As of March 11, the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Even if the NBA does not return until next year, however, there will still be awards to give out. With that in mind, let’s see who should win each award, even if there will be no more games played in the 2020 NBA season.
Rookie of the year
The top two picks in the 2019 draft have been the best two rookies this season by a mile. Until late January, this was Ja Morant’s award to lose. He led all rookies in both scoring and assists. In most cases, missing more than half of the NBA season should automatically eliminate you from any award race, but Zion Williamson is no ordinary rookie. In 19 games with the Pelicans, Williamson has averaged just under 24 points per game (ppg) and 7 rebounds per game (rpg). He leads all rookies in both categories among those who have played at least as many games. In fact, only 12 rookies in NBA history match or exceed Williamson’s points and rebounds per game and nine of them are in the hall of fame. Statistically, Williamson should be the favorite but he has missed 45 games. No rookie has ever won this award while playing less than half the season.
Winner: Ja Morant
Sixth man of the year
The winner of this award tends to just be the player that scores the most points off the bench. By that logic the answer is clear. This season’s leading bench scorer is Dennis Schröder, who has averaged 19 ppg while helping the Oklahoma City Thunder compete for a top-5 seed in the Western Conference in a season many thought would be bereft of playoffs. Schröder’s combination of high scoring while also helping a winning team should make this award a no-brainer.
Winner: Dennis Schröder
Most improved player
This was a one-man race halfway through the season. Through mid-January, Brandon Ingram was sporting career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks while significantly improving his shooting efficiency from both the 3-point and free-throw line. Ingram has had to take a step back, however, with the emergence of teammate Williamson. While Ingram was slowing down, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics was speeding up. Tatum is also producing stats at career-best rates and has been on fire since February, averaging 29.1 ppg and winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Month award. Although Tatum has made it close, it is a case of too little too late.
Winner: Brandon Ingram
Defensive player of the year
Another two-man race between the top two power forwards in the NBA: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers. Both players have helped lead their teams to top-three defensive ratings. When it comes to the advanced defensive stats, Antetokounmpo slightly edges Davis, but his numbers are helped by a Bucks roster that is filled with defensive talent. Davis does average more steals and blocks while anchoring an elite defense that is without the same talent. The Bucks have three of the top four leaders in defensive rating while Davis is the Lakers’ only representative in the top four.
Winner: Anthony Davis
Most valuable player
This award is misleading since it does not go to who provides the most “value” to his team, but often goes to whoever produces the best statistical performance on the best team. Up until last week, this race was not even close.
Antetokounmpo was the runaway MVP and had a chance of winning unanimously. He leads the league in virtually every advanced stat while averaging more than 29 ppg, 13 rpg and 5 assists per game (apg). Throughout NBA history, only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor have met or exceeded those marks. This was all done on what was, at the time, the clear-cut best team in the league. In the past week, however, the Bucks lost four of their last five, dropping to 53-12 on the season. While this was happening, LeBron James appeared out of nowhere to suddenly make this a race. LeBron has aged like fine wine, since even at age 35 he leads the league in assists per game while establishing himself as the best player on the 49-13 Lakers, who are in first place in the Western Conference.
Statistically, despite LeBron’s historic greatness, he is not close to the Greek Freak this season. LeBron averages almost 4 fewer points and almost 6 fewer rebounds on worse efficiency despite playing more minutes. What really makes this a race, though, is the narrative.
LeBron is seen as the more “valuable” player because the Lakers are worse without him than the Bucks are without Antetokounmpo. This, combined with the way LeBron has bounced back from what was considered a disastrous and injury-plagued 2019 season, has pushed LeBron firmly in the MVP race.
Ultimately, Antetokounmpo’s play has been too good to ignore. Despite the ever-changing definition of “value,” he should and will win his second consecutive MVP award.
Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo