The NBA season is still ongoing, but the window for players and coaches to prove themselves for this year’s NBA awards has come and gone. Games in the bubble will not count toward a player’s body of work, as votes have been cast for each award.
With every contender already having made their case, these NBA awards picks — featuring NBA Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Rookie of the Year and MVP — detail who should win the trophy for each respective category.
Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
ESPN reporter — and notorious bomb dropper — Adrian Wojnarowski reported that NBA coaches voted on who they thought would be the coach of the year, with that vote yielding a tie between Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan. Both of those selections have merit, but it's the third-place coach who should take home the honors for this season. Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors exceeded expectations this year, and he deserves to be rewarded for it. He's by far one of the best coaches in the NBA.
Nurse had to coach around the loss of Kawhi Leonard this offseason, with the defending NBA champions having to replace arguably the best player in the NBA. But Nurse made things work anyway, with the Raptors continuing to play at a high level, finishing the regular season with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference heading into the NBA bubble.
While there are two teams that will go into the playoffs with a better record than the Raptors, neither of those squads had to deal with the loss of such a great talent. With the Raptors boasting the best scoring defense in the league after losing the best perimeter defender in the sport, Nurse deserves a ton of credit for keeping everything running as smoothly as it has in the North.
Most Improved Player: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Who would have thought that moving away from LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers would help a young player to get better? That is exactly what happened with Brandon Ingram, who should be the league’s Most Improved Player at the end of this season. Ingram is enjoying career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists this season, all while being the anchor of a young New Orleans Pelicans team that is hanging around the playoff race in the Western Conference.
It is clear that Ingram has enjoyed his more valuable role in New Orleans this year, as he has had the opportunity to be the go-to guy instead of having to defer to someone like James. And Ingram has improved his game from top to bottom, beyond just his counting stats. Despite going to the free-throw line more than he ever did as a Laker, Ingram has improved his free-throw shooting by nearly 20 percent from any mark he enjoyed in LA.
While the Pelicans had to worry about the health and conditioning of Zion Williamson for much of his first season in the league, New Orleans was able to rely on the steady hand of Brandon Ingram. Ingram’s ascension from a solid role player to an All-Star and one of the leaders of a young team should earn him the Most Improved Player award in a rather convincing vote.
Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
When you are 6-11 with incredibly long arms and can get anywhere on the floor within just a couple of steps, it turns out that you are a real asset on the defensive end of the floor. That happens to be the case with Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose ability to impact games on the defensive end of the floor is virtually unmatched. With the Greek Freak being able to block shots without being tethered to the paint like a center, the Bucks’ defense receives a massive lift when he is on the floor.
Giannis is so much more than a shot blocker for the Bucks. He also averages close to 14 rebounds per game. For a team like the Bucks, which uses Brook Lopez at the center position to spread the floor on offense, Giannis’ rebounding and shot-blocking are extremely valuable. If Milwaukee used a more traditional center, it may not be as necessary. But Giannis is the perfect fit for the Bucks and what they try to do on both ends of the floor.
This season, Milwaukee has an average margin of +11 points per game, meaning that they outscore their opponents by an average of 11 points in every contest. No other team in the NBA cracked double digits in that metric. And one of the major reasons for the Bucks being so dominant was the defense of the Greek Freak.
The question now becomes whether or not he can keep it up during the postseason against the best offensive players in the league.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Right now, a lot of the focus on Lou Williams has to do with his decision to go to legendary Atlanta gentlemen’s club Magic City to get chicken wings during a pandemic, keeping him out of his team’s early seeding games. But, while the nickname Lemon Pepper Lou is hysterical, that should not distract from the fact that Williams is again the best sixth man in the NBA this season. At this point, the Sixth Man of the Year award should just be named the Sweet Lou Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Coming off of the bench, Lou Williams averaged 18.7 points per game and 5.7 assists. Both of those numbers put Lou Will inside of the top 50 in the NBA in each of those categories, despite the fact that he doesn’t start. Williams is a gifted offensive player, who would likely be able to walk into the starting five of any team in the league if he didn’t have such a perfect role already carved out with the Clippers.
Williams, in addition to being incredibly productive, is also instrumental to what the Clippers can do with their lineup. While most teams stagger the rest of their two star players, the Clippers do not have to rest Leonard and Paul George at different times. Thanks to Williams, the duo can be off the floor simultaneously, and reenter games at the same time. While they are out, Williams can handle the scoring load along with Montrezl Harrell.
Harrell should finish second in this year’s Sixth Man of the Year vote, as he also had an incredible season in a reserve role for the Clippers. And with two of the best reserves in the NBA on their bench, the depth of the Clippers is a major reason why Los Angeles is considered as one of the top favorites to win the NBA Finals.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant was incredible in college with the Murray State Racers, but NBA fans had to wonder how he would perform when he made the leap from the Ohio Valley Conference to the NBA. Fortunately for everyone, he has made the leap successfully, as Morant proved he's one of the best young players in the NBA in his first season. As a result, he is the only choice for Rookie of the Year this year.
Morant averaged 17.7 points and seven assists per game for the Memphis Grizzlies this year, putting them in the eighth spot in the Western Conference heading into the seeding games in Orlando. Morant paced a team that was full of young players and has given them a chance to get to the playoffs despite a lack of postseason experience across nearly their entire roster.
Some will argue that Zion Williamson deserves the Rookie of the Year award instead of Ja Morant, but that is a rather ridiculous argument to make upon taking a closer look at their rookie campaigns. Williamson played well this year but only appeared in 19 games before the NBA awards ballots were due. Morant played in all but six of his team’s games, which makes him the clear choice to take home this award.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Earlier, we discussed how Antetokounmpo can impact games on the defensive end and what that means for the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks. Well, the Greek Freak is incredible on the offensive end of the floor as well, to the point that his complete body of work this season has made him more than deserving of his second straight league MVP award.
Giannis has averaged 29.9 points per game this season to go with his 13.8 rebounds for a Bucks team that has been far and away the best team in the NBA this season. He impacts games just as significantly on offense as he does on defense, as Giannis can get to the bucket with ease against the majority of defenders he faces. That lets shooters such as Khris Middleton and Kyle Korver get good looks from three-point range, with help defenders needed to gravitate toward Antetokounmpo.
The question for Giannis is whether a second straight landslide victory in the MVP race will matter in the long run. He will need to earn a championship for his recent run of dominance to matter in a historical sense, and the Bucks are well-positioned to win one this year.
If Giannis can play well in the playoffs, and add a Finals MVP to his trophy case, it will validate everything he has accomplished in the last two seasons.
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