NBA

Way-Too-Early 2020-21 Season Award Contenders

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Two weeks in, and already this NBA season is shaping up to be one of the craziest in recent memory. Ben Simmons is hitting threes, James Harden is in top form despite seeming to isolate his entire team, and weirdest of all the Sacramento Kings are actually winning! And this craziness will almost certainly extend to the 2021 season awards.¬†From MVP to Rookie of the Year to Most Improved Player, it seems like everybody has their predictions for who’s going to win.

Naturally, after two weeks of play, there’s already some front-runners for these awards, as well as some darkhorse candidates to keep your eyes on.

Coach of the Year

Starting off with the one award that almost nobody thinks about until the end of the season, Coach of the Year can be a really important award. It encompasses everything from rotation to record, and can show which team is set for the long haul. In fact, out of the last seven award winners, three coaches brought their teams to victory in the NBA finals either that season or the year after.

Front-Runner: Monty Williams (Phoenix Suns)

The Phoenix Suns are one of just two teams to emerge from the first six games with a 5-1 record, and when their schedule is compared to the other team’s (Philadelphia 76ers) it’s clear who’s had the harder road their. The Suns have had to take down the Kings, the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Utah Jazz, all of whom are currently top teams in a tough Western Conference.

All of the success that the Suns are seeing right now is just an extension of their play in the Orlando Bubble last season, where the Suns went 8-0. In fact, if you include exhibitions and preseason games, the Suns have a 15-6 record without any fans in the arena, which is odd, because last season they were 34-39 under the same conditions.

Runner-up: Nate Bjorkgren (Indiana Pacers)

The Indiana Pacers have had a lot of success in the early running, but they haven’t exactly had the toughest schedule. Looking forward though, the Pacers face the Pelicans, Houston Rockets, Suns and Kings in their next four games. If they could even go 2-2, or perhaps 3-1, it would show that the rookie coach can lead this team to a lot of success.

Dark Horse: Steve Clifford (Orlando Magic)

Though the Magic have seen a lot of success in their early games, they have begun a short slide that has hurt their standings in their most recent games.

Sixth Man of the Year

Another award that seems small in the grand scheme of things but can have a big impact on the game, Sixth Man of the Year often goes to a player who has shown to be able to sway close games, and it also proves the depth that some teams have.

Front-Runner: Caris LeVert (Brooklyn Nets)

The Brooklyn Nets are likely to be the center of a lot of award talks later in the season. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both viable MVP candidates, Jarrett Allen could be a dark horse Defensive Player of the Year award, and before Spencer Dinwiddie had to have his season ended, they had two Sixth Man of the Year candidates. But one still remains: Caris LeVert.

This season, even as a backup to Irving, LeVert has averaged 14.3 points, 5.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on a shooting split of 39/28/87. His scoring inefficiencies aside, LeVert has really helped Brooklyn get off to the fast start that the team has seen this season.

Runner-Up: Montrezl Harrell (Los Angeles Lakers)

Harrell is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and his play this season is certainly making a strong case for another run at the award. Harrell has averaged 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game while providing a lot of defensive pressure off the bench for the Lakers.

Dark Horse: Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves)

It’s rare for a rookie to win the Sixth Man of the Year award. In fact, it’s only happened once before during the 2004-05 season with Ben Gordon. One big reason for this is that the best rookies tend to end up starting, as they’re drafted to the worst teams (i.e. Ja Morant with the Memphis Grizzlies, Zion Williamson with the Pelicans, etc.) Still, if there’s any rookie who can do it, it would be Edwards.

Edwards has already seemed to grasp the pace of the NBA game, and he’s shown himself to be a naturally gifted scorer. Through Minnesota’s first five games, Edwards has averaged 15.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.

Most Improved Player

MIP is one of the more prestigious awards, and a great sign of who’s going to make the biggest progress in their career. Of the last ten award recipients, just two have yet to make an All-Star game. And this year, the NBA’s Most Improved Player award is seeing a lot of competition this season.

Front-Runner: Michael Porter Jr. (Denver Nuggets)

Although he’s chances may take a hit due to him missing multiple games because of the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Michael Porter Jr. has already made huge improvements over last season. With the Nuggets losing a few key guys at his position, the Nuggets need Porter Jr. to step up, and thus far, he has.

Through four games, MPJ has averaged 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals on a shooting split of 56/42/87. This is a massive improvements over his numbers last year, which were 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.5 blocks and 0.5 steals per game on a shooting split of 50/42/83. If Porter can keep this level of play up when he returns, he’ll be a tough candidate to beat.

Runner-Up: Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)

Coming off a season in which he won Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant has been having another great season, though unfortunately he’s another MIP candidate who is currently injured.

Still, this season Morant has been averaging 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks and 0.7 steals per game. While some of these stats may not be huge improvements over his numbers from last year, his scoring acumen has improved by leaps and bounds, going from a 47/33/77 split last season to a 54/33/84 split this season.

Dark Horse: Seth Curry (Philadelphia 76ers)

The overlooked Curry sibling, Seth has always been a fairly reliable rotation piece, which makes his status as a journeyman in the NBA and the fact that he’s been on seven different teams in the last eight years really sad.

Still, this might be the first year in Curry’s career that he stays with the same team for more than one year. This season, he’s averaged 16.2 points, 4.0 assists and 1.0 steal per game on a shooting split of 56/51/100.

Defensive Player of the Year

Typically reserved for the big men in the league, the Defensive Player of the Year award tends to be won in shifts, with one player winning it year-over-year. In fact, over the last 13 years there have been just nine different recipients. Of those nine players, three were multi-time winners, each of them winning in back-to-back years. In that span, Dwight Howard held the award for the longest time: three straight years.

Front-Runner: Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)

Simmons may seem like a surprising candidate for this award, but he is having a great year defensively, and has remained an under-the-radar top defensive player for years. Since the start of his career, Simmons has placed in the top 10 in the league in blocks per game once, and the top 10 in steals per game twice, with his 2.1 steals per game last season leading the league.

This season, Simmons is averaging 6.4 defensive rebounds, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Along with those numbers, Simmons has a defensive rating of 102.6.

Runner-Up: Kawhi Leonard (LA Clippers)

Leonard falls into the category of repeat winners, and he would also break form a little bit as he is one if the few candidates under 6’8″. Still, there’s no denying Leonard’s defensive impact while on the floor. The main question that has to be answered yet is whether or not Leonard will play enough games to have significant numbers in those areas.

Dark Horse: Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)

Smart will almost certainly not win the award. Guards so very rarely win, and at 6’3″, Smart’s likely to be overlooked by many of the voters. However, Smart comes from the Patrick Beverley school of tough, never-give-in style defenders. With 1.3 steals per game as his LOWEST number (he’s averaging 1.6 this season), his active hands and defensive mindset makes him a tough guard to put up numbers against.

Rookie of the Year

Always a fun award to predict, the Rookie of the Year award hasn’t failed to produce some controversy over the years. With Ben Simmons controversial win three years ago, and Ja Morant having a heated race with Zion Williamson last year, it’s quickly becoming the award to watch.

And this year there’s a lot to be excited over. What initially looked to be a weaker draft class actually seems to be producing a lot of really great players, and it looks like this year could have just of heated a race as last year.

Front-Runner: Tyrese Haliburton (Sacramento Kings)

The race between this candidate and my runner-up is incredibly close. In my mind, there’s about a three inch gap in between these two.

Still, Haliburton gets the nudge. With 10.6 points, 4.4 assists, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game, Haliburton has been a plus in all areas of Kings play. Most impressive, though, is his scoring efficiency. Haliburton is shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line.

Even with all of this though, it’s still almost a toss-up between him and…

Runner-Up: Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Man. I mean, man. This was tough.

Edwards is averaging 15.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists for the struggling Timberwolves this season, and he’s shown everyone that he has earned that number one overall spot where he was taken in this year’s draft. A natural scorer, Edwards is shooting a 42/31/70 split, and has shown a superb ability to get to the rim, or to score from mid-range.

Dark Horse: Payton Pritchard (Boston Celtics)

Pritchard is one of those players who could make steady progressions throughout his career, and five or so years down the line, it’s not unreasonable to think that we may wonder whether or not he should’ve won Rookie of the Year.

But, regardless of that, Pritchard probably won’t be winning this year. With the Boston Celtics fighting for an upper-seed in the playoffs this year, Boston will likely rely on other options in crunch time, putting a ceiling on Pritchard’s numbers.

Most Valuable Player

The most controversial award for sure, the MVP of the league comes with a lot of prestige, as well as a lot of eyes on both your performance throughout the prior season and the following one. It’s no wonder that almost every MVP winner becomes a Hall of Fame candidate, if you can handle the pressure this brings you could handle anything the game has to throw at you.

Front-Runner: James Harden (Houston Rockets)

How James Harden is having the season he’s having, with all the news an controversy surrounding him and his relationship with the Houston Rockets, is somehow amazing and frustrating all at the same time. Amongst all the chaos, Harden has been averaging a league leading 37.0 points, as well as 11.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game on an absurd shooting split of 50/45/88.

Harden is consistently in the MVP conversation, though starting out the season many doubted whether or not he’d be able to put up the same kind of numbers he has in the past. If Harden can keep up this level of production, he’ll be hard to overlook as a leading MVP candidate.

Runner-Up: Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets)

It’s weird to call Kevin Durant an MVP dark horse, but here we are. Considering the year plus some in time that Durant missed, many NBA fans and analysts forgot about how good Durant is, but when he’s at his best Durant is the best player in the league by far.

The only question that holds me back from declaring him the leading MVP candidate is how his game holds up with Kyrie Irving’s when the pressure is on. In crunch time both of those guys will want the ball, and Durant could let a limited amount of touches affect his mentality.

Dark Horse: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)

The fact that LeBron James has been producing the type of stats that he has in the last few years, despite being in his upper-30’s is enough evidence for me to declare that Father Time is unbeaten no more. With an astounding 23.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game one 45.1 percent field goal shooting is enough for me to declare that James has left Father Time bleeding on the mat with a twitching leg.

With those kinds of numbers, if James can lead the Lakers to another title in 2021, he could easily reclaim the title of best in the league.

About Ethan Becker

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