The NBA season begins tomorrow! Hallelujah! Last week, several of our writers made some team-based predictions for the 2015-16 campaign, and today some of the Today’s Fastbreak crew have made some picks for the 2015-16 season awards.
Most Valuable Player
Kelly Scaletta: LaMarcus Aldridge — Anthony Davis will be the league’s best player this year, but the award will go to Aldridge. It’s going to be a tight race. Davis’s Pelicans won’t be quite good enough, but only because Tyreke Evans will have missed the first two months of the season. LeBron James will see his slight regression continue. The Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers will be duking it out for the league’s second-best record — and they’ll all have their candidates. Voters will make cases for each of them, but they’ll see Aldridge the reason the Spurs had the best record and win the award.
Morten Stig Jensen: Anthony Davis — The guy has begun shooting threes. Naturally that’s not the full scope of my argument, but let that sink in for a moment. This long, über-athletic power forward, who’s grown into his body by the way, is now capable of scoring around the rim, from the mid-range area and from the outside. Add rebounding, defense and increased playmaking abilities to that package and I can’t see even LeBron or Durant overtake him. Brow all the way.
Joseph Nardone: Jimmy Butler — Yes, I’m admitting to trying to be creative with this pick. Let me explain myself: LeBron James is in a state of voters being tired of voting him; Stephen Curry can conceivably have less of an impact this year because his team is so good in an overall sense; Anthony Davis feels like he’s one more year away. So, yeah, Butler. I think hiring Fred Hoiberg can completely backfire, but also while acknowledging offensive production and efficiency should be way up. Everyone already knows about Butler’s ability on defense, but he can flourish in the “Hoiball” system, so much so that he’s a realistic sleeper to win the award.
Trenton Jocz: James Harden — Perhaps the weirdest part of the awards discussion is that LeBron James isn’t much of a factor. Even weirder is thinking that LeBron, still just 30 years old, has, in all likelihood, already won his last MVP award. His marathon-not-a-sprint approach to the regular season leaves a handful of evenly matched candidates. If I were throwing a dart, I’d pick Harden. A one-man offense, Harden still has room to improve and seems to be turning the corner from meme punchline to dependable franchise cornerstone thanks to Houston’s improbable run to the conference finals last year with a short-handed roster. With the added motivation of feeling like he deserved the honor last season, the 2016 campaign could be the perfect intersection of the 26-year-old Harden’s physical skills and mental maturation.
Jake Weiner: Kevin Durant — The NBA MVP award almost always goes to a player who fits a certain criteria: best player on one of the league’s top teams. Kevin Durant is arguably the best player in the entire league, and he should finally be healthy again this season to prove it. Billy Donovan looks like the guy to get Oklahoma City to the next level, and Durant is in line for a huge season as he prepares to hit free agency soon. Anthony Davis may already surpass Durant’s output this season, but the Thunder should be one of the league’s powerhouses, opening the door for KD to take home his second MVP.
Rookie of the Year
Kelly Scaletta: Karl-Anthony Towns — Let’s not overthink this one. Towns was the No. 1 pick for a reason: he’s the best rookie in the draft. He’s going to get plenty of minutes. Jahlil Okafor has a shot at beating him out, but this award doesn’t usually have surprise winners for a reason.
Morten Stig Jensen: D’Angelo Russell — Slick ball-handling, terrific playmaking and shot-making ability — combined with the near certainty that Kobe is going down again at some point — and all that adds up to minutes. Lots of minutes. He may be in a similar situation as Andrew Wiggins last year, where a heavy minute load and just a decent stat line was enough to win it, but nevertheless the guy has talent and potential. His primary challenger is Karl-Anthony Towns, and he could very well prove me wrong real quick.
Joseph Nardone: D’Angelo Russell — Russell has a few things going for him which will help him be in a position to win the award. He plays for a bad team, should get plenty of looks at the basket and he’s in a market that’ll blind some from other rookies having similar seasons. The only thing really standing in his way is Kobe Bryant, who supposedly has a habit of hogging the ball and taking all the shots. Nevertheless, there’s a handful of guys who can seriously win ROY this season, but Russell’s situation puts him in a situation where his box score should look pretty.
Trenton Jocz: D’Angelo Russell — The Lakers feel lifeless right now, so even if he’s inefficient, it feels like D’Angelo Russell could breathe some life into the Staples Center. If his arrival helps the franchise “reboot” for the post-Kobe era, the narrative could build behind him, especially since the other candidates are either clear role players (Willie Cauley-Stein, Justise Winslow, Bobby Portis) or on teams that don’t figure to see much improvement (Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, Emmanuel Mudiay). Regardless of if he wins the award, the possibility of him reestablishing the Lakers #brand ahead of the salary cap explosion makes Russell arguably the most important rookie in the league.
Jake Weiner: Jahlil Okafor — While Karl-Anthony Towns should ultimately be the best player of the 2015 draft, Jahlil Okafor has the best opportunity to put up gaudy statistics as a rookie. The 76ers have every reason to force feed shots to Okafor, who’s shown to be an ultra-skilled offensive player. With a dearth of other NBA talent around him, Okafor should have the chance to average very solid scoring and rebounding numbers. Emmanuel Mudiay should also compete here, and Towns is an obvious threat as well.
Sixth Man of the Year
Kelly Scaletta: Joakim Noah — How many teams have a former top five MVP finisher and First Team All-NBA player coming off the bench? More limited minutes for Noah to channel his energy could be a blessing. He won’t be the traditional winner notching a ton of points, but he’ll be this season’s best sixth man. C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers has a shot at this one, but I have him booked for a different award. Tristan Thompson should also be in the running.
Morten Stig Jensen: Brandon Jennings — Okay, before you flame me to death, let me explain. He’s coming off the bench for Reggie Jackson in Detroit, and will get a chance to score as soon as he comes in. We need to recognize that sixth-man winners are mostly scorers and the award is hugely flawed given that most winners play on just one end of the court, but that description fits Jennings perfectly. Additionally, he’ll be going up against benches for the most part, which is an advantage he’s never quite had before. He may even crack 42 percent from the field, but all the voters will care about are the 16-17 points that’ll come from the second unit. Can you tell I dislike this award?
Joseph Nardone: Isaiah Thomas — This is tough because we don’t really know the rotations of a lot of teams yet. If I were a coward, which I actually am, I would refrain from making a pick. However, I don’t get paid for my cowardice. I get loot for my inability to have a backbone. Isaiah Thomas gets the nod here only because he’s definitely going to be a sixth man on a team of consequence.
Trenton Jocz: Paul Pierce — Boston’s Isaiah Thomas seems to be the prohibitive favorite, provided he doesn’t end up starting enough games to eliminate himself from consideration. Since others will detail his candidacy, I’ll focus on an overlooked contender: former Celtic Paul Pierce. Doc Rivers is wisely planning to bring the future Hall of Famer off the bench, which should help preserve his body since the fifth Clipper will be tasked with tracking the opponent’s most threatening wing scorer. That’ll free up Pierce to school second units with his classic mid-range game in the first half and later hit open shots down the stretch now that he won’t be required to create those looks on his own.
Jake Weiner: Andre Iguodala — While Iguodala is unlikely to put up the sexiest stat line compared to other contenders for this award, it’d be hard to argue anyone has a bigger impact. Iggy, who could still start for more than half the league’s teams, sacrificed his role for the good of the Warriors, ultimately resulting in a Finals MVP award last year. I’m predicting the voters will want to reward the longtime veteran’s impact after another huge season from the Warriors.
Defensive Player Of the Year
Kelly Scaletta: Anthony Davis — Davis won’t have the best defensive numbers, but they’ll be close enough to garner him support. This award will go to him in much the same way that it went to Noah a couple of years ago. It’s supposed to be a defensive award, but Davis’s contributions all over the court and guilt over not being able to name him MVP when he’s the league’s best player will get him the nod.
Morten Stig Jensen: Rudy Gobert — I’m inches away from selecting Kawhi Leonard as a repeat winner, but I gotta go with the Stifle Tower. Given full-out starter minutes, Gobert might swat a solid 250 shots and change four times as many, which is the real point of having an elite shot blocker. He moves so well for someone 7’2, and his rebounding is sneaky-good to boot. Opponents will think twice all year long before they enter the paint, which in turn will help the Jazz remain a terrific defensive team.
Joseph Nardone: Rudy Gobert — Some of the tippy-top defenders the league has long held as the best in the world at defending are older now. Big men, historically, have an easier path to win the award, as blocking shots is an easier stat to look at than figuring out how one 2-guard does against another. With advanced stats helping with the latter, though, Gobert isn’t a lock — he just so happens to be a developing eater-of-worlds.
Trenton Jocz: Rudy Gobert — Rudy Gobert is a logical pick here for a couple reasons. First, the award is always going to be tilted towards shot blockers. Much like top sluggers in baseball have the narrative of #TEHFEAR, bigs who live in the paint get bonus points for intimidating the opposition (see: DeAndre Jordan last year). In addition, the Jazz don’t have a dominating force on offense, so it’s reasonable to expect voters to find an explanation for the team’s breakthrough out of the lottery abyss. He already has one of the best nicknames in sports, so it’s not hard to envision The Stifle Tower continuing his seemingly inevitable rise to the title of most feared rim protector.
Jake Weiner: Anthony Davis — I’ve been leaning Rudy Gobert for most of the offseason, but Anthony Davis may not actually be human. With nearly all of the other Pelicans battling injuries, Davis will be forced to prop up New Orleans’ defense almost by himself. I expect AD to be an absolute force on the defensive end this year. He should continue to destroy anyone foolish enough to take him on one-on-one. Davis will only continue to improve as a help defender, and his natural length and range allow him to cover nearly the entire floor. Gobert may architect a better overall defense, but it’ll be hard to match Davis’s impact.
Most Improved Player
Kelly Scaletta: C.J. McCollum — Most Improved Player is largely as much an award of increased opportunity as it is an award for the player who actually improved the most. Ergo a man who’s shown that he could be better with more minutes but hasn’t had the chance to play them is C.J. McCollum. He averaged 15.4 points per 36 minutes on 53.4 percent true shooting and 20.5 percent usage. Getting close to 30 minutes a game and many more touches, expect him to average about 15-18 per game.
Morten Stig Jensen: Dennis Schröder — I know, usually these awards go to guys who see a wild increase in minutes, and Schröder is likely to be in the mid-20s section. So why am I picking him? Because I think his production is going to be absolutely huge. Having lost DeMarre Carroll, and now starting Kent Bazemore, Atlanta needs just a bit more consistency from the non-Korvers, Teagues, Horfords and Millsaps. Schröder is that guy. Quick as a cat with an improving jumper and a mentality that’s dripping confidence, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his numbers, and impact, rise significantly in roughly the same number of minutes.
Joseph Nardone: JaKarr Sampson — Wait, don’t laugh. I’m serious. Two things hinge on this. 1- He needs to get healthy. 2- Philly can’t trade him away. Thing is, Sampson’s numbers were so iffy last season that any move forward should be viewed as being a huge jump in improvement. Given Sampson’s improved handle, highlighted in the Summer League, with Philly’s need for offense, a world exists where JaKarr Sampson is putting up 14 points per game and is a solid defender…I SWEAR!
Trenton Jocz: Bradley Beal — Easily the hardest award to predict annually due to the ambiguous criteria, let’s go with Bradley Beal. Paul Pierce’s departure leaves a void for more playmaking alongside John Wall, and still just 22, Beal figures to develop more entering his fourth season. His volume of shots should bounce back after dropping last year, and he’s vowed to take fewer of the dreaded “long twos.” The question as always with Beal is if he can stay healthy, but additional quantity and quality should put him around 20 points per game.
Jake Weiner: Giannis Antetokounmpo — The Giannis hype train has slowed just a little, as many have understandably pointed out that potential can only carry the young wing so far until he starts producing like the star so many expect. Count me as a believer, and I think we could see Giannis make some massive improvements this season. Naturally, everyone wants to see Antetokounmpo improve his shooting stroke, but there’s plenty of other ways he can augment his game. Giannis has the tools to be the league’s best perimeter defender, and Milwaukee’s system under Jason Kidd caters to his strengths. Further, improved ball-handling and playmaking could help Giannis increase his scoring output as well.
Coach of the Year
Kelly Scaletta: Billy Donovan — Voters most frequently bestow this on a coach who steps in and sees the team improve. The Thunder will improve for many reasons, not the least of which will be the return of Kevin Durant. But the offense will see more ball movement and be less reliant on Durant and Westbrook doing everything to generate points. The Thunder will also be better coached this year, and that, combined with the jump in wins, will get Donovan the nod.
Morten Stig Jensen: Steve Kerr — I love Mike Budenholzer, but Kerr got robbed last year. If Golden State has another 60+ win season, he should get it. The only scenario in which he shouldn’t is if San Antonio just clicks from the opening game and wins around 65 games. That way you can award the actual best coach in all of basketball. Maybe ever.
Joseph Nardone: Erik Spoelstra — Hot take: Spo has been a very good coach this entire time. Not really a hot take, but some people truly want to give him little credit for the Heat’s success during the LeBron era. That said, Miami’s roster looks like one which can make a serious run at being one of the better teams in the East. Given voters’ track history of giving coaches the nod because they do more with supposedly less than coaches who simply win a lot of games, this can be a chance to give Spoelstra a lifetime achievement award of sorts.
Trenton Jocz: Billy Donovan — If you buy into Boston making the leap that statistical models project, Brad Stevens would be the pick, but I’m going with Billy Donovan instead. Oklahoma City has the built-in advantage of an impending win total boost as long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy. Assuming they are, you can flip the digits from OKC’s 45 wins last year (even that might be low). If Donovan can spice up the crunch-time offense that could get so stagnant under Scott Brooks, then he’ll end up getting credit for the lion’s share of the improvement. (While Fred Hoiberg could reinvigorate the Bulls in much the same way, they have a lot more moving parts to figure out, and having won 50 games and a No. 3 seed last year, they don’t have the same opportunity for improvement in the standings.)
Jake Weiner: Billy Donovan — Scott Brooks is a solid coach, and last year’s Durantless Thunder would’ve been doomed with nearly anyone at the helm. Still, Brooks came up short too many times in Oklahoma City, and Billy Donovan certainly seems like the right man to take the Thunder the distance. It’ll be a pressure-baked debut season with Kevin Durant’s free agency approaching, but the Thunder have too much talent to win less than around 60 games. If Donovan can crack the rotations and offense in ways Brooks always came up short, he’ll be an easy choice for the highly narrative-driven Coach of the Year award.