Award ballots for the 2020-21 NBA season are due in one week. Some categories have a clear winner. Last week, I detailed Nikola Jokic’s MVP case and, as we’ll get into soon, I also believe Rudy Gobert is the pick for Defensive Player of the Year. Sixers fans, don’t worry, you’ll be cheered up by multiple All-Defensive team selections. But there are a lot of candidates—seemingly more than usual—for every honor this season. One thing is for sure: there will be a ton of snubs.
I’d imagine there will be anger from fans once ballots are published and winners are announced in the coming months. As I researched my ballot, I became increasingly frustrated too. There are some super talented players having great seasons that will be left empty handed. It sucks. But a large number of snubs is the by-product of a league flooded with talent. It’s a good problem for the league and fans to have. But maybe not for players or teams. Maximum contract extensions are tied to awards for some players who could meet the supermax criteria. This year, Jayson Tatum could lose $32 million because his contract extension value is determined by his All-NBA status. The same goes for Bam Adebayo and Donovan Mitchell. Some or all of them will miss out.
Stats won’t change much over the final week. Neither will the standings. But with some races being so tight, the final few games could clarify some choices. Here’s my ballot as of now plus my thought process behind some of the more difficult decisions:
Most Valuable Player
1. Nikola Jokic
2. Joel Embiid
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
4. Steph Curry
5. Luka Doncic
Jokic is the favorite, and rightfully so. He had one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of basketball. Not only has he turned into an unstoppable scorer, but Jokic has thrown more passes than anyone else in the league, and set more screens than all but 10 players, according to Second Spectrum. He’s both a point guard and a center on offense, but his role is clear as an interior player on defense. Jokic has defended more pick-and-rolls than any other player because teams challenge him to try to wear him out. He’s not blocking shots or switching on to guards. But he’s always in the right position, making hustle plays, getting his hands in passing lanes, communicating, and inhaling rebounds. Jokic got himself in the best condition of his life and has made himself into a good defender.
Only one All-Star has played in every game this season. It’s Jokic, which just bolsters his case during a season ravaged by absences due to injuries, the health and safety protocols, and a truncated schedule that caused teams to rest their stars. Players who stayed healthy like Jokic naturally provided more to their teams and deserve an edge. Durability should be considered by voters, and Jokic would have still been in the running had other candidates who missed time stayed healthy, such as Embiid, James Harden, and LeBron James.
Embiid’s injury diminished his chances of winning MVP, but his second-place finish serves to emphasize the value of bigs in the league today. For a while, people thought bigs were a dying breed, but Embiid’s rookie season five years ago hinted that a rise like this was possible. It’s a testament to the Sixers center’s work ethic that he’s actually reached this level, though. Embiid added layer after layer to his game, adding post moves, improving as a passer, extending his range, and mastering the intricacies of the paint. As long as Embiid can stay healthy he should only keep getting better, and maybe someday he will win his first MVP.
Giannis is averaging nearly 30 points and six assists while dominating on defense for a third straight season. Did you see him block Kevin Durant? It was genuinely stunning. The fact he’s won back-to-back MVPs shouldn’t be a factor in any voter’s decision for this season. But he’s fallen down my MVP rankings slightly because his defense has slipped from his Defensive Player of the Year campaign last year, though he’s still an All-Defensive team player. Jokic’s heightened offensive impact just gives him an edge on my ballot.
Steph remains as special as ever. It’s an easy choice to have him in the top five. Fourth feels low considering the Warriors would be in the dumpster without him. But the players above him make a more significant impact defensively, and a team’s place in the standings has to count at least a little bit.
Doncic gets the fifth spot for now because of his elite production with a massive offensive workload, and the fact he’s better defensively than he ever was before. But there’s serious arguments to be made for Chris Paul, Rudy Gobert, Damian Lillard, and others for this spot. Paul might end up getting the nod on my ballot, and we’ll get into him more in the All-NBA section, which is a doozy to figure out this season. Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved, however, weren’t all that difficult.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Rudy Gobert
2. Ben Simmons
3. Bam Adebayo
In the same way Jokic is Denver’s offense, Gobert is Utah’s defense. The two-time DPOY winner literally deters players from even entering the paint.
He has a 7-foot-9 wingspan. He’s 258 pounds. He reads the floor like he has 360 vision. The strength of the Jazz defense is guarding the pick-and-roll, which he thrives in with his blend of elite traits and skills. When Gobert defends a screen in the pick-and-roll, Utah allows only 0.85 points per chance, which leads the 101 players to log at least 400 plays. Since he’s so dominant inside, Utah’s other defenders are able to stay home on their assignments instead of helping to prevent a drive into the paint.
The difference between Gobert and Simmons is that Gobert defines how the West-leading Jazz operate, while Simmons is one of several major parts that power the East-leading Sixers. In reality, what Gobert and Embiid do on defense is far more comparable than Simmons. But generally, rim protectors have a greater impact on how a defense operates. It’s one of the reasons Gobert gets an edge over Simmons on my ballot, and had Embiid not missed so many games he would have drawn consideration too.
Simmons is the best at what he does, serving as an on-ball stopper against the league’s best scorers and an active off-ball nuisance who fully belongs in the conversation for this award. The energy he brings on defense is contagious. When he’s on, it lights a fire in his team. Simmons was once an apathetic defender at LSU and he’s turned himself into one of the league’s best. We’ll touch more on him later.
Adebayo isn’t the league’s best defender, but he might be the league’s most well-rounded. This season, he’s defended pick-and-rolls and switched 490 times compared to 399 instances of dropping into the paint, according to Second Spectrum. That makes him the only defender to log over 300 plays both switching and dropping. The Heat rightfully trust him in either role because he can lock down smaller, quicker players on the perimeter, and serve as an impactful rim protector.
Most Improved Player of the Year
1. Julius Randle
2. Christian Wood
3. Jerami Grant
“Everyone tends to measure people on points or shots, and not the all-around game,” Tom Thibodeau said on Sunday after the Knicks’ win over the Clippers when asked about Randle not having a big game based on his stat line. Thibodeau is right. Randle does have great numbers: a career-high 23.9 points on 41.3 percent shooting from 3 with 10.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists in a league-leading 37.2 minutes per game. But his greatest impact is often what he does beyond the box score. It’s his feel for sensing a help defender coming his way, then swinging the ball to an open man to force a defense to rotate. It’s his intensity on defense, and the will to stay seated in his stance and force an opposing scorer into a tough shot.
This wasn’t always the case for Randle in the past. Many Knicks fans dreaded when he touched the ball last season because it was as if he had blinders on. He was a turnover machine. He was never a consistently impactful defender. All that has changed. Randle went from being an empty-stats player to a winner, a solid player to an elite one.
Other players like Wood and Grant made more significant statistical leaps this season and certainly deserve consideration for the award. So do Jaylen Brown, Zion Williamson, Michael Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, and Terry Rozier. I’m likely missing others, but Randle is the award’s obvious recipient.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Joe Ingles
2. Jordan Clarkson
3. Jalen Brunson
With a week to go, I remain undecided on Sixth Man of the Year. Two Utah players, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson, will rightfully receive a lot of votes, and maybe even mine. Ingles is averaging 12.3 points on an obscene 46.3 percent shooting from 3. The versatile wing has given the Jazz what they need whenever they need it: scoring, playmaking, and defense. With Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell both missing time this season, he’s also managed to step into their roles as a starter.
Ingles has now started 41 percent of his games, and if he starts in Utah’s final four he will have started in 45 percent of games, which would be the highest percentage ever for a winner. Lamar Odom won the hardware in 2010-11 after starting 43 percent of his games, so there is a historical precedent for Ingles to win it. But that’s a lot of starts for a supposed Sixth Man and there are many other strong candidates that are true bench players.
With that said, isn’t Ingles doing exactly what a sixth man is supposed to? To step up when others go down? He’s absorbed more ballhandling responsibilities when Mitchell or Conley have missed time, and served as more of a sharpshooter when they’ve played. He does what his team needs to win. That was the argument for Odom in 2011 after Andrew Bynum (remember him?) was injured to start the season, forcing Odom into the Lakers’ starting lineup. For now, Ingles is my choice. But there are other candidates, including his own teammate.
After a scorching start, Clarkson has cooled off in recent months. He could still win this award and he deserves to be in the top three. Even with his diminished efficiency, he still provides an important shot-making spark off Utah’s bench. Ingles is just producing at a higher level on both ends of the floor. Other candidates have also closed the gap.
Jalen Brunson has at times been the Mavericks’ second-best player this season, providing a spark off the bench on both ends of the floor. He should be heavily considered for the award.
Matisse Thybulle will get some All-Defensive love, and he is also a contender for Sixth Man. He doesn’t score much, or even touch the ball all that often. But he makes the right play when he does, which is all his team needs. When he checks in off the bench, he immediately changes the complexion of the game. His steals and deflections serve as catalysts to jump-start offensive possessions because he often tips the ball toward Simmons to make the play for someone else.
Other Sixth Man candidates on my mind are T.J. McConnell, Tyrese Haliburton, Dario Saric, Thaddeus Young, Miles Bridges, Carmelo Anthony, Alex Caruso, Chris Boucher, De’Anthony Melton, and Derrick Rose. An argument can be made for any of them, whether it’s Melton’s defense, Young’s playmaking, or Boucher’s shot-blocking. Bottom line: The Sixth Man award should be about more way more than just scoring.
Coach of the Year
1. Monty Williams
2. Tom Thibodeau
3. Michael Malone
Williams will be my choice to win Coach of the Year after installing new wrinkles in Phoenix seemingly each month this season. He has cultivated an unselfish environment, blending veterans and young players, all for the common goal of winning games.
Thibodeau is a close second after the Knicks’ miraculous turnaround. He has brought a defensive-minded nature to the Knicks, and a shared sense of accountability that transfers from the coaching staff to the players.
The third spot is a lot harder. Malone gets the nod for now because of the job he’s done to manage the Nuggets’ rotation with so many players in and out of the lineup. But Nate McMillan rejuvenated the Hawks, and Quin Snyder rightfully pushed his players to shoot more 3s than anyone else in the NBA, leading to Utah’s best offensive season during his tenure.
C: Nikola Jokic
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Kawhi Leonard
G: Steph Curry
G: Luka Doncic
C: Joel Embiid
F: Julius Randle
F: LeBron James
G: Damian Lillard
G: Chris Paul
C: Rudy Gobert
F: Paul George
F: Jayson Tatum
G: James Harden
G: Bradley Beal
These choices are excruciating. Just look at the guard spots. Beal barely makes the cut despite averaging 31.4 points per game, the second most in the NBA behind Steph. He put up 50 against the Pacers on Saturday, a few days after dropping 42 on the Bucks. He’s been doing it all season, and finally the Wizards are starting to win games, too. But Beal’s not a lock to make it with so many peers bringing different qualities to the discussion.
Steph, Lillard, Paul, Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Zach LaVine, Russell Westbrook, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Trae Young are also in the running for just six spots. Some players are also eligible at both guard and forward: Luka, LeBron, Kawhi, George, Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Jaylen Brown, and Ben Simmons. That’s a load of players having great seasons for not too many spots, and I could have listed more because that’s how deep nominees go.
Defense should be rewarded. There are 44 players averaging over 20 points this season, the most in league history. What’s harder to find are defenders who can make life tough on that type of scorer. That’s why Tatum is here, for now. He’s averaging 26.3 points and 4.4 assists but has also given hell on defense to some of the NBA’s elite scorers.
I say all that, yet Simmons is absent despite being in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. His contributions go far beyond the box score. Simmons is averaging only 14.3 points with 6.9 assists, but the quality of shots he creates for his teammates is unlike most players in the league. In transition, Simmons has made 146 passes leading to 3-point attempts, according to Second Spectrum. (T.J. McConnell ranks second with just 84.) While Simmons isn’t a shooter himself, he creates tons of looks for his teammates. But right now, he’s on the outside looking in behind players who have made far greater offensive impacts like Harden, Beal, and Tatum.
Harden kept the Nets in the running for the league’s best record despite extended absences from Irving and Kevin Durant. He was a legit MVP candidate prior to his injury. It’d feel odd to leave him off here. But the argument against him is that he’s played only 42 games. Meanwhile, Booker has played 64 games, shredded teams on offense, and made countless winning plays on defense. Irving has played 51 games and is also torching opponents. Voters could also shift George or Tatum to a guard spot to make space at forward for Zion Williamson, who was having a historic second season on offense—while improving steadily on defense—before suffering a fractured finger.
There’s so much talent around the league that it’d even be hard to make a fourth team. Part of the challenge in choosing the NBA’s 15 best players are the positional designations, but the league office has effectively made it a positionless ballot with so many players being eligible at multiple spots. From the group above, only Gobert, Randle, Curry, Paul, Beal, and Harden could be chosen at just one position. The flexibility is a reflection of the state of the game. That’s a good thing. But the positional spots are still a hindrance.
For example, Embiid is eligible at forward despite playing 99.9 percent of his minutes as the lone big on the floor. Since he is eligible, I would love to put him on the first team to match my MVP ballot. That’d also slide Gobert up to the second team. But I can’t do it because it would mean removing one of my current forward- or guard-eligible selections for a third-team center. Capela, Adebayo, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all worthy of consideration, but there are a number of players I’d select ahead of them.
The only way to get my top 15 players in these slots is to shuffle them in this way. And with every choice, I tried to weigh both ends of the court with games played and intangibles. That’s why Paul is getting some top-five MVP hype and should be a lock for All-NBA. He is averaging only 16 points and nine assists, but he gives his team what it needs to play at an optimal level. He remains a dominant playmaker and clutch shotmaker. He sets the tone on defense. And he’s played all but one game, establishing culture and bringing leadership every day.
I’ve had multiple front office executives argue that Paul should be first or second on All-NBA ballots. What they’re really arguing for is an acknowledgment of the unmeasurable yet known impact he makes beyond the stat sheet. It will be fascinating to see what other voters decide. The voting process this season has been more difficult than any other I’ve been a part of since 2016-17.
C: Rudy Gobert
F: Bam Adebayo
F: Draymond Green
G: Ben Simmons
G: Jrue Holiday
C: Clint Capela
F: Joel Embiid
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
G: Mikal Bridges
G: Matisse Thybulle
All three players from my Defensive Player of the Year ballot—Gobert, Simmons, and Adebayo—obviously made the first team here. Holiday gets in too. He hounded every star he defended this season and he’s been an integral part of Milwaukee’s increasing willingness and ability to switch screens. As detailed earlier, his teammate Giannis still belongs in the conversation here but makes the second team this year.
Instead, Green makes his return to the first team following a poor 2019-20 campaign. He looks rejuvenated and helped lead the Warriors to a top-five defensive rating. There isn’t a player in the league who talks more on that end of the floor, directing his teammates to where they should be. Opponents shoot only 46.1 percent near the rim when he’s lurking too, one of the best marks in the entire league. He can switch on to the perimeter. He can battle inside. He makes hustle plays. Draymond may not be quite back to prime levels, but he’s ready to compete for a title again once Klay Thompson returns.
Embiid probably would’ve made the first team had he not missed so many games, but he slides to a forward spot on the second team to open space for Capela at center. Capela plays a role similar to Gobert, dropping to the paint and allowing his teammates to stay closer to their assignments. He’s fourth in blocks per game, and third in defensive rebounds per game. He’s been integral to the Hawks’ turnaround this season.
Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, and Jakob Poeltl were also considered at center. Turner might have received the nod had he not gotten injured. Same goes for Davis. Poeltl has turned himself into a good positional defender—Capela is just better.
It’s also worth noting Adebayo and Green are eligible at center. I would fault no one for placing either of them (or Embiid) at center to make room for an additional forward or guard. There are a lot of them. In addition to the choices above, I considered Chris Paul, Dejounte Murray, De’Anthony Melton, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and T.J. McConnell, and these forwards: Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Royce O’Neale, Lu Dort, OG Anunoby, and Jae’Sean Tate.
Ultimately, Bridges and Thybulle get the nod for the second team guard spots. Bridges is the centerpiece of Phoenix’s sixth-ranked defense. The Suns use him as an on-ball stopper across all positions, and he’s active and smart defending off the ball.
Thybulle averages only 20 minutes per game, yet in that time he logs 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, and 3.1 deflections per game. No defender has blocked more jump shots than him, per Second Spectrum. There is no one better at recovering off-ball to get back into a play. He has outlier-level instincts and reaction time. He is one of the best defenders I’ve ever watched in my life and if he someday becomes a 30-minute-per-game player, he’ll be in the conversation to win Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll have more on Thybulle this Thursday on The Void.
Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie Teams
1. LaMelo Ball
2. Anthony Edwards
3. Tyrese Haliburton
Rookie of the Year is between Ball and Edwards. I’ll let this final week play out before making my final decision, but it’s close. Ball was the clear leader before he broke his wrist on March 20. He’s already one of the league’s best playmakers as a teenager, and he’s proved to be way ahead of the curve as a scorer and defender, averaging 16 points while grabbing 1.6 steals per game. He’s already very good and could someday compete for more prestigious awards.
When Ball got sidelined, some people wondered if Haliburton would catch him by the end of the season. And while the Kings rookie deserves a top-three nod for his two-way performance, he has been surpassed by Edwards, who’s averaging 22.6 points on 56.5 percent true shooting with 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists since Ball’s injury. Edwards got off to an inefficient start in Minnesota but has improved every step of the season. He has logged 21 more games than Ball this season. That matters.
The All-Rookie teams are also a bit unsettled, but for now, Bey and Tate finish up the first team. Bey has been rock solid defensively and hit nearly 40 percent of his 3s. Tate’s offensive numbers are underwhelming, but he has been fantastic as an individual defender during this lost season for the Rockets. He makes a winning impact, and if you haven’t read Mirin Fader’s story about him, you should.
Most of the rookies on the second team made a strong defensive impact considering their minimal experience. Cole Anthony, Facundo Campazzo, and Isaiah Stewart were the other first-year standouts that just missed the list.