The Frozen Envelope’s NBA Award Picks for 2018-19

The NBA season kicked off last night, beating out my first blog post of the year by a few hours. Below you will find my picks for all of the end of year awards, along with the two people who will accompany them to the NBA Awards show as finalists. For the most part, I tried to go with what I think should happen, meaning which player will deserve each award, but in certain cases I also used typical voters’ tendencies to help me sort through difficult decisions. Keep your eyes open for NBA standings and playoff predictions in the coming days.

MVP

This should be an intriguing year for MVP candidates, as there are many contenders for the award, yet each of them have obvious flaws that will hamper their candidacy. Accordingly, if any of the early favorites for the award overcome this perceived flaw, they should instantly become the frontrunner for the MVP.

Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the two best players in the NBA who have yet to win an MVP trophy and are almost guaranteed to put up MVP-worthy numbers this coming season. They are the only stars on their respective teams and both of them have shown a remarkable ability to fix holes in their games and improve every season that they’ve been in the league. Davis had a career year last year, averaging 28/11/2 along with a league leading 2.6 blocks per game last season. Those numbers increased in the approximately half a season Davis played without fellow star big man DeMarcus Cousins, who shocked the NBA world by abandoning Davis without playing a full year together and joining forces with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and the rest of the prohibitive title favorite Golden State Warriors, meaning that Davis will now be fully unleashed for an 82-game season. That version of Davis averaged 31 and 14 in the playoffs as the Pelicans swept the favored Portland Trail Blazers before succumbing to the Warriors in five games.

Although Davis and Cousins was an exceptionally fun experiment, the Pelicans’ new frontcourt triumvirate, which added Julius Randle alongside Nikola Mirotic and Davis, plays more to the Brow’s strengths, allowing him to play and center and operate in more space, and should see him put up unparalleled numbers this season.

Antetokounmpo should also see an improvement this season, which is a pattern he has followed for each of his first five seasons in the league. Like Davis, the Greek Freak sees an important change within the organization that should open the door for him to fully take advantage of his scary ability. No longer constrained by the coaching of Jason Kidd or Joe Prunty, the expectation is that former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer will opt to spread the floor and give Giannis meaningful minutes at the five. Unlike Davis, Antetokounmpo has parts of his game that could still use significant improvement, namely his shooting and ball-handling abilities. Early indications from preseason suggest that he is at least mildly more comfortable pulling up from the outside, which spells bad news for Bucks’ opponents. In spite of how good Giannis has become, it seems as if the league has been waiting for the fully unleashed version for the past couple seasons. If that comes this year, expect the Greek Freak to be a leading contender for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year trophies. At the same time, however Budenholzer is a smart coach who is a branch off of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and who preached ball-movement during his stint in Atlanta. Although I imagine Giannis becoming a better player under his tutelage, this improvement won’t necessarily manifest itself through stats.

Of course, the problem with these two guys is that their respective teams may not win enough games. Russell Westbrook is the only guy in recent years to not finish in the top three seeds and still win the trophy, and I don’t think that either Davis or Antetokounmpo will accomplish a fear as historically significant as Westbrook’s triple double average. It might take 50 wins for the Pelicans or the Bucks for these guys to win the award, which is a tough ask considering the depth of the league and the supporting casts with which these two stars are playing.

LeBron James finds himself in a similar boat. Over his past decade-plus in the league, it has been almost assumed that James will put up consistently excellent numbers and that he will win at least 50 games per season. Last year, playing with his worst supporting cast since at least 2007, his Cavaliers won exactly 50 games, the fewest for a James led-team in 10 years. Now off to Los Angeles, LeBron is surrounded by both an inexperienced and seemingly incomplete roster, as well as a number of Western Conference teams that should make his path to 50 wins more difficult. With the intense pressure of expectations now lifted from LeBron’s shoulders, I can see two paths that the four-time MVP’s season might take. James may see this year as his last, best chance to win a fifth trophy, and go all out in pursuit of superlative individual numbers, which may be enough in to secure him that honor. Alternatively, James may not want to exert too much energy; understanding that this is his sixteenth NBA season and that he may want to coast, at least to some extent, before chasing a fourth ring next season when the Lakers will presumably add another star player to the mix. If winning the MVP is an important part of LeBron’s checklist for 2018-19, I fully expect him to accomplish that goal, as I think a fully focused season from him could see the Lakers win 50 games and him average numbers that no other player is capable of reaching in terms of a combination of overall productivity and efficiency. If not, if leaves the door open for other contenders.

James Harden has to be considered one of the frontrunners for the award after the season that he put together last year. Harden cemented himself as the league’s premier offensive weapon, particularly from the guard spot. After arguably being robbed of the highest individual regular season honor twice in the past three seasons, Harden got a chokehold on the MVP trophy early in the season, and, despite LeBron James’ best efforts, never really let go. He averaged over 30 points and almost nine assists per game while forming a dynamic duo with Chris Paul that catapulted the Houston Rockets to the league’s best regular season record. Although Harden figures to almost replicate what he did last year on an individual level, voters tend to make it more difficult to repeat than it is to win the first. The narrative around the association last season was that Harden deserved an MVP trophy for his continued excellence, a storyline that is more likely to be associated with Davis or Antetokounmpo this season. Combine that with the fact that the Rockets already proved that they could be a regular season juggernaut last season, and want to be better rested for a postseason run this time around, and I would argue that it will take something really spectacular for the Beard to repeat as MVP. Still, expect him to collect a large number of second or third placed votes.

The other two members of my clear-cut top six players in the league (in my opinion), Steph Curry and Kevin Durant play for the same team and figure to continue the same theme as the past two seasons by cancelling each other, limiting each other’s statistics and MVP votes. The presence of DeMarcus Cousins in Oakland will only make it harder to accumulate numbers. Curry and Durant should be content to roll to 60-plus wins and be the leading contenders for a fourth NBA title in five seasons.

Kawhi Leonard would be in this same tier of players, if only we knew what to expect of him. It has simply been too long since Leonard has played meaningful minutes in NBA game. I don’t expect him to be 100% of what he was in 2016-17 right away, but if he replicates that performance on both sides of the ball this year, he is right up there with the top contenders, if not the outright favorite for the award. Coming into last season, before it became apparent that something was wrong with Kawhi, either physically or mentally (or both), I had him as my pick for MVP. He has the ability to be the most impactful two-way player in the league, which he arguably was for two years before his bizarre injury. Toronto has the roster to do some serious damage this year, and if that happens, it will likely be due to a return to peak form for the Klaw. As of now though, I am not ready to make any assumptions as to how the season will play out up north.

After these seven, there are a collection of guys who are outside contenders for the award, but who will need to issues in their games fixed, a big statistical improvement, a big jump in wins from their team, or some combination of the three, in order to be in the discussion. Kyrie Irving will play for one of the better teams in the league this season, but he is coming off a knee injury, and there are too many mouths to feed in Boston to think that his numbers will be good enough to warrant serious consideration. Joel Embiid has a chance to be in the discussion as the best player in the post-LeBron Eastern Conference, but he still needs to grow as a basketball player, improving his decision making on both sides of the ball, as well as showing the ability to handle the rigors of a full NBA schedule. He missed 19 games and only played 30.3 minutes per contest last season. If he stays healthy, I have no doubt that an MVP trophy is in Embiid’s future, but he might still be a year away. (For the record, Embiid averaged 27/13/4 with two blocks per 36 minutes last year. Those are very clearly MVP worthy numbers). Ben Simmons is in the same boat, but he might need two or three more seasons before he fully arrives. Damian Lillard seemed to have done the most he can last season, leading Portland to a shocking third seed and scoring at an extremely high level, but still finished only fourth in MVP voting. He should come back down to earth a little in 2018-19. Russell Westbrook has earned his place in this discussion the shine seems to have rubbed off his triple-double act a little. Westbrook will get his numbers, but it will take a herculean effort from both him and the Thunder as a team to get him a second MVP trophy. A dark horse in this discussion for me is Karl-Anthony Towns who has the potential to put up almost Anthony Davis like scoring and rebounding numbers if Jimmy Butler successfully forces his way out of Minnesota, but if that happens it is highly unlikely that the Timberwolves will get enough wins to launch Towns into the race.

Ultimately, I believe in the Pelicans a little more than in the Bucks or the Lakers. Although LA may win one or two more games, I see Davis’ win threshold for MVP as being a little bit lower than James’. Absent a clear favorite, I see New Orleans eking out just enough wins to hand a dominant Davis a deserved MVP award.

Winner: Anthony Davis

Finalists: LeBron James, James Harden

 

Defensive Player of the Year

This award for me was fairly straightforward. Although there are a number of worthy competitors, once stands above the rest. Last season, Rudy Gobert appeared in only 56 games. He still won the Defensive Player of the Year award fairly handily, taking 89 out of 100 votes cast. He is, simply put, the most consistently excellent defensive force in the game today. The Utah Jazz as a team, and Gobert individually, led the league in every important advanced defensive statistic, and the Jazz’ stingy defense propelled them to a surprise appearance in the Western Conference semifinals. This season, the team figures to be competing once again for a spot in the conference’s upper half. Obviously, Gobert protects the rim at an elite level, but he is also more adept than most bigs at switching onto guards at keeping them at bay at least for long enough for the defense behind him to properly rotate. In many ways, Gobert is the ideal big man for a modern NBA defense, and barring injury or a special season by another candidate, he should repeat as Defensive Player of the year.

If anyone is going to unseat Gobert, my money would be on Kawhi Leonard. Again, we really don’t know what we’ll be getting from him this year, but Leonard did win this award twice in succession while with the San Antonio Spurs. Even at his highest level, Leonard would be pushed by Gobert, and though it is not unrealistic to think that Leonard will get back to his disruptive best by the end of this season, I do not expect 82 games of prime Kawhi defense. One thing to mention, though, that may play to Leonard’s advantage is that the team he is now on has the potential to be a suffocating defensive force. Between Kyle Lowry, long a rugged and underappreciated defender, former Spurs stalwarts Leonard and Danny Green on the wings, versatile sophomore OG Anunoby, who flashed tantalizing defensive potential last season, and the rim-protecting Serge Ibaka–or perhaps more the more intriguing, and arguably more effective Pascal Siakam–the Raptors will have the ability to combine height, length, and speed to create a switch everything, swarming defense without parallel in the league. A top three defensive finish by the Raptors would be an instrumental piece in any Kawhi DPOY resume.

The other usual suspect who will always deserve discussion on this topic is Draymond Green. Green, like Gobert and Leonard is a former winner of the award , but represents a new kind of defender all together. Not a classical rim protector or lockdown wing, Green is the quintessential do everything defender who can guard all five positions and make plays at all three defensive levels (on the perimeter, in the post, and at the rim). However, Golden State took a step back defensively last season, and team success has always been a big part of Green’s argument. They figure to continue to experiment and get rest for their stars in the regular season, which hinders Green’s chances at winning the award. Plus, Cousins’ arrival may limit Draymond’s minutes at the five, a position where he has historically been most successful. Still, come May and June, Green will still have a compelling argument for being the league’s single most valuable defensive player.

In the same mold, Al Horford is Brad Stevens’ defensive swiss army knife and unleashes so much of what makes Boston so good on that side of the ball. He doesn’t have eye-popping numbers or make stunning plays, but Horford is just about as good as they get on defense. I would be pretty shocked if he actually won the award, but Horford does figure to be in the running, and has at the very least earned to have his name in the same breath as the best defensive players in the game.

This award has typically been a big man’s award, and if Gobert takes any kind of step back, two other centers will be waiting in the wings. Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are two game-changing rim protectors who anchor top-10 defenses. The finished second and third, behind Gobert, respectively last season. Despite both of their brilliance, it is hard to see how either one of them surpasses Gobert, who is not only the superior defensive player, but who also has a stronger reputation on that side of the ball. I like Embiid a little more than Davis because he looks to have more room to grow in terms of positioning and awareness, and he is surrounded by a stronger defensive cast, on average. However, with both shouldering a large offensive load this season, I don’t expect them to also take the requisite significant step forward on defense in order to unseat Gobert.

Beyond these five names, there are a couple other superstars whose defensive impact is often overlooked due to their offensive dominance. I don’t expect Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo to seriously contend for the honor, but they both have the ability to garner some votes and could theoretically make noise if they put more emphasis on the less glamorous side of the ball. There was a time early last season when I had Durant as my frontrunner for DPOY, but that faded fairly quickly. Both Durant and Antetokounmpo are intriguing options because they can be equally effective guarding the perimeter and protecting the rim. These tall, long forwards will become increasingly valuable as the league transitions more and more into the positionless, pace and space era. Next, there are some guards and more traditional wings worth mentioning, even though it is rare who anything less than an absolute stud to win the award from those positions. In 2014, Leonard became the first wing in eleven years to be named Defensive Player of Year, while no point guard has earned the honor since Gary Payton in 1996. Still, Jrue Holiday’s dominant performance against Damian Lillard last season put him on every NBA fan’s radar, and he will look to continue to build on that success. Victor Oladipo and Paul George were the steals leaders last year, and although that stat doesn’t always mean much, they both finished in the top 15 in DPOY voting last season. Boston figures to be one of the NBA’s toughest defensive squads and their perimeter duo of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown is tenacious and tough to score against. It would take an incredible effort from any of these guys to snatch the award from a big or Leonard if he produces like we know he can. (Note: I really, really liked Dejounte Murray in this spot. Probably more than any other guard/wing. As a big point guard who can rebound and guard 1-3, he has an incredibly fascinating defensive skill set. Last season, in under 22 minutes a game, he earned all-defensive second team honors. Gregg Popovich tends the coax the most out of his players, especially on defense. I was very tempted to put Murray as one of my finalists for this award. It is extremely sad and disappointing that he will miss the season with a torn ACL.)

Winner: Rudy Gobert

Finalists: Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid

 

Rookie of the Year

The Rookie of the Year race is often a numbers game. Rookies who are both talented enough and get the requisite minutes to win the award are rarely playing for winning teams, so statistics are often the deciding factor.  Last year, with Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, was clearly an exception but I don’t expect any top 10 pick this season to play for a team with any hopes of competing.To me, there are two clear frontrunners who are good enough and play in favorable situations to win this award. First overall pick Deandre Ayton demonstrated in the preseason that counting numbers, specifically points, rebounds, and blocks, will come easily to him. His ability as a well-rounded player who actually contributes to winning basketball remains an unknown, but that is rarely taken into consideration for this award. Next to Devin Booker, Ayton should be the clear second option in Phoenix, and he has the potential to hover near 20 and 10 as a rookie.

The co-favorite for the award should be Luka Doncic. Dallas took a risk by trading up to grab Doncic and third overall, given that the 2019 pick that they gave to Atlanta figures to be, at worst, in the bottom half of the lottery. However, if the preseason is any indication, Rick Carlisle seems prepared to hand the reins of the offense to Doncic over second year backcourt mate Dennis Smith, Jr., and the Slovenian rookie looks ready to handle to load.

Although many around the NBA are habitually concerned with international rookies, and understandably so, especially given high European picks recent track record, Doncic is a different specimen altogether. Euroleague coaches are historically hesitant to play young players significant minutes, as recent NBA lottery picks Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, and Dragan Bender averaged between 10 and 20 minutes per game in their last years overseas. However Doncic not only played starter’s minutes for Real Madrid but also won the league championship and captured the MVP award, averaging 16/4/4 and making a number of highlight plays against competition that is probably at least equally competitive to NCAA basketball.

He has a tremendously high basketball IQ and should be able to put up solid numbers across the board. He does have some athletic shortcomings but his overall talent level will make him one of the more productive rookies in the past decade.

There are two reasons why Doncic might end up with a slight edge over Ayton in this race. Firstly, I expect Dallas to be at least five games better than Phoenix. Although, as explained earlier, wins don’t play a big part in these considerations, with both guys expected to put up nice numbers, the tiebreaker might be related to who contributes more to wins. Secondly, I personally like Doncic’s future prospect as a potential star more than Ayton’s. Of course, in real voting this won’t play a role, but I am opting to use this criteria to make a tough decision.

There likely won’t be any rookies at the same level as these two there are a few others a few others worth mentioning. Like Doncic and Ayton, Trae Young will be given control over an NBA offense. Growing pains for such a unique player are to be expected, especially with the weakness of supporting cast that Young has in Atlanta and the typical difficulty that point guards experience when transitioning to the NBA. While he may put up a decent number of points and assists it’ll be hard for him to be efficient or to avoid turnovers. Furthermore, Atlanta figures to be among the very worst teams in the league. Judging of the summer league, big men Wendell Carter and Jaren Jackson were the two most impressive performers. However, both play on teams that may be trying to win games and where they might not get as much playing time and therefore may not have the requisite numbers to be in the running for this award. However, looking further down the line they have the potential to be some of the best players in this class. Both are very solid models of modern day NBA big man. They can shoot from the outside, play a little bit in the post, protect the room, and most importantly switch out onto quicker guards in the pick and roll. On the flip side, I did not love the Cleveland Cavaliers pick of Collin Sexton in the long run, but the Alabama product will have ample opportunity to prove himself in a thin backcourt for the Cavs.  I do not expect Marvin Bagley to see very much success this year in Sacramento as the roster is simply too weak and his position in today’s NBA remains a massive question mark and one that is too big to overlook. It would take a perfect situation, in terms of surrounding talent, for Bagley to be a successful NBA player and he is far from that with the Kings.

Winner: Luka Doncic

Finalists: Deandre Ayton, Trae Young

Sixth Man of the Year

I’m going to hedge my bets a little bit on this one. As evidenced by my MVP pick, I am a big believer in what New Orleans can do this season. Specifically, the big man rotation of Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle will be a lot of fun to watch. They will hurt the opposition in different ways and can create significant mismatches all over the court. Therefore, I am taking whichever of Randle or Mirotic ends up coming off the bench to win this award.

Randle was an absolute beast down the stretch for the Lakers last season, and he is the rare player that can take bigger centers off the dribble and muscle up smaller forwards down low. Especially playing alongside Davis, Randle will draw less attention from the defense, which should free him to put up points and rebounds in bunches. It is more likely that Randle is the big that is consigned to the bench, but he will look to play a role similar to Eric Gordon in Houston last season, in which he spells both Davis and Mirotic, and also occasionally plays alongside them (Mirotic will conceivably have to play some three this season given Alvin Gentry’s utter lack of options at the position). This role should provide Randle with almost starters’ minutes and his production should just about mirror the 16 and eight he put up last season.

If Gentry eventually decides to move away from Mirotic, who will start on opening day, he too is a nice candidate for this award. He is the ideal floor spacer next to either Davis or Randle, and he shot a very healthy 38% from downtown last season. Given the Pelicans’ lack of shooting , Mirotic will carry a heavy load and figures to be, at worst, the third option when he is on the court. Mirotic saw by far a career high in field goals attempted per game after arriving in New Orleans at the trade deadline last season, and although Randle figures to bite into that number a little, Mirotic will have more than enough opportunities to score. Like Randle, if he is in the area of the 15 and seven that he averaged in 2017-18, Mirotic will be in the thick of the Sixth Man of the Year race.

LeBron James has a habit of upping the efficiency of the role players that surround him, and Kyle Kuzma in Los Angeles this year should be no different. Although he likely won’t replicate the 31 minutes or 13.5 field goal attempts from a year ago due to the Lakers’ increased focus on winning and the team having more mouths to feed, Kuzma will grow as a player both due to LeBron’s presence and simply due to natural second year progression. Kuzma is more of a midrange player who likes to have the ball in his hand, but James will provide him with more easy opportunities than he has had at any point last year. In fact, Kuzma is playing alongside three of the best playmakers in the league this year, and if he can simply knock down open shots, points will come. James’ arrival will push Kuzma to a bench role, but the combination of playing next to great passers and the opportunity to carry the offense in more reserve-heavy lineup actually bode very well for a successful season for Kuzma.

Next to these three forwards who are among my frontrunners due to being clear starter-caliber players who are only relegated to the bench because of their teams’ quality at their positions, there are a number of guys who fit the more typical role of sixth man around the league. Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, the two most recent honorees will reprise their place as professional bucket-getters off the bench. I expect both to put up seasons that would typically be more than worthy of this award (although Lou will likely take a rather significant step back from his scorching-hot performance last season),  and depending on how much they can fill up the scoresheet, both are more than viable contenders. Gordon’s teammate Carmelo Anthony should also score enough points to be in the discussion, but I expect him to miss out due to not even being the best bench player on his own team.

Over in the East, Terry Rozier and Fred Vanvleet  are two of the more well-rounded guards who are in reserve roles this season, and if voters actually watched all the games, they may well be the frontrunners for this award. However, Vanvleet’s counting numbers simply aren’t impressive enough, and Rozier is in a system in Boston where there will be so many contributors that it is possible that no one individual stands out. Rozier will have games where, like in the team’s postseason run, he will be one of the best players on the floor, but his consistency won’t be at the same level as Gordon’s or Williams’.

Two guys who might thrive in new environments are the Indiana Pacers’ Tyreke Evans and the Thunder’s Dennis Schroder. If they remain healthy, these two will have as good as chance as anybody to win the award, but I wonder if they will both stay on the bench for long. They are both clearly among their respective teams’ five best players, and it is far from inconceivable that Donovan turns to an unconventional Westbrook/Schroder backcourt if the Thunder get off to a slow start. Similarly, Evans could slot in as a point guard, shooting guard, or small forward alongside Victor Oladipo and some combination of Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Doug McDermott. If Evans shoots as well as he did in Memphis last year, it is hard to imagine that he stays on the bench, because he simply brings more to the table than any of the other options.

Winner: Julius Randle/Nikola Mirotic

Finalists: Kyle Kuzma, Eric Gordon

Most Improved Player

This is always one of the toughest awards to predict. After all, who can have seen Victor Oladipo’s stunning breakthrough taking place last season. Usually a player will win this award due to increased opportunity or personal growth. However, voters usually won’t reward second or sometimes even third year players with, since their improvement is seen as natural and therefore to be expected.

If it is going to be a third year player, I would favor one of Brandon Ingram  or Jamal Murray, both of whom figure to take another step forward this season. Although they will both continue to grow as NBA players and be a part of (hopefully) taking their teams to the next level, both Ingram and Murray averaged over 16 points per game last season. Each of the last six Most Improved Players increased their scoring output by at least six points per game, and I’m just not sold on either Murray or Ingram averaging solidly over 20 points per game this season. I especially like Murray as a future star in this league, but the Nuggets have so much offensive firepower and it seems to me as if Murray took a bigger step forward last season than he will this one, especially statistically.

Instead, I like Myles Turner to win this award. He was my pick in this space last season as well, and it seems as if the league has been waiting for him to break out ever since his very impressive rookie year. He took a step back as a third year player last season, putting up 13 and seven a night, and it is not unrealistic to expect him to improve those numbers by almost 50% each this coming season. Turner is also among the most reliable rim protectors in the league. He should be far more productive than he has, as on talent alone, he seems very well balanced. He can shoot the three and the midrange, and has shown flashes of an ability to score inside. He was supposed to take the reins to the franchise after Paul George was traded and was perhaps taken aback by Oladipo’s explosion. I expect him to be more settled down this season. The Pacers have a history of having Most Improved Players (five in the past 20 years alone), and if Turner makes natural progression from his rookie year, he could continue that trend.

Next to him, D’Angelo Russell seemed on his way to at least a top-five finish for this award before injuries derailed his candidacy. Post-injury, his scoring average dropped from 21 to about 15 points per game. I am not huge believer in Russell’s long term ability to be a star or even a good player on a good team, but he should thrive as the clear first option in Brooklyn. He will have the ball in his hands a ton, and points and assists will naturally come as a result of that. As a fourth-year player who has flashed potential but never quite put it all together, Russell is, like Turner, in a perfect situation to capture this award.

Simply in terms of opportunity, I like James Ennis, Elfrid Payton, and Eric Bledsoe to succeed this season. Ennis will be giving an extremely simple role in Houston, and if he can hit open threes, he can recreate much of what Trevor Ariza did last season, which would be a nice jump over the first few years of his career. He was underused and underrated over his frist few seasons in the league, but that could overcorrect this season as D’Antoni’s scheme has a way of bloating role players’ scoring numbers.

If Payton doesn’t succeed as Rajon Rondo’s replacement in New Orleans, it may be time to give up on his potential as an NBA player. The system is in place for a pass first guard to succeed around a solid cast of players and an up-tempo pace that theoretically suits Payton’s style. Payton has yet to show that he can produce at a consistently acceptable level, but if he does fulfill his potential this season, he could find himself in this discussion.

Bledsoe’s ugly end to his career in Phoenix marred what has been an underratedly productive career. After all, this is a guy who averaged an extremely impressive 21/5/6 just two short seasons ago. He had to adjust to the Bucks style on the fly last season, and still managed 18/5/4. Under the leadership of Mike Budenholzer, one of the most respected coaches in the game, I like Bledsoe’s chances to be a borderline All-Star in the weak East and that alone could catapult him to his award.

If we are looking for someone in the mold of Oladipo, in other words, someone who has hovered as a solid NBA starter but nothing more for a few years, I like Gary Harris’ chances. I am not necessarily expecting an explosion from him, but he has gone from 12 to 15 to 17 points in his last three seasons, and he might be the best guard on Denver’s roster. Twenty-two or 23 points per game for one of the league’s best teams might be a bit of a stretch, but it is not at all unfathomable.

As dark horses, I like Andrew Wiggins or even Carmelo Anthony. They both had big-time down years last year, and the narrative around them has grown to be toxically negative. They will almost surely not win this award, but if either of them get back to near their 2016-17 levels (a time at which both were, ironically, grossly overrated), the media could be willing to offer them a few votes. Wiggins’ candidacy could become even more serious if Jimmy Butler is indeed traded.

(Note: I originally had Dejounte Murray penciled as the winner of this award. The major reasons why are outlined in the DPOY space. Also: he averaged 13.5/9/5 last season and was sure to see a minute bump in 2018-19. Murray’s injury opens the door for Bryn Forbes, who could replicate what last year’s runner-up Spencer Dinwiddie did, in other words improving from just another, anonymous NBA player to an actual starter-level player).

Winner: Myles Turner

Finalists: Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell

 

Coach of the Year

During the NBA playoffs last year, the basketball community seemed to come to a consensus: Brad Stevens was becoming the best coach in the league. Of course, voting for the Coach of the Year Award takes place before the playoffs, and by the time Dwane Casey won the award at the NBA honors night, it was not only understood that Stevens had been robbed, but Casey had also been fired from his post as head coach of the Toronto Raptors.

While Stevens will have a tough time eclipsing Boston’s expected win total–a usual barometer for Coach of the Year–he will still present a strong case since he should be rewarded for his overall excellence and there seems to be few other strong contenders.

Everybody knows that the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are going to be great in the regular season, so it will take something absolutely remarkable for either Steve Kerr or Mike D’Antoni to be recognized. Similarly, Brett Brown, Mike Malone, and Quin Snyder are expected to oversee serious improvements from their squads, so their names won’t come immediately to voters’ minds. All three, particularly Snyder are excellent coaches, but the expectations for the Jazz seasons have reached extremely high levels. It may take a top-two seed, which is an enormously difficult task for a squad without a single top-20 offensive player to accomplish. Gregg Popovich is seemingly always in the discussion, although this is the weakest team he has had in years (perhaps with the exception of last year). Although this predicament could place even more of a spotlight on Pop’s coaching ability, if San Antonio finishes in the lower ends of the playoff race, or misses out altogether (which is seeming increasingly likely), his case will become harder to make.

Mike Budenholzer presents an interesting case. If Milwaukee takes the step forward that has been expected of them for so long, it will be evidence of a coach’s importance in the NBA. Conventional wisdom has become that the Bucks’ ability to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference has been held back by the ineptitude of Jason Kidd and later, Joe Prunty, to design competent sets on either side of the ball. Budenholzer is a highly respected NBA coach and a former recipient of this award. If he can change Milwaukee’s fortunes in a significant way, he will be a frontrunner for this award. If not, it might be time to question whether we have just been overrating the roster’s talent all along.

Beyond these names, a majority of whom are considered a part of the upper tier of NBA coaches, it will simply come down to which team can outperform expectations. My personal choice is the New Orleans Pelicans, coached by Alvin Gentry, but in the crowded Western Conference, a few wins is likely to account for a few spots in playoff positioning. Unfair as this may be, the seedings are going to be too random to predict that any coach will sufficiently outperform expectations to capture the award.

Thinking through the contenders for this award, I keep coming back to Stevens. His team is likely to finish as a top-two seed in their conference, and I give them a more than solid shot at winning 60 games and having the best regular season record in the league. Stevens puts his players in the best position to succeed on both offense and defense, and when it’s all said and done, the voters should recognize this and hand Stevens the respect he is due.

Winner: Brad Stevens

Finalists: Alvin Gentry, Mike Budenholzer

 

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