of that “yes” is hard to parse.

Whatever method each player uses is working like gangbusters. The Nuggets scored 124 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor — five points better than the Sacramento Kings’ league-best offense. The Sixers hit 119 with Embiid — just above Sacramento’s number.

There is something catalytic about Jokic’s passing — something ineffable and amplifying that is hard to enumerate and even to describe. He is like a constant, humming electrical current — breathing energy into everyone around him. He just doesn’t make passes; he creates them from scratch, imagines them when no one else sees them, conjures baskets from nothing. He is as impactful on offense as Curry — as anyone in league history, maybe.

But Embiid narrowed the gap on offense. He led the league in scoring — 33 points! Even with scoring up, that number makes you do a double-take. He hit 55% overall and 59% on 2s — easily career highs. He is a free throw machine.

He averaged 4.2 assists and 3.4 turnovers — the soft spot in his case. Some of that is Embiid’s score-first approach. Some is the tendency of his teammates to stand around — which, again, cannot be completely separated from Embiid’s style. Some of it is Embiid not being near as good a passer as Jokic.

Embiid’s passing improved over the last two months. He was quicker getting rid of the ball when that made sense, more trusting in teammates.

The gap on defense widened. Embiid is an All-Defensive candidate. Jokic is better on defense than the eye test suggests — one of the league’s best rebounders, a tip king with a penchant for steals and deflections. But he was lax for much of the season, offering meek waving contests and resorting to kicking balls. Opponents shot 69% at the rim with Jokic as the nearest defender — one of the worst marks in the league, and frankly not acceptable.

Every game, Embiid alters several shots Jokic can’t bother. He deters ball handlers from even approaching the rim. The counter would be that Denver is very good on defense with Jokic on the floor. That’s real. Jokic’s transformative offense helps; the Nuggets score and score, and get to set their defense. Scoring is harder in the postseason, and Denver’s relative strength on defense with Jokic has not translated as powerfully there.

Jokic’s defense faded as the Nuggets limped to the finish line. Some voters may wave that away, given Denver had the No. 1 seed locked up by early March. Michael Malone didn’t wave that swoon away.

Advanced metrics, a boon for Jokic in his deserved MVP campaigns, are closer this season. Embiid and Jokic virtually tied in Player Efficiency Rating. Embiid laps everyone in ESPN’s adjusted plus-minus. Estimated plus-minus is close. Jokic still owns several other catch-all metrics — including 538’s — but the advanced numbers don’t scream in unison the way they did the last two seasons.

They were both phenomenal in the clutch — almost a wash, though Embiid had an edge in volume. (He was a league-best plus-99 in the last five minutes of close games.) Jokic no longer has the minutes advantage of the last two seasons.

Given the historic weight of this award, there is validity — at least tie-breaker-level validity — to the notion that a player must have done something special in prior playoffs or accomplished something almost unprecedented in the regular-season to achieve an MVP three-peat. LeBron James and Michael Jordan never nabbed three straight. Antetokounmpo was denied it in part because the Bucks by the time of his potential three-peat had advanced “only” as far as the conference finals — where Jokic and the Nuggets got in 2020, and where Embiid has never ventured.

Jokic’s regular-season approaches that kind of historic three-peat territory, but Embiid is right there with him.

In the end, Embiid has done enough to unseat Jokic. The playoffs — and the legacy pressure they place upon any MVP — beckon now. We have been waiting for that one Embiid postseason tear. Injuries, bad luck, illness, inconsistency, superior teams — they have all prevented Embiid from having that single defining May and June. It’s coming. Is this the year?

Tatum was a no-brainer at No. 4. The fifth spot belonged to Luka Doncic until the Dallas Mavericks’ freefall. It’s not fair to place much blame for that collapse on Doncic or Kyrie Irving. It is more about the drip, drip, drip of talent out the door — and the talent that never came in. Doncic’s mopey body language, incessant whining and lazy defense were symptoms of a larger disease. The Mavericks needed a galvanizer, and Doncic couldn’t be one.

Given Mitchell’s outstanding two-way production, it’s hard to justify slotting anyone from an 11th-place team over him. Jimmy Butler, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Domantas Sabonis have arguments, but Mitchell has been good enough that team wins decide the No. 5 slot.

Rookie of the Year

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Since Dec. 12, when Williams became a full-time starter:

Williams: 15.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 52% shooting, 38% on 3s

Banchero: 19.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.7 turnovers, 41.5% shooting, 31% on 3s

That comprises 54 games for Williams and 51 for Banchero — 63% of the season. Williams is a better defender, and played games with meaning. Banchero was a No. 1 option; Williams was a co-No. 2 option with Josh Giddey. That is reflected in the numbers: Banchero scored more, but way less efficiently.

Those 50-ish games favor Williams. I almost voted for him; I decided on this award last. (With apologies to Bennedict Mathurin and Keegan Murray, these are the only three candidates. Mathurin’s shooting plummeted, and he offered very little as a playmaker or defender.)

I’ve had some league insiders make an analytics-based case for Kessler, and most advanced metrics paint him as the most valuable rookie. He’s a major plus on defense and the glass (on both ends), and led the league in shooting at 72%. His role on offense — screen, roll, rebound — means he rarely misses or turns it over.

That’s not to minimize what Kessler did. There are plenty of veteran centers with similar roles who could never approach 72% shooting. Kessler has soft hands, touch, good footwork; he will develop into a more well-rounded offensive weapon. (That sound you hear is every Minnesota fan punching the wall, and my god, the Wolves are such a tire fire they’ve even tainted stock jokes about them!)

But he had a miniscule 13% usage rate. Comparing Kessler and Banchero is not apples-to-oranges. It’s apples-to-cauliflower. I wouldn’t have any real issue with Kessler winning, but I couldn’t get there.

You can’t dismiss the opening 30 games just because they came first — and have receded from memory — but it’s reasonable to prefer players progressing on an upward trajectory.

How far would Williams’ shooting marks have dipped in those 53 games had he been the No. 1 option — like Banchero — and faced the best opposing defender every night? Some, sure. But all the way to the NBA’s Mendoza line of 40%/30%? Hard to say. Is it at all persuasive that the Thunder had a dead-even scoring margin when Williams played without Gilgeous-Alexander — and a positive one when Williams played without both Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey? Maybe — though most of those minutes came against opposing bench lineups.

But the difference between undisputed No. 1 guy and option 2.5 is the biggest drop-off in role hierarchy. Would Williams have looked so good over those 53 games had he spent the first 30 carrying the offense for a rebuilding team? Banchero doing that from Day 1 — while Williams was coming off the bench — surely sapped his energy for the last 60% of the season.

Here’s the end game: Given every piece of data we have, whom would I bet on being an All-NBA-level superstar in five years? It’s still Banchero. Shooting percentages can be finicky. Banchero was better than expected on defense — agile sliding his feet, smart, a willing charge-taker. He wins by the slimmest of margins.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

I waffled until the last minute between Jackson and Mobley. Jackson is the league’s best per-minute defender, and it’s not close. Mobley is a top-five defender, and logged 928 more minutes than Jackson — due to Jackson’s injuries and foul trouble.

There is no magic equation to tell whether Jackson was so dominant that he provided more defensive value than Mobley did in his larger minutes sample. I suspect such a magic equation would actually favor Mobley; if you’re measuring cumulative value, 928 minutes is tough to overcome.

But Jackson was so good — such a fearsome all-court menace — I suspect Mobley’s (hypothetical) cumulative victory margin would be much smaller than expected given that minutes gap. And if that’s the case — if Jackson is just that singular — I would lean (barely) toward him. When we think back on this season, we will remember Jackson’s everything, everywhere, all-at-once destruction as the apex of 2023 NBA defense.

With better health for Jackson — say 72 games instead of 62 — Mobley’s minutes edge would shrink to about 600. At that point, cumulative value might tip to Jackson. Mobley’s defense over the first 25 games was a tier below his play since. Jackson might have logged an additional 100-plus minutes had Taylor Jenkins given him more leeway to play through foul trouble. (That’s not to say Jenkins was wrong for pulling Jackson when he did.)

When he’s on the floor, Jackson is pretty much a perfect defender — as fast and switchable as Mobley, but stouter in the post. Physical drivers — even non-centers — can still dislodge Mobley just enough to flick shots over him. (They should enjoy doing that while they can.)

Jackson is easily the better rim protector — the best in the league by a mile. Opponents hit 46.9% at the rim with Jackson as the nearest defender. Only one other player among 113 who challenged at least three shots per game at the basket limited opponents to sub-50% shooting: Bismack Biyombo, a backup. Opponents hit 60% at the basket against Mobley. By pretty much any metric — opponent shooting, advanced numbers, tracking data showing points allowed against every play type — Jackson grades out well above Mobley and almost everyone else.

Jackson can block his own guy’s shot. Seriously: You will eat the ball. He can rotate from anywhere within a 25-foot radius and snuff shots at the rim. The guy is a phantom — a horror movie villain.

He enables every lineup type. Jackson can play power forward next to Steven Adams and Xavier Tillman. If that means chasing a stretchy small-ball shooter, well, that guy’s not going to shoot much. In tag-teaming with Brandon Clarke, Jackson can guard either big man position; the Grizzlies allowed a laughable 101 points per 100 possessions with the Clarke-Jackson duo — almost 10 points stingier than the league’s best defense. What about when Jackson plays without Dillon Brooks — Memphis’ other All-Defensive candidate? The Grizzlies defend at the same level.

There is precedent for someone at this minutes level winning: Rudy Gobert in 2017-18 (56 games) and Kawhi Leonard three seasons earlier (64 games).

Mobley is incredible. His acceleration within tight spaces is jarring because of how selective he is revving up. Mobley defends with the calm awareness of a veteran — rotating in sync with offenses, on his toes, head on a swivel. He is always ready to pounce, but only pounces when he has to. He will win this award soon, maybe multiple times.

I favor versatility — which is why Lopez finishes behind Mobley and Jackson here. Lopez played the anchor-rim protector role about as well as possible; opponents hit just 50% at the basket with Lopez nearby — trailing only Jackson and Biyombo in that 113-player sample. His timing is exquisite. Lopez gets off the floor faster than shooters expect, and he’s nimbler than he gets credit for corralling pick-and-rolls at the 3-point arc. His box-outs blot out the sun.

Honorable mention here to (among others): Draymond Green, Bam Adebayo, OG Anunoby, Antetokounmpo, Nicolas Claxton, Jaden McDaniels, Alex Caruso, Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Embiid, Anthony Davis and others. They feature prominently in my All-Defensive picks — coming tomorrow.

Green came closest to cracking the ballot. He may still be the league’s most versatile defender. He’s a genius. The Warriors defended at almost a league-best level with Green on the floor. Opponents made only 50.8% of shots in the restricted area against him — behind only Jackson, Biyombo and Lopez. All things equal, I tilt toward bigs and big wings in defensive awards. Caruso is as good as it gets at guard, but it’s hard for a 6-4 player to be the league’s best defender. (Marcus Smart did not make my ballot last season.)

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Boston Celtics

3. Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers

Brogdon had a grip on this award at midseason. He has been scorching all season from deep, bringing a firm hand to Boston’s reserve-heavy units. His dribble-happy, score-first approach stands out in a good way among Boston’s role players. It looks gorgeous when everyone cuts and screens and touches the ball around, but at some point, someone needs to put their head down and score the damned thing.

Bobby Portis was Brogdon’s stiffest competition early, but he drifted backward — dipping below league-average in 3-point shooting before a hot finish lifted him to 37% for the season. He remains as essential as ever to the Milwaukee Bucks’ repeat hopes — an isolation scoring failsafe and floor-spacer for Antetokounmpo’s rampages — but he falls just short here despite a strong final week.

Once Quickley’s 3-point shooting normalized, he sprinted shoulder-to-shoulder with Brogdon. Quickley outshot Brogdon on 2s, and is just about Brogdon’s equal as a playmaker — more chaotic, but just as effective. He’s a better defender — almost impossible to screen, arms in passing lanes, a sneering annoyance. Quickley is one of the league’s best rebounding guards.

Where Brogdon adds a jolt of something different to Boston’s identity, Quickley is definitional to New York’s in a way that is hard to quantify. This New York team would not look, play, feel, or even sound the way it does without Quickley. The speed and energy of the game change the second he steps on the floor.

The Knicks were plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions with Quickley on the floor, and minus-2 when he sat. Boston was a bit better with Brogdon on the bench, but the Celtics were really good in pretty much all alignments. If you’re into minutes as a tie-breaker, Quickley logged about 600 more than Brogdon.

Reaves is starting now, but he’s eligible. (Semi-frequent reserves who are not eligible: Josh Hart, Gary Trent Jr., Maxey, Kyle Anderson, De’Anthony Melton, Jordan Poole, Kessler, Donte DiVincenzo and White.)

When the Lakers needed Reaves to assume more playmaking, he thrived — and became a free throw fiend. He’s up to 40% on 3s — reliable enough for a spot-up role when LeBron James and Anthony Davis run things. He connects the dots between the Lakers’ superstars and everyone else with savvy secondary playmaking, cuts, rebounds, random screens and extra passes. That malleability fits the Sixth Man of the Year ethos.

Reaves comes third, with Bruce Brown, Onyeka Okongwu, Portis and Malik Monk right behind him. Brown, Denver’s sixth starter, had this spot, but Reaves eked by him late. Okongwu almost snatched it, but playing behind a high-quality starter — Clint Capela — often deflated him to 18 or 19 minutes. (Naz Reid faced the same obstacle. Saddiq Bey deserves mention. Bogdan Bogdanovic, No. 2 on my ballot last season, didn’t play enough games.)

Monk is a brutal omission; his 3-pointer settled in at 36%, and his playmaking — a career-high 6.2 dimes per 36 minutes — allowed Davion Mitchell to play a hybrid guard role. I’d have zero issue with Monk landing third — or higher.

Reaves has been a bit better all-around. Christian Wood averaged 16.6 points, but his minutes waned as Jason Kidd lost trust in his defense. Norman Powell poured in 17 points on very good shooting, but with the exception of a 20-game midseason stretch, he never quite found his right balance. (He missed 22 games.)

Tyus Jones and T.J. McConnell deserve love here. They are two of the ultimate reserve stabilizers.

Coach of the Year

1. Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings

2. J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder

This is the strangest award. Is Erik Spoelstra, a coaching giant, not as worthy with the threadbare Miami Heat in the No. 7 slot? Taylor Jenkins finished second last season; shouldn’t he receive the same consideration for guiding the Memphis Grizzlies to 51 wins amid injuries and turmoil? Mike Budenhozler is still here!

Rick Carlisle was in the running early. Michael Malone’s Nuggets owned the No. 1 spot in the West. Malone experimented with unconventional schemes to mitigate Jokic’s weaknesses on defense. Can we give Jacque Vaughn some kind of achievement/survival award? A free luxury vacation?

Regardless, this is Brown’s award. He and his staff brought stability to a franchise that had none: This is what we are about. These are the fundamentals of our schemes. If you don’t execute them hard, you won’t play. Oh, and we are practicing a lot.

With time, Brown added some opponent-specific wrinkles. But he understood the need to establish foundations first, and drill them to the point of mastery. It gave the Kings a night-to-night floor.

Everything in Brown’s career led here. Brown is a defense-first perfectionist, and though that hasn’t translated overall — the Kings finished 24th in points allowed per possession — they nail the fundamentals: rebounding, foul avoidance, transition defense. They make you earn it. That’s the foundation.

The Kings league-best offense is a reflection of their talent — shooters orbiting the Sabonis-De’Aaron Fox symphony — but also of what Brown took from his longer-than-expected sojourn with the Golden State Warriors: the collective power of movement, passing, screening, smarts. You can’t catch what you can’t find.

Bickerstaff has not gotten nearly enough kudos, probably because of the perception that the Cavs are loaded — with a starry Big Four. They are loaded at the top. But there was no guarantee those four All-Star-level players would gel so fast, or that this young and sometimes thin team would flirt with the league’s fattest point differential. There have been few fit hiccups, no jostling for status.

The buy-in on defense from Mitchell, Darius Garland and Caris LeVert has been borderline startling. These are three score-first players, and they defended almost every possession as if a playoff berth hung in the balance — skirting screens, denying passes, chasing ball handlers from behind.

The players deserve the bulk of the credit for everything — chemistry, selflessness, embracing the grunt work. But it speaks to a healthy team culture — not to mention expert Xs-and-Os — and that often emanates from the coach.

Beyond that top four, Bickerstaff problem-solved around injuries, inconsistency and underperformance. (Admittedly, some of that problem-solving was playing stars tons of minutes.)

The last spot came down to a heap of candidates — including those listed above. Will Hardy took a mish-mash roster and made it sing. Darvin Ham kept the Lakers grinding when the season seemed lost. Ditto for Willie Green in New Orleans. Jamahl Mosley had the forgotten Orlando Magic — young, spunky, still weird — playing above-.500 ball for the final three-quarters of the season. The Knicks growl in Tom Thibodeau’s implacable image. Joe Mazzulla handled an awkward transition and souped up Boston’s offense.

But Daigneault’s inventiveness stood out in navigating the Thunder to a surprise play-in berth. He mixed and matched before landing on a young, relentless, small-ball foursome of Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Williams and Luguentz Dort. He gave Gilgeous-Alexander freedom to cook, and engineered funky workarounds to Oklahoma City’s cramped spacing — including more guard-guard pick-and-rolls than any team in recent memory.

The Thunder were solid on defense, even with Daigneault cobbling the big man rotation from scraps. They made up for their lack of size by forcing turnovers and getting back in transition — points of emphasis.

Most Improved Player

1. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

3. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

There are always dozens of possibilities. There are second- and third-year guys making bigger-than-expected leaps — Quentin Grimes, Tyrese Haliburton, Reaves, Trey Murphy III (flashing more off-the-bounce juice!), Devin Vassell, Alperen Sengun, Jonathan Kuminga, perhaps others. (I have never understood disqualifying second-year players but then voting third- and fourth-year guys. Sure, improvement is expected in Year 2. Why do those expectations vanish over the following two seasons?)

Grimes represents another tricky type: the guy who goes from barely playing to a major role. They are almost rookies. Others who fit this bill: Bol Bol (until falling out of Orlando’s rotation), Anthony Lamb, Nick Richards, Sam Hauser, Aaron Nesmith, Santi Aldama and Isaiah Joe.

Then you have mid-career veterans who put it all together: Gordon, Jaren Jackson Jr., Myles Turner. Their improvement doesn’t leap off the stat sheet, but if you watch them, you know. Quickley, Nicolas Claxton and Tre Jones are younger versions of this.

Some voters favor All-Stars who make the leap to MVP-level superstardom — the last frontier. There isn’t really such a candidate this season, and I have generally preferred players who begin at least one level lower; at some point, you transcend this award.

Gilgeous-Alexander made an even bigger leap: from 0-time All-Star to potential first-team All-NBA player. He averaged 24.5 points last season, but there is a chasm between that and pouring in 31.5 points while shooting at career-best rates — and absorbing the focus of entire defenses. Gilgeous-Alexander played perhaps the best defense of his career; got to the line much more; and established his pull-up midranger as one of the league’s ungraspable weapons.

We knew a Gilgeous-Alexander All-Star season was coming. No one foresaw Markkanen averaging 25 points on career-best shooting, and working as the No. 1 option on a top-10 NBA offense.

The Chicago Bulls gave up on Markkanen. He was solid in Cleveland, but still seemed headed for life as a nice backup — a journeyman, maybe.

Markkanen exploded in Utah, scoring efficiently out of every play type imaginable. He averaged 11 more points than in any of his three prior seasons.

Opportunity is baked into this award. You can’t improve without more chances. Voters have to decide: Did the player actually get better, or is he the same guy in a larger role?

When the role jump is as big as Brunson’s in New York, opportunity and improvement intersect. Brunson added eight points to his previous season-high scoring average while draining a career-best 41.6% from deep; doubling his free throws; shooting well on 2s; bumping up his assists; and making the right play at the right moment — keeping everyone happy and fed — as the consummate floor general for an improbable top-5 offense.

The toughest cut was Mikal Bridges, who made the same twin volume-efficiency leap. The transformation began midseason in Phoenix: with Chris Paul and Devin Booker injured, Bridges went from running about 2.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions to orchestrating about 18. He looked at home, raining mid-range fire. He amped it up in Brooklyn.

Bridges has a case to win, but these other guys played high-usage roles all season. Bridges also finished the season with four straight sub-40% shooting games; perhaps the defensive attention is taking a toll.

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