2020-21 NBA Season Awards Predictions

Rob Perez
Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) gives his predictions and picks for the 2020-21 NBA season awards.
Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) gives his predictions and picks for the 2020-21 NBA season awards. / Pool/Getty Images

The 2020-21 NBA season is rapidly approaching, and even after a short offseason there has been plenty of change since teams left the bubble.

FanDuel Sportsbook has already rolled out odds for tons of NBA futures bets for the season, and here are some of the best bets available.

MVP: Damian Lillard (+2200)

Like it or not, the NBA MVP is as controversial of a decision as any award in sports solely because of the subjectivity in its qualifications. There is no “score this many points” or “win this many games” formula threshold; votes are distributed for a wide range of reasons — including statistics, analytics, the eye test, and even stretching as far as media narratives. Thus, predicting an MVP has become an exercise in studying what matters most to the voting media members as much as it is the play on the court.

I’ve always been fascinated by this — whether a player is able to earn every dollar in a supermax extension and/or bonuses in their contract is sometimes determined by if they were voted onto an all-NBA team, won a regular season award such as the MVP, or placed onto the all-star team.

What happens if you’re an all-star worthy player but are stuck behind several fan-favorite, superstar incumbents at the same position in the same conference? The answer, unfortunately, is usually: oh well.

It wasn’t too long ago when Damian Lillard was the consensus “biggest snub” of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, failing to be selected to the reserve team despite a CVS receipt-length list of accomplishments. While coaches certainly had a bigger role in the selection process at the time, the fact remains that he wasn’t picked.

This was the gasoline on the fire of what Lillard’s legacy would ultimately blossom into — a blood-lusting, nothing to lose, "me against the world" mentality fueled by limitless individual scoring talent. 

Fast-forward to 2020, and Dame has parlayed these sentiments into a superstardom eruption. Beloved by fans regardless of team affiliation, going viral almost nightly with a performance which can only be rivaled by being on fire in NBA Jam, and most importantly: winning when it matters most — he checks all the boxes of the revenge “narrative”, which has played out in voters minds for years. One might argue he’s “owed” or even “due” for this honor. 

So how does he actually get there?

Since 2009, when LeBron won his first MVP, the award’s throne has been claimed by Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While every campaign is certainly unique, one underlying theme they all have in common is their team finishing at or near the top of their respective conferences. The one exception was Russell Westbrook, whose Thunder team placed 6th despite being an impressive 12 games over .500. 

If Damian Lillard is going to win the MVP, the Portland Trail Blazers will have to finish the regular season in a top-four position in the West. Unless Dame plans on eclipsing all of Westbrook and Oscar Robertson's records, there’s really no way or precedent around it.

With the additions of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., it is my belief the Blazers have successfully filled the perimeter defense holes in their armor which have plagued their championship aspirations for several years now. Adding Enes Kanter, Harry Giles III, retaining Rodney Hood, and potentially unlocking the high-ceiling potential of Nassir Little will finally allow Head Coach Terry Stotts to implement a somewhat normal rotation — one in which he doesn’t have to worry about his bench blowing double-digit leads in what felt like less than 60 seconds. 

And finally: will Dame be able to continue the momentum of superstardom he achieved in the bubble? If he has more help and plays fewer minutes, that would usually equate to less usage and opportunities to wow us with his avalanche scoring performances. Both things can be true. If the Blazers are winning games as predicted, you better believe the audience will form their opinion on the ‘quality’ of these viral nights more than the ‘quantity’. The only reason Lillard would attempt the number of shots he did in the bubble and record sky-high usage rates is because the Blazers team could barely field a seven-man rotation. He doesn’t need to do that anymore, he knows it, and it will only benefit this revamped roster over the course of a 72-game campaign.

He’ll put up the stats, he’ll continue the natural progression of his ‘revenge’ legacy which voters love him for, he’ll have his team winning games unlike any time before, and he’ll continue to have his “holy shit” moments which set the internet on fire.

THAT, is the MVP formula.

Rookie of the Year: James Wiseman (+600)

Contrary to the MVP: “but the team isn’t that good!” doesn’t really apply here as a counter-argument. The best rookies are often times drafted by the worst teams at the top of the draft. However, in a rare case such as this year’s Golden State Warriors, a playoff contender sneaks up and scores an NBA-ready player, thrusting them into situations which other rookies on poor-performing teams just don’t ever experience for some time.

Positive or negative: Wiseman is going to have an impact on games — either games influential on the playoffs and/or games being shown on national television for the world to see. Platform matters when the voting is subjective and can be influenced by the audience’s reaction. 

Factor in the absence of Klay Thompson, and it means Steph is going to need some help from somewhere. Maybe that help comes in the form of Andrew Wiggins or Kelly Oubre Jr., maybe it doesn’t, but if last season showed us anything — even if Steph is healthy — he can’t do it all by himself. Wiseman has the talent to make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor as a true center, something the Warriors haven’t had since the beginning of their dynastic run. I’m sorry, Kevon Looney, you’re great but I’m just trying to be realistic here.

With the exception of Malcolm Brogdon, every NBA Rookie of the Year dating back to Andrew Wiggins in 2015 had a usage percentage of 22% or more. This means if you’re going to be predicting who wins this award, they better have the ball in their hands. A LOT. Usage = opportunity. Wiseman’s only competition in this essential prerequisite is going to be LaMelo Ball in Charlotte, who will surely be involved in everything the Hornets do unless Terry Rozier just decides to take his ball and go home.

If only Bol Bol was getting 25 minutes a game….

Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Simmons (+2400)

The competition is stiff. Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid, and the titlebelt holder Giannis Antetokounmpo all have better odds than Ben Simmons to win this prestigious award. 

Giannis winning last season was light at the end of the tunnel for me in solidifying this pick. 

The reign of true centers who only protect the rim is over. 

The game has changed. 

With all of the switching that takes place during ball screens in addition to the small ball revolution which includes seven-footers making three-pointers at a 40% clip, you have to be able to guard positions 1-5. From the rim all the way out to beyond the arc. If you don’t, that’s how you get exposed. 

All of the players listed above certainly have the ability to complete this, but it’s Giannis and Simmons who thrive at it. 

To help bolster his case: this Philadelphia 76ers defense, on paper, is a fortress. Alongside standouts Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green, and Joel Embiid — this team has the individual talent to really stand out. 

When it comes time to vote, and members of the media scramble to load the “advanced” tab on Basketball-Reference to see what each player’s DBPM, DWS, DRTG, and ON/OFF net rating was … Simmons and the 76ers should be at the top of the lists. Combine this with a couple of jaw-dropping chasedown blocks and lockdowns of a superstar on national television, and he will without-a-doubt be in the conversation with all of the other obvious contenders. 

Getting a 24:1 payout here is just insanity for one of the best two-way players in the league.

Most Improved Player: Jamal Murray (+1400)

Without a doubt, Most Improved Player is the NBA’s most difficult award to predict. There’s a reason why the odds-on-favorite is listed at +1400, and it’s because nobody can agree what “most improved” actually means.

For example: I am of the belief that the player who is most improved covered the most distance from their previous season to the current one. A player who was relatively irrelevant in terms of production and fame storms onto the scene in a major, eye-popping way.

Others, however, value the jump from potential to fulfillment.

Let’s take a look at the eight most recent recipients, shall we?

Brandon Ingram (2020)
Pascal Siakam (2019)
Victor Oladipo (2018)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2017)
CJ McCollum (2016)
Jimmy Butler (2015)
Goran Dragic (2014)
Paul George (2013)

Every single one of these players was already “good”. The season in which they won the award, they took the step from “already good” to “now there is no doubt.” 

This ‘distance’ is significantly shorter than the obscurity-to-relevancy route, but, is more difficult to traverse … and these recipients are the billboard of it.

Therefore, as much I want to sit here and preach to you about how this honor should be awarded to guys like Devonte Graham, Thomas Bryant, Lonnie Walker, and Mitchell Robinson — players who have gotten absurdly better within one calendar year — the reality is, it’s just not going to happen.

Everybody knows what Jamal Murray did in the bubble. It was one of the most inspiring, clutch performances in recent playoff history, and I am as bullish about his stock as much as anybody else on Earth. If he is able to find a way to remedy his inconsistency issues that have plagued his reputation in regular seasons past, there is no doubt in my mind he will be a mainstream, household name superstar very soon.

Sticking with the theme of winner’s past, Murray rides this momentum to the podium and makes the jump to stardom. 

6th Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson (+950)

Last season, the Utah Jazz' points per game leaders finished as follows:

  1. Donovan Mitchell (24.0)
  2. Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2)
  3. Jordan Clarkson (15.6)

Even more impressive, Clarkson averaged this while playing 10 minutes per game less than Mitchell. 

In the playoffs, this number jumped to 16.7 while the % of these points which were assisted by another player dropped to 35.6%. That means he was creating more for himself, a testament to his improved offensive prowess, and was without-a-doubt the team’s secondary scoring option with or without Mike Conley Jr. available. 

It has never been clearer that the man was put on this planet to get buckets. Are they hilarious buckets that teeter on the edge of “laughing at him” not “with him”? Sure, I mean he’s Jordan Clarkson, but they’re still buckets.

Even with Bogdanovic returning to the lineup, Clarkson is going to have all the freedom in the world to run the second unit’s offense. After the performance against the Nuggets, he’s earned that. And because of the usage he’s going to be responsible for, expect this man to have a green light for volume while still being a vital part of the Jazz’s game-closing strategies. 

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers

If this 76ers team ever plays to its potential, you know the entire 215 area code is going to be screaming “WE TOLD YOU IT WAS BRETT BROWN” to the high heavens all year long. Just be prepared for that.

Executive of the Year: Rob Pelinka

Remember when 57 Lakers fans tried to protest because they didn’t like what the front office was doing? Good times.

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