Predicting Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and other NBA awards

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Yesterday, we made our MVP predictions. Today, we’re tackling other 2021 NBA awards.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Anthony Davis (Lakers)

Davis was the Lakers’ anchor a year ago and almost won this award, and I expect this year he could take home the trophy because he again will be critical to what should be a top defense — and voters will see plenty of him. Of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo could win it again, but voters tend to gravitate toward big men who protect the paint, such as Rudy Gobert (Utah), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia), and Bam Adebayo (Miami). Marcus Smart should get some love here, too.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Rudy Gobert has been the NBA’s best regular-season defender over the last several years. He is the safest pick. Derrick Favors returning to Utah should make the Jazz’s defense even better, which will reflect well on Gobert.

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Joel Embiid all have a chance depending on how much they put into the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo could repeat, though he might be at the stage he saves something for the playoffs. Bam Adebayo is another safe candidate considering his effort level should be high throughout the regular season.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Isaac Okoro (Cavaliers)

Winning ROY requires a blend of talent and opportunity, and that combo should be available to a few players this season. LaMelo Ball has an “it” factor, but he is also 3-of-15 shooting in two preseason games and his defense is an issue. Will he be efficient enough? Obi Toppin with the Knicks and Anthony Edwards with the Timberwolves will get chances and put up numbers.

But I will go with Okoro — he’s going to get all the run in Cleveland he wants, he will be a strong defender, he’s shown a better shooting touch than we saw at Auburn. Collin Sexton will get him the rock in good spots and Okoro is in line to put up bigger numbers than expected.

Dan Feldman: Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves)

Set to hold a big role on an offensive-minded team, Anthony Edwards looks most likely to lead rookies in scoring. That puts him in the driver’s seat for this award. The No. 1 pick might even wind up deserving it.

He narrowly outpaces the top player on my 2020 NBA draft board – LaMelo Ball, who should hold a prominent role on the Hornets.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Jordan Clarkson (Jazz)

A gunner off the bench who racks up numbers often wins this award — think Lou Williams — and Jordan Clarkson is poised to be that guy in Utah. Clarkson is a bucket getter who averaged 15.2 points a game last season and if that number goes up, and he’s efficient, he will be in line for this award. I could put Dennis Schroder from the Lakers on top of the list, but my guess is he will start too many games to qualify; if not, he should be a favorite as well. Watch out for Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn, and maybe Montrezl Harrell with the Lakers (he would repeat as the winner).

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Lakers)

Montrezl Harrell earned this award last season. Free agency didn’t go as he hoped, but he can re-enter the market next summer. That gives him major motivation to prove himself again. With the Lakers, he’ll have playmakers like LeBron James and Dennis Schroder (another candidate for this award… if he comes off the bench) to set him up.

Danilo Gallinari, who’ll come off the bench for the Hawks, is another intriguing consideration. Lou Williams and Spencer Dinwiddie are perennial candidates.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

By definition this is the hardest award to project because it is often about the player who surprises us the most with a step forward.

Michael Porter Jr. wouldn’t be a total surprise, we started to see him live up to his potential in the bubble, but he could have a breakout season on a winning team and that can catch the attention of voters. His teammate Jamal Murray could be in the mix, too. Christian Wood in Houston, Deandre Ayton in Phoenix, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Oklahoma City are other names to watch.

Dan Feldman: Zion Williamson (Pelicans)

This is the most difficult award to predict. By nature, it tends to go to someone who surprises. Voters also discount second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Williamson.

But he’s primed for a leap. As productive as he was in his limited minutes last season, Williamson was severely lacking defensively. He also didn’t show his full offensive repertoire. As he gets into better shape, Williamson could play even better. More importantly, he could massively increase his impact by being available for more playing time.

I also like Suns center Deandre Ayton, who fits the same mold as a talented player with an elite physical profile who can do more.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Tyronn Lue (Clippers)

The Clippers had and have the talent to compete for a ring, but chemistry concerns (some caused by injury) ripped the team apart last season. If Tyronn Lue can keep the Clippers on the same page, on the court, and near the top of the West voters may line up behind him to win the award.

Erik Spoelstra in Miami, Monte Williams in Phoenix, and Doc Rivers in Philadelphia also should be in the mix.

Dan Feldman: Doc Rivers (76ers)

The 76ers successfully lowered expectations last season just in time for Doc Rivers to arrive and get credit for their rise. He’d almost certainly deserve some. He’s a good coach. Rivers could definitely do a better job than Brett Brown of getting this talented team pulling in the same direction. But that’s also easier with a better-fitting roster that has more shooting around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Suns coach Monty Williams is also positioned to coach well and have his team’s roster improvement reflect well on him.

That said, this is another award where the element of surprise helps.