The beginning of the ‘21-’22 NBA Season is still a few days away, but it’s never too early to predict the winners of the league’s year-end awards.
The league’s next generation of superstars are ready to take the leap while its elder statesmen are not quite ready to relinquish their perch atop the basketball world, aided by the longevity bequeathed to them by the advances in modern medicine and technology.
This clash between old and new will be most evident in the race for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, where the most recent winner, the 26-year-old Nikola Jokic, will fight off a wide field of contenders in many different stages of their careers.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Yes, Antetokounmpo has already won the award twice, but he will be playing this season as an NBA champion and Finals MVP for the first time. He is now free of the heavy burden of having to win that first championship and a blistering post-title run similar to what Stephen Curry pulled off in the ‘15-’16 campaign is not a far-fetched notion.
The five-time NBA All-Star from Greece hit a new level in last July’s Finals versus the Phoenix Suns, emphatically punctuated by his 50-points and 14 rebounds in the their title-clinching Game 6 win. If he can continue to play with that brand of ferocity, it is difficult to imagine him not taking home a third MVP trophy in 2022.
Brooklyn’s remaining pair of superstars, Kevin Durant and James Harden, will also figure prominently in the MVP conversation, especially if Irving continues to resist vaccination against COVID-19 and remains sidelined. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and maybe even Russell Westbrook may enter the discussion as well if the Los Angeles Lakers can bounce back from a winless preseason that has historically never been a good omen for the succeeding regular season.
However, what the members of these superstar groups have going against them is that they are likely to cannibalize each other’s MVP campaigns as the attention directed towards their team’s success will be split amongst themselves. This will boost Antetokounmpo’s cause and similarly help the narrative around other potential contenders such as Jokic, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and Luka Doncic.
What sets the 26-year-old Buck apart from this group is that Milwaukee is pegged as the favorites in the East along with the Nets and a team’s record has often been a determining factor among voters. A strong start and sustained success from any of the other contenders may make this race more interesting though at this point in time, I think signs point towards Antetokounmpo winning the league’s highest individual honor for the third time in four seasons.
Defensive Player of the Year: Bam Adebayo
It is hard to believe that Adebayo is still only 24 years old. He entered the national spotlight during the Miami Heat’s run to the 2020 NBA Finals in what was his first season as a full-time starter. He followed it up last season with career-highs in scoring (18.7 per game), assists (5.4), and steals (1.2) while his rebounding (nine) and blocks (one) remained solid.
Now that Miami has reloaded its roster, highlighted by the addition of Kyle Lowry, coupled with an expected bounce-back year from Tyler Herro who seems to have rediscovered his NBA Bubble form this preseason, Adebayo may have to take a step back on offense. This will allow him to focus on defense and build on his fourth-place finish in the 2021 NBA Defensive Player of the Year race. Of course, success from the Heat will be a prerequisite for Adebayo to be discussed as a front-runner for this award.
Last year’s winner Gobert, who took home his third DPOY trophy, will be a contender yet again though another unsavory postseason run and the inevitable voter fatigue may inevitably be a boon to Adebayo.
Ben Simmons could have been another strong candidate, but his unresolved drama with the Philadelphia 76ers remains a major roadblock and it is still undetermined whether or not he will even be suiting up come opening night. Among the aforementioned MVP candidates, Antetokounmpo and Embiid may also warrant strong consideration for this award, especially if they can help their teams establish themselves atop the standings over the first few weeks of the season.
Rookie of the Year: Jalen Green
Two decades from now, Green might not be remembered as the best player of this talent-heavy draft class, but for this season alone, the Houston Rockets have put him in an ideal position to take home the Rookie of the Year honor.
The Rockets have already reached an agreement with five-time NBA All-Star John Wall that will keep him sidelined until they can trade him, which paves the way for their backcourt of the future, Green and Kevin Porter Jr, to take charge of their offense.
Green’s transition to the NBA as a wing with a slight build is not going to be the smoothest one. The field goal percentage of the second overall pick of this year’s draft is expected to fall closer to 40% than 50% while he may find himself among the league leaders in turnovers. Nonetheless, he will see unending opportunities to succeed this season and averaging 20 points per game through the sheer volume of shot attempts that he will be given is not out of reach.
First overall pick Cade Cunningham will see a similar situation with the Detroit Pistons, though his transition as a point guard may take more time than that of the shooting guard Green. Jalen Suggs of the destitute Orlando Magic also has a chance to barge into this conversation along with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Josh Giddey as both will have ample usage on their rebuilding franchises.
The versatile seven-footer Evan Mobley is not expected to seriously contend for the award this year with the Cleveland Cavaliers loaded in the front court. The excitement around him goes beyond this year, as he has been widely projected as the best prospect of this year’s class, and it will be worth monitoring him for early flashes of his tantalizing potential.
Sixth Man of the Year: Carmelo Anthony
On a Laker team that has little in the way of outside shooting, Anthony’s presence is as refreshing as they come.
The tenth leading scorer in NBA history is now 37 years old and almost five years removed from his last NBA All-Star game. After a rocky pair of seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets as he transitioned from an offensive force into a role player, he finally grew comfortable as a supporting player with the Portland Trailblazers.
His elite shooting ability has allowed him to excel as a stretch four and he will have to star in his role with his new team if the Lakers want to contend this season. The ten-time NBA All-Star will have more than his fair share of open looks playing alongside the star trio of his fellow ‘03 Draftee James, Davis, and Westbrook.
If he can find any semblance of consistency sprinkled with above-average efficiency, he can run away with this award and put a cherry on top of his already decorated career.
Patty Mills, now with the Brooklyn Nets and fresh off a scintillating 2020 Tokyo Olympics that saw him lead the Australian National Team to a bronze medal, will be another veteran contender to watch here.
On the younger side, Herro and Jordan Poole may merit strong consideration if they can maintain their preseason form and help their teams to winning records, although a key risk for these two is that they may play too well and find themselves starting too many games.
Most Improved Player: Jordan Poole
This award often carries the most uncertainty and subjectivity on a yearly basis. Its winners have ranged from Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Tracy McGrady to Aaron Brooks, Bobby Simmons, and Dana Barros.
The narrative borne out of a player’s circumstances often sets the tone here and based on the temperature from the past few weeks, Jordan Poole already has a headstart in this year’s race. He has the ability to emerge as the third guard and potentially the second scoring option for Golden State this season.
Curry’s brilliance will draw enough media attention to the team which will in turn boost Poole’s popularity if he can maintain his excellent play from these past few months. He is in the perfect scenario to win it and the award seems like it is his for the taking.
Michael Porter Jr. may also receive some attention in this space as he will have to step up sans Jamal Murray for the Denver Nuggets. He will have to take a major leap as he has set a high bar for himself following last season where he averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds.
The story is the key for this award and it will be interesting to watch out for what plotlines emerge on the road to crowning the next Most Improved Player.