The 2020-21 NBA season is here. No, for real, it’s here. That means it’s time for The Ringer’s NBA staff to offer its predictions. On Monday, we examined the most intriguing questions entering the new season, including where James Harden will land and who represents the biggest threat to the Lakers. Today, we survey the league and offer our bold predictions for year-end hardware. Up first, Most Valuable Player. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the back-to-back winner, but our staff predicted six potential winners for the trophy. Let’s get to it.
Most Valuable Player
Rob Mahoney: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. At some point the voting consensus will move on from Giannis, but for now I don’t see a compelling reason why it should. We can expect that Antetokounmpo will again be wildly effective—may I remind you that he averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists a game while also winning Defensive Player of the Year—in a way that drives one of the NBA’s best teams. Even if Luka Doncic, for example, has a great season, do we really think he’ll be a better player than Giannis by the end of the season? And if not, then what are we even talking about here?
Jonathan Tjarks: Kevin Durant, Nets. His talent speaks for itself and he will get the credit if Brooklyn is a title contender.
Paolo Uggetti: Damian Lillard, Blazers. Think of this as a preemptive lifetime award. Lillard may never win a title in Portland, but he surely deserves something for the kind of work and growth he’s had with the Blazers and how he’s carried them and become a legend. The setup is there for him to take the Blazers to a 3-seed and bring the kind of novelty to the award that attracts voters.
Dan Devine: LeBron James, Lakers. If I were him, I’d take a month or two off, but since it doesn’t sound like that’s the plan, I’ll take the guy who, in defiance of everything we know about everything, remains the best basketball player in the world.
Justin Verrier: Luka Doncic, Mavericks. This one’s for the thicc boys. While his preseason shape doesn’t inspire much confidence, Luka Donuts nearly averaged a 29-point triple-double last season, at age 20, and almost single-handedly knocked off the Clippers before they got a chance to historically collapse. Kristaps Porzingis’s absence to start the season could hurt the Mavs in the win column, but it might also bolster Doncic’s already-overstuffed (sorry) stat line.
Logan Murdock: Anthony Davis, Lakers. Davis has been in the preseason MVP talks for years, and winning a title tends to boost a player’s overall profile. Think MJ in 1992 or LeBron James in 2013. With James entering his 18th season, Davis will need to run with the torch for the Lakers to remain head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Matt Dollinger: Luka Doncic, Mavericks. I think Giannis will suffer from voter fatigue much like Steve Nash did after winning back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006 only to lose the following year despite putting up essentially the same numbers. If Luka can average 30-10-10, improve slightly on defense, and help the revamped Mavericks snag a top-four seed, he could edge Derrick Rose for the youngest MVP in league history.
Zach Kram: Kevin Durant, Nets. I have a lot of faith in the Nets this season, and that belief starts with Durant, now back on the court after an Achilles tear cost him a full season. Durant has reportedly looked great in offseason workouts, and he definitely looked great in the preseason—20 points in 26 minutes per game, with his usual smoothness on the perimeter and explosiveness at the rim. If Brooklyn approaches the top of the Eastern standings, Durant will receive ample MVP consideration for the comeback narrative alone.
Rookie of the Year
Devine: Tyrese Haliburton, Kings. I don’t feel good about this, but I’m not sure I see any of the big-name rookies scoring or winning enough to stand out. I could absolutely, however, see Haliburton putting up solid across-the-board numbers with noteworthy on-off splits in a sizable role on the Kings; if they flirt with .500 and a playoff berth, he could be a Malcolm Brogdon-y pick. Alternatively, if we’re cool with giving it to NBA rookies who have actually been playing professionally for a smooth decade, let’s go ahead and give it to Denver’s Facundo Campazzo, who might be a literal wizard:
the louvre doesn't deserve this pic.twitter.com/QHruYFTVxL— Ryan Greene (@RyanCBS4) December 17, 2020
Murdock: James Wiseman, Warriors. I went back and forth between Wiseman and Anthony Edwards, but I think sharing a backcourt with D’Angelo Russell will take a lot of shots away from the 19-year-old. In the Bay Area, Wiseman has a chance to be the team’s starting center on opening night. Alongside Draymond Green, he’ll get his share of lobs and touches.
Uggetti: LaMelo Ball, Hornets. Playing in Charlotte, LaMelo has a good shot of both getting the numbers:
Lamelo Ball ( @MELOD1P) 18 points 5 assists 2 rebounds in 25 minutes.. really like how he’s making reads in the pick and roll and his passes are cold pic.twitter.com/w8NcLyOYP4— Swish Cultures (@swishcultures_) December 18, 2020
And making the kinds of flashy plays that will make him stand out:
What should LaMelo's assists o/u look like in his first game?— Pickswise (@Pickswise) December 13, 2020
Whatever it is, we're slamming it! What a pass! pic.twitter.com/cuzx7tS7CG
Be honest with yourself: You’re probably not going to watch Hornets games unless you’re a fan of the team, so when LaMelo content becomes mostly about stat lines and highlights, it’s easy to see how he can end up with the honors by the end of the season.
Verrier: LaMelo Ball, Hornets. Only a few rookies get the kind of opportunities needed to be in the running for this award, and while the Hornets already have Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham in the backcourt, Ball already proved in the preseason that he’s too talented a playmaker to sit for long. Scoring will be an issue, but he could be a nightly double-double with enough minutes, while putting up a mixtape full of signature plays along the way.
Mahoney: James Wiseman, Warriors. This is an odd rookie class, made even more so by the fact that some of the most talented prospects could need a few years before their games are stable enough to actually help a team win. Against that kind of field, I like Wiseman’s chances to win on the Malcolm Brogdon platform: putting up good-enough numbers in a valuable role for a playoff team.
Tjarks: LaMelo Ball, Hornets. ROY tends to go to the player who gets to play with the ball the most and therefore picks up the most-counting stats.
Kram: Tyrese Haliburton, Kings. The lack of a clear favorite makes this rookie class feel a bit like 2016-17’s, when Malcolm Brogdon won Rookie of the Year as a dependable if unspectacular floor general. That descriptor fits Haliburton perfectly; advanced stats love him because he can shoot, distribute, and contribute right away.
Dollinger: LaMelo Ball, Hornets. No rookie is going to get as many opportunities as Ball. The Hornets are desperately hoping he seizes the reins from Day 1 and becomes the franchise’s first true talent to build around in years. There will be tons of highlights and tons of turnovers, but no one should dwell on the latter when it comes to a 19-year-old running an NBA offense.
Most Improved Player
Kram: Christian Wood, Rockets. This award typically goes to an already good player who levels up thanks to individual improvements and increased responsibility. Wood was a revelation last season, especially after Andre Drummond was traded and he entered the starting lineup. Now in Houston, he should feast on passes from John Wall and (for now) James Harden, while enjoying the sort of season-long statistical boost necessary to attract attention from voters.
Verrier: Christian Wood, Rockets. Does Wood even still count? He only got a 13-game showcase in Detroit last season after the Andre Drummond trade, so assuming he didn’t burn his MIP redshirt, he should be the odds-on favorite. He put up 23 points, 10 rebounds, and a block per game with 56/40/76 shooting to finish his Pistons run, and had 27 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes of his lone preseason game with Houston. If James Harden ever bothers to check who’s on the roster, he’ll find perhaps the most talented big man he’s ever played with.
Mahoney: Derrick White, Spurs. If the Derrick White we see this season is anything like the freewheeling version we saw in the bubble, he could subtly adjust the course of the Spurs as a franchise and become a popular Most Improved candidate in the process. That player was loose, confident, and—most crucially—a shooting threat who roughly tripled his long-range attempts. Whether White will (and could) keep that up over a full campaign is an open question, further complicated by the fact that he’ll miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from offseason toe surgery. There should still be enough time for White to come back, fire away, and make his case for the NBA’s most nondescript trophy.
Devine: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder. While MIP does reward players who make notable improvements to their games, it also most often goes to players whose minutes and scoring totals jump up a significant notch. SGA has already experienced one such leap, nearly doubling his scoring average from his rookie season with the Clippers to last season in Oklahoma City; that landed him sixth in MIP voting last season. But with Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schröder, and Steven Adams all gone, Gilgeous-Alexander’s in line for an even bigger boost in offensive role, playmaking opportunities, shot attempts, and usage rate. It might not result in many wins, but it should produce some pretty impressive numbers for the ascendant 22-year-old.
Murdock: Devin Booker, Suns. Book showed a lot in his brief bubble stint, but the question of if he’s just a great scorer on a bad team still lingered. However, with the presence of Chris Paul, Book is primed to take the next step in his career. I’m really excited to see him this season.
Uggetti: OG Anunoby, Raptors. Anunoby’s first breakout didn’t happen on the court. It happened on this video:
That was an introduction, now comes the real leap. After playing well in the bubble, Anunoby has all the makings to become one of the Raptors’ most important players, as well as one of the league’s most versatile pieces. He’s underrated right now, but by the time the season is over, I have a feeling he won’t be.
Tjarks: OG Anunoby, Raptors. See what my colleagues said above and what I wrote on Monday.
Dollinger: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder. SGA is primed for a monster season. The Most Improved Player award historically goes to a borderline All-Star who makes the team for the first time or cements himself as a franchise player. Sounds like the Thunder’s young guard to me.
Sixth Man of the Year
Murdock: Montrezl Harrell, Lakers. With Bron and AD easing into the season after a quick turnaround, Harrell will be expected to lead the second unit for large stretches. If Harrell can recapture his magic from last season, he’ll be a shoe-in to repeat.
Tjarks: Jordan Clarkson, Jazz. He was great in Utah last season and has found the perfect situation where he can gun for shots while being protected on defense.
Kram: Caris LeVert, Nets. Steve Nash has talked about using LeVert in a Manu Ginobili–style role off the bench, which would allow the fifth-year scorer to handle the ball more than he would playing next to Durant and Kyrie Irving all the time. Of course, he’ll still play with those stars plenty, too—and benefit from all the open shots they create. Even if he won’t match last season’s 29.5 percent usage rate, he could score just as often with increased efficiency.
Devine: Someone on the Nets. I’m not buying Montrezl Harrell repeating after getting a new deal (though not as lucrative of one as he’d hoped). Dennis Schröder might start for the Lakers and picking Lou Williams feels like going chalk, but the history of the award suggests high-scoring playmaking guards on good teams take precedence. So, let’s go with “whichever one of Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie doesn’t wind up starting in Brooklyn.”
Dollinger: Dennis Schröder, Lakers. Schroder will begin the season as the Lakers’ starting point guard, but it won’t be long until he’s begging to go back to the bench. The Lakers thrived with LeBron at point last year and Schroder won’t see a ton of shots or touches so long as LeBron and AD are on the floor together. He’ll have a lot more success—and opportunities—playing alongside just one of the Lakers’ stars while the other rests.
Uggetti: Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets. It sounds like MPJ knows he might come off the bench this season as Will Barton starts. If so, the potential for a leap that everyone in the Nuggets organization seems to expect is there. Playing with the second unit and maybe closing out some games seems like the ideal role for his second season, though I could also see Mike Malone being forced to start him if the hype that follows MPJ around is realized this season.
Verrier: Montrezl Harrell, Lakers. This is a stupid award that often honors a player for scoring lots of points against other less-good players, but Harrell should be motivated to remove the stench of the bubble from his resume, and he should get plenty of opportunities once the “contusions” and “sore knees” start to pile up for LeBron.
Mahoney: Danilo Gallinari, Hawks. Atlanta gave Gallinari $61.5 million to come off the bench and surely intends to get its money’s worth. The shots will be there for Gallo—even on a deep Hawks team—and his efforts with OKC last season are evidence of what he can do with them. In a supporting role, Gallinari put up nearly 10 points a game on 3s alone (most of which came from catch-and-shoot opportunities) and he added another four points just by selling fouls and getting to the line. Those are perfectly replicable contributions, and everything else just pads out the stat line of a player who could easily lead all reserves in scoring.
Defensive Player of the Year
Kram: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. Roughly half the time, this award goes to someone who’s already won it before: Sidney Moncrief, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Ben Wallace (twice), Dwight Howard, Kawhi Leonard, and Rudy Gobert have all won it in consecutive years. There’s no reason Giannis can’t do the same, as the top individual defender—and the best rim protector in the whole league—on a team that will probably lead the league in defensive rating again.
Verrier: Anthony Davis, Lakers. LeBron got the Finals MVP award, but Davis’s defense was the key to several critical plays and games in the Lakers’ bubble title run. It might be a bit soon for the full regular-season MVP push; no matter how complete AD’s game is now, he’ll likely always cede the spotlight to a LeBron playing anywhere near his peak, for even two-thirds of the schedule. But settling for the award Davis targeted upon landing in L.A. is a good consolation prize for a one-of-a-kind player who is very much mastering the many skills his Megazord body allows for.
Uggetti: Anthony Davis, Lakers. It’s time for Anthony Davis to finally get his due on this end of the floor. He nearly did (and probably should have) last season, but the Giannis narrative got in his way. Now he’s got the respect of a ring as he’s entering his prime, and he’s only going to get better.
Dollinger: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. This could be Giannis’s runner-up prize if he falls short in the MVP race. Adding Jrue Holiday to an already dominant defense should make the Bucks even stingier, further highlighting the back-to-back MVP’s prowess on that end.
Mahoney: Joel Embiid, 76ers. Maybe this is the year? The Sixers were a much better defensive team in concept than in practice last season, but in a way, the quirks of Philadelphia’s current roster give Embiid even more to do. This should be a showcase for a terrifying rim protector—one with the power to actually change the habits and shot selection of the teams he plays against. If that results in a stout team defense overall, Embiid could get a jump on the award and establish himself as the perennial candidate he should be.
Tjarks: Anthony Davis, Lakers. DPOY came down to him and Giannis last season, and AD was much better in the playoffs.
Devine: Anthony Davis, Lakers. I voted for Giannis last year and feel fine about it, but the degree to which Davis both captained the Lakers’ no. 3 last season and dominated defensively in the bubble makes him my top pick this time around.
Murdock: Anthony Davis, Lakers. Davis finished second in DPOY voting last season after he came in second in defensive win shares (4.4) and third in defensive box plus-minus (2.6), and the confidence that comes with winning a title should only help those numbers go up.
Coach of the Year
Verrier: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. He could host a MasterClass on how to bring out the best of fringe and/or funky players. If the Heat replicate their bubble success, he should be an easy choice.
Tjarks: Nate Bjorkgren, Pacers. There’s a lot of talent in Indiana waiting to be maximized. A good spot for a first-year head coach.
Devine: Monty Williams, Suns. The case starts with the way he led Phoenix to its surprising and delightful undefeated run in the bubble, continues with his stewardship of his young team through the acquisition of Chris Paul, and runs through a season that sees the Suns finish something like fifth or sixth in the West, earning the franchise its first postseason berth since 2010. Narrative’s not a dirty word; it’s OK to like stories that have happy endings.
Dollinger: Doc Rivers, Sixers. Philadelphia is unlikely to take a significant leap in the standings, but Rivers could significantly change the narrative and mojo around the team if he unlocks Ben Simmons and Embiid. Doc (somehow) never won COY when he was with the Celtics or Clippers, but did claim the hardware in 2000 with the Magic.
Murdock: Monty Williams, Suns. As you can see, I’m all-in on the Phoenix Suns being the playoff team everyone is scared of. A lot of that has to with Williams, who has helped change the culture in Phoenix. He’s familiar with Paul and has gotten great play out of Booker. Phoenix may be a tough matchup for anyone and Williams is a big reason.
Uggetti: Monty Williams, Suns. Everyone praised Williams after the Suns’ valiant 8-0 run through the bubble, and it was clear the outsized effect he had on the team. Now, with Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and an ascending Booker in tow, the Suns have a shot to be really good. If they don’t get stuck in the play-in scenarios of the 7-10 seeds, Williams will get a lot of deserved recognition.
Kram: Steve Nash, Nets. Note that I do not think Nash is the best coach in the NBA—but I do think that if the Nets are as good in the regular season as I expect, he will win this award, even if Durant is the far more important addition for the team.
Mahoney: Quin Snyder, Jazz. I have a theory that, in the absence of some real breakthrough, this award will wind up going to the coach of whichever Western Conference team joins the Lakers and Clippers in the top three. That could be Rick Carlisle or Terry Stotts, but I like Quin Snyder as a strategist who will get the most out of Utah’s balanced roster and productive continuity. The fact that the Jazz had a relatively quiet offseason could actually help Snyder’s candidacy in the long run; sometimes the contributions of a coach can be more easily farmed without buzzy additions to the roster or an out-and-out superstar to split the credit. Great as Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert may be, they wouldn’t stand in the way of Snyder winning this award in the way that LeBron James and Anthony Davis might for Frank Vogel.