Top 3 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2021

Top 3 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    It's much too early for us to start making informed guesstimates about the NBA awards race, right?

    Wrong, actually. The 2020-21 campaign is already nearing its quarter pole.

    Injuries, absences because of the health and safety protocols stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the abridged-for-some, extended-for-others offseason have injected more randomness than usual into the landscape. But enough games have been played, for better or worse, to begin the awards discussions.

    This will not serve as a snapshot of who would win each honor if the season ended today. Because guess what? It doesn't end today. This is instead meant to be a predictive ladder based on what's happened so far.

    Everything is on the table. Early-season performances shape the field of candidates, as do their sustainability. Certain favorites at the moment could tumble out of contention. Others might not grab the W in their category now but have a good chance to do so down the line. A few awards are pure, utter, total anarchy.

    Don't worry. The logic behind each top-three awards big board will be explained as we go—the inclusions, the notable exclusions, the order, everything.

Executive of the Year

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    Matt York/Associated Press
    1. James Jones, Phoenix Suns
    2. Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers
    3. Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers

    Take this order with a grain of salt. The trade deadline always has a chance to reshape this field.

    James Jones still seems like he'll have a good chance of winning it all. The Chris Paul trade is only part of his resume. The Suns' moves on the margins were incredibly smart. They signed Jae Crowder, picked up Langston Galloway and E'Twaun Moore on cheapo deals, and both the Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson finds last year are paying dividends now.

    How much credit Rob Pelinka deserves for the Lakers' enviable offseason will vary by person. He didn't finagle the Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews and Montrezl Harrell additions so much as they gravitated toward a ready-made contender for below-market value. But he did broker the Dennis Schroder trade, the Kyle Kuzma extension looks like a win, and he ensured the Lakers remained appealing enough for both Anthony Davis and LeBron James to re-up over the offseason.

    Daryl Morey, meanwhile, tinkered with the Sixers roster until it made sense. Seth Curry was going kaboom before entering the NBA's health and safety protocols, and Tyrese Maxey is proving to be a great late first-round find. Moving the Al Horford contract while only giving up one first-round pick is a genuine win.

    Philadelphia's failure to pry James Harden from the Houston Rockets is either a net plus or minus for Morey's case. That means it's probably neutral. More so than anyone else, he might wind up bolstering his argument at the trade deadline.

    Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti warrants a looksy. Staging teardowns seldom wins awards, but he's amassed a boatload of first-round picks, a few interesting trade assets and a progressively tantalizing prospect in Aleksej Pokusevski.

Coach of the Year

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press
    1. Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers
    2. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
    3. J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Coach of the Year is the least interesting award to predict, because all of the thought I put into this ballot will likely get blown up within the next few days.

    Nate Bjorkgren has completely reworked the Pacers' shot profile and unleashed Domantas Sabonis without torpedoing the defense. His candidacy is even more appealing given the breadth of injuries Indiana has endured. Both Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren remain out, and the Pacers just shipped out Victor Oladipo in exchange for Caris LeVert, who will be out indefinitely after an MRI revealed a small mass on his left kidney.

    Monty Williams' placement is predicated on the Suns getting even better. The starting lineup has labored through real problems that inserting Cameron Johnson for Jae Crowder won't fix. Deandre Ayton looks lost at times on offense. Devin Booker is turning the ball over more.

    But Phoenix is trying to work through a totally new dynamic following the Chris Paul trade. Growing pains are the expectation. This is a roster that should peak as the season soldiers on.

    Nobody and everybody feels like the right choice for No. 3.

    Frank Vogel deserves credit for keeping the Los Angeles Lakers engaged after a super short offseason. Brad Stevens has helped the Boston Celtics navigate Kemba Walker's absence. How the Memphis Grizzlies are over .500 and fourth in points allowed per possession despite Ja Morant (who has since returned), Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow all missing significant time is beyond me. Kudos to Taylor Jenkins.

    J.B. Bickerstaff wins out by virtue of the Cleveland Cavaliers' scrappiness. Their offense can get ugly, but he's overseen real growth from Darius Garland and Collin Sexton while empowering Larry Nance Jr. Cleveland is also second in points allowed per possession and forcing a ton of turnovers without fouling—a surefire sign of engagement, even if it isn't wholly sustainable.

Rookie of the Year

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press
    1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
    2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
    3. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls

    LaMelo Ball's grip on the Rookie of the Year conversation isn't quite airtight. Tyrese Haliburton and his all-around impact legitimately lurk. But LaMelo's role is easier to extrapolate. His influence over the Hornets offense isn't going to wane. It will only grow if they throw him into the starting lineup or trade one of Devonte' Graham (struggling mightily) or Terry Rozier (flame-throwing threes).

    Haliburton may not always have to grapple with playing behind Buddy Hield (more on this later). The Kings can also augment his role by benching Marvin Bagley III (perking up on offense) and starting smaller. But De'Aaron Fox isn't going anywhere. Haliburton is consigned to limited offensive volume for now.

    That isn't much of a problem for his Rookie of the Year stock. His entire case is so far rooted in thriving as a secondary option. Catch-and-shoot threes account for more than one-third of his looks, on which he's shooting 48.5 percent, and he peppers in the occasional off-the-dribble jumper. His 68.2 effective field-goal percentage on pull-ups ranks third among the 115 players who have put up at least 25 such attempts. He is already a pesky defender, too.

    LaMelo's game is just more transcendent. He throws a handful of bonkers passes every night and has hybrid scoring chops. His shooting efficiency doesn't stand out, but he's banging in 36.1 percent of his spot-up treys and 37 percent of his pull-up triples. LaMelo's 8.8 assists per 36 minutes don't just lead all rookies. They're the eighth-most in the league.

    Third place feels like a separate battle. Deni Avdija and Tyrese Maxey have great cases. Anthony Edwards, Desmond Bane, Payton Pritchard and James Wiseman each have an argument as well. Immanuel Quickley has a chance to get there, too. 

    Patrick Williams has a more complete resume than all of them at the moment. He is holding up when defending wings, including stars, and he blends some budding feel off the dribble with a complementary off-ball touch. His finishing around the basket needs to improve, but he's converting 50 percent of his threes and 51.5 percent of his pull-up twos.

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press
    1. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
    2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
    3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    On-off splits poked holes in Anthony Davis' Defensive Player of the Year case last season. The same will happen this year. The Lakers are only a hair stingier when he's on the floor.

    Deeper dives reveal the same simple yet salient explanation: Davis wears so many hats that his impact cannot ever be fully measured in on-off splits.

    Certain lineups wouldn't exist without him. The Lakers don't have a star-wing defender outside of Playoff LeBron. They have Davis. He can guard everyone, from Kawhi Leonard to Draymond Green to Zion Williamson. His switching is invaluable. Only one or two other players in the league can be in so many different places, simultaneously, without compromising proximity to their primary assignment. Davis contests as many threes per game as Paul George and about as many shots at the rim as Mitchell Robinson. He averages as many deflections as Jayson Tatum.

    And as for those on-off splits: The Lakers rank first in points allowed per possession. Davis still takes the league's best defense and makes it better.

    Rudy Gobert is probably his closest long-term challenger. He continues to define the Jazz's defense. The frequency with which opponents reach the rim plunges by 8.7 percentage points when he's on the court, a drop-off that rates in the 99th percentile, and he currently leads the league in blocks made from four to 14 feet out, according to PBP Stats. Utah's defensive rating improves by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup as well, a mark that only slightly outpaces last year's swing (plus-8.2).

    Many will assert that Joel Embiid has a stronger hold on the Defensive Player of the Year discourse. His pick-and-roll coverage is shiftier; he isn't only dropping back. Opponents aren't even confident taking floaters with him in the game. Philly has fallen to eighth in points allowed per possession, but that's still ridiculously high, and the tumble has taken place amid absences related to health and safety protocols.

    Like always, it's fair to question whether Embiid will play in enough games to curry favor over Davis and Gobert. Myles Turner, who is currently dealing with a right hand fracture, will have a chance to sneak in here if the Indiana Pacers continue hovering around 10th in points allowed per possession (*shrugs*) and he keeps protecting the rim like it's his own personal holy grail.

Sixth Man of the Year

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    Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press
    1. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
    2. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
    3. Shake Milton, Philadelphia 76ers

    Asterisks abound for this ladder, both because of who is included and who isn't.

    If you believe Chris Boucher will continue coming off the Raptors bench and he isn't your pick, I'm calling conspiracy. Streakiness is in his DNA, but you don't accidentally stumble into 16.1 points, 2.5 blocks and approximately one emphatic putback per game while swishing 46.9 percent of your threes.

    At least some aspects of Boucher's eruption have to be real, if not most of them. And who's to say? His first three years in the league—which were really two—consisted of court time in small bursts. This could just be what happens when you take a high-energy, floor-spacing, jump-shot-blocking big and give him real minutes.

    Boucher's responsibilities might eventually spill into Toronto's starting five. Alex Len is already gone, and Aron Baynes is playing poorly and has had his minutes slashed. The Raptors seem reluctant to use Pascal Siakam as their only big.

    Sticking Boucher at the top of this list isn't what you'd call a risk. He continues to foul a lot. Bringing him off the bench somewhat limits his opportunity to get in early foul trouble. Viewing Baynes as a ceremonial, Keith Bogans-like starter only to quickly pull the plug and unleash Swatterboy is a feasible plan.

    Figuring out the pecking order beyond Boucher gets dicey. One of LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton belong here if you think they're going to stick as part of their second units. Paint me skeptical on LaMelo. Simplifying his role has value, but on the flip side: How do you not eventually start LaMelo? SEO writers are already clamoring for it.

    Haliburton is the riskier exclusion. He has Buddy Hield and De'Aaron Fox in front of them, and the Kings remain vested in Marvin Bagley III. His path to the starting five is trickier—likely predicated on Sacramento trading Bagley or Hield. But his numbers aren't traditional spark-plug lines. He is a high-efficiency offensive manager and lower-key defensive playmaker. Leaving him off feels wrong, but this exercise is meant to be predictive.

    Enter Jordan Clarkson. He's averaging 17.5 points while hitting 57.8 percent of his twos and 42.9 percent of his threes for a Jazz team that currently has the league's third-best record. He is a quintessential Sixth Man of the Year possibility, even if his efficiency dips a bit.

    Shake Milton's case follows a similar blueprint, only with more of a point guard's spin. He's averaging 16.9 points and 3.7 assists off the pine for Philadelphia while shooting 71 percent at the rim and 53 percent from mid-range. He goes from top-three possibility to favorite if he his rising three-point clip holds, if the Sixers don't trade him for Zach LaVine or something, and if Boucher moves into Toronto's starting five.

Most Improved Player

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
    1. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
    2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
    3. Christian Wood, Houston Rockets

    Christian Wood will be the no-brainer selection for a bunch of people. You'll get zero qualms from me. His 23.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game are massive jumps from last year's marks (13.1 and 6.3, respectively) and include a nifty floor game that has facilitated 59.9 percent shooting inside the arc.

    This just doesn't feel like a novel breakout. Wood turned in eerily similar numbers when the Detroit Pistons (finally) expanded his role last season. Small samples cannot be trusted, but what's happening now is still an extension of that.

    Chris Boucher deserves to be a unanimous No. 1 selection if he keeps tallying gaudy stat lines. But the NBA hasn't named a Most Improved player who averaged under 30 minutes since Alan Henderson in 1997-98. Though Boucher is right around 30 minutes over his last four games, he's still comfortably under 25 for the season.

    Continuing to come off the bench and his foul-happiness both work against him meeting that admittedly arbitrary threshold—as does the tacit notion that MIP honors are typically reserved for up-and-coming All-Stars. He isn't yet viewed in those terms.

    Some will scoff at the Jerami Grant pick, if only because he's older than normal for an MIP candidate—he turns 27 in March—and plays for the league-worst (yet not entirely crappy) Pistons. That's a mistake. Grant embodies the literalness of this award more than anyone else. His improvement is not solely a matter of mushrooming volume but functional diversification.

    Pull-up jumpers never accounted for more than 12.3 percent of his shots prior to this season. They make up nearly 25 percent of his looks now. A career-high 31.9 percent of his buckets are coming unassisted. His previous watermark was 27.1 percent, which he tallied back in 2015-16. He has already set a career high for the number of pick-and-roll possessions he's finished as the ball-handler.

    Branching out this much is a recipe for volume without efficiency. He's juggled both. His 24.9 points are 11.3 more than his previous career best and are coming on a 59.1 true shooting percentage identical to the one he notched last season as an ancillary offensive threat with the Denver Nuggets. Other candidates include Jaylen Brown, Collin Sexton and Keldon Johnson. CJ McCollum, currently out with a left foot injury, has also detonated enough to earn cursory "Could he win this award again?" consideration.


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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press
    1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
    2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
    3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

    Inconsistent logic is not afoot here. Just as Joel Embiid might not play in enough to games to dominate the Defensive Player of the Year race, his availability is an issue in the MVP debate. That concern has not fallen by the wayside.

    But the MVP award is a more comprehensive honor. It takes into account Embiid's offense in addition to everything he does on defense. And he's averaging 25 points and 2.9 assists while shooting 57 percent on twos (55.6 percent in the post) and 39.4 percent of his threes, both of which would be clear career highs.

    Embiid's turnovers can still be prohibitive, particularly on the block, but they aren't out of control. The Sixers' performance without him is once again his bread and butter. They're 0-3 without him, compared to 9-2 with him, and the minutes with Dwight Howard in his place are disastrous.

    Philly buoyed Embiid's chances even more by not trading for James Harden. Ben Simmons isn't going to knife into his MVP share. Harden would have.

    Incidentally, Harden is also the reason Kevin Durant doesn't claim the No. 1 spot. He'd deserve it if the season closed up shop right now. He's averaging 30.6 points (his second-most ever) and 5.7 assists while shooting 56.6 percent inside the arc and what would be a career-best/historically absurd 48.4 percent clip from long distance. Brooklyn's offense is poop when he sits.

    It doesn't technically matter that he's doing this after missing all of last season recovering from a ruptured right Achilles. But still: Wow. He's already played in a back-to-back, too. Health isn't the main concern. Harden cannibalizing some of his votes should be.

    Failing that, playing with two other superstars is a surefire way to drag down your indispensability. It is this logic that drives Nikola Jokic checking in at No. 3.

    LeBron James and Anthony Davis will steal votes from one another. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard and it-isn't-2020-anymore Paul George. Stephen Curry's case gets interesting if the Golden State Warriors scrap into the West's top four. Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to suffer from a combination of voter fatigue and "He gets to play with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday and hasn't really reworked his game."

    Jokic should technically be the favorite to win this year's Maurice Podoloff Trophy, according to Basketball Reference's MVP probability tracker. That's hardly out of left field. He's averaging a triple-double—25.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, 10.3 assists—while canning 62.3 percent of his twos and 38.6 percent of his triples.

    Are the Nuggets good enough for Jokic to edge out the alternatives? That's the question. He shouldn't be penalized if they can't survive the time he spends on the bench (they aren't), but he's part of their bottom-seven defense. The Nuggets won't stay around .500 forever, but their ceiling in the West remains ambiguous. His spot will demand relitigation if they creep into top-four territory.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.