The NBA season officially begins tomorrow night and we asked our writers to predict which players will take home hardware this upcoming year. Here is The Crossover’s 2020-21 NBA awards predictions.
Most Valuable Player
Howard Beck: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Do I make this projection drunk on sentimentality, wishful thinking and pixie dust? Perhaps. But what true fan of the game wouldn’t want to see one of the most gifted, graceful scorers in history reclaim his form? No one knows whether Durant—at age 32, and after an 18-month recovery from Achilles surgery—can defy decades of depressing precedent and dominate the court again. But I know this: Durant is so highly skilled, and so physically unique, that it actually seems plausible. If he is even 90 percent of his old self, Durant will be among the most lethal and efficient scorers in the league. And he’s playing for a deep, talented Nets squad that should crack the East’s top tier for the first time since 2013. That, plus a healthy dose of sentiment, should be enough to push Durant past Giannis (the logical favorite), Luka (the Vegas favorite) LeBron (the even-more-sentimental choice) and Lillard (the cool-kids pick) for MVP.
Chris Mannix: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Will there be voter fatigue with the two-time MVP? Maybe, but it won’t matter. At 26 and with a relentless work ethic, Giannis’s best years, remarkably, could still be ahead of him. He’s capable of duplicating last season’s numbers, even improving on a three-point percentage that ticked up five points from the previous season. And let’s not forget: Giannis is an elite defender, too. With the Bucks again poised to finish atop the conference standings, the MVP hardware will stay in Milwaukee.
Rohan Nadkarni: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Here’s the way I see this shaking down based on the top candidates headed into the season. I don’t think LeBron James will play either enough minutes or games to win this award, and the same goes for Kawhi Leonard. Giannis simply isn’t going to win this award for a third straight time after his playoff exit in the bubble. Anthony Davis will be hurt by playing alongside James. James Harden may not have the same, uh, motivation this year. And Kevin Durant winning seems too shocking in his first year back post-Achilles.
That leaves Luka Doncic. Luka is going to put up massive numbers. He’s young, which means rest probably won’t be a problem for him. He’s a fresh face when it comes to MVP voting (even if he was a finalist last year.) And the Mavs have a chance to steal a higher playoff seed than most would expect if some of the more veteran teams in front of them slow-play the regular season. Though some outside factors may ultimately help Luka’s case, this is absolutely an award he can and will earn on the court. With the benefit of another year of experience—as well as the addition of some seasoned role players—I think Doncic picks up his first of multiple MVPs.
Jeremy Woo: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
I think there’s a chance we get some Giannis fatigue among voters, but I also don’t see him slowing down anytime soon, and the Bucks still have more to prove. Nobody brings it on a nightly basis like Giannis, and this is a regular season award.
Elizabeth Swinton: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Luka Doncic is entering the season as the MVP favorite, and LeBron James is always in the conversation, but it would not be surprising to see another Laker in the mix. Anthony Davis showed off his clutch gene and skillset during the Lakers' championship run last season, proving he is more than a secondary player. The Lakers are well-built to defend their 2019-20 title, and Davis, fresh off a new contract, looks suited to take another step as an MVP candidate.
Michael Shapiro: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
A reshaped roster should do wonders for Philadelphia’s franchise anchor, and Embiid enters 2020-21 in what appears to be the best shape of his career. Embiid is a dominant force on both ends. Philadelphia should contend for a top-three seed in the East. Doc Rivers will certainly help with the campaigning, and Embiid isn’t one to shy away from the spotlight himself. In a crowded MVP field, a strong season from Philadelphia could land Embiid both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Ben Pickman: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
A healthy Durant could very well be the league’s best player as lest we forget the 32-year-old forward’s incredible playmaking, shooting and overall dominance while on the floor. If he leads Brooklyn to the top seed in the Eastern Conference then I’d find it hard to believe that Durant won't take home his second MVP award. For better or for worse, the winner of the MVP award often has an incredible storyline that accompanies their season and Durant's return could be the league’s best story in 2020-21.
Robin Lundberg: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Let me first say that my stock position is that LeBron James is essentially always the MVP. However, when it comes to who will actually win the award, Luka has a lot of things going for him. Doncic seems positioned to be next up when it comes to superstars in the NBA and with Kristaps Porzingis still recovering to start the season, Luka could benefit from a narrative that he had to carry his team more than some others in consideration. Plus, the guy did average 29, 9 and 8 last season. It's hard to say any improvement on that wouldn't be MVP worthy.
Rookie of the Year
Beck: Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
At a glance, this pick might feel like a stretch. Of the last 32 players to win ROY, only two were drafted outside the top 10: Michael Carter-Williams (2013-14) and Malcolm Brogdon (2016-17). Haliburton was taken 12th by the Kings. But this was a funky draft class (much like the 2013 group), and it might be years before we know who the best player was. Here’s what we know about Haliburton: He plays both guard spots, has a high basketball IQ, passes well, shoots the 3 reliably (41.9 percent at Iowa State) and defends with tenacity. Draft experts expected him to go much higher. Also noteworthy: The Kings were confident enough that Haliburton could contribute right away that they let Bogdan Bogdanovic leave for Atlanta. The Kings’ starting backcourt is set with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, but Haliburton should get enough backup minutes at both spots to make an impression—and put up the requisite stats on a bad team to crash the ROY race.
Mannix: LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
When was the last time Charlotte was must-see TV? They are now, and the flashy Ball is the reason why. Ball may come off the bench in the preseason but it’s only a matter of time before he’s in the starting lineup. His shooting remains suspect, but expect the Hornets to give him free reign to run an up-tempo offense and for Ball to rack up strong numbers—and plenty of highlight reel assists.
Nadkarni: James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. I'm not sure how any rookie has a successful year considering the strange circumstances of this season. I’m picking Wiseman because I think he’ll have an opportunity to be a valuable contributor to a playoff team. Playing alongside Steph and Draymond should greatly aid his development. And he won’t have to be a star, only a star in his role.
Woo: James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Although I was very tempted to pick Tyrese Haliburton, I think the Warriors realize that this season is a key development opportunity for Wiseman, and will give him the playing time necessary to produce. There should be an adjustment period, but I also think having Steph Curry and Draymond on the floor is going to make his life pretty easy.
Swinton: James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
When it comes down to team fit, No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman finds himself in a beneficial situation with the Warriors. The big man will have to prove himself after playing just three college games, but Wiseman has the potential to thrive with Stephen Curry as his court leader. LaMelo Ball will likely be one of the top challengers for the award, but Wiseman will have a good chance if he can prove to be a valuable piece and help Golden State return to the playoffs.
Shapiro: Obi Toppin, New York Knicks
Rookies need a sufficient amount of volume to receive this award, and there should be plenty of opportunities for Toppin as the Knicks sit far outside playoff contention. Toppin’s offensive game is relatively polished for a rookie. He’s an impactful force at the rim, and his feel for the game is quite refined. LaMelo Ball’s shooting percentages will be ugly. There’s no obvious leader in the clubhouse. Toppin should light up the scoreboard on enough nights to take home this award.
Pickman: James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Wiseman was one of two Warriors who sat out the first week of training camp for an undisclosed reason, though, Golden State general manager Bob Myers did say that two players tested positive for COVID-19 just prior to camp. As a result, the rangy center might not be as acclimated into Steve Kerr’s system as some might have hoped. However, Wiseman is still primed to play a decent role on a potentially playoff-bound Warriors team. Putting up solid statistics on a good team usually translates into rookie award recognition making Wiseman a safe pick for this honor.
Lundberg: LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
There remain serious questions about his ability to both shoot and score, but when it comes to the player I think the most people are excited to see on the floor, it's gotta be LaMelo. And considering the flair in his game and the opportunity to fill a star void in Charlotte, I'll go with Ball to stand out the most in his rookie season.
Beck: Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
The versatile 26-year-old has flashed leading-man capabilities—averaging 24.4 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds after the All Star break last season, and 20.3/9.5/6 in the Nets’ playoff loss to Toronto. But the return of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving necessitates a role change: third wheel with the starters, or sixth man. New coach Steve Nash has yet to commit, but he’s flirted with deploying the 6-foot-6 LeVert in a “Ginobili role,” anchoring the second unit as both scorer and playmaker. It might be LeVert’s best role with this team. He’s incredibly effective with the ball in his hands, and those opportunities would be limited alongside two usage-heavy superstars. But as a sixth man, LeVert could absolutely thrive, to both his and the Nets’ benefit.
Mannix: Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Clarkson averaged 15.6 points per game for Utah after coming over in a midseason game, goosing that number to 16.7 points in the playoffs. Clarkson is the Jazz bench, and he will get plenty of opportunities with a Utah team that will battle for a top-four seed in the conference.
Nadkarni: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Lakers
I think the Lakers are going to rely heavily on their bench to ease the burden on LeBron and AD after a Finals run. Schroder would be a good pick here as well, but I'm going with Harrell because I'm sensing he’ll be extra motivated after a) his disappointing postseason and b) knowing the crosstown Clippers let him walk to a rival.
Woo: Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Picking Lou Williams every year gets exhausting. If you buy the Nets as contenders in the East, LeVert’s second-unit contributions are going to be a big piece of getting them to the finish line.
Swinton: Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn boasts strong offensive depth entering the season, and if the team stays healthy, it will have a handful of players who can make cases for Sixth Man of the Year. The leader in that group could be Spencer Dinwiddie, assuming Caris LeVert starts alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Dinwiddie, who averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists last season, has spent time as both a starter and bench presence, proving he can adapt on a dime to the team's needs. Dinwiddie has been a candidate for Most Improved Player in past seasons, but if he comes off the bench this year, a Sixth Man nod could be in his future.
Shapiro: Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Utah’s $54 million man isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of team, but he should have enough opportunity to post impressive scoring totals as the lead option off the bench. Clarkson continues to improve as a three-point shooter. He has a clever feel for defenders on his hip in the pick-and-roll. This is a Utah team flush with depth alongside its two headline talents. Secure a top-three seed, and this could be Clarkson’s award to lose.
Pickman: Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
One of the league’s bubble breakout stars, it will be fascinating to see what Herro's role with the Heat will be this season. In his debut campaign, he started just eight games, averaging 13.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game on 42.8% shooting. Those numbers jumped in the postseason when Herro became one of Miami’s most important players, averaging almost 34 minutes per game. It’s unclear if Herro is still going to be a reserve to open the year (or quickly advance out of a bench role), but you’d have to expect he’s going to play a sizable role for Miami nevertheless. If he comes off the bench this year then he’ll be at the center of the conversation for this award.
Lundberg: Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
I'm not certain he won't start but new Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash has already hinted at LeVert playing a Manu Ginobili like role for the team. He has played best with the ball in his hands so it does make sense for him to be the team's sixth man. If that's the case, then there should be plenty of chances for him to get buckets in Brooklyn.
Beck: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
I know, this sort of feels like cheating. In a way, MPJ already made The Leap in August, when he averaged 22 points and 8.6 rebounds and shot 42 percent from the arc over seven games in the NBA bubble—a breakout that included back-to back games of 37 and 30 points and four straight double-doubles. Porter’s minutes and production dipped in the playoffs (11.4 points, 6.7 rebounds), but his trajectory is coming into focus. He’s a brilliant 3-point shooter (.422 last season) and an outstanding, versatile athlete who, at 6-10, gives the Nuggets all kinds of plug-and-play opportunities, and should feast on the scoring opportunities created by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. This is Porter’s third NBA season, but his first with a full-fledged rotation spot, following a redshirted 2018-19 season (to recover from back surgery) and a choppy 2019-20. Porter was once projected as the best player in the 2018 draft, before injuries caused him to plummet. The Nuggets had the vision and the patience to grab him at 14. Now comes the payoff.
Mannix: Gary Trent, Portland Trail Blazers
Trent’s bubble numbers (16.9 points per game) nearly doubled his average in the regular season, foreshadowing, perhaps, a breakout season. While Trent will have competition for minutes at the swing positions on a replenished Blazers roster, it says here Terry Stotts will find room the sharpshooting Trent who emerged as a bulldog defender.
Nadkarni: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Usually someone comes out of nowhere to win this award. After being an inconsistent piece of the rotation last season, Porter Jr. is going to be a key for the Nuggets moving forward, particularly after the departure of Jerami Grant. Porter averaged 9.3 points and 0.8 assists a game in 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doubled both of those this upcoming year. (The assist figure hopefully even more than doubled.) I also expect him to be a fixture in the starting lineup by the time the playoffs roll around. And while defensive improvement typically isn’t a barometer of who wins this award, I do think MPJ made some small strides on that end of the floor over the course of the postseason. The better he plays there the more trust he’ll get from Michael Malone, which means more time to put up numbers.
Woo: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s no young player with a better combination of opportunity and ability than Gilgeous-Alexander. I don’t know how many games the Thunder actually win, but the numbers here are going to look pretty good come spring.
Swinton: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
He may not have won Rookie of the Year for 2019-20, but Zion Williamson will have more opportunities to show his worth this year if he can stay healthy. Williamson has proven he can be explosive on the court, but he was unable to show what he can accomplish over a full season. If Williamson is not hindered by injuries in 2020-21, his adjustments coming off a brief rookie campaign may be a top storyline of the year.
Shapiro: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
This award has skewed to younger players in recent years, and Porter Jr. sports the profile of a likely recipient. His scoring totals should see a legitimate jump with an increase in offensive responsibility, and his smooth shooting stroke should lend itself to numerous 30-point nights. Porter is an imperfect player in many respects. He’s a defensive deficiency, and he employs some serious tunnel vision upon receiving the ball. But the scoring talent at hand is undeniable. Expect Porter to light up the scoreboard on enough evenings to claim Most Improved Player in 2020-21.
Pickman: Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Will Murray objectively be the league’s most improved player? No, absolutely not. However, the Nuggets guard is bound to achieve more personal accolades (how about a first All-Star game recognition and potentially some All-NBA consideration) after a stellar postseason in 2019-20. Murray’s regular season numbers were incredibly similar between 2018-19 and 2019-20, but he saw his scoring jump eight points per game (26.5) in last year’s bubble playoffs. Throughout Denver’s miracle run, he recorded 30 or more points in six of Denver’s 19 playoff games and posted multiple 40- and 50-point showings. He’s a budding star in the league and he’ll finally get the individual recognition he deserve, at least in the former of the Most Improved Player award.
Lundberg: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
A bigger role could be all Porter needs to become the most improved player in the NBA. The ability to score is there, and at his height with his shooting, if he can simply round out his game, Porter Jr could have a breakout season for a team looking to contend in the West in Denver.
Defensive Player of the Year
Beck: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
So, to be clear: Marcus Smart won’t win this award. But since these predictions are all just guesses at best (and because I don’t care if I’m wrong), I’m going to use this space to pontificate a bit and yell at some clouds. I mean, it’s sort of ludicrous that no guard has won DPOY since Gary Payton in 1996. You read that right: NINETEEN-NINETY-SIX. When Bill Clinton was president, “Seinfeld” was in its prime and Michael Jordan was just starting his second three-peat. Every DPOY trophy since then has gone to a forward or center, though we’ve seen the occasional small forward (Ron Artest in 2004, Kawhi Leonard in 2015 and 2016). But no shooting guards or point guards, despite the best efforts of Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bruce Bowen, Dwyane Wade, Tony Allen, Chris Paul and many others. Yes, protecting the paint is a key element in elite team defense, and it’s the guys over 6-10 who generally do it. But the Celtics had a top-five defense last season without an elite big. (Maybe Smart had something to do with it?) Look, DPOY might be the most fraught of all the NBA awards. We use the advanced stats that are available, we talk to scouts, players and coaches, we watch a ton of games. But the stats are imperfect, the players aren’t always right, and even the scouts haven’t seen every minute of every player’s season. I’m not saying we’ve gotten this wrong for 24 years. I’m just saying Marcus Smart, though listed at just 6-3, is a multi-positional terror on defense and, like his small-to-medium size predecessors, probably deserves a little more recognition. (Also, I voted for Giannis last season, so I’m a hypocrite. Shrug emoji.)
Mannix: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Antetokounmpo dethroned Gobert last season, ending a two-year DPOY run, but it says here Gobert starts a new one this season. Opposing coaches continue to say that Gobert you most have to plan for defensively, and with the Donovan Mitchell/COVID incident behind him and with a new contract in his pocket, Gobert will play inspired basketball this season.
Nadkarni: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Bam doesn’t know how to take possessions off, and the Heat should be better as a whole defensively if they switch Bam to center full time. (Miami started Meyers Leonard for practically all of last season.) Adebayo is also a hot name after his bubble performance which should draw more eyeballs to his versatility. Giannis will also be candidate, but I'm banking on voters having cooled on The Freak a little bit if this is a close race.
Woo: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
It feels like Bam is eventually going to earn this one. Why not this year?
Swinton: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Davis can follow in Giannis Antetokounmpo's footsteps and take home MVP and DPOY honors in 2020-21, but Bam Adebayo may have something to say about it. An All Star last year, Adebayo averaged 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds 5.1 assists and 1.3 blocks on the way to Miami's title game appearance. Adebayo was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team last year, and if he keeps up the pace of his first three years, he will prove to be the Defensive Player of the Year soon enough—it is just a matter of time as to when, and 2020-21 may be Adebayo's time.
Shapiro: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
We could see a battle of the bigs for MVP as Anthony Davis battles Joel Embiid. LeBron’s presence in Los Angeles is likely to dampen Davis’s MVP candidacy, though Defensive Player of the Year isn’t a terrible consolation prize. Davis is a destructive defensive player in every sense, pairing elite rim protection with impressive mobility on the perimeter. Davis emerged as the league’s most valuable defensive weapon in the NBA Bubble. Expect more of the same in 2020-21.
Pickman: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
As my colleague Rohan Nadkarni wrote in his recent profile of Davis, the Lakers big unlocks much of what L.A. does on the defensive end of the floor “forcing opposing coaches to cantor their offenses like balloon animals.” Davis placed second in this award last season, but if Los Angeles improves from the third-best defensive it had last year, don’t be surprised if AD takes home his first Defensive Player of the Year.
Lundberg: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Everyone saw the impact AD has on the floor for the Lakers defensively in the postseason, as his versatility allows them to play and defend any style. It feels like delayed recognition is on the way for Davis when it comes to his D.
Coach of the Year
Beck: Monty Williams
The Suns are primed for a breakthrough season—which makes Williams perfectly poised for this award. COY winners typically check one of two boxes: led a great team to a great record, or led a team that exceeded expectations (and/or made a dramatic one-season leap). The Suns should join the second group, having added future Hall of Famer Chris Paul to promising young core, featuring All-Star Devin Booker, a blossoming Deandre Ayton and promising recent draftees Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges. Williams showed a deft touch with this group last season, getting the most out of not only his stars but reclamation projects like Cameron Payne. If Paul has the same impact in Phoenix as he did in Oklahoma City last season, the Suns will break their 10-year playoff drought and earn plenty of plaudits from the national media.
Mannix: Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
It’s been nearly two decades since Carlisle’s last COY, but if Kristaps Porzingis can stay health—always a big if—Dallas’s dynamic offense will put up big numbers and the Mavs could make a surprise push for a top-four seed. In a conference with no gimme’s, that should be enough.
Nadkarni: Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
I think Williams—with a helping hand from Chris Paul—will guide the Suns back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Phoenix’s point guard and star that season was Steve Nash, who is now a coach himself. If you've missed the postseason enough years in a row for your franchise icon to be coaching somewhere else, that’s a pretty strong case for the current head coach to win this award, provided Monty can actually get the Suns a berth in a very crowded playoff field. Hey, that play-in exists for a reason!
Woo: Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
Maybe this is expressing too much faith in the Lakers to make the most of this season rail to rail. But I’d expect Vogel to end up in the running here one way or another, and his team obviously has enough talent to pace the West.
Swinton: Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are coming off a thrilling run in last season's playoffs, an unexpected stretch that saw the team overcome multiple 3-1 deficits and take down the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. Michael Malone deserves credit for leading his squad during that time and will be challenged to remain competitive atop the West in 2020-21. Denver has played to being an underdog, and if Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic make more strides and keep the Nuggets competitive atop the Western Conference, Malone will be in the conversation for top honors at the end of the year.
Shapiro: Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
The narrative is ripe for Rivers to win his second Coach of the Year award. 2019-20 was a dysfunctional season in Philadelphia by all accounts, and Brett Brown did little to make life easier on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. A few adjustments can go a long way for Rivers. Philadelphia’s roster writ large should be more functional in 2020-21, and Rivers could have a similar honeymoon period to the one he enjoyed in Los Angeles. Expect an impressive regular season in Philadelphia followed by some additional hardware for Rivers.
Pickman: Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets
I picked Kevin Durant to win the MVP and the Nets to win the Eastern Conference. If the Nets do finish the regular season with the top seed in the conference, it’s tough to imagine Nash not winning this award. He’ll be a first-year head coach on a team that could very well win the title. Another possible name to watch is Doc Rivers, who won the Coach of the Year award in his first season as a head coach with Orlando, but hasn’t since. If Philly vaults to the top of the Eastern Conference, Rivers could steal the award from another former point guard.
Lundberg: Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans Pelicans
If Zion Williamson is healthy, the New Orleans Pelicans could be a surprising team this season. And exceeded expectations is one way a coach can take home this award. So I'll take Stan Van Gundy as a dark-horse pick in his return to the bench.