An exciting NBA offseason has us primed for the annual quest of 28 NBA teams to upend the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. In the West, Chris Paul’s addition to Houston bolsters the Rockets, while the Thunder made the biggest headlines by landing both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. In the East, the Celtics cemented their intentions to contend with the acquisition of Kyrie Irving and the signing of Gordon Hayward.
But let’s be honest: barring injury or Lebron’s batteries being taken out, we are heading for a fourth consecutive NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cavs. However, that does not mean that all uncertainty has been removed from this NBA season. Namely, the awards race looks to be wide-open, as distinctions from Most Valuable Player to Defensive Player of the Year will be hotly contested. With a disclaimer of extreme uncertainty, I offer my predictions for the most significant NBA hardware for the 2017-2018 Regular Season.
Executive of the Year: Sam Presti
This one is not even up for debate. Who could have predicted the coup that the Thunder pulled off this offseason? Landing both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony had ripple effects throughout the NBA, and left other Western teams scrambling to try and find pieces to match Oklahoma City’s heist. Nothing could come close, however, to the acquisition of a terrific two-way forward in George and a former scoring champion (with a lot of game left) in Anthony. The Thunder may not convince both to stay long-term, but as a one-year gamble Presti has pulled off a masterpiece.
Honorable Mentions: Danny Ainge, Koby Altman
6th Man of the Year: Rudy Gay
Gregg Popovich can work wonders, and I am proposing that his next trick will be the transformation of Rudy Gay from inefficient ball-stopper to potent scoring option off the bench. Gay has been maligned in recent years for being a dinosaur, a remnant of mid-2000s basketball characterized by high-volume, rather than high-efficiency, scoring. That is all about to change. The Spurs provide Gay with the ideal opportunity to showcase his elite athleticism and size, while leading a second unit that will expect him to be the main scoring threat. San Antonio boasts a bona fide, elite two-way player in Kawhi Leonard, and Gay has a golden opportunity to spot him minutes and collect some hardware in the process.
Honorable mentions: Will Barton, Eric Gordon, Andre Iguodala
Rookie of the Year: Dennis Smith, Jr.
While the NBA Draft spotlight shone on Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, and DeAaron Fox, one big-time talent flew under the radar, enough to drop all the way to no. 9. That player is Dennis Smith, Jr., an electric point guard who has been compared to Russell Westbrook for his jaw-dropping athleticism and explosiveness. While his talents were wasted on an under-achieving NC State team that missed the postseason, Smith flourished anyway, capturing ACC Freshman of the Year and delivering some scintillating performances, including this heroic move in a victory at Duke. Smith has an advantage over other rookies in having a solid veteran presence around him, in the form of Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, and other seasoned players who have logged many NBA minutes. Ball, Fultz, and Fox will each have relatively inexperienced players around them and may struggle to find reliable scoring options. Smith has the luxury of no spotlight on him, so he can focus on improving his relative weaknesses (defense and shooting) and not worry about talking heads analyzing every minute he logs.
Honorable mentions: Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, DeAaron Fox, Ben Simmons
Coach of the Year: Mike Malone
Predicting Coach of the Year always seems to be a task in futility, as by definition the award is given out to coaches who exceeded preseason expectations with their given team. That being said, I think a team that will catch the league by surprise is the Denver Nuggets. Barring a Russell Westbrook dagger the upstart Nuggets would have reached the playoffs, so it is certainly not out of the realm of comprehension for Denver to sneak in this year, even with the West as strong as it is. The offseason signing of Paul Milsap to complement Nikola Jokic has suddenly given the Nuggets one of the top 4-5 duos in the league. Coach Malone will have his hands full trying to contend in the west, especially with a question mark at the point guard position, but look forward to singing “Congratulations,” just as his distant relative Post does.
Honorable Mentions: Quin Snyder, Tom Thibodeau, Brett Brown
Most Improved Player: Myles Turner
Turner burst on the scene as an under-heralded late lottery pick in 2015, and has put stellar numbers for the Pacers in his first two NBA seasons. Now, with Paul George out of the mix, Turner has a chance to stake his claim as the team’s no.1 option, and it doesn’t appear that he faces any challengers besides the ball-hungry Lance Stephenson. Look for Turner to average somewhere in the range of 19 points and 10 rebounds against a laughably weak Eastern Conference, up from his averages of 14.5 and 7.3 last season.
Honorable Mentions: D’Angelo Russell, Buddy Hield, Kristaps Porzingis
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
This one was tough. Golden State’s Draymond Green and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard have clearly separated themselves as the league’s best perimeter defenders, as well as the league’s most versatile defenders. Anthony Davis continues to astound with his jaw-dropping length and mobility to collect steals, blocks, deflections, and whatever other measures of defensive harassment exist. I am picking Gobert, however, because he is simply the best rim protector in the game. Coming off of years where Leonard and Green won, voters will want some new blood for the award, and I don’t think New Orleans will be good enough on defense as a team for Davis to win DPOY, unfair as that may sound. Gobert wins DPOY in a nail-biter.
Honorable Mentions: Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler
Most Valuable Player: Kawhi Leonard
In other words, the pick most likely to engender controversy. Look, I am willing to hear arguments for several other players. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook are all plausible alternatives, with Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns on the cusp. But none of these players will have sole possession of the keys to the offense AND be in a score-first mentality, all the time, the way that Kawhi Leonard will need to be. An aging Tony Parker and an unmotivated LaMarcus Aldridge do not a supporting cast make, and Kawhi will be looking for his shot every time down, either as a primary ball handler or playing off the ball. This prediction is not an indictment of the Spurs system, nor is it a misreading of how the Spurs run their offense. Coach Popovich has recently shifted his team’s offense into featuring a large number of plays designed exclusively for Leonard, which the superstar forward has cashed in on with big-time performances. Leonard continues to excel at the defensive end in a manner that outstrips LeBron James considerably and scores at shooting splits that rival those of Kevin Durant’s. Simply put, there is no single player in the NBA that does more for his team at both ends of the floor on a consistent basis during the regular season. Russell Westbrook is unlikely to repeat as MVP with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George sharing scoring duties for the Thunder, and James Harden will likely miss out on MVP for a similar reason with Chris Paul arriving. Neither Curry nor Durant will capture the MVP by virtue of both being on possibly the greatest team of all time. That leaves the emotionless assassin-bot in Kawhi Leonard to claim the Maurice Podoloff trophy for himself. However, it is entirely likely that the camera-shy Leonard will sandbag his own performance so he doesn’t have to deliver an MVP speech, in which case all bets are off.
Honorable Mentions: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden