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2021–22 NBA Award Predictions

Making picks for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and more.
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The NBA will make its return Tuesday night, and we asked our writers to make their award predictions.

Most Valuable Player

Howard Beck: ​​Joel Embiid, 76ers

If not for an injury, Embiid might have seized the MVP award last season, instead of finishing a distant second. And yes, we know, if not for an injury is a sad staple of Embiid’s bio. But let's be clear: Embiid (ahem, when healthy) is the most dominant two-way center in the league, with wonderfully versatile scoring skills and the mobility to anchor a top-five defense. If he can power the Sixers to another top-four finish—despite the needless Ben Simmons drama—he’ll again be a leading MVP candidate. And he can win it. He just needs to stay on the court.

Chris Herring: Joel Embiid, 76ers

From a durability standpoint alone, Embiid may not seem like a logical choice. He might be as talented and skilled as anyone in the league, but can he stay as healthy as he is productive? It’s an open question. But after watching Nikola Jokić be in fantastic shape to earn the award and watching 36-year-old Chris Paul stay healthy all regular season for Phoenix, why can’t Embiid do the same for Philly? If he can do those things and power the Sixers through the Simmons distractions, there’s a good chance Embiid will win.

Chris Mannix: ​​Kevin Durant, Nets

Full disclosure: Giannis’s shooting 66.7% from three in the preseason terrifies me. But I’m sticking with Durant, who had an MVP January last season—31.8 points, eight rebounds, 5.8 assists—before injuries took him out of the conversation. At 33, Durant is at the peak of his powers, dominant offensively, underrated defensively and, after extended minutes in the playoffs and a USA Basketball–saving summer, he has no issues with injuries. Could there be some ticket-splitting with James Harden? Maybe. But Durant will be so good offensively—on a Nets team that, with or without Kyrie Irving will be really good—most torn voters will lean his way.

Michael Pina: Trae Young, Hawks

This is a bet on Young’s prodigious playmaking, unshakeable confidence and assumed improvement as a 23-year-old star as it is the coalescing ascension of everyone around him. To win Most Valuable Player, you have to be 1) very good and 2) on a very good team. If the Hawks punch themselves into an even higher weight class (with Irving sidelined, the Nets are no longer a lock to finish first or second in the conference) all attention will be on their point guard, who will have 19 nationally televised opportunities to prove that last year’s magical playoff run was no mirage.

Coming into the 2021–22 season, Young isn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best players, but so many of them are either paired with another All-NBA talent, on a team that has myriad question marks or, in the case of Jokić and Antetokounmpo, possibly needing to go above and beyond anything they’ve done before, having already won three of the sport’s most prestigious individual trophy already.

Young’s value is unquestioned, too. Among all players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, only Steph Curry, Draymond Green (aka Steph Curry) and Jokić had a more positive impact on their team’s offensive rating. The effect he has on everyone around him was contagious throughout the postseason, and you’ll hear his name in MVP conversations all year long if that keeps up.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Nets

KD hasn’t won this award since 2014. He’s healthy, the Nets are going to need to lean on him, and his age-33 season may be his last best chance at hardware. After a dominant showing at the Olympics, a better-than-usual year may still be in store, even by his standards.

Rohan Nadkarni: Nikola Jokić

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Why are we sleeping on Jokić? The Nuggets’ ironman played in every game last season despite the short turnaround from the bubble, and he’s only 26, which means his best basketball could still be ahead of him. I also expect Jokić’s counting stats to get a little boost in the absence of Jamal Murray. For all the talk about the Zions, Lukas, and Traes of the world, Jokić has proven to be a superstar performer in his own right. Why can’t he take over the league?

Michael Shapiro: James Harden, Nets

The Beard will steady the ship despite the constant Irving melodrama, with a full offseason allowing Harden to guide Brooklyn without the nagging hamstring injuries that hampered his first year with the Nets. The scoring title is in play, though Harden’s second assist title may be more likely.

And even more important than Harden’s statistical heights, there’s an easy narrative to envision as the playoffs approach. Harden could lead the Nets to the NBA’s best record while Irving and Durant miss some segments of time, and it takes only one week-long scoring binge to bring Harden back into the conversation of Greatest Offensive Player Ever. Even on a superteam, there’s a path for Harden to win this award.

Ben Pickman: Kevin Durant, Nets

A healthy Durant appeared to be the league’s best player last year, showcasing his incredible playmaking, shooting and overall dominance throughout his first season in Brooklyn. Irving’s uncertain future with the franchise would seemingly increase Durant’s odds of taking home what would be just his second MVP award. And while Harden will still be beginning his first full season in Brooklyn, having the Beard and Durant in the same lineup shouldn’t necessarily take away any award shine from either Nets star.

Rookie of the Year

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Beck: Jalen Green, Rockets

Simple rule of thumb for this award: When in doubt, pick the guy who will have the ball in his hands a lot (check), on a team with no established stars (check) and a desperate need for scoring (check). With John Wall voluntarily frozen in carbonite, the Rockets have no offensive anchor, just an array of young and largely unproven talents. Green, who averaged 17.9 points for the G League Ignite last season, has the athleticism and scoring chops to fill the void.

Herring: Davion Mitchell, Kings

Generally speaking, players with reputations as defensive hounds aren’t the first to come to mind for Rookie of the Year. But beyond his stopping ability, Mitchell can score, and he will get plenty of opportunities to do so with Sacramento’s uptempo attack. He was co-MVP of the summer league and shot 40% from three in Las Vegas, as well as during the preseason. The Kings outscored opponents by 27 per 100 possessions with him on the floor during exhibition season, but got blasted by 18.6 points per 100 without him.

Mannix: Jalen Green, Rockets

Green has told anyone within earshot—including me, in a profile of the Rockets rookie last spring—that he wants to be Rookie of the Year. Houston will look disjointed this season as the Green/Christian Wood/Kevin Porter Jr. core attempts to jell. But Green will put up numbers. He’s a pure scorer, fresh off a season spent working with NBA coaches in the G League. He was getting buckets on grizzled pros in the G League bubble last February, so he will hit the ground running. It won’t be a pretty season in Houston. But Green will get his hardware.

Pina: Cade Cunningham, Pistons

Writing this as someone who hasn’t studied any of the incoming rookie class, Cunningham is positioned to stack basic stats on a team that has complementary talent. He was the consensus No. 1 pick for a reason.

Woo: Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Mobley hasn’t gotten quite the same fanfare as his peers in this draft, but his defensive presence and underappreciated offensive skills could make him the most impactful rookie out of the game. Cleveland sorely needs him on the floor.

Nadkarni: Cade Cunningham

I’m going to pick the No. 1 overall pick almost every year. Sorry if this offends. Rarely do rookies play on interesting teams. I like Cunningham’s build and general excitement for playing in Detroit. But I’m at the point where I’m not even sure this award needs to be given out every year.

Shapiro: Jalen Green, Rockets

Perhaps Cunningham will be the more valuable player over time, but Green should put up plenty of counting stats on a Rockets team poised to be a League Pass darling. Green should lead all rookies in points and highlight dunks. He enters the season without injury concern, and, unlike Evan Mobley in Cleveland or Scottie Barnes in Toronto, there isn’t a significant usage issue in play. In what should be a strong rookie class, expect Green to lead the group in scoring en route to Rookie of the Year.

Pickman: Jalen Green, Rockets

Someone has to score the basketball for the Rockets, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Green come into the NBA and make a major impact this year, especially on the offensive end. After opting to play for G League Ignite last season, he impressed in 15 games, averaging 17.9 points on 36% shooting from three. Cunningham will also be in contention for this award, though the Pistons would appear to have a deeper supporting cast around the 2021 top pick. I also expect Jalen Suggs of the Magic and Barnes of the Raptors to put themselves in this conversation. Green, though, for his offensive prowess specifically, will get the nod in the end.

Coach of the Year

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Beck: ​​Nate McMillan, Hawks

McMillan led the Hawks to a 27–11 record over the final two and a half months last season—the NBA’s third-best mark in that span—after the club fired Lloyd Pierce. He was a legitimate candidate for COY then, but the lack of a full season surely hurt his chances. This time, McMillan has the job from day one, with arguably the league’s deepest roster, a budding superstar in Young and a sense of momentum from last spring.

Herring: Ime Udoka, Celtics

The first-time head coach takes over a Boston club that could be primed for a solid bounceback season, one that with better health could easily go from being a slightly below-average unit on defense last season to a top-five one this year. There’s plenty of talk around the Hawks, Bulls and Knicks potentially moving up in the East. Udoka and the Celtics could be in line to do the same after last season’s war of attrition.

Mannix: ​​James Borrego, Hornets

It’s March 2021. Charlotte is hovering around .500. LaMelo Ball is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. Then Ball gets hurt. Gordon Hayward gets hurt. And a Hornets team in the thick of the conference playoff field stumbles into the play-in tournament. Ball is a year older. Miles Bridges is a year older. P.J. Washington is a year older. Rookie James Bouknight is another hyperathletic wing for Ball to run with. Terry Rozier, a huge success since signing with Charlotte in 2020, is an experienced scorer. The Hornets are going to surprise people and Borrego, who has steered the development of everyone on this young roster, is going to deserve a lot of the credit.

Pina: Steve Nash, Nets

The case here is fairly straightforward: if the Nets are better than last year (in the standings) while boasting one of the most efficient offenses we’ve ever seen and a defense that’s at least reliable from night to night, without Irving, Nash deserves credit. Knowing how deep and proud his roster is, integrating everyone’s minutes and managing all the egos won’t be an easy task. There’s as much pressure to win every night in Brooklyn as there is anywhere in the league. If they’re as good in reality as they look on paper, it’s Nash’s award to lose.

Woo: Steve Nash, Nets

The Nets are clearly very good, but their path to being great looks pretty winding and strange. Nash has his work cut out for him—as much as he can, on a team with so much talent—and I’m willing to bet it all works out, Kyrie or no Kyrie.

Nadkarni: Nate McMillan

I would not be shocked if the Hawks finished as high as third in the East, and McMillan arguably deserved this award for what he did in an interim capacity last season. If Atlanta builds on its postseason momentum, McMillan deserves some of the credit.

Shapiro: Ime Udoka, Celtics

Boston went through what seemed to be a season from hell in 2020–21, in which injury, COVID-19 absences and a thinned rotation resulted in a 36–36 record. We should see the Celtics look like more of a contender this season. Boston added veteran depth over the offseason with Al Horford returning and Dennis Schröder joining on a one-year, prove-it deal, and Jayson Tatum’s fifth NBA season could see him leap into the MVP discussion. An improved roster should also benefit from a new voice in Udoka, who pairs a decade-plus playing career with stints on the staffs of Gregg Popovich and Nash. As Boston returns toward the top of the East, Udoka could be rewarded with Coach of the Year.

Pickman: Ime Udoka, Celtics

The Celtics had a disappointing year, at least by their standards, in 2020–21, finishing with just a 36–36 record and the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. With Brad Stevens now leading the organization’s front office, first-year coach Udoka will be traversing the sideline for the C’s. If the Celtics bounce back—say they finish third or fourth in the East—then I think Udoka will become an immediate front-runner for the Coach of the Year award. A first-year coach helping his team jump up the standings appears to be a recipe for taking home this honor.

Defensive Player of the Year

Beck: Matisse Thybulle, 76ers

This is always the hardest (and maybe most pointless) prediction of all. The pool of elite defenders is relatively small and predictable, but the award depends on so much else, especially team success. Thybulle, heading into his third season, is already an elite wing defender, and he’s playing for a Sixers team that should make noise again in the East. And assuming (DPOY candidate) Simmons gets traded in the next couple of months, Thybulle’s role and impact will only increase.

Herring: Bam Adebayo, Heat

Rudy Gobert might be the safe choice here. But Adebayo is on the rise, and now will be navigating pick-and-rolls with the solid-defending Kyle Lowry, perhaps giving the big man even more confidence to roam and make elite plays. He’s one of the few people who can steal the honor from Gobert.

Mannix: Rudy Gobert

The NBA's most dominant defender. Period. 

Pina: Bam Adebayo, Heat

If you could clone one player in an attempt to build the perfect defense, Bam Adebayo would be the prototype. He's the most versatile defender in the NBA, someone who can roam a backline and protect the rim, anchor a 2–3 zone, crash the glass and snuff out a point guard in isolation 25 feet from the basket—all in the same quarter. With Kyle Lowry in the mix as Adebayo's partner guarding pick-and-rolls, Miami's defensive rating can climb even higher than 10th, which is where it was last season. If that happens, it'll be hard to ignore Adebayo when it comes time to vote for the best defender in the league.

Woo: Bam Adebayo, Heat

I’m honestly just tired of picking Rudy Gobert.

Nadkarni: Bam Adebayo

Bam is long overdue for a DPOY recognition. The Heat will have a top-ten defense and Adebayo will be the backbone of it. I’m sounding like a broken record at this point, but few players in this league can credibly guard bigs, scoring wings, and guards. Adebayo can excel when matched up against any of the three. His combination of athleticism, IQ, and discipline is rare. If Adebayo finally does win this award in 2022, I imagine it will be the first of many times. 

Pickman: ​​Draymond Green, Warriors

If the Warriors do improve in the way many people—myself included—expect, then the Warriors’ versatile forward will need to be exceptional on the defensive end of the floor. At 31, Green hasn’t won the award since 2017, but he has remained an all-NBA defender and could certainly still take home the honor for the second time in his career.

Shapiro: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Not exactly the most thrilling pick, but Gobert remains the game’s preeminent rim protector, and he should have no problem securing enough votes if Utah sits atop the Western Conference in April. The Stifle Tower could very well win his fourth DPOY in five seasons without another obvious contender in his path.

Most Improved Player

jordan-poole-warriors-pass

Beck: Jordan Poole, Warriors

First rule of the preseason: Don’t get overhyped about the preseason. But, uh, did you see Poole’s preseason? Holy moly! He looks like a new player: confident, decisive, efficient. And seemingly ready for the role of Curry’s Chief Sidekick, at least until Klay Thompson is ready to play again. Even with Thompson back, Poole will play a key role in the Warriors’ hoped-for revival—and will maybe become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate to boot.

Herring: ​​Jordan Poole, Warriors

If the Warriors hop back into NBA title contention this season, it goes without saying that Thompson’s return will likely be a part of that story line. But Poole’s making a leap would seem to be a factor, too.

At almost 50.6% from the floor, and with 21.8 points and 3.0 assists per game, the third-year Poole was one of the league’s best performers in the preseason, giving the Warriors another legitimate scoring threat after Curry. He’ll arguably be even more potent if Thompson comes back and looks his old self, giving defenses even less to defend the floor-spacing Poole with.

Mannix: Keldon Johnson, Spurs

Annual disclaimer: This award is wildly subjective, with some voters preferring top prospects who make star-level leaps and others leaning toward unheralded players who make surprising contributions. Johnson jumped into double figures in scoring last season and will see more shots shift his way with DeMar DeRozan gone. He’s a terrific rebounder with the skills to become a better playmaker. Johnson didn’t play much for USA Basketball but he did practice with some of the NBA’s best players, an experience that will surely rub off. If Johnson can goose that three-point percentage, he will be a strong candidate.

Pina: Dejounte Murray, Spurs

There’s two reasons for this. The first is opportunity. Murray’s touches, shots and minutes will rise this year now that DeRozan is no longer around. He’ll have the ball in crunch time and have a greater portion of San Antonio’s offense run through his remarkable instincts. Secondly, Murray is already someone who gets better every year (when healthy enough to do so). Last season he was one of eight players who averaged at least 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game. If all those categories grow, and he’s able to show off a more accurate three-point shot (critical for his development and the Spurs’ future), Murray may find himself knocking on the door of an All-Star appearance. That type of jump would certainly be grounds for a Most Improved Player vote.

Woo: OG Anunoby, Raptors

All signs are pointing toward a legit offensive breakout from Anunoby, who’s evolving into a go-to guy on top of his usual stifling defense. It feels like it’s happening.

Nadkarni: Jaren Jackson Jr.

Going to swerve here and pick a guy whose career has been a little hampered by injury so far. I think if JJJ can put together a relatively healthy season after a mostly normal summer, he is in a position to take a big leap. The talent is there, Jackson just needs to stay on the court. If he plays 70 games and averages 30 minutes a night, I think Jackson runs away with this one.

Shapiro: Tyrese Haliburton, Kings

Darius Garland is a good sleeper pick for this award, though the Cavaliers will likely be too disastrous for his leap to register. Instead, let’s look to Sacramento, where flirtation with a playoff berth could lead to increased attention on the Kings’s impressive second-year guard. Haliburton is impressively advanced for his age as a distributor, and his efficiency should hold with a jump in scoring. If the Kings are firmly in the play-in tournament, Haliburton could get significant recognition for this award.

Pickman: Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets

Porter finished third in last year’s Most Improved Player balloting, after averaging 19 points and 7.3 rebounds in the 61 games he played last season. And with Jamal Murray sidelined, he’ll be forced into an even more prominent role in this year’s campaign. If he takes on even more of a leading role for the playoff-bound Nuggets, it wouldn’t be a shock for the 23-year-old forward to take home individual hardware for the first time in his career.

Sixth Man of the Year

Beck: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nets

Massive caveat alert: It’s not clear what Steve Nash plans to do with his big-man rotation, or how often his starting five might change, or how Kyrie Irving’s absence (and theoretical return) will impact it all. But Aldridge gets the pick here for reasons both competitive and sentimental. His return from a heart condition is one of the season’s best stories. His talent as a scorer-rebounder-defender is clear. He’s an amazing luxury for this Nets team. And if he does end up starting more often than not, pencil in his teammate Blake Griffin for this award.

Herring: Rudy Gay, Jazz

Some might not even have new Jazz forward Rudy Gay as one of the two best sixth men on his own team. Jordan Clarkson won the award last season, and Joe Ingles—perennially one of the most efficient players in the league—had a solid case, too. Yet Gay could help solve one of the issues that torpedoed Utah’s chances of winning a title last postseason as a small-ball center. He should be effective for the Jazz in those lineups on both ends. And he can potentially score enough to have a shot, despite his other talented teammates who’ll also start the game on the pine.

Mannix: Kevin Huerter, Hawks

Anyone else still remembering Huerter raining jump shots on Philadelphia in Game 7 of the conference semis last season? The Hawks bench is loaded, but Huerter, entering Year 4, could be poised for a breakout. He’s a mid-high-30s three-point shooter who can score off the dribble and finish at the rim. He’s hovered in the 12-point per game range the last two seasons, but I think he bumps that up to 15-ish on a Hawks team that will battle for a top four spot in the conference.

Pina: Tyler Herro, Heat

Every year there’s at least one young player who proves how winding NBA development truly is. Last season it was Herro, who followed his iconic bubble run up with a sophomore slump that was marred by nagging injuries (including neck spasms) and inconsistent outside shooting. Now, still just 21 and looking like one of the preseason’s most electric shot makers, Herro is poised to bounce back as the rising heat check Miami desperately needs. Goran Dragić is gone. Lowry, PJ Tucker and Jimmy Butler are a combined 103 years old. Individual shot creation will be a necessity off Miami’s bench; a leap from Herro will be their gain.

Woo: Jordan Clarkson, Jazz

Not much has changed in Utah, and Clarkson is comfy in his role. He should have a great chance to defend his trophy here.

Nadkarni: Jordan Clarkson

When it rains, it usually pours for sixth man winners. I like Clarkson again because he has a defined role on a team with a great deal of continuity. Clarkson will be encouraged to hunt for shots off the bench as long as he’s in Utah, while never really threatening to start. Also, if his minutes creep up in an effort to preserve Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, Clarkson could easily become a 20-point scorer.

Shapiro: Derrick Rose, Knicks

Rose should still command plenty of usage in New York’s offense, and his continued relevance draws plenty of attention as the Knicks return to respectability. A couple of standout performances could secure this award for Rose as the narrative overshadows some less-heralded efforts.

Pickman: ​​Tyler Herro, Heat

At this time last year—well, technically it was in December ahead of the start of the 2020–21 season—I picked Herro, one of the bubble breakout stars, to take home Sixth Man of the Year honors. Well, he was underwhelming in his sophomore campaign. But let’s try the same prediction again this season! Herro will presumably be tasked with providing an offensive spark to spell Lowry or Duncan Robinson. While Miami has a multitude of other weapons, Herro can still be an electric scorer, and the award, for better or worse, usually goes to a reserve who can produce on the offensive end of the floor.

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