A mere two months after “The Bubble,” the NBA is set to tip off the 2020-21 season tomorrow night. Following a shortened offseason that saw the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers improve and a bevy of trades that restructured multiple contenders, the stage is set for an intoxicatingly dramatic year.
As always, I like to begin the season by predicting who will take home the league’s most prestigious awards, even if games haven’t begun. Despite having a 0% success rate last year, I’m determined to improve and make (at least) one correct guess. Without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2020-21 NBA Awards.
Most Valuable Player
Luka Dončić (Dallas Mavericks)
2019-20: 28.8 points (46.3/31.6/75.8), 9.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1 steal, 0.2 blocks, 27.6 PER
Last season, Luka Dončić took a second-year jump that certified him as one of the top-six or seven players in the entire league (perhaps even higher). At only 21 years old, Dončić averaged a near triple-double and led Dallas to the playoffs, posting a 31-9.8-8.7 statline in a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
In an era where teams play incredibly high-paced offense, Dončić has the unique ability to bring the game to his speed, toying with defenders for a stepback three or slithery dime. It should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the league that Dončić is still a few years away from his prime—a time in which he’ll undoubtedly be the best player in the NBA.
Despite the loss of Seth Curry to the Philadelphia 76ers in a draft day trade, the Mavericks acquired a three-and-D guard with proven upside in Josh Richardson. Kristaps Porzingis isn’t expected to play until January, but with another year of growth and playoff experience under his belt, Dončić is going to put the league on further notice.
It wouldn’t be wild to believe that Dončić is capable of averaging an efficient triple-double this season. The Mavericks finished the 2019-20 season as the seventh-seed, and with an improved Dončić, they could find themselves fighting for a top-four spot. If that’s the case, and Dončić has another statistical jump, the MVP is all but his.
Other Contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Steph Curry
Defensive Player of the Year
Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)
2019-20: 26.1 points (50.3/33.0/84.6), 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.3 blocks, 27.4 PER
Anthony Davis is the second-best player in the NBA, only behind teammate (and GOAT) LeBron James. Davis has always been a defensive monster, averaging 1.4 steals and 2.4 blocks per game for his career. He has the ability to lockdown big men in the paint and pick up elite point guards on the perimeter due to his athleticism. As Ralph James says, "AD is a point guard on stilts."
Davis was the anchor for a Lakers defense that finished third in defensive rating and fourth in points allowed. While LA had a proficient offense, it was their AD-led defense that helped propel them to their seventeenth championship in franchise history.
Even though LeBron still remains the league’s best player, the Lakers are Davis’ team. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which LeBron doesn’t coast a bit during the regular season, leaving Davis to show that he can lead the Lakers as the guy. It makes sense why Giannis won DPOY last season; however, he can’t win every award forever. This season is the year that AD gets the recognition he deserves as the best defensive player in the league.
Other Contenders: Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Sixth Man of the Year
Jordan Clarkson (Utah Jazz)
2019-20: 15.2 points (45.4/36.8/83.6), 2.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 17.3 PER
I understand that this may come as a bit of a surprise. How did I come to this conclusion, you ask? Process of elimination, my friend.
After being traded to the Utah Jazz last season, Clarkson served as a spark plug off the bench, taking care of the second-unit scoring when Donovan Mitchell was off the floor. He had the most efficient season of his career in Utah, making a career-high 2.2 threes per game and doing so above league average (36.8%).
Aside from his time with LeBron on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Clarkson’s 42 appearances for the Jazz proved that he can score at a productive clip in meaningful minutes. Utah thinks so, too, as they signed him to a four-year, $51 million extension this offseason.
The Jazz are locking in their core and showing they’re ready to spend the money necessary to compete in a loaded Western Conference. If Clarkson is able to make one or two more threes per game at the same rate and lead the second-unit of a Western contender, I can see this award going to a non-Clipper for the first time since 2018.
Other Candidates: Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Dennis Schroder
Most Improved Player
Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns)
2019-20: 18.2 points (54.6/23.1/75.3), 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 20.0 PER
Few players are primed to take a jump this season quite like Deandre Ayton. The former number-one pick hasn’t been a disappointment by any stretch in his first two seasons, but with point god Chris Paul now running the point in Phoenix, Ayton will have the opportunity to be one of the most dominant big men in the league.
The last time Phoenix paired a premier point guard and physically imposing big man, it created one of the most exciting duos in league history. Ayton has the size (6’11”, 250 pounds) and athleticism to run a terrifying pick-and-roll with Paul or Devin Booker, something that could propel them to the fourth or fifth-seed in the Western Conference.
There’s no reason why Ayton can’t at least be in the conversation for the All-Star Game. Chris Paul is going to create so many opportunities that haven’t been presented to him before, and after being limited to 38 games last season, Ayton has the chance to play out an entire season alongside one of the best backcourts in the league. Did I mention he’s only 22?
The Phoenix Suns are going to be a fun team this year as they compete to show that they’re a legitimate player in the West; Ayton is going to be a massive part of that. A solid 23 points and 14 rebounds doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Other Contenders: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr., Coby White
Rookie of the Year
LaMelo Ball (Charlotte Hornets)
2019-20 (with Illawarra): 17.0 points (37.5/25.0/72.3), 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals
I’ll be the first to admit that I know next-to-nothing about the incoming rookie class. I just can’t get myself to follow college like I do the pros; maybe one day. That being said, LaMelo Ball seems primed to stand above the rest of his first-year counterparts.
There are going to be stretches where LaMelo looks unplayable, most likely for offensive inefficiency. But when he’s on, he has the potential to be one of the most exciting players on any given night. LaMelo comes into the league with an instant ability to put up triple-doubles, helped by the fact that he’s one of the tallest point guards in the NBA (6’7”). His preseason appearances were filled with highlight passes that have some real “oomph;” it’s clear that he doesn’t lack confidence.
LaMelo’s not going to be perfect, but even when he’s missing shots, he’s going to be fun to watch. Playing against professional talent in Australia gives him a head-up on the rest of the rookies, and if he can keep his mistakes from getting out-of-hand, I think he’s the clear favorite to take home Rookie of the Year.
Other Contenders: James Wiseman, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards