Last year’s NBA Awards results were strange in many ways. The MVP came from a team with fewer than 50 wins for the first time since 1982. The Rookie of the Year was the 36th pick in the draft. What will we see this season?
This is shaping up to be a strange year for MVP. You can rule out Russell Westbrook, as there is little chance he will have the same ball-dominant performance with two stars added to the Thunder roster. LeBron James is an interesting choice, but the Cavaliers simply have no motivation to win more than 60 games in the regular season, which he would probably need to win the award (2016 excluded).
That leaves James Harden, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. If the Rockets do get more than 60 wins, I could see Harden winning it, but you have to believe that Chris Paul will take some of his minutes and numbers away. I would love to pick Leonard, but there are real injury concerns (he did not play in Wednesday’s home opener) and I am not sure that the Spurs will win enough games with an aging roster. Curry and Durant will both be sitting out many fourth quarters because of the Warriors’ ability to finish their opponents early, so there numbers may be impacted.
The only other player with even a slight chance is the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo. For that to happen the Bucks would have to win 50 or more games, which will be hard without Jabari Parker’s services for most of the year. It seems that the voters will have a tough time choosing come the end of the year, and that this will not be a two- or three-man race like we have seen in the past.
I don’t think that any one player will separate from the pack, so I’m betting the voters will use the best player on the best team approach. While it’s close, I think that Durant will be the best player on the Warriors this year. His uber-efficient high-volume scoring and great defense will help the Warriors win 70+ games and earn him his second MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
After finishing third in the NBA with a defensive rating of 102.7, the Utah Jazz look poised to be one of the league’s premier defenses again this year. Their anchor, center Rudy Gobert, will be surrounded with new plus defenders in rookie Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. We have seen Gobert transform the Jazz into a stellar defensive team with his fantastic rim protection. This new talent and head coach Quin Snyder’s defensive scheme will make him look even better this year, and the voters will recognize this.
The two other frontrunners will be Draymond Green and Leonard. The Warriors defense, with Green at the helm, will remain the best in the league. But Green did win last year, and I think the narrative of the Jazz defense staying strong without star forward Gordon Hayward this year will win it for Gobert. On the other hand, you have to think that the Spurs will take a step back defensively this year, as the only two above-average defenders left are Leonard and Danny Green. This would further support Gobert’s case for the award. For the second straight year, it should be these three at the top.
But does any other player have a shot? I’ve got my eyes on Joel Embiid. Last year, when he was on the court, the Sixers posted a 99.1 defensive rating, compared to 108.1 when he was off. If he can stay healthy and play maybe 65 games (which is a gigantic “if” at this point), he could break into the conversation.
Most Improved Player
Myles Turner looks like the featured player on the Pacers this year, with Paul George now out of town. He should be able to up his averages to about 18 points and 12 rebounds. Now his third year in the league, his defense will only continue to get better from 2.1 blocks per game last year. Turner will excel in his new role as Indiana’s leader this year.
After Jeremy Lin’s crushing injury on Wednesday night, former Laker D’Angelo Russell is left as the only true playmaker the Brooklyn Nets have on roster. He will have the ball in his hands much more than he did in Los Angeles, and I would be surprised if he didn’t average at least 20 PPG.
Jazz guard Rodney Hood is another young player who has new opportunity this year. He will emerge to be one of the leaders of this team after Hayward left in free agency this summer. The question with Hood has always been his health. He has missed 58 games in the last 3 years; if he can stay on the court, he should be able to use his sweet stroke and lanky frame to increase his scoring output in the absence of Hayward.
Out of these three, Turner has the best chance of winning the award. While Russell’s talent has shown in the past, I don’t trust his ability to score efficiently enough just yet. As for Hood, he may lose some national attention because he is not clearly the best player on his team, as he has Gobert to contend with there.
Historically, this award has gone to a volume scorer (think Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford) rather than a distributor or defensive stud. If that were the case, Andre Iguodala would have won by now, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Last year’s winner Eric Gordon is yet again a strong favorite this year. From the spacing that this offense will provide with Paul and Harden handling the ball, he should be as open as, if not more open than, last year from three, from where he shot 37.2 percent last year. Even though this is not excellent, the large opportunity he will get in the Rockets’ three-man guard rotation make him a good candidate this year.
Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets should also make a case. With the Nuggets having only average guard depth, he will see the court more often, likely breaking the 30-mpg mark that every sixth man winner seems to have. His ability to hit open threes, defend well wand score in transition will bring him success in Denver’s potent offense, and if he can get to 15+ PPG, he will be in the conversation.
Now that Dwyane Wade has been inserting into the Cavaliers starting lineup, J.R. Smith will be the Cavs’ sixth man. Coming off a year where he only played 41 games because of injury, look for him to bounce back in his new role. He has always had success playing off LeBron’s penetration and draining open threes. There is a chance he could up his scoring average to about 15 and shoot 40 percent from three, which would be a fantastic season for him.
Unless the voters plan on rewarding Iguodala’s unique skillset coming off the Warriors’ bench, Gordon should win the award again. It is unlikely Smith will see the opportunity he would need behind Wade and Thomas (when he comes back). Barton is an intriguing pick, but he is still only the fourth or fifth scoring option on Denver’s team. It’s possible, but it will be challenging for him to score enough points within this pecking order.
Rookie of the Year
The incoming rookie class looks to be one of the strongest in years. Many have a genuine shot at the hardware: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox. Don’t be surprised if any of these players take it home in the end.
Simmons is not your traditional 6’10’’ forward. Although his struggles with the jumper persist, he does seem to have a knack for using his large frame to get to the rim and finish with touch. After factoring in the god-given passing talent and the opportunity alongside Embiid, he is a safe bet to put up great numbers on a Sixers team that is primed to be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference soon.
We saw the Ball effect on full display in the NBA Summer League; his infectious, pass-first style of play did wonders for the players around him. They started to run with force and look for their own passing angles much more often. This should continue into the regular season; if he can just score enough (~14 PPG), he will receive many first place votes.
Out of any rookie on this list, Smith Jr. could take home this award in the most convincing fashion if he hits his ceiling. He has been given the keys to the Mavericks offense by Rick Carlisle. There will certainly be bumps in the road, but his explosive athleticism will serve him well, as rookie guards do tend to struggle to score against NBA defense. If he can hit his three reliably, play inspired defense and score 20+, he could win this award easily.
Although it would be awesome to see the best version of Smith Jr., I just don’t see it happening. His struggles at NC State with defense and effort have been well-documented, and this year will likely be a learning process for him. As for Ball, it will be hard for him to create his own shot effectively and with the necessary volume against NBA starting guards. I don’t doubt that he will excel as a playmaker, but rookies usually need to generate a relatively large scoring output to win this award. That leaves Simmons — he will take advantage of his length to score easy points and make plays for others. While it will be close, I expect him to be the best rookie.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].