The NBA restart is upon us at long last.
Beginning Thursday, we’ll see real NBA games being played for the first time in nearly five months as teams compete for seeding before the playoffs begin.
Obviously, with the league playing out of a bubble in Walt Disney World with only 22 of the 30 teams, there’s a lot here that will feel foreign. But one major difference to take note of is that though these seeding games will be meaningful and impactful, they won’t count towards any end-of-season awards.
The NBA announced that all the awards will be based only on games played up to March 11, when the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By that point each team had completed at least 75 per cent of its season, though, which is a good-enough sample size for the league to hand out hardware — not to mention enough for us to go on when selecting who we think should win.
Without further adieu, here are the six award winners we’ve chosen:
Coach of the Year – Nick Nurse
(Photo credit: Brandon Dill/AP)
This is a no-brainer.
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse has miraculously guided his team to the third-best record in the entire league despite dubiously ranking in the top-five of man-games lost because of injuries to key players such as Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby.
Undrafted rookie Terence Davis is the only Raptor to have played every game for the team this season. He and fellow unheralded role players, like Chris Boucher, have been expertly deployed by Nurse, who has maximized what he’s had to work with over the course of an injury-riddled season.
In addition to being able to navigate the treacherous injury waters, Nurse has also been able to absorb the losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency without missing a beat. This has primarily been because of the team’s stingy defence, which has been able to keep up even without those two plus defenders.
The Raptors boast the league’s second-best defence with a 104.9 defensive rating, and they’ve done it thanks to the total buy-in from the group in some of the unconventional zone and press looks Nurse has rolled out this season.
Players have to really trust their coach to go along with some of the looks Nurse has tried this season. Thanks to the success they’ve found, the Raptors really do appear to believe in everything Nurse dials up.
That right there is expert coaching defined, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Nurse also has results to help bolster what should be an easy case for this award.
MVP – Giannis Antetokounmpo
(Photo credit: Aaron Gash/AP)
Another absolute no-brainer here. Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo should become just the 12th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs, and it’s not even close who should be next in line.
Antetokounmpo is enjoying a better season now than he did in last year’s MVP campaign. And his Bucks are once again the best team in the league, looking even better this season than last as well.
Simply put, Antetokounmpo is the best player in the world right now who also happens to be the best player on the best team in the NBA. To award MVP to anyone else would be absolute madness.
Rookie of the Year – Ja Morant
(Photo credit: Brandon Dill/AP)
Before the NBA went on hiatus, this award’s race was shaping up to be the most interesting because it could’ve legitimately split voters into how they think about awards philosophically.
This was going to come down to Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.
On one hand, Morant has only missed six games this season, starting the other 59 and leading the Grizzlies in scoring (17.6 points) and assists (6.9) — to help them land in a very surprising position as the West’s No. 8 seed.
Williamson, on the other hand, has played only 19 games after making his NBA debut in January because he was recovering from injury. His presence re-energized the Pelicans, as he averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Thanks in part to Williamson’s play, the Pelicans went from looking dead in the water to being only 3.5 games back of No. 8 Memphis.
Had the season managed to continue, there was a very good chance the Pelicans could’ve caught up and taken the Grizzlies’ No. 8 seed because they had one of the lightest remaining schedules in the league.
If that had happened and the Pelicans had ended up sneaking into No. 8 ahead of the Grizzlies, the debate around Williamson and Morant would’ve been heated with solid arguments on both sides over the longevity of Morant’s production versus the electric boost Williamson gave his team down the stretch.
Alas, as things stand right now, though, it would be nearly impossible to give Rookie of the Year honours to anyone but Morant, as Williamson’s case would’ve depended largely on more time for his team to climb the standings and build it up.
Defensive Player of the Year – Giannis Antetokounmpo
(Photo credit: Jeffrey Phelps/AP)
The Bucks feature the best defence in the league and while you can point to scheme and the brilliance of a lot of their players on that side of the ball, like their offence, their D is still built around Antetokounmpo’s unique talents.
Standing six-foot-11 with a seven-foot-three wingspan, bull-like strength and downright unfair athleticism and lateral quickness, Antetokounmpo is, essentially, the perfect defender. And it shows, as he leads the league in individual defensive rating (96.3), defensive win shares (4.8) and defensive box plus/minus (4.0).
So not only is Antetokounmpo the world’s best player on the league’s best team, he’s also the best defender on the best defensive team, too. It’s something that will make the Greek star just the fifth player in NBA history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, a group that includes Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Sixth Man of the Year – Dennis Schröder
(Photo credit: Michael Dwyer/AP)
Though it might be unexpected, the league’s best bench weapon this season has been Dennis Schröder of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Schröder leads all players (minimum 50 games played) coming off the bench in scoring, with 19 points per game. Overall, he’s enjoying the best season of his NBA career.
That scoring average ranks third on the Thunder, one of the league’s most pleasant surprises this season as a team that lost both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off-season and yet finds itself tied with the Houston Rockets for No. 5 in the Western Conference.
Leading scorer, and Hamilton, Ont., native, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the player most credited for leading this quick Thunder turnaround, but Schröder’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. He should win the award for the top reserve both on the strength of his merit for it, and as an acknowledgement for what has been a great Thunder season.
Most Improved Player – Luka Dončić
(Photo credit: Richard W. Rodriguez/AP)
This award has always been difficult to pin down, as the notion of improvement can be defined in so many ways.
In the case of Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić, however, improvement meant taking the leap from being a star player as a rookie to a bona fide superstar in just his sophomore year.
Perhaps the most exciting player in the entire league to watch, Dončić took a massive leap in statistical production, improving in nearly every major category over his first season. He also established himself as a future face of the NBA by becoming a League Pass darling with his stylish, near-effortless play — and his Slovenian background represents the global reach of the NBA.
The word “superstar” is tossed around rather liberally, but Dončić has the kind of game and magnetic personality that already has him in the same conversation as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Antetokounmpo, and he’s made this leap in just his second season in the NBA.
If that doesn’t scream remarkable improvement, then nothing should.