Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP? Best rookie? Zach Lowe makes his 2021 awards selections

Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP? Best rookie? Zach Lowe makes his 2021 awards selections post thumbnail image

After an unpredictable and sometimes ragged NBA regular season, it’s finally awards time. With just three days until the playoffs, here is my official ballot.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

There are three worthy winners. A case for one is not a slight against the others. In any normal season, Embiid and Antetokounmpo would run away with this.

Antetokounmpo may be the world’s best player. If you asked 100 coaches and executives to pick one of these three for Game 7 of the Finals, Antetokounmpo wins — maybe easily. He edged Embiid (ending behind only Jokic) in most advanced statistics. Milwaukee was plus-8 per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor, and minus-3 when he sat; he too passes the “what happens when you take him away?” test. Milwaukee finished ahead of Philadelphia and Denver.

But with three otherworldly dossiers, I’m inclined to look again at that word “valuable” and place a smidgen extra weight on the rare level of chaos Embiid and Jokic navigated. Denver’s second- and third-best players missed basically the entire season. Embiid’s would-be co-star sat out the whole damned thing, turning a max salary slot into a zero until James Harden showed up in Philly’s 59th game. These two giants carrying their teams to 51 and 48 wins is an incredible accomplishment.

This isn’t “punishing” Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee’s stability as much as it is rewarding Embiid and Jokic for stabilizing teams that might have otherwise teetered. Perhaps Philly endured the more unusual and potentially destabilizing turmoil. Injuries happen. Indefinite superstar boycotts don’t. Jokic didn’t face endless questions about Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

The difference between living those circumstances is hard for an outsider to parse. In strict production terms, I’m not sure Embiid faced a deeper talent void than Jokic. It’s possible only one other Denver starter — Aaron Gordon — starts for your typical contender. If backups are starting, who are the actual backups?

Denver outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, and went a hideous minus-7.9 when he rested. The first number is more important. You never want to over-reward someone because of a weakened surrounding roster — and in the process unfairly knock an equivalent superstar for the sin of having good teammates.

But that plus-8.4 number shows Jokic didn’t just lift an undermanned roster out of the muck. He made it great. That margin is one point higher than Phoenix’s league-leading team mark.

The same holds for Embiid, on a slightly lesser scale: Philly was plus-7.9 with him, minus-3.6 without him.

Jokic logged almost 200 more minutes than Embiid. He has the overall statistical edge, which is astonishing given Embiid averaged 30.6 points and 11.7 rebounds; outshot Jokic from deep (37% to 33.7%); and became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to win the scoring title. But Jokic posted an unprecedented line of 27.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists; invented the 2,000/1,000/500 club; and lapped the field in advanced metrics. He shot 65% on 2s, compared to 53% for Embiid.

I have seen claims Embiid faced more double- and triple-teams — perhaps deflating his 2-point shooting. I’m not sure how one even measures triple-teams. Both faced the wrath of entire defenses. Jokic was doubled on 191 post-ups, per Second Spectrum. Embiid was doubled on 171. Equalizing for minutes and post-up frequency, they faced doubles at an identical rate — on 3.7 post-ups per 100 possessions.

If Jokic is doubled less often, it is probably because defenses fear his passing as much as his scoring; Doc Rivers drew bile precisely for doubling Jokic in the Clippers’ collapse against Denver in the 2020 conference semifinals. His very fair response might have been: Would you prefer we just let him score?

There is growing evidence that Jokic’s passing is transformative in ways that are difficult to quantify and even digest with your eyes. We see the highlights, of course. Something more powerful is going on — something about the ecosystem Jokic nurtures, and how he keeps defenses on the back foot.

That is part of what advanced numbers are getting at in trumpeting Jokic’s case. Some people dismiss those numbers. That is their prerogative. Others cherry-pick a few, and toss the rest. Fine. They are not for everyone. They are not dispositive. But when they all scream the same thing, something is happening. It is hard to craft any statistical argument beyond raw individual scoring that ends anywhere but Jokic. It just is.

I’ve seen it floated that the league’s generous accounting of handoffs and other rote passes is inflating Jokic’s assist totals. That might be true! You know who else benefits from such accounting? Every other high-volume ball handler.

Even though the numbers don’t really show it (and they don’t), Embiid is the better defender. If I need three minutes of shut-down defense to win the title, I’m taking Embiid over Jokic. Offenses go at Jokic more than Embiid, though every paint-bound big becomes the target of pace-and-space offenses sometime. (The Sixers in past playoffs series shifted Embiid away from pick-and-pop centers — Al Horford, Marc Gasol — and onto lesser shooters.)

But available data suggests Jokic is a good defender, at least in the regular season. The gap on defense is not enough to tip the race here. Nor is team success. Philly won 51 games to Denver’s 48. The Sixers finished fourth in the East; Denver is sixth in the West.

Denver went 46-28 with Jokic available — a 51-win pace. Philly went 45-23 with Embiid — a 54-win pace. Philly was plus-2.6 overall, Denver plus-2.3. There is almost no difference.

Embiid backers are right that MVPs typically come from teams way higher than sixth, but they should tread carefully. Those MVPs most often emerge from teams in first or second. The “what about wins?” line is actually an argument for Antetokounmpo, Tatum, or Devin Booker. (Yes, the Bucks and Celtics finished with the same record as Philly. They are above them in the standings. They were both clearly superior in qualitative terms.)

We should be more open to the notion that the most valuable player might sometimes be on a mid-rung playoff team. I had Kevin Love on my ballot (not at the top) once in his Minnesota Timberwolves prime, when Minnesota missed the playoffs. I didn’t vote for Russell Westbrook in 2017 — the Great Exception, lifting a No. 6 seed — but I hoped his win would open the door to more candidates outside the very top teams.

I don’t care who wins. All three are incredible. There is no wrong answer. But each voter must pick one, and Jokic — to these eyes at least — has the best case.

The last two spots came down to Doncic, Tatum, Booker, and Stephen Curry — still a ubiquitous offensive force even in a “down” year by his generational standards.

Booker was the toughest cut. The best player on a 64-win juggernaut usually jostles for the top spot. Booker and Chris Paul share centerpiece status; Booker is the scoring engine, Paul the playmaking engine. Even in the best defensive season of his career, Booker ranks as the fifth-best defender in the Suns’ vice-grip starting five.

Booker is probably less singularly responsible for Phoenix’s greatness than Tatum and Doncic are in Boston and Dallas. Tatum logged about 400 minutes more than both. He’s the best defender among them by a wide margin, and the common denominator in almost every productive Boston lineup. The Celtics were plus-12 per 100 possessions with Tatum on the floor — the fattest margin among all these guys, including the top three — and minus-2 when he rested.

The Mavs had a better overall scoring margin with Doncic on the bench, though that was largely a remnant of his slow start. Tatum and Doncic just do a little more than Booker.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

1. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

This is one of the closest races in years, and Cunningham played well enough over the last 50 games to make it a three-man battle.

He may end up the best player among these three. He falls behind Mobley and Barnes in shooting efficiency — Cunningham hit just 31% on 3s and 47% on 2s — but that would happen to almost any lead ball handler on a rebuilding team. Barnes and Mobley have two current or recent All-Stars apiece around them; Cunningham had mostly young guys, minimum-level filler, and 47 games of Jerami Grant.

And yet: 17.5 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and you-know-it-when-you-see-it alpha playmaking. Cunningham is big and patient, with the size to fling any pass and loft tricky fadeaways, pull-ups, and floaters. In the style of Doncic, Cunningham keeps plays alive in the paint, dribbling and pivoting and twisting until the defense reveals something. He’s a solid defender, with All-Defensive potential — and the toughness to realize it.

But Mobley and Barnes raced ahead early, and Cunningham didn’t quite do enough to overtake them.

You can’t go wrong between Mobley and Barnes. Mobley averaged 15.0 points, Barnes 15.3. Their shooting numbers are almost identical. Barnes has Mobley in assists; Mobley wins in rebounds. Barnes seems to have eked — and I mean eked — past Mobley in most advanced stats, but Mobley leads in a few big ones.

Mobley’s defense sang the loudest of their respective skills. His combination of rim protection and switchability is unheard of for rookies. Only five players challenged more shots per game at the rim, and Mobley held opponents to 56% shooting on such attempts — a solid number. Only 24 players defended more isolations; opponents managed only 0.82 points per chance going at Mobley one-on-one.

Mobley was the more dominant defender, but Barnes the more versatile. Only four players defended more isolations than Barnes, per Second Spectrum. He didn’t defang those guys at Mobley’s level, but he held up well considering how much time he spent guarding elite wings. He defended nearly as many post-ups as Mobley, and switched from screener to ball handler on about the same number of pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. Barnes guarded the ball handler on those plays about four times as often as Mobley.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse threw Barnes on everyone. He often started on centers, but toggled assignments constantly — often multiple times within possessions. He’s dangerous as a roving helper, though sometimes too adventurous.

Barnes is a bit more comfortable than Mobley with the ball on offense, though the gap isn’t as wide as you might think; Mobley is a cagey scorer on post-ups and isolations.

In a race this tight, Barnes’ huge advantage in minutes — about 300 — looms as a tiebreaker, especially given how many were productive late-season minutes in high-leverage games. Over the final two months, the ultra-thin Raptors went 8-4 without Fred VanVleet — remarkable considering VanVleet is Toronto’s only consistent rotation point guard. The Raptors needed Barnes to be a chameleon — to fill different holes in different sections of each game. He delivered, and (barely) gets the nod here.

Franz Wagner is the only other candidate — closer to No. 1 than to No. 5. These first three are just really good — two in major roles on play-in/playoff teams, and the third carrying a traditional star burden.

COACH OF THE YEAR

1. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

2. Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies

3. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat

I voted Williams last season, and see no reason to change course. The Suns were by far the best team wire to wire, and play with a combination of precision and seriousness of purpose that is almost unrivaled.

Chris Paul has received a lot of credit for that. He deserves it. So do his teammates. Top to bottom, Phoenix players are smart and devoted to the right things. But a pick-and-roll attack this sophisticated — a whirring machine of flare screens and cuts — doesn’t spring up like magic. It is the product of whiteboard scribblings, film sessions, trial and error. Smart players then expand upon the foundation — improvising new wrinkles, proposing tweaks in practice and suggestions in huddles.

Every Sun defends. No one hunts shots. They play hard, selflessly, for each other. Everyone shares in the construction and ownership of that environment, but it doesn’t develop without Williams’ leadership.

A lot of that same praise applies to what Jenkins and his players are building in Memphis. From day one of Jenkins’ tenure, the Grizzlies got certain strategic and cultural elements right. Jenkins has core beliefs, but he’s adaptable enough to play to the strengths of this relentless, bruising roster. He let role players stretch themselves within the team’s broader ideals — freedom that pays dividends when Morant misses games.

The third spot came down to Spoelstra and Ime Udoka above a pile of candidates. Michael Malone has the pulse of the Nuggets. J.B. Bickerstaff went against the grain, and kept the Cavs afloat amid injuries. You didn’t hear the LA Clippers whining about injuries. No one wants any part of Tyronn Lue in a seven-game series.

Chris Finch has Minnesota trending up. Steve Kerr’s vision was redeemed. Jason Kidd coaxed the Dallas Mavericks toward a new toughness on defense. Nurse is as good as it gets. A team doesn’t fight for its season the way the New Orleans Pelicans did unless their coach — Willie Green — is doing something right. Mike Budenholzer says hello. James Borrego is a problem-solver in Charlotte. Billy Donovan had the Chicago Bulls rolling before injuries struck. Rivers and Steve Nash helped steer teams through interminable drama.

Udoka oversaw one of the greatest in-season turnarounds ever. The Celtics were a mediocrity, and then, snap, they became the 1996 Bulls behind the league’s most creative, unsolvable defense.

But it felt wrong axing Spoelstra — widely regarded as maybe the league’s best coach — after Miami topped the East despite almost every key player missing time. Spoelstra and his staff are the MacGyvers of the NBA. He has to win at some point, and if you think that point is now, that’s fine.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

1. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Let’s be honest: Draymond Green is the league’s best defender, and wins going away if he misses 20 games instead of 38 — even if he would have logged 1,000 fewer minutes than Mikal Bridges in that scenario. Green was not the same all-court wrecker in the first half-dozen games of his return; less than half a season of elite defense isn’t enough to crack this ballot.

Knowing Green would have won with a ho-hum minutes total, I felt comfortable getting more lenient factoring playing time — and allowed a simple question to govern: Other than Green, which defender would I want for one playoff game against an infinite list of opponents based on everyone’s work this season?

I do not feel strongly about the outcome. My initial answer was Antetokounmpo. He might still be the answer if we place a teensy bit less significance on what happened this regular season.

Milwaukee slipped to 14th in team defense, but it played at a top-five level with Antetokounmpo on the floor. He held opponents to 52% shooting around the rim. He can blitz, switch, and act as a traditional drop-back center. If Antetokounmpo is anywhere within 20 feet of the rim when you begin your drive, he might spike you at the summit. He is everywhere, always, lurking in the recesses of your brain.

But he didn’t project as quite the same all-consuming force on a Bucks team that struggled to find a coherent identity with Brook Lopez out. That’s not really Antetokounmpo’s fault, but it knocks him just off my ballot.

The most notable omissions are Bridges and Marcus Smart. Both would be deserving winners; Smart seems likely to snag it.

Bridges played all 82 games and led the league in minutes. He logged about 600 more than Smart and 1,000 more than Adebayo. He guards the best perimeter player every night. He’s the keystone — or the closest thing to it — on the league’s third-best defense. On volume alone, he probably has a better case than Smart — the best defender on the best defense — to win outright.

In the end, I just couldn’t get there with Smart as the league’s single most destructive defensive force. The bar is very high for guards, and that’s fair. Even as the league trends toward speed, wings, and 3s, the real estate around the rim remains most valuable. (Hell, part of the reason teams hoard 3-point shooters is to spread the court and open up the basket area.)

Adebayo and Jackson can do much of what Smart does on the perimeter while still providing shot-blocking and center-level rebounding. Jackson is a so-so rebounder, but Adebayo posted the best defensive rebounding rate of his career — impressive considering he switched almost 100 more ball screens than anyone, per Second Spectrum. That meant defending tons of isolations, and Adebayo held opposing scorers to a laughable 0.793 points when they tried him one-on-one, per Second Spectrum.

Gobert is the league’s best rim protector, and way more comfortable than he gets credit for containing guards on switches. He is a one-man defensive architecture. (Embiid is too; he had an underrated defensive season, and was a contender for a ballot spot here.) Utah’s defense melted away without Gobert.

We hear incessantly how five-out alignments “take Gobert out of the game,” but that applies in varying degrees to every big man. The best argument against Adebayo is that switching often leaves him guarding some non-threatening wing far from the basket; he challenged only 3.5 shots at the rim, half Gobert’s average and about five fewer than Embiid.

But the benefits of Adebayo’s versatility far outweigh that one drawback considering how ferocious he is rushing back into the fray around the rim. It just felt like time to honor a different sort of player. The Heat — No. 4 in overall defense — went all-in on switching, and you can’t do that unless your centerpiece big man is airtight at it. Switching is a form of rim protection in that it constructs a forcefield around the arc; you don’t need to protect the rim if no one encroaches there.

Smart’s backers would point out Boston is all-in on switching too, and could not have gone that route without a jumbo point guard who defends way above his size. (One of the league’s great pleasures is watching Smart’s burrowing box-outs against 7-footers.) Smart is 10th in charges taken — another form of paint protection.

All fair. With Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry missing so much time, Adebayo felt more irreplaceable. The Heat were way stingier with Adebayo on the floor; Boston defended at about the same level with Smart playing or resting. (Phoenix was better with Bridges on the bench, but no one should hold that against him. The Suns were awesome regardless, and Bridges spent more time against opposing starters.)

Advanced metrics love Adebayo. (They adore Jackson too, but foul trouble short-circuits too many of his stints.) Adebayo covers for one or two glaring weak spots. Boston’s top seven players all deserve All-Defensive consideration.

At some point you shrug and vote what feels right to you.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

1. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

2. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Atlanta Hawks

3. Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns

My friend and colleague John Hollinger — now at The Athletic — lamented Herro’s inevitable win as a triumph for shallow “yay, points!” thinking. Hollinger has long been right that this award tilts too far toward empty-calories scoring; I voted Joe Ingles ahead of Jordan Clarkson (with Clarkson second) last season, and have ranted about how bonkers it is Andre Iguodala never won.

Herro hit just 47.7% on 2s. He doesn’t get to the line or rim much. Still: Hollinger’s characterization struck me as unfair. In lineups without top starters, shot creation is often the most urgent need. Herro did more of that amid the absences of Lowry, Butler, and Adebayo, and radiated confidence at the controls.

Herro ran 32 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, up from 24.5 last season, per Second Spectrum. His efficiency remained steady — not great, but good enough for the Heat to survive. Herro’s first step is more decisive, and he averaged a career-best four dimes. For much of the season, Herro was Miami’s most reliable crunch-time fulcrum.

Herro shape-shifts between on-ball orchestrator and off-ball menace depending on context; he drilled 40% on 3s. He’s a minus defender, but so are most other candidates.

I wish I could award Terance Mann and Luke Kennard as a tag team, and give some triple-threat trophy to the Tyus Jones/De’Anthony Melton/Brandon Clarke wrecking crew.

Buddy Hield played zero meaningful games. Precious Achiuwa was a sneaky good candidate — he made 56 3s on 36% shooting after attempting one last season! — but didn’t carry as heavy a load as these other guys. Chris Boucher was a peg behind Achiuwa in Toronto. Clarkson’s numbers aren’t far removed from last season — proof of the thin margins between productive and inefficient.

Kevin Love was the toughest omission. Shot creation isn’t just about ball handling. Love’s spacing, post play, and passing help manufacture looks. He might not be a high-volume intiaitor, but he’s a connector and finisher.

Bogdanovic does that while also acting as co-point guard when Trae Young rests. For years, Atlanta cratered during Young’s bench stints. This season, they blitzed opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions when Bogdanovic played without Young.

Johnson is the best defender among these final four, and averaged almost as many points as Love — 12.5 to 13.6 — while draining 42.5% from deep. He amped up his scoring and playmaking when Booker and Paul missed games. Given Phoenix’s dominance, he deserves to be on the ballot.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

1. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies

2. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

3. Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

You could spin in infinite circles sorting out this amorphous award — this season more than ever. I started with about 50 names, whittled to 18, then 13, then these three. You could order them however you like, and replace any of them with 10 or so other names.

Conventional wisdom says to never vote second-year players; they are supposed to improve. I get that on some level. But why do third-year players often win? Why is improvement between Years 1 and 2 assumed to the point of disqualification, yet improvement over the next year — when players are still young — worthy of this honor?

Bane transformed from high-level bench player to fringe All-Star candidate! He doubled his scoring from 9.2 to 18.2, hit 43.6% from deep, defended well, and shouldered more playmaking in both the half court and in transition. (Beware the onrushing Bane Train!)

I can hear Philly fans arguing Tyrese Maxey did the same while improving from 30% on 3s to 42.7% — an unthinkable year-to-year leap. Maxey was on my short list, and he’d be a deserving winner. Bane thrived when Morant missed some time; Maxey thrived when Simmons missed all the time. There is no logical way to separate these dozen guys, really.

Perhaps Bane felt more essential as a No. 2 option — and almost No. 1 in many of the 25 games Morant missed — while Maxey receded at times alongside Embiid, Harden, and Tobias Harris?

Murray made the difficult leap from good player to back-end All-Star. He improved his efficiency, almost doubled his career assist average, and remained a borderline All-Defensive player.

Morant made the even more difficult leap from star to superstar; he was among my half-dozen finalists. I’d have no problem with him winning. Morant is a No. 2 pick, and you could see this coming the way he finished last season. Higher expectations aren’t really a fair grounds to bump anyone, but Morant will figure into the MVP and All-NBA discussions — this year, and for many more.

The last spot came down to Poole, Darius Garland, Miles Bridges, Herro, Cameron Johnson, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Wendell Carter Jr., Robert Williams III, Jarrett Allen, Achiuwa, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Gary Payton II and a few others. Bridges and Garland were the final cuts.

Bridges adds layers every season — as a ball handler, isolation scorer, screener, and passer. More and more, opponents slot their best or second-best defenders onto him — something that makes life easier for his teammates. The only dent is Bridges falling back to 33% on 3s. Opponents slough an extra step or two from him, clogging the lane and daring Bridges to launch.

Garland developed into a calm, calculating lead ball handler — a threat to score from almost anywhere, and an incisive pick-and-roll passer. He and Allen developed dynamite pick-and-roll chemistry, with Allen showcasing a refined post game against switches. Garland assumed a commanding bearing — oozing confidence, getting everyone organized, outthinking defenses. It almost seemed as if he had grown in physical stature.

But Poole spent time in the G League last season! He went from a deep bench guy who (probably) caused his coaches anxiety — someone who inspired no fear in opponents — to trusted sometime-starter and finisher on a contender. He mastered Golden State’s read-and-react system, mimicking some of Curry’s movements, and competed on defense.

Poole upped his scoring average from 12 to 18.5, shot better from everywhere, doubled his assist average, and dominated stretches of meaningful games — often as a co-No. 1 option with Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson all missing major time.



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