The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
With the start of the season less than two weeks away, Ian Levy and Ben Ladner share their award predictions for NBA MVP, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and more. You can find more from Ian on Twitter, @HickoryHigh, and here every weekday morning in The Whiteboard. You can find more from Ben on Twitter, @bladner, and in his weekly Thursday column, The Long Two.
Who is going to be the 2021-22 NBA MVP?
Ben Ladner: Given how optimistic I am about the Nuggets’ ability to earn homecourt advantage with a depleted roster, I’m tempted to follow my heart and predict a Nikola Jokic repeat. Instead, I’ll pick another Balkan savant in Luka Doncic, whose numbers over the last two seasons haven’t been far off from the actual MVP winners. This season, Doncic has a chance to couple his insane statistical production with the kind of team success that typically powers MVP seasons. The hire of Jason Kidd rightfully invites skepticism of the Mavericks, but with a potential power vacuum at the top of the Western Conference, Doncic’s ability to singlehandedly drive elite offense could push Dallas high enough in the standings to support what will likely be a mesmerizing individual season.
The rest of the ballot: Jokic, Joel Embiid, Steph Curry, LeBron James
Ian Levy: All these predictions are just educated guesses from a slew of very possible scenarios but I’m going to go with Kevin Durant, as boring as that may be. This would require the Nets to finish near the top of the East and look collectively dominant for much of the season, and to do that with James Harden and Kyrie Irving missing some time. Harden has seemed a bit fragile the past few seasons and it seems increasingly possible that the Nets may be playing without the unvaccinated Kyrie for half their games, or at least wrestling with the chaos that comes him delaying that decision as long as possible. In either case, I think there’s a chance the Nets look like the best team in the league with Durant rising above the fray as the clear team leader.
The rest of the ballot: Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James
Who is going to be the 2021-22 NBA Rookie of the Year?
Ben Ladner: I can see strong cases for Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs and Scottie Barnes, but I think the most likely outcome is Cade Cunningham, the most complete player in the class and the likely spearhead of Detroit’s offense. Cunningham enters the NBA with many of the physical and mental tools required to lead an offense, and while his rookie season will contain the typical speed bumps that rookies thrown into the NBA fire often hit, his size, ball-handling and decision-making put him a cut above even players like Suggs and Green as an offensive focal point.
The rest of the ballot: Green, Suggs, Barnes, Trey Murphy
Ian Levy: I think Cade Cunningham will be the best rookie this season but Jalen Green ends up winning the Rookie of the Year. Cunningham’s passing and defense are way ahead of Green’s but I don’t think he’ll get as many opportunities to put up big point totals as he works to integrate himself with Killian Hayes, Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. In the chaos of Houston, Green could easily finish the year averaging 20 points per game and those big box score numbers don’t usually get overlooked in postseason awards.
The rest of the ballot: Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, Davion Mitchell, Josh Giddey
Who is going to be the 2021-22 NBA Sixth Man of the Year?
Ben Ladner: Part of me wants to pick Joe Ingles in protest of him being edged out by his own team’s seventh man last year. Alas. Instead, I’ll go with Larry Nance Jr., who has next to no chance of winning this award because he doesn’t fill up the scoring column, but contributes to winning in ways that could be vital for a hungry Trail Blazers team. Nance is a heady offensive connector who sets punishing screens, and his ability to switch and passably protect the rim on defense should allow him to play as either a wing or a small-ball center. If his 3-point shot proves sustainable, he’ll be a perfect complementary player around Lillard and McCollum, and a candidate to close games for Portland.
If I had to pick who will actually win Sixth Man of the Year, I’d flip a coin between [player who averages the most points on a playoff team] and [player who averages the most points on a lottery team].
The rest of the ballot: Ingles, Josh Hart, Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson
Ian Levy: This one is a bit of a risk because I think there’s a chance he’s the starting shooting guard before too long, but I’ll go with Malik Monk. His scoring totals are going to be depressed playing with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis but he’s going to get a ton of open shots and he’s going to have huge games. With his combination of shooting and slashing, I think it also quickly becomes clear how important he is to the Lakers’ success and how often their best lineups hinge on him covering for some of the collective weaknesses of their stars. He may not have the best statistical resume of the potential candidates but he’ll have the numbers and the case for being a key player on a contender.
The rest of the ballot: Kevin Huerter, Joe Ingles, Jordan Crawford, Tyler Herro
Who is going to be the 2021-22 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year?
Ben Ladner: This is perennially the toughest award to project because it often goes to a player who makes a leap we don’t see coming. Pascal Siakam emerged as a key two-way player on an NBA champion after almost exclusively coming off the bench; Brandon Ingram made one of the biggest single-season shooting improvements in NBA history; last year, Julius Randle became a three-level scorer practically out of nowhere. Identifying the player who will add a completely unforeseen element to his game is a near impossibility. So much comes down to opportunity and hours of work we don’t see.
It feels like Golden State’s Jordan Poole has picked up momentum as a preseason favorite, and he’ll have every opportunity to solidify himself as a starting-caliber guard while Klay Thompson makes his way back from injury. OG Anunoby and Terrence Mann will assume some of the offensive responsibility left behind by Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, while the Spurs’ trio of Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV possess some intriguing upside. If forced to pick, I’ll take Poole, if only because he has a more direct path cleared for him to take a leap.
The rest of the ballot: Anunoby, Murray, Mann, P.J. Washington
Ian Levy: As I wrote in our 25-under-25, I think OG Anunoby has a chance to take a really special leap this season, becoming a two-way star. He’s been an elite wing defender for the past two seasons and last year he began to take the leap from a complementary player on offense to efficient self-creator:
“Last season he hit career highs in points and assists per minute, along with 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. He finished the year averaging 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game, shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 39.8 percent on 3-pointers and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line. His career-best true shooting percentage last year (60.5) also came while a career-low 51.0 percent of his 2-pointers were assisted on.”
I think there’s a chance he emerges from the grouping of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. as the clear offensive leader of this team, while still playing suffocating defense.
The rest of the ballot: Tyrese Maxey, Killian Hayes, Aleksej Pokusevski, Michael Porter Jr.
Who is going to be the 2021-22 NBA Coach of the Year?
Ben Ladner: Michael Malone has quietly led the Nuggets to four consecutive seasons with 46 wins or more, and if the Nuggets approximate last season’s 54-win pace this may be the year in which he’s formally acknowledged for his work. Denver has outperformed its talent level on defense in each of the last three seasons thanks to Malone’s cleverly devised schemes and remained a top-seven offense in each of the last five years. Of course, Jokic himself has much to do with Denver’s team success and the emergence of individual rotation players, but the coaching staff deserves credit for empowering such a unique center as a primary creator while still getting the most out of a deep rotation of less proven players. If healthy, the Nuggets may be the most complete team in the Western Conference, and Malone’s work on the margins has allowed the entire operation to coalesce into something far more dangerous than the sum of its parts.
The rest of the ballot: Nate McMillan, Taylor Jenkins, Steve Nash, Nick Nurse
Ian Levy: Coach of the Year always seems to come from a team dramatically outperforming expectations. I think Mike Malone pushing the Nuggets to a top-two seed in the Western Conference could be enough but I’m going to go out on a limb and pick Ime Udoka with the Boston Celtics. Expectations have the team finishing in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and replacing Brad Stevens will be perceived as an even more difficult task than many other first-year coaches are facing. I think the Celtics could have a bounce-back season and hitting 50 wins and a top-4 seed in the East should get Udoka into the conversation.
The rest of the ballot: Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, Monty Williams, Taylor Jenkins
This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down how Jordan Poole could take the leap for the Warriors and how the Knicks will need to improve to replicate last year’s success.