Who Will Win All the Individual Awards From the NBA's Bizarre, Abridged Season?
The NBA announced that Orlando bubble games will not count toward its individual awards
As the NBA gears up to restart its season later this month, the league told teams on Friday that the upcoming seeding games ahead of the playoffs will not impact this season’s individual awards. In other words, awards like the Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year will only take into account games that occurred prior to the coronavirus pandemic stoppage, back in March.
For some of the awards, the announcement doesn’t change much; there were such strong favorites prior to the pandemic that a handful of seeding games in an unprecedented setting wouldn’t change much. It is strange, however, that the MVP and Coach of the Year awards will not factor in these games, seeing as how the winners will almost definitely come from the 22 teams invited to the bubble.
Regardless, the decision allows voters — and, by extension, fans — to make their decisions without having the bizarre circumstances of the Orlando bubble to distract them. This is both a positive and a negative; it’s a good thing that players will be judged on what was mostly the “normal” part of the season, but ending the candidacy periods early will rob us all of at least two really good races in the home stretch of the season.
With that in mind, here’s who we think will win each of the NBA’s major individual awards, as well as who could potentially steal it away if voters skew from the general consensus.
Most Valuable Player – Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
This is probably the only surefire lock out of all of the individual awards, so it’s good to get it out of the way early. Though LeBron James has been incredible after a down season in 2018-2019 — the Lakers star is leading the NBA in assists on the team with the second-best record — the MVP award is heading to Milwaukee barring some unfortunate voting mishap.
Not that Giannis doesn’t deserve it. He’s the best player on the best team, and clearly so. That’s always been a good place to start with the MVP award, and it sure doesn’t hurt that he averaged 29.6 points per game to go along with 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He’s a monster on the defensive end as well — more on this in a bit — and is generally the engine that makes Milwaukee’s brutally efficient gameplan work as well as it has. He’s even somewhat improved his three-point shot while jacking up the amount of threes he’s taking: he’s shooting 30.6 percent on 4.8 attempts, compared to 25.6 and 2.8 last season, respectively. He’s the rightful winner, and the most likely winner at that.
James is the only real contender for the award, and if he were to win it on the strength of the narrative, it wouldn’t be the biggest robbery of all time. That’s a low bar to clear, but it shouldn’t matter with how well Giannis (and, by extension, the Bucks) played before the pandemic stoppage.
Rookie of the Year – Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Of all the awards to be handed out, the Rookie of the Year trophy is the one that loses the most from the decision to not count the bubble games towards the decision. That’s because Pelicans bulldozer Zion Williamson was truly a force of nature once he actually got on the court in late January. If he kept that going in the Orlando bubble, perhaps he could have caught up with Memphis guard Ja Morant despite playing three fewer months.
That’s not to say that Morant won’t be a deserving winner, but rather that the competition would have been stellar between last summer’s top two picks. The 20-year-old point guard from Murray State has been phenomenal in leading Memphis to their current spot as the 8th seed in a crowded Western Conference. He’s currently leading Memphis in points per game (17.6) and assists per game (6.9, good for 13th in the NBA) while also shooting nearly 37 percent from three-point land. He’s a deserving winner, in any year.
It’s a shame, though, that we won’t get to see these two continue to polish their resumes for the top rookie award, but Morant should win it off of the strength of his pre-stoppage production. Williamson will just have to be content with showing off his titanic skills in Orlando as a coda of sorts. Either way, NBA fans are the ones who truly win with these two youngsters in the league at the same time.
Coach of the Year – Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors)
If a team that just won the title loses the reigning NBA Finals MVP, they could be forgiven for sliding down the standings. The combination of losing Kawhi Leonard and the title hangover from the city’s first NBA title could have (and maybe should have) hit the Toronto Raptors hard, but here they are, clearly the second-best team in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
A lot of that has to do with head coach Nick Nurse, who has guided Pascal Siakam from role player to to All-Star and team leader in just three seasons. Nurse has also led the Raptors to the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, with their 104.9 points allowed per 100 possessions trailing only the Bucks’ rating of 101.6. Though their offense is only ranked 12th in the league, the Raptors have plenty of scoring options, from Siakam to Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry.
It’s hard to think anyone has a chance to dethrone Nurse, but the closest might be Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan, who has the Thunder as the fifth seed in the West despite trading away Russell Westbrook in the off-season. Of course, they got Chris Paul in return, who has been stellar this season, an MVP candidate in any season that didn’t feature Giannis going supernova. So while Donovan’s work has been commendable, it will likely not sway enough voters to overcome Nurse.
Defensive Player of the Year – Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Individual defense is still, even with all the advances in NBA analytics, a hard category to judge objectively. You can look at plus-minus numbers and defensive ratings to get a general sense of who the best defensive players are in the league. Or you can go with the eye test.
Either way, this appears to be a three-horse race between three players who have significantly different styles, therefore making it even harder than usual to judge a winner. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the two-time reigning DPOY, and that narrative could get him a handful of votes that he otherwise might not. However, and this is perhaps unfair, voters might be inclined to not vote for Gobert after his coronavirus antics before the stoppage.
So that should leave Lakers big man Anthony Davis against the Bucks’ lanky star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Davis has the resume and checks off on the eye test; the Lakers are better defensively with him this year, and his ability to both guard the rim and the perimeter is invaluable. But this feels like it is Giannis’s year all around, and it would be a safe bet to see his defensive production on the perimeter make him only the third player to win both the MVP and the DPOY award in the same year, following Michael Jordan in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.
Sixth Man of the Year – Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers)
This might be the most tightly contested category of them all, and it is, curiously, being contested by two teammates. The two best bench players in the league this season have been fellow Clippers Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who have helped the reloaded bridesmaid team in Los Angeles to the second seed in the Western Conference.
Statistically, the two are extremely close in different ways. Their point totals are comically similar: Williams is averaging 18.7 per contest, while Harrell is at 18.6. Williams is more of a playmaker, while Harrell provides better defense and rebounding. Truly, either one would be a worthy winner of the Sixth Man of the Year trophy, but the strength of Williams’s career as a sixth man — he’s won this award twice in a row, and three times overall — could lead voters to go with the familiar pick. Of course, it could go the other way, and voters might reward the newcomer to the award race in Harrell.
It’s hard to say which way it will go, aside from it going to a Clipper. If, however, the Clippers duo split the votes somehow, watch out for Oklahoma City Thunder backup guard Dennis Schroeder, who has been a fantastic option off the bench for Donovan, averaging 19 points and 4 assists while backing up Chris Paul.
Most Improved Player – Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
If the MVP is the closest thing to a lock this season, the Most Improved Player is a close second. Historically, the award has been giving to a young player who made a huge leap, which is exactly what has happened with Miami center Bam Adebayo.
Though he’s always had the physical skills and defensive acumen, Adebayo took a leap prior to the stoppage, making his first All-Star team and perhaps even overtaking Jimmy Butler as the most important player in the Heat’s rotation. Adebayo has almost doubled his points per game contribution to 16.2 per game, while also bringing in 10.5 rebounds per contest and generally making opponents’ lives miserable on the defensive end.
There are a handful of half-contenders behind Adebayo, most notably New Orleans forward Brandon Ingram and, somehow, last season’s MIP winner Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors, though it is unheard of for someone to win this particular award two seasons in a row. Siakam has, in fact, improved quite a bit this season, but he would have little-to-zero chance to win even if Adebayo weren’t such a strong favorite.
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