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Way-too-early NBA award predictions: Sixth man of the year and most improved player

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Nathan new author
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5th January, 2021

The NBA is back after its shortest – and longest, depending on which team you ask – off-season in league history.

It has been an incredibly unpredictable first two weeks of the season. The Clippers beat the Nuggets by 13 and then lost to the Mavericks by 51 in their next game. The Nets beat the Warriors by 26 on opening night and then lost four of their next six games.

With so much unpredictability who would possibly try to predict the end-of-season awards?

I would.

Let’s start with the sixth man of the year and most improved player awards as it is usually fairly clear early on which players have been designated a bench role and which players have significantly improved their game.

Sixth man of the year


The Los Angeles Clippers have won five of the last seven sixth man of the year 6MOY awards, two of those going to Lou Williams due to his scoring bursts off the bench. It appears nowadays this award should be renamed the ‘semi-efficient burst scorer off the bench who cannot start due to a team’s lack of scoring options off the bench, available minutes in the starting line-up and/or defence’, although that might not fit on the award.

Why do we even award something to the sixth man anyway? Surely the second to fifth man is more valuable and deserves an award instead.

To be eligible for this award, a player must come off the bench in more games than he starts.

Let’s look at the nominees.

Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic)
Points: 22.0 | Rebounds: 2.6 | Assists: 1.0
Field goals: 49 per cent | Three-pointers: 43 per cent | Free throws: 91 per cent

The high-flying Terrence Ross is leading the Magic in scoring with 22 points per game in 29 minutes off the bench on almost unbelievable efficiency which – you guessed it – are all career highs. There is a very high likelihood the law of averages will come into play and Ross will drop back down to his career shooting stats of 42 per cent from the field, 37 per cent from the arc and 83 per cent from the line. But for now can we just believe that something greater than mediocrity might happen to the Orlando Magic?

It does not hurt that the Magic are 5-2 and look like they are right on track to get a hat-trick in first-round exits.

Two weeks into the season and it appears that Terrence Ross is ticking all the boxes for a sixth man winner: major minutes off the bench, presenting a consistent scoring threat and a winning record.


Goran Dragic (Miami Heat)
Points: 15.2 | Rebounds: 3.2 | Assists: 5.2
Field goals: 50 per cent | Three-pointers: 24 per cent | Free throws: 85 per cent

Yes, that’s right. The best player to ever come out Slovenia… wait, what’s that? Luka Doncic is from Slovenia?

Okay, a correction: the second-best player to ever come out Slovenia (sorry, Sasha Vujacic), Goran Dragic, is once again taking over a bench role for the Miami Heat. Last year the Dragon finished sixth in 6MOTY voting, receiving six third-place votes. I almost didn’t believe the number of sixes in that sentence.

Goran Dragic uses his elite ability to keep his dribble alive to manoeuvre through the paint and set up the offence for the Heat, who are currently ninth in the East at 0.500 win-loss pace. Despite shooting a career-low 24 per cent from the arc, Dragic is still averaging 15 points and five assists off the bench in the lowest minutes per game of his career since his first stint with Phoenix.

Coming off a torn plantar fascia in Game 1 of the NBA finals and at the tail end of his career, Dragic may value team success over individual accolades, leading to reduced minutes and preservation of his health, which may hinder his chance at taking home the award.

Either way Dragic will need to improve his three-point percentage and cut down on the turnovers if he wants voters to see him as a serious contender.


Caris Levert (Brooklyn Nets)
Points: 13.1 | Rebounds: 4.3 | Assists: 5.6
Field goals: 37 per cent | Three-pointers: 42 per cent | Free throws: 88 per cent

The Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, so there is not a lot of room for ball handling in the starting line-up. Caris Levert loves to handle the ball – in fact he had a usage rate of 29.4 per cent last season, which was higher than Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Demar DeRozan. This does not look like slowing down either, with his usage rate over the first seven games sitting at 27.6 per cent.

With the season-ending injury for Spencer Dinwiddie, Levert will be given all the opportunity to run the bench unit and will most likely finish games on the court next to Kyrie and Kevin. Not to mention his stats will almost certainly be inflated due to both of these stars sitting games throughout the season.

If Caris Levert can improve his efficiency and benefit of increased minutes for a team bound to finish towards the top of the Eastern Conference, the award will be his to lose.

Honourable mentions
Jordan Clarkson (UTA), Derrick Rose (DET) and Montrezl Harrell (LAL).

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Most improved player

To win this award you basically need to improve your individual statistics thanks to increased opportunity to the point of being an all-star calibre player. Let’s also not forget the unwritten rule that second-year players are not allowed to win this award – since we expect them to improve on their rookie season, it does not really count.

Here are the nominees.

Christian Wood (Houston Rockets)
Points: 23.8 | Rebounds: 10.8 | Assists: 2.0
Field goals: 56 per cent | Three-pointers: 35 per cent | Free throws: 65 per cent

Wood was highly sought after in free agency and it’s easy to see why. It was rumoured he declined an offer from the Pistons and took less money to join the Rockets, which is turning out to be a career-defining move.


It would take a major drop-off for Christian Wood to lose this award. His move to the Houston Rockets has resulted in an increase across the board, including a jump of 15.1 minutes per game, 10.7 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game, 1.0 assists per game, 0.5 steals per game and 1.4 blocks per game.

Although versatile, he may not make it into the All-Star game despite playing like one. This is not unexpected, as Wood has shown flashes of this sort of output throughout his career, particularly during stints in Detroit and New Orleans, but the increased opportunity and media attention provided at Houston is the perfect storm to win the most improved player.

It also helps that Wood is running the pick and roll with James Harden, who, if you have not noticed, is pretty good at basketball.

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Points: 28.0 | Rebounds: 4.6 | Assists: 3.1
Field goals: 60 per cent | Three-pointers: 43 per cent | Free throws: 68 per cent

Many people began this season suggesting the Celtics should include Jaylen Brown in a trade package for James Harden. I guess Brown channelled his inner MJ and took this personally.

He has come out of the gates on fire this season with improved play-making ability and a better three-point shot, allowing him to increase his scoring output from 20.3 points per game a season ago. Brown is likely to garner his first all-star selection this season, and if the Rockets do trade James Harden or struggle to make the playoffs, voters may prefer to give the award to the player on the more successful team.

Brown would become the first Boston Celtic to win the award since its inception in 1985.

Michael Porter Jr (Denver Nuggets)
Points: 19.5 | Rebounds: 6.8 | Assists: 1.8
Field goals: 57 per cent | Three-pointers: 42 per cent | Free throws: 88 per cent

I know I said second-year players aren’t allowed to win this award, but does MPJ really count? Yes, he does, but I don’t care. The 14th pick in the 2018 NBA draft red-shirted his ‘rookie’ season for health reasons and then managed only 16 minutes per game off the bench for the Nuggets in his second (actual rookie) season.

However, it was the NBA bubble that proved numerous draft ‘experts’ correct. Michael Porter Jr is an elite scorer that has a chance to be special in this league.

Porter Jr took advantage of an injured Will Barton and underperforming Gary Harris to average 11 points per game in 24 minutes off the bench with above-average efficiency (48 per cent field goal average, 38 per cent three-point average) and used his unique measurements to play a vital role in the Nuggets dream run to the Western Conference Final.

Now in his third (or second?) season Porter Jr has finally been released into the starting line-up, where he has more than doubled his points per game output and provided a greater effort on the defensive end. If his health can hold up and if the Nuggets can improve on their 2-4 record, Michael Porter Jr has a great chance to steal some MIP votes.

Honourable mentions
Markelle Fultz (ORL), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (OKC) and Domantis Sabonis (IND)