We are officially a few days removed from an eventful All-Star Weekend/ Night, and with the NBA returning to action on Wednesday night, I was putting some thought into some NBA awards, and who I think will win them. In a shortened NBA season, we’re much closer to the home stretch than it appears. There have been some awesome storylines to follow thus far, the MVP race is super tight, Lamelo Ball’s lead for Rookie of the Year is getting tighter every day as Immanuel Quickley continues to impress, and Defensive Player of the Year is wide open in my opinion. With the first half of the season behind us, I’d like to take a deeper dive into how I think the second half of the year will play out, and who I believe will win these awards.
MVP: Joel Embiid
Even though I said earlier that the MVP race is tight, this was the easiest conclusion to come to. He’s averaging a career-high 30.2 PPG sitting only behind the league leader Bradley Beal who’s averaging 32.9 PPG. He’s shooting almost 42% from three, and he has the Philadelphia 76ers sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference at 24-12. The story has already been told on Joel Embiid. He’s completely taken a step up in all aspects of his game and is the clear pick for MVP if the season ended today. Thankfully it doesn’t, but I think it’s clear what Embiid is doing is sustainable. He’s taking over games in a way that he never has before. I think the highlight of the season so far is the 76ers’ game against the Jazz on March 3rd. It was a back and forth battle throughout, and with the game on the line, Embiid got control of the ball and with no hesitation ripped a three over Bojan Bogdanović. With Bogdanović draped all over him, he rose up and drilled the game tying three. The 76ers would go on to win the game against the Jazz who had been red hot up to that point. MVPs need signature moments like that, and that’s not his first one.
He’s continuously stepped up in the biggest moments and has been the driving force for the 76ers success so far this season. With the Lakers starting to slip without Anthony Davis, I think Lebron’s case is starting to dwindle, especially because his stats aren’t as spectacular as people would like to believe. Nikola Jokić has been fantastic as well, but I think his case will come down to how good the Nuggets are. They’ve taken a turn in the right direction in past weeks, but with how good the 76ers have been, I think Embiid’s the clear frontrunner. It’s hard to predict how the rest of the season will play out, but if he can stay healthy for the rest of the year, and if the 76ers continue to win and end up with a top three seed, I think Joel Embiid will win the 2021 MVP award.
DPOY: Ben Simmons
While this might appear as some 76ers bias, it most definitely is not. I believe that Ben Simmons is the best defensive player in the NBA. Guys like Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis have taken the spotlight in recent years as the league’s best defenders, and for good reason. The thing that I can’t get over is watching someone like Embiid tirelessly attack Gobert all night, and drop 40 on him. It just seems like people aren’t afraid to go right at Gobert, while teams literally try to scheme their offense away from Ben Simmons. Simmons has locked down some of the league’s best players this year including Luka Doncic, who was held to 19 points on 6-13 shooting in a 111-97 win over the Mavericks in late February. Doncic also committed seven turnovers and was a minus-20 while on the court. It wasn’t all Simmons, but if you watched the way Simmons was hounding him all night you’d understand that he is the motor for this 5th ranked defense. I highlighted Simmons’ spectacular versatility on the defensive end of the floor in a column I wrote a few weeks back.
Simmons is never afraid to guard 1-5 and can do it at a level that few if any players can. He’s tied for the league lead in loose balls recovered per game (1.4) and deflections (3.9). His hustle cannot be understated, and those loose balls recovered and deflections directly translate into transition offense where Simmons flourishes. His ability to take the toughest defensive assignment every night is so valuable for a team that already has a defensive anchor in the paint with Joel Embiid. Simmons allows Embiid to do what he does best; which is protecting the paint and blocking shots. I’d love to see Simmons rewarded for his defensive effort with a DPOY award, but it might be difficult considering a guard hasn’t won the award since Gary Payton in 1996. But in my opinion, Simmons is the most talented and versatile defender in the league, and as he continues to gain more ground on Rudy Gobert, I think he could make a real run at winning the award. Gobert is still the slight betting favorite, but if the rest of the season plays out like I think it will, he’d be my pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
6MOY: Jordan Clarkson
Barring an injury, I think the 6th Man of the Year award is one of the few locks we have. Jordan Clarkson is the clear answer here. Clarkson has transformed himself into a reliable sixth man that can and should be a part of the closing five in crunch time. Clarkson is averaging 17.9 PPG on 44.7% from the field. The Jazz have not been afraid to launch threes at a high rate this year, and Clarkson is attempting a career high 8.6 threes per game and converting on those attempts at a 37% clip. Quin Snyder has unlocked him in a way that we haven’t seen from him yet. His freedom to come off the bench and be the spark plug that this team his team has needed has taken his game to a new level.
Clarkson is currently a -360 betting favorite, and the next closest player is Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets who is currently +850 to win the award according to Sportsbettingdime.com. He’s averaging a very close 17.8 PPG, but his efficiency numbers are much lower, and the Rockets just aren’t a very good team. I think it’s hard to give the Sixth Man of the Year Award to someone who isn’t contributing to winning basketball. Lou Williams has dominated the field in recent years, winning three out of the last six years. Those teams were mostly all playoff teams, so I think it’s safe to say that Eric Gordon is a distant second place. Like I said, barring any injury or unforeseen circumstance, Jordan Clarkson should be the 6th Man of the Year when everything is said and done.
ROY: Lamelo Ball
In his 15 games since becoming a starter, Lamelo Ball is averaging 21 PPG, along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds per game. He’s separated himself from the rookie field in some surprising ways. At the All-Star Break, Lamelo Ball is leading all rookies in total points, total assists, total rebounds, total steals, and not to mention that he also leads all of those categories for rookies on a per-game basis. He’s been revolutionary for a Charlotte Hornets team that didn’t have high expectations heading into this season. At the break, the Hornets are 17-18 and currently hold the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. Lamelo Ball has proven that his jump shot can translate to the NBA, shooting an impressive 37.8% from three on the year.
He’s the obvious choice right now, and even though there are some competitors like Immanuel Quickley and Anthony Edwards, I don’t think they’ll be able to catch him. Edwards’s efficiency numbers are subpar and he is on a horrible team, and Quickley doesn’t get enough minutes to compete with his numbers. Interestingly enough, he has moved up to #2 in the NBA’s Rookie Ladder which is impressive considering he’s averaging 10 fewer minutes per game than Lamelo does. Some may argue that Quickley should be a starter, and that would give him the minutes he needs to catch up. But it doesn’t appear likely with the recent signing of Derrick Rose who has snuck his way into the starting lineup. But even as much as I’d like to see Quickley win the award as a Knicks fan, this one’s not complicated. If Lamelo continues to play close to the level he is now, the ROY award is his to lose.
MIP: Jerami Grant
Christian Wood started out the year on fire and was the early favorite to win Most Improved Player. Unfortunately, he has been out since February 6th with a right ankle sprain. This has essentially taken him out of the race, which is disappointing. The Rockets have lost 13 straight games since his departure. If that doesn’t tell the story of how much he has improved, I don’t know what does. But since then a new frontrunner has emerged: Jerami Grant. Jerami Grant was traded to the Pistons in the offseason, after leaving the Nuggets because he believed his talent and potential were being underutilized in Denver. He decided to bet on himself and got himself a 3 year 60 million dollar contract with the Pistons. His bet on himself has completely paid off, he is averaging a career-high 23.4 PPG and 5.4 RPG. Last year in Denver he was averaging 12 PPG, so in one year he has taken an 11 point jump. That’s significant in the NBA, and it qualifies him perfectly for this award. Of course, that jump has been attributed to a jump in MPG, FGA, and games started. It’s not like that should be held against him though. He knew that he was a starting-caliber player, and he knew that Denver couldn’t provide the type of role that he has in Detroit.
He’s the clear alpha for the Pistons, and with full control of the offense, he’s been able to flourish. My runner-up so far is Julius Randle of the New York Knicks. He doesn’t have the huge jump in PPG, but he’s averaging 2 more rebounds and assists per game, while also shooting a career high 40% from three in a year where he is attempting almost 5 a game. I think with the Knicks’ team success, Randle is closer to Grant than some people might think. I think it will be a close race, especially if the Knicks continue to win. But in the end, my prediction is that Jerami Grant wins the 2021 Most Improved Player award.
COY: Monty Williams
This was definitely the hardest award to predict for me. I think that’s because it’s not as clear cut as some of the others. There are at least 4-5 coaches that have a realistic chance to win. The betting favorite as of the All-Star Break is Quin Snyder of the Jazz at a modest -150. Guys like Monty Williams, Doc Rivers, Greg Popovich, and even Tom Thibodeau have realistic chances at winning. But I think Monty Williams is the one out of that group that will emerge as the favorite. The Suns have shot up in the standings in recent weeks and find themselves with a 24-11 record and second place in the Western Conference, only 2.5 games back from Snyder and the Jazz.
After an impressive 8-0 bubble run last year, Monty Williams has continued to look more and more like the coach of the future in Phoenix. Adding a veteran winner like Chris Paul always helps too, but I think Monty Williams deserves a lot of the credit. At some point, I think the Jazz will come back to Earth, and finish somewhere in the top five, but definitely not first. I believe that the Suns will finish with a better record and seed, and I think that will be enough to propel him past Snyder. Nevertheless, it’s a very tight race but Monty Williams is my prediction for who will win the 2021 Coach of the Year.
All in all, it’s difficult to predict end of season awards like this halfway through. The NBA is always changing, and circumstances can change in an instant, so none of these are really set in stone. I still think this is a fun exercise to go through and make all of these predictions. It will be interesting at the end of the year to go back to this column and compare my predictions with who actually ends up winning. Until then, I’m excited to watch the rest of the regular season and hope that my predictions come true.