Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.
14. Who will be in contention to win the NBA's postseason awards and lead the league in major statistical categories?
Most Valuable Player
Front-runner: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder; Durant isn't the league's best player yet, but with the two best players in the NBA playing in more balanced situations, the Thunder are on their way up and Durant's outstanding FIBA World Championships performance considerably raising his profile, the 21-year-old scoring machine has a great chance to take home top honors.
Runner-up: LeBron James, Miami Heat; expect James' scoring numbers to take at least a slight dip, but with his playmaking abilities, Oscar Robertson-type, triple-double averages aren't out of the question, although sharing the South Beach stage with another legitimate MVP candidate could siphon away some votes.
Dark horse: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic; the NBA's dominant defender and rebounder doesn't have the most aesthetically-appealing game from the perspective of fans, but if Howard improves his offensive repertoire and the Magic can keep up with their Sunshine State rivals, Howard will deserve the credit.
Rookie of the Year
Front-runner: John Wall, Washington Wizards; as long as the No. 1 overall pick has the ball in his hands from the beginning of the season--and there's no reason why he shouldn't--Wall will not only help fans of the nation capital's team put a memorable (in a bad way) season in their rear-view windows, but his dynamic playmaking and athleticism could actually help make the Wizards a borderline playoff contender.
Runner-up: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; after losing last season to injury, Griffin will be brought along slowly, but even on a balanced Clippers squad, his powerful physique and explosiveness should allow the former Oklahoma star to excel as a rebounder and low-post scorer.
Dark horse: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; regardless of his perception as a person--his reputation for surliness shouldn't matter if it doesn't inhibit him on or off the court--Cousins is an extremely talented and versatile true post player with perhaps as much long-term potential as his former Kentucky teammate Wall.
Defensive Player of the Year
Front-runner: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic; until an elite one-on-one shutdown perimeter defender truly distinguishes himself or another big man impacts the game in a similar fashion, this award will remain Howard's to lose.
Runner-up: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics; Rondo's unique blend of length, quickness and athleticism is the engine that makes Boston's stout defense work, as his tenacious pressure against opposing ballhandlers and ability to play the passing lanes are complemented by strong team interior defense.
Dark horse: LeBron James, Miami Heat; not that Cleveland didn't emphasize defense, but in his new digs, James will be truly counted upon to lock down the league's premier wings and while others--such as Atlanta's Josh Smith and Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, most notably--use their size, strength and versatility to make game-changing defensive plays, expect James to take his play on that side of the ball to another level.
Coach of the Year
Front-runner: Scott Skiles, Milwaukee Bucks; the former Bulls head coach probably didn't get enough kudos for his team's turnaround last season, but with Milwaukee projected to be even better after significant offseason moves, the former hard-nosed longtime NBA point guard should get more attention this season.
Runner-up: Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat; although some observers predict Spoelstra will be in over his head with his band of stars, he certainly is in a position to succeed and if he keeps it simple and emphasizes defense (in the mold of his mentor, Pat Riley), it's only logical that he'll be celebrated for his team's accomplishments.
Dark horse: Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers; Jackson's quest for yet another three-peat will be the focus, but his ability to incorporate newcomers Matt Barnes and Steve Blake into the rotation (another NBA head coach with Chicago ties, Utah's Jerry Sloan, has a more intensive semi-rebuilding process of his own to oversee; turning the Jazz into a true contender in the ultra-competitive West, out of principle, should get him this award), manage the various personalities and egos on the squad and shoo away any signs of complacency through his famed methods is an underrated challenge for the "Zen Master."
Most Improved Player
Front-runner: J.J. Hickson, Cleveland Cavaliers; Cleveland reportedly refused to include Hickson in a potential trade-deadline deal for Amar'e Stoudemire (a move that could have drastically changed the Cavs' fortunes; if Cleveland made a deeper playoff run and Stoudemire agreed to an extension, would that have been enough to keep their franchise player?), and now, with a bare-cupboard scenario, he'll have plenty of opportunities to build on the promise he showed as a productive starter before being buried on the bench down the stretch and in the postseason.
Runner-up: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers; with a vote of confidence from the Sixers' new regime (head coach Doug Collins and top exec Rod Thorn) and a solid end to his rookie campaign, Holiday has a chance to deliver on the high expectations he had as a top prep prospect--although a crowded Philly perimeter (FIBA gold-medalist Iguodala, scorer Lou Williams and top draft choice Evan Turner also prefer to play with the ball in their hands) could make that a challenge.
Dark horse: Anthony Randolph, New York Knicks; long regarded as a premier young talent who hasn't figured it out yet, Randolph's change of scenery--his former team Golden State was similarly up-tempo, but Randolph didn't mesh with Warriors head coach Don Nelson--should benefit him and while there are some other youngsters who may seem like surer bets as sleeper candidates (swingmen Terrence Williams of New Jersey, Toronto's Sonny Weems and current Warrior Reggie Williams, to name of few), Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni's ingenuity should allow the slender, skilled and versatile forward to blossom.
Front-runner: Durant; clearly having taken over the mantle of the league's top scorer (with apologies to Carmelo Anthony, who can't be considered unless his eventual destination and supporting cast is known), the youngster's summer exploits--the difficulty in racking up big numbers in international play shouldn't be disregarded, especially with such superb teammates--there's no reason the Oklahoma City star won't repeat as scoring champion.
Runner-up: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat; sharing the ball with James (a natural playmaker) won't hurt Wade's numbers and could perhaps enhance them, as the Chicago native will be freed up to score (Chris Bosh's presence won't hurt), without facing the same focused defensive scrutiny he's received in recent campaigns.
Dark horse: Amar'e Stoudemire, New York Knicks; playing without longtime teammate Steve Nash certainly won't make things easy for Stoudemire in the Big Apple, but paired up with his former coach and playing in defensive-less, offensive-minded, fast-paced system, the Knicks have few options besides pumping the ball inside to the ex-Suns star, one of the more prolific scoring post players in the league.
Front-runner: Howard; the Magic's center combination of power, athleticism and agility--as well as the fact that Orlando has no other committed rebounders who receive significant playing time--make Howard a lock for this title every year.
Runner-up: Chris Bosh, Miami Heat; although often regarded as a "soft," perimeter-oriented big man, his numbers prove he excelled at crashing the boards in Toronto, and with a more-limited offensive role, an increased focus on doing the work in the trenches and a need to sacrifice in order to reach the eventual goal all likely in Miami, Bosh will surprise many observers with his abilities on the glass.
Dark horse: David Lee, Golden State Warriors; Lee isn't known for his defense after emerging as an All-Star in New York last season, but his hustle, willingness to bang in the paint, underrated athleticism and constant motor allow him to put gaudy stats on the boards, something likely to be repeated for a smallish Golden State squad, where he may reprise his role as an undersized center that outworks bigger foes with his quickness.
Front-runner: Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets; disgruntled or not, Paul is arguably the league's best point guard and although the Hornets don't have a wealth of weapons for him to dish off to, his competitive nature, unbelievable creativity and expected motivation after being sidelined for much of last season will be manifested in setting up his teammates with a plethora of easy baskets.
Runner-up: Rondo; it seems that Rondo thrives off snubs--whether real or perceived--and after falling to the Lakers in the Finals and getting cut from the national team, he'll likely come into the season with a chip on his shoulder, but as a non-shooter, his teammates will reap the rewards of his frustration.
Dark horse: James; it may seem like sacrilege to not mention last season's top two dime-droppers, Phoenix's Steve Nash and Utah's Deron Williams, but not only will that pair have to place a higher premium on scoring with the departure of some key teammates in the offseason, but James' natural unselfishness, top-notch playmaking abilities and Miami's lack of an elite true point guard will put James in a spot where he functions more like Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, which he may be more comfortable doing.
Front-runner: Howard; this is a belabored point by now, but Howard, the type of defensive force reminiscent of the days of the Hakeem Olajuwon-Patrick Ewing-David Robinson-Dikembe Mutombo heyday of dominant centers, is one of a kind in today's NBA, as his mobility, size, length, timing and instincts are the base of his team's solid defense.
Runner-up: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks; Smith's underrated campaign last season drew accolades because of his improved shot selection, focus and passing on offense, but his defense--spurred by his versatility, elite athleticism and long wingspan--has been excellent for a few years now, as he's an elite shot-blocker both on his own man and in help-side situations.
Dark horse: Greg Oden, Portland Trailblazers; obviously Oden's inclusion comes with the caveat that he's healthy this season (the same could be said for Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut, one of the better defensive center's in the league), but in his shortened 2009-10 campaign, he was an outstanding protector of the rim for an already defensively-solid Portland team.
Front-runner: Rondo; the ability to harass opposing point guards, play the passing lanes, stealthily help from the weak side, gamble because of his team's rock-solid scheme and corral errant passes with his incredible wingspan and huge hands all point to Rondo leading the league in this category for a second straight season.
Runner-up: Wade; this spot could easily go to James, but look for Wade to be more opportunistic off the ball, leaving his co-star with the tougher individual assignments, thus providing an opportunity to cheat off his man and benefit with easy transition baskets.
Dark horse: Ronnie Brewer, Chicago Bulls; one of the league's most underrated defenders, the long and athletic Brewer should thrive under the tutelage of new head coach Tom Thibodeau and hey, at least one Bull has to make this list, right?
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.