It's time for everyone's favorite preseason exercise: Awards predictions. Here's who I anticipate will win and be in the running for each of the major award categories (Most Valuable Player; Rookie of the Year; Most Improved Player; Sixth Man of the Year; Defensive Player of the Year; Coach of the Year; and Executive of the Year) at the end of the 2020-21 NBA season:
Is Luka Doncic the best player in the NBA? Nope - that title still belongs to LeBron James, and it's not particularly close. Will Luka have the most impressive stat line this season? Doubtful - Giannis Antetokounmpo will probably replicate or improve upon his historically great regular season in 2019-20. Then why is Luka the top MVP candidate heading into this season? First and foremost, because he's awesome - he's basically James Harden if Harden was fun to play with and enjoyable to watch. Because there's perpetual voter fatigue with LeBron and about to be voter fatigue with Giannis. And because Luka is a player on the rise, and MVP voters love to get distracted by a shiny new object.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will probably "deserve" his third straight MVP this season, but the question is: Will voters judge him on this 2020-21 season alone? Or will they allow his past two playoff flameouts to cloud their opinion of him until he wins a title? ( As a LeBron James fan, voters better do the latter - voters have changed MVP criteria damn near every season since 2014 to avoid giving LeBron's his fifth MVP!! But I digress...) Kidding aside, Giannis had an insane regular season last year, averaging 29.5 PPG., 13.6 RPG., 5.6 APG., and finished with the highest Player Efficiency Rating (31.86) in NBA history. If he comes close to matching or somehow surpasses his performance from last season, he deserves every MVP vote he receives.
This one might come as somewhat of a surprise considering most expect LeBron James to "load manage" his way through the regular season after a shortened offseason. We'll see about that. LeBron has routinely stated, "If I'm healthy, I play." If LeBron sticks to that mantra, and, assuming he stays healthy, he's going to average 25 PPG., 8-10 APG. and 7-8 RPG., he's going to lead the Lakers to one of the best records in the NBA, and he's going to finish near the top of the MVP vote. He's LeBron James - it's just what he does.
This fourth spot came down to Damian Lillard or Steph Curry. If Curry is a 98 out of 100, then Lillard is a 95 or 96. However, Lillard has a better chance at making the playoffs this season as Portland's roster improved and got healthier this offseason whereas Curry's team's roster got worse with the loss of Klay Thompson. Curry's team will be fighting for a playoff spot, so it'll be difficult for him to garner much MVP buzz no matter how impressive his numbers are. On the other hand, Lillard will probably put up similar numbers and the Blazers could be contending for home-court advantage in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. MVP winners are almost always on one of the teams with the best record in the conference. Picking Video Game Dame over Chef Curry isn't a referendum on which player is better, it's simply a logical guess as to which team is going to be better in the regular season.
Here's a bit of a sleeper pick for MVP: Jayson Tatum. After enjoying a huge leap to All-NBA status last season, Tatum will now have to shoulder a greater playmaking burden with Gordon Hayward's departure and Kemba Walker's injury. Therefore, you should expect Tatum's 2020-21 regular season numbers to resemble his 2020 playoff numbers (25.7 PPG., 10 RPG., 5 APG. with 43-37-81 shooting splits). If he posts those kinds of numbers with slightly better shooting splits, he'll be a deserving MVP candidate when it's all said and done.
The argument for Obi Toppin winning Rookie of the Year is fairly simple: He was the best player in college basketball last season; he's a scorer and can rebound (lots of stats = lots of ROY votes); his weakness is on the defensive end and rookies are supposed to stink on defense, and he's on arguably the worst team in the NBA, so he'll get plenty of playing time and opportunities to put up huge highlights. Playing in New York for a team with a fan base desperate for some hope won't hurt his case either.
Speaking of teams without much hope in the near future, the Cavaliers are going to be terrible this season. However, they'll be very pleased with their no. 5 overall pick Isaac Okoro. Okoro has been very impressive on both ends of the court his preseason, flashing the complete skill set that made him a lottery pick after just one season at Auburn. A good example of his all-around potential as a great NBA wing came on the final play of his first career preseason game where he contested a jump shot, outran everyone down the court, and finished a difficult "and-one" with 0.3 seconds remaining. Get ready for a lot more end-to-end plays like that from him in Cleveland.
Standing 6-foot-8, and blessed with prodigious court vision, LaMelo Ball could easily take home Rookie of the Year honors if he shoots the ball reasonably well. Although he was a horrendous shooter from distance in the NBL, Ball made some good adjustments to his shot over the past year - shooting it more on the way up and making it a more compact shot with less leg kick. These moves appear to have helped as he's been shooting the ball with accuracy and confidence all preseason.
Who? Remember this guy's name because he's going to surprise a lot of people for the Thunder this season. Theo Maledon harkens from Tony Parker's hometown in France and has a somewhat similar game in the lane - lots of creative floaters and shots from unique angles. At 6-foot-4, with a big wingspan, he also has some similarities to his teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with his ability to guard multiple positions. Maledon has popped during the preseason, and with the Thunder tanking this year, he should get ample opportunities to prove that he's a player OKC should invest in long-term.
James Wiseman probably won't have the eye-popping stats that you typically associate with players who win the Rookie of the Year. That's okay though because most players who win the Rookie of the Year don't play for teams that fancy themselves contenders like Golden State does. If Wiseman can give the Warriors 20-25 strong minutes of above-average center play a night, then he should be right there with any of these other candidates at the end of the season. With his crazy size and athleticism, he'll also have the exciting highlights to stand out even more in voters' minds.
Get ready for a whole bunch of super sophomores to contend for this honor. Leading the way will be last year's Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant, who, judging by the preseason, looks ready to absolutely take off this year. After averaging 17.8 PPG. and 7.3 APG. as a rookie, look for Morant to put up over 20 PPG. and nearly 10 APG. this season. If he were to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs, it'd be a massive accomplishment for such a young point guard and make him worthy of the MIP award.
If Morant doesn't win Most Improved Player, don't be surprised if Zion Williamson does. When he was on the court last season, which was only 24 games, Williamson was an All-Star caliber player, averaging 22.5 PPG. and 6.3 RPG. on 58.3 percent shooting. In addition to needing to stay healthy, Williamson has plenty of room for improvement on the defensive end of the court. If he's able to play the majority of the Pelicans' games and flash some of the elite defensive ability he flashed at Duke, he should be high on everyone's MIP ballot.
After making a big jump in his second NBA season, De'Aaron Fox struggled to stay healthy last season, playing only 51 games. The injuries seem to throw off his shot a bit - his three-point shooting dropped from 37.1 percent to 29.2 percent - so that will need some positive regression for him to contend for this award. If it does, then his scoring (21.1 PPG. last season) could be up around 24-25 PPG. to go along with his customary 7-8 APG - those are stats that only elite NBA guards average.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander actually finished with the fifth-most Most Improved Player award votes last season after an impressive year (19.0 PPG., 5.9 RPG., 3.3 APG.). How could he be on the ballot again this year? Well, the Thunder traded or failed to re-sign the other four players that combined with SGA to make the league's most clutch lineup last season (Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams). In other words, it's all about SGA this season. Let's see how high his ceiling is.
After a highly inefficient start to his career, Coby White finished last season on an absolute tear, averaging 26.1 PPG on 48-43-90 shooting over his last nine games. This preseason, he's looked just as comfortable and scintillating as was during that final stretch before the league-wide coronavirus shutdown. White is here because he'll get plenty of playing time for the Bulls this season and could see a huge statistical increase...even if it doesn't amount to a ton of winning for Chicago.
After the Milwaukee sign-and-trade debacle, Bogdan Bogdanovic was still able to escape Sacramento and flee to Atlanta, a franchise on the rise with loads of money to spend on him (he inked a four-year, $72M deal). It appears that the sharp-shooting Serbian playmaker will begin the year as the Hawks' sixth man and second unit creator on offense. Such a role suits Bogdanovic perfectly and it'd be no surprise if the 28-year-old continues to increase his scoring (15.1 PPG. last season) for the fourth straight season and helps lead the Hawks to their first playoff birth since 2017.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner turned heads this offseason by jumping from the Clippers' locker room to the Lakers' locker room in the Staples Center. In doing so, Montrezl Harrell, who averaged 18.6 PPG. and 7.1 RPG. last season, diminished his chances at repeating as the league's top bench player. At the same time, he increased his chances at winning a title by joining the defending champions as one of the centerpieces of the Lakers' impressive offseason maneuvering. Harrell should still be a highly efficient roll man in pick-and-rolls with LeBron James, Dennis Schröder, and Talen Horton-Tucker, but he probably won't be relied upon to scored almost 20 PPG. with the Lake Show like he was with the Clippers.
Kudos to Derrick Rose for embracing the sixth man and scoring guard off the bench role these past two seasons in Minnesota and Detroit. The former MVP, whose career track was unfairly derailed by injuries, can't get up like he once could but is still lightning quick and shifty as hell with the ball. He's still one of the best bench players in the NBA as he's averaged 18 PPG. and 4.9 APG. the past two seasons. Whether he plays this entire season out in Detroit or gets traded to a contender, he should be in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year at season's end.
After finishing second to Giannis in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, Anthony Davis played like a man on a mission on defense all playoffs and was clearly the league's most impactful defender when it mattered the most. This year, the voters will probably make it up to him in the DPOY voting so long as he plays enough games and has his usual excellent defensive stats and impact. Davis averaged 2.3 BPG. and 1.5 SPG. last season to go along with an awesome 102 points per 100 possessions defensive rating.
Had he not missed 16 games due to injuries last year, Ben Simmons could have made a strong claim as the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20. Standing at 6-foot-10 and weighing 240 pounds, Simmons has the strength to guard basically any big man in the NBA not named Joel Embiid (who's his teammate...for now) and Nikola Jokic, the length and athleticism to slow down the game's best wings, and the lateral quickness and anticipation to swallow up any guard in the league. He's the ultimate Swiss Army Knife on defense and should be a yearly contender for this award no matter where he's playing.
Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo became just the third player in NBA history to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season (joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon). He was deserving of the honor as he had the league's best defensive rating per 100 possessions (97!!) and is a ridiculous combination of Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons on that end of the court. This year, however, he'd have to do something truly remarkable to win this award again - like average two blocks and two steals per game - because, like with the MVP award, you can expect some Giannis fatigue in the voting this year.
Frank Vogel didn't get the same adoration and credit as most of the rest of the league's top coaches last year, so if the Lakers are dominant this regular season, there will likely be a whole lot of make-up votes heading his way. Vogel is a defensive-minded coach with the right temperament to challenge, but not wear down superstars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He's also smart enough to realize that he let his ego get in the way of his team's success.
Erik Spoelstra, an obvious future Hall of Fame coach, received a ton of acclaim and respect on the Heat's magical run to the Finals in last year's bubble. He's confident, but not arrogant. He has excellent offensive and defensive schemes. He's one of the best player developers in the NBA. And he's a great in-game coach who can make smart adjustments on the fly. If the Heat finish with a top-two record in the East this season, expect him to receive a lot of Coach of the Year votes from the media.
Stan Van Gundy is a Coach of the Year candidate because he's inheriting a talented, young roster that vastly underperformed last year - primarily due to their putrid defense (28th rated team defense). SVG is known for his defensive acumen, so there should be some serious positive regression on that end of the court, which will likely lead to more wins. In addition, SVG is well-liked as a former commentator and coaching personality, which never hurts during awards season. Finally, he's an underrated offensive coach - look no further than his days in Orlando when he put four perimeter players around Dwight Howard when the rest of the league played three perimeter players around two bigs - so if the Pelicans improve on that end and make the playoffs, he'll be a deserving candidate for Coach of the Year this season.
There's only one right answer here: Lakers GM Rob Pelinka. Take a look at what he's done since last (2019-20) offseason:
He built a championship team one offseason, won a championship that season, then improved his roster the next offseason while inking his two best players to long-term deals. You might not think every move was a home run, but may have hit for the cycle...twice!!