NBA awards predictions: Is Nikola Jokic a lock for MVP?

San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray (5) strips the ball from the hands of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

The NBA’s regular season has come to a close and the play-in tournament and playoffs proper will start this week.

That means it’s officially awards season.

Sportsnet has assembled a group of its basketball experts to weigh in on who should be taking home the hardware this year.

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Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic shoots as Los Angeles Clippers centre Ivica Zubac defends.
(Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Craig Battle, senior editor: Nikola Jokic. One of those rare seasons in which one player leads in all the major advanced stats categories — PER, win shares, win shares per 48, box plus-minus and VORP. He also simply played more than the other candidates, carrying a Denver Nuggets team that lost Jamal Murray late in the season.

Donnovan Bennett, staff writer and digital host: Stephen Curry. He won the scoring title, led the league in plus-minus and three-point makes and the Warriors were just 2-7 without him in the lineup. Not sure what else he could have done to show his value.

Brad Fay, host of Sportsnet’s Raptors television broadcasts: Nikola Jokic. The face of what the new NBA player should look like. Honourable mention to Chris Paul for turning the Phoenix Suns around.

Michael Grange, senior basketball insider: Nikola Jokic. He played all 72 games and he was brilliant in almost every one. That’s my MVP case for Jokic. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Steph Curry have recorded more than .304 win shares per 48 minutes before Jokic joined them season. He led the league in almost every efficiency measurement and in highlights that made you giggle, too.

Steven Loung, NBA editor: Nikola Jokic. He played every game this season, he helped the Nuggets keep their championship-level play even after the brutal Murray injury, he owns fancy stats this season and he looks like the guy who kills you playing pick-up at the Y. Jokic is the MVP.

Eric Smith, Raptors play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Nikola Jokic. His offensive numbers – across the board – are just impossible to ignore. And doing it without Murray? C’mon. I can ignore his defence with everything else he’s got going for him.

Defensive Player of the Year

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) celebrates with guard Joe Ingles (2) after being fouled while making a basket against the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

Battle: Rudy Gobert. Every game is enough of a resume. He changes everything for opposing teams when he’s on the court, and was absolutely integral to winning the West.

Bennett: Draymond Green. With all due respect to the other candidates, Draymond Green does more on the defensive end with less around him. Additionally, Green has had to get stops with his mind and less so his body in 2021, but he still guards one to five better than anyone and still erases his teammates mistakes better than anyone.

Fay: Rudy Gobert. Again, the team performance ties in and he changes the opposition approach every night.

Grange: Rudy Gobert. Gobert led the NBA in defensive rebounds, blocked shots and quite likely in shots opponents didn’t bother taking. The Utah Jazz finished with the league’s best record and the third-best defence, and when Gobert was on the floor opponents scored nearly 12 points less per 100 possessions than when he sat.

Loung: Rudy Gobert. Given the Jazz’s fabulous season, Gobert should probably pick up some MVP votes because he’s the team’s most important player. Though, he’ll have to settle for defensive player of the year this season because that is where his presence is felt the most, and without him anchoring the middle for the Jazz it’s hard to see them enjoying the season they’ve had.

Smith: Rudy Gobert. Hands up if back in December you had the Jazz as the No. 1 team (record-wise) in the league. Utah has plenty of offensive weapons, but its anchor on D is Gobert and in spite of the impressive year Green had, I’m going with Gobert.

Rookie of the Year

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) directs a play against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C. (Jacob Kupferman/AP)

Battle: Lamelo Ball. After one of the most unorthodox paths to the NBA of all time (ended high school early, low-level pro in Lithuania, 12 games of pro ball in Australia … NBA!), no one would’ve batted an eye if Ball took a while to acclimatize. But he flashed NBA skill from the outset, and earned a starting spot — and starring role — earlier than anyone could have anticipated.

Bennett: Anthony Edwards. This was a lock for LaMelo Ball until he got injured, which opened the door for Edwards, who burst through it, becoming a much more efficient shooter and joining LeBron James as the only teenager to score multiple 40-point games. Ball is the better player, but Edwards has had the better year.

Fay: LaMelo Ball. Despite the games missed, he built up too much of a lead with his first-half performance.

Grange: LaMelo Ball. The only teenager in NBA history to average at least 15 points, six assists and five rebounds.

Loung: LaMelo Ball. The kid had this thing wrapped up even before the unfortunate injury and despite a spirited charge from Edwards, he never let go of his stranglehold of it. Ball has single-handedly managed to turn around the fortunes of the Charlotte Hornets both from a competitive standpoint and, perhaps more importantly, from an entertainment perspective,

Smith: LaMelo Ball. When he was injured I was prepared to be swayed toward Tyrese Haliburton, but winning ultimately matters most (which is why I can’t go with Edwards, either), and Charlotte is in the play-in tournament. The pressure on Ball as a point guard – let alone the hype (and playing for Michael Jordan) – was immense and he stepped up.

Sixth Man of the Year

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson, right, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Battle: Jordan Clarkson. The new king of bankable offence off the bench, Clarkson averaged a career-high 24.6 points per 36 minutes this season and is a huge part of what makes Utah work.

Bennett: Joe Ingles. Ingles has been much more efficient offensively and much more dependable defensively, which puts him ahead of his teammate Clarkson.

Fay: Jordan Clarkson. See what everyone else is saying about Clarkson.

Grange: Jalen Brunson. He makes sure the Dallas Mavericks are safe when Luka Doncic doesn’t have the ball. He averaged 12.6 points per game with 3.5 assists while shooting 59 per cent from two and 40 per cent from three with just 1.2 turnovers in 25 minutes.

Loung: Jordan Clarkson. You aren’t going to find a better bench gunner this season than Clarkson.

Smith: Jordan Clarkson. You could probably flip a coin with Clarkson and his Ingles (Ingles is a better defender). But given Clarkson’s scoring – about six points per game higher than Ingles – he gets my nod. Also, I expected this from Ingles, but this performance this season from Clarkson was unexpected and exciting.

Most Improved Player

Julius Randle, left, of the New York Knicks, moves against Kyle Lowry, right, of the Toronto Raptors during an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden, Sunday, April 11, 2021, in New York. (Rich Schultz/Pool Photo via AP)

Battle: Julius Randle. Randle earned his first all-star nod in his seventh season in one of the NBA’s toughest markets. Not to mention, he led his team to not just a playoff spot (its first in eight years) but home-court advantage in the first round. This one’s easy.

Bennett: Julius Randle. Andrew Wiggins isn’t getting mentioned and he deserves some love. The numbers haven’t changed as dramatically as the effort and the impact on both ends. However, Randle has gone from a good-stats-on-a-bad-team guy to an absolute problem all over the floor and the face of a young franchise on the rise. Some questioned his all-star worthiness mid-season, but now he’s a legit All-NBA performer.

Fay: Julius Randle. Should get a lot of MVP votes as well.

Grange: Julius Randle. Made the jump from good player to franchise cornerstone in a single season.

Loung: Julius Randle. The Knicks are back and it’s largely because of the All-NBA performance of Randle, who has found a home in one of the toughest markets in the world. This award is a lock.

Smith: Julius Randle. Let’s be honest, he could/should get MVP votes. So the Most Improved should be a lock.

Coach of the Year

Coach Tom Thibodeau. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Battle: Monty Williams. I wasn’t sold on the collection of players in Phoenix (beyond the big three, of course) before the season started, but Williams’ leadership helped them vastly exceed expectations. Paul gets some credit here, too, but that doesn’t discount the impact of Williams’ even-handed approach.

Bennett: Quin Snyder. Snyder is overdue for this recognition as he’s long got the most out of his roster by instilling smart defensive schemes and a winning culture, but nobody expected the Jazz to be the best team in the league after not making major alterations to their roster in the off-season. Snyder should finally get his recognition and take his place in the conversation among the best coaches in the league.

Fay: Michael Malone. Keeping the Nuggets in it after losing Murray solidifies it.

Grange: Tom Thibodeau. Took a lottery-bound team to a top-four seed on merit. Furthermore, he helped change the perception of the NBA’s most dysfunctional flagship franchise.

Loung: Tom Thobodeau: Thibodeau did the impossible and helped revive one of the saddest franchises in all sports this season and did so by adhering to his principles of hard-nosed defence and ball protection. Kind of reminiscent of the old Pat Riley Knicks, no?

Smith: Monty Williams. We’ve had co-winners for various awards before, but have we ever had three-way winners? This could easily go to Thibodeau or Snyder, but the meteoric rise of the Suns is just too hard to ignore.

Executive of the Year:

Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Battle: Daryl Morey. When everyone was saying the Philadelphia 76ers might have to trade one of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons, Morey was saying (paraphrasing), “What if we dump Al Horford’s contract and actually hire shooters who can space the floor?” Exit Horford and Josh Richardson, enter Danny Green and Seth Curry. Now the Sixers have won their first Eastern Conference title since 2001. Sometimes it really is about the subtle moves that fix glaring errors.

Bennett: Leon Rose. New York Knicks GM Scott Perry and president and former agent Leon Rose have quickly rebuilt what was a laughingstock into a franchise set up for sustained success. The Knicks are back in the post-season for the first time since 2013, but on top of that they’ve got five first-round picks in the next two years and an abundance of cap space.

Fay: Sean Marks. Hired Steve Nash and traded for James Harden. Simple.

Grange: Sam Presti. Has accumulated 18 first-round picks in the next seven drafts and 16 second-round picks. For a small-market team in one of the NBA’s least glamorous cities, it’s the only path to sustainable success and Presti has never lost focus on the plan.

Loung: James Jones. The Suns’ revitalization this season can be traced back to one moment: When Jones traded for Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder. It may not be a move as flashy as acquiring Harden or hiring Nash, but the impact Paul has had on the Suns’ culture and their ability to win has been immeasurable. That move alone should win it for Jones.

Smith: Sean Marks. He already had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, then went totally outside the box and hired Nash as Brooklyn’s head coach and then traded for Harden. Not to mention, he was able to sign Blake Griffin and uncovered an overseas gem in Mike James. He deserves it, and then some.

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