The 2020-2021 NBA season was one to marvel at all year long. Starting the season amid Covid-19 brought upon question marks from all over. Were the Suns just a bubble team? Can LeBron keep his high level of play up with little rest at his age? These questions and more were answered throughout the season and little was left to doubt. While we may have witnessed one of the better playoffs in recent history, thanks to many nail biters and big shots, I think we also witnessed one of the closest NBA Award Races in the history of the Association, with a few surprises and a few familiar faces. Nikola Jokic was crowned MVP, beating out fan favorite Stephen Curry, while averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. He did so leading the Denver Nuggets to the 3rd seed in the West, without Jamal Murray for the ladder half of the season. We saw perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Rudy Gobert, grab his 3rd DPOY in the last 4 seasons, though Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo, and Draymond Green all felt snubbed of the award, feeling that the DPOY should be able to guard 1-5s with ease. We saw an extremely close race for Rookie of the Year between LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards. Ball, who played roughly 3/4 of the season, won the award, despite the late season emergence of Anthony Edwards as a scorer. Julius Randle earned Most Improved honors rather easily, bringing the Knicks to their first playoff series since Carmelo Anthony in 2013. Sixth Man of the Year went to Jordan Clarkson, who people had turned into a meme following his time in Los Angeles with Lebron. Finally Tom Thibodeau, highly regarded defensive coach who also bears responsibility from fans for running Derrick Rose into the ground years ago, won Coach of the year with the New York Knicks.
So what exactly is my point here?
Anything can happen in this league. Some players will stay at the top of their respective craft, while others will emerge from mediocrity, challenging the perennial stars for their spot at the top.
With this all being said, here are my predictions for the 2021-2022 NBA Awards.
Most Valuable Player
Luka Dončić, PG/SF, Dallas Mavericks
All aboard the Luka Magic train. Since entering the league, Luka Doncic has shown to be a key piece to the Mavericks future. Doncic is coming off 2 straight seasons averaging at least 27.5 Points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. Last year, Luka was easily atop the league in Usage Rate, and still managed a Top 11 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). The Mavericks did little to nothing in order to get Doncic more help, so it is not unrealistic to see Doncic lead the league in usage rate once again. Doncic has also improved as a shooter, with rising percentages from the field and from 3 each of the past three years. The one thing holding Luka back from this award is team success. The Mavericks have been unable to break the top half of the Western Conference Standings since the arrival of Luka Doncic. If the Mavericks can figure it out and piece together stretches of key wins, Luka has a real shot. The combination of usage, talent, intelligence, and drive is reason enough to say Luka Doncic should be the 2021-2022 NBA Most Valuable player.
Defensive Player of the Year
Ben Simmons, PG/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
How dare I put Ben Simmons on a list involving good players, you ask? My response, deal with it. Yeah, he is a liability on offense, and the butt of almost every NBA offseason joke, but one thing is for certain; This guy can play defense at a very high level. Rudy Gobert won the award this past year and Simmons was the runner up. I felt Simmons was snubbed. NBA coaches were polled this past week, and the consensus was that Ben Simmons is actually the best defender in the NBA. Why? He defends every position on the floor. He has the ability to pick up guards at halfcourt, play on the wing against longer scorers like Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum, or take a post up from the most dominant bigs in the NBA. Simmons has a knack for attacking passing lanes, resulting in 3 straight seasons of at least 1.5 steals per game. He was tied for the lead in steals per game this season at 1.6 SPG (Kawhi Leonard). Simmons was second in the NBA in defensive rating, only behind Gobert, but Gobert's defensive flaws are not seen through his stats, as he spends most of his time in the paint. The one thing that could hold Simmons back is the team he winds up playing for. The 76ers' defensive scheme is strong, and they have strong defenders at every position. Will Simmons be exposed more, now that he won't have Joel Embiid protecting the rim? These questions will probably be answered later, rather than sooner, as the rumors surrounding Simmons don't seem to be materializing at this point. This being said, Simmons has very high chance to lead the league in steals again and win his first DPOY, due to his large frame, on-ball versatility, and off ball instincts.
Rookie of the Year
Cade Cunningham, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons
I'm sorry in advance. I know this isn't a sexy pick or a hot take, but sometimes the right choice is the obvious one. Cunningham is coming off a historically great college season, where he finished first in the Big 12 in points, Top 3 in 3PT and FT %, Top 6 in rebounds and steals and Top 10 in assists. This being said, the stats are only half of it. The eye test is the other half and boy does he impress. Cade Cunningham can score at will and take over a game whenever needed. All you needed to do was watch the Big 12 Final, where Cunningham and Oklahoma state took on Texas. The team lost late, but Cunningham did everything possible to keep his team close, scoring 29 points, 18 of which came down the stretch in the second half. 2 weeks before this, Cunningham led his team to an OT victory over the Oklahoma Sooners, in which he scored 40 points on over 50% shooting and 90% from the line. That is production that is almost unheard of, even in the NBA! Combine this level offensive pedigree with a Cunningham's physical defensive approach, and you have one special prospect. Not to mention that Detroit needs a scorer. Desperately. There is not a single ball dominant force on this team, which should translate into many opportunities for Cade Cunningham to show why he was the first overall pick, early and often. It is the vanilla pick for sure, but it is impossible to find this combination of production and opportunity anywhere else in this rookie class. I can confidently say Cade Cunningham, barring injury, will be the 2021-2022 NBA Rookie of the Year.
Most Improved Player of the Year
Michael Porter Jr., SF, Denver Nuggets
Some players ball out in college, only to transition to the NBA and struggle to get back on track. For Michael Porter Jr., this seemed to be the case very early on. After playing just a handful of games in college due to injury, MPJ declared for the NBA Draft in 2018. He fell to 14, due to his injury risk. He went on to miss his entire rookie campaign with a combination of back and lower body injuries. In 2019, MPJ came back and scored 9 Points per game, on about 16 minutes. This past season, in the absence of Jamal Murray, he silenced the critics, as he averaged 31.5 minutes per game, putting up 19 PPG along with 7.3 RPG. He was no longer the risk he was thought to be. Michael Porter Jr. quickly became regarded as one of the biggest steals of the 2018 NBA Draft.
The most promising part?
In 2019, Porter Jr. shot 51% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc. He followed this stellar shooting season with somethin even better. In 2020, MPJ shot 54.2% from the field, and 44.5% from deep. He is knocked for questionable shot selection at times, but is that even a valid argument with shooting clips like these?
The Nuggets will once again be without Jamal Murray for at least the first quarter of the season, which means Porter will look to take on an expanded role with another year under his belt. Mike Malone loves his offense, as his teams have ranked Top 10 in Offensive Rating since he began coaching the Nuggets in 2015. This means there is a lot points to be had in this offense, and they are there for the taking. Jokic will get his regardless, but if Porter Jr. is able to expand his game and find ways to create shots for himself, he has the potential for a 25 PPG + season, and a real chance at an all star selection. This will earn him the NBA Most Improved Player of the Year, an award that he could have won last year if not for the pool of break out players last season.
Sixth Man of the Year
Joe Ingles, SF, Utah Jazz
I am sick of this. I am sick of Joe Ingles getting thrown in the trash like last months issue of Sports Illustrated. Year after year he plays his heart out from the bench and he is pretty damn good at it, yet year after year he is overlooked because someone is always "flashier", or "provides more energy" off the bench. Ingles averaged 12 PPG, 3.5 RPG, and 4.8 APG coming off the bench for the Jazz. He shot 49% from the field and 45% from beyond the arc this season. These were both his best shooting clips of his career. This year was his second year as a fulltime sixth man, and it seems that he has become very comfortable within this role. It wouldn't surprise me if he scored a bit more off the bench than last year. He also had a 2.4 Assist to Turnover ratio and had a +/- of 6.8. There isn't much else to ask from a guy off the bench. He plays at a slow pace, but is a very intelligent player, and can cover the 3/4 very well. Due to this, there is little to no chance he gets less opportunities than last year, especially on a hungry Utah team that seems to dominate the competition through the regular season. There will be more exciting players to watch off the bench, better scorers, younger, hungrier guys, but Joe Ingles will remain solidified as a top 6th man. The most efficient role player in the league will get his recognition, come the end of the 2021-2022 season.