The Long Two 2021-22 NBA Awards, Part I: Most Improved, Rookie of the Year and more

Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports /

With the start of the playoffs just a few days away, it’s time to hand out some awards for the 2021-22 NBA season.

Amazingly, we are less than two weeks away from the end of the NBA season, which means it’s time to get to work on selecting 2021-22 award winners. I, of course, do not have an official vote on these matters, but the thought exercise of determining the NBA’s absolute best players is both fun and instructive (and, at times, impossible). We’ll save Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, All-NBA and All-Defense for later this week; in the meantime, here’s the first half of the awards slate.

NBA Awards: All-Rookie/Rookie of the Year

First Team: Evan Mobley (1), Scottie Barnes (2), Cade Cunningham (3), Herb Jones, Franz Wagner

Second Team: Josh Giddey, Bones Hyland, Alperen Şengün, Ayo Dosunmu, Chris Duarte

Mobley and Barnes have been the clear Rookie of the Year frontrunners the entire season, and even Cade Cunningham’s late emergence as a scorer and playmaker couldn’t displace them from the top two spots. Cunningham does more heavy lifting than Mobley or Barnes, but without the stakes that come with playing for a legitimate playoff team. Everything Barnes and Mobley do, both good and bad, carries real weight, and they’ve actually helped their teams win basketball games as immediate, full-time starters. Both slowed down after precocious starts — a normal phenomenon for rookies not accustomed to the NBA schedule or intensity level — but will still be key figures in the 2022 postseason.

Mobley showed expert defensive and passing instincts from Day 1, though his offensive efficiency still leaves much to be desired. Barnes, meanwhile, ranks ninth in the NBA as a multifaceted gap-filler on one of the NBA’s funkiest teams. While his on-ball defense has been somewhat disappointing, he remains an essential part of Toronto’s chaotic, all-out defensive identity. Even if Cunningham had played as many games as the other two, there’s just something more substantive about Mobley and Barnes’ contributions. That said, Cunningham’s ability to shoulder a primary playmaker’s workload — even with low scoring efficiency — gave him a decided edge over the rest of the rookie class. Detroit’s offense is 5.5 points better per 100 possessions with Cunningham on the floor than with him off, and his off-ball instincts made him one of the few rookies to provide positive value on defense.

Speaking of which, Jones has been an absolute wrecker on that end of the floor, and a key reason the Pelicans might make the playoffs even without their best player out for the season. Wagner already possesses veteran defensive instincts and has flashed more on-ball capability than many people (including myself) expected going into the season. Both he and Jones get the First-Team nod over Giddey, who may already be one of the 20 best passers in the NBA, and, like Cunningham, has carried a star’s workload in his first NBA season. Yet his 47.8 percent true shooting percentage is somehow even worse than Cunningham’s 50.7 percent mark, and Giddey is a markedly worse defender.

Şengün has also been a marvelous passer, inefficient scorer and awful defender, though he deserves credit for lifting Houston’s 27th-ranked offense slightly closer to respectability while on the floor. Hyland was also a shoo-in for the second team, having provided efficient bench scoring for a team with little offensive firepower beyond Nikola Jokić. Like most rookies, his defense is a major problem (and will become a bigger issue in the playoffs), but Hyland’s ability to fill a role on a playoff team gives his production some additional weight. I don’t feel strongly about Duarte in the final second-team spot, but he was at least a somewhat helpful NBA player this season, which is more than most other rookies can say.

Honorable Mention: Davion Mitchell, Quentin Grimes, Jonathan Kuminga, Jose Alvarado, Jalen Green

Most Improved Player

  1. Ja Morant
  2. Darius Garland
  3. Jordan Poole

The leap into superstardom is the last and most difficult one to make, and while there’s still some space between him and the absolute upper class of stars, Morant clearly ascended to a higher level than anyone else in consideration for this award. Already one of the best rim-attacking guards in NBA history, Morant took 43 percent of his shots within four feet of the basket while bumping his accuracy up to 67 percent from that range, and a slightly stronger frame allowed Morant to create separation and absorb contact against help defenders that might have knocked him off-course in the pas. The 22-year-old ramped his usage rate up to 36 percent — the third-highest figure among rotation point guards — with a 33 percent assist rate — eight in the same group. Yet it never feels like Morant dominates the ball the way Trae Young or Luka Dončić does, and that’s a key part of what allows Memphis to play the collaborative style it does.

He also helped fuel the Grizzlies’ lethal transition attack, pushing the ball at every opportunity to create easy points against backpedaling defenses, and all of that pressure on the rim — combined with Morant’s preternatural passing — helped Memphis generate nearly 117 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court. His defense and long-range shooting still leave much to be desired, and this postseason will serve as a fascinating proving ground for both him and the Grizzlies to cement their status as legitimate threats to the rest of the league. If Morant has another leap in him this summer, Memphis may be a title contender already. Regardless, his performance in the regular season was award-worthy on its own merits.

Garland isn’t quite the clear-cut All-Star Morant is, but his accelerated processing and understanding of the game were evident from the start of the season. Garland became a genuine three-level scorer who can manipulate defenses to create openings for teammates, and better passing vision allowed him to spot more of those opportunities for easy looks. His assist percentage spiked from just under 30 percent last season to over 38 this year, with an accompanying rise in usage and, crucially, efficiency. Garland shot 38 percent from deep, 50 percent on floaters and 50 percent mid-range jumpers — many of which came off the dribble in the pick-and-roll. That all amounted to about an eight-point difference between the Cavs’ offensive rating with Garland on the floor and with him off. Like Morant, he remains a poor defender who manages to fit into a strong defensive environment, and he too will face his first real postseason test in a couple of weeks.

Both Dejounte Murray and Robert Williams developed into significantly better versions of themselves — Murray by leveling up his playmaking and maintaining elite defense, Williams by becoming a lob-crushing, rim-protecting force for the league’s best defensive outfit. Poole, however, became a different player entirely. After two wildly inconsistent seasons, he was one of just five guards this year to eclipse 60 percent true shooting on at least 25 percent usage, per Cleaning the Glass (the others were Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Trae Young).

While that probably overstates Poole’s overall offensive impact, it does underscore substantive growth as a player. He looked significantly more comfortable in the Warriors’ motion offense, mastering the pin-ins, split cuts and relocation 3s Curry and Klay Thompson pioneered. That, along with improved ball-handling, craft and playmaking, made Poole a more dangerous on- and off-ball weapon capable of shouldering a heavier offensive burden. He clearly isn’t peak Thompson on defense or as a catch-and-shoot threat, but Poole has become the consistent and dynamic secondary threat the Warriors need around a veteran core.

Honorable mention: Jarred Vanderbilt, Miles Bridges, R.J. Barrett

Coach of the Year

  1. Monty Williams
  2. Erik Spoelstra
  3. Taylor Jenkins

We get to see 20 percent (at most) of what goes into coaching an NBA team (play calls, defensive coverages, rotation patterns, strategic adjustments, etc.), but there’s so much more that goes into coaching that we can’t observe (player development, film sessions, practices, culture setting). That, in addition to the fact that it can be hard to parse a coach’s contributions from the talent on his roster or the other coaches on his bench, makes this the hardest category to judge, and therefore the one where I’m most open to differences of opinion. If you think Coach X who didn’t appear on this ballot did a better job than Coach Y who did, I can’t really prove you wrong.

Several coaches made strong cases: Michael Malone helped lead the Nuggets to another playoff berth with two max players playing nine combined games and, once again, squeezed a top-half defense out of an unremarkable roster. Ime Udoka squelched the bad vibes in Boston’s locker room, then guided the Celtics to the league’s best defense and a noticeably improved offense.

The Mavericks morphed into an elite defense, democratized their offense and substantially outperformed their point differential in Jason Kidd’s first season. Nick Nurse, a madman, essentially spent the season in a basement laboratory experimenting with the wildest lineup combinations he could think of — and it somehow worked? Chris Finch and J.B. Bickerstaff coaxed top-11 defenses out of relatively underwhelming defensive rosters, and both Quin Snyder and Mike Budenholzer remain two of the league’s best regular-season philosophical minds.

My final cut was Steve Kerr, who ran one of the most sophisticated and connected defenses in the NBA while navigating injuries to his two best players, reintegrating Klay Thompson and giving Jordan Poole the requisite space for a breakout season. Scrap-heap pickups like Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II and Juan-Toscano Anderson became valuable contributors for a title contender, and the Warriors still own a top-three defense despite Draymond Green missing 36 games.

All of the above would be worthy choices, but Williams edged out the rest of the pack not only because of Phoenix’s NBA-best 62-14 record but for the cohesiveness and discipline with which his team plays. The Suns were the NBA’s most consistent team all season, rolling through opponents with unflappable poise while dealing injuries to their two best players. Even without an elite offensive engine or defensive anchor, Phoenix ranks second in offensive and defensive efficiency, with the league’s best net rating by a mile.

That’s a testament to the balance, depth and talent on the roster, but it’s also the result of a coaching staff perfectly blending it all together by instilling principles and habits that make the Suns stronger than the sum of their parts. Phoenix shares the ball offensively, talks on defense and moves on a string on both ends, all while running one of the deepest rotations in the NBA. Williams is also an underrated tactician who scripts brilliant halfcourt sets and after-timeout plays, and while the Suns aren’t the shape-shifting defense some other teams are, they execute and vary their base scheme so well that they seldom need to try different coverages.

Replace “Phoenix” with “Miami”, “Suns” with “Heat” and “Williams” with “Spoelstra” and the above paragraphs broadly hold true. Despite their three best players missing a combined 65 games, the Heat still have the best record in the Eastern Conference, with the 11th-ranked offense and fourth-ranked defense to boot. Miami’s offense is a beautiful swirl of passes, cuts, screens and off-ball motion, and the Heat may be the best team in the NBA at turning unheralded role players into valuable contributors.

Jenkins gets the final spot for Memphis’ leap into title contention with possibly the deepest and most connected team in the NBA. The Grizz play gorgeous read-and-react basketball on both ends, and Jenkins and his staff created an ecosystem in which nearly every player complements the others on the floor. They put every Grizzly in a position to succeed, giving each player room to grow without having to play beyond their capabilities. Ja Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. all took significant steps forward this season under Jenkins’ watch, while role players like Steven Adams, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke were perfectly utilized around those primary pieces.

Sixth Man of the Year

  1. Tyler Herro
  2. Immanuel Quickley
  3. Maxi Kleber

Where the Coach of the Year pool abounded with stellar candidates, this category lacks a truly inspiring choice. There are no jack-of-all-trades on a title contender, no steady second-unit operator or identity-defining role player for a playoff team. There really isn’t even an efficient high-volume scorer — typically the archetype that wins this award — who stands out. Alex Caruso has only played 31 games; Joe Ingles regressed, then tore his ACL; Jordan Poole isn’t eligible because he’s started too many games, while Gary Payton II, who might have been a clear first-place pick had he logged more minutes, only plays about 15 minutes per game. Three Hornets — Montrezl Harrell, P.J. Washington and Kelly Oubre — and two Clippers — Terrence Mann and Luke Kennard — also just missed the cut for either poor defense, overly low usage, one-dimensionality or some combination of the three.

That left five candidates — Herro, Quickley, Kleber, Cam Johnson and Kevin Love — for three spots, and in the absence of a clear choice, I begrudgingly settled on Herro, who has not only played significantly more minutes than the other three but takes on a slightly more central role for his team. Johnson, shooting a blistering 45 percent from deep this season, was the last cut, mostly because he remains primarily a catch-and-finish role player and recently missed 13 games due to a quad injury. Even so, he’s logged more minutes and been significantly better on offense than Kleber, and I wouldn’t object to knocking Kleber off the ballot in favor of Johnson. Love has played a similar role for a team more in need of his shooting, though poor defense and decline in other areas of his game diminish his case. Kleber, meanwhile, has been central to the Mavericks’ defensive turnaround, anchoring a top-10 unit as a rim protector, switch defender and general gap-filler all over the floor.

Quickley is a superior playmaker and defender to Herro, and the Knicks have been over 11 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this season. Not all of that is Quickley’s doing, though many of the areas in which New York improves are reflections of the things he does well. The Knicks attempt more free throws, shoot better from the field, turn the ball over less often and generate more shots from the corners and at the rim, and while Quickley’s own scoring efficiency has dipped this season, better playmaking has made him a more impactful overall player. He’s also shooting a respectable 34.8 percent on pull-up 3s, which only serves to widen driving lanes when opponents have to chase him over screens.

Herro leads the Heat in usage rate and ranks third in assist percentage, and his blend of isolation scoring, pick-and-roll operation and off-ball movement is one the Heat don’t have anywhere else on the roster. Miami is 3.6 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Herro on the floor, and he’s been a primary offensive driver in those minutes. I wish he either scored more efficiently (his true shooting is almost a full point below the league average) or brought more to the table in other areas of the game (his defense has been problematic even in a strong defensive system), but in a year with no clear frontrunner, his centrality and availability give him a slight edge over the pack.

Honorable Mention: Johnson, Washington, Mann, Payton II

light. THE WHITEBOARD. Subscribe to our NBA daily email newsletter