Who Will Win Every Major NBA Award This Season, and Who Should Actually Win?
We are going to start an NBA awards dialogue.
Year-end honors are always at the fore of basketball discourse. Predictions are fun, after all. But these guesstimates carry more meaning on this side of the All-Star break, with two-thirds of the season gone and the most serious contenders firmly entrenched in the awards discussion.
Certain individual honors usually end up being overwhelmingly consensus picks. This year is an exception. Every category has at least two legitimate candidates, and only two of the seven major honors come close to being no-brainers.
League MVP will end up as the least controversial decision. That is unequivocally wild. And in the face of so many options elsewhere, breaking up each debate makes all the sense in the world.
Every "Who Should Win" pick will read like a prediction, housing the player most deserving of the award. The "Who Will Win" nominee seeks to forecast what the voters will do, either by backing up that initial choice, singling out a specific alternative or, in more wide-open instances, voting for the field.
Each selection is subject to change between now and season's end. These choices are merely reflective of the candidate pools as they stand entering March.
Executive of the Year
Who Should Win: Pat Riley
Take a look at all that Miami Heat team President Pat Riley and his front-office personnel have accomplished since the offseason:
- Drafted Tyler Herro at No. 13
- Landed Jimmy Butler in free agency without cap space (via a sign-and-trade)
- Jettisoned Hassan Whiteside, which cleared the way for Bam Adebayo's breakout
- Signed undrafted free agent Chris Silva, who played well enough to be converted from a two-way contract to a standard contract
- Shed the final year and combined $28.7 million left on contracts for James Johnson and Dion Waiters without dealing a cost-controlled prospect or taking back multiyear salaries while netting Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder
- Sold high on Justise Winslow while he was injured
- Signed Iguodala to a two-year extension that keeps him away from the Golden State Warriors this summer and doesn't jeopardize 2021 cap space (team option)
Kendrick Nunn (signed in April 2019) and Duncan Robinson (converted from a two-way to standard contract in April 2019) both fall under last season's transaction list, but they've established themselves as valuable rotation staples this year. They each count toward Riley's mounting list of Ws.
Some of these moves could have backfired. Butler's arrival specifically drew divisive responses. Would the Heat really be better off with him instead of Josh Richardson and the 2023 first-rounder they forked over?
Yes. Yes, they would.
Who Will Win: Lawrence Frank
Acquiring Paul George and Kawhi Leonard was not without opportunity cost for the Los Angeles Clippers. Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, five first-rounders and two pick swaps amounts to a king's ransom.
But, like, they still landed Kawhi freaking Leonard and Paul friggin' George. Even with the latter missing so much time this year, the magnitude of their arrivals still figures to cast a shadow over just about every other front office.
Frank and Co. boosted their chances with the trade-deadline deal for Marcus Morris and the signing of Reggie Jackson post-buyout. Both not only shore up the Clippers' rotation, but they were also on the Los Angeles Lakers' radar.
For those keeping score at home, that brings the number of players they've landed who their Staples Center tenants could not to four.
Coach of the Year
Who Should Win: Nick Nurse
Kawhi Leonard left. Danny Green left. Pascal Siakam has missed more than 10 games. Kyle Lowry, too. And Serge Ibaka. Marc Gasol hasn't played since Jan. 28 while recovering from a left hamstring injury. Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are prominent members of the rotation.
Somehow, someway, the Toronto Raptors still have the third-best record in the whole darn league.
That's it. That's Raptors head coach Nick Nurse's case. He doesn't need anything else.
Here's some bonus love anyway: Nurse is not only getting contributions from thought-to-be fringe-rotation players (Boucher, Davis, RHJ), but he's also experimenting with lineups and switching up Toronto's defensive approach by opponent. The end result: A top-two defense and a genuine title defense.
Party-poopers will point out the Raptors are used to playing without Leonard after load-managing him last season. That wet blanket doesn't work. He was present in six of their seven most-used lineups. Meanwhile, in addition to him, their seventh-most-played unit this year includes neither Gasol nor Kyle Lowry.
Nurse and the Raptors are killing it—not just under the circumstances, but period.
Who Will Win: The Field
Coach of the Year always has a bunch of worthwhile candidates. This year is...more of the same.
Erik Spoelstra has coached the Miami Heat into the periphery of the championship discussion. Taylor Jenkins has guided the rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies to playoff contention. Mike Budenholzer is heading up what could be a 70-plus-win juggernaut in Milwaukee.
Frank Vogel has steered the Los Angeles Lakers toward drama-free title contention—a real feat considering how many could-be head coaches populate his staff, and how prone LeBron James' teams are to midseason theatrics. Brad Stevens has the Boston Celtics on pace for an eight- or nine-win jump despite losing Al Horford and Kyrie Irving over the offseason.
Going against Nurse is the safe prediction when he's challenged by so many. If nothing else, the Raptors' sub-.500 record versus winning teams will dampen his case relative to those of Budenholzer, Spoelstra, Stevens and Vogel.
Most Improved Player
Who Should Win: Luka Doncic
Sophomores are often precluded from Most Improved Player consideration. Yours truly has subscribed to that theory in years past. That isn't happening this season, though.
Doncic is ruining the notion that first- to second-year leaps don't have as much value as mid-career breakouts. He has transitioned from a fringe All-Star last season to an inevitable top-five MVP finish this year.
That jump cannot be overestimated. Doncic is doing a lot of the same things he did as a rookie, but his production is not the sole result of increased volume. He's nailing 57.7 percent of his two-pointers compared to 50.3 percent last year, and his true shooting percentage has jumped by 4.6 percentage points even though his three-point clip has dropped by a hair.
This year's version of Doncic is a stronger finisher on drives and floaters and is just generally craftier. He has always flung ridiculous passes and splashed in bonkers step-back triples, but he more often leverages both into defensive disarray inside the arc.
As NBC Sports' Dan Feldman wrote after a deep dive into the uptick of Doncic's catch-all impact: "This is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time."
Who Will Win: Bam Adebayo or Brandon Ingram
Count on second-year bias winning out. Doncic's transformation into an MVP candidate may be coming a little early, but that was already his ceiling.
That bodes well for Adebayo and Ingram, two less likely All-Stars.
Adebayo has shined following the departure of Hassan Whiteside. His offensive utility has gone from hidden gem to matter of fact. He faces up, spins through tight spaces, navigates traffic as the roll man, stutter-steps past set defenders and pump-fakes opponents into lurch.
Bigs who lead fast breaks are often situational playmakers. Adebayo is an exception. He doesn't just push the ball in transition. He orchestrates half-court sets.
What he lacks in traditional size at the other end, he makes up for with matchup-proof mobility. The Miami Heat are inclined to play him beside another big, but he can tussle in the post. He's even scarier on switches. Defending in space is second nature, and his hands are ubiquitous. Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice), DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnett, Draymond Green, Joakim Noah and David West are the only players who have matched his current assist, steal and block rates in the same season.
Ingram feels like the better will-win choice, if only because his ascent wasn't as obvious. Miami removed Adebayo's biggest obstacle from the equation: playing time. Ingram, on the other hand, joined a new team after missing the end of last year with a blood clot in his right arm.
Switching locales hasn't hurt him. On the contrary, it's helped him. The New Orleans Pelicans have afforded him offensive license he never truly enjoyed with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's refined almost every aspect of his play on the more glamorous end. He sports a stronger mid-range touch, is shooting a personal-best at the rim, upped his career free-throw accuracy by 20 percentage points and boosted his career outside clip by more than seven points.
Meshing with Zion Williamson was the last real test he faced. How would he fare beside yet another focal point? It turns out he's doing just fine. His usage rate has dropped next to Williamson, but his true shooting percentage has increased.
Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Trae Young are the only other players averaging 24 points and four assists per game while boasting a true shooting percentage north of 60. Ingram's case is not just about his transition into stardom, but about how, more than ever, his game is translatable across all sorts of circumstances.
Rookie of the Year
Who Should Win: Ja Morant
Zion Williamson is doing his damnedest to make this a hard decision. He's averaging 29.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists per 36 minutes while putting down 58.3 percent of his twos and 41.9 percent of his threes. The New Orleans Pelicans are blasting opponents whenever he's on the court, including his stints at center.
Sample size still matters. Williamson missed a huge chunk of the season recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has made only 13 appearances heading into Thursday and can finish with no more than 37.
Edging out Morant would be infinitely more realistic if Williamson could cross the half-season threshold of games played. The fact that he can't should turn this into a default selection.
That isn't to say Morant is the tiniest bit undeserving. He has given the Memphis Grizzlies an offensive identity with his blend of speed, handles, playmaking and disregard for defenders at the rim. Few players have tossed more assists after leaving their feet, and he's an off-the-dribble escape artist.
Morant can be erratic and sloppy, but he marries volume and efficiency in a way no rookie has before him. Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other first-year players to average at least 20 points and eight assists, and Morant's true shooting percentage is higher than both of theirs.
Who Will Win: Ja Morant
Calls for Zion to win despite his sample size will get louder if he leads the Pelicans back into the playoff picture—especially since that surge would come at the Grizzlies' expense.
For now, though, Morant is the rookie spearheading a playoff team. And while Memphis' offensive rating improves with him off the floor, make no mistake, he is the heart and soul of their attack. Those splits are inherently compromised by playing inside starting lineups that go up against more talented, veteran-heavier combinations.
Sixth Man of the Year
Who Should Win: Donte DiVincenzo or Dennis Schroder
Along with Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year is the award most difficult to gain a feel for. The final one-third of the season will go a long way toward determining the winner, and even then, the final result profiles as unknowable.
Hence, dual selections.
DiVincenzo doesn't meet the usual criteria. This honor is typically reserved for microwave scorers, and his 9.1 points per game don't fit the bill. He's more of a gap-filler.
That should be enough to slot him at or near the top of this discussion, though.
He has given the Milwaukee Bucks another playmaking alternative. He tosses quick second passes, runs pick-and-rolls and skedaddles past defenders coming around screens. His super-long threes, while not his most efficient shot, are a boon for the Bucks' spacing, and he's getting more opportunistic at cutting toward the basket from the corners.
Nearly everything DiVincenzo does on offense is secondary to his defensive impact. He has the same positional range as Malcolm Brogdon, jump-starts fast breaks with his presence on the glass and does a nice job hijacking opponents' possessions and shot attempts from behind. He ranks sixth in defensive real adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM) and jumps up to fourth when accounting for luck, according to NBA Shot Charts.
Schroder is the more conventional candidate—and no less deserving. He's pumping out 19.1 points and 4.1 assists per game on career efficiency from, well, just about everywhere. This is the first time he's rated as an above-average finisher at the rim, from mid-range and beyond the arc in the same season.
Sharing control of the offense with both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul only strengthens Schroder's case. He's still ball-dominant, but he's finding a way to complement his teammates. He's canning 42 percent of his spot-up treys on the season and is slashing 55.3/48.5/93.2 when Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul are alongside him.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's three-guard setup continues to annihilate opponents. Schroder's efficiency and malleability are big reasons why. His performance independent of the trio is all that works against him. Oklahoma City's offense sputters during the stretches he plays without Paul, including those that also feature Gilgeous-Alexander—though that says more about the top-heaviness of the roster than anything else.
Who Will Win: Montrezl Harrell or Lou Williams
Two high-scoring bench players in the L.A. market? Let's just go ahead and call it.
Neither Harrell nor Williams is undeserving of consideration. Both are having stellar seasons, and the NBA should honestly consider naming the Sixth Man of the Year award after Williams, a three-time winner working off consecutive victories.
Voter fatigue might keep him from completing the three-peat. He is first in points and assists per game among every player who has made fewer than 20 starts, but the been-there-done-that factor is real. The Los Angeles Clippers' addition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has also curbed the crunch-time usage that played into Williams' selection last year.
Harrell finished third on the Sixth Man of the Year ladder in 2018-19 and has an even stronger argument this time. His scoring and rebounding are up right along with his minutes, he's converting 59.2 percent of his two-point attempts, and the defense has hung tough with him at the 5 (despite a shoddy presence on the boards).
The Clippers' revolving-door rotation adds to Harrell's intrigue. George, Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet have all missed extensive time, but his endless hustle still translates to gaudy numbers. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only other player clearing 18 points per game on Harrell's efficiency inside the arc.
Defensive Player of the Year
Who Should Win: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This year's MVP favorite should also be the Defensive Player of the Year. That isn't meant to be cute. Antetokounmpo's defense is a thing.
No other player seems more emotionally attached to the outcome of every possession. Antetokounmpo is everywhere on defense: rotating around the rim, chasing down opponents in transition, party-crashing lanes, breaking down plays from behind, forcing turnovers as the helper—everywhere. He contests everything within his wingspan inside the arc and has no regard for getting posterized. He would probably go after more three-point blocks if the Milwaukee Bucks cared about surrendering those looks.
Most arguments against him will focus on the team's defense when he's watching from the sidelines, as if having a quality supporting cast is somehow a crime. The Bucks are in the 69th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions when he's catching a breather. Big whoop. They place inside the 99th percentile when he's on the court.
Leveling up a good-to-great defense is much harder than stabilizing a crummy one. Antetokounmpo is doing the former. Milwaukee is allowing 10 fewer points per 100 possessions with him in the game—the third-biggest defensive rating swing among players who've cleared 500 minutes of court time. That is absolutely bonkers knowing how well the Bucks fare when he's catching a breather.
Antetokounmpo-at-center lineups best represent the range of his impact. Those arrangements have become more of a staple, place in the 100th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions and rank in the 79th percentile of opponent shot frequency at the rim. Antetokounmpo isn't just a viable paint protector these days. He's an actual deterrent.
Opponents are getting to the rim less when he's on the floor. And those who dare challenge him are shooting only 41.3 percent at the iron when they do—the league's stingiest mark among 123 players (minimum five appearances) contesting at least three such looks per game.
Catch-all metrics agree with this decision. Antetokounmpo is first in NBA Shot Charts' DRAPM (even when adjusting for luck) and first in NBA Math's defensive points saved. ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus doesn't view him as favorably (29th), but he's still higher than any immediate DPOY alternative other than Kawhi Leonard (sixth) and Rudy Gobert (13th).
Who Will Win: The Field
Hedging against Antetokounmpo's overexposure feels like the correct wrong decision. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players to win Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in the same season, and Antetokounmpo is—spoiler alert—a virtual lock to earn the latter distinction.
Suffering from voter fatigue is a real, ever-present danger. More than that, the Association doesn't want for other worthwhile candidates.
Gobert is more likely to incur voter exhaustion than Antetokounmpo after winning Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons. He still belongs in the current conversation. The Utah Jazz have started to show cracks, but they're letting up only 106.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (82nd percentile), and he remains one of the league's premier deterrents at the basket.
Cases should be heard for both Joel Embiid (shoulder) and Ben Simmons (lower back) depending on how many games they wind up playing. Embiid is the NBA's most asphyxiating defender. Simmons is its most versatile; no one has combined his positional optionality with his volume against rival No. 1 scorers, according to Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.
Anthony Davis doesn't have the cleanest argument, but he does have one. The Los Angeles Lakers are tied for fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions—above both the Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. His on-off splits are wonky, but explainable. Spending a lot of time beside Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo hurts his statistical case, and it is harder to quantify his impact when he plays so much power forward.
Second-half-of-the-season Kawhi Leonard deserves a shout-out here, but this is a full-year award. Brook Lopez is getting love—and rightfully so. Embiid, Gobert and even Davis seem like Antetokounmpo's primary roadblocks. He has the resume to beat them all, but the field is a little too tempting when he's already a shoo-in for MVP.
Who Should Win: Giannis Antetokounmpo
People trying to turn the MVP discussion into a two-player race between Antetokounmpo and LeBron James need to chill. This isn't an actual competition. At least, it shouldn't be.
James is having a phenomenal year 17. In any other season, his MVP argument writes itself. He is indispensable to the team with league's second-best record. The Los Angeles Lakers' net rating falls by 13.4 points per 100 possessions without him on the court, one of the five largest drop-offs among everyone who has logged 1,000 or more minutes.
This matches the eye test—right down to the team's defensive improvement with LeBron. He isn't chasing around the toughest assignments, but he's playing the most engaged half-court defense since his days with the Miami Heat. That increased effort is the cherry atop his Association-best playmaking and the Lakers' reliance on him as a scorer from all levels: on rim attacks, in the post and as a deep-three option.
Antetokounmpo still has him beat. Anyone penalizing him for averaging fewer than 31 minutes per game or for the Milwaukee Bucks' performance without him in the game needs a reality check. He cannot be punished for playing on a team with a strong supporting cast. Especially when he elevates their standing to indomitable title favorite.
Breaking down Antetokounmpo's output over a larger sample puts his play into greater perspective. Per 75 possessions, he's second in points, fifth in rebounds and 35th in assists. He's averaging as many steals per 75 possessions as Eric Bledsoe and more blocks than Al Horford and Serge Ibaka.
Filling the box score is nothing new for the reigning MVP. His relative lack of limitations is more novel. Antetokounmpo's efficiency from the perimeter can be touch-and-go, but defenses are forced to respect him by virtue of volume.
He has attempted about the same number of pull-up three-pointers as Bradley Bea, and as SB Nation's Mike Prada noted, he's wielding a more polished turnaround jumper as well. He also rates in the 51st percentile of efficiency on mid-range shots, which is both rock solid and a career high.
Who Will Win: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Voter fatigue can always throw MVP results for a whirl. Antetokounmpo won the Maurice Podoloff Trophy last year, which will likely prevent him from earning the unanimous nod this time around.
But this is still a runaway decision. Combine Antetokounmpo's offensive imprint—he's hitting 62.5 percent of his two-pointers—with his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, and no one measures up to his individual value.
A watered-down version of this case is just as effective. Antetokounmpo is by far and away the best player on what is by far and away the NBA's best regular-season team. Those credentials are immutable—and especially impossible to ignore with the Bucks on pace for more than 70 wins.