As training camps open this week, another annual basketball tradition commences: NBA writers making predictions.
So-called experts or not, nobody can truly say they know what will occur over the course of an entire season. Still, scribes undertake the foolhardy task of trying to divine the future, as if we were somehow empowered with some psychic ability beyond basic observation, analysis and in some cases, perhaps a decent feel for the game. That lengthy disclaimer noted for all to see, here goes nothing:
Today’s Topic: NBA awards predictions
One thing to note when it comes to the league's postseason awards, I'm basing it on a combination of who I think other voters might select and my own personal opinion of how I think the season could play out. By no means am I saying a certain player (or coach) is "better" than another, just who will get the hardware at the end of the season. I'd like to think I have some insight, but obviously I can't foresee injuries or any other mitigating factors, so please keep that in mind.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Not that they didn’t know before, but the one positive the Thunder can take from Russell Westbrook’s playoff knee injury is that without their All-Star point guard, Kevin Durant can indeed do everything. By all accounts, Westbrook should be fine this season, but if he does start slowly or miss any time, we could be in for some unbelievable virtuoso performances from Durant.
Now, Oklahoma City isn’t a better team without Westbrook — that notion can be put to rest after the postseason — but Durant proved that he’s capable of carrying even more of the load. Take out the Westbrook factor and even considering that they lost another proven secondary scorer in Kevin Martin via free agency, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Durant’s numbers go up. His rebounding, passing and defense have continued to improve, and he’s one of the most likable players, let alone superstars, in the league.
Although LeBron James isn’t as polarizing as he was in the past, like Michael Jordan in his prime, sometimes voters subconsciously support a more “deserving” candidate out of sentiment or just to break up an unprecedented run of awards. If Durant has some signature moments to help make his case, this might be his year.
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Runner-up: LeBron James, Miami Heat
Full disclosure: I was being genuine about Durant’s chances, but the only thing he has on James is scoring (and if James decided to be a bit more one-dimensional, that would be about equal), so I wouldn’t be at all shocked if the winner of this award was the same as last season and the one before that.
Sleeper candidate: Carmelo, Anthony, New York Knicks
It’s hard to really call a star of Anthony’s magnitude a true sleeper, but while I think the Knicks won’t be an elite team, I get the feeling that he’ll have a monster individual season, possibly his last in New York.
[More: Are the Knicks contenders in the East?]
Rookie of the Year: Cody Zeller, Charlotte Bobcats
Before last season in college basketball, Zeller was considered the early favorite to be the top overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Indiana went on to have a great season, but he was overshadowed by teammate Victor Oladipo and criticized for not being more dominant. I don’t think he’ll be a dominant pro either, but playing next to an established veteran scorer like Al Jefferson, I see him getting some easy opportunities and based on his summer-league performance, it appears he didn’t get the chance to showcase his ability to step outside much in college.
An athletic power forward who can run the floor and should get lots of immediate playing time — you think Michael Jordan wants to continue to be known for drafting poorly? — on a young Bobcats team lacking diverse scoring options, Zeller should shine consistently, if not spectacularly. But Bulls fans shouldn’t worry; it’s unlikely he plays well enough to lift Charlotte to an unfavorable enough lottery position to jeopardize the pick from the Tyrus Thomas deal just yet.
Runner-up: Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics
How rookies perform in summer league should always be taken with a grain of salt — Olynyk will undoubtedly have his issues on defense and against stronger competition in general — but Olynyk’s feel for the game and an array of scoring tools, coupled with a decimated Celtics’ roster (no Rajon Rondo to start the season) should lead to individual success for him in Boston.
Sleeper candidates: C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers; Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic (tie)
This pair of guards could end being two of the best players in the draft class, but because of veteran depth in the backcourt on their respective teams (Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams in Portland; Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo in Orlando), they might not get the same free reign as some of their peers, although they should be expected to have some big nights and in general, be productive.
[More: Burke, Oladipo lead rookie class in efficiency]
Defensive Player of the Year: LeBron James, Miami Heat
If he doesn’t win his third straight MVP, I think this is the award James will get to compensate for it. Not that he isn’t a worthy candidate; the one quibble I’d have is that he doesn’t always get the most difficult matchups for all 48 minutes, playing more of a roving position until crunch time, when he’ll switch onto the opponent’s top offensive player. But without knowing, I’d have to guess that’s probably Erik Spoelstra’s call and either, a smart strategic move to preserve his energy.
Regardless, he’s a four-position defender (yes, he can get away with guarding some centers for a possession or two, but we saw in the playoffs that as big and strong as LeBron is, he’s dwarfed by the likes of Roy Hibbert) who can harass the quickest of point guards on the perimeter and double as a top-tier rim-protector, let alone shut down opposing scoring wings.
[More: Is this the year the Bulls finally get past the Heat?]
Runner-up: Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
Still developing as an offensive threat, the Bucks valued Sanders’ defensive prowess highly enough to dole out a long-term contract extension over the summer, symbolizing how much impact he has on the side of the ball with his shot-blocking ability, active rebounding and despite often being at a size disadvantage, a major presence in the paint.
Sleeper candidate: Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets
I’m certainly not saying a future Hall of Famer is some unknown, but if Garnett’s legendary intensity helps transform a Nets defense that was sieve-like at times last season into anything close to resembling a formidable unit on that end of the floor, it will be reflected in Brooklyn living up to its high-payroll billing and should translate into individual recognition for the veteran.
[More: How much of a threat are the Nets?]
Sixth Man of the Year: Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
If reports about frequently-sidelined shooting guard Eric Gordon’s health are to be believed, with fellow newcomer Jrue Holiday also in the fold, Evans is slated to come off the bench, something he professed to not mind in offseason interviews. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, he was the Rookie of the Year in Sacramento — albeit at a different position, point guard, where the All-Star Holiday plays — where he was a nightly triple-double threat as an NBA novice and even garnered a few absurd Oscar Robertson statistical comparisons.
Because of injuries and for better or worse, the big presence of DeMarcus Cousins, Evans seems to have lost his luster, but this is a young player with size, the versatility to play all three perimeter positions and innate scoring and playmaking abilities. Given a new lease on life, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was the lone reserve in the league to lead his team in scoring down in the Big Easy.
[More: What three-peat champs say about the Heat's chances]
Runner-up: Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors
Barnes’ impressive play in the Warriors’ playoff run made some observers question why Golden State would acquire Andre Iguodala over the summer, relegating the second-year player to a reserve role, but if the North Carolina product doesn’t hang his head — and judging from how he’s dealt with criticism since his college days, I’d say he has a good chance of bouncing back from any initial disappointment — he could become one of the more dangerous bench players in the league.
Sleeper candidate: Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers
I also thought about Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson here, but assuming Granger comes off the bench to start the season — meaning he isn’t completely healthy now, which is a dicey proposition — but eventually embraces a role as a second-unit scorer, he could truly thrive in that scenario, especially since All-Star small forward Paul George’s (he of the reportedly new max contract) natural position is small forward and fellow youngster Lance Stephenson emerged as the Pacers’ starting shooting guard in Granger’s absence last season.
[More: Can Bulls reclaim Central from Paces?]
Most Improved Player: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
When the Jazz allowed veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to leave as free agents, it became clear the team was banking on its young core — big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, swingmen Hayward and Alec Burks, and rookie point guard Trey Burke — to develop. Many observers saw the departures as most beneficial to Favors and Kanter, but while the post players will directly benefit the most in terms of playing time, Hayward may reap the short-term benefits.
The most accomplished player out of the group, the former Butler star has the confidence and track record of being able to score against NBA starters, though that could prove more difficult with defenses focused on him more. Still, his efficient game — size for his position, length and underrated athleticism, to go with outside-shooting ability — translates no matter who he’s playing with and although Utah is likely in for some rough times, Hayward could shine.
Runner-up: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis, a Chicago native and No. 1 overall draft pick in 2012, didn’t have a bad debut season, but he went under the radar somewhat — injuries, New Orleans’ struggles and being overshadowed by the aforementioned Lillard were the culprits — and though the Pelicans added a lot of talent over the summer, his new teammates are guards that can make plays for him and with added strength to help keep him on the court and on the sidelines, the versatile big man should be able to showcase even more of his underrated offensive game and imposing defensive presence.
Sleeper candidates: Jeff Green, Boston Celtics; Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers
Playing for two teams whose rosters have been completely decimated by offseason trades clearly designed to set up campaigns of tanking, Green and Young are athletic forwards with plenty of talent, and while they both seem more well-suited for complementary roles due to various reasons — Green’s inconsistency, Young’s perimeter limitations — they have the experience and ability to make the best out of bad situations, at least for themselves.
[More: Can Paul George beat the odds as Most Improved Player?]
Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors
Golden State was already on the upswing last season, especially with the excitement the playoffs provided. A young team with improving players and healed-up veterans, the Warriors added even more talent over the summer, setting the stage for the team to take another step. While Stephen Curry is the face of the franchise, Klay Thompson and the aforementioned Barnes are the bright young talents, David Lee was an All-Star, Andrew Bogut’s health is crucial and Iguodala is the addition poised to put them over the top, Jackson’s style of coaching, even this early in his tenure is distinctive and thus far, has been successful.
No shrinking violet, Jackson is a former player not that far removed from his career — both playing and broadcasting — with a religious, motivational bent that appeals to many players. And with former top assistant Mike Malone now in Sacramento, whispers about who’s really calling the shots on the sidelines will finally have to cease. If the team delivers the way some observers expect them to, Jackson’s star will continue to be on the rise.
Runner-up: Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Doc isn’t an unknown quantity and our old friend Vinny Del Negro did lead the Clippers to a highly-successful regular season a year ago, but even though this award is voted upon before the playoffs, if the expected culture change observers predict from this hire occurs — more significant because Rivers also makes the call on personnel decisions — the kudos will be even more pronounced for the media darling of coaches.
[More: What's the Bulls' biggest weakness?]
Sleeper candidate: Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
Staying in the West again, as the revamped Blazers have a chance to be that conference’s most surprising playoff team and even with a completely retooled bench to go along with the likes of reigning Rookie of the Year Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Stotts, who has done his share of bouncing around, has to get some credit if Portland makes a big jump this season.
(Note: I debated the merits of Thibs, Miami’s Spoelstra and Indiana’s Frank Vogel, but I figured in the tough upper echelon of the East, no team would dramatically outpace the other top contenders, and since that trio’s already highly-regarded and have the majority of their core players back, they wouldn’t get credit for their expected success.)
Tomorrow: Western Conference breakdown