How real is the ROY debate? Dissecting the big NBA award questions

As the NBA prepares for a possible return to play in the midst of a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, which awards races are still in play?

The NBA is expected to approve a return-to-play plan on Thursday, with growing support for a 22-team field that will include regular-season and play-in games to compete for playoff berths in both conference.

Back in March, LeBron James was trying to close the gap in the MVP race with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson‘s return from injury had some believing that he could make it a real Rookie of the Year race with Ja Morant, and there was a deep field of contenders in the other major awards.

Our experts break down ESPN’s latest awards projections, the races they’re most interested to watch, which rookie star they’d rather build around and the big MVP questions.

MORE: Biggest winners and losers in a 22-team return plan

1. Which awards race are you most interested to watch, assuming there are additional regular-season games?

Kevin Pelton: Rookie of the Year, because the players involved will be playing more meaningful games. I’m not sure whether voting would be held before or after a possible play-in tournament, but either way Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans would be jockeying for position in that tournament, whereas a shortened regular season would make it difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers to catch the Milwaukee Bucks and possibly swing the MVP race.

Tim MacMahon: I can’t say that I anticipate anything happening in a handful of regular-season games that would change my vote for any of the awards. I guess I’ll go with ROY simply because, like the league office, I’m excited to see more Williamson. But Morant’s body of work is too impressive for someone who has played a fraction of the season to steal the trophy.

Bobby Marks: Coach of the Year. There is a field of 10 who can win the award for top coach. Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee and Frank Vogel of the Lakers have the two best teams, but the Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors) have exceeded expectations. Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat), Taylor Jenkins (Memphis Grizzlies), Doc Rivers (LA Clippers), Mike Malone (Denver Nuggets) and Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics) all could receive first-place votes.

Andre Snellings: MVP. Antetokounmpo had been in the driver’s seat all season, but during the final few weeks before the shutdown, James was making a surge. Presumably, the added rest and attenuated schedule should allow Antetokounmpo to finish strong, but it will be interesting to see if James can heat up this debate.

Tim Bontemps: It’s hard to see any of them changing because of a few games in Florida, but I would be curious to see if Giannis would be able to secure the double of Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in the same season — something that only Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olaujuwon have done.

2. Zion Williamson or Ja Morant: Which rookie would you rather build a team around?

Bontemps: Morant. There’s no question Williamson is a hell of a talent, but the concerns about his long-term health — plus the potential complications that come with building around a 6-foot-6 center, which very well could be his long-term position — make me tip the scales in Morant’s favor. Having a dynamic ball handler to build around without those same injury concerns (though Morant does scare me every time he flies in the air for a highlight dunk) makes him my choice.

Pelton: Williamson. While there are understandable concerns about his health and durability long term, Williamson was clearly the better prospect entering the draft and has been dominant while on the court this season — not by rookie standards, but for just about anyone.

MacMahon: I believe they both have superstar potential, but if I have to pick one over the other for the long haul, it would be Williamson. He’s just such a unique talent. The closest we’ve got to seeing this sort of power/athleticism/skill combo is Hall of Famer Charles Barkley — and Williamson is bigger and more explosive.

Marks: Williamson has the potential to be a franchise player, but I saw firsthand in New Jersey with Hall of Famer Jason Kidd the impact a point guard can have with a team. Morant has already turned a Memphis squad many predicted would finish at the bottom of the Western Conference into a team contending for a playoff spot. He’s my pick.

Snellings: I’d rather build around Williamson, just because he’s the more unique talent. Morant is exciting, and his combo of skills and athleticism makes his upside brilliant, but Williamson has the once-in-a-generation upside for his class. The total package of his physical gifts, skills, upside and charisma could allow him to grow into both an MVP and an ambassador for the game who can carry a franchise to the heights.

3. Of the major awards candidates, whose emergence has you most impressed right now?

Snellings: Bam Adebayo, because his push for Most Improved Player has corresponded with him growing into a franchise-caliber big for the new era. In a league where the traditional post player has been devalued, Adebayo has been able to establish himself as a mobile defensive disruptor in the middle while still contributing in versatile ways on offense.

Bontemps: There were plenty of people in the NBA who thought Adebayo would be a good player for the Heat once they got Hassan Whiteside out of his way. But I’m not sure anyone was quite sure Adebayo would be this good. As Miami tries to build its next true championship contender, it is actually Adebayo — and not Jimmy Butler — who should be Miami’s biggest selling point to lure another star player to the shores of Biscayne Bay.

Pelton: Brandon Ingram. Ingram’s development as a shooter this season has been unexpected and crucial to his value. He’s attempted 3s more than three times as often compared to last season, while making them at a career-high 39% clip. Ingram has also gone from a sub-70% free throw shooter each of his first three seasons to 86% at the line this season.

MacMahon: The Greek Freak’s rapid rise from a skinny, mysterious project who lasted until the middle of the first round in 2013 to a historically dominant force shouldn’t be taken for granted. If these projections are right, Antetokounmpo will have a couple of MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award before his 26th birthday. And he just might have a championship, too.

Marks: Dennis Schroder, who has gone from starting 145 games in Atlanta during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons to accepting a role of coming off the bench for the Thunder. While his points (19.0) and minutes (31.0) are nearly identical to his last season with the Hawks, Schroder has come off the bench in all but one game this season and is having his most efficient career performance.

4. Fact or fiction: LeBron James and James Harden have won their last MVP awards.

Marks: Fiction. Unless James is retired, I will never count him out when it comes to competing for MVP. Harden is still in the prime of his career and has averaged 30.4, 36.1 and 34.4 points in the past three seasons, respectively. There is no sign that the shooting guard cannot continue at that pace in the future.

Snellings: Fiction. James is older (35 to Harden’s 30), but he very easily could have won this season’s MVP award, and there’s no reason he couldn’t make a similar push next season. And Harden’s game relies so little on athleticism that he could play at this level for the next handful of seasons, easily. Between the two, odds are that there is at least one more MVP award forthcoming.

Bontemps: I’ll say fact, for the simple reason that both James and Harden are on the wrong side of 30. In addition to that, as younger stars such as Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Anthony Davis continue to put themselves in these conversations, they are more likely to win MVPs on a year-to-year basis.

Pelton: More fact than fiction. Given James’ age, if he doesn’t win it this year, the difficulty goes up considerably each season. Harden now has to contend with splitting scoring and possibly even votes with Russell Westbrook. But I wouldn’t rule out another MVP for one of the two players.

MacMahon: I sure wouldn’t put my paycheck on that. They’re both perennial MVP candidates, and Antetokounmpo isn’t going to win it every year. Harden, the best scorer of his generation, is in the middle of his prime and manages to add something to his game each summer. James keeps defying nature by showing no decline this deep into his career. I’m not sure they’ll both win another MVP, but the odds are at least one or the other will.

5. Who will be the next first-time MVP winner?

MacMahon: At the risk of being accused of local bias: Luka Doncic. Not that it’s a controversial pick. The kid couldn’t even legally buy a beer in the United States until February, and he’s already flirting with averaging a triple-double for a playoff team. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, particularly with his 3-point shot (31.8%) and continued chemistry development with co-star Kristaps Porzingis, and the Mavericks might be a piece or two away from being bona fide contenders.

Marks: The easy answer is Doncic. However, Anthony Davis has put together an MVP-type season that is overshadowed by the play of Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. If Davis can stay healthy (a big if) and the Lakers continue to sit atop the Western Conference standings for the next three seasons, Davis should have his first MVP trophy in the near future.

Snellings: Close battle between Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic, with Anthony Davis and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid on the fringe. Davis is right at his peak, but James’ presence limits him. Embiid has the talent but hasn’t put it all together for a full season yet. Doncic is electric and a legitimate MVP candidate already, but I’m not sure the Mavericks will make the jump to contention that is required for an MVP. Jokic, on the other hand, has played at near-MVP level for multiple seasons. The Denver center is young enough to continue to improve, and his team could legitimately battle for the best record next season to make him an MVP front-runner.

Bontemps: There are really only two front-runners here: Davis and Doncic. My pick will be Doncic, as Davis will likely be playing next to James for the foreseeable future, while Doncic is the face of his franchise. Given that he already is likely to finish among the top five in MVP voting in his second season in the league, there’s every reason to think that Doncic will be collecting the hardware for himself sometime in the near future.

Pelton: Doncic. For Doncic to be in “the conversation” (he’s fifth on my ballot at the moment) at age 21 portends MVPs in his future, and perhaps sooner rather than later.

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