Updated: Sep 27
With the 2020-21 NBA regular season coming to a close, The Circuit is handing out some hardware to commemorate one of the strangest seasons of all-time. From MVP to All-NBA to some inaugural novelty awards, The Circuit has chosen its winners.
Getty Images/The Circuit Artwork
MVP: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)
The road to this year’s MVP included many twists and turns. From Embiid, to LeBron, to a scintillating Steph Curry stretch, we’ve seen many contenders occupy the pole position. But as the favorites dropped like flies, there was one player that withstood the gauntlet that was this season; Nikola Jokic.
Averaging 26.4pts/10.9reb/8.4ast with a PER of 31.55 would be enough of an MVP case on its own. Throw in a 16-7 record without their second-best player Jamal Murray and you have an air-tight case. All the other contenders have some flaw that Jokic just doesn’t have; Embiid missed too many games. Curry’s team just didn’t have a good enough record. Giannis has already won twice. For one reason or another every other contender had a flaw, while Jokic dominated in a nearly flawless shortened season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
After winning back-to-back DPOY awards in ‘18 and ‘19, Gobert is once again the most dominant defensive force in the league. At 2.7 blocks/game (career-high), Gobert is leading the lead in rejections, plus he’s hauling in nearly 11 defensive boards a game. While the stats justify this selection, perhaps the biggest feather in his cap is the team success. As the best team in the league, it felt right to reward them with Defensive Player of the Year.
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau (New York Knicks)
Admittedly one of the toughest awards to dish out. There were two clear favorites; Thibodeau and Monty Williams out in Phoenix. While leading the Suns to a 50-win season and snapped a ten year playoff drought, a lot of the credit goes to Chris Paul (more on him later). Many people felt the Suns would be much improved this year. The same cannot be said for the Knicks…
The Knicks were expected to be bad. Really bad. Like top-3 pick in the draft bad. Yet somehow, with a rising star in RJ Barrett, the lasting remains of MVP Derrick Rose, and a Julius Randle who clearly stole a shipment of “Michael’s Secret Stuff”, Thibs lead the Knicks not only to the playoffs, but for the majority of the season were in position to get home court in the first round. They finished ahead of the Celtics and Raptors, two teams with an abundance of success in recent years. Thibs has created a culture in Manhattan, and has given Knicks fans a reason to be excited for the first time in years.
Most Improved: Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
To continue the Knicks love, Randle is the clear winner of Most Improved. Jaylen Brown and Chris Boucher each took terrific jumps this year, but Randle ascended into a stratosphere. He went from being a member of the laughable power forward shopping spree two summers ago, to an elite player on one of the best teams in the eastern conference. Jumping five points/game, two assists/game and one rebound/game, Randle took a huge leap and is clearly the most improved player in the league this year.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson (Utah Jazz)
Got a coin? Good. Assign heads to Clarkson and tails to Joe Ingles, also of the Utah Jazz. Now flip it a hundred times. It was 50/50? That’s what I got too. These two are very close, either is a deserving winner of the award. Most would agree that Ingles is the better player, but with Clarkson averaging six more points/game than Ingles we went with Clarkson. Perhaps the most interesting part of this award is that for the second straight season, the top two 6MoY finishers are on the same team (Harrell & Williams, LAC in 2020).
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball (Charlotte Hornets)
Best rookie since Lebron in 2003? Even better??? No? Oh okay. As a Hornets fan, I do have to admit I have never been this excited about the team. Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace, All Jefferson, Kemba Walker and the many more “great” Charlotte Hornets come nowhere close to as exciting as Ball is. The flashiest passer in the league, Ball stepped into one of the most talentless franchises in the league and turned them into a playoff team overnight. Ball was so good this year, that missing over 20 games did not lose him this award. Anthony Edwards made it closer than anticipated, but LaMelo Ball is clearly the premiere rookie from this class.
The Shaq Award: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
Now we’ve reached The Circuit’s novelty NBA awards. This first award is the inaugural Shaq Award for the most dominant player in the NBA. Different from MVP, as you can miss three months with an injury and still win this award, as it solely looks at performance on the court, and who dominated their opponents the most. This year, Embiid was the clear winner. Had he stayed healthy, Embiid would have been the MVP. On March 3, the 76ers went up against the league-leading Jazz (and DPoY Rudy Gobert), and Embiid went nuts, dropping 40 points and 19 boards and led Philly to the win in OT. While Jokic was consistently great this season, Embiid, despite missing a lot of time, was consistently dominant.
The Linsanity Award: Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns)
Remember in 2012 when Harvard product Jeremy Lin went nuclear for the Knicks? That was fun. The Linsanity Award is given out to the best feel-good story of the season, and that honor goes to Chris Paul. Going to Phoenix and taking them to the playoffs for the first time since Nash and Stoudemire were in the desert and reminding us all why he’s one of the best ever makes him our feel-good story of the season.
The JR Award: Russell Westbrook (Washington Wizards)
We all remember the JR game. It birthed the best basketball meme ever, cost the Cavaliers a chance at the title, and led us to creating the JR Award for the most frustrating player of the season. Much like JR forgetting the score at the end of a Finals game, Russell Westbrook has been incredibly frustrating this season. And every season, for that matter. The frustrating part of his game is that he is so good. And yet, there are times where he is so bad. Westbrook has made the triple-double as common as the alley-oop, and yet his efficiency numbers are worse than… well, JR Smith’s. Westbrook has all the talent in the world, but season after season we are left wondering what could have been if he played more efficiently.
The Big Baby Award: Boston Celtics
The Big Baby Award goes to the player that comes up juuuuuuuuust short of expectations, much like Glen “Big Baby” Davis did on this breakaway (I remember watching this with my best friend Dan and I called he would miss it as a joke. We both flipped out when I was right).
So for the first winner of this award, I couldn’t choose just one player, so I chose a whole team. The Celtics were bad this year. Not Houston Rockets bad, but they were bad. With expectations of winning the East, being in the play-in tournament was not what fans wanted to see. This team just looked off from the jump, despite solid years from Brown and Tatum. They are this year’s metaphorical “missed layup”.
The Hinkie Award: Sam Presti (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Perhaps my favorite novelty award, the Hinkie Award goes to the general manager who does the best job of punting the season away and building towards the future, much like Sam Hinkie did with “The Process” (and he was right, I’ll die on that hill). While Rafael Stone of the Rockets booted a 65 yard punt on this season, he doesn’t win this award because he had his hand forced. Houston was planning on being competitive this year before James Harden decided he wanted to play with his “friends”? in Brooklyn. If he hadn’t demanded a trade, the Rockets likely would have been 34-38 and in the play-in tournament. Sam Presti, however, fully embraced sucking. From trading Chris Paul for about thirty cents on the dollar, to shutting Gilgeous-Alexander down after the injury, to paying Al Horford to watch Thunder games from home, Presti had no intention of winning this season. And because of that dedication, the Thunder could find themselves with two top-five picks in this year’s draft.
All-NBA First Team:
G- Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors)
G- Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns)
F- Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
F- Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
C- Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)
This year had perhaps the most difficult All-NBA selections I can remember. With nearly 30 players garnering consideration, these five emerged as the first team. Embiid is obviously the biggest omission, slipping to second team. Despite the league changing the positional flexibility I refused to put two center’s on the same team. In the 1960’s Russell and Chamberlain were the two best players in the league every year, and whichever had the better season got first team, the other got the second. We have to make tough calls, and that’s just the way it goes. Embiid was the second best player this year, it just so happens he was also the second best center.
On that same note, I put Luka as a forward because the league said I could. I know that’s hypocritical. But it just makes sense. To me.
Giannis was clearly one of the best forwards this season, and Steph gave us all flashes of his 2016 campaign that left us all wondering what could have been if Durant had not signed in Golden State. The last spot, Chris Paul, was my toughest call. There were some great guards, some with better stats than Paul. But the fact that CP3 went to Phoenix and took them from laughing stock to the #2 seed in the west, I gave him the first team nod. Consider this somewhat of a career achievement award.
All-NBA Second Team:
G- Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
G- Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
F- Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers)
F- Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
C- Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
We touched on Embiid, a great season that landed him on the second team. Randle leading the Knicks to relevance was more than enough to garner a spot on the second team. Lillard and Kawhi were two players that had legitimate arguments for the first team, but sometimes you have to break some eggs to make omelettes. The most controversial selection here was George at guard. I don’t feel great about this one at all. He started great, and had an excellent season. My hesitation comes more with his playoff performance, which other than those showdowns with LeBron in Indiana has consisted of getting waved off the court by Lillard and denting the side of the backboard against Denver. Yeesh.
All-NBA Third Team:
G- Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets)
G- Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)
F- LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)
F- Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans)
C- Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
With so many deserving guards, making the final cut was excruciating. Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell all got consideration. But Beal got the nod because he is second in the league in scoring, and it just felt wrong to not include him on this list. Speaking of feeling wrong, I couldn’t in good conscience leave the Nets off this list with how good they’ve been this year, so Kyrie got the last guard spot (raise your hand if you thought Irving would be the most reliable of the Nets big 3. No one? That’s what I thought).
Point Zion is here and I love it. After becoming the most electrifying collegiate basketball player since Curry in 2008, the Pelicans finally decided to let him loose. Despite the Pelicans missing the playoffs, if Zion hadn’t played the way he did they might have been the worst team in the league. LeBron had such an incredible start to the season that despite missing all those games he still gets an All-NBA spot. The Butler argument here is loud and hard to ignore, but James is still the best player in the league and until I see him lose that crown, I am still giving him the benefit of the doubt. Butler was never the MVP front-runner this year, but LeBron was.