The 2021 NBA season tipped off on Tuesday with a pair of intriguing matchups. With the rest of the league having tipped off Wednesday, it gives us a chance to make some predictions about who will win the NBA awards in 2021.
The Brooklyn Nets took the Golden State Warriors to the woodshed in the first game and the Los Angeles Clippers repeated their performance from last season’s opener and downed the Los Angeles Lakers who were receiving their championship rings.
Of course, we won’t have any idea how the season will play out. But having a little more vested interest never hurt anyone. And we’re going to cover them all. MVP, DPOY, Comeback Player, they’re all here.
Predicting 2021 NBA Award Winners
Most Valuable Player
Anthony Davis – PF – Los Angeles Lakers
Starting with a bang, it will admittedly be tough for Anthony Davis to win the most prestigious of individual NBA awards with one LeBron James as a teammate. After all, James finished second in the voting himself last season. Is there a path to Davis not only usurping him but also Giannis Antetokounmpo and any other contender? Put simply, yes.
Davis, who had 18/7/2 in the opener, came in sixth in MVP voting last season. He was sixth in scoring, fourth in rebounds, fifth in steals, and first in blocks all on a per-game basis. We saw him continue his strong play in the finals, ranking third in scoring, second in boards, third in steals, and again leading the way in blocks. Most of those stats trailed James.
The quick turnaround, in combination with James being another year older (and some media hype), could lead to such a changing of the guard. James played just 28 minutes in the opener; Davis 31. They were basically even last season, so the slide for LeBron could be Davis’ gain. Adding to the difficulty is the incredible efficiency of James. But, with the new league rules on resting, James could sit when L.A. faces teams against whom he could pad his stats. That’s where Davis swoops in.
Defensive Player of the Year
Bam Adebayo – C/F – Miami Heat
Part of a player winning one of the NBA awards is them getting on the radar of voters in advance, often in the previous season. Bam Adebayo fits this to a T. He saw his points per game output nearly double, going from 8.9 to 15.9 PPG. He also saw increases in his rebounding, assist, and blocking stats all coinciding with his increase in minutes from the previous campaign.
Adebayo, who has been dubbed a “point-center”, was 11th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, per ESPN, but he was second among power forwards. That’s ahead of everyone who finished ahead of him in DPOY voting except for Giannis. Among the finalists for DPOY last season, he ranked sixth in steals and fifth in blocks. But his presence on the floor dropped opponents’ offensive rating two full points.
Antetoukounmpo, the reigning DPOY, is the biggest threat to Adebayo’s triumph. But the year we’re predicting for Davis will have him in this discussion as well. The thought here is Adebayo took advantage of the added attention of the bubble and is on enough short-lists to be a finalist. Another leap in production like he had last season will go a long way to making this happen.
Rookie of the Year
LaMelo Ball – G – Charlotte Hornets
We’re not going to overthink this. Yes, Anthony Edwards was the first-overall pick. And yes, James Wiseman did land in one of the best situations in the NBA. But it’s LaMelo Ball, despite the poor opener, who has the best chance at winning Rookie of the Year. This is a marriage of a player being high-profile and having a clear path to the kind of opportunity that makes this Ball’s award to lose.
The last four ROTY winners have either been point guards by trade or functioned as the primary ball-handler for their club. Going back to 2010, only three non-point guard or primary facilitators have won the award. So the path lies in the job description. Edwards will still have to contend with the 2015-16 ROTY, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell for shots. Wiseman, in addition to playing a position that has won the award just twice since 1990.
Terry Rozier and especially Devonte Graham won’t just go away so Melo will have some competition for stats. But as the undisputed face of the franchise, he should be given every opportunity to be “the guy”. Barring an implosion the likes of which only his staunchest detractors will have foreseen, Ball will prove his mettle as the best Ball brother and Rookie of the Year.
Most Improved Player
Michael Porter Jr – F – Denver Nuggets
Talent-wise, this shouldn’t even be a possibility. Michael Porter Jr. is one of those genetic freaks teams covet in today’s NBA: a wing player with big size and guard skills. Porter was forced to miss what would have been his rookie season in 2018 with a back injury that had many wondering about his longevity. Critics even went so far as to bring up his family medical history.
Porter appeared in 55 games, starting eight, in 2019. He averaged a crisp 9.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in just over 16 minutes per game while slashing .509/.422/.833 from the field. He got a bump in playing time in the postseason and saw his output rise accordingly. Porter averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 boards in just over 23 minutes per.
Another year under his belt, along with assuming a starting role in the lineup, have Porter poised to deliver on all the promise he showed in high school (he was injured in college too). The previous three winners saw jumps in their scoring output of around five or six points. That’s just one part of the puzzle for Porter, but it’s one he’s good at and a leap he’s capable of making.
Sixth Man of the Year
Derrick Rose – G – Detroit Pistons
After Los Angeles Clippers won Sixth Man of the Year in back to back years, it’s a rumored Clippers target that could walk away with the hardware this coming season. Derrick Rose has seen his career go through the full gambit of NBA awards. From Rookie of the Year to youngest MVP in league history and now, possibly, the top reserve. Rose averaged 18-plus points per game for the third time in four years coming off the bench for the Detroit Pistons last year.
He came in seventh in the 6MOTY voting last season, but there were plenty of shakeups that make a jump from seventh to first more plausible. First, Dennis Schroder and Christian Wood, two players that finished ahead of Rose in voting last season, are moving into starting roles this season. Montrezl Harrell moves to a slightly lesser role with the Lakers who also have a better bench situation, making his path tougher.
If those things stand, Rose is competing with Williams, George Hill, and Goran Dragic for the honor. He was already fourth among the finalists in scoring while tying for the lead in assists and steals last season. At this point, a move to the Clippers might be the only thing that can help make this a reality because there isn’t much more he can do for a bad Detroit Pistons team.
Comeback Player of the Year
Kevin Durant – F – Brooklyn Nets
The NBA hasn’t handed out this comeback player awards in quite some time; 1985-86 to be exact (shouts to Marques Johnson). But were they to reinstate it this year, Kevin Durant would have to top their list. He missed all of 2019-20 recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in the 2018-19 NBA Finals. But if what we witnessed in the opener is just a precursor then KD is back.
In his first NBA game action in 18 months, Durant had 22 points on 43 percent shooting and 50 percent from deep. He also had five boards, three assets, three steals, and a block. 13 players averaged at least 22/5/3 last year but not one of them averaged more than 1.8 steals per game. It’s highly unlikely, but if KD keeps it up he will be the first player since Alvin Robertson in 1990-91 to average three takeaways per contest.
If you want to harp on the overall efficiency, fine. But again, 18 months away. Durant could make a case for MVP this season if he keeps up the defensive efforts. We could also see a Finals run for the Nets in an Eastern Conference where last year’s champ was a fifth-seed. At the very least, he will remind everyone just why they call him the Easy Money Sniper.
Coach of the Year
Monty Williams – HC – Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns were just 34-39 last season, their first under Monty Williams. But that marked a 15-game improvement in the win column. They also went undefeated in the bubble but missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. Phoenix was first in field goal percentage, first in free throw percentage, third in points per game, and fifth three-point percentage.
Nick Nurse was the 2019-20 Coach of the Year largely on the strength of losing a top-five player in the NBA and still guiding the Toronto Raptors to a two-seed and going seven games with Boston in the second round. Phoenix will probably need to make the playoffs to avoid this conversation going the other direction but several factors are playing into Williams’ hands.
The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t going to be the fifth-seed this time around and likely won’t make the playoffs. That’s one less team for Phoenix to contend with, though the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans will surely have something to say about it. As are the Houston Rockets (pending any James Harden trade) and possibly the San Antonio Spurs. But Williams will have Chris Paul on the floor. If he is able to do what he did for OKC last season, this will be an award for him just as much as it will be Williams