Handing Out Awards for Every NBA Team This Season
The winners of this season's individual NBA awards deserve the recognition that's coming to them. They've earned their spots as MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and on down the line.
But if we were ever going to give participation trophies, this would be the year to do it.
Anyone who made it through this soul-crusher of a season deserves some kind of commemorative plaque or something. This condensed campaign subjected players to health and safety protocols, a seemingly never-ending run of muscle strains and short turnarounds between games, all after an offseason that felt quicker than Stephen Curry's release.
We can't award every player in the league for managing the stresses of a difficult 2020-21 campaign, but we can honor a handful of them on each team.
Awards will include MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Best Newcomer/Biggest Surprise and a miscellaneous category to hit anything else notable that the first three honors missed.
That means we have 120 trophies to hand out. Better get started.
MVP: Trae Young
Maybe he still holds onto the ball a little too much, and maybe his defensive shortcomings make him a target on most nights. But Trae Young is the guy who makes the Atlanta Hawks' offense go. He's a high-usage playmaker who stretches the defense with deep range and tilts every defender on the floor in his direction, making everything easier for teammates.
Young's on-court impact on his team's offensive rating is in the 99th percentile, he's made more free throws than any player in the league, and he's one of two players (Luka Doncic is the other) with at least 100 made triples and 500 assists in 2020-21.
DPOY: Clint Capela
Most catch-all metrics reward work on the defensive glass, but Clint Capela's league-leading rebound rate on both ends is just one reason he has amassed more RAPTOR Wins Above Replacement than Young and all but 10 other players in the entire league.
Capela is Atlanta's mistake-eraser at the rim, and he's developed such refinement as a pick-and-roll defender that he can ably navigate being the only defender in front of both a ball-handling point guard and lob-hunting big man. His timing and instincts make him one of the single best interior forces in the league.
Best Newcomer: Nate McMillan
Nate McMillan slid over to the big chair after Lloyd Pierce's ouster in early March. Atlanta was 14-20 at the time of the change, and while injuries were a key reason for the team's disappointing performance to that point, its improvement under McMillan wasn't just about the roster getting healthier. Something clicked under his leadership, and the Hawks went from 11th in the East to a no-doubt playoff entrant.
More of This, Please Award: De'Andre Hunter
De'Andre Hunter's first 13 games of the season were a revelation. He averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists on a 50.3/40.0/86.5 shooting split while playing shutdown wing defense and flashing on-ball skills that weren't present during his rookie year.
However, knee troubles limited Hunter to only two games between Feb. 1 and May 10, stalling what looked like a true breakout effort.
Atlanta's gains this year were significant. If Hunter can pick up next year where he left off in 2020-21, the Hawks could take an even bigger step forward.
MVP: Jayson Tatum
This race was a dead heat for much of the early season, as Jaylen Brown's scorching mid-range shooting and improved playmaking put him right on par with Tatum from an overall production standpoint. Brown's two-point jumpers quit falling at a ridiculous clip, just as Tatum's long recovery from COVID-19 knocked his numbers down a notch.
Tatum has looked much more like himself of late (see: 60 points against the San Antonio Spurs on April 30), and he holds edges in points, rebounds and assists per game over Brown, whose advantage in true shooting percentage isn't significant enough to swing things his way.
Tatum is the superior "get your own" offensive generator, and his on-off impact far outpaces Brown's.
This is close, which the Celtics should be happy about. It means they have two star-quality wings. But Tatum wins it, and that was true before Brown went down for the year with a wrist injury.
DPOY: Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart remains Boston's most decorated stopper, and though he had a down year by his standards, he's still the right choice. The Celtics' leader in deflections and the only guard on the roster occasionally tasked with guarding centers, Smart could be in line for his third career All-Defensive selection.
Robert Williams III piled up shot-swatting highlights but was too mistake-prone for consideration. Daniel Theis' presence on the floor coincided with the team's biggest improvement in defensive rating (among Celtics who logged at least 1,000 minutes), he tops Boston in BBall Index's D-LEBRON catch-all metric and he was the team's most switchable high-minute big man before being dealt.
Still, neither of those two are on Smart's level as a disruptor.
Best Newcomer: Evan Fournier
With all due respect to rookie Payton Pritchard's moxie and excellent three-point shooting, trade deadline acquisition Evan Fournier has to take this award. His overall numbers with Boston have been ugly, but he's had to balance his recovery from COVID-19 while trying to integrate himself into the Celtics rotation.
Fournier has secondary playmaking skill and averaged 19.7 points on a true shooting percentage above the league average in 26 games for the Orlando Magic this year. It might seem strange to give this award to a player who has barely proved himself with his new team, but Fournier has been better in the month of May and has a long enough track record to make this feel like the right choice.
Do-Over Award: The Myles Turner Deal
You know who might have run away with each of the last two awards had he played for the Celtics this year? Myles Turner, who absolutely should have and reportedly could have been on the team.
MVP: Kyrie Irving
Kevin Durant is the Brooklyn Nets' best player, and James Harden leads them in a handful of catch-alls like box plus/minus and RAPTOR WAR. But Kyrie Irving has been the most reliable and productive mainstay on the team—and yes, that's a strange thing to say about a player who's had more than one prolonged absence for personal reasons and has twice been fined for not meeting his media obligations.
It's been a weird year, OK?
Irving is second on the team in total minutes, and he's first in points and steals. He remains an absolute wizard with the ball. Nimble, unpredictable and seemingly capable of inventing novel movement patterns at full speed, no defender in the league can stay in front of him.
Guarding Irving is like wrestling a wisp of smoke.
DPOY: Nic Claxton
Some of this is prospective. Nic Claxton's mobility and length at the center spot make him Brooklyn's most intriguing defensive option in playoff scenarios that will demand versatility. But there's also enough evidence that Claxton has been the best option in the middle for an otherwise awful Nets defense during the regular season.
His positive impact on Brooklyn's defensive rating is the largest on the team, he's first among regulars in defensive box plus/minus, and he crushes all of his teammates in D-LEBRON. He's a deterrent at the rim and can survive in space, which is a two-step that no other Brooklyn big can manage.
Best Newcomer: James Harden and Kevin Durant
Neither of these guys played a game for the Nets last season, and both have looked exceptionally impressive when on the floor. We aren't going to overthink this. The pair of former MVPs split the award.
Durant's smooth, surgical offensive game is fully intact after his Achilles injury. He's as effortlessly lethal as ever. Meanwhile, Harden answered the question of whether he could de-program his Houston Rockets iso-heavy tendencies and play normal basketball with a resounding "yes."
What Even Is a Center? Award: Bruce Brown
Bruce Brown is not a center, but he did a pretty good impression of one at times this season. The 6'4" guard often found himself screening, rolling to the rim and generally operating as if he were a conventional big man. Cleaning the Glass lists him as a forward, and among that player grouping, he ranks in the 99th percentile in shot frequency at the rim, where he's hit just over 70 percent of his attempts.
He's a terror on the offensive glass as well.
It's always fun when teams totally disregard positional norms and let personnel play to their strengths. Brown's just happen to make him seem a lot like a 7-footer.
MVP: Terry Rozier
Scary Terry runs away with this one on the strength of a career season. Rozier leads the Charlotte Hornets in scoring and total minutes and was among the league's most impactful clutch performers—a key factor in getting his team back into the playoff mix from which it'd been absent since 2016.
Rozier has never been a model of efficiency, but it's impressive that he's bumped his true shooting percentage above the league average for the first time in his career, all while posting his highest usage rate ever.
DPOY: Bismack Biyombo
Charlotte's defense was a mid-pack outfit this year, short on true standouts. Bismack Biyombo was the team's best rim-protector, as no other Hornets regular limited opponent accuracy at close range more effectively. He's also second in Defensive RAPTOR and D-LEBRON, though it's worth noting Charlotte's overall defense was slightly worse with Biyombo in the game.
Best Newcomer: LaMelo Ball
Right away, it was clear LaMelo Ball had "it." His vision, flair and confidence made his minutes (which initially came as a reserve) a must-watch. He saw angles and anticipated player movement in unteachable ways. His handle and craft were far more game-ready than anyone would have expected, and his three-point shot was good enough to keep defenses honest.
Ball is a cornerstone player, one who would have easily won Rookie of the Year had he not missed a large chunk of the season with a broken hand. Thankfully, he returned from that injury just as bold and creative as ever.
Look Out Below! Award: Miles Bridges
This is Miles Bridges' best dunk of the year. It's a ruthless recreation of Vince Carter's 2005 full-extension, cocked-back slam on Alonzo Mourning. As if Ball's passing weren't already entertaining enough, the Hornets also have Bridges detonating like this roughly four times a week.
MVP: Zach LaVine
Some fraction of the old Zach LaVine analysis—that his numbers and offense-only game are mostly empty calories—still applies. It's just that, this year, the numbers got too good to dismiss so offhandedly. LaVine became a volume-efficiency monster, one of five players with a usage rate above 30 percent and a true shooting percentage north of 62 percent.
A deadly pull-up three-point shooter with the athleticism to finish at a high clip inside, LaVine became the total scoring package in his seventh season. Sure, you'd like to see him improve on defense and a cleaner assist-to-turnover ratio. This isn't a case for LaVine being perfect. But it's a case for him being the best thing about the Chicago Bulls this year.
DPOY: Thaddeus Young
Daniel Gafford did some solid paint-patrolling before he ended up on the Washington Wizards, and Daniel Theis brought his reliable defense over from Boston. However, neither played enough in Chicago to warrant serious consideration, which leaves us with Thaddeus Young.
Young doesn't defend the rim, but he's a steal magnet with great hands and anticipation, and he's typically in the right spot.
Biggest Surprise: Thaddeus Young
Out of nowhere, the 14-year veteran more than doubled his previous career high in assist rate. That gave the Bulls a dangerous frontcourt facilitator who helped them land among the top five in assisted field-goal percentage this season.
What's the Plan Here? Award: Arturas Karnisovas
Nikola Vucevic is a fine offensive player who has demonstrated the ability to raise his team's ceiling to somewhere around the No. 8 seed in a weak conference. It's difficult to understand why a rebuilding Bulls team would think a player like that is worth a 2018 lottery pick in Wendell Carter Jr. plus two more top-four-protected first-rounders.
Chicago's front office made one of the season's least explicable win-now moves, and it hasn't helped that the wins haven't come.
MVP: Collin Sexton
It isn't an ideal endorsement of an MVP when opponents taunt said MVP's teammates with "you know he's not going to pass you the ball," which reportedly happens in the case of Collin Sexton and the Cleveland Cavaliers, per Joe Vardon of The Athletic.
Sexton's wiring is unquestionably of the shoot-first variety, and his competitive drive to punish the man guarding him does result in bouts of tunnel vision. The taunts aren't without merit.
But Sexton is also the Cavs' leading scorer, and their net rating is juuuuuust barely better with him in the game. Considering his high-usage role and durability relative to his teammates (he's second on the team in total minutes), Sexton is getting this award over a few teammates—Larry Nance Jr. and Jarrett Allen—whom the advanced metrics like better.
DPOY: Larry Nance, Jr.
Nance gets his due! That should make up for missing out on MVP honors.
The veteran forward's scoring efficiency and rebounding weren't up to his typical standards during a tough, injury-riddled season. But Nance remained one of the most adept thieves in the league, racking up 1.7 steals per game and ranking in the 98th percentile among bigs in steal percentage.
Best Newcomer: Jarrett Allen
All it took for the Cavs to get Allen was an opportunistic willingness to butt into the James Harden trade, a 2022 Milwaukee Bucks first-rounder and Dante Exum.
Allen gave Cleveland the rim-rolling, shot-blocking big man it might have thought it was getting when it acquired Andre Drummond last season. The difference is that Allen's play measures up to his reputation.
It may be true that Allen's limitations as a shooter and switch defender mean he'll top out as a mid-tier starter. But he's the right age for this young core at 23 and should be easy to retain as a restricted free agent.
Worst Inbound Award: Kevin Love
You knew it was coming...just like OG Anunoby, who picked up the "pass" an irked Kevin Love slo-mo telegraphed to Darius Garland with a downward two-hand slap motion. Unorthodox technique, to be sure. Garland, for the record, did not seem to see it coming.
MVP: Luka Doncic
No suspense or intrigue here, as Luka Doncic takes the Dallas Mavericks team MVP award in a trend that should continue for another dozen years or so.
Doncic tops Dallas in total points, assists, rebounds and steals. He runs the entire show on offense, and though Dallas didn't reach the same scoring efficiency heights it did a year ago, it still mustered a top-10 showing. Lest there be any question about Doncic's impact on the Mavs' offensive performance, their offensive rating is nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. His impact on that end remains the largest on the team and ranks in the 93rd percentile leaguewide.
DPOY: Maxi Kleber
Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas' best big-minute shot-deterrer inside, and Dorian Finney-Smith is probably the Mavs player whom you'd trust most to make life difficult for an opposing high-scoring wing.
Maxi Kleber isn't as accomplished at those specific duties—interior and perimeter defense—as either of those two. But he's good at both, and even in a down year where he wasn't quite as impactful (particularly at defending the rim), Kleber's versatility and statistical profile earn him the hardware. He's first among Mavs who played at least 1,000 minutes in D-LEBRON, and the on-off splits show Dallas defends much better with Kleber in the game.
Biggest Surprise: Josh Richardson
And not in a good way!
Josh Richardson, like so many of his teammates, struggled after emerging from COVID-19 protocols and never quite found his form. The player who came over via trade for Seth Curry was supposed to be a passable standstill shooter and secondary playmaker, plus a major defensive upgrade. However, Richardson's perimeter stroke stayed in Philly, as he hit a career-worst percentage from deep, and he failed to give the Mavs a true lockdown defender against 1s and 2s.
Here's hoping the playoffs feature the version of Richardson whom Dallas has been looking for all year.
Desperately Needed Self-Awareness Award: Luka Doncic
Doncic finally admitted what everyone has been saying since he entered the league: He has to scale back on his constant complaining to officials.
He's too good for it, and fewer upraised palms and pleading stares will probably help his rapport with refs in the long run.
MVP: Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic hasn't missed a game all season; is the Denver Nuggets' leader in points, rebounds, assists and steals; sits at or near the top of most catch-all metric leaderboards and has been the near lock to win the league's MVP since Joel Embiid missed time in March.
He's on pace to become the third player ever to average at least 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, and he'll do it with far better scoring efficiency than we've seen in any such season before. Perhaps most impressively, Denver won nine of the 10 games that immediately followed Jamal Murray's season-ending torn ACL.
We've already given a longer explanation than is necessary. Moving on.
DPOY: Paul Millsap
The veteran forward's role continues to shrink as he moves toward his late 30s, but Paul Millsap is still a ruggedly strong and wily defensive weapon. He always seems to be in position to prevent offensive players from getting clean looks, shows up on time for help rotations, and even though he's not getting on the floor much at all these days, he's still managing over one block per 36 minutes.
Facundo Campazzo is a pest, and late-season addition Shaquille Harrison would threaten to make an All-Defensive team if the rest of his game was good enough to keep him in a rotation for a full year. But this is Millsap's award.
Best Newcomer: Aaron Gordon
Aaron Gordon can cut, finish, pass and defend multiple positions, which made him basically the ideal deadline addition for a Nuggets team that needed defensive punch and the kind of intuitive offensive player who'd quickly form a connection with Jokic.
The sample is relatively small, but Denver is destroying teams with Gordon on the floor alongside Jokic and Michael Porter Jr.—and that's still true even when you filter the data to exclude Murray. Though his role is diminished and his usage rate is down to levels not seen since his third season, Gordon has been a fine fit at a position of need.
World-Class Irritant Award: Facundo Campazzo
Campazzo is more than a hyperactive, in-your-jersey on-ball defender. He's developed unsurprisingly strong chemistry with the similarly crafty Jokic and injects energy into the game on offense. But the pint-sized point guard's most notable characteristic is his capacity to frustrate whomever he's guarding.
His own head coach called him an irritant, and he meant it in the same positive sense we do. Campazzo is relentless, handsy and happy to consider any possession in which his man lashes out with a "get this guy off me" forearm shove as a win.
MVP: Jerami Grant
Jerami Grant proved he could be a No. 1 offensive option this season. Though he has yet to do so for a winning team, it's no less impressive that he led the Detroit Pistons in scoring and usage rate while somehow managing to keep his true shooting percentage just a hair below the league average. We knew an increase in volume would knock Grant's efficiency down, but most suspected the dip would be so large as to render him a net-negative player.
What we got instead was a hint that Grant could be much more than a fourth or fifth option. It's fair to say he'd excel as a No. 2 on a winner, and he might even be a capable No. 1 on a decent team if he's surrounded by better supporting talent than he had this season with the Pistons.
DPOY: Isaiah Stewart
"Beef Stew" should probably get its own award for most evocative nickname. It perfectly captures the no-frills, all-muscle impact of the Detroit Pistons rookie center. If it misses the mark at all, it's in its failure to convey Isaiah Stewart's high energy. Maybe "Caffeinated Beef Stew"?...which, gross. Maybe not.
It's hard for a rookie to be anything but a negative influence on D. Stewart is exceptional in that regard. He alters shots inside, pings around at high speed and always plays hard.
Best Newcomer: Saddiq Bey
That another rookie walks away with an award is a boon for the rebuilding Pistons. It's better to have the young pieces perform well in a losing effort than a veteran who won't be part of the organization's future.
Saddiq Bey is likely going to finish with the most made threes among rookies, and he's going to do it with great efficiency for such a high-volume shooter. He has a projectable frame for good wing defense, and it's always easy to trust Villanova products to help the team on that end.
Starting from Scratch Award: Killian Hayes
A hip injury derailed the No. 7 pick's rookie season. As if transitioning to the NBA from the Bundesliga and trying to learn the point guard position as a teenager weren't already difficult enough, Hayes never even got into a rhythm before having to sit out for nearly three months.
His second season will at least come after getting some developmental time in camp and summer league, but Hayes will essentially be a rookie again next year. That may not be the worst thing if Detroit wants to collect another high lottery pick in 2022; one of the best ways to assure losses is to give major minutes to an untested primary ball-handler.
Golden State Warriors
MVP: Stephen Curry
We won't burn calories debating whether this is Stephen Curry's best season. Rather, let's just agree that he has never played this well with this little support from his teammates. It's one thing to win a unanimous MVP flanked by in-prime versions of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, not to mention Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston.
It's quite another to lead the league in scoring and set personal highs in points, rebounds, made threes and made free throws per game on a team that would be one of the four or five worst in the league without Curry's presence.
Curry remains the best show in the league, and he's putting on an unbelievable performance, despite being the only underlined item on every opponent's scouting report.
DPOY: Draymond Green
The Warriors don't have a top-five defense because of Green alone, but there's no doubt that he's the biggest reason they've had so much success on that end.
Green's shooting woes have changed his overall game, but he remains the most intelligent, vocal and versatile defender in the league. His help rotations are flat-out clairvoyant, and he's still fearsome on the ball.
He's basically a shutdown cornerback and a free safety with unlimited roving range all in one.
Biggest Surprise: Jordan Poole
Jordan Poole was one of the most negatively impactful players in the league during a rookie season in which he shot under 40 percent on twos and 27.9 percent on threes with no defensive impact to speak of. But after committing to a more decisive style of play in the G League bubble, he became a different player.
This version of Poole is a critical generator of offense for a Warriors team that didn't have anyone other than Curry who could help in that department. His ability to shoot off the catch, attack closeouts, see passing lanes and process all of those options without hesitation points to a future as a valuable top option on a second unit—and possibly more.
That's quite a leap after he looked like someone who'd be out of the league in short order at this time last year.
Most Franchise-Altering Stalled Development Award: James Wiseman
The Warriors didn't do James Wiseman any favors by trying to develop him and win games at the same time. The result was a 19-year-old center with virtually no college experience being thrust into a role he wasn't ready for.
With that said, Wiseman's struggles to process the game on both ends, catch the ball, rebound in traffic and leverage his size on the offensive boards were a major disappointment. That his torn meniscus will also cost him developmental time over the summer only adds to the concern.
Golden State needed a bridge to the post-Curry era, but Wiseman doesn't look like the guy. Get ready for lots and lots of trade chatter involving Wiseman and the Minnesota Timberwolves first-round pick that the Warriors will get either in this draft or the next.
MVP: Christian Wood
Christian Wood was one of the brightest spots in an otherwise dark year for the Houston Rockets. The free-agent acquisition proved his cameo as a starter with the Pistons in 2019-20 was no fluke by leading the Rockets in total points, rebounds and blocks.
Among Rockets who played at least 1,000 minutes, Wood had a larger positive impact on Houston's offensive rating than anyone but low-usage forward Jae'Sean Tate, and he even showed growth on defense. Opponents shot about 5 percentage points worse than normal inside six feet when Wood was the primary defender.
DPOY: Jae'Sean Tate
Highly energetic and physical on the ball, Jae'Sean Tate earned a starting role on the strength of his defensive work. With great length at 6'4", Tate projects as the kind of wing stopper every team needs, complete with active hands and a high steal rate.
Capable of holding his ground against bigger forwards and equally comfortable moving his feet on the perimeter, Tate is a reliable jumper away from being one of the league's better three-and-D role players.
Best Newcomer: Kevin Porter, Jr.
Kelly Olynyk deserves recognition for playing the best basketball of his career after coming over in the trade deadline deal that sent Victor Oladipo to the Miami Heat, but the veteran big man didn't become only the fourth player in league history to score at least 50 points before turning 21.
Kevin Porter Jr. did, and his emergence after being jettisoned by the Cleveland Cavaliers was a windfall for the Rockets. They suddenly have a young playmaking guard in the fold—one who has shown impressive timing and feel as a primary ball-handler alongside his obvious scoring touch.
Patience of a Saint Award: Stephen Silas
Stephen Silas spent 20 years as an assistant, finally landed a head-coaching gig...and then immediately had to deal with the season-derailing James Harden saga. Then came injuries and a 20-game losing streak in a brutally difficult first year.
Silas deserves something for hanging tough.
MVP: Domantas Sabonis
Domantas Sabonis' defense is a problem, and the last two years suggest he's really more of a floor-raiser whose counting stats don't lead to quite as much winning as you'd like.
It'd still be a stretch to give any other Indiana Pacers player the MVP.
DPOY: Myles Turner
Among players who defended at least five shots per game inside of six feet, only Rudy Gobert held opponents to a lower conversion rate than Myles Turner. Indy's shot-swatting big man spent much of the year in the DPOY conversation alongside Gobert, Ben Simmons and other top-end candidates. Turner isn't a good defensive rebounder and can be overpowered by the league's heftier centers, so he was never realistically going to compete for the league's DPOY honor.
He is, however, easily the most deserving Pacer.
Biggest Surprise: Nate Bjorkgren
Indiana sat down with over 20 candidates for its head coaching job, but the search apparently was not exhaustive enough. The reports from B/R's Jake Fischer and The Athletic's Sam Amick painted a picture of alarming dysfunction and unhappiness in Indy, with Bjorkgren at the center of it.
When Indiana jumped out to an 8-4 start with a better shot profile and a more modern offense, it seemed like Bjorkgren, a branch of the Nick Nurse coaching tree, was the perfect hire. Malcolm Brogdon was into the new vibe.
That things headed south so fast is a very unpleasant surprise.
Most Delightful Inbounds Thief: T.J. McConnell
T.J. McConnell has been preying on unwary inbounders for years, but he took things to a new level this season. Thanks largely to his penchant for darting in to snatch passes after made baskets, he recorded a 10-steal game on March 3 against the Cavs. He leads the league in total steals.
Los Angeles Clippers
MVP and DPOY: Kawhi Leonard
Paul George has an argument for both of these awards. He owns narrow edges on Kawhi Leonard in minutes and games played, and even grades out a bit better by several defensive metrics, including D-LEBRON, RAPTOR. But those advantages are small enough to be negligible.
Leonard has been more efficient from the field than ever this year, and he's validated last season's playmaking leap with an assist rate right in line with what he did in 2019-20. Added bonus, he's trimmed his turnovers.
The Los Angeles Clippers offense explodes whenever Leonard is on the floor, and even if George's defense is excellent, Leonard is still the stronger, more intimidating force on that end.
Biggest Surprise: Nicolas Batum
Nicolas Batum ranks behind only Leonard and George in RAPTOR WAR among Clippers, which isn't bad for a guy whom everyone thought was completely washed.
Though his minutes and production have dipped late in the year, Batum will still finish shooting over 40 percent from three. A smart passer with the size to slide around in a switching defense, the veteran forward gave Los Angeles a quality starting option whose value might actually increase in the playoffs, where versatility and intelligence matter more than they do during the year.
Prove It Award: Leonard and George
The Clippers head into the 2021 playoffs with most of the same concerns they carried a year ago. Do they have the right chemistry? Is there a leadership void? Did everyone who'll play in the big moments get enough reps during the small ones this year to inspire confidence?
Fair or not, former head coach Doc Rivers shouldered plenty of the blame for the Clips' collapse last season. Lue almost surely won't be fired if L.A. stumbles again. Leonard and George will be the ones staring back at those pointing fingers this time.
Both had great seasons. But in the eyes of many, neither of them have proved anything yet.
Los Angeles Lakers
MVP and DPOY: LeBron James
We don't need to justify LeBron James winning a team MVP award—not even when he misses as much time as he did this season. Had Anthony Davis not trailed James by several hundred minutes, maybe there'd be room for discussion. But Davis was out for even longer than LeBron and wasn't nearly as effective as he was in the bubble when on the court this season.
James is still probably in line for a top-10 finish in leaguewide MVP voting, a position no other Lakers player could even dream of. Case closed on that point.
The DPOY nod is more ripe for debate.
Davis is more impactful when healthy and in top form; we saw him dominate the perimeter and interior during the Lakers' 2020 title run. But, again, he missed a ton of time with calf and Achilles issues this season.
Alex Caruso might get some fringe All-Defensive team consideration and tops the Lakers in Defensive RAPTOR, but a player who only defends guards makes less of a difference to a team's overall stopping power.
James' time on the floor this year coincided with a team-best 6.3-point improvement in defensive rating. He's always had high block and steal rates for his position, and he's a dominant rebounder. Add to that his significant impact on opponent shooting percentages and his knowledge of positioning, and he's worthy of this award.
Best Newcomer: Dennis Schroder
Dennis Schroder didn't repeat his production levels from a breakout 2019-20 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he gave the Lakers consistent quality minutes at the point, scoring at relatively high volume and the offensive initiator they desperately needed during James' injury absence.
Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol also had their moments, with the latter looking his best lately, but Schroder filled a playmaking void for several weeks on end.
Give That Man His Due Award: Frank Vogel
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel got his team to defend at a league-best rate this season despite a litany of available excuses. Title-defending clubs sometimes relax in the year following a championship, and they tend to be fatigued after deep playoff runs—and that's without a short offseason, myriad injuries, health and safety protocols and a condensed schedule, not to mention the prolonged absences of James and Davis.
Vogel built excellent defenses with the Pacers, did what he could during his time leading the Orlando Magic and has, for the second straight year and against all odds, worked defensive magic again in Los Angeles.
MVP: Ja Morant
Ja Morant's MVP win is about role and usage. Sure, several Memphis Grizzlies grade out better in the catch-all metrics. And yes, Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas and De'Anthony Melton all made bigger positive differences in Memphis' net rating when they were on the floor.
But no Grizzlies regular posted a higher usage rate or had to expend more energy controlling the offense, especially late in games.
Morant leaves a ton to be desired as a defender and shooter, but Memphis' offense came unglued when he wasn't running the show. The Grizzlies' leader in points and assists per game and the top priority in every opponent's scouting report, Morant excelled under heavier stress than any of his teammates faced.
DPOY: Dillon Brooks
De'Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson have better marks in both defensive box plus/minus and D-LEBRON, but Brooks played twice as many minutes as the former and had tougher assignments than the latter. He also put together an eye-opening reel of elite defense against the best offensive players in the league.
Brooks still fouls too much, but his physicality is an asset overall. And you can't deny the value of a player who views matchups with dangerous scorers as personal challenges that require homework.
Biggest Surprise: Kyle Anderson
Anderson has long been an effective player because of his length, intelligence, passing and unique ability to play every second at half-speed, which flummoxes defenders. But he added volume and upped his usage this season, shooting hitting more unassisted threes (so, off the dribble) and setting a new career high in assist rate while cutting his turnovers.
He was a consideration for both MVP and DPOY in Memphis, which absolutely counts as a surprise.
Old-School Award: Jonas Valanciunas
The NBA is not a league for bangers anymore, but don't tell that to Valanciunas. He still loves nothing more than getting deep position on the block or collecting an offensive rebound and then throwing himself into the chest of the nearest defender. He's a relic of a more physical time, and it's fun to have those around.
Valanciunas had a career year for Memphis and is one of two guys in the league to average at least 16 points and 12 rebounds.
MVP and DPOY: Jimmy Butler
If you weren't paying close attention, you missed the best year of Jimmy Butler's career.
He carried the Miami Heat on both ends, ranking first in points, assists and steals per game while continuing to defy league norms by eschewing the three-pointer and scoring efficiently anyway. Butler's unusual combination of a relentless attacking style and patience in the lane yielded copious free throws, which helped him set a new career high in true shooting percentage, despite making about one of every five three-pointers he attempted.
First among Heat in offensive and defensive RAPTOR, BBall Index's LEBRON and Basketball Reference's box plus/minus (defensive and offensive), Butler runs the table in terms of individual statistical primacy.
Best Newcomer: Precious Achiuwa
The Heat were short on new faces in the rotation this year, but rookie Precious Achiuwa showed enough (especially early in the year when his role was bigger) to indicate he can be a quality backup center in the near future. Though he's undersized, he gets after it on the offensive glass and uses his physicality to draw frequent fouls underneath.
Don't Sleep on Him Award: Bam Adebayo
After hitting the national consciousness during the Heat's run to the 2020 Finals, Bam Adebayo improved his accuracy from the field and the foul line while bumping up his scoring average. He also finished more efficiently at the rim and, most importantly, honed a mid-range jumper that will force defenders to honor him on the perimeter.
That'll open up more lanes for Adebayo to utilize his passing skill.
And yet, perhaps because Butler was so clearly Miami's best player, it feels like Adebayo's profile is back down below where it was last July. We've kind of forgotten about one of the best young centers in the league.
Just wait for the playoffs, where his ability to defend at the rim and in space will once again allow the Heat to play with total stylistic freedom. Adebayo got better this season, and he's even more valuable in the playoffs because of his versatility and lack of an exploitable weakness.
MVP and DPOY: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo won't win his third consecutive MVP award, but it isn't as though he was a disappointment this year. The Milwaukee Bucks' leader in points, rebounds and assists per game was an absolute menace on both ends and should wind up on another All-NBA first team.
Fourth in the entire NBA in RAPTOR WAR, sixth in ESPN's real plus-minus, fourth in LEBRON and the only guy in the league to average at least 28 points and 11 rebounds, Antetokounmpo also excelled in less quantifiable ways—like flying around as an unsurpassed help defender and creating more of his own shots.
There might be a few better players in the league, but none of them play for the Bucks.
Best Newcomer: Jrue Holiday
In some ways, Jrue Holiday arrived as advertised: a fearsome multi-position defender who could shut down guards on the perimeter and stand strong against forwards down low. In others, he was even better than his stellar track record.
Perhaps it owes to playing alongside quality teammates, but Holiday also upped his steal rate to levels not seen in a half-decade, cut his turnovers to a career-low level and shot it better than ever from deep. An All-Defensive second-team honor feels likely.
Overlooked Again Award: Khris Middleton
Khris Middleton leads the Bucks in total assists and minutes, and he deserves special credit for propping up bench units that drive down his on-off splits. Because he's capable of getting his own looks against any matchup, he's tasked with running backup units more often than either of his star teammates.
It's yeoman's work, and it doesn't always help the statistical bottom line, but it's vital during the slog of the regular season. Khris Middleton, overlooked as always, we salute you.
MVP: Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns played in only four of the Minnesota Timberwolves' first 24 games. In the 20 contests he missed, the Wolves went 4-16. They haven't gone on some incredible run since KAT rejoined the lineup on a regular basis, but there's no denying the Timberwolves are the best version of themselves with their multi-skilled center boosting their offensive rating by double digits.
Towns grades out leaps and bounds better than any of his teammates in whichever catch-all metric you prefer, and he's on pace to easily eclipse 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for the fifth straight season.
DPOY: Jarred Vanderbilt
The Wolves spent the bulk of the season in the bottom five on defense, so they clearly lack a real difference-maker on that end. Jarred Vanderbilt comes closest.
The second-year big man has phenomenally active hands on D, which is why he ranks in the 97th percentile at his position in steal rate. No Wolves teammate with over 1,000 minutes played can match his 3.5 deflections per 36 minutes.
Vanderbilt is an offensive zero and can make mistakes of aggression on D, but he's extremely active and is developing a real knack for disruption.
Best Newcomer: Anthony Edwards
Anthony Edwards began his NBA career as an extremely inefficient offensive player who didn't demonstrate much interest in defense. However, the No. 1 overall pick made great strides as a scorer, posting a true shooting percentage after the All-Star game right around the league average—a massive improvement over the 46.6 percent figure he posted prior to the break.
His combination of physical strength and quick-twitch athleticism already make him a capital-P problem for even the most stout individual defenders. As Edwards improves his shot selection and develops foul-drawing craft, he profiles as a player who's capable of leading the league in scoring someday.
Edwards will finish the season as Minnesota's leader in total points, and given his post-break growth, Wolves fans should be optimistic about his prospects going forward.
Best Dunk Award: Anthony Edwards
Yes, this is an award concocted solely so we can celebrate one of the two or three best dunks of the season—a one-handed tomahawk on Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe.
New Orleans Pelicans
MVP: Zion Williamson
Once unleashed as an on-ball weapon who could attack from the perimeter, Zion Williamson was fully actualized. The league leader in paint points by a mile, Williamson was unstoppable for weeks at a time. He reeled off 25 straight games with 20 or more points on at least 50 percent shooting.
A deserving All-Star in his age-20 season, Williamson will finish this season as only the fourth player in league history to attempt more than 15 shots per game and hit over 60 percent of them. The other three are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale and Shaquille O'Neal.
DPOY: Steven Adams
Josh Hart can always be counted on for good effort on D, and Jaxson Hayes put together the most highlight blocks. But Steven Adams, as plodding and old-school as he is, was the Pels' best defender this year.
Vocal, knowledgable and always willing to throw his weight around, Adams was New Orleans' most reliable anchor—for whatever that's worth on a team we'll remember for having one of the most disappointing defenses in the league.
Biggest Surprise: Naji Marshall
Undrafted out of Xavier, Naji Marshall went from two-way status to regular rotation player in a matter of months. He then capped off his improbable first season by getting a four-year contract to stick with the Pelicans.
Marshall is unspectacular, but he plays hard and brings badly needed feel and basketball IQ to a Pels team short on both. He might top out in the backup small forward role he's been playing this year, but considering how little it cost New Orleans and the low expectations attached to a two-way talent, that would still count as success.
The Game Slowed Down Award: Jaxson Hayes
Hayes is still too jumpy on defense, and his overzealous hunt for blocks results in too many fouls. But the raw second-year center got better as the season progressed. After slipping to third on the center depth chart, Hayes seemed to redouble his efforts.
He's getting better at the subtle stuff—making contact on screens, getting into the right help positions and generally seeing the game in real time, rather than the sped-up version that left him looking lost for his entire first year and part of his second.
New York Knicks
MVP: Julius Randle
The clear favorite for Most Improved Player, Julius Randle took his game to new heights this year, hauling the New York Knicks with him.
Randle has long been a dangerous ball-handling big, capable of getting downhill and either finishing through contact or finding teammates. His lack of a reliable jumper used to make him easier to guard, but after making progress in the mid-range last year, Randle unveiled a suddenly deadly threat from deep.
After shooting over 28 percent from deep only once prior to this season, Randle cruised past the 40 percent mark this year and even excelled at the much more difficult (and much more important) off-the-dribble long ball. He essentially became an offensive player without a weakness.
Oh, and he leads the entire league in minutes played.
DPOY: Nerlens Noel
The Knicks' defensive success this season owes more to scheme and effort than the play of any individual, but Nerlens Noel made the most conspicuous impact with his shot-blocking and active hands. Noel ranked in the 97th percentile in block rate and the 94th percentile in steal rate among bigs.
Though he only ranks fourth in total minutes on the team, no Knicks player came close to contesting as many two-point shots or registering as many deflections as Noel.
Biggest Surprise: Derrick Rose
Should it be a surprise when a former MVP offers some of the best reserve minutes in the league? Well, when that award came a decade ago and said former MVP is on his fourth team in four years, it is.
Derrick Rose, once again rejuvenated by a reunion with Tom Thibodeau, gave the Knicks committed defense at the point of attack and tremendous offense, fueled by the best shooting splits of his career. No New York player's minutes coincided with a bigger boost to the team's net rating than Rose's.
Quietly, he was among the league's best backup players this season.
It Still Works Award: Tom Thibodeau
Call him hard-driving and old-fashioned. Lament his playing-time demands on his best players. But don't try to argue that Thibodeau's methods don't work.
Thibs got his team to play killer defense all year, Randle has never been better, RJ Barrett made real strides in a big role, Rose shone and the Knicks are likely to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
No team has been more surprising this year, and no coach deserves more credit than Thibodeau.
Oklahoma City Thunder
MVP: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
In his second season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became a star.
The most prolific driver in the league, SGA leveraged his signature off-time, off-tempo rhythm to reliably get himself into the lane. Adept at getting all the way to the rim, Gilgeous-Alexander could also punish backpedaling defenders with his deft array of short floaters and flip shots.
That he also drained 41.8 percent of his threes almost seems unfair.
In his age-22 campaign, SGA averaged 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds with a 62.3 true shooting percentage. He's the only player in league history to amass those numbers at such a young age.
OKC is going to build through the draft over most of the next decade, but it already has one pillar in place.
DPOY: Luguentz Dort
Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City's burly perimeter stopper, made a habit of checking the most dangerous opposing scorer all year. Though Dort's bulk sometimes makes it difficult for him to slide past screens, he's tough as nails in heads-up situations on the ball.
Best Newcomer: Al Horford
Al Horford could easily have earned DPOY for the Thunder. His on-off impact on OKC's defensive rating was the best of any player with at least 700 minutes, and he also ranks first among Thunder players above that minute threshold in D-LEBRON and defensive box plus/minus.
Oklahoma City shut down the 34-year-old, who was not injured, at the end of March. While there's a case to be made that preserving Horford's health is about keeping his trade value high for the offseason, OKC was also a bit too good to fully tank with him in the rotation.
What Are We Even Watching Here? Award: Aleksej Pokusevski
At 7'0" and listed at a hilariously generous 190 pounds, OKC rookie Aleksej Pokusevski catches the eye immediately. He has a guard's game in a frame that, well...you almost never see in the league. But when you do, it's that of a lumbering, awkward center, not a guy who shot more threes than twos.
Pokusevski was a deeply damaging player for the Thunder this year, but he flashed intriguing passing chops and a jump shot that, although very flat, might project as accurate in a year or two. The 17th pick in the draft won't even turn 20 until December. Nobody knows what he might become, but it's clear that he's enthralling to watch.
MVP: Nikola Vucevic
Even though he hasn't been on the team for nearly two months, Nikola Vucevic still leads the Orlando Magic in total points, rebounds and made triples. He's also second in assists.
This is as much a reflection of Orlando's midseason roster demolition as anything else, but it makes the point clear: Nobody did more for the Magic than Vooch, who was the offensive hub and, well, sort of there on D for roughly 34 minutes per game.
DPOY: Michael Carter-Williams
Michael Carter-Williams' length and ability to guard both wings and backcourt players made him Orlando's most useful defender this season. He ranked first in Defensive RAPTOR and topped every Magic teammate who played at least 500 minutes in D-LEBRON.
Orlando's defensive rating was a remarkable 10.6 points per 100 possessions stingier with MCW in the game, a team-best difference.
Best Newcomer: Wendell Carter, Jr.
Few players needed a fresh start more than Wendell Carter Jr., the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft, whose development with the Bulls might charitably be described as "uneven." The center's offensive and defensive roles kept changing.
With the Magic, Carter is shooting more threes than ever before while also finishing at career-best rates around the rim. On D, his lateral quickness has been on full display, and he had been a valuable rim-protector all year.
Orlando has itself a starting center.
File This Away Award: Chuma Okeke
This is just a gentle reminder to keep Chuma Okeke in the back of your mind as a potential breakout wing next year. After missing his entire rookie campaign in 2019-20 while recovering from a torn ACL and logging only 45 contests this season, you'd be forgiven for letting the 6'8" forward slip off your radar.
Don't make that mistake.
Okeke flashed a serviceable three-point shot (34.8 percent), decent passing instincts and the length and athleticism to someday become a major defensive asset. Even with so little experience, he was third on the Magic in Defensive RAPTOR. Just file that all away for next year.
MVP: Joel Embiid
Pure post dominance is all but gone these days, but Joel Embiid kept himself in the thick of the NBA's MVP discussion for most of the season by bludgeoning (and often also outsmarting) his enemies down low.
Despite resting several times throughout the year and missing three weeks with a knee injury, Embiid easily logged more total post-ups than anyone else in the league. His 1.09 points per play on those post-ups were more than anyone else with even half as many attempts managed, and he drew shooting fouls about one in every five times he engaged a defender on the block.
His 17.0 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions are the second-most ever, trailing only Shaquille O'Neal's 17.4 in 2000-01.
Throw in his career-best 37.7 percent hit rate on threes and one of the most accurate mid-range jumpers in the league, and the Philadelphia 76ers have themselves a multi-pronged offensive nightmare.
DPOY: Ben Simmons
Willing and able to guard any position on the floor, Ben Simmons was among the league's most valuable defensive players this season. If he doesn't get near unanimous approval for an All-Defensive first-team spot, something has gone wrong.
At 6'11", Simmons has the heft and length to obstruct big men in the lane, but he truly shines when locked onto a guard or wing on the perimeter. Out there, where players his size usually go to get burned, Simmons uses his quick feet and great hands to suffocate ball-handlers.
Rudy Gobert is probably going to win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, but Simmons will get some first-place votes.
Best Newcomer: Seth Curry
Seth Curry delivered—consistently and in exactly the ways the Sixers anticipated when they swung the deal with the Mavericks that brought him aboard.
At 44.3 percent overall and 48.0 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, Curry was the poison whom opponents often picked when forced to double Embiid underneath. A solid defender with a little more on-ball juice than some might think, Curry was a perfect fit in Philly's system.
A Jumper Away from Unmitigated Chaos Award: Matisse Thybulle
Matisse Thybulle is a hellacious defensive menace—the rare wing who can disrupt entire games with his length, anticipation and incomparable ability to get his hands on the basketball. His 5.6 deflections per 36 minutes lead the league (among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes), and his block and steal rates are both in the 100th percentile among wings.
If this guy ever figures out how to reliably hit a three or do anything with the ball on offense, he'll be an instant high-end starter. For now, he's just the player who runs wild for 20 minutes per game and terrifies opposing ball-handlers.
MVP and Best Newcomer: Chris Paul
The Phoenix Suns went 8-0 in last year's bubble, brought back a roster filled with young talent projected to improve and made several shrewd additions beyond the headlining deal they swung for Chris Paul. With so many other factors driving Phoenix's success, we can't just give CP3 all of the credit.
But most? Sure, we can give him most of it.
Paul imbued the Suns with confidence, organized them and helped put all those young players and new additions in position to thrive. He's only the fourth player in league history aged 35 or older to average at least 16 points and eight assists, and he's getting those numbers with terrific efficiency.
DPOY: Mikal Bridges
Mikal Bridges' arms stretch forever, which makes it unfair that he's also light on his feet and processes offensive actions quickly enough to help and recover from ridiculous distances. He blocks a ton of shots for a wing, rarely fouls and always handles the toughest opposing scorers.
Nobody would look at you sideways for claiming that Bridges is the best perimeter defender in the league.
We Have to Give Devin Booker Some Recognition Award: Devin Booker
Devin Booker's usage rate climbed while his true shooting percentage dipped, which is basically the opposite of what you'd expect in his first year sharing the floor with Paul.
Don't let that mislead you into thinking this was a disappointing season for the two-time All-Star, though. Booker improved defensively, perfected an already excellent mid-range arsenal and trimmed his turnover rate.
It's not always easy for a star to accommodate the arrival of a ball-dominant teammate, but Booker pulled it off this year.
Portland Trail Blazers
MVP: Damian Lillard
It had its ebbs and flows, but Damian Lillard's 2020-21 season belongs right up there among his best. A fringe MVP candidate until he and the Portland Trail Blazers slumped through much of April, Lillard got his team right back on track in May, salvaging a year that looked like it might have been headed for a one-game exit in the play-in round.
Lillard tops Portland in scoring and assists, and he's on track to finish this season with more made threes than he's ever posted despite the truncated schedule.
As Dame goes, so go the Blazers. Just like always.
DPOY and Best Newcomer: Robert Covington
Robert Covington isn't a shutdown individual defender, but he's dynamite off the ball and always finds ways to improve his team's performance on that end—like running away with the team lead in deflections and three-pointers contested while ranking third in total loose balls recovered.
Much was made of Portland's poor defensive performance overall this year, but don't attribute that to RoCo. He led all Blazers who logged at least 1,000 minutes in D-LEBRON and defensive box plus/minus.
Attack Mode Award: Norman Powell
Upon his arrival from the Toronto Raptors, Norman Powell immediately put his head down and went to the basket, adding a valuable element to a Blazers offense that sometimes didn't pierce the defensive perimeter often enough.
Lillard is an expert at splitting lazy traps, but he was often the only Portland player capable of getting all the way to the rim. CJ McCollum can break a defender down with ease, but he tends to favor short jumpers. Powell, as as second-side attacker, upped his attempt frequency at the rim with the Blazers.
The other attacking element showed up on D, where Powell became part of a Blazers defensive lineup—alongside Lillard, McCollum, Covington and Jusuf Nurkic—that was actually more predator than prey. For a Blazers team that got run over on defense all year, a unit that can fight back on that end will serve them well in the playoffs.
MVP: De'Aaron Fox
De'Aaron Fox added over four points per game to his scoring average (up to 25.2 from 21.1) while notching a career-high true shooting percentage. Although he fell short, the Sacramento Kings point guard was a more realistic All-Star consideration than ever before.
Able to create transition scoring chances all on his own, the blazing-fast Fox also got to the free-throw line more often than any teammate and led the team in assists.
Fox has yet to drive winning at a sustainable level, but he did nothing in his age-23 season to suggest he won't soon become one of the best guards in the league.
The Kings played the worst defense in the league this year by over a full point per 100 possessions, an alarming margin. Though they may not be the most inept defense of all time relative to league average, they will go down in history for owning either the worst or second-worst defensive rating ever produced. They're currently neck and neck for that honor with last year's Cavs.
Nobody gets an award for that.
Best Newcomer: Tyrese Haliburton
Much of the praise for feel, instincts and intelligence we lavished on LaMelo Ball applies here. Tyrese Haliburton came into his rookie season jumping passing lanes and seeing angles with a level of anticipation most veterans never achieve.
An unorthodox shooting stroke yielded a 40.9 percent hit rate on good volume from beyond the arc, and despite a thin frame and an aversion to contact, Hailburton shot a stellar 67.4 percent inside three feet.
A perfect fit alongside Fox whether on the ball or off, Hailburton was one of the three best rookies this season. Not a bad get at No. 12 in the draft.
Degree of Difficulty Award: Buddy Hield
There's real value in having a player who can bail a team out of a bad possession by scoring under duress, and Hield's hit rate of 37.2 percent on threes against tight coverage was bettered only by Stephen Curry and Duncan Robinson among players who attempted as many such shots as he did.
San Antonio Spurs
MVP: Dejounte Murray
Of all the MVPs we've handed out, this one is the trickiest. DeMar DeRozan led the San Antonio Spurs in points and assists, but how can someone who sends his team's defensive rating tumbling by double digits register as valuable at all, let alone most valuable?
Jakob Poeltl is going to get DPOY (spoiler!), but his offensive limitations make it tough to pick him for this award. Derrick White was great on both ends but ranked only eighth in total minutes.
That makes Dejounte Murray the pick. He led the Spurs in minutes, and only Rudy Gay's minutes made a bigger positive impact on the team's net rating.
Murray's elite backcourt defense helped him lead the team in steals by a hefty margin, and he's one of the best rebounding guards in the league—a skill that fuels grab-and-go opportunities. He's getting better on the other end, as evidenced by a new career high in scoring and a drastic cut in his turnover rate.
DPOY: Jakob Poeltl
Poeltl graded out as one of the single best interior defenders in the game. Only Rudy Gobert was credited with contesting more shots inside six feet, and Poeltl was one of only four high-volume rim-protectors to hold opponents below 50.5 percent at that range.
San Antonio's 25-year-old center does his best work inside and is best used in drop coverage, but he's not a lost cause when forced to switch. He's the Spurs' runaway leader in D-LEBRON and Defensive RAPTOR.
Biggest Surprise: Devin Vassell
The Spurs were short on new faces this year, so rookie Devin Vassell takes this one on the strength of his three-and-D potential. Vassell shot 36.4 percent from deep and put up terrific block and steal rates for a wing, ranking in the 77th percentile in the former and 91st in the latter.
Like Clockwork Award: Patty Mills
Few things in the NBA are more predictable than Patty Mills entering a game and then immediately turning it upside down with defensive pressure and timely shot-making—all executed at an accelerated pace that flummoxes unprepared opponents.
Only Rudy Gay, White, Murray and Poeltl posted higher on-court net-rating boosts than the Aussie combo guard.
Mills is in his 12th season, so modest dips in production are to be expected. But the veteran guard still brings a critical combination of intensity and intelligence whenever he's on the floor. And you'll take a slight decline in scoring efficiency when it still comes with a 37.8 percent accuracy rate on threes.
MVP: Fred VanVleet
If this was the last year of the Kyle Lowry era in Toronto, the iconic guard can at least leave knowing the franchise is in the hyper-competitive and capable hands of Fred VanVleet.
FVV is one of the game's most relentless on-ball pests, making up for a lack of size with physical strength and a fiery edge. You know, Lowry-type stuff. And on offense, VanVleet compensates for poor finishing at the rim with high-volume three-point shooting. The Raptors were better on both ends with VanVleet in the game.
Second on the team in total points and assists, first in steals and made threes, and the clear leader in LEBRON Wins Added, RAPTOR WAR and estimated plus-minus, VanVleet was Toronto's most reliable and productive force in a season defined by inconsistency and struggle.
DPOY: OG Anunoby
Woe betide the offensive player who tries to score on OG Anunoby, the guy you'd choose over anyone else to get a stop in isolation if, for some reason, your life depended on it.
Ridiculously strong for a wing and uncommonly versatile, Anunoby is also a terror off the ball. Screening him doesn't work, and even if forced to switch, there's really no offensive player type that presents him with a problem he can't solve.
Biggest Surprise: Chris Boucher
Chris Boucher never had a problem with the volume side of three-point shooting, but this was the first year that he excelled in the accuracy department, hitting 38.3 percent of his treys after never cracking 33.0 percent in any previous season. Maybe we should have noted his solid free-throw shooting and expected a leap in accuracy like the one Toronto's ultra-lanky big man made.
Boucher's frame makes it tough for him to hang with stronger opponents on defense, but he's a quality shot blocker—even in locations where swats are rare.
Boucher nearly doubled his minutes per game and became a rotation fixture. That's uncommon in an age-28 season.
Nobody Panic Award: Pascal Siakam
Siakam was the next choice for team MVP honors after VanVleet. Though the disappearance of his three-point shot was the main reason his meteoric rise (Most Improved Player in 2018-19, followed by an All-NBA nod in 2019-20) stalled, Siakam was just as good or better in most other areas.
For example, Siakam's career-high assist rate pointed to improved playmaking, and his player efficiency rating this season was only a hair below his mark from last year.
Siakam would have had to win MVP to continue his growth rate from the last two years. Nobody's saying he's topped out, but if Toronto's star two-way forward improves no further, he's still a hugely valuable player.
MVP and DPOY: Rudy Gobert
Even if Donovan Mitchell hadn't lost significant time to a late-season ankle sprain, both of these awards were bound to land in Rudy Gobert's hands.
The Utah Jazz's entire defense is built around sending trouble to Gobert, who neutralizes it. It's no coincidence that Utah's defensive efficiency is astronomically better with Gobert on the floor because, well...he is Utah's defense.
Mitchell has a considerably more difficult offensive job, but if value is determined by total impact on a team, Gobert just doesn't have a close competitor on the Jazz. In addition to his structural indispensability, Gobert also leads Utah in win shares, box plus/minus, RPM, RAPTOR WAR and any other catch-all worth consulting.
Biggest Surprise: Joe Ingles
Joe Ingles being a valuable member of a winning team is not a surprise. He's been one of those for years.
What should register as a shock is the fact that a ground-bound wing who almost never gets to the rim ranks ninth in the league in true shooting percentage. And when you trim the list to players who've attempted at least 400 shots, he's second, trailing only teammate Gobert, whose range is "dunk."
It's Finally Over! Award: Mike Conley
It took 14 years, but Mike Conley made an All-Star team. He'll no longer be known as the best player not to receive that honor. That has to feel pretty good.
MVP: Bradley Beal
Russell Westbrook's triple-doubles always impress, but Bradley Beal was the Washington Wizards' most consistent and productive player. The league's leading scorer until Stephen Curry went thermonuclear in April, Beal is averaging 31.4 points per game. He's on pace to score at least 400 more points than his closest teammate.
While Westbrook's minutes actually drive Washington's net rating down for the year, Beal's coincide with a 4.5-point boost in the positive direction.
There's no statistic to capture it, but Beal's complete offensive game means the Wizards can surround him with all different kinds of talent. Westbrook, meanwhile, has limitations (like the absence of a perimeter shot) that have to be actively schemed around.
DPOY: Robin Lopez
Wizards opponents hit a much lower percentage of their shots at the rim with Robin Lopez in the game, and his box-out mastery predictably produced gains in defensive rebound rate when he was on the floor.
Lopez isn't a flashy "soaring from out of nowhere" shot-blocker, and he's not adept in switching situations. But he's generally positioned well, communicates and is willing to take contact for the good of the team.
Best Newcomer: Russell Westbrook
Daniel Gafford was a great deadline get on the cheap, and he projects as a useful rotation center going forward. Had he spent more time with the team, he would likely have been DPOY.
But we can't pretend any new Wizard was better than Westbrook.
Sure, we implicitly devalued his triple-doubles in the MVP section while also pointing out more of his weaknesses than strengths. Although his stat-hoarding gets more attention than it should, Russ' ability to energize his team with nonstop competitive fury doesn't get enough notice.
Washington's late rally this season, which has seen it barge into a play-in spot, is tied directly to Westbrook playing more and playing better since the All-Star break.
Maybe This Was Enough Award: Scott Brooks
Had the Wizards continued their unintentional tank, there would have been no doubt about head coach Scott Brooks' future. This season was the last on his five-year contract, and the fact that he began the campaign without an extension in place further supported the belief that he wouldn't be around in 2021-22. Organizations rarely let a coach they value reach "free agency."
Now that Washington is ensconced as a play-in team—one that has the star power to put a scare into a high seed if it were to reach the playoffs—maybe Brooks will be back after all.