After what is possibly the wildest off season in NBA history, we're a week into season 2019/20. It's time for me to put my neck on the line and make some predictions.
We'll look at my thoughts on who will make the playoffs – and who will make some noise once there – later on. For starters though, let's look at the individual awards.
Most Valuable Player
There is some serious talent up for this award: Steph Curry, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that I've not included some pretty high profile names amongst that list; namely James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. The reason for those omissions is pretty simple: Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Anthony Davis.
LeBron is a top three all time player, The Beard is perhaps unlucky to not be a three-time MVP and Kawhi might be the best player in the game today. But they're all aligned with superstar teammates. They'll pillage each others votes, leaving none of the six – all six potential MVP candidates, to be sure - out of the running come seasons end. (A bonus prediction, here: Davis to out poll LeBron).
So onto the other four.
Jokic is a joy to watch. The Serbian is the absolute antithesis of the other three: a big, slow, doughy white dude that can't jump over a folded piece of paper. But man is he silky. If he isn't already, he will be the best passing big of all time when it's all said and done.
He simply imagines passes that others don't contemplate, then has the technique to make those passes real. Add in a soft touch in the post, legitimate three point range, crafty ball handling and supreme positioning at both ends, and you have the motor that makes the Nuggets run.
Embiid is the dark horse. Much depends on his health. After an off season focused on his body, the hope in Philly is that the big man can play around 75 games of high quality at both ends. If he can do that, and the Sixers claim the top seed in the East, then he'll be right in amongst it.
Giannis will join some elite company if he can claim back to back MVPs. The Greek Freak is a one man basketball machine. Coach Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis last year, by surrounding him with elite shooting, and letting him go to work, driving and dunking with ease.
The Bucks didn't get noticeably better over the break, so repeating as the top seed would go along way to netting the MVP award.
There are some overwhelming factors for all of these guys, but my pick is Curry. The story plays a big part in awards voting. This season, with Durant gone, Thompson injured, and the bench veterans (Livingston, West, Iguodala et al) jettisoned, the Warriors season depends on what Chef Curry can cook up.
I don't think the Warriors won't win a ton of ball games. But that's not what voters will judge Curry on. If his team can make the playoffs, alongside averages in the region of 33 points, 5 boards, 7 assists, 2 steals with 50/45/90 splits, then Curry will be in the mix. Narrative will take him over the top, netting Steph a 3rd MVP.
Rookie of the Year
Surely this award is Zion Williamson's to lose, right? The short answer is: yes!
The big man.....is it right to call him a big? I feel putting a label on Zion is counter productive. He's like nothing we've seen on a basketball court. He's like if a Toyota Hilux learnt how to fly. Anyway, the new Pelican is surely going to steal the scene whenever he's on an NBA court. But that's the problem: how much are we going to see of Zion? He's already injured – a meniscus expected to keep him sidelined until early December at least – and you would expect the Pels to keep him wrapped in cotton wool as much as possible.
So who else comes in to calculation?
RJ Barrett has the chance to shine in New York, but will the moribund franchise drag him down with it? Rui Hachimura and PJ Washington will get all the looks they can handle on Washington and Charlotte, respectively. Sharpshooting Tyler Herro is already starting in Miami.
But there is only one man that can realistically take this trophy out of Zion's mitts, and that's Grizzlies guard Ja Morant. The Murray State product is a passing savant, able to pick apart defences with ease. At 6'3”, with wonderful speed and spring heeled, he'll yam on unsuspecting bigs this season, too. The jumper needs work, but is decent enough. Morant has lightning quick hands and excellent anticipation – expect a couple of steals per game as a rookie.
This is an asterix pick: If Zion plays less than 50 games, Morant wins. Otherwise, it's Zion all the way.
Coach of the Year
This one always throws up some surprises. The best coach rarely wins, otherwise Gregg Popovich would have about 12 of these. The best coaching narrative is often the winner. As such, it's always worth looking out for a story. Can Frank Vogel harness his superstars? Can Nick Nurse, Brad Stevens or Steve Kerr continue to win with diminished rosters? There is always one team that shoots up out of nowhere. If Chicago or Dallas can win close to 40 games, do Jim Boylen or Rick Carlisle get consideration?
With apologies to: Popovich, Quinn Snyder, Erik Spolestra and Doc Rivers (this is a loaded field) I'm going for Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets. Denver won 54 games last season en route to the quietest 2 seed you'll ever see. Unlike most of the teams around them, they've had practically no roster upheaval, with red shirted rookie Michael Porter Jnr now healthy and Jerami Grant joining from the Thunder as their only rotation level additions. With the best home court advantage in the NBA and a young core still on the rise, I expect the Nuggets to claim the 1 seed in the West, handing Malone – not good enough for the Kings, remember! - his first Coach of the Year gong.
Defensive Player of the Year
Utah centre Rudy Gobert would be the obvious favourite for this award, given he's the two-time reigning champ, and his team look set to challenge for the top of the conference standings.
But early Jazz games have shown that teams are directing their offense away from the Frenchman. That's good for Utah as teams go away from their usual attack, but bad for Gobert's DPOY chances, as he'll not get the same counting stats that he has racked up in seasons past. Gobert has averaged over two blocks per game every season since his rookie year (when he played lass than 10 minutes per contest), but through three games he's only blocked one shot total. Of course, we can sound the Small Sample Size klaxon, but the eye test reveals that teams are simply not going into the paint nearly as often.
A similar thing happened to Kawhi Leonard a few years back. After becoming a waking nightmare for opposition wings teams simply started to move their offense away from whoever Leonard was guarding. I expect that won't change, but it does open the door for team mate Paul George to come into the conversation. A long armed and lithe 6'9” athlete with elite footwork, George is a defensive menace in his own right. The Clippers will make teams pick their poison and I bet they'll pick George. That added responsibility could, assuming injuries don't get in the way, increase PG's defensive stats.
Draymond Green believes he should have won every DPOY, since the dawn of time. Swagger aside, Green is a defensive genius, able to guard every position on the floor. There has never been a better defender of 2 on 1's. The Warriors vaunted defense has been gutted this season, putting so much onto Green's broad shoulders. Should the Warriors make the playoffs with a top five defense, Green might get the nod here.
My pick, however, is the man who has made it clear that he want this award: Joel Embiid.
If the Cameroonian's new fitness regime pays dividends, it will mean that not only do the Sixers have a rebound eating, shot swatting interior force, they'll also have a lighter on his feet, switchable big. It will also mean more game time over the course of the season. That alone translates to more counting stats. The on/off splits last season were ridiculous: a 93 team defensive rating with Embiid on the court, 120.1 when out. With defensive aces in new team mates Al Horford and Josh Richardson those splits won't be so stark, but they will make the Sixers defense incredibly scary.
If he's healthy, Embiid is my pick here.
Sixth Man of the Year
Lou Williams seems to win this award every year. This season won't be any different.
The Clippers flamethrower will, despite the presence of superstars Leonard and George, continue to be the man late in games. His pick and roll partnership with Montrezl Harrell remains borderline unstoppable. With killers like Kawhi and PG on board, and the defensive attention they'll draw, we might just drop the borderline. Through the start of this season, Sweet Lou is averaging over 20 points and 5 assists per contest, as he has in his last two campaigns. Maintain those numbers, and Williams claims this award for the fourth time.
Most Improved Player
This is always problematic award. How do you define it? Is it a player that improves from year 1 to year 2? A player that starts receiving significantly more playing time, thus more stats? Is it a player who suddenly 'gets it'? An older player that adds a major skill? The list of past winners contains a little from all of those pots.
So where do we look this season? Personally, I've focused on three players, with three different narratives: Bam Adebayo (more opportunity), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (first to second year improvement) and Dejounte Murray (returning from injury).
Last season, SGA averaged 10.8 points and 3.3 assists, whilst winning the starting job with the Clippers. He was the centrepiece of the PG trade and finds himself starting at the two, alongside surefire Hall of Famer Chris Paul in OKC. With the chance to learn the game from one of the best, as well as the chance to take on more offensive responsibility on a relatively less talented Thunder team, SGA could double his scoring average.
Adebayo spent his first two seasons backing up human riddle Hassan Whiteside. With Whiteside now in Portland, the centre spot is all Bam's. Expect averages of around 15 and 10 with a couple of blocks thrown in. Adebayo's explosive rim running and active defence is a combination that coach Spoelstra hasn't had for some time. He is the sort of player that you can almost build a team around.
Murray missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but before that was being touted as one of the best defensive players in the NBA, despite his tender years. The concern with Murray is how his knee will effect his mobility. If he can maintain his elite east-west movement, then he'll continue to be a nightmare on defense and get to the rim at will on offense. His shooting remains a concern. If his season out has allowed him to rectify his one big weakness, then he is the man the Spurs can build upon.
In a tight race, I'll tout for Bam-Bam Adebayo.
Onto the race for the playoffs.
For the first time in a long time, the NBA title doesn't feel predetermined.
By my count, we've got seven clubs with legitimate claims on the title: Philly and Milwaukee in the East; Houston, Denver, Utah and the LA sides in the Western bloodbath.
My predictions for the playoffs, with records:
Philadelphia 76ers (57 – 25)
Milwaukee Bucks (55 – 27)
Boston Celtics (47 – 25)
Toronto Raptors (46 – 26)
Indiana Pacers (43 – 39)
Orlando Magic (41 – 41)
Brooklyn Nets (41 – 41)
Miami Heat (40 – 39)
As those records suggest, this is a two horse race. The Sixers and Bucks are a long way ahead of the rest of the conference. Injuries aside, they'll play off in what could be a doozy of a conference finals series. I'll call Sixers in 7 games.Western Conference:
Denver Nuggets (58 – 24)
Utah Jazz (57 – 25)
Houston Rockets (56 – 26)
LA Clippers (55 – 27)
LA Lakers (51 – 31)
Portland Trailblazers (49 – 33)
Golden State Warriors(48 – 34)
Dallas Mavericks (46 – 36)
This could go in any number of directions.
The heavily backed Clippers will have to do this the hard way: beating their cross town rivals, taking down the #1 seed and then either wrapping up an offensive juggernaut in Houston, or solving a defensive maze in Utah. I think the Clips and Rockets will go at it for the Western Conference crown, with the Clips prevailing.
The Champs? It's the Clippers in 6. Kawhi Leonard for finals MVP. Who else could it be!