3 Low-Key Candidates for Every Major NBA Award
NBA award season might be rich with debates, but it's rarely big on surprises.
An 82-game marathon has a way of whittling the field down to a handful (at most) of deserving candidates. When the league sends out invites for its awards ceremony, only three finalists are included for the major honors.
So we're here to shine light on a group of players, coaches and executives who probably won't make that cut but have low-key arguments to make on their behalf.
After identifying our three likely finalists for each award, we'll spotlight three additional candidates who aren't likely to win but deserve to have their cases presented.
Executive of the Year
Projected Finalists: Lawrence Frank, Sam Presti, Pat Riley
The Boston Celtics suffered a slight talent downgrade when they went from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker, but it helped correct their chemistry problems and made the team better together. Danny Ainge deserves credit both for that adjustment and for not panicking about Al Horford's departure. Many assumed the Shamrocks needed a major move at center, but they've hardly been exposed on the interior without one.
It's too early to tell how 2019 No. 14 pick Romeo Langford will pan out, but No. 22 pick Grant Williams has already carved out a rotation role as a combo big. Off-the-radar import Javonte Green has typically delivered when called upon, too.
The megadeal for Anthony Davis might have been largely orchestrated by the unibrowed superstar and his camp, but Rob Pelinka still had to make the puzzle pieces fit. Even if the price tag was steep—a mountain of young players, draft picks and pick swaps—the Los Angeles Lakers needed to force open their championship window while LeBron James was (somehow) still in his prime, and this deal got it done.
Pelinka's moves on the margins were a mixed bag, but there have been more hits than misses. Danny Green has fit like a glove alongside L.A.'s stars. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have combined to form a formidable force at the 5. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Avery Bradley have all had their moments. And even if the DeMarcus Cousins deal didn't work out, it was worth the risk for the paltry amount of money.
In this player-driven league, it's never clear how much heavy lifting executives did to bring All-Star combos together. Even Sean Marks has downplayed his role in the additions of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. But it still required foresight on Marks' part, both to create an attractive environment and to keep the Brooklyn Nets' finances flexible enough to make major purchases.
Marks' argument would be stronger if Durant and Irving could have hit the hardwood together in 2019-20, but given their collective talent, it isn't hard to imagine how potent they'll be. There's also the unknown of how Brooklyn will handle its youngsters (perhaps packaging them for a third star), but Marks again gets credit for having players that other clubs covet.
Coach of the Year
Projected Finalists: Mike Budenholzer, Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel
Heading into the 2019-20 season, oddsmakers tabbed the Oklahoma City Thunder, as a 31-win team. When the coronavirus pandemic suspended the season, the Thunder had 40 wins in 64 games.
Billy Donovan gets the overachiever's portion of the vote, edging Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins for not only leading a surprise playoff team, but turning an afterthought into a tricky postseason matchup. Donovan's outside-the-box idea to play point guards Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander together became the backbone of the best lineup in basketball.
The travesty that is the absence of a Coach of the Year award on Erik Spoelstra's resume was seemingly en route to being corrected. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers had more wins through 32 games than Miami's 24. The Heat playing essentially .500 ball since that point probably torpedoed Spoelstra's chances.
But this still ranks among the campaign's top coaching performances. He seamlessly worked Jimmy Butler into the fold, as the former malcontent became a locker-room leader. Spoelstra also cleared the runway for Bam Adebayo's All-Star ascension, gave Goran Dragic an edge in his fight with Father Time by slotting him into an instant-offense second-team role and helped multiple youngsters make immediate impacts.
The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving over the offseason, yet their offensive efficiency improved from 10th in 2018-19 to fifth this year. Starting center Al Horford also departed, yet their defense grew stingier (sixth to fourth). Overall, they're outscoring opponents by an extra 1.8 points per 100 possessions this season compared to last year.
Brad Stevens has found enough touches to get Kemba Walker comfortable, bring Gordon Hayward back up to speed and help Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make massive leaps. Daniel Theis is suddenly a legitimate X-factor. The bench has had its ups and downs, but Stevens has usually crafted the right roles for support pieces like Enes Kanter, Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, Javonte Green and Semi Ojeleye.
Most Improved Player
Projected Finalists: Bam Adebayo, Luka Doncic, Brandon Ingram
Raise your hand if you had heard of Graham prior to this season. Now, lower them if you're a Charlotte Hornets fan, a Kansas Jayhawks fan or a member of the Graham family.
Anyone left? We didn't think so.
Graham wasn't even an afterthought for last year's Hornets, finishing 12th in minutes per game and 13th in average scoring. This year? He leads Charlotte in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5), while ranking fifth league-wide in total triples (218) and 17th in points per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (8.0).
If voters lean toward out-of-nowhere candidates, Graham is a finalist and maybe the award recipient.
While Graham emerged from off the radar, Robinson wasn't even on the map. He played last season on a two-way contract with the Miami Heat, totaling only 161 minutes across 15 big-league contests and—if you can believe it—connecting on only 10 of his 35 long-range looks.
Before the season started, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra dubbed Robinson "one of the best shooters on this planet," per Anthony Chiang of the Miami Herald. Before the rest of us recovered from doubling over in laughter, Robinson proved the skipper prescient. He made three triples in his second game, four in his third and seven in his sixth outing.
Without even playing a full schedule, Robinson already has the Heat's single-season franchise record with 243 threes, the third-highest total in the league. His 44.8 percent connection rate is third-best among the 85 players with 100-plus makes. His off-ball movement and quick-draw sniping has been invaluable to this offense, which fares 8.5 points better per 100 possessions with him than without. He ranks 12th overall in total plus/minus.
This might be underselling Tatum's chances, as he used his third NBA campaign as a personal trampoline to jump into the superstar ranks. Armed with a featured role heavier than any he'd previously held, he upped his scoring output by nearly eight points per game (jumping from 15.7 to 23.6) while improving his shooting efficiency (56.2 true shooting percentage from 54.7) and making major strides as a defender.
"This kid is special," LeBron James said after Tatum torched the Los Angeles Lakers for 41 points in February, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "There's a reason he's a first-time All-Star. He's been special all year."
Tatum forced his way into the top 20 of ESPN's real plus-minus metric (18th). Last season, he didn't crack the top 75 (he was 82nd). He's closer to a fourth MIP finalist than a dark-horse candidate, but since we're only allotted three finalists, he stands as an overqualified honorable mention.
Rookie of the Year
Projected Finalists: Ja Morant, Kendrick Nunn, Zion Williamson
Clarke doesn't have the biggest role or the flashiest stats, but he is analytically awesome at what he does. Among rookies with 20-plus appearances, he ranks first in win shares (4.4), player efficiency rating (21.8) and box plus/minus (3.5). None of the categories are particularly close.
He combines spring-loaded athleticism with a nonstop motor and sharp basketball instincts to serve as the ultimate rookie role player. By per-36-minutes marks, he looks like a rising star: 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 blocks.
Davis won't get the counting-category vote, but what the undrafted swingman lacks in stats, he makes up for with substance. He's the only player to have appeared in all 64 games for the Toronto Raptors, who took the East's second-best record into the hiatus.
He's second among rookies in BPM and third in value over replacement player (minimum 1,000 minutes). He has done anything and everything Toronto has asked of him, whether it's initiating offense, creating shots, spotting up from three or pestering opposing perimeter players on defense.
Seven of the eight Rookie of the Month awards went to our three projected finalists. Coby White captured the eighth with a red-hot February. Over the month's final four outings, he erupted to the tune of 30.8 points per game with 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 56.4 percent shooting from distance.
He was carrying that momentum into March, too, with 19-plus points in each of the five contests. He also had his best ball-moving stretch to date with at least five assists in every game. If the season resumes, he has the best chance of forcing his way into the group of finalists, provided he can keep his shooting efficiency and distributing up.
Sixth Man of the Year
Projected Finalists: Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder, Lou Williams
The Heat repurposed Dragic into a second-team spark this season, and the Dragon has been roaring from the start. He had 19-plus points in three of his first four outings, and he hasn't slowed down much since.
He has the fifth-best scoring average and third-most assists among players with at least 30 reserve appearances. His 2.2 threes per game are easily a personal best, and his 37.7 success rate is more than a full percentage point above his career average.
The Bucks have the NBA's best bench by plus-minus and net rating, so it's no surprise that they have multiple candidates for this spot. Hill gets our nod, but it's almost a coin-flip honor over Donte DiVincenzo.
Hill has essentially taken a blowtorch to the hardwood every night. He's been a fine shooter before, but this is ridiculous: 53.0 percent overall and a league-high 48.0 percent on threes. He's also more than tripling his turnovers (49) with assists (151) and pacing all regular reserves with a plus-5.3 nightly plus/minus.
This might be underselling Rose's candidacy, since he leads second-teamers in average assists and pumps in the third-most points per night. He's been more productive on a per-36-minutes basis now (25.1 points, 7.7 assists) than he was during his 2010-11 MVP campaign (24.1 and 7.4). His true shooting percentage is better now than then, too (55.5 from 55.0).
But he's lacking volume of reserve appearances, as the Detroit Pistons have started him in every game but one since mid-February. He has also missed 16 of the team's 66 games, and he was sidelined by an ankle injury before the season was suspended.
Defensive Player of the Year
Projected Finalists: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert
Adebayo was designed to dominate the modern game. He is equal parts agility, athleticism and strength. He has quick hands and faster feet. When he switches onto a perimeter player, it's an advantage for the Heat. And while he doesn't have the best rim-protection numbers, his rapid rotations keep countless shots from even going up.
He's one of only four players with at least 75 blocks and 75 steals this season. He has generated the fifth-most defensive win shares. Defensive real plus-minus slots him fifth overall. While it can be tricky to measure defensive impact, the stats and the eye test all agree that Adebayo is an elite stopper.
The process with any award discussion involving The Process is weighing how heavily Embiid's games missed should count against him. He missed 21 of the Philadelphia 76ers' first 65 games, which some might argue should move him off the ballot for someone like Brook Lopez. But Embiid isn't even 300 minutes shy of Lopez's total, so we'll side with the superior anchor.
Embiid controls the glass, erases shots at the rim and more than holds his own on switches. If he needs to lock horns with a dominant swingman like Giannis Antetokounmpo, he can do that, too. Philly's defense is 8.0 points better per 100 possessions with Embiid than without.
Philly's sixth-ranked defense may not seem deserving of multiple DPOY candidates, but the stars left us no choice. In a league that increasingly prioritizes versatility, Simmons proved as flexible and disruptive as any defender in the league, as The Ringer's Dan Devine broke down:
"Simmons was a persistent menace, leading the league in steals while finishing second in deflections and third in loose balls recovered. He continued to do his damage from a variety of angles, too: For the third consecutive season, according to defensive versatility metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, he spent at least 15 percent of his floor time defending the 1, 2, 3, and 4 positions, while also seeing his fair share of duty against bigs. (Another fun nugget from Narsu and Patton's research: Simmons spends more time than any other All-Star guarding opposing teams' no. 1 options.)"
The only knock against Simmons is that he's living proof of the challenges in evaluating defenders. Statistically, Philly's defense fares better without him, and DRPM only puts him 16th among point guards.
But in this case, numbers do lie. He is a dominant defender, and no one would bat an eye if he earned this honor.
Projected Finalists: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James
Low-key feels like a funny description for anything related to Doncic, because the story of his early career is best told in bolded, all-caps text. He had a rookie season for the ages, and he has followed it up with another round of historic production. He went from a great freshman to a great player overnight, and he helped turn the Dallas Mavericks into a playoff team with an all-time great offense.
This is only the 12th time in league history that a player has boasted a 36-plus usage percentage across at least 30 minutes per outing. Doncic has met that massive challenge with the NBA's fourth-highest PER and sixth-best BPM this season.
"He's already showing he's one of the best and he's only  years old and he's putting up the numbers like, it seems crazy to say it, but the next Michael Jordan," fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic told NBA.com's Sekou Smith.
Some might reserve this spot for Anthony Davis, but here, it's subtraction by affiliation. In other words, his MVP case loses steam because LeBron James' is so compelling.
But this isn't a consolation-prize honor for Jokic. The seventh-highest-rated player by RPM (sixth if you exclude those five games from Stephen Curry), Jokic is the reason the Nuggets have the third-best record in the West. Denver has depth and solid complementary pieces, but the big fella is the solo star.
He's probably the best passing big man we've ever seen, and he'll soon become only the fifth player in league history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in multiple seasons.
Three players have top-30 RPM rankings both on offense and defense: James, Antetokounmpo and Leonard. If anyone wants to gripe about the occasional load management for Leonard, just keep that two-way dominance in mind.
The Los Angeles Clippers might be a superteam, but Leonard is the key to their super powers. With him, they steamroll opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they barely tread water at plus-0.6 points per 100 possessions. Among their 11 players to log 500 minutes, Patrick Beverley has the second-best net differential at plus-6.0 (nearly five points per 100 behind Leonard's plus-10.8).
Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but this is the best we've ever seen him. His 26.9 points and 5.0 assists are both career highs, and his 7.3 rebounds match his previous best. Add Leonard's 1.8 steals to the mix, and this is production only previously seen from James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook and Clyde Drexler.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.