The NBA season is right around the corner, which means predictions season is here for The Crossover. We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. While the results were mostly mixed, many of the marquee names we've come to expect in this space make an appearance. LeBron James is in the Most Valuable Player race every year, Anthony Davis has a stake in Defensive Player of the Year race at all times and Brad Stevens is a perennial candidate for Coach of the Year.
That said, they didn't all land on top when our writers made selections on all things NBA awards. Check out our predictions for the 2018–19 season below.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Ben Golliver: LeBron James, Lakers. By choosing the Lakers in free agency, LeBron James didn’t set himself up very well to win the 2019 title, but he did lay the groundwork for a strong MVP campaign. Indeed, the four-time MVP has the best narrative and the most hype of any of the top candidates, now that he’s suiting up for a glamour franchise in a massive market without a big-name sidekick to split the credit. It’s best to think of James as a genuine savior rather than a garden-variety superstar. After all, the Lakers lost 284 combined games over the past five seasons, the most in the NBA.
Because so many of his top competitors—Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—have all taken their turns winning the award, James only needs to lead the Lakers to respectability to be viewed as the favorite. If he puts up huge stats on a fast-paced 50-win team, that should be enough to do it. Plus, he’s got a heck of an ace up his sleeve: James sits just 1,254 points behind Michael Jordan’s career total, and he should easily move past MJ to claim the fourth spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list by the time MVP ballots are due.
Rob Mahoney: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. I arrived here by process of elimination. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, but isn’t exactly positioned to put up MVP production or win enough games to satisfy the award’s usual, unofficial criteria. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are likely to split the Warriors vote, as per usual. James Harden, the reigning MVP, could post an identical season to last year and still slide in the running—if only for the fact that narrative tends to play an outsized role in the voting process. To me, that leaves Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis as the most compelling candidates, and Giannis has the game, the production, and the narrative premise to pull it off. The arrival of Mike Budenholzer really should make Giannis and the Bucks noticeably better this season—impressive, considering that Antetokounmpo was already a singular, dominant talent in his own right.
Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Lakers. This is such a difficult award to handicap now because LeBron is the best player in the world, but his teams (arguably) underachieve during the regular season, and his defensive effort waxes and wanes before the playoffs. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry (probably unfairly) cancel each other out. Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s teams usually don’t win enough games. And Kawhi Leonard is an enigma. James Harden will put up the numbers, but is he better than any of the players I just mentioned? I’m not sure! I’m going with LeBron, because I think the strength of the narrative—him leading a group of youngbloods in L.A.—could carry weight with voters. If the Lakers surprise (me) by finishing in the top half of the West, LeBron will have the votes.
Andrew Sharp: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. There's a good argument that either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry will win this award. If the Warriors stay healthy this season, they should win somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 games. If they are more engaged than they were last season, that number could easily land closer to 70, in which case it will be difficult to justify giving the award to anyone else. If Golden State ends the year 10 games ahead of the next closest team—a distinct possibility—KD and Steph have to be the favorites.
Having said that, it's early October. I'm picking with my heart right now. It's unlikely that voters will want to give another MVP trophy to James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and it's equally unlikely that LeBron James and Anthony Davis win enough games to steal this race. The door is wide open for Giannis, who's still only 23 years old, but clearly on his way to owning the league sometime in the near future. Mike Budenholzer has arrived in Milwaukee to supercharge the offense, the rotation has two more quality contributors (Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova), Malcolm Brogdon is healthy after missing the second half of last season, and there's room for the Bucks to surprise people in the East. They may not make the Finals, but they should be significantly better than the 43-win team we saw a year ago.
All Bucks progress will start with Giannis. This is the first time he's played with a coach who can build an entire offense around him, and he should dominate all year long. I am knocking on wood here—and acknowledging that the Warriors could easily make everyone else look ordinary—but a full blown Antetokounmpo takeover has never looked more plausible than it does right this moment.
Jeremy Woo: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks. Taking note of his dominant trajectory over the last few years, it feels like the stars are aligning for Giannis and the Bucks to close the gap on the rest of the conference. He will surely put together another compelling statistical argument, after averaging nearly 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and more than a block and a steal per game last season. His size and athletic gifts point to untapped ceiling, the arrival of Mike Budenholzer should create added stability and the potential for more ball movement and creative Giannis deployment (though letting him attack the paint from the top of the key will still work fine). If the spacing and shooting around him improves incrementally, and if Antetokounmpo’s jumper is indeed on the upswing, this award will be in play—for the next decade, maybe.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Ben Golliver: Luka Dončić, Mavericks. Luka Dončić checks all the boxes for a strong Rookie of the Year candidate: he has an NBA-ready body, he’s played against high-level competition for years, and he’ll have a large but manageable role with the Mavericks. Plus, his scoring and playmaking ability should allow him to put up counting stats, contribute to wins, and feature regularly in highlight reels.
Let’s get wacky and take this prediction business one giant step further: the Slovenian “Wonder Boy” will win Rookie of the year and get a rival GM fired by next summer. Phoenix relieved Ryan McDonough of his duties prior to the season, but Sacramento’s Vlade Divac both passed on Dončić in the draft, and Atlanta’s Travis Schlenk traded him to Dallas for Trae Young and a pick. One of those two remaining executives will get a pink slip by next summer.
Rob Mahoney: Deandre Ayton, Suns.In most cases, this award doesn’t go to the best rookie in a given season but the most productive. Ayton figures to be that—a legitimate 20–10 threat on a team very much invested in that possibility. Phoenix will have little choice but to funnel possessions through Ayton until Devin Booker returns to the lineup, and even then will look to play their dynamic guard and blue-chip center off of one another. The scoring and rebounding numbers will be there for Ayton. History tells us that the award tends to go with them.
Rohan Nadkarni: (Donovan Mitchell, Just kidding!) Luka Dončić, Mavericks: I’m high on Dončić for no reason other than my love of YouTube highlight mixes. Deandre Ayton’s stats could be cannibalized a bit by Devin Booker, and I think Dončić will find a way to put up numbers thanks to Rick Carlisle’s offensive genius. If the Mavs somehow hang around in the playoff race, that will help Dončić’s case as well. I’m really excited for a lot of these rookies, though.
Andrew Sharp: Deandre Ayton, Suns. Dončić will probably get the lion's share of love here, and that makes sense. He is super skilled, he's surrounded by capable teammates, and he'll have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to a team that should be hanging around the back-end of the West playoff race all year long. That said, I think the entire basketball community has spent the past few months underrating the No. 1 pick.
Ayton is the rare case of a rookie for whom life in the NBA should be easier than it was in college. The NBA has more spacing, better refs, better guards, and better coaches—halfway through the year there's a good chance that we're all watching the Suns and realizing that most colleges just have no idea to take advantage of a big man's offense. Ayton should average somewhere around 18, 10, and 2 blocks this season, and that would probably be enough to steal the win from Doncic. In a few years there may be questions about whether Ayton can help a contender in the playoffs, but for this season, he's gigantic, he's fast, and he's skilled. We will all remember why he went No. 1 overall.
Jeremy Woo: Luka Dončić, Mavericks. Expect this to be close between Dončić and Deandre Ayton (who’s looking like a readymade double-double machine) all season. But the clear potential for the Mavericks to return to on-court relevance and the massive hand he’ll have in it gives Dončić an edge in my book. Of everyone in this class, his statistics have the most potential to be meaningful right away and lead directly to team success, and if things click quickly in Dallas, 40-ish wins isn’t out of the question. He may not match Ben Simmons’s 15, 8 and 8 rookie averages, but as a similarly gifted playmaker and initiator, Dončić may scrape closer to that than most think. He was the best player in the world outside of the NBA last season as an 18-year-old. Don’t overthink this.
Sixth Man of the Year
Ben Golliver: Dennis Schroder, Thunder. When Russell Westbrook headed to the bench last season, Oklahoma City’s offensive rating fell by more than nine points. When Westbrook headed to the bench two years ago, OKC's offensive drop-off was more than 10 points. Given the pitiful performances of the Westbrook-less Thunder in recent years, off-season addition Dennis Schroder has a massive opportunity to prove his worth as a ball-handler and creator.
Schroder, who was acquired from the Hawks this summer in the Carmelo Anthony trade, won’t just be running the show when the MVP takes a breather. The German floor general will play major minutes in Billy Donovan’s rotation, getting plenty of opportunities to close games alongside Westbrook. Although Schroder was underqualified to carry a threadbare Hawks team last year, he’s overqualified as a second-stringer. Look for him to smooth out some of his new team's inconsistencies, to fill minutes during Andre Roberson's early-season absence, and to help boost the Thunder in the standings.
Rob Mahoney: J.J. Redick, 76ers.So long as the Sixers start Markelle Fultz, Redick—who scored a career-high 17.1 points per game last season—will rank among the best bench players in the league. The opportunity should still be there. Philadelphia features Redick heavily in its offense, putting him in a position to make reads through dribble hand-offs. Think of it as an alternative to the classic high pick-and-roll—and an invaluable one, considering that every team needs go-to mechanics to create a quality shot on command. Redick offers that, while producing enough himself to satisfy the traditional indicators for an award like this one.
Rohan Nadkarni: Lou Williams, Clippers.I really want to pick Isaiah Thomas here, but I’m the slightest bit worried about his health status, so give me Lou Will in a repeat. The Clippers should be feisty again this season. Losing DeAndre Jordan will hurt the defense, but a full season from Patrick Beverley, and the addition of Luc Mbah a Moute and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should make this team fun. If the Clips are competitive and Williams goes off for a couple #LeaguePassAlerts, he could very well go back to back.
Andrew Sharp: Tyreke Evans, Pacers. This one is tough to handicap with so many starting lineups in flux at the moment. If either J.J. Redick or Eric Gordon spend the majority of the year coming off the bench, they should be favored to win this award. For now, we'll assume they are starters this season, in which case Evans is your best bet. He's been consistently solid for a few seasons, and now that he has been freed from last year's lost Grizzlies season, Evans will be playing games that actually matter. The Pacers were very good last year, and as they try to hold their ground in a deeper Eastern Conference, they will need more firepower. If Evans can deliver off the bench, he'll win here.
Jeremy Woo: Terry Rozier, Celtics. Rozier’s postseason emergence was one of last season’s better storylines, and the 2015 first-round pick’s rapid ascent should continue as he works behind Kyrie Irving this season. While it could be hard to post heavy numbers as part of a rotation with plenty of mouths to feed, Rozier’s intensity, playmaking skills and overall contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. Expect him to be a major part of the Celtics’ success and help anchor bench units that should be among the league’s best. If he can be more efficient scoring the ball on a consistent basis, Rozier’s breakout will continue.
Most Improved Player
Ben Golliver: Jamal Murray, Nuggets. Jamal Murray’s Most Improved Player case is straight out of the C.J. McCollum playbook. Back in 2016, McCollum took home the award with a breakout third season for the Blazers, who comfortably surpassed preseason expectations to land a spot in the playoffs. This year, look for Murray to take home the award with a breakout third season for the Nuggets, who could easily surpass their bubble-team expectations and snap a five-year postseason drought.
Like McCollum, Murray is a dynamic scoring guard who can shoot the three, create a shot, and break down defenders in pick-and-roll and isolation situations. The Canadian guard thrives in Denver’s ultra-efficient offense, benefiting from Nikola Jokic’s elite passing and the presence of five legit scoring options in the Nuggets’ starting lineup. In his second season, Murray set an NBA record for most three-point attempts by a 20-year-old player, and his green light should become even greener as he improves his off-the-dribble shooting ability.
Rob Mahoney: Myles Turner, Pacers.When in doubt, bet on the recent yoga convert who made working on his body a priority this offseason. Turner wasn’t in poor shape before, but now he has the benefit of a much stronger core—a foundation that should allow him to move, adjust, and hold his position more effectively. This is the right time for Turner, who in his three years in the league has developed in small, subtle ways without taking any meaningful steps. A healthy year could get him there.
Rohan Nadkarni: Jamal Murray, Nuggets.I’m full #NuggetsHive this season, and Jamal Murray is probably already too good to win this award, but I want to recognize him somehow here. Murray is so fun to watch. He’s definitely high on the list of players who get better the more their jersey gets untucked. If he can get his scoring average into the 20s—and the Nuggets turn some heads—I think Murray could have a good case for MIP. I don’t know. This one is hard to predict. Just watch more Nuggets games this season.
Andrew Sharp: Brandon Ingram, Lakers.I was very, very excited to put Dejounte Murray here, but alas. I'll go with Ingram instead. He was poised to have a breakout year regardless, and now he'll be getting looks from LeBron James all year long. I'm never sure what the criteria is for this award, but there's a decent chance we will arrive in April and "Brandon Ingram is really good" will be a narrative that voters want to celebrate. In that case, this seems perfect.
Jeremy Woo: Derrick White, Spurs. Dejounte Murray’s torn ACL leaves a clear opportunity for the 24-year-old White, who was already ticketed for a role this season and may end up starting games given Gregg Popovich’s preference for Patty Mills off the bench. A late bloomer and former Division II standout, White was the 29th pick in the 2017 draft out of Colorado and looked the part throughout a full G League season and dominant Summer League showing. His athleticism, size, craftiness as a scorer and playmaker and penchant for stuffing the stat sheet make him a sneaky bet here. He’s reminiscent in some ways of former Spurs guard Antonio Daniels, and San Antonio will give him a real chance and put him in position to succeed. White has looked ready for the moment for the last few months, and here it is.
Defensive Player of the Year
Ben Golliver: Anthony Davis, Pelicans. Rooting for Anthony Davis to move on from the Pelicans to a higher-profile team is uncouth. That said, it’s frustrating and a bit sad to realize that the perennial All-Star receives only a fraction of the attention his incredible all-around game deserves. That’s especially true on the defensive end, where Davis is one of the league’s most disruptive forces.
Now that he’s filled out physically and the NBA’s small ball revolution has taken hold, Davis is fully capable of playing center against any matchup. He excels virtually everywhere defensively, just as he’s a threat to score from anywhere offensively. He protects the rim, cleans the defensive glass, steps out on switches, contests three-pointers with his length and helps turn defense into offense by taking off for the races.
Although the Pelicans don’t have the league’s deepest roster of plus defenders, Davis covers up mistakes on a play-by-play basis. His dominance of the Blazers in last year’s playoffs showed the full extent of his game-changing potential on both sides of the ball. Davis finished third in last year’s voting, and has a good chance to move up this season if he can keep New Orleans in the playoff picture after the departures of DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo.
Rob Mahoney: Rudy Gobert, Jazz.This looks to be a big year for the Jazz, which should only accentuate Gobert’s already credible candidacy. Gobert stands to be not only the best defender on what could be the best defense in the league, but the single player most critical to its success. Utah devised its system around Gobert because he has the game to shoulder it. A few, truly elite teams might be able to stretch him out and give him trouble, but most everyone else struggles to score at the rim with Gobert around and thus struggles to score efficiently at all.
Rohan Nadkarni: Joel Embiid, 76ers.Embiid is such a menace defensively. I wince whenever I see guards try to test him in the paint. This award could largely depend on his availability, but if Rudy Gobert could win last year, I think Embiid could steal DPOY even with some built-in rest. Gobert will be tough competition. (Draymond and Kawhi could be in the mix, but their status is wild card-y.) I think Embiid wins if he comes closer to 70 games.
Andrew Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz.If the Jazz have a big year, Gobert's defense will be the easiest way to explain it. I don't trust Draymond Green to expend more than bare-minimum energy during the regular season, and Kawhi Leonard is still a wild card. For now, of the three best defenders on the planet, Gobert still seems like the best.
Jeremy Woo: Anthony Davis, Pelicans. Somehow, Davis still hasn’t won this award, but eventually it feels like he has to. His elite defensive impact on a Pelicans team that could again be very good is hard to miss, and his shot-blocking stats are right up there with Rudy Gobert. Team defense might be a stumbling block, and the Pelicans like to push the pace, but if they can parlay everything into a playoff return, it could help Davis make a convincing argument. He’s strung together two mostly-healthy seasons and should be in position for a big individual year. If Davis doesn’t go and win MVP, this would be a suitable consolation prize.
Coach of the Year
Ben Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. If Kyrie Irving doesn’t get hurt last season, Boston’s Brad Stevens almost certainly hangs on to his early-season lead and takes home his first Coach of the Year award. Alas, Irving went down, Toronto gained steam, and Dwane Casey received the accolade (before he got the pink skip).
Stevens’s case is the same as it ever was: he’s great at managing lineups, drawing up ATOs, preparing defensive game plans, establishing a positive culture, balancing egos, and coaxing maximum effort out of youngsters and vets alike. With Irving back healthy and one of the league’s deepest and most talented rosters at his disposal, Stevens should have Boston on track for a No. 1 seed in the East, a third straight trip to the conference finals and, possibly, his first trip to the Finals. This is his year.
Rob Mahoney: Brad Stevens, Celtics.Stevens is both a terrific coach and a media favorite, which bodes well for his candidacy. Play out the string: If the Celtics claim the top spot in the East, as expected, look to be credible challengers to the Warriors, as expected, and effortlessly reincorporate both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, as expected, wouldn’t that make Stevens the obvious front-runner? This award tends to draw a crowded field, but Stevens hasn’t yet won and could well coach a loaded team winning 70% of its games.
Rohan Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat.I’m fully in the tank for Spo. If you’ve ever read one of my blogs you know this. He is always underrated and always wringing every last drop of talent from his misshapen roster. (Do you want to try to get Hassan Whiteside to set a screen?) There are always many coaches deserving of this honor, and Pop could obviously win every year. But give me Spo, who will have the Heat pushing opponents every night without a true star for the third straight season.
Andrew Sharp: Brad Stevens, Celtics.Stevens has been the most popular preseason COY pick for several seasons now. What will it take to actually win? Probably somewhere in the vicinity of 60 wins, a No. 1 seed for the Celtics, and a team that lives up to the considerable hype that will follow them all year. All of it will be more challenging than it may look in early October—now that everyone is healthy, chemistry on offense will probably take time—but Stevens has a knack for making all these transitions look seamless. If he can do it this year, it'll be tough to give this award to anyone else.
Jeremy Woo: Quin Snyder, Jazz. On paper, the Jazz are a top-four team in the Western Conference. Given their continuity, talent and depth, they may be good enough to win the entire thing—at least in the regular season. Snyder has frequently pushed the right buttons over the last few years, helping turn Utah into a defensive juggernaut and orient the Jazz on an upward arc. With Donovan Mitchell continuing to improve and all their key contributors back, the Jazz should push 50 wins. If they hit their ceiling and inch ahead of Golden State and Houston, Snyder should get the appropriate credit.