Ranking the 12 likeliest NBA players to win awards this season

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Ranking the 12 likeliest NBA players to win awards this season

Awards

Ranking the 12 likeliest NBA players to win awards this season

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The 2021-22 NBA award season is going to be an intriguing one, as although we do have some clear-cut choices for some of the accolades, there are others that are going to be hotly contested until the final day.

We decided to break down the race for the various major NBA end-of-year awards in a different way. We are going to rank the 12 likeliest players to take home career-defining accolades this season.

Finishing in first means that the player is a borderline lock to win that award. Finishing 12th means there’s a somewhat decent chance the player takes that accolade.

Let’s jump right into this fun exercise.

1
Tyler Herro: Sixth Man of the Year

Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro winning Sixth Man of the Year is about as sure of a thing as we have this award season, as the former Kentucky standout has been fantastic in that role off the bench for Miami.

Herro ranks second on the Heat in scoring at 20.9 points per game, trailing leading scorer Jimmy Butler by 0.5 points for the team lead and he’s doing so while starting just 10 games all season.

Among players with 10 or fewer starts, Herro is the No. 1 scorer by a wide margin, as second place for that distinction is the Utah Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson at 16.1 points nightly. And just to prove how hard it is to put up that many points off the bench consistently, third place is Montrezl Harrell at 13.7 points.

Herro’s impact has been far from empty, too, as he possesses a positive swing rating for the first time in his career, with the Heat being 1.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this season.

Add in the fact that Sixth Man of the Year almost always goes to players on good-to-great teams – and Miami is one, despite recent struggles, sitting first in the East with a 47-27 record and sixth in net rating at +4.1 – and you can consider Herro a near-lock to win the award.

For the latest Tyler Herro rumors, click here.

2
Ja Morant: Most Improved Player or MVP

Ja Morant has been one of the most exciting guards in basketball since his arrival to the NBA in 2019-20, but this year, he has made the jump to long shot MVP candidate, and though he probably won’t win that award, Most Improved Player should be well within his grasp.

The only thing that might hurt Morant’s case is that voters might hold the fact that he was already so good last season against him, but even if they want to take that into account, Morant is a different level of monstrous this campaign.

Averaging 27.6 points compared to 19.1 last season and boasting a +6.0 BPM – the eighth-highest mark in the league this year, putting him one spot ahead of Stephen Curry – compared to -0.4 in 2020-21, Morant’s efficiency has exploded on the year along with his scoring average, which is the ninth highest in the league in its own right.

Add in the fact that the Memphis Grizzlies, along with being one of the most exciting teams on the year have also been one of the mightiest in the West with a 51-23 record (placing them No. 2 in the conference) and a +5.4 net rating (No. 5 in the NBA), and Morant’s case only gets stronger.

There’s a chance someone else takes Most Improved Player –  Herro has a pretty good case, as does a player who’s coming up later on the list – but if we’re looking at guys who made the jump from star to bonafide superstar this year, with team results to back that up, it has to go to Morant.

For the latest Ja Morant rumors, click here.

3
Evan Mobley: Rookie of the Year

This is where the races get tighter, as Rookie of the Year has a few strong candidates, headlined by Cleveland Cavaliers big man Evan Mobley

Mobley is putting up strong numbers this season, averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 blocks per game, making him one of just six players in league history to post a 15.0/8.0/1.5 stat line as a first-year player before their age-21 campaign, joining Shaquille O’Neal, Chris WebberKarl-Anthony Towns, Elton Brand and Joe Smith on the list.

Mobley is only starting to hit his potential, too, as once he gets stronger and more confident in his outside jumper, his numbers and impact will only continue to improve.

Plus, the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers are enjoying a solid season with a 41-32 record – their best non-LeBron James campaign this century – will only help Mobley’s Rookie of the Year case.

“No other rookie impacts winning as much as Evan Mobley has in Cleveland, and he’s done it on both ends of the floor,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto. “If you consider where the Cavaliers were a year ago compared to this season, you see why he is touted to be the best player in this draft class and why the Cavaliers have made such a huge leap this season. At 7-feet tall, he has all the tools to become a generational talent. Combine his statistical season and Cleveland’s run into the postseason, there is no doubt he should be named NBA Rookie of the Year.”

This isn’t a surefire lock, but right now, the best bet for Rookie of the Year has to be the former USC standout.

For the latest Evan Mobley rumors, click here.

4
Joel Embiid: Most Valuable Player

After finishing second in MVP voting in 2020-21, which happened in part because of a late-season injury that ended his cause to take home that accolade, Joel Embiid has to be considered the favorite – even if ever so slightly – to win Most Valuable Player this season.

He’s second league-wide in scoring at 29.8 points per game, he’s seventh in rebounding at 11.3 boards nightly, he’s fourth among centers in assists at 4.3 dimes and he’s 12th in blocks at 1.4. What’s more, Embiid ranks third in VORP at 5.7, third in BPM at 9.4 fifth in WS/48 at 0.254.

And in addition to all that, with Embiid on the floor, the Philadelphia 76ers are 10.3 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits, proving that his numbers are far from the empty-calorie variety.

Embiid is one of the most unique talents we have ever seen, a legit 7-footer with great size and strength who can hit fadeaway three-pointers like a shooting guard, bring the ball down and create like a point guard and defend at the highest level, Embiid has been deserving of MVP consideration for years, and this season could be the one where he takes the award.

“For the second straight year, Joel has played at an elite, MVP-level,” one NBA executive told HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto. “He continues to put up Wilt Chamberlain-like numbers and has emerged as one of the most versatile big men this league has ever seen. He impacts the game on both ends of the floor like few in this game can. To me, there’s no doubt he is the 2021-22 NBA MVP.”

However, the guy coming up next on our list will have something to say about that.

For the latest Joel Embiid rumors, click here.

5
Nikola Jokic: Most Valuable Player

Embiid’s fantastic season could cost him the award, but if anyone should be the MVP favorite, it’s Nikola Jokic, the reigning holder of the award and the player putting up the most ridiculous numbers of anyone in 2021-22.

Jokic, who already has an MVP trophy on his mantle, might somehow be playing even better basketball this season, averaging 26.2 points, 13.5 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 three-pointers nightly while slashing 57.3/34.7/81.3 percent shooting splits.

He’s the league leader in VORP (8.8), BPM (+13.7), WS/48 (0.295) and PER (32.5), holding a sizable advantage in each of those advanced metrics, too. Additionally, Jokic makes the Denver Nuggets 13.1 points per 100 possessions better with his presence on the floor.

In all, if we use statistics – both raw and advanced – Jokic should be the runaway winner of MVP this year. Using logic – like the fact that the Nuggets are 43-31 and No. 6 in the West despite missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. pretty much all season – also gives the big Serbian a strong case.

We’ll see how the award voting goes down – right now, it looks like MVP may be headed Embiid’s way – but Jokic should also get very strong consideration for the all-important accolade.

For the latest Nikola Jokic rumors, click here.

6
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Most Valuable Player or DPOY

The third important MVP candidate of 2021-22 has to be Giannis Antetokounmpo, though he is probably a good bit behind Embiid and Jokic in the running for the award.

We also consider Antetokounmpo a long shot for Defensive Player of the Year, though that race is absolutely wide open and nearly impossible to predict right now. Whoever does win that accolade is going to be hotly debated about.

Regardless, Antetokounmpo remains one of the most valuable players in basketball, putting up 29.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks while shooting 55.0 percent from the floor. He dominates on both ends of the floor, ranking third in nightly points, sixth in rebounds, 28th in assists and 14th in blocks.

His advanced analytics are also hovering around the pace of his two MVP seasons, making his case stronger.

Still, some missed time due to injury, the Milwaukee Bucks not absolutely dominating the East and the excellence of Embiid and Jokic make it difficult to forecast Antetokounmpo as the surefire MVP winner this season.

For the latest Giannis Antetokounnpo rumors, click here.

7
Bam Adebayo: Defensive Player of the Year

We mentioned the Defensive Player of the Year race feeling wide open, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple of frontrunners for the award.

One of the favorites has to be Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo, who is unique for a center in that he might actually be better guarding on the perimeter than at protecting the paint, something that cannot be said about the majority of big men in the NBA, past and present.

A guard running the pick-and-roll and getting Adebayo to switch onto him is not the mismatch that it would be for most centers in the league.

Adebayo has the energy and athleticism to be all over the floor defensively, as well as the instincts and hand speed to cause havoc in passing lanes, which is why the big men leads all centers in nightly steals at 1.5 per game.

Advanced analytics for defense are not great despite all attempts for progress on that front, but one metric we can look at is at team defensive rating, and the Heat rank fourth league-wide in points allowed per 100 possessions at 107.9, which is largely thanks to Adebayo’s excellence on that end of the floor.

Other Heat players, like Jimmy Butler and PJ Tucker, deserve credit on that end, too, but Adebayo has missed the least amount of time of just about anyone on Miami’s roster, so his impact is the one that has been the biggest reason for the Heat’s suffocating defense on the campaign.

For the latest Bam Adebayo rumors, click here.

8
Rudy Gobert: Defensive Player of the Year

Voter fatigue could play a part in Defensive Player of the Year voting, as Rudy Gobert has won the award in three of the last four years, but there’s no doubt he remains one of the favorites for the accolades in 2021-22.

However, if voters take a look at the numbers, Gobert’s case isn’t as foolproof as it has been in other years, as the Utah Jazz rank merely 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions this year at 109.9. That number was 107.5 last season, 105.3 three seasons ago and 103.0 the year before that in the seasons Gobert won the award.

In addition, the Jazz are allowing opponents to shoot 63.2 percent from within five feet of the basket – an area that falls on Gobert’s shoulders to protect – merely the 16th-stingiest mark in the league.

Sure, Utah’s defense would fall off of a cliff without the big Frenchman manning the paint. And there’s something to the idea that the Jazz are choosing to save something in the tank for the playoffs so they don’t fall apart in the postseason for yet another year.

But the numbers bear out that Gobert hasn’t been as dominant defensively as in other campaigns, so it wouldn’t be some huge injustice if the award went to someone else this season.

Even so, Gobert remains a top-level defender when engaged, so he’ll still get consideration for Defensive Player of the Year this season.

For the latest Rudy Gobert rumors, click here.

9
Scottie Barnes: Rookie of the Year

The player LeBron James claims to have known was going to be special since the rookie was in seventh grade, Scottie Barnes is somewhat quietly having a great first-year campaign as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

Barnes, who head coach Nick Nurse recently referred to as a point-center, is putting up 15.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor.

His play has picked up even more recently, as Barnes is averaging an 18.1/8.3/3.6/1.6 stat line over his last 16 games, which includes a 31-point, 17-rebound, six-assist performance against James and the Los Angeles Lakers back on March 14, which prompted the four-time MVP’s comment.

Barnes is truly a unique talent, capable of playing all five positions – defending all of them as well – while rarely looking to be the team’s leading scorer.

A lot of Barnes’ buckets come from close to the rim on unorthodox, borderline Antawn Jamison-esque, awkward flip shots that seem to go in more often than not. Barnes is also always willing to put his body on the line to make a winning play, even despite his status as the team’s prized young player.

With Barnes starting all 65 games for a Toronto team that sits seventh in the East with a 41-32 record, he even has the team success to further back his Rookie of the Year case.

“The Raptors as a team have been battling injuries and lineup uncertainty all year long, but Scottie Barnes has been one of the few constants for them and a major reason why they remain in the thick of the playoff race,” an NBA executive told HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto. “He’s the only rookie this season to rank in the Top 5 in every major statistical category, and he’s doing so with a combination of averages that put him among an elite class of rookies all-time, the most recent being Luka Doncic. But stats aside, if impacting team success on the court is taken into account for the Rookie of the Year award like it is MVP and All-Star honors, Barnes has been the most impactful rookie in the NBA this year from start to finish.”

For the latest Scottie Barnes rumors, click here.

10
Cade Cunningham: Rookie of the Year

After a somewhat slow start to his rookie season, reigning No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham has picked things up lately and has done enough to insert himself into the Rookie of the Year race.

Since Feb. 11, a 16-game sample size, Cunningham is averaging 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game, albeit on ugly shooting splits of 43.9/29.9/81.0 percent.

Still, a 20-year-old putting up a 20/6/6 stat line for a good portion of the season is nothing to scoff at, and it should come as no surprise that the Detroit Pistons, 20-53 on the season, have seven of their wins in that stretch.

Cunningham is as smooth as they come, can score from all three levels and create at a high level. His potential is sky high, and though he might not take home Rookie of the Year when it’s all said and done, there’s no doubt he’s done enough this season to prove Detroit made the right decision when it took him first overall.

For the latest Cade Cunningham rumors, click here.

11
Darius Garland: Most Improved Player

If voters deem that Morant was too good prior to this season for serious Most Improved Player consideration, then the award will likely go to Darius Garland, who is in the midst of the first All-Star campaign of his career.

Garland has likewise made an impressive leap this year, averaging career-highs in points (21.4), rebounds (3.3) and assists (8.6) while posting a very healthy 57.8 percent true shooting rate. He’s been the most important player on this resurgent Cavaliers squad, too, making Cleveland 9.2 points per 100 possessions better during his time on the floor, an extremely noteworthy rate for a player who only just turned 22 years old.

Speaking of his age, Garland is one of just nine players ever to post averages north of 21 points and eight assists in their age-22 season or earlier, joining the likes of Luka DoncicChris Paul and Magic Johnson on the list.

Not bad company there for Garland to be keeping.

For the latest Darius Garland rumors, click here.

12
Miles Bridges: Most Improved Player

If for whatever reason, Most Improved Player doesn’t go to Morant and Garland, by far the two likeliest players to take the accolade, then Miles Bridges would be next in line for the award.

Bridges is averaging 20.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists this season – all career-highs – and although LaMelo Ball’s playmaking can be partly to thank for that, Bridges deserves a ton of credit for the leap he has made this year.

Bridges is even making a bigger impact on winning, as the Charlotte Hornets are 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, by far the best rate of his career, likely thanks to his abilities as a slasher, in transition and his defensive versatility.

Bridges winning Most Improved Player over Morant and Garland is a pretty huge long shot, but he’ll receive consideration for the award at least, and with good reason – he has become a bonafide above-average starter on the wing in 2021-22.

For the latest Miles Bridges rumors, click here.

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