With five of the NBA's most popular players currently out with serious injuries (LeBron, KD, Embiid, AD, and LaMelo), the 2020-21 NBA season is officially on catastrophe alert. Starting the season in December after such a short layoff following the Orlando Bubble and creating a compact schedule that allowed the season to be completed before the Summer Olympics was a high-risk move for the league. And while the level of basketball being played has been decent, injuries are beginning to steal the headlines. It's going to not only make for a chaotic race for the playoffs in each conference, but a bizarre and probably unfulfilling awards race where the winners of key awards, like the MVP, might have to hear "yeah, but he only won because a bunch of other guys got hurt" on talk shows for the rest of eternity. Nevertheless, with the season a little past its halfway point, here's a snapshot of what the awards races would look like if the season ended today.
Less than two weeks ago, Joel Embiid had separated himself from the rest of the pack for the Most Valuable Player award as he was posting an all-time great stat line for a big man (29.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 BPG, 1.2 SPG with 53-42-86 shooting splits and a 31.4 PER) and had the 76ers in first place in the East. He had a net on/off rating of plus-13.2 points per 100 possession as well. Unfortunately, Embiid's brilliant season nearly ended when he fell awkwardly after a dunk and nearly blew out his knee (he hyper-extended it and is out at least a couple of weeks). If the season ended today, Embiid would probably still win the MVP, but with him only having played 31 games thus far, it'll become almost impossible for him to hold onto the lead if he ends up playing less than 50 games (which seems like a near certainty).
Poor LeBron James had everything lined up perfectly to win his fifth MVP award until Hawks forward Solomon Hill crashed into his leg this past Sunday, leaving the league's most durable player with a high-ankle sprain. Through 41 games, LeBron was having his typical excellent statistical season, averaging 25.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 7.9 APG with 51-37-70 shooting splits. He had a plus-10.8 on/off net rating per 100 possessions, had the best Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating of any small forward who'd played more than 20 games, and was leading the Lakers to the league's best defensive rating despite missing Anthony Davis for much of the year. Unfortunately, LeBron is out indefinitely (high ankle sprains usually take four weeks to heal at a minimum) now finds himself in a similar situation as Embiid where he'll likely miss too many games to elicit enough support to win the MVP.
If Nikola Jokic ends up winning the MVP, it'll be a well-deserved win for the Joker as he's having an incredible offensive season, averaging 27.1 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 8.6 APG with 57-43-87 shooting splits, and a 31.7 PER. Look at those stats again. Those are being produced by a 6-foot-11 Serbian center who looks like the least athletic player in the NBA. And while Jokic's MVP candidacy was hurt by Denver's slow start, the Nuggets are beginning to get rolling again, winning eight of their past nine games and have quietly moved up to fifth in the West (25-17). If they can secure a top-three seed, and Jokic plays 60-plus games, the MVP award is his.
If you haven't already seen Damian Lillard's post-game interview following his recent 50-point, 10-assist game against the Pelicans, please take a minute to watch and just appreciate how awesome this guy is. In addition to being one of the easiest guys in the league to root for, Lillard is posting MVP numbers (30.3 PPG, 7.6 APG, 46-38-94 shooting splits) and has kept the Blazers right in the thick of things in the West despite not having CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season. Sounds like a quality MVP candidate to me. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, Lillard's numbers in the clutch this season are straight out of a movie: in an average of 3.6 clutch MPG, he's averaging a league-high 5.3 PPG while shooting 58.7 percent from the field, 48.5 percent from three and 100 percent from the free-throw line!
Like it or not (and believe me, I HATE it), James Harden has played so well for the Nets this season that he's forced himself into the MVP conversation. After acting like a complete jerk in Houston through training camp and the first eight games, Harden got his wish and was traded to the already-stacked Brooklyn Nets. With Kevin Durant out for a large chunk of the year and Kyrie Irving volunteering to move to shooting guard, Harden has been the best point guard in the NBA this season, averaging 25.4 PPG, 11.3 APG, and 8.8 RPG for the Nets. He and Kyrie have played so well with Durant out that the Nets are in second in the top-heavy Eastern Conference despite not having one of the best players on earth for more than half the season (Durant's only played 19 games). With the injuries to Embiid and LeBron, Harden is right there with Jokic and Lillard in the MVP race and could become the only player to ever win an MVP award during a season in which he was traded.
LaMelo Ball was seemingly on his way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year award victory before he fractured his hand earlier this week (he's probably out for the season). Since becoming a starter, Ball is averaging 19.5 PPG, 6.2 APG, and 5.8 RPG while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from three. His presence and joy with which he plays the game have rejuvenated the Hornets this year, helping them become the NBA League Pass darlings and most entertaining team to watch. Even if Anthony Edwards continues his recent hot streak, Ball may still win ROY honors because, unlike Edwards, he left the Hornets in the thick of the playoff race in the East (20-21, eighth-place).
The top pick of the 2020 NBA Draft has been on an absolute roll since the T'Wolves fired Ryan Saunders and hired Chris Finch as head coach. The team has started to initiate their offense through Edwards, and through his last 10 games, he's averaging an eye-popping 24.9 PPG and 6.2 RPG. While his shooting efficiency still needs some work (39-32-78 shooting splits this season), his skill set and athleticism have been on full display recently as he seems to make a handful of jaw-dropping plays every single night. Edwards probably doesn't deserve the Rookie of the Year because the T'Wolves are so bad, but he's at least reasserted himself into the conversation, which is not something we necessarily saw coming a few months ago.
Worry not, Kings fans. Tyrese Haliburton, who was the no. 1 choice for Rookie of the Year at the quarter-season mark, is still going to be a very good foundational player in Sacramento. He just doesn't have the same ceiling as LaMelo and ANT, but you already knew that. Despite hitting a bit of a rookie wall recently, Haliburton is still averaging a solid 12.4 PPG and 5.1 APG with super-efficient shooting splits (47-41-84). If the Kings decide to deal Harrison Barnes or Buddy Hield this trade deadline, he could see his usage, and therefore, his numbers increase down the stretch. It might not be enough to win over LaMelo or Edwards, but he'll likely be a unanimous First Team All-Rookie member.
Immanuel Quickley has played so well this season that it almost makes you forget that they selected another exciting player much higher in the draft: Obi Toppin. While Toppin missed a chunk of the year with an injury and isn't seeing many minutes at the moment due to Julius Randle's All-Star leap, Quickley has emerged as an above-average sixth man in just his rookie season, averaging 12.7 PPG on 40-37-89 shooting and an impressive 17.2 PER. He won't win Rookie of the Year, but he'll make First Team All-Rookie, plus he's already won over the hearts of Knicks' fans, so that might be even more valuable in the long run for IQ.
With James Wiseman floundering a bit for the Warriors, and other rookies who got off to hot starts hitting the rookie wall, Saddiq Bey has emerged as a potential First-Team All-Rookie player for the Pistons. The three-and-D wing out of Villanova has been everything Detroit could have asked for and then some when they traded for the rights to select him with the 19th overall pick of the 2020 Draft. Over his past 18 games, Bey has averaged 14.5 PPG and 5.3 RPG on excellent 46-42-93 shooting splits. He's even won a Player of the Week award, the only rookie to do so this season. Detroit may not have much working for them right now, but they certainly should be pumped about Bey.
Julius Randle has always had an impressive skill set and put up nice numbers the past few seasons, but they always seemed to be the type of empty-calorie stats that didn't translate to winning games. Well, in his first season with Tom Thibodeau, Randle has taken an All-Star leap and put those negative perceptions to rest, making the All-Star team and pacing the surprisingly tough Knicks (21-22, seventh in the East). On the year, Randle is averaging career highs in points (23.0), rebounds (11.0), and assists (6.0) and doing it efficiently with 47-41-79 shooting splits. He's catapulted himself into the top of the Most Improved Player race.
Much like Julius Randle, Zach LaVine has taken a leap this year and is clearly impacting winning for the first time in his career. LaVine is having a special offensive season, averaging career highs in every major statistical category: 28.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 4.9 APG on 53-44-87 shooting. If he can carry the Bulls into the playoffs (they're currently 19-22, 10th in the East), it might be enough to leapfrog Randle for the Most Improved Player award.
If the Celtics weren't in the midst of a free fall down the standings (21-21, sixth in the East), Brown might have the top spot in this Most Improved Player race as he's having an excellent individual season, averaging career-bests in PPG (24.6) and APG (3.9) and field goal percentage (48.7). If the Celtics can turn things around, Brown could easily wind up taking home these honors.
Statistically speaking, it's tough to have a season of greater improvement than Jerami Grant is having as he's scoring almost 10 more PPG (23.3) than his previous career-high (13.6). On the other hand, Grant is scoring like this because he's on the second-worst team in the NBA. Thus, it's tough to calibrate how much of this is improvement and how much of it is merely a product of him getting a massive increase in usage and shots. No matter how you slice it, Grant is going to get a number of Most Improved Player votes when it's all said and done.
To illustrate just how valuable Christian Wood has been for the Rockets this season, here's an eye-opening stat: Houston was 8-9 when Wood went down with an ankle injury. He missed the next 17 games. Houston's record during those games: 0-17. Yikes! While Wood's injury probably ended his chances of winning the Most Improved Player award this season, he still deserves some recognition for his improvement - he's averaging career-highs in points (22.0), rebounds (10.1), assists (1.4), three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and blocks (1.6).
The NBA might as well start etching Jordan Clarkson's name in the Sixth Man of the Year trophy because he's head and shoulders ahead of every other candidate and has been all season. He's averaging 17.6 PPG and has 44-37-96 shooting splits for the team with the NBA's best record. As long as he doesn't get injured, the award will be his.
Chris Boucher is also a stealth Most Improved Player candidate having more than doubled his previous career-high in scoring (6.6 PPG to 14.1 PPG) and with incredibly efficient 54-43-76 shooting splits. If there wasn't such a disparity between the Jazz's record (30-11) and the Raptors' record (17-25), Boucher might have a shot to catch Clarkson in this race by the end of the season, especially considering how nice of a rim-protector he is (1.9 BPG).
Although he isn't putting up the same kind of numbers he had when he won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season with the Clippers, Montrezl Harrell is still having a great year off the bench as the Lakers' energy guy. He's averaging a solid 14.7 PPG and 6.6 RPG, but the impressive part of his season has been his efficiency - he's shooting 64.1 percent from the field, finishing damn near every pass from LeBron James at the rim. In addition, his energy and toughness seem to break the Lakers out of their frequent mid-season malaises - an important trait for any defending champion team cruising through the regular season on autopilot.
Ben Simmons' claim to the Defensive Player of the Year throne is his versatility. Save for a few elite big men (his teammate, Joel Embiid, being one of them), Simmons can shut down, or at least hang with, any player in the NBA. He can guard Kevin Durant and switch onto James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the same possession and still play All-NBA-caliber defense. And while most advanced defensive metrics tend to favor rim protectors, Simmons is respectable enough to garner some respect in those categories as he's in the top-20 in steals, defensive rating, defensive win shares, and defensive box plus/minus.
While Simmons' case rests on his versatility and the eye test, Rudy Gobert's rests on his defensive impact as a rim deterrent on the league's best regular-season team. Gobert is currently the league-leader in defensive rating and defensive win shares and is second in blocks and rebounds per game. Pretty hard to overlook those stats.
It's a shame that the Pacers have fallen to the back of the playoff picture in the East because if they were in the top-four or so, he'd have a great case as Defensive Player of the Year. Turner is leading the NBA in blocks per game this year (3.4), is seventh in defensive win shares, and 10th in defensive rating. Despite being arguably the best rim-protector in the game, the Pacers only have a middling defense (11th), but if they can turn things around down the home stretch of the season, Turner could benefit from some voter fatigue with Gobert.