In a season dotted by injuries, coronavirus protocol absences and postponed games, it was inevitable that the 2021 NBA awards would boil down to the survival of the fittest. With top superstars LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and James Harden missing significant time, the door opened wide for a first-time MVP. Many of the other major races were shaped by health and consistency, attributes that took on added value during a rocky and unpredictable campaign that will mercifully reach its conclusion May 16.

Here’s who deserves to take home the hardware. Criteria for selection includes availability, individual production, advanced statistics, team performance and impact on winning.


1. Nikola Jokic; 2. Giannis Antetokounmpo; 3. Joel Embiid; 4. Chris Paul; 5. Damian Lillard

Jokic (26.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists) emerged as an early MVP favorite and weathered the Denver Nuggets’ slow start to outlast his top competition. Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook are the only players in history to match his season averages for points, rebounds and assists, and he almost certainly will become the first center to be named the MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.

The Serbian big man’s basketball virtues are endless. He’s become the NBA’s most creative passer and a capable three-point shooter, and he remains a nightmare to defend thanks to his deep bag of low-post tricks and his soft touch from midrange. His night-to-night effort level has been spectacular, and he’s one of the few stars who hasn’t missed a game all season. When it comes to making his teammates better, Jokic belongs in the highest tier next to James and Paul.

Antetokounmpo (28.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 5.9 APG) has been the most overlooked superstar this season, a natural correction after he was named the MVP in 2019 and 2020. He again has guided Milwaukee to a top-five offense overall and a top-three seed in the East, and he remains one of the game’s best two-way players.

Embiid’s early MVP momentum hit the skids when he suffered a knee injury in March, although he deserves full credit for reestablishing himself as a game-changing presence after last summer’s humbling first-round sweep in the bubble. Paul has transformed the Phoenix Suns from a laughingstock into one of the West’s top two seeds with his diligent game management, while Lillard’s late-game heroics have helped the Portland Trail Blazers survive a laundry list of injuries.

Defensive player of the year

1. Rudy Gobert; 2. Bam Adebayo; 3. Joel Embiid

Ponder this: Will Utah Jazz center Gobert (14.4 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 2.8 BPG) eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame? If he wins defensive player of the year as expected, the French center will join Dikembe Mutombo, Dwight Howard and Ben Wallace as the only players in league history to claim the honor for a third time. Mutombo is a Hall of Famer, Howard is a future Hall of Famer and Wallace was a 2019 finalist who has a decent shot of getting in. While Gobert’s résumé is relatively light on playoff success and all-star selections, he’s only 28 and could theoretically become the first player ever to win this award five times.

Gobert’s case this year is robust. He’s led Utah to a top-three defense and the league’s best record, he’s enjoyed near-perfect health and he’s ranked at or near the top of the league leader boards in rebounds, blocks and the major advanced defensive metrics. Looking ahead, it’s worth watching whether voters decide to favor more versatile defenders such as Adebayo, Anthony Davis or Ben Simmons, who has campaigned hard for himself this season. Adebayo deserves more attention for keeping the Miami Heat afloat during their bubble hangover campaign, while Embiid’s candidacy would have been stronger had he enjoyed better health.

Rookie of the year

1. LaMelo Ball; 2. Anthony Edwards; 3. Tyrese Haliburton

Ball (15.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 6.2 APG) has been his class’s runaway winner in viral highlights and hype, but his March wrist injury tightened this race considerably. Still, his solid outside shooting and ability to consistently impact games with his natural playmaking skills have been key to the Charlotte Hornets’ playoff push.

The uber-athletic Edwards and the heady Haliburton have put forth their share of standout moments, but both play fewer meaningful minutes on teams that are destined for the lottery. Ball’s late-season comeback should seal his selection.

Most improved player

1. Julius Randle; 2. Zion Williamson; 3. Jaylen Brown

Randle (24.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 5.9 APG) is in his seventh season, and it’s rare for a player to take such a sizable leap in overall effectiveness that late in his career. The 26-year-old forward has helped turn the New York Knicks into this year’s biggest surprise, leading the league in minutes played while posting career highs across the board. His massive improvement in three-point shooting and refined playmaking skills as a point forward have made him a much tougher cover.

The 20-year-old Williamson, who unfortunately broke his finger this week, took a more traditional path into this conversation with a big step forward in his second year. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick has become an offensive wrecking ball and quality passing playmaker, but he must improve on defense if he is going to lead the New Orleans Pelicans into the playoffs. Brown earned his first all-star selection in the midst of a career year in Boston, but the Celtics’ struggles have dimmed his award chances.

Sixth man of the year

1. Joe Ingles; 2. Jordan Clarkson; 3. Jalen Brunson

While the Jazz’s scoring-minded Clarkson is a prototypical candidate in the mold of past winners Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford, there’s a strong case to be made that he’s not even Utah’s most valuable reserve. Ingles (12.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.6 APG) qualifies for this award despite moving in and out of the starting lineup, and he is a more creative passer, more reliable defender and more efficient shooter than Clarkson.

Brunson, 24, has played his way into important minutes for the Dallas Mavericks after being selected in the second round of the 2018 draft. The third-year point guard succeeds with smart decisions and a dependable outside shot rather than overwhelming athleticism.

Coach of the year

1. Quin Snyder; 2. Tom Thibodeau; 3. Monty Williams

Thibodeau’s Knicks and Williams’s Suns are the NBA’s biggest overachievers, but Snyder’s Jazz has been this season’s most dominant crew. Utah not only has the NBA’s best record, it’s the sole team to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. What’s more, the Jazz’s plus-9.4 point differential is comparable to elite teams from the recent past such as the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors (plus-10.1) and the 2017-18 Houston Rockets (plus-8.5). Maintaining consistent excellence has been tricky this season, and no one has done it better than the Jazz with Snyder’s emphasis on the three-point shot, ball movement and disciplined defense.

Thibodeau may well win the award thanks to his juicy, big-market turnaround story and uncanny ability to coax elite defense from relatively anonymous pieces. Williams has forged a brilliant partnership with Paul and set up his young rotation players for success, undoing a decade of dysfunction in two short seasons.

Executive of the year

1. Sean Marks; 2. James Jones; 3. Tim Connelly

With so many stars re-signing long-term extensions last fall, this season was all about trades for the league’s executive corps. Marks made the biggest deal of all by landing Harden in a midseason blockbuster that catapulted the Brooklyn Nets toward the top of the East. That move has helped Brooklyn become a landing spot for veterans Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge and the core trio of Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving give Marks a sturdy base to target ring-chasers for years to come.

The Suns’ Jones gambled by trading for Paul and his max contract in November, but the 36-year-old point guard has paid off that bet all year long. Phoenix’s other moves — including its recent draft picks — have left something to be desired, but the NBA is a relationship business, and Jones proved that he could land a legit star after his predecessors struck out repeatedly in free agency and trades. Connelly made up for several high-profile offseason defections with a fantastic trade for Aaron Gordon at the deadline. Thanks to that move, the Nuggets remain sneaky title contenders even after losing Jamal Murray to a season-ending knee injury.