B/R Staff Predicts Every Major Award for 2021 NBA Season
The NBA feels as unpredictable as it's ever been, and that notion applies to more than the number of title contenders. Individual award races are wide-open too.
Just look at the MVP field. FanDuel Sportsbook considers seven players more likely to win the award than the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic. There are nine players with odds between +500 (bet $100 to win $500) and +1800, and you could probably talk yourself into picking any of them.
The same goes for Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. And of course, Most Improved Player, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year are always shots in the dark.
None of that prevents us from picking all of the above, though. There are clues, hunches and trends that point to certain individuals for certain awards, and Bleacher Report's NBA staff is here to uncover them for you.
Rookie of the Year: Jalen Green
Don't put much stock into Jalen Green's inefficient preseason. Anthony Edwards shot under 30 percent from the floor during his rookie preseason before eventually learning to pick his spots and build rhythm and shot-making confidence.
No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham is already behind, missing valuable experimental reps because of an ankle injury. And his struggles inside the arc, which he went through during college and summer league, figure to carry over early in his career until his finishing touch and decision-making improve to compensate for a lack of explosion.
Green shouldn't have as much trouble adjusting given his special quickness off the bounce and turning the corner and how electric his hops are around the basket.
It wouldn't be surprising if he wound up being streaky around the perimeter, but in Houston, Green should have a green light to shoot through slumps. He's also made significant strides with his jumper and shot-making versatility over the years.
He'll continue to threaten defenses as a pull-up and step-back threat off the dribble and also as a deep spot-up target and off-screen shooter when Kevin Porter Jr. is running the offense.
Between Green's world-class athletic ability, advanced creation and scoring skills and projected usage, the No. 2 pick should be the No. 1 favorite for Rookie of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
Voter fatigue is a real thing in NBA award voting. For that reason alone, picking Rudy Gobert to secure his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in five years feels like a stretch. But there are also plenty of reasons he remains the betting favorite heading into the season.
Gobert has been the Utah Jazz's full-time starting center since 2015-16. Over that stretch, the difference between Utah's defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and second place is about the same as the distance between second and ninth. And of course, that number drops even more when Gobert is on the floor.
He is a defense unto himself. Tune into any Jazz game and you're likely to see multiple drivers do an about-face upon seeing Gobert in the lane. You're probably going to see him hit double figures in defensive rebounds. You'll see a couple of blocks. And if you're really in tune, you'll notice how Utah's perimeter defenders can be a bit more aggressive because they know actions are funneling toward one of the greatest rim protectors of all time.
As Gobert enters his age-29 season surrounded by a core that had the best defense in the league in 2020-21, there's no reason to think his impact will suddenly disappear. Only injuries and voters simply wanting to shake things up can keep him out of this hunt.
Executive of the Year: Arturas Karnisovas
If the decision was up to the NBA itself, Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas might be disqualified from the Executive of the Year award.
Given the ongoing tampering investigation of the Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade (that impossibly leaked just seconds into the free-agent period), the Bulls face potential censure that could include the loss of a first-round draft pick.
But the voting is done by a single basketball executive from each of the 30 franchises, and Karnisovas could have enough support based on a series of moves that date back to last season's acquisition of center Nikola Vucevic in trade from the Orlando Magic.
He's since added DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr. and Ball in a series of transactions, enough to earn the nod in the NBA.com GM survey (as compiled by John Schuhmann) for the most improved team in 2021-22.
The squad, at least on paper, should go from an also-ran in the Eastern Conference to one of the top-six teams outside of play-in range. Given the franchise hasn't been to the playoffs since 2016-17, a return to the postseason should make Karnisovas the favorite for the award.
He still has work to do, given All-Star guard LaVine will be an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason. The Bulls could have chosen to go under the salary cap to renegotiate and extend him this season, but that would have limited the franchise's ability to add talent around him. Instead, Karnisovas seems to believe that LaVine will be more likely to re-sign after his first-ever playoff run.
But that's tomorrow's issue, and Karnisovas will be able to bring his shiny, recently won Executive of the Year award into the free-agency meeting with LaVine next July.
Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse
Coach of the Year does not always go to the best coach that season; rather, it goes to the coach who overachieved. Just look at last season with Tom Thibodeau winning it over Monty Williams.
This season, with expectations low for the Toronto Raptors, Nick Nurse is in a great position to win his second Coach of the Year Award.
The Raptors were a wreck last season, from relocating to Tampa Bay at the last second, injuries and COVID-19 affecting a number of guys and the Kyle Lowry saga hanging over their heads. With all of that, they were in the play-in race for most of the season before tanking.
Nurse is a defensive genius and always has his team prepared. Rookie Scottie Barnes has looked good in the preseason, OG Anunoby looks poised to make a leap, and Fred VanVleet finally has the keys to the team. Everyone is sleeping on this group, and it will allow them to sneak up on teams.
Mike Budenholzer won the award twice in a four-year span. Gregg Popovich won it twice in a three-year span. Nurse can win it for a second time if the Raptors exceed their low expectations and make the playoffs.
Sixth Man of the Year: Tyler Herro
Scoring guards historically dominate this award, and if Tyler Herro makes good on this prediction, he'll both keep the trend going and dethrone another perimeter point-producer, Utah Jazz super-sub Jordan Clarkson.
So, why Herro and not Clarkson, Derrick Rose, Kevin Huerter, Patty Mills or another bench backcourt baller? A couple of reasons.
First, Herro just looks like he's ready for a breakout. He spent the summer bulking up his body and beefing up his game with floaters, mid-rangers and the variety of buckets that have propelled him to a sizzling preseason start.
Second, with Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn out of Miami, Herro should feast buffet-style on the offensive chances not claimed by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry. And, since the Heat's stars are all willing and capable distributors, Herro should see no shortage of catch-and-fire opportunities.
Finally, team success always plays a part in these award races, and no team elevated its ceiling higher this summer than the Heat. If Miami can get its mitts on a top-four seed in the East, Herro should have the wins and the numbers needed to pull this off.
Most Improved Player: Jordan Poole
Winning the title of Most Improved Player is all about blending skill and opportunity. Going into the 2021-22 season, Golden State Warriors shooting guard Jordan Poole has both.
With Klay Thompson's return date still a question (January?) and Kelly Oubre Jr. having left for the Charlotte Hornets in free agency, Poole should have a golden opportunity to start at shooting guard next to Stephen Curry for a Warriors team that will need his scoring to stay in the playoff picture.
Following a rough rookie season (8.8 points on 33.3 percent shooting), Poole proved himself as a real rotation player last season, averaging 12.0 points on 43.2 percent shooting (35.1 percent from three) while playing just 19.4 minutes per game. In seven games as a starter, his numbers jumped to 21.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 44.2/37.0/90.9 shooting splits across 33.7 minutes.
The 22-year-old averaged 23.3 points this preseason, showing off a diverse offensive game and some improved passing chops. Even when Thompson presumably returns around midseason, Poole should play a big role off the bench as the team's sixth man.
With opposing teams focused on stopping Curry every night, Poole could emerge as the Warriors' newest star and should be the favorite for the league's Most Improved Player.
MVP: Kevin Durant
If Kevin Durant hadn't missed around half of the 2020-21 season, he would have been firmly in the mix for MVP. When he was on the floor, he looked just like the pre-Achilles tear version of himself, and he enters this season back in the conversation for best player in the NBA.
The drama surrounding Kyrie Irving's absence as he continues to do his own research about the COVID-19 vaccine will only help Durant's chances in the eyes of MVP voters. If the Nets are a top-two seed in the East, which they absolutely should be with Durant and James Harden, he'll score bonus points for navigating the adversity of playing potentially the whole season without his third star.
Durant was spectacular in Brooklyn's second-round series against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, and that—along with an equally dominant showing with Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics—will be fresh in voters' minds as the season progresses.
Health is the only thing that could derail Durant from taking home what would somehow be only the second MVP trophy of his career.