B/R NBA Staff Names Every Major Award Winner
As the 2020-21 NBA season reaches its conclusion, the league prepares to dole out the following individual honors:
- Executive of the Year
- Coach of the Year
- Sixth Man of the Year
- Most Improved Player
- Defensive Player of the Year
- Rookie of the Year
Bleacher Report asked seven NBA experts to vote on each category and break down their winner of one award.
Hit the comments in the app to tell us who you've got for each award this season.
Executive of the Year
Sean Marks took over as general manager of the Brooklyn Nets in 2016, inheriting a team bereft of talent and draft picks. What he's done over that span is remarkable, capped off by the January trade to acquire James Harden from the Houston Rockets. Now the Nets are one of the elite title contenders heading into the postseason.
From the out-of-the-box hiring of Steve Nash as the team's head coach to taking advantage of the buyout market (Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge before the latter's retirement because of an irregular heartbeat), Marks kept the team rolling despite several injuries (Spencer Dinwiddie, Kevin Durant, Harden, Aldridge, etc.).
The Brooklyn star trio of Kyrie Irving, Harden and Durant still needs to prove its worth together in the playoffs, but Marks did his part in assembling a powerhouse.
Any move in the NBA comes with risk, but then so does inaction. Marks parted with Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and significant draft capital, but the opportunity to win in this league is rare. He deserves more than just Executive of the Year—name him Executive of the Quinquennium.
Coach of the Year
Publicly, a lot of the credit for the Phoenix Suns' turnaround from 10 years of lottery irrelevance to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference has gone to Chris Paul's impact in his first year with the team. But Paul would probably never have been interested in joining this squad if not for the culture of competence and professionalism that head coach Monty Williams put in place.
The two had a relationship from their time together in New Orleans, and their partnership this year has been a continuation of what Williams started with the Suns in their 8-0 run in the bubble last season.
If I had a real ballot with three spots, second place would go to Tom Thibodeau, who had a similar transformative impact in his first year with the New York Knicks by leading them to their first postseason berth since 2012-13. Third place would go to Nate McMillan for the Atlanta Hawks' turnaround after he took over for Lloyd Pierce midseason and went 26-11 after their 14-20 start.
Sixth Man of the Year
It seems like we're obligated to start by mentioning Jordan Clarkson, who fits the classic Jamal Crawford-Lou Williams "I will get you buckets" sixth-man mold. Clarkson seemed like a lock earlier this year, but he hasn't scored nearly as efficiently of late, with his true shooting percentage diving from 58.1 before the All-Star break to 51.1 (waaaay below the league average) since. Clarkson's 18.2 points per game are still valuable; he probably deserves top-five or even top-three consideration here.
His teammate, Joe Ingles, a man who has never once made me regret christening him Slo-Mo Ginobili, deserves the win for his extreme scoring efficiency and excellent playmaking, both of which have been vital to the Utah Jazz's dominant campaign.
Of the 190 players to attempt at least 400 shots this season, Ingles ranks second in true shooting percentage. He's draining a preposterous 45.3 percent of his threes, with many more coming off the dribble this year than ever. Ingles ranks in the 99th and 97th percentiles at his position in points per shot attempt and assist rate, respectively. You could argue there's not another player who more reliably produces efficient offense—whether via shot or pass—in the league.
Ingles cannot be ignored off the ball, and his heady facilitating makes him just as dangerous on it. A pick-and-roll master, Ingles has assisted 75 buckets for Rudy Gobert, second only to starting point guard Mike Conley, who gets about seven more minutes per game alongside the big man.
Ingles' 12.1 points and 4.7 assists per contest don't leap off the page, but his efficiency numbers are undeniably great. Clarkson will win this award, and that's fine. But Ingles is the better choice.
Most Improved Player
Julius Randle deserves to land the Most Improved Player award running away.
Though he's always had that box score-stuffing air about him, the methods by which he's maintaining that this season are noticeably different. He is drilling step-back threes and ridiculously difficult baseline jumpers. His passes are less last resorts and more deliberate. Even the ones he throws after leaving his feet, when the defense has committed to guarding his shot, feel more planned than improvised. And his defensive hustle has generally improved under New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The results are impossible to ignore: 24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game with a 41.1 percent clip from three, all career highs and dramatic upticks over last year. This isn't someone merely making the most of more opportunity. It is a comprehensive leap, and the transition he's made from good player to All-NBA candidate and viable cornerstone for a playoff team ranks among the absolute hardest to complete.
It is the difficulty ascribed to both his role and improvement that give Randle the decided edge over any other contenders. Jerami Grant had a stronghold on this award for the first part of the season, but he's now played significantly fewer minutes than Randle, and his evolution is limited almost exclusively to his reach as a scorer.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would have a real case if not for all the time he missed with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. Michael Porter Jr. deserves consideration as well, but this is only his second season, and he spent much of the year playing off two star safety nets in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Randle is the pick, and it is no longer particularly close.
Defensive Player of the Year
One could make a case for either Rudy Gobert or Ben Simmons as the NBA's best defender this season, and picking a winner isn't easy because of their positional differences.
If we combine the eye test and the defensive metrics, however, the leader has to be Gobert.
Already a two-time winner, the big man has carried the Utah Jazz to the NBA's No. 1 defense this season, a mark that in turn has produced the league's best record. He remains a rim-protecting force (league-high 2.7 blocks per game) while also showing growth in his perimeter defense and overall footwork.
Gobert improves Utah's defense a whopping 12.1 points per 100 possessions, while Simmons comes in at just a 3.1 points per 100 possessions improvement for the Philadelphia 76ers. Gobert is also holding opponents to 14.4 percentage points below their shooting averages within six feet of the rim, and 7.5 percentage points below overall.
Of course, there's no statistical measurement for Gobert's presence alone, one that causes opponents to continually settle for mid-range jumpers rather than test him in the paint.
While voter fatigue may swing some votes toward Simmons (who was also excellent at point guard), Gobert was once again the best defensive player in the league this season.
Rookie of the Year
As productive and impactful as LaMelo Ball has been, the wrist injury hurts his case. Playing 21 more games than the Charlotte Hornets guard, Anthony Edwards has his scoring average up to 19.1 points per game. The last rookies to average that many: Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard.
Edwards has been very efficient for a teenage 2-guard lately, shooting 46.9 percent in April and May and unloading on defenses with his signature mix of explosiveness, creativity and shot-making. He's getting the looks he wants and hitting threes and tough jumpers at veteran rates. And though the Hornets (33-38) have a better record, the Minnesota Timberwolves (22-49) have been much more competitive during Edwards' recent surge.
I'm still betting on Ball long term, but what Edwards has done the second half of the season—while LaMelo had to sit—should give him an edge for Rookie of the Year.
I was fully riding the Joel Embiid train throughout most of this season. His two-way dominance is something special that few big men in today's game can really come close to matching. But this isn't even a games-played issue for me.
With how Nikola Jokic has performed as the true engine of a still-dangerous Denver Nuggets team, even without Jamal Murray (torn ACL), there's no real argument for anyone outside the Joker. He's the reason that team has improbably emerged in the top tier of an absolutely loaded Western Conference.
Here's an obligatory shoutout to Michael Malone and his coaching staff for the impressive job they've done steering this ship as well.
It's a shame that Denver won't get the opportunity to chase this year's championship with Murray in the fold, but the fact that the Nuggets are still posing a real threat out west nudges this award in the favor of Jokic.