As hard as it is to believe, we are less than a week away from the start of the 2020-21 NBA regular season. With teams beginning to shore up their rotations in an abbreviated preseason, it’s just about that time of year where we dish out likely incorrect takes about a season that hasn’t even happened yet.
With that being said, I went ahead and made some early predictions about the end-of-season NBA awards. I picked a winner, runner-up, and a potential dark horse candidate for each honor.
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Luka Doncic (DAL)
Runner-Up: LeBron James (LAL)
Dark Horse: Devin Booker (PHX)
Luka officially made the leap to superstardom this past season, and he appears to be well-positioned to make a serious run at MVP in 2020-21. He’s coming off a sophomore season in which he not only made first team All-NBA, but also finished fourth in MVP voting behind James Harden, LeBron James, and this past year’s honoree Giannis Antetokounmpo. Luka was the only player to average at least 28 points, eight assists, and nine rebounds per game last season, logging a league-leading 17 triple-doubles and leading Dallas to a playoff appearance. With overall team improvement and more stellar individual performances expected to come, Luka just might be named MVP by season’s end.
Per usual, LeBron should be right there in the MVP running. And honestly, if the title of “Most Valuable Player” is being taken literally, LeBron hypothetically would have won it consecutively for the past decade plus. Even at 36, he has shown no signs of slowing down, and there is no reason for anyone to suspect anything other than more greatness. With the Lakers somehow managing to upgrade their title-winning roster by adding Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews, and Marc Gasol, LeBron will still be leading the way in the Lakers’ title defense.
Another team boasting vast improvements out west is the Phoenix Suns. They’re coming off a memorable run in the NBA bubble that saw them nearly sneak into the playoffs, much thanks to the play of one Devin Booker. Phoenix then went out and acquired Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the offseason, giving Booker easily his best backcourt mate to this point in his career. With Paul commanding the offense, Booker is going to thrive playing off him. This could finally be the year that Booker gets recognized as a legitimate All-NBA player and not just an empty stats phenom. Don’t be surprised if he ends up receiving some MVP hype if the Suns outperform expectations this season.
Rookie of the Year
Winner: LaMelo Ball (CHA)
Runner-Up: Anthony Edwards (MIN)
Dark Horse: Killian Hayes (DET)
For the first time in what feels like an eternity, the Hornets may finally be on track to developing an identity. Their selection of LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick in this year’s draft is the chief reason why. In Ball, who reportedly measured in at 6’8”, they have a clear orchestrator of the offense. He’s already shown glimpses of his masterful playmaking ability and court vision in preseason action. He’s going to be extremely fun to watch, and with the current state of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, could possibly help Charlotte earn a spot in the play-in tournament.
As for the number one overall pick, Edwards will prove to be an interesting fit alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell in Minnesota. With Andrew Wiggins now in Golden State, Edwards will essentially be looking to fill in the scoring void at the wing that Wiggins left behind. He should get plenty of opportunities to prove he’s capable of doing it, and he has the pure shotmaking ability to make that happen. Minnesota will in all likelihood be a middle-of-the-pack team in a very competitive Western Conference, so Edwards will be getting his numbers.
Meanwhile, Detroit is in a very odd position. If Blake Griffin comes back in relatively good shape, they could very well flirt with the play-in tournament. However, they’d likely be best set to focus on developing their younger guys, chief among them being Killian Hayes. The seventh overall pick is set to feature prominently in Detroit’s offense, and already appears to have the inside track towards becoming Detroit’s starting lead guard. He’ll get chances to show off his playmaking and pure shotmaking abilities in his first year.
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Anthony Davis (LAL)
Runner-Up: Ben Simmons (PHI)
Dark Horse: Marcus Smart (BOS)
The Lakers boasted a top-five defense in terms of defensive rating (106.1) last season en route to their championship. They had weapons at every position, and Anthony Davis anchored the whole thing. He’s easily the most dynamic big man in the league when it comes to defense, with the agility and quickness to match his length and size. Opponents shot just 38.3% from the field when guarded by Davis, and he finished top five in blocks per game and total blocks en route to his fourth-career appearance on an All-Defensive team. The runner-up in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year voting is a clear favorite to take it home this season.
Ben Simmons is the only other player in the league who is capable of matching Davis’s defensive versatility. Simmons is a legitimate five-position defender, able to check opposing guards and wings as well as bang it out on the block with big men. No player spent more time guarding All-Stars and All-NBA players than Simmons last season. He also led the entire league in total steals (119) and made first team All-Defense for the first time in his career. Given his current trajectory, Simmons looks to be well on his way to becoming the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996 at some point in the near future.
Speaking of elite defensive guards, Marcus Smart is firmly entrenched in that group. He is the epitome of a player you adore if he’s on your team and absolutely despise if he’s not. He’s a rough and tumble defender, and with his strength and mobility, it’s rare to find a matchup that’s a true mismatch for him. His hands are constantly invading passing lanes, and he has a nonstop motor that always has him diving for loose balls. I mentioned above that Simmons guarded All-Stars and All-NBA players the most out of anybody. Smart was a close fifth. His chances of taking home this hardware are probably slim, but he should still expect to get some love in this category.
Sixth Man of the Year
Winner: Dennis Schroder (LAL)
Runner-Up: Lou Williams (LAC)
Dark Horse: Danilo Gallinari (ATL)
It’s one thing to boast having a Sixth Man of the Year contender in your rotation. The Lakers will have two of them in Dennis Schroder and reigning winner Montrezl Harrell. There is a very real possibility of Schroder cracking the starting lineup this season, something he’s explicitly expressed a desire to do. However, he arguably has even more value in the sixth man role, something he thrived in during his two seasons in Oklahoma City. He led all bench players in scoring (18.9 PPG) last season and finished as the runner-up to Harrell in Sixth Man of the Year voting. He has more than enough playmaking and ball-handling ability to be the focal point of the Lakers’ second unit.
The guy whose namesake this award should adopt will, by all accounts, once again be in the hunt. After clinching back-to-back Sixth Man trophies in 2018 and 2019, Lou Williams finished third in the voting behind Schroder and fellow Clipper Harrell. Although he was unable to fully claim a monopoly on the award, he still put together another productive season off the bench, logging his third-straight season of averaging 18+ points per game. Barring a major setback or regression, he’ll be stuffing the box score once again this season.
Over in Atlanta, based on their moves this offseason, the Hawks are dead set on returning to the playoffs. They swung a sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovich, brought in Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn, and made their biggest splash by handing out $61.5 million to Danilo Gallinari. His arrival sparked some immediate questions about a potential log jam in the frontcourt, as John Collins currently occupies the power forward spot in Atlanta. Gallinari later confirmed his intention to buy into a reserve role, and if that proves to be the case, he’ll absolutely thrive in the second unit. His scoring and playmaking abilities only help to make the Hawks a team worth paying attention to this season.
Most Improved Player
Winner: Michael Porter Jr. (DEN)
Runner-Up: Deandre Ayton (PHX)
Dark Horse: Shake Milton (PHI)
I’m in the camp that is hesitant about handing out this honor to second year players. It’s for the simple reason being that improvement from year one to year two is natural and expected. However, Michael Porter Jr. has the potential to take such a huge leap in his sophomore season that it’s way too hard to pass up. He had a breakout performance in the Orlando bubble that saw him post a pair of 30-point outings along with multiple strong performances in the playoffs. He’s a clean fit in Denver’s lineup, providing scoring relief at the wing position that takes heaps of pressure off Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on offense. His role should only expand this season on a very good Nuggets team, which could lead to some serious production on his end.
Much like he is anticipated to do for Booker’s MVP considerations, Chris Paul will also do wonders for Deandre Ayton’s development. Ayton showed flashes of visible improvement down the stretch of this past season thanks to his agility and scoring prowess down low. Swapping out Ricky Rubio with Paul at the lead guard spot can only mean major upticks in his overall production. Paul’s midrange excellence should open up plenty of easy opportunities for Ayton around the rim. If Ayton’s defense continues to progress, he could be in for yet another step in the right direction.
Meanwhile in Philly, Milton is looking to build upon what ended up being a breakout season for the former second-rounder. After getting scattered minutes throughout the year, he firmly grabbed a hold of a rotation spot in the second half of the season and never looked back. His combo-guard skill set makes him a perfect match alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and he has consistently been the subject of high praise from new head coach Doc Rivers. Regardless of whether he establishes himself as the clear sixth man or eventually earns a spot in the starting lineup, his opportunities to contribute should only increase this season.
Coach of the Year
Winner: Frank Vogel (LAL)
Runner-Up: Monty Williams (PHX)
Dark Horse: Lloyd Pierce (ATL)
The Lakers could quite possibly outperform a season that culminated in an NBA title. They’ve upgraded in almost every area of need and having an ageless LeBron James also kinda sorta helps. But Frank Vogel has done a tremendous job of ensuring everything on both ends of the floor meshes perfectly. He has played a key role in constructing the Lakers’ elite defense. His squad should be the best team in the league bar none, and the head coach of the league’s best team is worthy of his due praise.
Although they are far from title contention, Monty Williams and the Phoenix Suns might finally be onto something. He has successfully established a culture in Phoenix that was worth raving about in Orlando.
Phoenix looks to be a very good team even in an uber-competitive Western Conference thanks in no small part to their smart offseason moves. If they are able to crack the top five out west which their roster is certainly capable of doing, Monty should deserve a good amount of credit.
Atlanta is looking to make a similar leap this season, as evidenced by the moves they made this offseason. It’s all going to be on third-year coach Lloyd Pierce to make the pieces fit together. On paper, the Hawks have the talent across the board to clinch the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Pierce making that a reality should absolutely have him be rewarded with Coach of the Year consideration.