2020-21 NBA midseason awards: Joel Embiid MVP favorite; LaMelo Ball ruling rookie class; Sixth Man unanimous

All-Star Weekend is often treated as the midway point of the NBA season even though it’s more like two-thirds of the way through. This year, it actually is a midseason break, although 10 teams still have more than half of their 72-game schedule remaining because of postponements. (the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs are the most extreme cases; both still have 40 games to play because the league “parked” them after positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing. They get to play 11 back-to-backs apiece. Fun!)

Between this, the abridged training camp, the scarce practice time and the long list of teams that have fielded depleted rosters, we don’t know nearly as much as we would at a normal All-Star break. The gap between fourth place and 11th place in the East is three games, and the gap between fifth place and 10th place in the West is three and a half. All but two or three teams can still theoretically talk themselves into competing for a spot in the play-in tournament, and, while the 27-9 Utah Jazz have separated themselves statistically — no one is even close to their plus-11.4 net rating in non-garbage-time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass — there is no consensus championship favorite.

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A couple of award races feel essentially over despite all of this. Most of them, however, remain wide open, inspiring at least a moderate amount of disagreement among our staff of experts. What follows are CBS Sports’ midseason awards, intended not to predict how the final nine weeks of this strange, shortened season will play out but to recognize those who have made their mark so far.

2020-21 NBA Awards Predictions

2020-21 NBA Coach/Executive of the Year Picks           

Avery Johnson

Monty Williams, Suns

James Jones, Suns

Rip Hamilton

Quin Snyder, Jazz

Sean Marks, Nets

Bill Reiter

Quin Snyder, Jazz

Sean Marks, Nets

James Herbert

James Borrego, Hornets

Sam Presti, Thunder

Brad Botkin

Quin Snyder, Jazz

James Jones, Suns

Jasmyn Wimbish

Monty Williams, Suns

Sean Marks, Nets

Colin Ward-Henninger

Quin Snyder, Jazz

Sean Marks, Nets

Sam Quinn

Quin Snyder, Jazz

Sam Presti, Thunder

Jack Maloney

Monty Williams, Suns

Sean Marks, Nets

Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Monty Williams, Suns

Sean Marks, Nets

NBA Awards

LaMelo Ball has emerged as the clear front-runner for Rookie of the Year.
Getty Images

Most Valuable Player

Why Joel Embiid should win the award: You want counting stats? Embiid is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game on 52-42-86 shooting splits. More of an advanced stats person? Embiid’s 1.143 points per possession on offense rank in the 89th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. If we’re talking about “value” to a team, the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers are 14 points per 100 possessions better when Embiid is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. All those numbers back up the eye test, which shows you that Embiid is dominating the league on both ends on a nightly basis. Any way you look at it, Embiid is the NBA MVP for the first half of the season. — Colin-Ward Henninger

Why Nikola Jokic should win the award: Virtually every Nugget has dealt with injuries so far this season. Jerami Grant now plays for the Pistons. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have largely regressed to their pre-bubble selves. Until recently, Denver was the unluckiest team in the NBA in terms of clutch performance and opponent’s shooting. Yet here they stand, only four games off of last season’s pace, and it’s all thanks to Nikola Jokic, a legitimate threat to become the first big man ever to average a triple-double. He is a few free throws away from becoming not only the fifth-highest scoring member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club, but even if the season ended today, he would become the founder of the 56-41-88 club. A vote against Jokic, right now, is a vote against the very definition of the award. It’s Most Valuable Player, not Most Valuable Team, and if you’re punishing Jokic for his low seed in a brutal Western Conference, you’re ignoring the mountain of statistical and visual evidence that screams “no individual basketball player has been better than Nikola Jokic this season!” Does a weak bench and injury prone set of teammates really make Jokic less valuable than anybody else? — Sam Quinn

Rookie of the Year

Why LaMelo Ball should win the award: Ball is not only the clear front-runner for this award, he’s one of the best young players in the league. The flair and passing genius translated immediately, and Ball has separated himself with surprisingly efficient scoring, improved shooting and elite rebounding for his position. He has a knack for getting steals, too, a helpful attribute when paired with his transition game. Everybody knew Ball was talented, but even his biggest supporters had questions about how his skills would fit into a team concept. He has answered those questions emphatically, and he’s getting better as the season progresses. In 15 games as a starter, he’s averaged 20.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 34 minutes with .464/.449/846 shooting splits. Charlotte has found its cornerstone. — James Herbert

Defensive Player of the Year

Why Ben Simmons should win the award: There isn’t a more versatile defender in the league than Ben Simmons. A couple weeks ago in a matchup against Luka Doncic, you could just tell that Simmons’ goal was to completely lock up the third-year star, and he went above and beyond in that regard. In the nearly eight minutes Simmons was on Doncic, he held him to just six points, one assist and while forcing four turnovers. Each time down the floor when Doncic couldn’t get it going, Simmons was animated in coming up with a defensive stop, and it completely threw the Mavericks off their game. His defense in the playoffs is going to be huge for Philadelphia, and after making the All-Defensive team a season ago, he should be walking away with the hardware this year. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Why Rudy Gobert should win the award: The Jazz allowed only 30.7 3-point attempts per game in the first half of the season, tying them with the Timberwolves for the fewest allowed in that span. Wanna know how they did it? They left Rudy Gobert alone to do his job. Most teams need to pack the paint with defenders in order to deter layups. The result is often a steady diet of open 3s. The Jazz don’t need to make such a commitment. Gobert is deterrence enough. Jazz defenders are able to stay at home on shooters knowing that if their man gets past them, they’re going to get swallowed by Gobert at the basket. Even without help, drivers are so afraid of Gobert that they settle for 14.3 mid-range jumpers per game, the second-highest mark in the NBA. That is what a Defensive Player of the Year does. There are other great defensive players in the NBA. Gobert is a defensive system unto himself. He makes everything Utah does on defense possible. — Sam Quinn

Sixth Man of the Year

Why Jordan Clarkson should win the award: I don’t think this race is particularly close as Jordan Clarkson has become clear the front-runner for the award. He’s averaging a career-high 18 points off the bench, while posting incredibly efficient shooting numbers from everywhere on the floor. The Jazz have been tremendous this season both because of their starting lineup and also due to Clarkson’s production off the bench. He ranks in the 96th percentile among players scoring in the pick-and-roll, generating 1.182 points per possession this season, and has been just as good on defense. The trade the Jazz made to bring him in from Cleveland a season ago is looking like a bargain with each passing day. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Most Improved Player

Why Julius Randle should win the award: Randle has averaged over 20 points in a season before, but his performance with the Knicks in 2020-21 has been far and away better than any of his previous seasons in the league. He’s become the Knicks’ best player, while leading them to being the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference at the halfway mark. He was just named to his first All-Star Game — rightfully so — and under Tom Thibodeau he’s been made the focal point on offense, and it’s been a positive not just for his game, but for the Knicks as a whole. His 3-point shooting has been what’s most surprising this season, averaging 40.8 percent from deep on nearly five attempts per game, the most he’s ever taken in his career. He’s also averaging a double-double for just the second time in his career (23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds), while also dishing out a career-high 5.5 assists a night. The Knicks are playing like a winning basketball team, and it’s all centered around Randle’s big year. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Why De’Andre Hunter should win the award: If the award was handed out today, Hunter likely would not win. He’s only played 18 games. But he gets my vote (and James Herbert’s, too) because in those 18 games he had become arguably the second-best player on what was, at the time of his injury, a plus-.500 Hawks team in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. When Travis Schlenk drafted Hunter, he saw a guy with more offensive potential than he was able to display in a regimented Virginia program. He was right. Hunter was immediately a pretty good 3-point shooter as a rookie, something Schlenk envisioned as a corner-spot-up byproduct of Trae Young’s creation, but this season Hunter has become a guy who can create his own offense by putting the ball on the floor and getting into the lane for pull-up jumpers and touch finishes. 

Last season, Hunter shot 30 percent from the short mid-range, per CTG. This season he’s at 59 percent. Last season, he made 32 percent of his jump shots off the dribble, per Synergy. This year he’s at 49 percent. HIs 127.3 points per shot attempt ranks in the 93rd percentile league-wide among small forwards, up from 104.0 and the 31st percentile last season, per CTG. It all adds up to a five-point uptick in scoring, from 12 PPG last season to 17 this season with a 64 true-shooting percentage, up from 52 as a rookie. Bottom line, if Hunter doesn’t get hurt, there’s a chance Lloyd Pierce is still coaching in Atlanta. The Hawks have gone 6-11 since he went out, and even though Bogdan Bogdanovic didn’t play a single game in the month of February either, anyone who has watched the Hawks this season knows how much Hunter’s absence has been felt, and in that absence, perhaps, lies his best case for Most Improved Player. — Brad Botkin

Coach of the Year

Why Quin Snyder should win the award: It’s not just that the Jazz have been the best team in the league over the first half, but that they so perfectly reflect the characteristics of a supremely well-coached team. Every single player has been put in the best position to succeed as Snyder has designed a two-way system specific to his personnel. Defensively, they pressure the ball and stay home on shooters because they know they have Rudy Gobert as a one-man paint patroller. Offensively, Snyder has seen the 3-point light, unleashing the Jazz, who attempted just 35 3-pointers per game last season, to fire a league-leading 42.8 triples per game this season, which they make at a 40 percent clip. Without a top-tier MVP candidate (though you could argue Gobert should be under much greater consideration than he is), the Jazz have the No. 2 offense and defense, the only team in the league in the top five of both. That’s coaching. — Brad Botkin

Why Monty Williams should win the award: The Suns have the second-best record in the West, and while some of that has to do with the addition of Chris Paul, Monty Williams deserves plenty of credit, too. Phoenix’s rise actually started last season in the bubble, when it went 8-0 to come just shy of making the play-in game, as we all watched a Suns team turn over a new leaf with a new attitude and commitment for the game. Credit Williams for getting these young guys to play with a winning mentality, and if Phoenix stays within the top four of the West, Williams should win Coach of the Year. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Executive of the Year

Why Sean Marks should win the award: Sean Marks and the Nets made a major splash in 2019 when they landed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. Durant didn’t play last season, so expectations in Brooklyn were tempered, but he’s back out on the floor this season and looks a lot like his old self. After the major move made by Marks and Brooklyn earlier this season to trade for James Harden to pair with Durant and Irving, the Nets look like a bona fide contender with a great chance to win its first NBA title. Plus, Marks wasn’t done there, either, as he just signed former All-Star Blake Griffin to bolster Brooklyn’s bench. Thanks to their many huge moves, the Nets have quickly went from an Eastern Conference afterthought to a top team that is attractive to top-tier talent. Marks deserves credit for that. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Published: 2021-03-09 15:38:11

Tags: #NBA #midseason #awards #Joel #Embiid #MVP #favorite #LaMelo #Ball #ruling #rookie #class #Sixth #Man #unanimous

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