The NBA has released its nominees for various award categories for the 2019/2020 season.Yaw Adjei-Mintah is a basketball writer and analyst who contributes articles to Citisportsonline.com. He examines each of the categories and ranks the players and coaches according to his own perspective.
Usually picking for award winners in the NBA comes once the season is done largely due to the closely contested races between front running nominees. There is in most cases a photo finish at the line in the world’s best basketball league and had the season played out in a “normal” format, there would have been a photo finish at the line for at least two categories.
However, these are not normal times so voting for potential winners is based on the body of work done before the league’s suspension due to the coronavirus. Eight regular-season games post COVID was never going to be a fair way to assess winners so passing on the dynamics inside the bubble prior to the postseason games was the right call. This season’s categories are very tough to choose from but it turns out the easiest of the picks happens to involve some of the youngest players in the league and is the first stop of picks.
Rookie of the Year (Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Kendrick Nunn)
The 2019 NBA Draft Number 2 overall pick Ja Morant has lived above expectations he garnered in Murray State College where a series of athletic plays and scoring runs against some of the best programs put him on the radar led to a surge up the draft boards. Averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 points is a pretty impressive return for a young Guard. What puts him ahead of the field aside his flashy behind the back passes and dunks is Williamson’s lengthy absence due to injury and subsequent minute restrictions on his return.
That prevented Zion from putting together a larger sample size of double-doubles to outpace Morant. Nunn’s rise is nothing short of breathtaking but in the war chest of shooters and creators in Pat Riley’s Miami Heat, he was often overshadowed by well-established names like Jimmy Butler and a breakout season from teammate Bam Adebayo. Unlike Zion and Morant, who were positioned right from the start to develop their NBA chops playing away through mistakes and hero ball, Nunn has had to make the right team first plays and leave the big solo show to Butler and other veterans on the team for the most part.
Winner: Ja Morant
Sixth Man of the Year (Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Dennis Schroder)
Earning an annual salary of $15.5 million for this season and next season, Schroder is paid well for the production he gives to Oklahoma City Thunder off the bench. On the other hand, Williams and Harrell are vastly underpaid at $8million and $6 million respectively (while living in Los Angeles mind you) for what they bring to the table for LA Clippers aside giving the team wiggle financial room to sign Paul George and Kawhi Leonard without going over the salary cap.
Like typical Sixth Men, all three provide a scoring spark off the bench and would be worthy winners either way. However, Harrell stands out for his impact on contesting rebounds and catching them (averaged seven rebounds this season), his energy on the defensive side and athleticism he adds to the offence. The least paid player in this category brings the most to the table and should win the Award.
Winner: Montrezl Harrell
Most Improved Player of the Year (Bam Adebayo, Luka Doncic, Brandon Ingram)
Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham deserves to be in this list after a stellar campaign for Michael Jordan’s team that failed to make the playoffs again. The former Kansas University player improved from averaging 4.7 points, 1.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season to 18.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game this season. He didn’t make the list ultimately so the winner has to be picked between a scorer, a scorer and creator and in recent games rebounder and a guy who wasn’t expected to but does everything this season. Ingram scoring numbers have improved but he was and is a scorer and very little more and Doncic’s game has developed in all phases but defence which leaves Adebayo as a favorite for the Award.
The Center/ Power Forward who is eligible to play for 2009 NBA Coach of the Year winner Mike Brown’s Nigeria at next year’s Olympics was projected as an athletic defensive player who scores on offence that is limited to offensive put-backs, dunks and tip-ins. However, this season has had Adebayo improve his assists, steals and two-point shooting from 2.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 3.4 last season to 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 6.2 this season respectively. The expansion in the range of Adebayo’s game is eye-catching considering he shares the court with shooters like Andre Iguodala and Nunn and creators like Goran Dragic and Butler.
Winner: Bam Adebayo
Coach of the Year (Mike Budenholzer, Billy Donovan, Nick Nurse)
Budenholzer pretty much did what he was expected (top the Eastern Conference for the second season in a row) after welcoming a huge chunk of his last season’s back including the reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo so there is nothing special about his work this season that warrants the Award. Nurse, on the other hand, dealing with a team that lost two starters from last season’s title-winning team in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. He dealt with extensive injury absences to Marc Gasol, Fred Van Vleet, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell but managed to clinch the second seed in the East.
Donovan lost Russell Westbrook and George but got Chris Paul and his heir apparent Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in separate trades (Raptors got nothing in return for their losses) en route to shocking the entire league to rank fifth in the Western Conference. Conversely, this category deals a lot with consistency and for the past couple of seasons, former Assistant Nick Nurse has been that and added Toronto’s first-ever NBA title. The Raptors have had back to back top five ranked defensive ratings.
Winner: Nick Nurse
Defensive Player of the Year (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert)
The numbers don’t help back to back winner Rudy Gobert who anchored Utah Jazz’s defence to fourth spot in those seasons in defensive rating this season. It gave him a solid ground to argue his case as the best defender in the business but that mark has slipped to ninth per Basketballreference.com compared to Giannis’ top-rated Milwaukee Bucks defence and Davis’ top five ranked LA Lakers team. Beyond the numbers, voter fatigue will prove thorny in Gobert’s quest for a third straight Defensive Award win. Davis has put together a fine season considering it is his first with the Lakers after getting traded from New Orleans Pelicans but his eye-catching outings are up against Giannis who should get the opposite of Rudy Gobert’s treatment from voters.
Over the past couple of seasons, Giannis has had legitimate claims to win the award but missed out; the third time could be the charm that wins voters over. One cannot discount the “political” side to voting which is prevalent in every award scheme; Giannis is a frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player Award as well and nabbing the Defensive gig could be the NBA’s way of giving the Greek Freak a consolation prize of some sort. Winning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards before turning 26 in December is nothing to sneeze at.
Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Most Valuable Player (James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo)
From a purely statistical standpoint, there is no debate who the MVP is or should be; it is Giannis and it’s not even close. The Nigerian-Greek International is averaging 29.8 points in 30.8 minutes while adding 13.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists and is utterly efficient when he is on the court regularly scoring 15 of 20 shot attempts in games. But statistics should never be the sole determinant of award winners and rightly so (in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game but missed out on the Award to Bill Russell who averaged 18 points that season) the debate here looks at narratives and circumstances the front runners faced in the season.
Unlike LeBron James, Giannis played with virtually the same team he played with the past year, under the same Coach, in the same conference and is on pace to register fewer wins than the previous campaign. For four-time winner LeBron, he led the Lakers to the playoffs for the first time after six straight seasons and topped the Western Conference in the process. Bar Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Kyle Kuzma, Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, the Lakers were built on the fly with a boatload of players exiting and new ones coming under the guise of a new Assistant Coach and Head Coach in Jason Kidd and Frank Vogel respectively.
King James plays in the tougher Conference too and after recording 37 wins the past season, the Lakers have 51 wins with two more games left to play in the bubble. James has had to overcome more in the tougher environment and ended up achieving more than Giannis did and deserves to win the award.
Winner: LeBron James
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter