Crystal Ball: 2015-16 NBA predictions
With the 2015-16 NBA season here, SI.com's hoop experts dish their awards predictions for the upcoming year, including MVP, Most Improved, Rookie of the Year and more. As with all pre-season predictions, you are required by Internet law to forget these picks by December.
LeBron James will take too many breaks, saving himself for the playoffs, and Anthony Davis won’t win enough games. James Harden won’t do quite as much, thanks to Ty Lawson, and Steph Curry will see how hard it is to repeat. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to decimate the NBA this season—provided they stay healthy, that eternal caveat for the Thunder—and Durant will barely outshine his running mate.
I'll admit: LBJ's back injury almost had me voting for someone else. But though I expect LeBron to take a few games off here or there—not to mention the extended breaks from Cleveland blowouts—this has the makings of another year of LeBron posting close to triple-double numbers every night on a Cavs team that has the talent to exceed 70 wins.
The MVP always boils down to stats, wins and personal narrative, and a healthy Kevin Durant checks all three boxes in style. As long as the foot problems are behind him, Durant has a chance to lead the league in scoring, post a 50/40/90 shooting season and ace all of the major advanced statistical measurements like he did in 2013-14. With an improved Russell Westbrook riding shotgun, Durant’s Thunder also have a strong shot at 60+ victories. As for storylines, Durant has a juicy “comeback” angle combined with an even juicier “upcoming free agency” angle. If Durant turns in the best season of his career, a distinct possibility given that he’s rested and refreshed after so much time on the sidelines, voters will have a hard time handing the trophy to anybody else.
The tide turns. At season's end, candidates like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant will be as compelling as any. But Davis seems poised for a jaw-dropping, do-it-all season—one which could also have the right kind of narrative juice in light of the Pelicans' early injuries. Davis scores with the league's best, makes more of a defensive impact than any other superstar, and terrorizes opposing teams with or without the ball. This is the year the sum total of those contributions will elevate him to the top of the game and the voters will see fit to reward him for it. Davis will be 23 years old.
This could be a blowout if Davis stays healthy. He has the opportunity to post a historic season statistically, especially playing in Gentry’s offense. There’s never been a player with his collection of skills, at his level, and now he’s shooting threes. For his sake, let’s hope his teammates stay healthy enough to give him space on offense. A big shooting season from Ryan Anderson (see below) could open up a lot. If Davis does get hurt, or falters, watch for Russell Westbrook. He’s peaking and has never needed extra motivation. Alongside a healthy Durant and with an offensive system that presumably will be upgraded, he will be a monster.
Kevin Durant is in position to capture his second MVP in triumphant fashion, but LeBron James has a tendency of stealing the spotlight from his greatest rival. If you somehow needed a reminder, James proved he’s still the best basketball player on the planet with his torrid run through the 2015 NBA playoffs. When called upon, James can reach heights even the game’s biggest stars can’t achieve. With Kyrie Irving sidelined and the pain of last spring’s Finals loss still lingering, James will be as dominant as ever in his 13th season. He won’t play all 82 games, but his mastery in the 60-70 games he does suit up in will yield the fifth MVP title of his career.
Last year’s winner, Jimmy Butler, was in his fourth season. The winner the year before, Paul George, was also in his fourth season. Likewise, Drummond is entering his fourth season, and he no longer has Greg Monroe over his shoulder. In each of the last two years, Drummond averaged a little less than 14 points while protecting the rim for the Pistons. Stan Van Gundy will space the floor around Drummond, a la Dwight Howard in Orlando, and he will become a major centerpiece.
A disclaimer: I made this prediction in SI when I didn’t expect Montiejunas to be sidelined all of camp with a back injury that will likely keep him out of the season opener. That said, if Montiejunas can make it back into the lineup by mid-month, he’s a prime candidate to inherit the minutes vacated by Josh Smith. Montiejunas is a floor-spacing big who can play two positions and rebounds well. That’s the kind of player you want playing alongside Dwight Howard or filling in for him in the middle.
Beal is a very conventional Most Improved Player candidate who is well-positioned to take the torch from Jimmy Butler. Like Butler in 2014–15, Beal will be entering year four and, most likely, he will do so without a rookie contract extension in hand. Like Butler, Beal will be looking to bounce back after an injury-marred third season for an established team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run. Like Butler, Beal has proven to be a reliable performer during his rookie deal and he’s survived multiple tests on the postseason stage. Like Butler, who stepped up in light of injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, Beal should see an increased scoring and play-making burden this year in light of Paul Pierce’s departure and Washington’s new emphasis on up-and-down play. The 22-year-old Beal looks ready to shoulder that burden, as he’s demonstrated the ability to scale his production up in both the 2014 (19.2 PPG) and 2015 (23.4 PPG) playoffs. Simply put, Beal has the motive (a max deal), the opportunity (an A-list set-up man in John Wall), and the means (a dependable three-point stroke and quality scoring instincts) to win this.
The green light comes at the right time for McCollum, who broke through to average 25.7 points in the three games prior to Portland's playoff elimination. On that team, McCollum was a role player. On this one he'll be a lead creator—the second-most capable source of offense on the Blazers' revamped roster behind Damian Lillard. Expect his production to increase accordingly and the creativity in his driving game to pay big dividends.
This is a bit of a hedge. I don’t think Mirotic will necessarily improve that much—he’s already got a great skill set—but his numbers will, due to opportunity and minutes. He may well put up near-All Star numbers in Hoiberg’s system. If we’re talking about overall pure improvement, the biggest leaps may come from young, high-upside guys like Oladipo (if he harnesses his game under Skiles), Giannis (if that jumper ever falls) or Meyers Leonard.
The arrival of Scott Skiles brings structure to a team that was abstract on both ends last season. That should benefit Victor Oladipo, who bounced back and forth between point guard and shooting guard in two years under Jacque Vaughn. Oladipo could make a huge leap in his third season with a more defined place in Orlando’s offense. He averaged 17.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 2014-15 and could easily reach 20-5-5 with the Magic this year, something only five players (LeBron, Kobe, Harden, Blake and Westbrook) managed to do last year. Add in his ability as an elite defender and Oladipo could easily be considered one of the NBA's best young shooting guards by year's end.
On the day the Nuggets sent Ty Lawson to Houston, they gave Emmanuel Mudiay the cleanest shot at this award. Denver won’t win a lot of games, and Mudiay will commit too many turnovers, but he’ll also get off to the fastest start of any rookie. He enjoys a couple advantages. For one, he’s a guard, and big men typically take more time to adjust. For another, he’s already been a pro, having put up more than 18 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds in China last year. His numbers dipped a bit in summer league and the pre-season, but not by much. Mudiay will fill the stat sheet.
Death, taxes and the dreadful Sixers having a ROY candidate are among the few certainties in life. Okafor is solid, especially offensively, where he is light years more developed than frontcourt partner Nerlens Noel. Okafor, though, will win this award through the sheer number of touches he will get in the Sixers offense. I mean, really: Who else is Brett Brown supposed to get the ball to?
I think both Emmanuel Mudiay and Jahlil Okafor are poised to turn in Rookie of the Year-type campaigns. I’ll give the nod to Mudiay for three reasons. First, he will have every opportunity to control his own fate with the ball in his hands, while Okafor will be dependent upon his teammates to set him up. Second, the Nuggets will be trying to play competitive basketball rather than tanking away another season. Mudiay’s numbers will therefore draw less scrutiny than Okafor’s, which will be nitpicked to death if Philadelphia winds up being as bad as everyone expects. Third, Mudiay's veteran teammates will regularly help his cause by making the most of his play-making skills, while Okafor's weak cast will mostly leave him hanging.
On volume alone, Okafor will have an opportunity unlike any other rookie in the league. Philadelphia needs Okafor to act as its offensive hub; possession after possession will flow through him, some to end in Okafor's own attempt and others to be kicked out to the perimeter to initiate the next stage of the offense. That role—and virtually guaranteed minutes—should give Okafor some impressive box score stats that no other first-year player can match.
Towns is both the most skilled for his size and the most ready. He’s also in a good situation, where he’ll get touches and benefit from KG’s mentorship. That said, this should be a fun rookie group to watch, from Mudiay’s passing to Stanley Johnson’s dribble drives to Porzingis doing, well, his Porzingis thing and, down in Orlando, sweet Mario (Hezonja).
Sam Hinkie has done basketball fans few favors in recent years, so consider putting Jahlil Okafor on a team that needs a volume scorer his first olive branch. While Emmanuel Mudiay will have plenty of opportunities in Denver, no NBA rookie will be featured like Okafor in Philly. His NBA-ready body and low-post arsenal makes him a plug-and-play player, something Brett Brown is foreign to with the 76ers. Okafor might lose more games in November than he lost in his one-and-done year as a Dukie, but his numbers (17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds) could look the same.
He wants to start. He always wanted to start. And, given the turbo-boost he brings to the offense, he probably deserves it. But assuming the Celtics stick with Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley as their starting backcourt, Thomas will do what he did last season, kick-starting the Celtics every time he rises from the bench.
Thomas was a candidate to win the award last season, when he averaged 19 points off the bench for Boston after coming over in a midseason trade. Brad Stevens seems to like the Marcus Smart-Avery Bradley starting combination, leaving Thomas to lead the second unit. Thomas will still get his shots—he led Boston in attempts (12.2) in the preseason—and his ability to score off the dribble will make him a top option for Stevens in the fourth quarter.
I see the Sixth Man stars aligning perfectly for Thomas after a runner-up finish in 2014-15. First, he fits neatly as a lead scoring option off the bench for the Celtics, who rely heavily on the productivity punch that he offers. Second, his numbers after a midseason trade to Boston—19 points and 5.4 assists—were significantly better than the numbers posted by Lou Williams, last year's winner. If Thomas can be even 75 percent as productive as he was post-trade, he’s firmly in the mix. Third, 2015-16 will mark the first time he’s spent the entire season in the East, and the lesser competition should only help his cause. Fourth, and finally, Boston should be more competitive this season, and team success sometimes serves as a tie-breaker in this discussion. If Boston pushes up the standings and Thomas leads the team in scoring, this award could be his in a runaway.
Thomas is among the last of his kind; given James Harden's move to stardom, Manu Ginobili's decline, and Jamal Crawford's zero-sum tendencies, there aren't all that many star-like creators coming off the bench these days. Of those that remain, Thomas is the most efficient and the most prolific – a combination that very much lines up with this award's voting history.
It’s possible Anderson will end up starting, at least early, with all the injuries. But if he’s eligible this is a perfect opportunity for him. Playing in Gentry’s system, with Davis drawing attention, he’ll get a ton of wide open threes. If he find his stroke of old, watch out. He rebounds well and plays just enough D to stay on the floor, and Darren Erman, the team’s new, workaholic defensive coordinator, is smart enough to know how to hide him on that end of the floor.
I’m slipping in this prediction at the final hour. With Joakim Noah moving to the bench in Fred Hoiberg’s new-look starting lineup, the Bulls will have the ultimate spark plug at their disposal. Granted, that spark plug is 30 years old and at times looked broken down last year, but Noah enters the season healthy and surprisingly open to his new reserve role. Noah’s pairing with Pau Gasol looked nice in headlines, but spacing issues made it look much less desirable on the hardwood. Noah fits better alongside Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson, which makes Hoiberg’s decision a smart one. Noah will bring energy (and a lot of yelling) off the bench and fortify the team’s defense if teams abuse Mirotic.
This is a lifetime achievement award for somebody who has been locking people up and letting them hear about it for more than a half-decade now. Allen typically makes his deepest imprint on the playoffs, when votes have been cast, but he is a three-time first-team defender who consistently irks the league’s most lethal scorers, even if he’s giving up six inches in the process. The Grizzlies will be stingy as ever, in large part because of Allen, who has given that franchise its grinding identity
Like Ben Wallace in the early 2000’s, this award is Leonard’s to lose until further notice. Leonard is everything you want in a defender: Big, physical with quick lateral movement and oversized, suction cup-like hands. Leonard is this generations Ron Artest, a prototypical small forward capable of guarding any of his counterparts without help.
Kawhi Leonard beat out Draymond Green in a very close race between two very deserving candidates last season, and I think both players will be near the top of the list once again in 2015-16. Continuity is a huge factor in maintaining defensive excellence: I think Golden State’s roster stability will help it post elite defensive numbers again, while San Antonio’s new-look group might be stuck dealing with an adjustment period early. If the Warriors do remain as stingy as last year, Green should be the first in line for the credit. His positional versatility and his ability to cover players from the rim to the three-point line were key drivers of his team’s defensive success, and his superb on/off impact numbers and Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating underscore that fact. If Leonard makes the All-Star team (as he should) and Green doesn’t, perhaps voters will decide to “even things up” by choosing Green over Leonard when it comes time to decide between them for Defensive Player of the Year.
Three years of steady growth have been building to this. Davis has always been long, athletic, and instinctive. Now he has years of practical, foundational experience and a great coaching staff to help hone his abilities further. This is the year that the Pelicans on the whole make a significant defensive jump. Davis will be a big reason why.
Okay, so he won’t actually win it—the Sixers will be so bad that it’s hard to create context, and he has yet to become a complete defender—but Nerlens is going to be the most exciting defender to watch in ages. He could average 3 blocks and 2 steals and every one will be beautiful. A more likely candidate to win it, and he’ll be deserving, is Rudy Gobert. Already, he’s almost single-handedly turned Utah into a defensive-minded team. No one wants to go in the paint against him. His block numbers could go down and, counterintuitively, that would potentially be an indicator of how effective he is, as players avoid him. Then again, it’s very possible Anthony Davis doubles down on MVP and DPOY. He’s that good.
This answer might not be original, but it could become a classic. Anthony Davis has played three years in the NBA, is only 22 years old, and has yet to win the DPOY title. He’s led the league in blocks the last two seasons and is just scratching the surface of his brow-numbing potential. Alvin Gentry will find more ways to utilize Davis on offense this year, but the former No. 1 pick’s calling card will forever be his impact on the defensive end. Despite Davis roaming the paint, the Pelicans ranked in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency last season. Part of that was due to injuries, part of that was due to Davis still finding his way. New Orleans should prove to be stingier under Gentry and is due for some good luck in the health department.
Last season, the Magic ranked 28th in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 46.3%. That won’t happen again. It won’t happen because the core is back for its third year together, because Elfrid Payton isn’t a rookie anymore, and because Aaron Gordon is going to play. But the main reason it won’t happen is Scott Skiles. His teams defend, and whether or not they eventually burn out, they almost always spike when he arrives. The Magic will be one of the most improved teams in the league this season.
It’s true: New Orleans is a mouthwatering job for any coach looking to inherit a team rapidly on the rise. But Gentry’s coaching style (read: uptempo) seems like an ideal fit for an athletic, young roster headlined by a burgeoning MVP candidate in Anthony Davis. If New Orleans can stay healthy—a big if, should you not have been following the Pels the last couple of years—this team should cruise past 50 wins and challenge for one of the top-five seeds in the West.
Can everyone agree to give this year’s award to Steve Kerr as a make-up call for last year’s mistake? No? In that case, I like Brad Stevens because overachieving is a time-honored path to the Coach of the Year trophy. Honestly, Boston’s “depth over star power” sets up Stevens perfectly to receive the credit if Boston takes another step forward in the standings. I'm bullish on the Celtics' chances too. Remember, they enter the season with positive momentum after Stevens won 15 more games in 2014-15 than he in 2013-14 despite trades that shipped out Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. I see that upward trajectory continuing thanks to a full season from sparkplug scoring guard Isaiah Thomas and the offseason acquisitions of Amir Johnson and David Lee, two veteran bigs who should help fill out what was a weak frontcourt. Stevens’s youth and his sterling reputation should also play to his favor in the voting. Who can resist backing the likable boy genius?
With no team obviously set to make a huge jump in wins this season, Snyder could take the award on a slight delay. Utah played marvelously over the second half of last season, particularly on defense. If the Jazz can maintain anything close to that level of performance over a full campaign (and slide into a playoff berth in the process), Snyder could well earn the NBA's top coaching honor.
But only because Popovich doesn’t get to win it every year, for some bizarre reason. He’s the best coach in the league, and it’s not even close. But his team is stacked so, ergo, he won’t win the award. Instead, look for potential overachieving squads. Quin Snyder in Utah maybe. Jason Kidd if he can take Milwaukee to the next level. Carlisle if he can make the weird Dallas roster work. Or, my pick, Vogel. He’s a smart coach with a motivated star in George and a team that’s being underrated. No reason they can’t surprise.
There are many NBA coaches facing new challenges this season, but Frank Vogel is the only one being asked to literally rewrite the playbook. The Pacers were able to bully and bruise their way to two Eastern Conference finals appearances over the last three years, but were unable to get past LeBron James and into the Finals. That led Larry Bird to reassess the team’s identity this summer, leading to Roy Hibbert’s unceremonious exit and David West’s reactionary departure. Bird made moves to turn the Pacers into a small-ball outfit, but he kept the same coach, the one that was the architect of Indy’s NBA-best defense. For Indiana to succeed this season, Vogel will have to adapt his entire ideology to cater to the Pacers’ new roster. Make no doubts, this is a sink-or-swim prediction.