The Whiteboard: How NBA eligibility requirements are changing end-of-season award races

Today on The Whiteboard, how the NBA's games-played eligibility threshold is already changing the award picture.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers
Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

With Donovan Mitchell missing last night's game against the Suns, he officially crossed the league's new 65-games-played threshold for award eligibility. There are now a slew of notable names on the list, including Ja Morant (former Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and All-NBA selection), Joel Embiid (former MVP and All-NBA selection), Marcus Smart (former Defensive Player of the Year), LaMelo Ball (former ROY), Tyler Herro (former 6MOY) and more.

In addition, there are a dozen other notable names who are trending toward ineligibility, including Bam Adebayo, Lauri Markkanen, Trae Young, Devin Booker and Jamal Murray.

We can debate the merits of the threshold at a later date but it's clearly going to have a huge impact on the end-of-season awards and those effects are starting to become clear.

MVP Race

Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP will almost certainly be ineligible for this award after injuring his knee, although he hasn't technically crossed the threshold yet. His selection last season was characterized as a mistake by some fans and media after he bowed out of the playoffs early while runner-up Nikola Jokic led his team to the title. Still, Embiid was sensational this season and, at times, the clear MVP frontrunner.

Basketball-Reference's MVP projection model lists Jokic as the overwhelming favorite right now and it's not clear that Embiid would have been able to stay in front of him even if he'd stayed healthy. So, while Embiid's injury doesn't necessarily change the outcome of this award, it does ensure that we won't have these two transcendent big men finish 1-2 in the race for the fourth consecutive year.

Sixth Man of the Year

None of the strongest candidates are in danger of being ineligible but several of the leaders in preseason odds for this award have already crossed the mark or are trending in that direction — Malcolm Brogdon, Chris Paul, Jordan Clarkson and Cam Thomas.

Most Improved Player of the Year

It's not clear he was ever the frontrunner but Scottie Barnes is out indefinitely and trending toward ineligibility. He may not have done enough to leapfrog Alperen Sengun or Jalen Johnson but he would have been a strong candidate, averaging 19.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game with a 52.8 effective field goal percentage, all new career highs.

Defensive Man of the Year

At this point, Rudy Gobert is the runaway favorite and it's not clear that anyone will miss out on an opportunity to challenge him just because of missed games. But Evan Mobley, Bam Adebayo and Embiid are either ineligible or trending that way and were popular preseason Defensive Player of the Year picks.

All-NBA Teams

The All-NBA teams are where we'll see the biggest impact because of the games-played eligibility policy. Embiid, Mitchell, Jimmy Butler and Julius Randle all made the All-NBA teams last season and will be ineligible this year. Trae Young, Ja Morant, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyrie Irving, Darius Garland and Evan Mobley will all be ineligible and have either made an All-NBA team in the past or just would have otherwise been a strong contender to slip in among the chaos this year. Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker and Jamal Murray are also right on the edge of ineligibility and would fall into the same group.

Removing all of those players from the pool creates some serious openings for other players to move up.

Because the selections are positionless this season, we have 15 slots open to any player. Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum seem like locks for the first time. You can also probably pencil in Jaylen Brown and Steph Curry, who made second team last season, as well as Domantas Sabonis and LeBron James, who made third team last season, and Anthony Davis who missed out last year.

That leaves five slots that could, conceivably, all go to first-time selections — Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Brunson, Anthony Edwards, Alperen Sengun, Chet Holmgren. They'll, of course, have to leapfrog some productive veterans like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George and more.

Voters could go chalk and fill out those spots with familiar faces but the potential for some first-time selections very early in their careers is one of the more fun outcomes of the rule changes.

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