2021 NBA awards
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Predicting the 2021 NBA award winners.

Good luck figuring out who will likely win 2021 NBA awards!

Generally, each of the NBA’s end of season awards will be fought between a handful of worthy combatants, with one or two standing head and shoulders above the rest. There are some awards that tend to be minefields for writers making predictions, though: Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year, namely.

This season? EVERY award is a minefield. A compacted season will see veteran superstars given ample rest which will surely affect their MVP and All NBA candidacies. This rookie class has the dual distinction of being extremely deep, yet light on potential superstars – any of about eight rookies have strong cases at this stage.

This season, more than ever, we can confidently say that just about every one of these predictions will probably prove horribly wrong.

With that said, here are this writers best guesses.

Most Valuable Player

As always, the heavy hitters gather around the Podoloff Trophy. Though there will be one noticeable absentee this season: LeBron Raymone James. King James turns 36 years old a week into the season. Despite the fact that it hasn’t yet been disproven that he is a cyborg, surely coach Frank Vogel will be somewhat selective with his superstars minutes. The expected downturn in production will likely see James fall out of the running for MVP number five.

Thought that does open the door for Anthony Davis to take over the team on a more regular basis. Without LeBron, the Lakers are still good, but not exactly championship level. There is a hint of Davis’ Pelicans teams to them. If Davis can’t elevate his current team far beyond .500 when James sits, then no amount of gaudy boxscores will elevate him into the MVP reckoning.

Nikola Jokic broke through from star to superstar last campaign. Expect him to improve on his already flashy numbers from last season: 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.2 steals, and a three-pointer per game. After their brilliant run to the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets are now firmly on the national radar. More eyes will be watching Jokic’s unique, languid style and his insane array of passing. He’s a big chance for a top-three finish.

Kevin Durant looks 100% back! The now 32-year-old superstar will probably be afforded a similar schedule to LeBron, given he’s missed close to 18 months of basketball. When he does play, expect him to put up his typical numbers. That, combined with the Nets’ expected ascension to the top of the East and the narrative of the returning champion, should have KD in the conversation for MVP at season’s end.

This race, though, ultimately comes down to three: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Damian Lillard.

Doncic is the anointed ‘Next One’. The 21-year-old Slovenian wunderkid was marvelous last season, posting a near triple-double in leading the most efficient offense in recorded NBA history. This time out, he has more help with the return of the injured Dwight Powell as his rim runner and Josh Richardson brought in from the Sixers to ease some of Doncic’s playmaking burden. With extra weapons at his disposal, Doncic and the Mavericks are expected to rise in the standings, despite the West being its usual murderer’s row. If Doncic posts similar numbers with improved efficiency and the Mavs are a top-three seed, Doncic is a huge chance at taking him his very first MVP.

To win, Luka will have to go through the two-time reigning MVP in Giannis. The recently re-signed guard/forward/centre (seriously, he’s become undefinable by traditional terms) will still be smarting from their shocking (at the time, at least) playoff exit to the Miami Heat. Giannis will be seeking vengeance. If coach Mike Budenholzer gives Giannis enough court time (only 30.4 minutes last season) we could see the league’s first 30 point/15 rebound season since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1973. If he can produce those sorts of numbers, the only thing holding him back from being the first man since Larry Bird to win three straight awards will be voter fatigue.

Lillard is the outlier of the group, in both age and that he’s the loyal and respected veteran who has toiled with sometimes minimal help, overseen a complete overhaul of his team, and never once complained. Last season Dame was electric. An even 30 points and eight assists whilst shooting over 40% on 10.2 deep attempts (and you know we’re talking deep with in comes to Logo Lillard) per contest.

After injuries derailed last season, the Blazers loaded up this time around. Robert Covington could be the low usage defensive Swiss Army knife that this team badly needs. Throw in the return of Rodney Hood and Zach Collins, the emergence of Gary Trent Jr, and the continued reanimation of Carmelo Anthony, and the Blazers are in a similar position to the Mavs, looking to move into the top half of the West.

The winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Rookie of the Year

Geez…..who knows???

Given the circumstances of the season, and the peculiarities of this draft class, so many players can have a legitimate case constructed around their candidacy for this award. For brevity’s sake, let’s just focus on a few.

Obi Toppin is probably the most NBA ready prospect in the draft. A hyper-athletic power forward with range (think Amar’e Stoudamire, if Stat could shoot), Toppin might well form a devastating pick and roll/pop combination with RJ Barrett, but….the elephant in the room: defense. Toppin is not a good defensive player. He works hard, but he’s slow laterally for such an astonishing athlete, and his short arms somewhat offset his leap when protecting the rim. Also – this feels important – he’s coached by one of the most notorious defensive task masters in the modern game in Tom Thibodeau. If Toppin isn’t on top of his defensive assignments, he simply won’t play. The positive is that the alternative at power forward is Julius Randle – not exactly the second coming of Kevin Garnett.

James Wiseman is perhaps in the best situation to succeed in the collective sense. With a healthy Steph Curry to draw attention and an engaged Draymond Green to tutor him on defense, as well as one of the most accomplished coaching staffs in the NBA, Wiseman is a good a chance as any to have an impact right away.

Killian Hayes should also make an impact, though for completely different reasons. Whereas Wiseman will be expected to fit into a will established team ethos, Hayes will be given the ball from day one in Detroit, and will have the freedom to work through his mistakes. The young Frenchman will be given all the rope in the world. Will he use it to elevate himself, or hang himself?

LaMelo Ball will be given a whole lot of reps in Charlotte, though unlike Hayes, he’ll have the support of a pair of solid guards in Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, as well as the high priced Gordon Hayward. That support does mean he won’t have the rock in his possession as much as he would probably like, and his off the ball game still leaves a lot to be desired. There is a very real chance that Ball is the best player in this class when it’s all said and done. Whilst he has the profile and he’ll have the highlight plays, he’s an outside chance at best for this award.

Tyrese Haliburton somewhat inexplicably fell all the way to the Kings with the 12th pick. The Iowa State product isn’t an A-grade athlete, but he already possesses an extraordinary feel for the game. He’s not elite at any particular skill, but he’s not deficient anywhere either. He’s a genuine jack-of-all-trades, even as a rookie. Haliburton will make the extra pass, hit the open shot, be aggressive with the ball at the right times, and make the right reads at both ends of the floor. In a somewhat down year for rookies, that might be enough to get him over the line.

The winner: Tyrese Haliburton (Sacramento Kings)

Defensive Player of the Year

Round up the usual suspects! This award is probably the easiest to get a gauge on. As always, Utah Jazz octopus Rudy Gobert is the front runner, with worthy competition from Giannis, Sixers teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Boston’s do-it-all Marcus Smart, and Lakers star Davis. Expect Miami big man Bam Adebayo to join that cluster this campaign.

Adebayo busted out last campaign, earning his first All-Star selection and leading the Heat to a surprise Finals berth. He is the epitome of the modern defensive big man: a ferocious rebounder, active rim protector (Bam is the rare big who is equally comfortable blocking shots with either hand), and agile enough to stay with the jitterbugs on the perimeter.

Given the traditional big man bias when awarding Defensive Player of the Year, Smart is the least likely to win this award. Not that he necessarily should win, but it’s just not right that he’s almost certainly a non-starter. A 6’3” block of granite with Red Bull injected straight into his veins, Smart is a switch everything skeleton key who allowed the Celtics to play Daniel Theis at centre for prolonged stretches. He should come close to being the first guard since Gary Payton in 1996 to win this award.

Philly’s cornerstones might not be compatible on offense, but they compliment each other beautifully on defense. Embiid is simply huge. He’s impossible to back down. That sheer strength combined with his footwork and length make him perhaps the most intimidating rim protector this side of Salt Lake City. Simmons – who led the league in steals last season – is able to guard just about anyone on the floor, meaning that the Sixers can always put a stopper on the best opposition played and keep the paint walled off. They’re a formidable pair who may end up taking DPOY votes away from the other.

This award will likely come down to the men who have won in the past three years: Giannis and Gobert.

It will be a close race which could come down to team defensive performance. Last season, the Bucks historic defensive numbers propelled Antetokounmpo to as close to an air-tight DPOY case as you could get, as well as elevating teammates Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez to the edges of the conversation. With the Bucks sacrificing some defense for offense and foregoing some of their veteran depth for youngsters who will inevitably make defensive errors, expect the Bucks, whilst still defensively elite, to come back to the field somewhat. Utah made their transition away from an all-defense approach last season. Whilst Utah’s offense improved substantially, their team defense fell away. That wasn’t Gobert’s fault: his on/off defensive numbers remained elite. With Derrick Favors back to both spell Gobert and sometimes play alongside him in defensively slanted lineups, Utah’s team defense should approach it’s more traditional levels. That razor-thin margin may be enough.

Winner: Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)

Coach of the Year

Traditionally the most difficult award to predict, the Coach of the Year is often awarded to the person that has spearheaded the most dramatic upturn in their team’s fortunes. That probably counts out excellent coaches like Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, and reigning COY Nick Nurse, who’s teams are either elite or don’t have a lot of growth left in them.

Instead, let’s focus on two types of teams: those that move from outside to inside the playoff picture; and those that go from good to great.

In the first category three names stand out: Stan Van Gundy in New Orleans, Monty Williams in Phoenix and Steve Nash in Brooklyn.

Given the name recognition of his returning superstars and the presence of his mentor in Mike D’Antoni on the bench, Nash will probably not receive too much credit no matter how exciting his Brooklyn team turns out to be. Phoenix are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since Nash was their starting point guard. Coach Williams undoubtedly improved his players last season and the continued emergence of Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson, and Mikal Bridges alongside Devin Booker gives Phoenix an excellent young core. Throw in their newly acquired future Hall of Fame point guard and you have a recipe for very sudden and steep improvement. That sort of outcome usually results in Coach of the Year buzz.

New Orleans are in a similar boat to the Suns. They have oodles of young talent, but need somebody to arrange them in a way that leads to team success. Van Gundy’s best teams have revolved around an uber athletic inside talent (Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond) surrounded by shooters. In Zion Williamson, the Pelicans have that first box checked. Do they have the shooters, though? Brandon Ingram shot the ball wonderfully well last season, but was it a fluke or a sign of things to come? The same could be asked on Lonzo Ball. The newly arrived Bledsoe isn’t exactly a knockdown shooter, either. Steven Adams has hit precisely one three pointer in his career. It wasn’t quite in the flow of the offense:

If Van Gundy can get a tune out the his chargers, he’s in the running.

In that second category, Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts are the most obvious candidates. The Blazers’ injury woes from last season were well documented. An active offseason saw Portland load up with talent and a push into the top three of the conference could see Stotts claim the award. The Mavericks will be hoping that they’re the team that makes that breakthrough, though. With a solid offseason of their own, Dallas has – on paper – solved their main issues: rim running and non-Luka playmaking. Carlisle is a genius X’s and O’s manipulator who will surely relish his new toys, as well as coaching a genuine contender for the first time since Dallas’ title run in 2011.

Winner: Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks)

6th Man of the Year

Assuming they stay with Brooklyn for the season, whoever gets the 6th man role out of Caris Levert or Spencer Dinwiddie will put up strong cases for this gong. Rookie coach Nash (still weird) has leaned towards starting Dinwiddie in the preseason and indeed Brooklyn’s season opener, meaning Levert should get a clear run as a reserve. With his eclectic combination of just enough shooting, just enough playmaking, and sneaky athleticism we could be looking at a Manu Ginobili-lite type of player, tailor-made to come off the pine and alter the pace of the contest. His play in the bubble showed just how effective Levert can be with ball in hand, but with Durant and Kyrie Irving returning the 6th man role might be his best chance to replicate that form.

Despite being an unabashed Utah fan, Jordan Clarkson is not this writer’s cup of tea. To his credit, he has improved markedly over the past few seasons in both his shot selection and defense, though he still has some loose cannon moments and could stand to improve his efficiency. It can’t be denied that he is an excellent bench scorer, putting up consistent mid-teens numbers despite only being a full-time starter in one season so far in his career (he’s started exactly four games in the past three seasons). Playing alongside the delightful Joe Ingles/Derrick Favors pick and roll could see Clarkson fed more open jump shots that he’s seen since his half season with LeBron back in Cleveland. On that, don’t discount Joe Ingles from 6th man consideration. The veteran Australian will be the main man on Utah’s 2nd unit. With his favorite plaything in Favors next to him, a scorer in Clarkson for him to feed, and his own idiosyncratic slo-mo graceful game, Ingles could put up a surprising case for 6th Man of the Year.

The favourite, however, resides in Los Angeles, though for once it’s not Lou Williams. Rather, it’s his former partner in crime in Montrezl Harrell that assumes favouritism this season. The newly minted Laker will see a tonne of minutes backing up the calcifying Marc Gasol. His dive game will dovetail beautifully with LeBron and should mesh well with fellow new arrival Dennis Schroder. Harrell’s defensive shortcomings (despite being a pure centre, he’s smaller than LeBron James – his point guard) will be less noticeable with Davis and a defensive maven in Vogel designing schemes.

The winner: Montrezl Harrell (Los Angeles Lakers)

Most Improved Player

Another award that is traditionally hard to predict, the MIP is often driven by narrative as much as performance. Players will be talked about at the beginning of the season, but it’s often the man that we didn’t see coming that takes home the award.

That could count against Michael Porter Jr who is clearly the most obvious preseason candidate for Most Improved. A versatile, fluid 6’10” athlete who is already an excellent jump shooter, we’re starting to see why he was considered a potential first overall pick before hurting his back in college. After redshirting his true rookie year and playing sporadically last season, this will be Porter’s first season with a guaranteed rotation spot and well defined role. He has a legitimate shot of posting a 20/10 with a steal and a block on the season. If he approaches those numbers, he’ll be hard to beat.

Another who will quietly see their role increased in OG Anunoby in Toronto. Already an All NBA calibre defender, Anunoby’s offensive profile was – in limited usage, admittedly – similar to players like Jimmy Butler, Josh Howard, Detlef Schrempf, and Steve Smith; all wings that emerged as stars seemingly out of nowhere. Coach Nick Nurse has suggested that he’ll lean on lineups with OG at centre more often this season (those lineups were incredible in the bubble). A breakout season is coming for OG.

A couple of dark horses to finish.

The much maligned Markelle Fultz heads into this season with the confidence of being the undisputed floor leader in Orlando, as well as a hefty new contract. His shot is still coming around – it may never get back to what it was in college – but he is very good to excellent in practically every other facet of point guard play. He’s a great on ball defender, an excellent set up man, and an elite rebounder for a point guard. Fultz could legitimately put up 16 points and seven assists this season. If he can shoot in the low 30’s from deep, is he an outside chance of being an All-Star in the East?

Finally, if this writer had to predict a bolt from the blue, look no further than Darius Bazley. The hyper-athletic combo forward will have a clear path to minutes in Oklahoma City. He’s already a heady cutter, so playing off of Al Horford should come naturally to him. He only averaged around six points and four boards per game in under 20 minutes last season. He’s a legitimate chance to play between 30 and 35 minutes every night this campaign. If he does that, he’ll double those averages.

The winner: Michael Porter Jr (Denver Nuggets)

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