We’ve finally reached the midway point of the 2020-2021 NBA season. It’s time to look at the players who project to win or compete for particular awards. My one caveat for this list is I didn’t include players who haven’t played at least ~70% of their team’s games thus far (that’s usually 58 games in an 82-game season; minimum games required to qualify for the majority of awards/statistical leader trophies).
Sixth Man of the Year
Favorite: Jordan Clarkson
Runner Ups: Thaddeus Young, Eric Gordon, Chris Boucher, Bobby Portis
Noticeable Snubs: Montrezl Harrell, LaMelo Ball, Terrence Ross
Clarkson is the clear and cut favorite to win SMOY this season. Utah holds the league’s best record and he leads all players in scoring off the bench. Clarkson is averaging 17.9 PPG on shooting splits of 44.7/37.0/96.7. He’s averaging 24.8 points per36, the best of his 7-year career. He’s playing the best he’s ever played in his career, embracing the sixth man role in Quin Snyder’s offense. He’s Utah’s 2nd leading scorer despite being 7th in MPG.
Behind him in the rankings are some guys who have performed exceptionally well off the bench for their teams. Young has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulls. He’s always been a solid rotational player but this season, he’s become a solid playmaker (after mostly being a ball-stopper for his career). Gordon has done Eric Gordon-like things off the bench for Houston: score in bunches regardless of efficiency. Boucher and Portis have both been great floor-spacing, solid defending big men off the bench for their respective teams.
Harrell hasn’t been as outstanding off the bench this year with the Lakers as he was with the Clippers last season, but he can still turn up and climb the rankings. Ball has been thrust into the starting lineup, which made me leave him off the runner-ups’ list. And Ross started the season on fire but has cooled off, as expected.
Most Improved Player
Favorite: Jerami Grant
Runner Ups: Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Julius Randle, Norman Powell
Noticeable Snubs: Christian Wood, CJ McCollum, Keldon Johnson
Grant bet on himself this offseason (and so did the Detroit Pistons by giving him a $60M contract) and he has surprised just about everyone with his play this year. He’s putting up career-high numbers in just about every statistical category. Though the Pistons have the 2nd worst record in the league, it’s to no fault of Grant’s. He’s putting up nearly All-Star worthy numbers (23.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.9 APG) while hitting 2.5 triples per game. No one ever thought we’d see Jerami Grant putting up nearly 20 shots a game after only shooting over 10 shots a game once his entire career. The scary part about Grant is that he’s still only 26-years-old and is now on a fairly cheap contract for his production.
Grant isn’t alone in his quest for MIP. There are several players who could potentially win this award over him. Brown has jumped up 4.4 PPG and 1.8 APG despite not seeing increased minutes. He’s comfortably become the #2 option in Boston with Kemba Walker looking like he’ll never be 100% again. Rozier hasn’t increased his production much from last season, but his efficiency has jumped a whole lot. His True Shooting % has gone from 55.3% to 62.6%, a huge jump. Randle and Powell still have cases for MIP, with Randle becoming an All-Star and Powell turning the corner in February.
Wood was neck-and-neck with Grant until an injury derailed him in early February. McCollum was playing at an All-Star level before getting injured. If either player can return after the break and maintain their earlier levels of play, they’ll rejoin this race. Johnson is a dark horse candidate as he’s clearly improved, just not to the level of the other players in contention.
Rookie of the Year
Favorite: LaMelo Ball
Runner Ups: Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, Immanuel Quickley
Ball has ROY just about locked up. He leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, and steals while helping his Hornets sit just 1 game below .500, good for 7th place in the Eastern Conference. In 20 appearances off the bench, Ball averaged 12.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, and 6.1 APG. After entering the starting lineup (15 games to this point), he’s averaged 20.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 6.7 APG. It’s hard to see anyone supplanting Ball in the 2nd half of the season, even if he fell off a bit.
The runner-ups are distant runner-ups. Haliburton has the “strongest” case to compete with Ball for ROY, but that’s not saying much. He’s having a respectable rookie season, better than Malcolm Brogdon’s ROY campaign. Haliburton is playing over 30 minutes a game for an inconsistent Kings’ team. He’s been one of the few consistent performers on the squad. Quickley and Edwards have both had their bright spots, scoring in bunches, but neither guard is shooting over 40% from the field halfway through the season.
Defensive Player of the Year
Favorite: Ben Simmons
Runner Ups: Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Noticeable Snubs: Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler
Simmons has made his biggest impact on the court on the defensive side of the ball, enough to justify his All-Star selection despite averaging just 16.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 7.6 APG. Simmons is guarding on every level on defense, becoming arguably the most versatile defender in the league. He does a phenomenal job covering dynamic guards, switching onto bigs, and disrupting wing attackers. His ability to recover if beat off the dribble makes him a defender with some of the least flaws. His effort on that end of the court has been consistent, helping the 76ers’ top-5 rated defense.
Gobert is still the defensive anchor of a top-5 rated Utah Jazz defense, protecting the rim at an elite rate. However, his struggles against other highly rated big men have been exposed a bit this season with a few players having big games against him. Turner started the season as the favorite to win this award, but that was very early in the season when he was looking like Hakeem Olajuwon 2.0, having 4+ blocks and 2+ steals on a nightly basis. He’s fallen off a bit in disruptive defensive plays and his Pacers have fallen outside the top 10 in defensive rating. Embiid deserves nearly as much credit as Simmons for the 76ers’ success on the defensive end this season. His presence is constantly felt in the paint and he’s done a better job this season when defending the pick-and-roll; he’s just not as effective, versatile as Simmons on that end. Giannis has been great defensively, just not to the level we’ve seen him in previous seasons. The same can be said about the Bucks’ defense as well, as they no longer rest atop the league in defensive rating.
When Davis returns from his injury, he’ll re-enter DPOY talks as the Lakers are 1st in rating. Butler has also looked like a minor contender for DPOY as Miami’s defense is almost night and day when he plays versus when he’s sitting out.
Most Valuable Player
Favorite: Joel Embiid
Runner Ups: Nikola Jokic, Lebron James, Damian Lillard, James Harden
Noticeable Snubs: Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Embiid for MVP train is in full-throttle. He’s 2nd in the league in scoring, tied for 5th in rebounding, 2nd in PER, and is, hands down, the best player on the league’s 3rd best team (record-wise). He’s shooting over 50% from the field, over 40% from three, and over 80% from the foul line as a C who is leading the league in free throw attempts per game. His efficiency this season has been outstanding and his defense is amongst the elite defenders in the league. As long as he can maintain this level of play, if not raise it, and stay healthy, the 26-year-old (soon to be 27) may take home his first MVP trophy in just his 6th season (8th if we include the two seasons he missed to start his career).
Jokic would likely be the front-runner for MVP if it weren’t for Denver’s slow start this season. They’d played themselves back into the midst of the playoffs, largely behind Jokic’s superstar-level play, but they still sit just 6 games above .500 and are 6th in the West. Jokic has the highest PER in the league, the highest Win Shares, and ranks top 10 in both PPG and APG (11th in RPG). He’s a do-it-all C who has vastly improved on defense, though he still has his flaws. If Denver can climb to the top 3 in the West, a tall task, Jokic may just unseat Embiid at the top of the MVP race.
Not too far behind the two leading big men are LeBron, Lillard, and Harden. All 3 players are carrying their teams through rough times. LeBron is keeping the Lakers afloat in the absence of Davis, amongst other injuries, and we can’t overlook his 25.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 7.8 APG. Lillard’s campaign has been even more impressive as the Blazers are once again going through major injury issues with McCollum and Nurkic out, yet they’re 5th in the West behind Lillard’s 29.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 8.0 APG, on top of many clutch baskets. Harden’s case is the toughest to make as he’s playing alongside Durant and Irving. However, both players have missed time since Harden arrived in Brooklyn and Harden hasn’t missed a beat, helping the Nets to 2nd in the East behind 25.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, and 11.1 APG.
Neither Curry nor Doncic will get serious MVP consideration as long as their teams remain close to the edge of the playoffs, though both guys will likely garner some votes as their play has kept their teams afloat and competitive. Giannis will also likely garner votes but the narrative around him has changed after back-to-back MVP seasons.
Gs: Damian Lillard | James Harden
Fs: LeBron James | Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Joel Embiid
Gs: Stephen Curry | Luka Doncic
Fs: Kawhi Leonard | Jayson Tatum
C: Nikola Jokic
Gs: Kyrie Irving | Bradley Beal
Fs: Zion Williamson | Domantas Sabonis
C: Nikola Vucevic
Noticeable Snubs: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis
The All-NBA teams will likely change once Durant and Davis return from injury but for now, I can’t put either player on any of the three teams as they haven’t played over 70% of their respective teams’ games. The 1st team will likely consist of MVP front-runners, minus Jokic (as long as it’s still a G/F/C format). The 2nd team will consist of darkhorse MVPs and the 3rd team will come down to individual stats. All-Stars from this season will also get some consideration for 2nd or 3rd team honors, in addition to guys like Adebayo and Butler (All-Star level talents on improving teams).
Gs: Dejounte Murray | Ben Simmons
Fs: Kawhi Leonard | Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Rudy Gobert
Gs: Chris Paul | T.J. McConnell
Fs: Draymond Green | Julius Randle
C: Myles Turner
Noticeable Snubs: Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Mitchell Robinson, Marcus Smart
The All-Defensive teams are going to be tough to navigate as players haven’t been making consistent efforts on that end this season. We do have some standout players, but then again, injuries may impact this list heavily. Embiid, Davis, and Butler will likely sneak in over Turner, Randle (yes, you see that right), and Draymond. Randle is here because his Knicks are 2nd in defensive rating and he’s played a large part in that. Robinson is clearly NYK’s best defender but his missed time may hold him from the All-Defensive teams.
LaMelo Ball | Tyese Haliburton | Anthony Edwards | Saddiq Bey | James Wiseman
Immanuel Quickley | Desmond Bane | Jae’Sean Tate | Patrick Williams | Precious Achiuwa
Noticeable Snubs: Cole Anthony, Xavier Tillman, Payton Pritchard, Isaac Okoro, Deni Avdija
This rookie class is fairly deep with rotational players, making it difficult to pinpoint the composition of the 10 best rookies. 16 rookies are playing 20+ minutes per game (including Killian Hayes). Thankfully, the NBA has pretty much ditched the positional format/restrictions to the All-Rookie teams, meaning we can almost guarantee the 10 best rookies will get in, rather than a weaker position getting the nod over a deep position. The biggest surprise on the list, besides Bey, could be Tate, who is a 25-year old rookie getting solid minutes on the Rockets. The return of Christian Wood may cut back his minutes, however, making way for a rookie from the 2020 draft class.