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Why LeBron James isn't being considered for league MVP and other award mysteries

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This NBA coach has a winning percentage this season of .677, third-best in the conference.

In the games he has coached this season, his team has the third-best fourth-quarter net rating and his team has won 85% of its games decided by five or fewer points. And his team, after missing the playoffs last season, is in position to grab a top-five seed in the conference while dealing with injuries to top players, including its star.

Sounds like a perfect coach of the year candidate.

Except that coach, Atlanta’s Nate McMillan, is the Hawks’ interim coach, and by season’s end, he will have coached in just 38 games. But he is responsible for turning around a team that was 14-20 and in 11th place in the East when he took over.

The Hawks have turned their season around since Nate McMillan took over as interim coach. The Hawks are 21-10 since McMillan took the helm on March 1.

The Hawks have turned their season around since Nate McMillan took over as interim coach. The Hawks are 21-10 since McMillan took the helm on March 1.
Jason Getz, USA TODAY Sports

That’s probably not enough games to win coach of the year, but it’s enough to consider where he belongs in the voting in an unusual NBA season. An interim coach has never won coach of the year. 

Indirectly, McMillan’s success adds a new twist to the league’s awards season.

How many absences are allowed?

How should voters address games missed due to injury or COVID-19 health and safety protocols? Or more to the point, should players who missed significant games be given special consideration that they might otherwise receive in a normal season?

Take a regular, 82-game season. It’s widely accepted that a player should play in about 75% of games – at least 62 games – to be considered. Bill Walton won MVP with the fewest games played – just 58 of 82 games in 1977-78.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid has played in 45 of his team’s 64 games, and if he plays in the remaining eight games, he will have played in 73.6% of Sixers games. Embiid is an MVP favorite.

LeBron James has missed just two more games than Joel Embiid. But Embiid is considered a frontrunner for league MVP, while James is considered out of the running.
LeBron James has missed just two more games than Joel Embiid. But Embiid is considered a frontrunner for league MVP, while James is considered out of the running.
LeBron James has missed just two more games than Joel Embiid. But Embiid is considered a frontrunner for league MVP, while James is considered out of the running.
ROBERT HANASHIRO and BILL STREICHER, USA Today Sports

But where does that leave Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James? His chances to win a fifth MVP have diminished, at least according to oddsmakers, because he missed 20 consecutive games due to injury. But James returned on Friday, and if he plays in every game the rest of the season, he will have played in 51 games – or 70% of his team’s games.

There’s not much difference in games missed between Embiid and James. It’s an inconsequential figure. Maybe it doesn’t matter because Denver’s Nikola Jokic has separated himself as the frontrunner.

Should there be bonus points or extra credit for a player like Jokic who hasn’t missed a game?

Who should win Rookie of the Year?

A similar games-played conundrum is playing out for rookie of the year. LaMelo Ball had a strong start to the season through mid-March – when he sustained a wrist injury. He missed 21 consecutive games and returned Saturday.

Minnesota rookie Anthony Edwards began playing his best as the season progressed and made a strong push to overtake Ball.

Did Ball miss too many games? He will finish with about 50 of 72 games played. Was his impact on the Hornets, who turned into a winning team, enough to justify winning the award? Conversely, Minnesota has the league’s third-worst record at 20-45.

How missed games will impact All-NBA team

This extends to All-NBA consideration, too, where 15 players make one of the three teams – two guards, two forwards, one center for first, second and third team. Millions of dollars in awards bonuses are at stake.

It’s always challenging to fill out the ballot for awards, especially All-NBA, because there are so many deserving players. Trying picking six guards this season without leaving someone off who deserves All-NBA recognition.

In a normal season playing just half of the games is just about an automatic disqualifier for season awards. Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant missed time with injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols. If he plays in each of Brooklyn’s remaining seven games, he will finished with 35 games played. Even though he has been fantastic this season, playing in less than 50% of games may cost him a spot on All-NBA.

Kevin Durant (7) has been in All-Star form this season but will play in less than half of the Nets' games this season. He still could be an All-NBA team selection.

Kevin Durant (7) has been in All-Star form this season but will play in less than half of the Nets’ games this season. He still could be an All-NBA team selection.
Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Take Durant’s teammate James Harden, who was in the MVP discussion through March but has played in just one game the past month. He has played in 42 games, may not return this season but he was 27-7 with the Nets this season. Is there room on one of the All-NBA teams for a player who played in 58% of the regular season games?

Miami’s Jimmy Butler might be the most interesting test case. He is having one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 21.5 points, 7.2 assists, 7 rebounds, a league-best 2.1 steals and shooting a career-best 49.3% from the field. It’s the first time in his career he’s posted those averages in one season.

Butler missed time early in the season because of an injury and COVID-19 health and safety protocols and wasn’t a serious All-Star candidate because he had played in just 19 games by the time All-Star teams were finalized in late February.

His impact on the Heat is significant. Beyond personal stats, the Heat have won 60% of their games with Butler in the lineup.

He hadn’t played in enough games for All-Star consideration but by the end of the regular season, he will have played in enough games for All-NBA consideration. Butler may end up the rare player who didn’t make the All-Star team but was All-NBA.

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