There is that small lull in between the end of the NBA’s regular season and the start of the first round of the playoffs in which the only sounds that can be heard are that of debate. That debate being: Who should get what award? And this season, that chatter is louder than ever. The 2021-2022 season is one of the few seasons in which every award is up for grabs by multiple players. No one is a favorite, and everyone has a chance, which is why the Daily Cal Sports staff is here to give you our picks and analysis for each award! And remember, this is a regular season award. Try not to burn us if Rudy Gobert’s defense tanks in the postseason or Joel Embiid and the Sixers lose in the first round!
Defensive Player of the Year?
Kenzo Fukuda: If Draymond Green were healthy all season, he’d be my pick because his absence was evident on a Warriors team that is 19-17 without him and 34-12 with him. But, since he missed a significant portion of the season, I’ll go with the guy he picked in his podcast: Mikal Bridges. He is the prototypical wing defender that can fit on every team. Switchable 1-4, and pretty capable on centers, Bridges is the guy the Phoenix Suns assign to guard the opponent’s best player. He is seventh in defensive win shares at 3.7 and 99th in the percentile of most difficult matchups assigned. It’s difficult for a guard or wing to win DPOY but between Marcus Smart and Mikal Bridges, this year is one of the more likely years for a perimeter player to earn the coveted award.
Abhi Erra: Bridges is my Defensive Player of the Year. The defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns may have taken an even larger leap this season, largely thanks to the defensive effort and versatility of the Villanova product. Bridges is the prototype of the modern wing defender in the NBA. As the NBA has increasingly become about spacing the floor and guarding the perimeter, Bridges has used his length, quickness and durability to become the quintessential perimeter defender in the NBA.
Sixth Man of the Year?
KF: If there is one award that does have a definitive favorite, it is the Sixth Man of the Year award, because Tyler Herro has this one locked up. Rebounding from his sophomore slump, Herro is averaging 20.8 points per game on field goal shooting percentage of 44 and a three-point line shooting percentage of 39.8. Herro has been key to the Miami Heat’s race to the first seed in the East, especially considering the down seasons from Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson. Herro is a flamethrower off the bench and would probably be a starter on a lesser team if his defense was better. The Heat are dangerously relying on Herro’s spacing to carry them through the playoffs.
AE: This is likely the easiest award to give out for the season, and it belongs to Heat guard Herro. Despite Herro’s immense offensive talent, head coach Erik Spoelstra opted to bring him off the bench, and it has paid great dividends for the team as they are the top seed in the East. Spoelstra likes to set the tone early in games with defense that Herro cannot really provide for them. Herro may not provide the defensive effort that the Heat have used from its other players, but his offensive game and consistency has helped make up for Butler and Robinson underperforming throughout the season.
Most Improved Player?
KF: Easy. Jordan Poole. I view this category as an award for players who were mostly irrelevant last year and made a huge jump into the following season. Poole was in the G League last year. Now he’s a key starter (maybe, depending on Steve Kerr’s mood), jumping from 12 points per game to 18.5 points per game. He also just so happens to lead the league with a free throw shooting percentage of 92.5, ahead of the all-time great shooter in his teammate, Stephen Curry. The improvement passes the eye test. His shooting and scoring are much more consistent, his handle is on a yo-yo string, and he is hitting huge baskets in crunch time. If the Golden State Warriors make another title run, Jordan Poole will be one of the reasons they are there in June.
AE: Before I get into my pick for Most Improved Player, I would like to address members of the national media who are voting for Ja Morant: why? He was a borderline All-Star last year and while he absolutely took a leap forward this season — jumping from 19.1 points per game to 27.4 points per game while improving his effective field goal shooting percentage from 48.7 to 53 — there are other options that better suit the title of Most Improved Player for the 2021-22 season. One such option — and my pick for the award — is Golden State Warriors guard Poole. This is a guy who was demoted to the G League in the middle of last season. By all accounts, Poole is one of the hardest working men for a squad that already has the two greatest shooters in the history of basketball. That dedication has paid off as he and teammate Klay Thompson have shared first-option duties in Curry’s absence, allowing Poole to unlock his own inner Curry as he used his shooting ability, handles and overall shiftiness to embark on a 17-game streak of 20-point games. Others worth mentioning for the award include Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, Spurs guard Dejounte Murray and Grizzlies wing Desmond Bane, who have each taken large steps in their basketball careers.
Rookie of the Year?
KF: Scottie Barnes surpassed Evan Mobley for me in the final month of the season. Barnes has an extremely high motor on both sides of the floor, speaking to his competitiveness. Averaging 15.2 points per game, 3.5 assists per game and 7.5 rebounds per game, Barnes contributed to a scrappy Raptors team that pulled its way all the way to the fifth seed. Barnes has a charisma to him that’s been evident on and off the court. The next step for him is to evolve his scoring, expanding his range beyond the paint, but other than that, his defense, his rebounding and his passing are all there and he looks like a future star.
AE: Despite late pushes from Barnes, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, I’m sticking with Mobley for Rookie of the Year. Not many people believed that the Cavaliers would be a relevant team in the East as many saw that they had almost too much size with Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen. Mobley played an important role for the Cavs in dismantling the myth of too much size and contributed to winning in a big way. Of the top-four rookies, Mobley looked as though he was the most composed and simply had the best overall season.
Coach of the Year?
KF: Monty Williams has coached a talented Suns team to the best record in the league, breaking their franchise’s regular-season record. Williams really should have gotten the award last year, especially considering how the Knicks have fared with Tom Thibodeau this year. But this isn’t a makeup award whatsoever. Williams has turned this team around in three short years and deserves all the credit in the world.
AE: Taylor Jenkins has unlocked the true potential of the Memphis Grizzlies. After they shocked the Warriors in the play-in tournament last season, most NBA fans assumed the Grizzlies would not be that much better than a lower seed in the West. Yet, with improvements made by Morant and Bane, Jenkins was able to take the Grizzlies to a 56-26 record — tied for the best ever regular season in franchise history with the 2012-13 edition — and their highest playoff seed in franchise history. Even without their best player in Morant, the Grizzlies are 20-5.
Most Valuable Player?
KF: Is Nikola Jokic the flashiest basketball player? No. Is Jokic the most athletic basketball player? Definitely not. Is picking the reigning MVP for MVP again too boring? Probably. Is Nikola Jokic the 2021-2022 MVP. Yes! In my eyes, the MVP award is a two-man race between Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it is like splitting hairs between the two. Their stats, from traditional to advanced, are nearly identical. Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.9 points per game, 5.8 assists per game, 11.6 rebounds per game, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks while Jokic is averaging 27.1 points per game, 7.9 assists per game, 13.8 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals and 0.9 blocks. Pick and choose which stat you want, but what I’ll choose to look at is how they affected winning against the context of their teams. While both players are integral to their team’s success, Jokic was without his star point guard Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for most of the season. The Denver Nuggets’ supporting cast around Jokic was far weaker than the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Antetokounmpo didn’t have to play with Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers. It’s really a coin flip between the two but the Nuggets are a team gunning for a top-three pick without Jokic while the Bucks are still a fringe playoff team.
AE: Since Shaquille O’Neal’s prime, there has not been a single big man that can completely dominate a game with post scoring. As much as Shaq wouldn’t like to admit it, Dwight Howard was the only one to come remotely close. That is, until Embiid. Before I get into why Embiid is my pick for MVP, it should be worth mentioning that this may be the closest MVP race for me since 2009 when Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were in their respective primes. Antetokounmpo and Jokic have each been historically great in their own ways. For me, to repeat as MVP you need to have taken an immense step forward or the level of competition for the award must be lower (e.g., Curry in 2016, James in 2013, etc.), and I do not believe that Jokic has taken that step forward as the competition for the award is at a historic high. Meanwhile, Embiid and Antetokounmpo have nearly identical scoring numbers, but Embiid’s ability to keep the Philadelphia 76ers near the top of the East without their second-best player in Ben Simmons, even before James Harden arrived, is what makes him the MVP for the 2021-22 season.