2020–21 NBA Award Picks: Handing Out Some Real (And Fake) Hardware

Presenting the 2020–21 NBA awards! Unveiling picks for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Fun Player and more.
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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.

The season that never really felt like a season and somehow also a marathon slog after the short break postbubble is almost over. By Sunday night, every team will have played its final game of the regular season before the brand new play-in tournament kicks off on May 18. I’m not sure how this year will be remembered in the future, but in many ways 2021 felt even more strange than the pandemic-suspended ’20 campaign. The empty arenas, the blowouts, the COVID-19 absences, the injuries … trying to make sense of everything the NBA encompassed this year is a gargantuan task. I think it’s going to take some time to fully grasp the effects this season had both mentally and physically on everyone involved.

With all that said, the games were still played, many players still shined and the end of another season means the time has come to hand out some awards.

All stats accumulated through May 13.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

I firmly believe the Rookie of the Year Award should be based on vibes more than anything else. Basically, which rookie’s season would you most fondly remember a few years from now? The answer here is clearly LaMelo (even if Anthony Edwards made a late push thanks to being a Zoom conference legend.) Of course Ball is actually a very good player, averaging 15.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night for a cheeky Hornets team. He also puts so much masala on everything he does he’s impossible to ignore. I know some fans quickly grew tired over the nightly freakout over the latest LaMelo pass … but look at some of these passes!

I don’t know if LaMelo Ball is going to be the franchise player that saves Charlotte. All I know is he is incredibly fun to watch, and he almost single-handedly revived the Ball name after Lavar turned the early part of Lonzo’s career into a sideshow. I’d like to say I would love if the NBA produced one rookie every year who played with as much flair as LaMelo. And yet the truth is what makes LaMelo special is how rare it is for a young player to enter the league with so much style.

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau

There are worthy candidates for this award, and guys like Monty Williams and Mike Malone deserve serious consideration for the honor. It’s just incredibly difficult not to default to Thibodeau, who has injected life back into the Knicks way sooner than anyone expected. After a pretty quiet offseason, New York looked to be in another holding pattern until either one of its young players took a leap or a star finally decided to join the franchise. Instead, in classic Thibodeau-ian fashion, the Knicks played suffocating defense and choked out many opponents en route to one of the franchise’s most satisfying seasons ever. While the star turn from Julius Randle (we’ll get there!) certainly helped, the hallmarks of a Thibodeau team were all over this squad. The defense, the night-to-night intensity, the respect for the regular season, demanding focus from opponents. Those tenets may sound relatively simple, but the Knicks have been lacking those principles for years. Even if New York still has some ways to go to become the powerhouse its fans are salivating for, the foundation for success has been laid this season.

Coach Least Likely to Wear a Mask While Yelling at the Refs: Tie—All of Them

Poor NBA referees, who knew every time a coach started tugging their mask down toward their chin they were about to receive an earful. I’ve never had the urge to yell while wearing a mask, so I’m not sure how much more satisfying it is to pull it down before unleashing on someone for missing an obvious three-second call. It became clear early on this season though that NBA coaches were really letting the respiratory particles fly this year when they were upset.

Julius Randle of the New York Knicks

Most Improved Player: Julius Randle

It felt like every time you looked up during a Knicks game this season, Julius Randle was hitting an impossible shot over the opposing team’s best defender. Randle didn’t just improve in 2021, he ascended. He is averaging career highs in points, assists, minutes, steals, three-point attempts and three-point field goal percentage, and has tied a career high in rebounds. I always liked Randle’s game, especially as a bullyish five man who could run the break on a fast-paced team. His turning into an offensive linchpin for the slowest team in the league is something I never saw coming.

I have no idea how to put Randle’s season into proper context. Is he going to be this guy forever? Did the huge break he had between seasons give him a leg up on some of the competition? Honestly, when you see how much life he’s helped inject into one of the league’s most moribund franchises, those bigger-picture concerns can be addressed much later.

The Lifetime Achievement Award in Franchise Revival: Chris Paul

Chris Paul did for the Suns what Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did for the Fast & Furious franchise—he took something that had some fun parts and helped launch it into an entirely new stratosphere. This is what Paul has done for his entire career, from New Orleans to the Clippers to the Rockets to the Thunder and now with Phoenix. Everywhere he goes, winning follows. CP3 is basically the franchise Viagra of the NBA, and at 36, he is showing no signs of slowing down. The contract everyone was obsessed with a year ago is now an afterthought. If anything, after what he’s done the last couple of seasons, Paul is due for another big payday.

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert

Gobert is an easy punching bag, because as great as he is, he never really looks physically imposing, his highlights aren’t cool, and sometimes when he celebrates it looks like the night before he watched a YouTube video titled “How to Celebrate a Big Play.” Still, Gobert is the bedrock of a stingy defense on one of the best teams in the league. Everything the Jazz do on that end of the floor is predicated on players fearing challenging Rudy in the paint. In a league where switching has become so much popular and big men are increasingly valued for playing small, Gobert is a throwback. Whatever hang-ups people have with his game stylistically, as Ben Dowsett noted on FiveThirtyEight this week, Gobert is dominating nearly every advanced defensive metric this season. Like many people, I’m curious to see how Gobert and Utah hold up through a postseason run, especially with the expectations this high. But that’s no reason to deny Rudy the award he’s earned with his stellar play. (Honorable mentions to Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, though.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson

Though his efficiency has taken a hit over the course of the year, Clarkson is a worthy entrant into the Sixth Man Club. I love how this award is now reserved almost entirely for players who come off the bench with the sole purpose of racking up as many points as possible. Clarkson is averaging a career-best 18.2 points a night in 2021, and he’s become one of the league’s premier microwave scorers. He is absolutely going to swing some games in the playoffs, even if on some other nights he’s quickly pulled because he keeps getting targeted on defense. Clarkson has multiple 40-point games this season, and he’s only scored in single digits four times all year—two of those coming in blowouts that hardly required his service.

Fifteenth Man of the Year: Udonis Haslem

Udonis Haslem played only three minutes this season, all coming in the Heat’s final home game of the season on Thursday night. He scored four points, drew one charge, picked up one rebound and was ejected after picking up two technicals in a skirmish with Dwight Howard. It was a legendary stint from Haslem, and you could see Pat Riley smiling under his mask as Haslem left the floor.

Some people don’t understand why Haslem still gets a roster spot in Miami if he doesn’t play. Some fans of the team clamor for the organization to force him into retirement so they can use his spot for a developmental player or another veteran who would maybe get on the floor in the event of injury. To those people I say, if your version of the NBA doesn’t have room for franchise icons and local legends remaining on their teams until the bitter end, why are you watching this sport? Did you fall in love with players or “assets” when you first started watching basketball? Haslem may have played only three minutes for the Heat in 2021. They were arguably the most memorable three minutes of the season.

Most Fun Player of the Season: Stephen Curry

Steph had the season everyone wanted him to have in 2020 before injuries quickly derailed the Warriors. Golden State obviously isn’t back at the level it was pre–Kevin Durant. The Dubs will need a healthy Klay Thompson to truly become contenders again. I’m just really happy for Curry, who provided the most “I need to get to a TV!” moments out of anyone this season. I worry Steph is going to be appreciated more in retirement than he ever will be as a player, because for some reason people still cast doubt on his abilities as a lead superstar. This year may not have put to rest those concerns for Curry’s bad-faith critics. Anyone who still chooses not to believe in his talents at this point is unfortunately letting one of the game’s most uniquely explosive players pass them by.

Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić

If there’s one player who I hope doesn’t have to bear the burden of this atypical season, it’s Nikola Jokić, who should rightfully be named MVP when the time comes. Anybody who thinks Jokić is an outlier or some kind of fluke winner simply hasn’t been watching him play long enough. Jokić winning MVP isn’t the result of some hastily thrown together season. Did it maybe help that say, LeBron was hurt for much of the year? Sure, but you could make that argument for many other MVP winners in the past. Jokić has earned this award like every other player before him—by being completely indispensable to his team and carrying them on a nightly basis. Even after his running mate and pick-and-roll partner Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL, Jokić continued to thrive and kept the Nuggets in the top half of the conference. 

Jokić is averaging 26.5 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.4 assists a game this season—all career bests—and those numbers still don’t do justice to the level of control he exerts over a game. Jokić plays with the grace of an orchestral conductor and the focus of a monk who years ago learned to block out every noise when entering a meditative state. Jokić plays at his pace and his pace only, and he’s a stylistic marvel, an old-school point guard in a center’s body who can also happen to score at will. Jokić is the unquestioned MVP of 2021, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was only his first.

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