The NBA’s first 82-game season since 2018-19 will wrap up April 10, and not everyone made it to the end of the marathon. This year will be remembered for its changing of the guard: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry all opened 2021-22 as leading MVP candidates only to be sidelined, one by one, with significant injuries that opened the door for the under-30 crowd. A similar theme emerged across several other major awards, which saw Gen Z newcomers shake up the status quo.
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. Luka Doncic, 5. Devin Booker
Coming off a sparkling 2021 MVP campaign, Jokic (26.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists per game) defied all reasonable expectations by raising his stellar all-around game under even more challenging circumstances. Jokic, 27, leads the NBA in a long list of advanced statistics — player efficiency rating, win shares, real plus-minus and value over replacement player, among others — and his 32.8 PER would be the highest mark ever recorded. What’s more, his 26/13/8 traditional stat line has never been matched in league history.
But there’s more to Jokic’s case than his stranglehold on numbers. With Jamal Murray sidelined all season and Michael Porter Jr. limited to just nine games, Jokic never wavered or complained as he led the undermanned Denver Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. On several occasions, Jokic, who has outgrown his early-career reputation as a defensive liability, even delivered game-saving plays on defense. Playmaking remains Jokic’s biggest strength, and he has led the Nuggets to the No. 6 offense in the league despite their injury issues.
During a tumultuous season marred by coronavirus-related interruptions, Jokic has missed just seven games, enjoying better availability than his top MVP challengers. Denver, which is on pace for 48 wins and one of the West’s six guaranteed playoff spots, might have finished in the conference basement without its franchise centerpiece. While Antetokounmpo has staked a strong claim to the “Best Player Alive” title, Jokic has been this season’s most consistent, productive and indispensable star.
Even though the Milwaukee Bucks have paced themselves during their title defense, they are back near the top of the East’s standings and Antetokounmpo is back as a leading MVP candidate for the fourth straight year. Forty-point performances against Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers and Durant’s Brooklyn Nets this past week were a reminder that Antetokounmpo (30.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 5.8 apg) is the NBA’s most imposing force. There’s little to nitpick beside the fact he missed 13 games. He is posting comparable numbers to his two previous MVP campaigns and ranks second to Jokic in PER and win shares.
No player has campaigned for MVP more relentlessly in the media than Embiid, but his walk hasn’t quite lived up to his talk. The five-time all-star has averaged a career-high 30 points per game and posted a career-best 31 PER during the healthiest season of his career, and he deserves credit for carrying the 76ers through Ben Simmons’s months-long holdout. Even so, Embiid’s untimely turnovers and late-game fatiguing continue to hold him back in key moments. During an uneven March, the 76ers have suffered high-profile losses to Durant’s Nets, Jokic’s Nuggets, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and Booker’s Phoenix Suns.
Doncic (28.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 8.6 apg) dug himself too deep of a hole by coming into the season out of shape, though his play since the all-star break has been impressive enough to cast the Dallas Mavericks guard as the early 2023 MVP favorite. Booker (26.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.9 apg) is a clear cut below the league’s A-listers when it comes to statistical production, but he deserves some ballot love as the leading scorer on the NBA’s lone juggernaut.
Defensive player of the year
1. Antetokounmpo, 2. Mikal Bridges, 3. Rudy Gobert
Draymond Green appeared destined to win defensive player of the year before he was shelved for months with a back injury. The ensuing void presented an unusual dynamic: Boston and Phoenix, the two best team defenses, were led by perimeter standouts, while prominent big men such as Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Gobert all played for teams with defenses that had slipped down the charts.
Bridges has been a perimeter workhorse for the Suns, Marcus Smart has helped key the Celtics’ midseason turnaround with his tenacity, and Gobert remains an elite paint-controlling presence. Yet none of the players can match Antetokounmpo’s combination of strength, quickness, versatility, timing and feel on the defensive end. The 27-year-old, who won this award in 2020, has helped Milwaukee survive with an undersized front line during center Brook Lopez’s extended absence.
Most improved player
1. Ja Morant, 2. Darius Garland, 3. Desmond Bane
By going from fringe all-star candidate to certified franchise player, Morant (27.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg) made the NBA version of a quantum leap during his age-22 season. His progress as a scorer, three-point shooter, game manager and leader was immediately evident during opening week, and the hype built to a fever pitch as the Memphis Grizzlies blew away preseason forecasts by claiming the West’s second seed.
Just as Curry and Antetokounmpo are ideal fits in their respective home markets, the fearless Morant is a perfect match with Memphis, where he has a chance to blossom into one of the league’s most marketable players on a team that has the potential to be a perennial contender.
Like Morant, the 22-year-old Garland (21.5 ppg 3.3 rpg, 8.7 apg) enjoyed an all-star breakout in his third season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Calmly taking the reins following Collin Sexton’s early-season injury, Garland struck a nice balance between finding his own offense and spreading the wealth. Bane (18.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg) was another major developmental success story for the Grizzlies, given that he was the 30th player selected in the 2020 draft and spent most of his rookie season coming off the bench. In Year 2, the wide-shouldered wing claimed a full-time starting spot and flashed all-star potential at age 23.
Rookie of the year
1. Evan Mobley, 2. Scottie Barnes, 3. Cade Cunningham
What started as a one-man race evolved into a fascinating rock-paper-scissors situation for voters. Want an all-league defender who helped lift the Cavaliers out of the doldrums? Mobley is the guy. Prefer a two-way wing playing huge minutes for a Toronto Raptors team headed to the playoffs? That would be Barnes. Looking for a high-level, high-usage playmaker and committed defender who was asked to carry the Detroit Pistons’ offense? Pick Cunningham.
The 20-year-old Mobley (14.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg) should earn the nod based on his consistency and remarkable impact. Resisting conventional wisdom that young big men struggle to adjust to the NBA level, Mobley hit the ground running as a skilled shot blocker and versatile defender who can handle virtually any assignment. Barnes and Cunningham have looked like future all-NBA players over the past two months, setting up the 2021 class to be one of the best in recent memory.
Sixth man of the year
1. Tyler Herro, 2. Tyus Jones, 3. Cameron Johnson
Herro, 22, entered the season as the favorite here and never got much in the way of competition. Jordan Clarkson and Montrezl Harrell, the past two winners, both had down years, while Miami’s Herro (20.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.9 apg) has posted career highs in the major advanced statistics while leading the East’s highest-scoring bench unit. A natural heir to bucket-getters such as Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford, Herro will be asked to provide late-game scoring and playmaking in the playoffs.
Jones (8.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.4 apg) has been a crucial driver of the Grizzlies’ success as a high-IQ, low-turnover point guard who has kept everyone involved in a stacked second unit. Johnson (12.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.5 apg) is a classic stretch forward who has posted career highs in scoring and three-point percentage in his third season with the Suns.
Coach of the year
1. Monty Williams, 2. Taylor Jenkins, 3. Chris Finch
Media voters blew it last year when they rewarded overachievement (Tom Thibodeau’s New York Knicks) rather than consistent excellence (Quin Snyder’s Jazz or Williams’s Suns). As Utah has learned this year, building and sustaining a true powerhouse is a much more difficult coaching challenge than guiding a bad team to respectability.
Williams, a former Spurs player and executive, has transformed Phoenix from a dysfunctional mess to a San Antonio-like winning machine. He has created a disciplined and focused culture that has held up throughout the season-long investigation of owner Robert Sarver’s alleged racist and misogynistic behavior.
Poise is Williams’s defining characteristic, and his team has come to embody it. Gathering themselves after a gutting 2021 Finals collapse, the Suns have run away from the rest of the league, ranking first in winning percentage, first in point differential, third in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency. Kudos to Memphis’s Jenkins and Minnesota’s Finch for getting the most out of their young cores, but Williams deserves to win his first coach of the year award in a landslide.