The NBA award races are heating up, with plenty of candidates contending for several different accolades. If the season ended today, these players (and coaches) would walk home with awards.
Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid, PHI
After missing countless games due to injury over his first six seasons, Joel Embiid is finally putting it all together.
On offense, he’s averaging monster scoring numbers (30.2 points on 64.6% true shooting) and has virtually no weakness in his scoring arsenal. He combines punishing size & strength with solid footwork in the post, shoots over 40% from 3-point range, and gets to the line at an insane rate. On top of that, he pulls down 11.6 rebounds per game and is a Defensive Player of the Year contender. Besides Shaquille O’Neal, no center has had this type of two-way impact since the turn of the century.
Additionally, the 76ers’ net rating decreases by over 18 points when Embiid goes to the bench. That’s no accident, as the 7-foot center has been the driving force behind their path to the 1-seed.
Runner-up: Nikola Jokic, DEN
Nikola Jokic’s combination of scoring and playmaking make him a surefire top-5 offensive player in the league. This year, he’s averaging career-highs in nearly every statistical category while keeping the Nuggets afloat for a playoff spot.
Jokic is having one of the best offensive seasons by a big man in history. His 8.6 assists per game match Wilt Chamberlain for the most all-time among centers, and 538’s Offensive RAPTOR ranks 2020-21 Jokic as the 4th-best offensive season since 2014. He’s an anomaly at the center position and has further confirmed that in 2021.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, UTA
Although he only seems to get publicity when a player dunks on him, Rudy Gobert is on his way to winning his third Defensive Player of the Year award in four years. He’s anchoring the Jazz to the 3rd best defense in the league and places near the NBA’s top in most defensive metrics. He’s always active on D, as evident by his league-best 18.9 contested shots per game.
However, the stats don’t tell the whole story of Gobert’s defensive impact. Gobert’s presence is so strong that he intimidates players from attacking the basket. Not only does this prevent easy buckets at the rim, but it also allows the Jazz to run shooters off the 3-point line and force inefficient mid-range shots.
Runner-up: Myles Turner, IND
Rim protection is the most impactful trait of a defender, and Myles Turner has solidified himself as elite in that area.
He leads the league with 3.4 blocks per game, and even when he’s not rejecting shots, he’s still making his impact felt. Inside 6 feet, Turner holds opponents 14.3% below their expected field goal percentage, good enough for best among defenders who contest five such shots per game.
He also ranks 6th in 538’s Defensive RAPTOR. And while he’s not the most mobile, Turner remains competent when guarding players off the dribble or in the pick-and-roll.
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball, CHA
Heading into the draft, LaMelo Ball had his fair share of doubters. After all, he was a mediocre shooter and hadn’t played a minute of college basketball.
But today, he’s put those doubters to rest and is the clear favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Ball leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, and steals and is a crucial piece on a competitive Hornets squad. His outside shooting hasn’t been a concern either, as Ball shoots a respectable 37.8% from deep.
Runner-up: Tyrese Haliburton, SAC
Somehow, Tyrese Haliburton fell to the 12th pick of the 2020 draft, which seemed inexplicable at the time. Just four months later, Haliburton is already proving why teams missed out.
At just 20 years old, Haliburton possesses a refined skillset far ahead of most of his rookie counterparts. He can create offense as an on-ball scorer or playmaker and adds additional value as a strong off-ball weapon. Haliburton knocks down 48.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective.
He ranks 3rd in points, 2nd in assists, and 2nd in 3-pointers made among all rookies. His ceiling might not be as high as Anthony Edwards or James Wiseman, but Haliburton’s immediate impact is rare for rookies.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, UTA
On a Utah Jazz team headlined by three all-stars, Clarkson has fallen through the cracks this season. He’s quietly having a career year, averaging 17.9 points in only 26 minutes per game on solid efficiency.
Clarkson’s scoring touch always gives the Jazz a safety net when their all-star guards have an off-night or go to the bench. He’s talented enough to start on most teams, but his willingness to take a back seat to other teammates is a key reason why Utah’s offense meshes so well.
Runner-up: Chris Boucher, TOR
After big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol departed in the offseason, the Raptors had a gaping weakness in the frontcourt. But surprisingly, Chris Boucher has done a tremendous job of replacing the gap left behind.
Boucher plays just 23 minutes per game, but he makes the most of it. On offense, he averages 13.6 points and shoots 44.5% from beyond the arc. He also grabs 6.5 rebounds and plays high-level interior defense. Thanks to his 7’4 wingspan, Boucher disrupts plenty of shots inside, swatting 1.9 shots per contest.
Most Improved Player: Zach LaVine, CHI
In 2020, Zach LaVine averaged an impressive 25.5 points per game. However, it came on average efficiency with mediocre playmaking and lousy defense. This season, LaVine is an entirely new player.
LaVine’s most significant improvement comes in the form of his efficiency. Despite taking fewer shots than last season, he’s upped his scoring average by over 3 points per game. He shoots the 3-ball at a blistering rate of 43.5% and is 8th in the entire NBA in true shooting (65.3%). Comparatively, he was barely above league-average efficiency last year (56.8%).
LaVine’s breakout season is also impressive because it isn’t a direct product of increased playing time. Unlike other Most Improved candidates, he’s in relatively the same situation as last year and hasn’t suddenly taken on an expanded role. The main thing that’s changed is LaVine himself.
Runner-up: Julius Randle, NYK
Julius Randle made his first career all-star game this season, and it’s easy to see why. He’s averaging 23/11/5 and has the Knicks in the playoff picture for the first time in years.
Randle also shoots lights-out from 3, at over 40%. This comes after Randle topped the 30% threshold just once in any of his previous seasons.
Randle has a strong case for winning the award altogether. But his candidacy is slightly held back because his statistical improvement can be largely attributed to his increased playing time. After all, Randle has put up similar numbers in the past on a per-36 minute basis.
Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder, UTA
No one expected the Jazz to hold the best record in the NBA over halfway into the season. But thanks to head coach Quin Snyder’s expertise, they’re 1st in the competitive west and are legitimate contenders.
In a star-driven league, it’s rare to see a team-oriented squad like the Jazz succeed so much. And while the players themselves deserve a ton of credit for this success, it likely wouldn’t be possible without Snyder’s schemes and adjustments.
Runner-up: Monty Williams, PHX
Right behind the Jazz in the west are the Phoenix Suns. Like Utah, very few people expected the Suns to be in the race for the top seed.
The Suns fell below 30 wins in each of the four seasons before Monty Williams arrived in Phoenix. But since then, he’s completely reversed the script, as the Suns are within reach of their first playoff appearance in over a decade. Phoenix is 12-2 in their last 14 games under Williams’ leadership and doing things that they haven’t done in years.