Inside the Most Competitive NBA Awards Race Yet

Taking a closer look at the NBA awards race. Plus should Minnesota be wary of A-Rod's intentions?
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

In many years, nay, most years, end-of-season awards voting is not especially difficult. For as much agonizing that goes into the top spots, for as many digital column inches that are devoted to arguments for or against particular players, beefs over winners are fairly rare. Not since Steve Nash’s razor-thin win over Shaquille O’Neal in 2005 has the MVP winner come within 100 total points of the runner-up; Rookie of the Year has been a relative blowout since Amar’e Stoudemire edged Yao Ming in 2003. More often, Twitter debate rages over second- or third-place finishes—or the occasional wacky vote.

This year figures to be different. Across the ballot there are competitive races. Take MVP—the season started with LeBron James as the early favorite before Joel Embiid began to overtake him. By March, James Harden had done his best to make everyone forget the eight-game George Costanza routine he did with the Rockets. Then Giannis Antetokounmpo woke up. Meanwhile Nikola Jokić—the odds on favorite as of this writing—has rolled along, threatening to become the first player since Russell Westbrook to average a triple double—and doing it for a Nuggets team that has been cooking since the trade deadline. Oh, and Donovan Mitchell is having a career year for the first-place Jazz.

How about Coach of the Year? Quin Snyder likely leads the pack. For Snyder, it should be Coach of the Year-Plus given the work he did bringing the fractured Jazz back together in the NBA bubble. This season Snyder has unleashed Utah’s three-point shooters and restored the Jazz defense to the ranks of the elite.

But Snyder has competition. Tom Thibodeau took over a Knicks team with lottery expectations and has them battling for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Same for James Borrego, who has beaten back one injury after another to keep Charlotte in the postseason mix. Monty Williams has built on the Suns' success in the bubble and guided Phoenix to the top of the conference. Doc Rivers, in his first season with the Sixers, has done the same.

A month ago, Rookie of the Year projected to be the easiest ballot. LaMelo Ball was having an outstanding season with the Hornets, powering Charlotte toward its first playoff appearance since 2016. A wrist injury ended (for now) Ball’s season after 41 games, opening the door for Anthony Edwards, who has barreled through it. Edwards is averaging 17.9 points on 39% shooting in April, creating a conundrum for voters who prefer Ball but will wonder if his body of work is enough.

Most Improved? Julius Randle, the Knicks' top scorer, a first-time All-Star, would appear to have a strong grip on that award. But there will be support for Jerami Grant, who has thrived in a leading role in Detroit, and Christian Wood, the Rockets center who is having a breakout offensive season.

(An aside: There are currently cases being made for Zion Williamson, cases which are, in a word, ridiculous. Most Improved is one of the NBA’s most subjective awards, but it should not go to the No. 1 pick in 2019 who missed all but 24 games of last season. Frankly, I thought the selection of Brandon Ingram, the second pick in 2016, last season was ludicrous. MIP, in my opinion, should go to a player who has an unexpected breakthrough. Top three picks are supposed to improve. There’s nothing remarkable about it.)

And Defensive Player of the Year? This is shaping up to be a battle between Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons, anchors of two top-five defenses. Do you prefer Simmons's versatility? Few players in NBA history can guard as many positions as the 6' 9", 240-pound Simmons. Or do you lean toward Gobert’s presence? Ask NBA coaches which player they have to game-plan for the most defensively. Gobert, a two-time DPOY winner, is often the answer.

Sixth Man will be a competitive battle … no, everyone should vote for Jordan Clarkson.

Voting criteria will be interesting—particularly for MVP. Did the first 41 games of LeBron’s season overwhelm you? With James reportedly a few weeks away from returning from a high ankle sprain, that may be all you can evaluate him on. Embiid picked up in April where he left after a knee injury sidelined him in mid-March, but how much will—or should—that three-week absence cost him? Giannis appeared to be closing the gap in March, but the two-time MVP has not played since April 2—and there are no firm plans for his return.

Durability could become a would-be MVP’s strongest argument. Jokić has been the Nuggets' ironman, playing in all 54 of Denver’s games this season, posting video-game-like numbers along the way. Damian Lillard, too, has been a fixture in the Trail Blazers' lineup. Mitchell’s candidacy gets stronger by the game. Mitchell’s numbers this season (26.6 points, 5.3 assists, 38.4% from three, all career-bests) are competitive and he has posted them while playing 51 games for the NBA’s best team. Team success has been a variable for voters before—will Mitchell get the benefit of it now?

It should be interesting. Whereas once debates began in the postseason (see Giannis vs. LeBron, 2020) there will be compelling arguments made now. Awards season is nearly upon us—and this one will be perhaps the most competitive one yet.

SHOULD MINNESOTA BE WARY OF A-ROD’S INTENTIONS?

Alex Rodriguez at Super Bowl LIV.

As breaking news goes, this one was a stunner: Alex Rodriguez, the three-time MVP, is part of an ownership group that is finalizing a deal to purchase the Timberwolves. The reported asking price: $1.5 billion … and, according to outgoing owner Glen Taylor, a guarantee that the T-Wolves remain in Minneapolis.

“They will keep the team here, yes. We will put it in the agreement,” Taylor told Minneapolis's Star-Tribune. “At this point, we have a letter of intent, but when we make up the contract we’ll put that in there. That’s no problem. That won’t be a problem.”

Taylor’s words were meant to ease the fears of Timberwolves fans that Rodriguez, an ex-Mariner whose career began in the Seattle organization, will push to move the team to the Pacific Northwest. It’s no secret that Seattle, which has been without an NBA team since 2008, when the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, pines for a new one—and that the NBA is interested in returning there. Seattle was part of the fabric of the NBA since 1967, with the Sonics winning a championship in 1979 and emerging in the 1990s during the Shawn Kemp–Gary Payton era as one of the most entertaining teams.

Taylor has promised language in the sale agreement that ensures the T-Wolves remain in Seattle, but the question is how enforceable can that language be? What if a situation arises that makes the new ownership group believe it’s financially untenable to remain in Minneapolis? The most likely scenario there would involve the arena. Target Center is one of the NBA’s oldest buildings, one new ownership will undoubtedly be looking to renovate or replace. What if they want public funding? What if they don’t get it? Remember: When Howard Schultz sold the Sonics in 2006 to Clay Bennett, he believed out-of-town owners would have more success negotiating a new arena deal. Two years later, the Sonics were gone.

Will the Timberwolves suffer the same fate? It would be beyond ironic if Seattle gained a team because an incoming owner with ties to the area moved it after failing to negotiate a new arena deal. But that’s exactly what T-Wolves fans have to watch for. If Rodriguez & Co. commit money to renovate Target Center, if they work with the city and state on a deal that builds the team a new building, then the Timberwolves' future is secure. But in the coming years if reports emerge that the new owners are having difficulty securing public financing, well, keep an eye out for moving trucks and Sonics jerseys. The Timberwolves could be gone.

MORE MORNING SHOOTAROUND

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Nadkarni: Nets are pushing the regular season to its limits

Pina: Chicago's future is brighter than it appears

Mannix: Why you should not worry about the Lakers

Shapiro: Inside the Rockets' rebuild