Rookie of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
Winning Rookie of the Year is as much an issue of opportunity as it is talent. I like the potential of Stanley Johnson as a two-way player in Detroit coming off the bench as a sixth man and I like Karl-Anthony Towns as a talent, but no rookie is in a better position to get a ton of touches (because let’s face it, scoring is what most voters care about) as Mudiay and Okafor. Historically, the Rookie with the highest points per game average wins this award and defense is heavily discounted. You have to go back to Derrick Rose (16.8 PPG) in 2008-09 to find a ROY without the highest scoring average (Mayo 18.5 PPG). Lebron James is the only other ROY in the last dozen years to not lead all rookies in scoring (he was edged out by Carmelo by 0.1 PPG that year). So, the pick here is clear, find the highest rookie scorer and you’ve found the next Rookie of the Year. After the departure of embattled team-leader, Ty Lawson, Mudiay will be given the reins of a rebuilding Nuggets team. Mudiay impressed with a strong summer league, but is still raw. Okafor, on the other hand, will anchor the offense for the perpetually rebuilding 76ers, playing next to a defensive-minded Nerlens Noel. Joel Embiid’s 2nd consecutive season-ending surgery guarantees Okafor will play tons of minutes and get tons of touches on an offense lacking experience and lacking scorers. The fact that voters typically ignore the defensive side of the ball is also an advantage for Okafor, who has some major work to do on that side of the ball. It’s Jahlil’s polished low post game that will land him in the 16-18 PPG range which will be enough to land him the Rookie of the Year trophy.
Runner-Up: Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
Coach of the Year: Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
I hesitate to pick Kerr for this award because for a while there, winning Coach of the Year also meant that you would be fired shortly after taking home the hardware. Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott, Mike Brown, Scott Brooks, and Tom Thibideau (all recent winners) were all fired within only a few seasons of winning the honor. That said, Pop has also won the award 3 times, and Pop proteges Avery Johnson and, last season, Budenholzer have also won it. So, Pop teaches coaches how to win this award. This year will be Kerr’s chance. After winning a rookie coaching record-crushing 67 games (surpassing Westphal and Thibodeau’s previous record of 62), winning his 6th NBA Championship (1st as a coach), and returning his entire young core, he’s in a great position to repeat as champs. So good were the Warriors last season that Steph Curry routinely set out of 4th quarters on his way to winning the MVP trophy averaging fewer minutes (32.7) than any winner in decades. A repeat title run, if he can pull it off, would be too much for voters to overlook. Kerr and his Warriors will have their work cut out for them assuming the NBA will not sustain so many injuries to game’s elite as they did last year, which may have inflated the Warriors 67 win total of last year. Significant star-level injuries in 2014-15 included Westbrook, Durant, Carmelo, Kyrie, Love, Parker, Kobe, George, and Howard. The Warriors will likely have a rougher schedule and road to a repeat if teams are a little healthier than last year. I think Kerr and his Warriors will be up to the challenge and make a run at least deep enough to bag Kerr Coach of the Year Honors.
Runner-up: Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokuonmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Most Improved Player award is probably the most difficult to predict because it is so reliant on unpredictable factors. Jimmy Butler won it last year largely due to the opportunity to lead the Bulls after Derrick Rose went down with another injury. The year before, Goran Dragic won largely due to a move from Point Guard to Shooting Guard in Jeff Hornacek’s 3-Guard experiment with Bledsoe and Thomas. Three years ago, Paul George won when given the opportunity to start when the man ahead of him in the rotation, the Pacers’ leading scorer Danny Granger, went down for the season. So, picking this one is the greatest test for the world of crystal balls of all of the awards. Who knows if Tony Parker will blow a knee on opening day and Patty Mills will dominate as a starter or if a John Wall injury will bring the best out in Bradley Beal, but I am going to pick Giannis Antekuonmpo to have a breakout year and bring home the hardware. The Greek Freak has a few factors on his side: 1) Jason Kidd loves him, sees the ridiculously high ceiling, and will give him minutes; 2) he has the benefit of having put up mediocre stats last year. At 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists, increases to 18, 8, and 4 are realistic and would amount to a major leap, and 3) the Bucks and their stellar young core will win enough games to get the voters attention. All of these things will be enough to show voters that the YouTube-hype is more than just eye-candy, but that there is some substance to this kid’s game.
Runner-Up: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Perhaps no turn-around for any team was as dramatic last year as the Utah Jazz after the All-Star Break and the team’s 17-8 record. More impressive was what the Jazz did defensively to turn their season around. The Jazz went from 4th worst in the league in defensive efficiency to 1st and nobody played a bigger part in that than Gobert. In just 26.3 Minutes Per Game, the Stifle Tower and his 7’9″ wingspan finished 3rd in the league in blocks at 2.3 BPG and was the league’s best rim protector, holding opponents to 40.4% shooting on lay-ups according to NBA.com. In his first season as a full-time starter, Gobert’s block and rebound numbers are sure to increase with his minutes. In 35 Minutes Per Game after the All-Star Break, Gobert’s averages shot up to 13.5 RPG, 2.5 BPG, and 1.0 SPG. I predict with a defensive-minded coach and teammates committed on that side of the ball, Gobert will be the Marc Gasol-type favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year as the best defensive player on the best defensive team.
Runner-Up: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Isaiah Thomas deserved the award last year, leading all players in bench points and ranking 4th of all players in 4th quarter points. Celtic GM, Danny Ainge knows a little something about underestimated clutch shooting guards coming off the bench. I think Ainge sees in Thomas the same tenacity Ainge displayed for the Celtic green and Thomas’s clutch scoring will continue to be a fan and coach favorite, giving Thomas continued minutes with the Celtics. His scoring increased after joining the Celtics to 19 PPG (to go along with 5.4 APG) in just 26 minutes. Had he sustained those numbers over the full season last year, there is no question he would have been 6th man last year. There is no reason to believe that the Celtics would change Thomas’s role that proved so effective in 21 games last season. Thomas will make it right this year and turn in a performance that the voters cannot ignore again.
Runner-Up: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden was likely a few Houston Rocket wins from winning the award last year. Not that Curry was undeserving last year, but Harden’s performance was equally deserving. In 2015-16 Harden will have the additional help of Ty Lawson’s playmaking abilities. Harden carried the workload in Houston last year without Howard, and then lost Patrick Beverley in the playoff run. Now with Lawson, Harden will have a few more open looks and another ball handler to take some pressure off. Harden’s 715 Made Free Throws last year were historically good, putting him in an elite category of scorers and a scoring title next year wouldn’t hurt his chances of winning his first MVP next year. A healthy Dwight Howard should increase Houston’s win total as well. Harden will win the MVP next year, edging out Curry and Durant in another tight MVP race.
Runner-Up: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder