NBA Awards are the culmination of a regular season’s work. Players strive to be the best player they can be, and a select few hope to get rewarded at the end of the season with a trophy and a place in the record books.
The NBA’s awards have always been a little idiosyncratic. The MVP award is usually given to the best-ish player in the NBA. Runners-up will at least have their votes tallied and recorded for posterity, proof that people knew they were good once upon a time. All-Star and All-NBA teams acknowledge the league’s 15 to 25 best players.
But why do we give an award for Sixth Man of the Year, who, by definition, doesn’t even start for his team? Why does the Sixth Man get acknowledged when the Fourth Man award doesn’t exist?
Why do we have a Most Improved Player Award? Sometimes, it can be a precursor to future success, such as Giannis winning in 2017. Other times, though, it provides a brief highlight in an otherwise competent but unremarkable career (Ryan Anderson in 2012, Aaron Brooks in 2010).
To be clear, I love these awards. I like that guys who are unlikely ever to be true superstars still have a chance to earn end-of-season acknowledgment. It causes the media and fans to spend more time than usual parsing through the games of the NBA’s second- and third-tier players.
The NBA has always been a star-driven league, so it’s nice to appreciate the metaphorically littler guys sometimes.
Most Improved Player
With that in mind, let’s set some ground rules for Most Improved. In the spirit of my introduction, I only select players who are fourth-year pros or older and who weren’t top-five picks.
Arbitrary, for sure, but I hate the idea that the Ja Morants of the world are in serious consideration for this thing. I understand the argument that his leap, in absolute terms, is the greatest. I don’t have a logical leg to stand on here. But high-level lottery picks, in the nascency of their careers, should be improving. They are destined for greater awards down the line.
I prefer this award to go to guys without that much pedigree, who may fight for All-Star berths but seem unlikely to land in MVP conversations down the road. Let’s share the love, shall we?
Third Place: Anfernee Simons, Blazers
What a year for Simons. The Blazers’ situation looked as bad as any team’s in the league to begin the year, but the injuries and CJ McCollum trade did have one bright spot: it opened the door for Simons to take the reins, and he delivered.
Simons looked like Damian Lillard 2.0, from the athleticism (he won the dunk contest last year) to the deep off-the-dribble threes. He’d always shown flashes, but he somehow became more efficient in taking on a significantly larger volume, shooting a respectable 44% from the field and a fantastic 41% from three.
Simons’ emergence has made the Blazers’ path forward both more promising and more uncertain, as suddenly, the idea of trading a declining Lillard might not be a death knell for the franchise. Regardless, it was a pleasant surprise in an ugly season for Portland.
Second Place: Miles Bridges
A classic example of what a Most Improved Player should look like. A middling first-round pick in 2018 who seemed to plateau between his second and third seasons, Bridges had an excellent year and stands to make a lot of money this offseason.
He finished his third-year campaign strong and picked up right where he left off. His per-game scoring average nearly doubled, from 12.7 last year to 20.2 this year, and he set career highs in almost every category. His three-point shooting declined precipitously after an outlier year last season, but he still shot 49% from the field on fifteen attempts per game. He makes up for a lack of range with a strong bully-ball game and explosive rim attacks.
Bridges has gone from being a mildly intriguing rotation player to a full-on foundational piece for the rising Charlotte Hornets, the oop corralling some of LaMelo Ball’s graceful alleys.
First Place: Dejounte Murray
The sixth-year man has quietly improved every year, but he made a massive leap this season to become The Man for the Spurs. Murray squeaked into the All-Star game thanks to his positively Hardenian numbers: 21.1 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.3 rebounds while leading the league in steals and playing his typical hellacious defense on the perimeter.
The offseason loss of DeMar DeRozan forced coach Gregg Popovich to put the ball in Murray’s hands more than ever, and Murray responded with the best scoring and playmaking of his career.
He’s always been a decent mid-range shooter, but this year he’s finishing at the rim at career-high levels. He’s become adept at using off-speed movements and his gargantuan 6’10” wingspan to keep the ball away from defenders in the paint. Watch as Murray attacks Rudy Gobert, gathering like he’s going to shoot a floater before stretching his Mr. Fantastic arms forward for an easy layup:
That’s advanced stuff. Dejounte wasn’t so shifty earlier in his career, and it speaks to how he’s continually evolving his game. Hopefully, he’s not fully formed yet.
Sixth Man of the Year
Third place: Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
Widely considered a reach when the Suns took him three years ago with the eleventh pick, Johnson has instead looked like the absolute perfect fit for a Suns team that’s been several nautical miles beyond every other team this season.
He’s the perfect 3-and-D role player, nailing almost 43% of his threes on six attempts per game while playing well-rounded defense on the perimeter. Cam’s been better than starter Jae Crowder for much of the season. He’s also sneakily bouncy, and he catches an unsuspecting fool for a monster jam more often than you’d think:
Cam’s a key piece of the Suns’ rotation, and he will be a major force in their playoff run.
Second Place: Kevin Love
Love is like the gray-haired sensei in every martial arts movie, grumpy and past-his-prime but still a force to be reckoned with in small spurts.
Despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his career, Love is beating his career per-minute averages for points, assists, and turnovers while hitting 39% from three on a Cavs team desperate for shooting.
His emergence has stabilized a bench unit that has been in chaos all season thanks to Cleveland’s injury woes. An eye-popping 60% of his shots come from deep, but he’s still shown flashes of being the dominant rebounder he was in his prime.
It’s nice to see Love finally playing winning basketball again, and hopefully, he can help power Cleveland through the play-in.
First Place: Tyler Herro
This was one of the easiest calls on the ballot. The Sixth Man of the Year shouldn’t always go to the bench guard who scores the most points, as it often has. But I feel okay with the decision when that player is arguably a one-seed’s most crucial offensive cog.
Herro is the only player on the Miami Heat that can provide consistent three-level scoring. He’s playing his best basketball at the close of the season, averaging 22 points on 48/43/94 shooting splits in March.
Credit goes to coach Erik Spoelstra, Kyle Lowry, and Jimmy Butler for recognizing that the young star was on the verge of an explosion and allowing him to lead the team in field goal attempts. He’ll make some head-scratching decisions, as most 22-year-olds do, but he’s pushing the boundaries of his game all the time.
Tyler’s footwork in the midrange and on the perimeter is exceptional. He’s worked hard to stay perfectly balanced at all times. That footwork is crucial to some of the difficult shots he’s taking (and making!).
The Miami Heat are not getting enough respect from national media as a legitimate contender in the East. To prove them wrong, Herro will have to play some of the best ball of his life.
Coach of the Year
Usually, this is one of the hardest categories to pick. There are always more deserving candidates than spots, and one person’s winner might not even be on another person’s three-man ballot.
Not this year.
Third Place: Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies
Taylor Jenkins would likely have won this award if the Grizzlies had had the exact same season last year. Everyone loves the young team that far outstrips expectations, and the coach who rides (or creates?) that wave is often rewarded.
Jenkins has done a masterful job balancing the playing times and egos of a bunch of young, similarly-talented players. Sometimes, those situations can lead to petty fighting for minutes and shots. This Grizzlies team, however, exudes pure joy.
Memphis exceeded their preseason over/under win total by almost 15 games en route to the league’s second-best record at 56-26. And that’s not all thanks to Ja Morant, the smiling sun at the center of the Memphis solar system. This season, the Grizzlies have constructed a 20-5 record without their superstar despite having no one else on the roster who even sniffed All-Star status.
It remains to be seen how the Grizzlies fare in the playoffs, where the X’s-and-O’s come to light, and coaching quality becomes much clearer. But this is a regular-season award, and few did their job better than Jenkins this year.
Second Place: Erik Spoelstra, Heat
Poor Erik has become the prisoner of his own high standards. At this point, the Heat are expected to be good every year regardless of the situation. Despite battling a boatload of injuries to essentially every important player (not to mention fighting the players themselves), the Heat were the top seed in a tougher-than-usual East this season. And nobody blinked an eye.
He’s an elite coach at every aspect of the game: drawing up defenses, creating set plays, harnessing big egos, managing lineups, etc. He’s shuffled the roster and managed minutes without hurting feelings, a difficult task. Player development in Miami remains top-notch.
Erik will have to console himself with being named one of the NBA’s 15 greatest coaches of all time.
First Place: Monty Williams, Suns
It’s really, really hard to come up with reasons not to pick Monty Williams, despite the plethora of deserving candidates.
I’m, uh, just gonna quote myself here:
The Suns are the best clutch team in the NBA. Their young talent has gotten better each season. Despite contract drama, Deandre Ayton has bought into his role on the team and doesn’t complain about being a third or fourth option. A mid-season investigation into reports of racism, sexism, and other “-isms” from club owner Rob Sarver never became an on-court distraction.
The defense is superb. The offense is unstoppable. The chemistry is tangible.
We only glimpse a hazy backscattering of what a coach like Monty does for the team, but what’s visible is beautiful — starlight reflected on a still lake’s surface.
I wrote this over a month ago, and it all remains true. Monty has remained the tactical, spiritual, and emotional leader of a Suns juggernaut that looks primed to tear through the West in the playoffs. He’s the easy pick for Coach of the Year.
Defensive Player of the Year
Third Place: Marcus Smart, Celtics
I know that it seems unfair that small guys never win the Defensive Player of the Year award, and I am sympathetic. Weirdly, it turns out that being big is important for basketball!
That said, Smart plays as big as any guard possibly can. He throws himself gleefully into the physicality of post play, where he takes a perverse pleasure in banging into some of the world’s largest men:
He’s intelligent, he’s mean, he’s physical, he’s floppy, and he’s quick. He coordinates the defense with loud vocalizations and vehement gestures to teammates. He’s everything you could ask for as a point-of-attack defender, and he’s led the Celtics to the best defensive rating in the NBA.
Second Place: Rudy Gobert
I’ll be honest: I think many voters are looking for reasons to leave Gobert, winner of three of the last four DPOY awards, off the ballot this year. Utah’s somewhat yucky season and the disrespect Rudy gets from fans and players alike have created this idea that Gobert has been worse this season than usual.
But that doesn’t show up in the numbers or when watching.
Gobert remains a one-man defense. When he’s on the floor, the Jazz give up the exact same number of points per 100 possessions (106.9) as the Celtics’ aforementioned league-leading defense. Opposing teams go from shooting 32.6% of their shots at the rim, about league average, to an astonishingly low 24.8%. He contests an insane number of shots, and he holds opponents to low shooting percentages, too.
Gobert can get out onto the perimeter and dance with smaller guards, but the Jazz defensive scheme is rigid; it seldom allows him to do so. Utah prefers he hang back to continue patrolling the paint and gobbling rebounds (which he leads the league in at a career-best 14.7 per game).
I’m praying for a Gobert trade somewhere else this offseason so we can see what happens when Gobert is surrounded by new talent and a coach that might use him in more creative ways. That will be a good litmus test for how big of an impact Gobert truly has on both sides of the ball.
First Place: Bam Adebayo
Bam’s strength is simple: he’s the world’s best switch defender. Synergy data suggests that Bam faced exactly 100 isolations this season (although they have stringent measurement criteria, so the number is likely higher). That 100 is the 13th-most in the league. Out of those 13 players (including other defensive stalwarts like Robert Williams III, Jakob Poeltl, Al Horford, and Grant Williams), nobody has held opponents to a number lower than Bam’s .72 points per possession (and Horford’s the only other player below .8).
The Heat scheme ensures that Bam is involved in as many offensive actions as possible. No one in the league has his combination of quick-twitch jumpiness, lateral speed, and length. Watch as he simply apparates from guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler to denying the alley-oop attempt – on the same play!
He does stuff like this regularly, and it never fails to make me gasp in wonder.
Bam’s blocks and rebounds are artificially depressed because he spends so much time on the perimeter, but he still impacts shots. Opponents shoot 4.9% worse than expected when Bam is the nearest defender, eighth-best in the league, even though he’s guarding more jump shooters than most people above him. The numbers say he’s even been more effective as a defender than Marcus Smart when defending opposing guards:
Bam hasn’t played as many minutes as Gobert or Smart, but Rudy himself set a precedent for this back in 2018 when he won his first award while playing just 56 games. I can’t quibble with people who want to pick Gobert (although I certainly would with people choosing Smart or Mikal Bridges). But to me, Bam has become the platonic ideal of the defensive center in the modern NBA.
Rookie of the Year
Third Place: Cade Cunningham
An injury short-circuited Cade’s entry to the NBA, but he’s since shown all the flashes we’d hope to see from a first overall pick. Cade has shown elite patience, surprising driving ability, clutch shots, and solid defense. His shooting has been poor, but that’s typical of young players on horrible teams (and the Pistons are abhorrent outside of Cade. Young and intriguing, but really, really bad).
Cade, at his best, has a little bit of Luka in him on offense and a little bit of Lonzo Ball in him on defense. He can get to the basket using his size and handling, and he can spray to open shooters (“shooters” is generous: only one of Detroit’s top six players shot above 36% from three). Defensively, he can use his length to bother ballhandlers and jump passing lanes.
Given his strong history, Cade’s shooting should be an easy fix for next year. But for now, it bogs him down in what was an incredibly talented rookie class.
Second Place: Scottie Barnes
The Scottie Barnes hype train is real. He’s listed, conservatively, at 6’7”, and he has shown glimpses of being a do-everything wing destroyer. He runs a little point forward, has shown a mean post-up game, and hits floaters, hooks, and midranges better than expected. Defensively, he’s been the third-most versatile defender in all of basketball (although his actual effectiveness is inconsistent, as it is with almost all rookies).
Scottie has grown throughout the season. He fits perfectly into a Raptors team that prioritizes jack-of-all-trade talents like Barnes. Outsiders see overlapping skill sets and roles, but the Raptors see interchangeable pieces who can all play defense and attack whatever mismatch presents itself.
Barnes was a surprise pick for the Raptors at the fourth selection, but he immediately endeared himself to fans with his charisma and surprising skill level. His future, like his smile, is bright.
First Place: Evan Mobley
Despite all the hoopla for Scottie, his final stats are almost the same as Mobley’s:
The difference, then, is that while Scottie is a very versatile and decent defender, Evan Mobley is like if a giant octopus was hell-bent on locking you down:
Above, Mobley contains the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll perfectly with a strong contest, then he alertly comes back to the basket and obliterates the dunk attempt.
He’s shown unbelievable agility on the perimeter, constantly jabbing with his long arms to disrupt dribble timing and swinging his hips to eliminate driving angles. Trae Young only led the league in total points scored this year, so this probably isn’t a big deal:
Mobley’s offensive game is not as polished as Cade or Scottie’s, but it’s still effective for his role. He’s shown some face-up game potential and an assortment of hooks and floaters. He also has had a couple of eyebrow-raising passes around the rim, particularly to fellow big Jarrett Allen. I’d love to see what he could do with a tighter handle.
He’s better at this age than Bam Adebayo was on both sides, and as you saw, I just named Bam Adebayo the DPOY. To me, it’s a no-brainer that Mobley is the Rookie of the Year.
Most Valuable Player
Fifth Place: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Sorry to Devin Booker, who has a compelling case as (maybe) the best player on the best team by record. I think Tatum has been a smidge better. He has the second-biggest on-off splits in the league (behind Nikola Jokic), and the Celtics have decimated teams whenever he’s on the floor.
This season, he turned it on after a public spat with point guard Marcus Smart, who accused Tatum and Jaylen Brown of not passing enough. The truth hurts, but to Tatum’s credit, he took it to heart. He’s averaging a career-high in assists (and points, and rebounds).
He’s also been a strong defender on the NBA’s top defense. The Celtics looked like the best team in the East until center Robert Williams tore his meniscus; if he can come back for the second round, they might become the favorites to win the NBA Finals. And it’s largely thanks to Tatum.
Fourth Place: Luka Doncic
Doncic’s season got off to such an ugly start that many people wrote him off as an MVP candidate in November. But after working through conditioning issues, a battle with COVID, and ankle injuries, Doncic has been on fire. Since the calendar turned, Doncic has averaged 30/10/9, and he’s carried a frankly lackluster supporting cast to the four-seed in the West.
His recent calf injury puts a pall on Dallas’ postseason hopes, but Doncic seems to have turned a new leaf. He’s the betting favorite to win MVP as soon as next season.
Third Place: Joel Embiid
Poor Joel has played excellent defense, suited up for a career-high in games, and won the scoring title, and he’s still third on my ballot. What more does a guy have to do?
He’s averaging career-highs in points, assists, and steals. He carried a Sixers team missing its second-best player for most of the season to as high as the one-seed in the East briefly. More than any other player on this list, he will benefit from a strong postseason performance this year, which might erase any doubts voters still have and give him a head start for next season.
Embiid would have run away with this award in almost any other year. It’s just his luck that two of the most extraordinary years of all time took place simultaneously.
Second Place: Giannis Antetokounmpo
First Place: Nikola Jokic
Some people are unwilling to reward Jokic because his team finished as the six-seed in the West. Let me destroy that argument real quick:
That’s right, Jokic won more games than Embiid and Giannis, even though his team finished three games behind the other two teams.
Jokic set records in numerous statistical categories, most notably PER (Giannis would have set the record this season, too, if it weren’t for Jokic). It’s not just advanced stats that love him. His box-score numbers of 27/14/8 look pretty darn good by themselves. He’s the only player in the league who is top-ten in scoring, rebounding, and assists per game (and he’s 12th in steals).
The most amazing thing about Jokic this season might be his efficiency. As John Hollinger noted, Jokic has by far the best shooting percentages of the fifty highest-usage guys in the league. He’s a one-man offense who can pass (holy moly, can he pass), shoot from deep, or annihilate people in the post.
Defensively, what he lacks in rim protection he makes up for with smart positioning, quick hands, and strength. He’s an above-average defender in ways that don’t immediately pop off the screen.
Giannis has been incredible this season, too, and I don’t want to shortchange him. He’s a two-time MVP coming off a historic Finals performance, and he might be having his best season ever. Giannis will catch a couple of Defensive Player of the Year votes, and he’s seemingly conquered his free throw problems.
Giannis is likely the best player in the world right now. But Jokic has had the best season, and he’s a deserving two-time MVP.
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