Let’s all rejoice, for it is the dawning of the NBA regular season. To celebrate such a heady occasion, let’s make some harebrained predictions about some season-ending awards.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard
With all of the upheaval happening around the league, you can expect some of the usual suspects to win MVP: James Harden, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, to lose votes due to the talent level of their respective teams. The only MVP candidates that will really have to carry their squad to success are Kawhi and LeBron James. If the MVP was assigned to the league’s best player every year, LeBron would need to buy a couple more trophy cases, but there are other biases that affect this award. The Cavs showed last year that they are not stressing the importance of getting the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but are concerned about how many minutes James plays. It would not surprise me in the least if The King takes an in-season mini-vacation, like he did a couple of years ago, to be able to maximize his talents in the playoffs.
There were a lot of smart basketball minds who voted for Leonard to be MVP last year: Zach Lowe, Haralabob Voulgaris, and Tom Haberstroh were all on the Kawhi train last year. And for good reason, Leonard averaged 26 PPG on 61% true shooting for a team that won 61 games. His defense has always been an area of his game that is the hardest to quantify, although he did finish the season 6th in defensive win shares and 8th in defensive rating. If you spend any time talking to NBA players, scouts, or executives, they will tell you that no single defender has as much impact on a game as Leonard.
There are three areas in the court in which an NBA player has to excel in to be considered great. He has to be able to finish at the rim and hit the three-ball, that’a given, but the player who can exploit the openings in a defense from the midrange is truly special. Last year Kawhi made over 66% of his shots at the rim, 38% of his three-point shots, and 49% of shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. I think that last number is going to become increasingly important as defenses become more centered in on defending the three. Kawhi is already shooting the long two better than players like James Harden (42%), Russell Westbrook (34% yikes!), and LeBron James (30% wowzers!). The other player who comes to mind when you discuss hyper-efficient shooters from the mid-range is Kevin Durant, who feasted on the long two last year, shooting 56% on shots in between 16 feet and the three-point line.
A lot of people, especially casual basketball fans, are still wrapping their heads around how important the three-point shot is to the game. To try to explain how the next level step in basketball’s evolution is to become a hyper-efficient scorer from all areas of the court seems both painfully obvious and screamingly obtuse. Kawhi has the ability to make shots from a number of spots on the floor and has the playmaking ability to put himself in a position to get those shots. On defense, he is able to get the best players in the game to shoot from spots where they are uncomfortable shooting from, and what’s more, he is often able to keep the ball out of the best offensive weapons on an opposing team.
Last year I picked Russell Westbrook as my MVP because he posted a top 10 all-time season in box plus/minus, joining a group of players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That Westbrook also averaged a triple-double over the course of a season made the pick almost too easy. Last year featured some of the more impressive offensive statistical seasons we have ever seen. Players like Westbrook and Harden were putting up numbers that were both mind-boggling, yet fairly easy to contextualize to the NBA layman. We are still probably a decade away from being able to quantify and verbalize exactly how valuable a player like Kawhi Leonard is to his team. So when I say that the Spurs are likely to win a lot of games because Kawhi Leonard is really good at basketball, please don’t think I’m being reductive.
COTY: Gregg Popovich
It’s easy to overlook Gregg Popovich for this award, much the same we overlook LeBron James for MVP. These guys have been so dominant in their respective careers for so long that the everyday brilliance starts to become mundane — and shame on us for that. However, this is the first time in half a decade where serious basketball minds are starting to doubt whether this Spurs squad has what it takes to compete for a title. In a year in which half of the Western Conference went out and made their teams better, San Antonio stayed mostly the same, going as far as to resign the often maligned LaMarcus Aldridge to a 3-yr/$80 million deal.
This is an aging squad that will be playing without Kawhi for at least the first game, and will be relying on guys like Tony Parker (35 yrs old) and Manu Ginobili (40 yrs old) to make meaningful contributions to the team. If this team can once again win over 50 games and grab a top-four spot in the Western Conference, it would be the ultimate masterpiece for Popovich and the Spurs system. I’m already looking forward to seeing Pop sit half his starting lineup sometime within the first month, and still have his team beat up on some unsuspecting Eastern Conference team.
The fact that Pop is also unafraid to speak up on social issues is just a bonus. I truly hope that every time they cut to an in-game interview with Popovich during the season, he ignores the banal, hoops related question and goes off on a multi-minute tangent about how cutting Medicare subsidies affects insurance markets in the Midwest.
ROTY: Ben Simmons
What’s important to note about rookies in the NBA is that they are usually cbad, even the good ones. Last year’s Rookie Of The Year winner, Malcolm Brogdon, had a .8 value over replacement player, meaning he was barely better than the average NBA player. That’s not a not on Brogdon or the rookie class of 2017, it’s just really hard to find your footing in the NBA, and few players excel in their first season. That’s why I’m going with Ben Simmons here. I realize this is kind of a cheat as this is technically Simmons second season in the league, but he is still designated as a rookie because he did not play in a game last season.
What I love about Ben Simmons are his size and playmaking ability. At 6–10 Simmons is tall enough to shoot over most players and skilled enough to play the point in Philadelphia. To say that Simmons jump shot is a work in progress would be the understatement of the decade, but he is such an athletic specimen that he will find ways to get into the lane and score or get someone else an open shot. The fact that he has been around the league for a year can only be a good thing. As much as I like what I’ve seen out of guys like Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. I think Simmons game translates best to have a strong rookie campaign.
Come Back POTY: Joel Embiid
Is it fair to give the Comeback Player Of The Year award to a player who has only played 31 games in the league?
Here’s a tip to anyone of you who may not be into the NBA, but find yourself in a social situation where you have to engage with a hoops fan: just ask them how they feel about Joel Embiid! To look at Joel Embiid’s per 36 minutes last year is to see basketball nirvana. Last year Embiid averaged 29 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes, and he also shot 36.7% from three. His 102 defensive rating would have put him in the top ten around the league had he played enough minutes to qualify.
Simply put, Joel Embiid has more potential than any player I’ve seen in my lifetime. He is a seven foot tall, 23 years old, whose game reminds me of Hakeem Olajuwon mixed with Dirk Nowitzki, down to their signature shots and footwork. He just signed a five-year max extension that is largely contingent on his staying healthy. If he can stay healthy he is a dark horse MVP candidate, and perhaps the most important athlete in terms of his impact on a city’s sports landscape since LeBron James early years. That he has been so committed to the city, even though the team has been in a perpetual state of rebuilding, thus “the Process” nickname he has been branded with, just makes him that much more likable.
There simply is not a more exhilarating player to watch in the league right now than Embiid, his past foot and back injuries are huge causes for concern for a seven foot tall NBA player, and every time he takes fall during a game I audibly gasp, but it all just adds to the thrill of watching him play. We may never get a full season of this guys brilliance, but every minute he is on the court feels like a gift. There’s never been a player outside of the Lakers that I have rooted for harder.
Finals Teams: Cavs-Warriors
I don’t know what to tell you. The Warriors are the Warriors and picking against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference is like betting against death and taxes, not a good idea.
NBA Champion: Warriors
Enjoy the games tonight!