Updated: Oct 9, 2021
What a season. The jam-packed 2020-21 schedule proved to be a war of attrition for every NBA team, in large part due to the season’s delayed start. From back-to-back games to a jump in soft tissue injuries to COVID-19 diagnoses, every roster had their own unique set of challenges and setbacks. The hope is that this year will be a more enjoyable set of 82 games for all of the NBA. With that being said, here are my predictions for the league’s major awards this season.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Let’s try this again. In January, I made the case for Durant as last season’s MVP with about three-quarters of the season yet to be completed. He was averaging over 30 points per game at the time; while he slowed down a bit as the season progressed, 26.9 points per game is nothing to sneeze at. Still, the 11-time All-Star struggled with injuries to his hamstring and thigh, suiting up for just 35 out of 72 games.
The Nets’ Big Three—composed of Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving—played eight games together last season. Eight. One out of nine games. With a full offseason and time to train as a unit, there should be less isolation-heavy offense and more synergy between the stars. That should correlate to more efficient opportunities for Durant. If he can stay off the trainer’s table and lead Brooklyn to a potential no. 1 seed in the East, the Slim Reaper could walk away with his second MVP award next June.
Honorable Mentions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
There’s a chance that Simmons won’t be in Philadelphia by season tip-off on October 20. He’s been the center of trade rumors for the last year, as his ill fit with center Joel Embiid has been well-documented. He looks offensively inept at times, but there’s no doubt that he is one of the most disruptive defenders in the league.
Most of his value lies within his ability to invade lanes of seemingly open space. He was third in the league last season in total deflections (202) and sixth in defensive win shares (3.3). For reference, Simmons tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo—the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year—in the latter statistic. No matter where he ends up, Simmons and his 7-foot wingspan will be in contention for the league’s best defender.
Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday
Rookie of the Year: Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Green lit up the Summer League, pouring in more than 20 points per game and giving the world a taste of his explosive scoring ability. We could see him match, or even surpass, that average in his first professional season. He’s that talented. More importantly, that talent looks NBA-ready. Green uses his elite athleticism to score in a myriad of ways, similar to Bulls guard Zach LaVine.
Admittedly, this season’s Rookie of the Year race could go many different directions. We saw many rookies assert themselves during Summer League play, from Cade Cunningham to Cameron Thomas. It’s an immensely talented and deep draft class, but I’m banking on Green—the most polished, all-around scorer in the draft.
Honorable Mentions: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs
Most Improved Player: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson Jr. had a tough season last year, as he spent most of it rehabbing a torn meniscus. In the 11 games he did play, he struggled to score efficiently. Jackson Jr. converted just 42.4 percent of his field goal attempts—a far cry from his first two seasons (48.8 percent). Fortunately, the Michigan State product will be fully healthy entering this season and prepared to play significant minutes.
The fourth overall pick in 2017, Jackson Jr.’s allure is connected to his ability to score from beyond the arc. He’s converted 37.4 percent of his attempts from deep since entering the pros. It’s a well-established aspect of his game; the next step to secure Most Improved will be developing his interior defense. Jackson Jr. doesn’t get many blocks, and he won’t necessarily improve that stat with the addition of Steven Adams, a professional rim protector. But reducing his field goal percentage allowed will go a long way toward his development and the Grizzlies’ success.
Honorable Mentions: Michael Porter Jr., Lonzo Ball
Sixth Man of the Year: Derrick Rose, New York Knicks
The Knicks were one of the more active teams this offseason, adding to a roster that showed its cracks during their first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Hawks. Kemba Walker will presumably assume the role as starting point guard, while Rose mans the second unit. Rose was New York’s primary scorer in the postseason during Julius Randle’s offensive collapse, showing that he still has the chops to initiate the bench offense.
Luckily for New York, their additions should take the load off of his shoulders. It doesn’t necessarily bode well for Rose’s individual scoring numbers, but he’ll be 33 before the season tips off. He shouldn’t have the responsibility of powering an entire offense at this stage in his career. With that being said, Rose should only grow more comfortable in the Knicks offense after another offseason to develop chemistry.
Honorable Mentions: Jordan Clarkson, Kevin Huerter
Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Could this finally be the year for Spoelstra? He’s been Miami’s head coach since 2008 —through the Big Three era—yet he’s never been named Coach of the Year. Pat Riley made some excellent moves this offseason, with Kyle Lowry headlining the tough-nosed incoming class. Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker are bruisers at the wing and space the floor behind Duncan Robinson.
Factor in superstars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, defensive stalwarts at their positions, and the Heat are looking like a top-four team in the East. It would be an added bonus if Victor Oladipo made any meaningful contributions coming off his second quadriceps tendon injury. The Heat could turn some heads this year, and Spoelstra—seriously underrated throughout his time in Miami—could rack up a piece of hardware himself.
Honorable Mention: Steve Nash, Billy Donovan