The Whiteboard: Picking NBA MVP and other award winners

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The NBA has decided that the eight-game regular-season restart won’t count towards their standard slate of regular-season awards. That means the players have all made their final cases and we’re safe making award picks. I don’t usually make award picks because they’re ultimately completely subjective and emotional recognition of the most compelling narratives. But, in the current climate, we could all use as many good stories as we can find. Here are the ones that resonated most with me this year.

Who should win the NBA MVP this season?

Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetoukounmpo

This is a two-man race between LeBron James and Giannis Antetoukounmpo and other than nostalgia, I’m not sure there’s any reasonable argument for LeBron to win. Giannis was the best player on the best team. In terms of supporting cast, the Bucks’ may have more depth but Anthony Davis is well ahead of Khris Middleton as a second-fiddle. LeBron’s stat line is impressive but, again, remember that Giannis only needed to play 30.9 minutes per game and the Bucks still had the best point differential in the league by a huge margin. Per 36 minutes, Giannis has the edge over LeBron in points, rebounds, blocks and free-throw attempts, with a higher usage rate AND a higher true shooting percentage. This was a sensational season by LeBron. Giannis was better.

Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players to have won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season and, generally, voters seem inclined to split the two awards and spread the recognition around. Several of the obvious candidates — Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green — are off the table this year because of injuries and or load-management and Rudy Gobert wasn’t quite as intimidating as he’s been in the past. I think that opens the door for Giannis to make history. He was the centerpiece of what was, by an enormous margin, the best defense in the league. He was incredibly versatile — just barely missing spending at least 10 percent of his defensive possessions matched up against each of the five traditional positions. If counting stats are your thing, he averaged 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 100 possessions. He probably won’t sweep both awards, but he could and, I would argue, he should.

Sixth Man of the Year: George Hill

This will probably end up with someone like Dennis Schroder because the legacy of this award is “who scored a lot off the bench.” But I’m keeping with the Milwaukee Bucks’ theme and giving this one to George Hill. His role as shrunk as he’s aged but per-36 minutes, Hill’s averages this season — 16.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists — are right in line with his career-highs. He led the league in 3-point percentage, at 48.0 percent, and provided typically stout defense, splitting time between both guard positions. He was the most important bench player on the best team in the league, but maybe that reasoning is too clean?

Most Improved Player of the Year: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

This award is often just recognition for the player who increased their scoring average by the most, which creates a pool of players who have actually improved alongside those who just played more minutes and saw more shots. Gilgeous-Alexander checks both boxes. He added 8.5 points per game to his scoring average but not just because he had more opportunities with the Thunder, but because he became a dramatically more effective player. Gilgeous-Alexander increased his true shooting percentage despite a surge in usage and the percent of his made field goals being unassisted going from 60.1 percent to 69.9 percent. He went from a raw, complementary player to a borderline All-Star on a playoff team in one season. That’s enough for me.

Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse

The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and divided their minutes between Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Terrence Davis. And yet, when the season was suspended they had a better win percentage than during their championship season and still held onto the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. And, relative to the league average, their defense was actually better than it was the previous season with Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. I’m not sure what other complications you could have thrown at Nurse this year and he aced every test.

Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant

All due respect to Zion Williamson but he only played 19 games, the Pelicans’ playoff berth was still hypothetical at the time the season was suspended and New Orleans’ surge towards the postseason actually started a week or two before he returned to the lineup. Morant was there from Opening Night and actually had the Grizzlies in playoff position, a much more unexpected result compared to preseason expectations. Morant averaged 17.6 points, 6.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, shooting 36.7 percent on 3-pointers, playing ferocious defense and backing down from no one. He’s the new face of the Grizzlies and he should be the Rookie of the Year.

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