Since J.R. Smith’s Finals screw-up and the Golden State Warriors’ subsequent sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers back in June, we have been witness to a far tamer offseason than the epic blockbusters of recent years. Superstar free agents like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Joe Harris, and Paul George decided to remain with their respective teams, while, save for Draft Day, there were few major trades to speak of.
Dwight Howard made his annual move, this time to the Washington Wizards. Carmelo Anthony’s services were no longer desired in OKC, so he joined a title contender in Houston. And after backing out of his verbal agreement in 2015, DeAndre Jordan finally departed the Los Angeles Clippers to join the Dallas Mavericks in free agency. Perhaps the most shocking move of the offseason was the Golden State Warriors’ signing of four-time all-star DeMarcus Cousins to a $5.4 million contract.
The best player in the league also changed teams, if you hadn’t noticed. LeBron James moved on from his hometown team to join the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year contract. With the exodus, the Lakers immediately become the newest threat to the Warriors reign and the East-West disparity grows even more profound.
The player movement has also had an impact on how the end-of-season awards might play out. Here are some thoughts on who will be taking home the hardware in June:
Sixth Man of the Year – Isaiah Thomas
It has been quite a decline for Isaiah Thomas, from being crowned the ‘King in the Fourth’ and finishing fifth in MVP voting two seasons ago, to signing with his fourth team in three years this offseason. When he joined the Cavaliers last year, some thought he would be fully capable of filling Kyrie Irving’s shoes, but his defensive shortcomings and limitations on offense without the ball in his hands became obvious. Cleveland eventually shipped him off to Los Angeles, where he became a backup to a rookie point guard. Overall, his scoring average dropped over 13 points in just one year, and his field goal percentage fell to a lowly 37.3 percent. But, it’s not all bad. First off, much of Thomas’ downward spiral can be attributed to the nagging hip injury that has been bothering him since the 2017 playoffs. If he can make a full recovery after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on March 29, then his decision to sign a one-year deal with the Denver Nuggets could potentially save his career. In Denver, Thomas finds himself in a role that perfectly suits his strengths. As a backup to starting point guard Jamal Murray, Thomas will come into games with a chance to run the show alongside Denver’s talented second unit featuring Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, and rookie Michael Porter Jr. whenever he returns from injury. Thomas will have every opportunity to display the scoring dynamism that made him famous in Boston. On top of that, his defensive deficiencies will be less noticeable facing off against opposing teams’ backups. Thomas should aim to model his playstyle after recent Sixth Man of the Year award recipients like Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford as purely an energetic buckets getter. If he embraces that role, then the award for the best bench player in the league should be well within reach for someone who received votes for best player in the league just two years ago.
Most Improved Player – Brandon Ingram
This award is always the hardest to predict because it thoroughly depends on improvement over the offseason which is hard to gauge until the season gets going. That said, Brandon Ingram is the prototype of a player ready to step into stardom. The second overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ingram is still very young, having just turned 21 in September. Last season, he elevated his scoring average to a respectable 16 points per game, but there were many signs that he can reach greater heights. For one, his percentages skyrocketed from a lackluster rookie year. His three-point percentage shot up from 29.4 percent to 39 percent and his overall field goal percentage improved from 40 percent to 47 percent. He also stepped up in big games. His best performance of the year came against Kevin Durant and the Warriors, when he dropped 32 points on an efficient 12 of 21 from the field. These are terrific signs for a player who might be asked to step into a larger role on offense this year. The Lakers’ streak of three straight seasons without a 20 point per game scorer will end this year with the King’s arrival, but LeBron is more than a pure scorer. He is a distributor who will look for a second fiddle to take much of the offensive load as Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving have done in the past. James will look for Ingram to be that guy, and all indications are that Ingram will embrace the challenge.
Defensive Player of the Year – Anthony Davis
Davis had a fantastic season last year, especially after DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles injury in January. With his frontcourt mate out, Davis increased his points per game to 30.2, his blocks to 3.2, and his steals to 2. The Pelicans also had a strong finish to the season and even made it to the second round of the playoffs. Davis stepped up when his team needed it, especially on the defensive end. But, when awards season came around, he was disappointed, finishing third in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting.
That should change this season. As the NBA continues to move towards a positionless, small ball style of play, Davis can easily line up as a center every game. At the five, he is an all-purpose defensive weapon who can shut down an opposing offense with his mere presence. If Davis can keep New Orleans as competitive as they were last year, despite losing Cousins and Rajon Rondo, then he has a good chance of taking home his first Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Rookie of the Year – DeAndre Ayton
Ayton, the first overall pick in June’s draft, is in a perfect spot to put up huge numbers as a rookie. Devin Booker has been waiting three years for a stud to shoulder some of the offensive load in Phoenix and Ayton fits the bill. The 7-foot-1, 250 lb center averaged 20 points per game as the focal point of Arizona’s attack in college, dominating in the post, the pick and roll, and occasionally as a shooter. Over five preseason games, the initial signs are promising. Ayton has looked like a monster down low with averages of 18.2 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 61.4. Ayton’s main concerns are on the defensive end, but the Suns have put him in a position to make great strides in that area. His backup, Tyson Chandler, is a veteran who has been one of the best defensive centers in the league over the past decade. If Ayton is willing and able to absorb Chandler’s defensive wisdom, he can become one of the league’s best big men in his first season.
Coach of the Year – Rick Carlisle
Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens are going to be popular picks for this award, but why not add Rick Carlisle to the mix? Carlisle has long been one of the most respected minds in the sport, with 12 winning seasons in 16 years as a head coach. In the last couple of years, the Mavericks have fallen off as they entered a rebuilding stage, but this season Carlisle may finally have the tools he needs to make this team a winner again. The Coach of the Year award is often a ‘Most Improved Team’ award in disguise because it is hard to tell exactly how much direct impact a coach has on his team’s success. With the additions of DeAndre Jordan and young phenom Luka Doncic to go along with the continued development of Dennis Smith Jr. and established veterans like Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews (not to mention Nowitzki), the Mavericks’ arrow is certainly pointing up. If Carlisle can put it all together, Dallas has a shot at landing a lower playoff seeding, putting him in a great position to take home the end-of-season honor.
Most Valuable Player – LeBron James
The Lakers have not made the playoffs since 2013, when Kobe Bryant was still one of the best players in the league. Needless to say, it’s been a while. In the meantime, they have consistently been one of the worst teams in the league, with a league-high 284 losses over the past five seasons. Last year was certainly an improvement though, as the young core helped increase the Lakers’ win total to 35. That said, losing seasons are about to become a thing of the past in Hollywood. When LeBron James rejoined the Cavaliers back in 2014, he took a 33-win playoff outsider to a 53-win Finals team in just one season. The LeBron effect is real, and is why he is still considered the best player in the league at the age of 33.
Everyone knows that LeBron could easily win the MVP every year, but this season his case is going to be particularly strong. At this point, the only knock against him is his age. But LeBron may have just had the best numbers of his career in his 15th season, playing every single game and leading the league in minutes. He simply takes better care of his body than any athlete in the history of the game. Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are other intriguing options for basketball’s highest individual honor. They will certainly put up monster numbers and lead their teams to success, but both are young and will have plenty of opportunities when LeBron is long gone. More importantly, Davis and Antetokounmpo are unlikely to have anywhere close to the level of impact this year that LeBron will, in his first season in Los Angeles.
- Boston Celtics
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Toronto Raptors
- Indiana Pacers
- Washington Wizards
- Miami Heat
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Golden State Warriors
- Houston Rockets
- Utah Jazz
- Los Angeles Lakers
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- Dallas Mavericks
Golden State Warriors
In late May, many were surprised when the Rockets pushed the Warriors to their limit in the Western Conference, taking the eventual champions to seven games, simultaneously bringing into question Golden State’s status as the unquestioned rulers of the league. Since then, not only did the Warriors win the title in four games, but they also signed another superstar, in Cousins. They now have an elite talent at every position, something that has arguably not occurred since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s who won 11 titles in 13 years. No other team has made a move that appears to genuinely challenge Golden State’s status as the overwhelming favorite to win a fourth championship in five years.
(All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com)
Image Credit: flickr user Keith Allison