The UCSD Guardian’s 2021–22 NBA Awards Selections

With the NBA season coming to a thrilling end, teams are counting down the final days of the regular season and waiting to see how the league’s final standings end up, either determining a team’s first playoff opponent, or a team’s draft lottery positioning. While there are several players and coaches deserving of recognition for their outstanding performances throughout this year, there are only a handful of NBA end-of-year awards, so here are our selections for the 2021–22 NBA Awards.

Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets

Let’s just get this out of the way: The MVP race between Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid has been one of, if not the most, tightly contested three-way MVP races in NBA history. All three players have had absolutely spectacular seasons, and there is a valid argument to be had as to why each player deserves to be deemed the Most Valuable Player. However, after splitting some very thin hairs and ultimately making a still highly contested and difficult selection, I’m leaning towards “The Joker” being this year’s MVP.

Set aside Jokić’s outstanding season averages of 27.1 points per game, 13.8 rebounds per game, and 7.9 assists per game for just a moment, and consider that every advanced stat would point without question to Jokić having the most effective and valuable season of any player this season, and arguably ever. Couple that with the fact that he is leading the Denver Nuggets to a fifth or sixth seed in the Western Conference without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the team’s second and third best players. 

He also was able to compile a 2000+ point, 1000+ rebound, and 500+ assist season, a feat never achieved by any player in the NBA’s 75-year history. While Antetokounmpo and Embiid have very strong cases themselves as to why they should be the MVP, Jokić has put together one of the most efficient and valuable seasons ever, has accomplished something no other player in NBA history has, has single-handedly kept his team in the playoff picture throughout the season, and has had the largest on/off impact on his team’s performance, all of which points to Jokić as this year’s MVP.

Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

The Defensive Player of the Year Award is notorious for almost never being awarded to any backcourt player — the last to do it was “The Glove,” Gary Payton in 1996. While frontcourt players such as Draymond Green, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Rudy Gobert were often mentioned as primary candidates for the award, all of whom will still likely make an All-Defensive team this season, the tide shifted fairly substantially toward the middle of the season with the unexpected turnaround of the Boston Celtics. Boston not only went on a staggering 32–10 since their initial 18–21 start, but they also have the league’s best defensive rating, anchored by none other than the team’s starting point guard, Marcus Smart.

As one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, Smart often takes the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player, but he also is versatile and talented enough to switch onto frontcourt players effectively, leading the Celtics to allow fewer points per chance on switches than any other team this season. Smart is also one of the league leaders in steals, averaging 1.7 per game, and is the heart and soul of the best defensive team in the league, leading him to be our selection for defensive player of the year.

Rookie of the Year: Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Don’t get me wrong, Evan Mobley has been a standout for a young up-and-coming Cavaliers team this season, and has arguably exceeded the already-high expectations most had for him coming into the season as the third overall pick. 

However, Scottie Barnes has exceeded his own set of expectations arguably more than Mobley, and has been at the center of the success of a Raptors team with two previous All-Stars in Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam already in their lineup. Barnes has showcased his seamless fit with this long and athletic Raptors team, while also demonstrating his guardlike skill set at 6-foot-7. Averaging 15.5 points and 3.5 assists per game this season, while also being one of the team’s primary defenders, Barnes has already made a very substantial impact on an established playoff team, deserving of Rookie of the Year.

Sixth Man of the Year: Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

While this appears to be the most clear-cut selection out of all the awards, with many NBA insiders and analysts believing that Tyler Herro has essentially stamped his name on the trophy this year, it is still worth taking a look at how Herro was able to come to this point following a rather disappointing 2020–21 season.

After being one of the biggest standouts during the 2020 NBA bubble, in which Herro played a key role in helping the Miami Heat reach the NBA finals, many thought that Herro was due for a massive breakout last season. However, Herro was not able to perform to the level expected of him last season, averaging only 15 points per game, on a lower three-point shooting percentage (36%), and overall, just not playing to his previous high standard.

However, this year, Herro has bounced back in tremendous fashion, establishing himself as the league’s premiere second-unit scoring threat for a Miami Heat offense that relies heavily on Herro’s offensive output. Herro is averaging 20.7 points per game this season, leading all reserve players, while also shooting 40% from three and being one of the Heat’s most important offensive weapons, leading the team in crunch-time scoring and falling behind only Heat team leader Jimmy Butler in overall scoring.

While players such as Kevin Love, Luke Kennard, Cameron Johnson, or any of the Grizzlies’ main bench players deserve some love for the value they bring to their respective teams’ second units, Herro has performed at a high enough level to separate himself from the field and be named this year’s Sixth Man of the Year.

Most Improved Player: Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

This award probably has not only the largest pool of worthy candidates, but also has one of the more nuanced criteria, considering that there are not many stats or advanced metrics to determine who is most deserving of this award.

While one could argue that Ja Morant is deserving of winning this award after making the jump from an up-and-coming player to a superstar this year, that jump was foreseen by many NBA fans and analysts following his performance last season, and he has made the strides that many had expected from him since entering the league as the second overall pick. Due to this, we narrowed our selection primarily between two candidates, both of whom have made vast improvements in both their individual play, as well as team importance, Darius Garland and Dejounte Murray.

While Garland has truly been one of the league’s best surprises this year, becoming one of the primary leaders on a young and up-and-coming Cavaliers team, and being named an All-Star for the first time, we believe that Murray narrowly edges out Garland in this race due to his improvements on both his already-premiere defensive presence and his offensive game as the Spurs’ primary ball-handler and floor general. 

While Murray was already considered a top-flight defensive talent, having made an All-Defensive team in 2018, he has still found a way to improve on that end of the floor, leading the league in steals at 2 per game, and he is set to make another All-Defensive team.

However, it is Murray’s game on the other side of the court that contributed the most to his award case. After a fair performance during his 2020–2021 campaign, averaging 15.7 points per game and 5.4 assists per game, there was certainly still something left to be desired from Murray as the Spurs’ new leader. This season, Murray was able to meet those desires, improving his scoring average to 21.2 and his assists average to 9.3, resulting in Murray being named an All-Star for the first time in his career. 

Murray has been able to show why the Spurs had so much promise for him and has become the unquestioned number one on a young Spurs team that could make the playoffs depending on their play-in tournament results. So while Garland is deserving of this award and has helped lead the Cavs to their first playoff berth since LeBron James left in 2017, we believe that Murray just slightly edges Garland out for Most Improved Player this season.  

Coach of the Year: Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies

Before I explain the reasoning behind selecting Taylor Jenkins, there are two other coaches who also deserve heavy consideration for the award for the stupendous coaching job they have demonstrated this season: the Phoenix Suns’ Monty Wiliams and the Boston Celtics’ Ime Udoka. 

Williams has been able to build on the success of his team from last season, in which he coached the team to its first NBA Finals berth in over 25 years. The Suns were the best team in the NBA this season by a fairly wide margin, being the only team in either conference with over 60 wins this season, while being both a top 10 offensive and defensive team. 

Meanwhile, Udoka’s start as the new Celtics coach did not get off to as smooth a start as Williams’, as the Celtics started the season at only 18–21. While many were ready to call it in for the Celtics and await what they could do next season, Udoka did not have the same level of patience, as he coached the Celtics to a surprising turn-around midway through the season, coaching the team to an impressive 32–10 record since. Udoka has led the Celtics to be one of the more cohesive and tenacious teams in the NBA, as they now sit towards the top of the Eastern Conference.

While both Williams and Udoka deserve heavy consideration for this award, Taylor Jenkins’ coaching display with the Memphis Grizzlies has been absolutely spectacular and second to none. While many foresaw the Grizzlies as an up-and-coming team following their first-round playoff exit against the Jazz last season, nobody could quite foresee just how much of an improvement this Grizzlies team would make. 

Finishing this season with the second-best record in the NBA, the Grizzlies have been one of the more consistent teams this season, displaying great team chemistry and defensive efforts game after game, which is a testament to the wonderful coaching job that Jenkins has done with the second youngest team in the league. Jenkins has also been able to coach the team to an outstanding 20–3 record without superstar Ja Morant, illustrating the team’s ability to perform at a high level without its star player, a strong indication of a well-coached team. Jenkins has coached this Grizzlies team to one of its best overall records in team history, and has been able to get significant contributions from all of the team’s rotational players, putting him squarely in the lead for Coach of the Year.

Image courtesy of All-Pro Reels