Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Previewing the NBA: Award Candidates

Everyone (myself included) is saying that this year is well poised to deliver one of the more intriguing seasons in recent history. To predict the winners of the regular season awards presents a challenge for the most-informed of NBA writers, let alone this intercontinental rookie. Of course, I'm still going to have a crack at it, and unlike my playoff predictions, I feel like I might end up close to the mark... by chance, of course. I know nothing.

Anyway, without further delay, these are my best guesses: (hit the jump to keep reading)

Most Valuable Player
In recent times, it seems the MVP is awarded to the best player on the team with the league's best record. I've taken that into consideration, but my choices aren't based entirely upon that.

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder - Last season, KD was already playing at an MVP level. Then, he went beserk in the offseason and absolutely demolished every opponent ballsy enough to step in front of the two time scoring champ while playing the summer circuit. It's not hard to imagine Durant continuing to dominate into the season at a level higher than he's produced before. I'm looking for something in the neighbourhood of 30ppg, 8rpg and a possible 50-40-90 (FG%, 3P%, FT%) and the best record in the West to get the job done.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat - Like Durant, LBJ had an MVP worthy season in '10/11. Word from Camp James is that LeBron wants to go back to being LeBron - and that means trouble for the league. LeBron should finally assert himself as the #1 player in Miami, meaning his usage rates will go up, while his All-Star teammates help prevent his efficiency from suffering. Attacking the rim will see LeBron's PPG, offensive rebounds and assists on kickouts all improve significantly - I'm thinking 28+ppg, and in excess of 8rpg and 8apg, numbers that have earned him MVP honours twice before. Playing for the best team in the East surely won't hurt, either.

3. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls - The reigning MVP is facing an uphill battle to repeat as the league's best player. No longer will Rose have the element of surprise, nor can he expect to shoulder the entire offensive workload for the Bulls. With the addition of Rip Hamilton, Rose will have to experience a second consecutive leap in ability to maintain his MVP numbers, as the new shooting guard will likely eat into Rose's usage. Not to mention, the continuing lack of a consistent 3pt threat means teams can persist with the aggressive defense that saw Rose's productivity suffer in the playoffs. I'm seeing 22-24ppg, 7-8 apg and slightly improved shooting numbers.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks - Dirk has been MVP before ('06/07), and his numbers have hardly changed since then. If Dallas plays at the same or a better level than last season's title winning effort, then Dirk will surely be in line to get a lot of recognition from the media, something that was lacking until the Finals last season. He's an outside shot to be sure, and he'd be the oldest MVP since Karl Malone won it in '99 at the  ripe old age of 36, but if anyone can do it, it'd be the Big German. 23-25 ppg, 7rpg and a 50/40/90, like always.

5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers - New coach. New starting lineup. Different philosophies. Same Kobe Bryant. Kobe, no matter who shares his locker room, no matter where his offense has him catching the ball, will continue to find a way to be a weapon. If LA set themselves up for a post season run, it will be on Kobe's shoulders. Kobe is the one reason Laker fans aren't panicking, and is the one reason the 29 other teams continue to see the Purple and Gold as a threat. A Bryant resurgence is on the cards for '11/12, I'm thinking he'll put numbers up in the vicinity of 24-27ppg, 5rpg and 5apg.

Rookie Of The Year
Without fail, the Rookie of the Year is the player in his rookie season who puts up the biggest numbers. Seasons past have been a little easier to evaluate, but this season there's no clear cut favourite - the best players will have to earn their playing time, and he who does that best likely gets rookie honours this season.

1. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers - Kyrie figures to be in the best position to get minutes and shots. His only competition for minutes is Ramon Sessions, and his only competition for touches will come from Antawn Jamison and Omri Casspi. He'll still have to put it together, or else he'll find himself coming off the bench and losing touches to his teammates. I see his rookie ceiling as 17ppg and 4apg.

2. Derrick Williams, Minnesota Timberwolves - Minnesota's frontcourt is what one might call a logjam. Between the 3, 4 and 5 spots minutes have to be found for Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver, Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic. Oh, and Williams too. One or more of these guys will likely be gone by the deadline, helping to open up minutes for the rookie, but it may not be enough. Williams will likely have to settle for 15ppg and 5rpg, unless he's much better than previously thought.

3. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats - Kemba, an offense first PG was drafted by the team with the league's worst offense. Corey Maggette is the only accomplished scorer on the roster, so it stands to reason that Walker will be a big part of the offense from the word go. DJ Augustin and Gerald Henderson are his only competition for playing time, so starter minutes are there for Kemba. I'm seeing 16-20ppg with some of the worst percentages from a volume scorer since... Maggette.

4. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves - Rubio CAN be the best rookie of 2011/12. He has little competition for minutes, with Luke Ridnour best suited to a backup role and JJ Barea likely spending a majority of his playing time next to another point. The Wolves are looking to push the pace this season, and Wesley Johnson and Michael Beasley (include Anthony Randolph if he's on the court) are both capable of being dangerous in transition, as well as Kevin Love who can punish teams with a trailing fast break 3. The one thing standing in Rubio's way? He doesn't score. He can't shoot. But, there's another PG wearing green that most NBA types reckon is pretty damn good. Rubio's best case scenario is 8-10ppg and 10-11apg.

5. Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings - There are a number of things stopping Jimmer from getting serious ROTY consideration thus far. First is the question of whether his game translates well from college to the NBA. The second is, where do his minutes come from? Jimmer is projected as a PG/SG, and Sacramento have no less than 7 guys on the roster (including Jimmer) who play one of his positions, several of them capable of playing both. Finally, where does he sit in the pecking order? Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins and Marcus Thornton are all me-first type guys. Are there enough shots to go around? If they can work it out, Jimmer is capable of averaging 15ppg, 3apg with a thee point shooting percentage north of 40%.

Most Improved Player
The Most Improved player award suits guys who stand to see a huge jump in minutes and/or an increased role. However, there are a number of guys who also figure to bring a much improved game to the court this season.

1. John Wall, Washington Wizards - Wall was plagued by nagging injuries for a majority of last season, but still put up incredible rookie numbers. With an improved supporting cast, extra offseason rest and natural development, Wall could easily see his productivity reach an All-NBA level in his second season, averaging 20ppg, 8-9apg and 2spg.

2. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors - DeRozan was a most improve candidate last season, upping his scoring average by 9ppg from his previous campaign. While a similar jump is unlikely, DeRozan has room to grow in a number of other statistical categories that could see him emerge as a legitimate piece moving forward for the Raptors. 18-20ppg, 3-4apg, 4-5 rpg and an improved 3pt stroke are all on the cards for DeRozan.

3. Eric Gordon, New Orleans Hornets - EG is fast emerging as one of the best shooting guards in the league. A huge jump in usage will mean Gordon's raw stats should explode, and having a capable pick and roll partner in Carl Landry will mean his efficiency and assists don't necessarily have to suffer. Gordon is capable of 26ppg, 4-5apg and at worst middle of the pack efficiency as a first option.

4. Shannon Brown, Phoenix Suns - Steve Nash makes his teammates better. I could leave it at that, but considering the availability of minutes behind Nash at PG and next to Nash at SG (where Jared Dudley is the only real competition), Brown could well deliver at a level the Suns haven't had in a wing scorer since Jason Richardson. 15-17ppg, 3apg and a huge improvement in efficiency, thanks to wide open shots spoon fed to him by the 2 time MVP.

5. Marcin Gortat, Phoenix Suns - The Polish Hammer, since being traded to the Suns last season, put up fringe All-Star numbers. With a full season under his belt, Gortat could well make the leap to All-Star productivity, with 15ppg, 11rpg and 2bpg. Gortat had a busy summer, working with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post game, and the word on the street is that it paid off, with Gortat sporting a much better back-to-basket repertoire.

Sixth Man of The Year
The Sixth Man Award - the trophy given to the best of the guys that sit out the first 6 minutes of the game and plays the rest.

1. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats - There's a chance that DJ Augustin and Gerald Henderson will continue to start ahead of Walker, but there's no doubt he can put up big numbers than those two despite technically being a part of the second unit. Scorers off the bench have had success with this award in the past: see Crawford, Jamal; Terry, Jason and Barbosa, Leandro to name a few.

2. Lamar Odom, Dallas Mavericks - The reigning 6th man's niche in Dallas will be harder to find than the comfort zone he'd established in LA. Such a versatile player is sure to find a way to be productive in the second unit, though, and he'll definitely take a lot of pressure off Jason Terry and Shawn Marion.

3. George Hill, Indiana Pacers - Hill will be splitting time between the 1 and the 2, and will form a large part of Indiana's offense off the bench. 14ppg and 5apg is possible, and could well be enough for 6th man recognition.

4. Jamal Crawford, Portland Trailblazers - He's a scorer on a team lacking firepower from the backcourt. Expect him to put up the same number he always has - 17-20ppg, few assists and poor percentages.

5. Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers - Won the favour of coach Doug Collins late in the season and saw his numbers increase accordingly. If he can sustain that level of play, around 15ppg and 5-6rpg, Young would be a very favourable candidate - especially considering his much improved efficiency.

Coach of the Year
Typically awarded to the coach who oversees the biggest improvement in the win column, from one season to the next.

1. Vinny Del Negro, Los Angeles Clippers - The Clippers have the potential to go from absolutely horrible to pretty damn good, all thanks to one trade. A lot depends on how Del Negro works his new faces into the picture, and jut how much defense he can extract from his squad.

2. Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors - Jackson promised a trip to the playoffs. If he can deliver on that with a team with as many holes as the Dubs, he deserves COTY.

3. Rick Adelman, Minnesota Timberwolves - Kurt Rambis had a bunch of raw, young players trying to play the triangle offense, an offense none of them had experience with. Enter Adelman, who plans to push the pace and play D. There's only so far this young team can go, but I expect Adelman will extract every last win from this roster - especially in a season where losing does them no favours (the Hornets own their first round pick, by way of the Clippers).

4. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat - The Heat could, realistically, still have a 50 win season despite the reduced schedule. Such a feat would be well deserving of COTY.

5. Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies - Memphis can, and should improve on last season. There's potential for a Top 4 seed, which might finally get Hollins the recognition he deserves for the work he's done.

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