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Steve Popper's awards, highlights and lowlights from a strange NBA season

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, knocks down Lakers forward

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, knocks down Lakers forward Anthony Davis as he drives to the basket during the first half of an NBA game March 6 in Los Angeles. Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

As the NBA has managed to safely resume the season in a bubble, closing in on the final days of the regular season in the coming week — minus eight teams that were left out — it’s worth looking back on the season that was.

So here is a look back through awards, highlights and lowlights of the strangest NBA regular season ever.

Most Valuable Player

Look, honestly, it should be Rudy Gobert. His positive test for COVID-19 on March 11 halted the season, avoiding the virus spreading throughout the league and serving as a wake-up call not just to the NBA, but to other leagues that followed suit and to the public that was dismissing the danger at the time. And his good-natured joking, touching the microphones of reporters, served as a cautionary tale for others. Did he save lives? Maybe. 

But Gobert took heat for his behavior, even in his own locker room, so let’s leave him out and go traditional.

What LeBron James has done at 35 years of age has been remarkable, leading the league in assists per game with a career-best 10.3 while his usage rate has remained constant with his play in recent seasons. He has the Lakers atop the Western Conference pairing with Anthony Davis as the best one-two punch in the game. James Harden has not only kept up his prolific scoring pace in Houston, but he has improved his defense and playmaking. Luka Doncic has taken steps forward from his Rookie of the Year campaign and brought Dallas into the postseason.

But as last season, no one is as dominant as Giannis Antetokounmpo. As good as Milwaukee is, he doesn’t have a Davis-level of star beside him. But he has done what he did in winning the award last season and added to it by hitting 31% percent from three-point range as opposed to 26% in his MVP season. 

When he won the award last year he told a crowd of fans in Milwaukee, “After this day — July 14 — please, please do me this favor so I can be a better player and I can lead this team to a championship, please don’t call me MVP. Please after this day don’t call me MVP, until I win it again next year.”

You can call him it again. And in a few months you just might be able to call him an NBA champion.

Most Valuable Player — Bubble Division

Just a short mention of some players who have taken over the game in the first weeks of play in the bubble. T.J. Warren has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat for Indiana. Fred VanVleet has been the best player on Toronto, setting up his free-agent summer. And Michael Porter Jr., who was regarded as the best player coming out of high school a few years ago before back injuries spoiled his brief college career and his rookie season in Denver, has blown up in the bubble.

Rookie of the Year

First things first, it absolutely cannot be Zion Williamson no matter how much the NBA wants to push him out front as the must-see TV attraction for the next decade. He’s a joy to watch, but he’s played 23 games — 19 ahead of the suspension of the season and now limited minutes since play has resumed with a rest day Friday night.

With that said it’s an easy choice. Ja Morant has been everything Memphis could have hoped for. He ranks second only to Williamson in scoring per game among rookies and has done it for the entire season, lifting the Grizzlies into contention in the West. The best competition has come from Miami’s Kendrick Nunn, but really no one else is close. Try to round out an All-Rookie team and you’ll see what I mean (full disclosure, I’d put the Knicks' RJ Barrett on the second team).

Coach of the Year

There have been amazing jobs done by Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City, Erik Spoelstra in Miami, by Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and by the Lakers’ Frank Vogel (or LeBron James if you think he’s running the show). The 30 NBA coaches voted Donovan and Budenholzer co-winners of the award.

But consider again what Nick Nurse has done in Toronto. The Raptors currently hold the third-best record in the NBA and are doing it without Kawhi Leonard, the most important part of their championship run a year ago. The player development in Toronto is astounding. The veterans continue to contribute and lead. There is just no way this roster should be this good. But they are and Nurse and his staff play a huge part in that.

Been there, done that

With the announcement last week that Tom Thibodeau is the next head coach of the Knicks, the last full-time coach of the team offered a review.

“I think he is a great hire,” David Fizdale said in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “I think Thibs is a hell of a coach.  He demands hard work and toughness out of his guys.  He was a hell of a coach to coach against. He was always a headache for us when I was in Miami and when I was in Memphis so I think they got a great coach, a great guy. I think the city will embrace him. I think the biggest step now is going to be can they get the kind of players that he needs to be successful there.”

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