2023-24 NBA Awards Watch: How Ja Morant's return could shift the futures market

Ja Morant's return to the court could cause some awards races to shift. AP Photo/George Walker IV

It's Game 26. That means it's Ja Morant time.

The question is: does it matter? Or is it too late for the Grizzlies to turn around their season and get back into contention? According to ESPN BET, the Grizzlies are currently +1100 to make the playoffs. That means they are 11-1 long shots -- a $100 bet on them to make the playoffs would return $1,100 if they made it. Do they have value, at those odds?

Let's explore.

The Grizzlies have a 6-19 record, a .240 winning percentage tied for the fourth-worst mark in the NBA. What makes that worse for them is that the field of Western Conference playoffs contenders is deep with quality teams. While their record would be only 4.5 games behind the 10th place (and last play-in slot) in the Eastern Conference, they currently sit 7.5 games behind the 10th place Suns in the West.

That is a formidable gap for the Grizzlies to have to make up over the final two-thirds-plus of season play. Last season, the Grizzlies were the second seed in the Western Conference with a 51-31 record. That is a .622 win percentage. The ninth and tenth seeded teams in the West currently are winning 54% of their games.

Projected over 82 games, that win percentage would yield 44 wins. If the Grizzlies won 62% of their remaining 57 games, that would translate to 35 wins. Add that to their current six, and they would end the season 41-41. That would be competitive, but still fall just short of getting them into the projected postseason/play-in equation.

In addition to the daunting math the Grizzlies would have to overcome, it also has to be acknowledged that Morant isn't the only major player missing from last season's team. With defensive wing agitator Dillon Brooks' move to the (now 9th-seeded) Rockets, steady strong man Steven Adams out for the season at center, and former backup point guard Tyus Jones now toiling for the Wizards, the Grizzlies have actually been missing four of their top six rotation players from the last two seasons. Morant may be back, but he won't be bringing the other three with him.

Still, even with all of this being the case, Morant's return still offers tangible hope for the Grizzlies to recover this season.

Morant is without question one of the best players in the NBA. His two-season averages of 26.8 PPG, 7.4 APG and 5.8 RPG attest to his production, but his impact on this team would be bigger than his box score numbers. Morant's return would allow his two best teammates, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., to return to their optimal roles as the second and third options on offense.

While both have stepped up their scoring volume in a big way in Morant's absence, that increase has come at the cost of efficiency. Bane is on pace for the lowest true shooting percentage (TS%, accounts for 3-pointers and free throws in addition to field goal percentage) of his career, while Jackson's TS% has dropped significantly since last season as well.

In addition, Jackson's defense has struggled as well. Jackson, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and two-time NBA shot-blocking king, is averaging only 2.6 combined blocks and steals for his lowest mark since his 20-year old season in 2019-20. Morant's return as the offensive focal point would, in essence, also "give" the Grizzlies one of the best second-option scoring wings in the league and perhaps the best defensive player in the league as well.

Plus, Morant isn't the only major return on the horizon for the Grizzlies. 2021-22 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, who was brought over from the Celtics this offseason, also went down to injury 14 games ago and hasn't played since. He is back practicing now, however, and appears likely to return in the next handful of games as well.

While Smart could nominally play point guard, stylistically his game is more similar to the departed Brooks than the absent Morant. So, when he does return, he should be able to fill and even exceed the role that Brooks has played as the edgy wing defensive leader for the squad.

Finally, it should be noted that while Morant is a two-time All Star and 2022 All NBA player, he is still incredibly young. At only 24 years old, he should still be getting better on the court. And, if he also makes better decisions off the court so he can remain available for the rest of the season, the Grizzlies might reasonably expect to play at even better than last season's 62% win rate.


Because due to a combination of injury and suspension, Morant averaged only 59 games played in the past two seasons. That is right on the order of the 57 games he could potentially play this season. And when Morant was actually on-court last season, the Grizzlies were better than their overall record would've suggested. Last season, the Grizzlies were 6.7 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents with Morant on the court.

If Morant is able to ramp up quickly to All-NBA levels and maintain his health and availability for the rest of the season, I find a lot of value in all of these bets. The Grizzlies would have achievable 45-win upside, which would give them a legitimate chance to make the Play-in and play themselves into the playoffs.

The Lakers, just last season, went from the Play-in to the Western Conference Finals. The Grizzlies are currently +10,000 to win the Western Conference.

I agree they would be longshots to win, but if Morant returns at the level he's capable of and the Grizzlies sneak into the playoffs, they would have a much better than 1-in-130 chance to win. For those that like to go for the high-risk/high-reward option, there could be some value there as well.

Digging into the NBA Awards races

We are now two months into one of the more entertaining NBA seasons in recent memory. The inaugural NBA in-season tournament was a rousing success, giving the champion Lakers the chance to show themselves as contenders this season and the upstart, runner-up Pacers the platform to announce their legitimacy as a team on the rise.

The MVP race is wide open, with an incredible crop of players making their case to be in the discussion to win. That discussion is so in depth we'll give it an entire article, so tune in next week for our MVP state of the union ahead of the full slate of games on Christmas.

This week, let's take a look at the state of the union for the futures market of the rest of the NBA individual awards.

Note: Odds by ESPN BET.

Rookie of the Year


Victor Wembanyama (-140)

In the hunt

Chet Holmgren (even)


Jaime Jaquez Jr. (+5000), Ausar Thompson (+10,000), Brandon Miller (+20,000)

This is effectively a two-man race. There is no feasible path for any other rookie to even be mentioned moving forward, barring catastrophic injury to both Wembanyama and Holmgren. But as for that Wemby vs Holmgren battle?

Oh yeah, game on.

The Spurs moved Wembanyama from starting power forward to starting center five games ago, moving Zach Collins to the bench. In those five games, all Wemby has done is averaged 19.2 PPG, a whopping 15.8 RPG (!), 4.2 BPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 3PG and 1.4 SPG. In that stretch, he became the youngest player in NBA history to record a 20-point/20-rebound game. He is also the only player in NBA history to total at least 350 points, 50 assists, 50 blocks and 25 steals through the first 20 games of his career.

Not too shabby. But Wemby isn't the only rookie making history.

Holmgren has blocked 15 shots in his last two games, tied with Serge Ibaka for the most blocks in a two-game span in Thunder history. He is the first rookie since Tim Duncan in 1997-98 to record at least seven blocks in back-to-back games and has vaulted himself into the short-list at the top of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year race (more below). Holmgren scored 33 or more points twice in a four-game span late in November, and even briefly passed Wemby for the shortest odds for Rookie of the Year.

This has the feel of a race that could go down to the wire, and could also go down in history as one of the best, closest battles for the rookie crown.

Defensive Player of the Year


Rudy Gobert (-115)

In the hunt

Anthony Davis (+375), Chet Holmgren (+1500)

Long shots

Jaren Jackson Jr. (+2500), Victor Wembanyama (+2500)

After taking a season to transition to his new team, Gobert is back to playing the most dominant defense in the NBA. He is the anchor of the number one defensive unit in the NBA, and is the odds on favorite to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.

Davis was the early-season favorite for this award, and continues to put up big rebound and blocked shot numbers to stay in the mix. Holmgren and Wembanyama are both among the top-3 in the NBA in blocked shots, but while the Spurs are struggling on team defense, Holmgren's Thunder rank sixth in the NBA in team defensive rating.

Jackson, last season's DPoY, has had a slow defensive start to the season as he has had to expend more effort on offense. But with Morant back, there is a chance he could return to his typical shot-blocking ways and get back into this competition.

Sixth Man of the Year


Austin Reaves (+250)

In the hunt

Tim Hardaway Jr. (+300), Cole Anthony (+700), Immanuel Quickley (+750)

Long shots

Cam Thomas (+2000), Russell Westbrook (+2500)

While Hardaway still has the exact same odds as he did in our last update a month ago, Reaves has burst past him into the pole position after a huge performance in the In-Season tournament. After beginning the season as a starter, Reaves has thrived since returning to a sixth man role. In seven December games, he has averaged 19.1 PPG (48.4 FG%, 92.0 FT%), 5.3 APG, 4.9 RPG and 3.0 3PG as one of the key contributors to the Lakers' success.

Hardaway has been consistent as a shooter-scorer all season, flirting with 20 PPG and almost four 3PG on a nightly basis. Thomas is putting up huge numbers this season, but has started 15 of 17 games and won't qualify for this award unless he moves to a bench role soon. Westbrook has moved to the bench, sparking a winning surge for the Clippers, but so far his numbers haven't been enough to warrant a higher spot in the race for this award.

Most Improved Player


Tyrese Maxey (-140)

In the hunt

Alperen Sengun (+550), Scottie Barnes (+600), Coby White (+750)

Long shots

Tyrese Haliburton (+1000), Shaedon Sharpe (+2500), Cameron Thomas (+3000)

Maxey has been the leader in this race all season, and his odds have gotten even shorter in the last month. He has made the leap to an All Star, perhaps All NBA level player on a contending 76ers squad.

White has burst into this race by averaging 23.4 PPG in his last 14 outings, taking over as the primary perimeter option for the Bulls with Zach LaVine injured.

Sengun and Barnes are both playing at a level that could merit consideration for the All Star game. Haliburton hasn't gotten a lot of attention for this award because he was already an All Star entering this season, but he started the season at an All NBA, borderline MVP level, and if he can maintain he might still be the most improved player this season even from his already lofty starting point.