The NBA, along with the entire world, is reeling from the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus). While the spread is hopefully in one way neutralized by the NBA game stoppage—good for 30 days—without players, coaches, officials, and fans huddled in large public gatherings, the question of what happens when the league is back on comes into focus.
If the NBA returns in April and instead moves its attention towards the playoffs, ending the regular season effective on March 12th, who were the big award winners in the shortened 2019-20 season? This is where the NBA’s best stand given the season ending a up to 67 games played for a handful of teams, and 64, 65, and 66 for others.
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Giannis Antokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The entire 2019-20 NBA campaign for the Milwaukee Bucks has been following in the footsteps of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors—although they will positively seek a better ending than the Dubs losing in seven to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Before the NBA stoppage, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were headed to a 70-win season (until three straight losses in what could be the final stretch of their regular season).
Antetokounmpo, 25, of course, won the award last year. Much like Stephen Curry in the second leg of his back-to-back MVP seasons, The Greek Freak is the best player on the best team playing at a historically great pace ahead of the pack. Antetokounmpo is better than last season and is the best player of the most intimidating team right now—nobody wants to play them.
James has a horse in the race. He leads the league in assists and assists per game (the latter by a full point over second-year Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young) and reinvented himself for the umpteenth time to fit with All-NBA power forward Anthony Davis.
But Giannis is playing his best basketball for the league’s best team. It sounds so simple, but on many nights this past season the Bucks have looked like they play in an entirely different league than their opponents.
Runner-ups: LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
No, Rudy Gobert doesn’t win this award for defending the NBA so well it had to shut down.
But this is a sneakily difficult award this season with a few standout performances including Antetokounmpo and Sixers point-forward Ben Simmons, who had been sidelined recently with injury.
Anthony Davis wins this award, though, because he’s leading the Los Angeles Lakers with staggering confidence and intimidation. Along with leading L.A. in scoring, the 27-year-old former Pelicans big man and perennial All-Star averages 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. The Lakers have the third-best ranked defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
Runner-ups: Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Rookie of the Year
Winner: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
If the Rookie of the Year award follows the same logic as the MVP honor—who was the most valuable player this season?—then only the Memphis Grizzlies first-year point guard Ja Morant fits the billing in spite of New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson showing off these last few months.
This should not be an honor about who will have the best career or who the better play is one-on-one. And while we don’t know what the future holds, if the postseason does play out, for example, the 20-year-old Murray State product was the best rookie, leading the Grizzlies to a playoff berth as of March 12th in the loaded Western Conference.
Obviously that is not entirely fair to Williamson, whose injury sidelined the first overall pick out of Duke for three months from Oct. 2019 to Jan. 2020, but injuries are a part of the game; Joel Embiid’s short “rookie” season did not grant him the award even though he was likely the best player considered for the ROY.
Morant 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game in 59 appearances, shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from deep. He was the best player on a playoff team in his debut season and he will be known as the best rookie in 2019-20. He’s the NBA Rookie of the Year.
Runner-ups: Zion Williamson, Kendrick Nunn
Sixth Man of the Year
Winner: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Look, it would be facetious to say Lou Williams isn’t either likely winning this award or as much deserving as his Clippers teammate. However, let’s give the fifth-year center Sixth Man of the Year instead of the 33-year-old three-time winner Williams.
Harrell has become an integral part of the L.A. team led at the top by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, with head coach Doc Rivers relying on the big man to provide frontcourt assistance in the scoring department. Harrell has averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds—career bests—in 27.8 minutes per game, shooting 58.0 percent from the field in 63 appearances this season for the second-best team in the Western Conference.
If he isn’t the Sixth Man of the Year, then he has likely the most compelling case.
Runner-ups: Lou Williams, Dennis Schröder
Most Improved Player
Winner: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
A first-time All-Star for the Celtics, forward Jayson Tatum has blossomed in year three, turning into a star with superstar potential to lead Boston back to contention in the Eastern Conference a year after they fizzled out.
Tatum, 22, averaged 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game in 59 appearances while looking the part, including multiple game-winners/go-ahead shots and stepping up to be a star for the Celtics.
Runner-ups: Domantas Sabonis, Brandon Ingram, Devonte’ Graham
Coach of the Year
Winner: Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
One of the hallmarks of finding a Coach of the Year is a bit of the backhanded compliment: “That coach took that team that far?!”
Erik Spoelstra is already a two-time champion coach, but besides the acquisition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler last summer, the Heat were far from a sure thing. It took the growth and development of big man Bam Adebayo along with newcomers Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson to begin rounding out a bona fide contender in the East this season.
The Heat, should the regular season already be over, will finish 41-24 and fourth in the Eastern Conference by a two-game margin over No. 5 Pacers. Spoelstra’s leadership under a transition period for the Heat was remarkable, and they’re both one of the most fun and competitive teams this year.
Runner-ups: Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder), Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics)
Executive of the Year
Winner: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager
Sam Presti started the NBA calendar year back in the summer by trading stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook (he also shipped off Jerami Grant). In return, not that draft picks matter too much for the visceral on-court product here, OKC received Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous Alexander.
The Thunder, by March 12th, were on track to win two more games than last season’s team.
Not only does Presti have OKC built for the future—a boatload of picks plus budding star combo guard Gilgeous-Alexander—but the Thunder are the fifth-best team in the West and trail No. 4 Utah Jazz by a single game; a single game away from a first-round home court advantage.
Runner-ups: Pat Riley (Miami Heat), Rob Pelinka (Thunder)