The 2021-22 NBA season was one of the greatest seasons in recent history. Brand new rosters, blockbuster trades, broken records and teams coming out of nowhere to contend, there was plenty to love as a fan.
Each and every year, players try to perform at the highest level in order to make themselves eligible for one of the following regular season awards:
- Most Valuable Player
- Most Improved Player
- Defensive Player of the Year
- Rookie of the Year
- Sixth Man of the Year
The NBA has experimented with different ways of handing out these awards. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, they tried an NBA Awards show which was run as an event like the Academy Awards. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few years, awards were handed out during the NBA Playoffs in team training sessions. This gave players an intimate setting to receive their awards surrounded by their teammates.
The Most Valuable Player (MVP) award definitely stands out from the rest. This award is given to the player who has been the consensus best player around the league during the regular season. With the NBA Playoffs now well underway, the NBA has begun handing out these awards.
Before I get into who I think is going to win the 2021-22 NBA MVP award, let’s take a look at who’s won some of the other awards around the league.
Defensive Player of the Year
The very first award to be handed out was for the Defensive Player of the Year. This one is quite simple in that it is given to the best defensive player of any given year. One of the greatest perimeter defenders in NBA history, Gary Payton showed up at the Boston Celtics training facility to give Marcus Smart his first regular season award.
Smart was previously a 3-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team and averaged 1.7 steals and 0.3 blocks on his way to the award. While his defensive stats weren’t out of this world, Marcus Smart prides his game on his defensive energy and intensity, making him the perfect match for this award.
Rookie of the Year
A few days later, we witnessed another all-time great, Vince Carter attend the Toronto Raptors training facility (virtually) to give Scottie Barnes the Rookie of the Year award. This award is given to the best player during their first season in the NBA. Throughout the regular season, Scottie posted averages of 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 74 games.
He had an extremely well-rounded season and was an integral part of helping his Toronto Raptors win 48 games on the way to the 5 seed. His main competition for this award was Evan Mobley from the Cleveland Cavaliers. While both players averaged extremely similar statistics, Scottie was able to break through and win the race for the award.
Most Improved Player
The next award handed out was the Most Improved Player award which is given to the player who has made the biggest statistical jump. This year, the award was won by one of the league’s up and coming superstars in Ja Morant.
In the 2020-21 NBA season, Ja averaged 19.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists on 45% shooting from the field and 30% from the three-point line. In the 2021-22 NBA season, he made a drastic jump up to 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 49% shooting from the field and 34% from the three-point line. Despite his ascension into stardom, Ja Morant gifted the award to recognise his teammate Desmond Bane’s improvement during the season.
Sixth Man of the Year
The Sixth Man of the Year award is given to the best player in the league who comes off the bench in more than half their games. This year, the award was given to Tyler Herro from the Miami Heat. Tyler averaged 20.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 45% from the field and almost 40% from the three-point line.
It was a very special moment when Udonis Haslem, a seasoned veteran in the NBA presented Tyler with the award.
Most Valuable Player
As mentioned previously, the Most Valuable Player award is given to the best performing player every season. This race is often decided by several factors which include the player’s statistical performance (traditional and advanced stats), their team’s performance and the narrative of their season.
Following the conclusion of the regular season, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo were named as the three finalists for the NBA Most Valuable Player award. International players turning into superstars have become a lot more common in recent years. Previously, there had only been a total of six international players to win one (or more) MVP awards. This year will mark the fourth straight season that an international player has won the award (Antetokounmpo in 2018-19 and 2019-20, Jokic in 2020-21).
Each one of the three finalists has put up incredible individual seasons which gives them a reason to be a part of the MVP conversation. There were players like Luka Dončić, DeMar DeRozan and Devin Booker who each put up strong arguments for the award, however, fell short at the finish line.
The MVP Finalists
While each candidate for the Most Valuable Player has their own merits, there is only one player who can take home the award. The question is, will it be Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokoumpo or Joel Embiid?
Nikola Jokic, the winner of the 2019-20 MVP award is in contention to be the 13th player in NBA history to win consecutive MVP awards. The reigning MVP put up a historical NBA season with averages of 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks and 3.8 turnovers.
Jokic has shown his prowess as one of the best players in the league over the last few seasons. Even though he’s a center who stands at over 7 feet tall and 129 kg, his unique vision makes him one of the best playmakers in the league. Jokic’s ability to do almost everything on the court, and his overall production makes him incredibly valuable.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the second and third-best players on Jokic’s Denver Nuggets squad were injured for the majority of the year. Despite this, Jokic led his team to a playoff spot as the 6-seed. He also led the league in Triple Doubles while setting the all-time record for Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in a single season.
This season Jokic is the only player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season. He also posted better statistics than his MVP season last year (where he averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists). The majority of advanced statistics fall in the favour of Jokic due to his all-around production as the outright best player on his team.
One of the biggest downsides of Jokic’s MVP campaign is his defense. While his defensive ability has definitely improved this year, he isn’t actually as good of a defender as the other two candidates. The advanced metrics do say that Jokic is a better defender, but fans who watch the games know that both Giannis and Joel are valued a lot more on the defensive end. In addition to this, his team was only the 6th seed in the Western Conference as the Denver Nuggets couldn’t break the 50 win mark in the 82 game season.
Coming into the 2021-22 NBA season, Joel Embiid was determined to make a name for himself in the MVP conversation. To start the season, the Philadelphia 76ers were without Embiid’s co-star Ben Simmons, due to Simmons’ mental health struggles. Despite this, Embiid managed to lead the team to 51 wins, earning the 76ers the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Embiid posted averages of 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.5 blocks throughout the season. By scoring 30.6 points per game, he took home the scoring title after a close battle with Lebron James and Giannis Antetokoumpo. He had the most 40 point games in the league with 13. The two next players, Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo only had 10.
The main case for Joel Embiid comes down to his overall narrative as an NBA player. Being a volleyball player for the majority of his childhood, Joel didn’t actually pick up a basketball until he was 15 years old. Inspired by legendary big man Hakeem Olajuwan, Joel Embiid developed his game from the ground up which made him one of the most diverse and talented big men in the league to date.
After entering the NBA as the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Joel missed the first two seasons of his career due to a stress fracture in his foot. Injuries have derailed the career of NBA players in the past. The most notable example is Derrick Rose, the youngest MVP of all time. Joel has had some trouble with staying healthy in the past, the biggest downside to his game was his injury-prone nature. This season he played in a career-best 68 games, laying those concerns to rest. His journey throughout the NBA bolsters his name being a part of the MVP conversation and it will be interesting to see if voters portray him in the same way.
Toward the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers managed to trade Ben Simmons for superstar James Harden. Despite adding Harden (arguably a top 10 player in the league when healthy), the 76ers continue to be Joel Embiid’s team as he continued to put up astonishing numbers. In the games without Embiid, his team had a record of 6 wins and 8 losses.
Joel’s biggest downside in the MVP conversation is that Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both producing similar numbers while being better playmakers for their teams. After coming second to Nikola Jokic in the MVP race last year, Embiid is still trying to cement his spot as the best player in the league.
After winning two consecutive MVP awards in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 NBA seasons, Giannis could be on track to win his third in four seasons. He had a very solid statistical season with 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks. His all-around production has been very welcome on a Milwaukee Bucks team coming off of an NBA championship. The Bucks ended the 2021-22 NBA season as the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with 51 wins.
Like Joel, Giannis didn’t pick up a basketball until later in his life when he was 13 years old. Around five years later, he emerged as an extremely raw prospect with amazing potential due to his lanky genetics. The argument for Giannis is quite simple, he is one of the best players on one of the best teams in the league.
Adding to this, he is arguably the most dominant player in the NBA. His elite strength helps him to body defenders on his way to a vicious dunk in the paint, while his raw athleticism gives him the opportunity to go coast-to-coast in a few strides. While these are two of the most important aspects of his game, his defense is incredibly valuable and has caused him to consistently be in the race for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
A third MVP award would help Giannis continue to build up his accolades. To celebrate the NBA’s 75th anniversary, Antetokounmpo was named as one of the top 75 players of all time. Since the Greek Freek is only 27 years old, he has quite a lot of time to build the rest of his resume.
Giannis finished the season on a strong note as he won the KIA Player of the Month award for March and April. During this time, he averaged 31.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. This string of games produced numerous highlights, something that Giannis has been no stranger to during his 9-year career in the NBA.
With an injury to center Brook Lopez earlier in the year, Giannis took it upon himself to play more minutes at the center position to help alleviate the loss of defense. The reason that Giannis may not win the award is because of the lack of interest from media. The narrative of a player is a big part of the voting process and Giannis’ campaign may be skewed by his recent NBA Championship and recency bias.
And my pick for the 2021-22 MVP is …
While Jokic comes in at a close second, Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid pulls off the surprise upset as our pick for The Owl’s NBA Most Valuable Player award. At the end of the day, Joel Embiid’s narrative makes him the best candidate.
After starting to play basketball as a teenager and missing the first two seasons of his NBA career, Embiid has shown gradual improvement and has ascended as one of the best players in the league. His diverse skill set as a seven-footer and his team’s 51 wins give him the boost to win his first MVP award. Overall, the narrative of his career trajectory and becoming the first center in over 20 years to win the scoring title cement his campaign to win this award.
It could take up to a month before the award is announced and we find out which one of these three candidates wins the MVP award. In the meantime, we can enjoy watching these players as they battle through the NBA Playoffs in an attempt to secure their team a championship.
If you would like to see The Owl’s predictions for the NBA Playoffs, you can find my colleague Robbie Stewart’s article here.
Photos by Luke Ross