With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover paneled asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2016–17 season.
The MVP race is particularly loaded this season, with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry teaming up in Golden State, LeBron James unburdened by his first title in Cleveland, and James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George all primed for monster individual seasons. In addition, dark horses linger on the peripherals like Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kawhi Leonard.
But who will take home the hardware? Which rookie will win Rookie of the Year with Ben Simmons sidelined? Can anyone challenge Brad Stevens for Coach of the Year? Will Kawhi three-peat for Defensive Player of the Year?
Check out our predictions below.
Most Valuable Player
Lee Jenkins: James Harden, Rockets
Typically, the MVP goes to the best player on one of the best teams, but Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will muddy each other’s candidacy, while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will do the same. All that friendly fire from the superteams will open the door for a statistical marvel from an inferior squad, and there are two options to choose from, with Harden and Russell Westbrook poised to stack up improbable numbers. Harden’s totals, thanks to his newfound-ball handling duties, Mike D’Antoni’s go-go offense and the cadre of shooters assembled around the Houston arc, will be slightly more ridiculous.
Ben Golliver: Kevin Durant, Warriors
I think the Summer of KD will smoothly transition into the Season of KD, with Golden State’s structure, overall talent and quality coaching combining to elevate the 2014 MVP to the best basketball of his career. Although splitting votes with Stephen Curry is a concern, I expect Durant to establish himself as the Warriors’ best all-around player as this season unfolds. All indicators are positive: he’s firmly in his prime, he sounds comfortable and loose in his new surroundings, he’s never had this much talent flanking him, he should enjoy more open looks and one-on-one situations than ever before, he’s capable of producing a league-best statistical profile, and he has a very good shot at being the leading scorer on the NBA’s most efficient offense and best team. By the end of the season the “He took the easy way out!” sentiment that tripped up LeBron James in 2011 should give way to the “He has to be the MVP because he had the best statistical season for a team that won lots and lots of games” argument that saw James win in 2012 and 2013.
Andrew Sharp: Kevin Durant, Warriors
There's no way the Warriors will push for 73 wins again, and there probably won't be much good will for KD around the country this year. Those are two good reasons to short KD's MVP stock. But this pick is about what MVP voting has become in the modern era.
First of all, MVPs need to win—no MVP since 1985 has finished lower than third in his conference. Second, today's voters cite numbers more than narrative to make their case. It's not necessarily a good thing or bad thing, but we're in a different place than we were when Derrick Rose won MVP over Post-Decision LeBron.
Rob Mahoney: Stephen Curry, Warriors
To me, Curry seems the most likely candidate by process of elimination. LeBron James, more than any superstar in the league, seems likely to be undercut by his team’s wisely conservative approach to the regular season. Cleveland has little to play for over the first 82 and James needn’t push it. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will mount hyper-productive seasons on teams that won’t win enough games to meet the burden of MVP precedent. Kawhi Leonard poses some threat, yet keep in mind that Curry—who was selected unanimously last season—more than doubled his voting total. There is a clear discrepancy between the two of them that cannot be easily written off by narrative or voting fancy. Kevin Durant could mount a case all his own or easily undercut Curry’s chances, yet I have a feeling his arrival and the Warriors’ impending explosion will only reflect well on Golden State’s resident MVP. The superstar who welcomes, shares, and still thrives is every bit a worthy choice for the award – particularly on a team that will be too good to ignore.
Jeremy Woo: LeBron James, Cavaliers
There are more intriguing candidates than usual this season, but it feels like a LeBron year to me. After last year’s title, the pressure’s off. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will steal votes from each other. Russell Westbrook may have the best statistical case in the end, and Paul George’s stats will be nothing to sneeze at, but whether their teams will win enough games to solidify their cases is questionable. LBJ’s got four MVPs, but hasn’t won since 2013. His consistency has been astounding, the team success component will be there, and think of this as an opportunity to reward him for last season, perhaps. Process of elimination points here.
Most Improved Player
Lee Jenkins: D'Angelo Russell, Lakers
He’d have been better off redshirting last season, never playing for Byron Scott, never hanging with Nick Young. Now, he has a coach who is actually going to let him play, without looking over his shoulder every five minutes in fear of the next putative benching. Russell was the best point guard in the ’14 draft, and for some reason, the Lakers treated him like a scrub. Under Luke Walton, they’ll see the telepathic passing, the sweet shooting, the expert use of the pick-and-roll. Defending, playmaking, winning, that will take more time. But in Year 2, Russell will score big.
Ben Golliver: Victor Oladipo, Thunder
Although I don’t expect the nature of Oladipo’s game to change all that much this season, I do think he will be in position to maximize his ability and the credit he receives for his contributions. Let’s be honest: Oladipo was playing in the NBA equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle during his first three seasons, stuck totally off the radar for an Orlando team going nowhere. This season, Oladipo not only joins a team with serious playoff aspirations but he also forms a backcourt duo with Russell Westbrook that is sure to put up big numbers as it places constant pressure on opposing defenses. What’s more, Oladipo should enjoy a more prominent role than he had last season, when the Magic chose to emphasize Evan Fournier and even asked him to come off the bench. With so little proven firepower on Oklahoma City’s roster, someone will need to do the scoring. The bet here is that Oladipo, blessed with strong physical gifts and playing for a possible maximum rookie extension next summer, will answer the call in a big way.
Andrew Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Lakers
D'Angelo Russell is in a great spot right now. The Lakers are so young that nobody's really expecting them to win, which means that nobody will really care when Russell gets lit up on defense all year. Meanwhile, he's got a giant green light to go nuts on the other end. All the shots that went to Kobe last year will go to D'Angelo a year later. There will be eye-popping numbers, impossibly smooth highlights, and not a single cutaway to Byron Scott with his arms folded on the sidelines. Enjoy this.
Rob Mahoney: Clint Capela, Rockets
One of the most intriguing per-minute wonders in the league last season is now set to play as much as he can handle. Houston has cleared out its center rotation in part out of confidence for what Capela might offer. His production of late (Capela averaged 18.4 points, 16.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.9 steals per 36 minutes in the preseason) suggests he’s capable of quite a lot, reinforcing the optimism of his high-energy stints in years past. Capela is perfectly suited to be the rim runner in a Mike D’Antoni offense and a counterpoint to James Harden’s work off the dribble. Opponents who leave him—even out of respect for Harden—will find out quickly just how capable a finisher and rebounder he already is.
Jeremy Woo: Steven Adams, Thunder
As good as Adams was in the playoffs last year, he averaged just eight points and 6.7 rebounds during the regular season. We know a couple things about the Thunder right now: Kevin Durant’s shot attempts are up for grabs, and Russell Westbrook is going to absorb a good chunk of them. Think about the 2001 Sixers, who leaned similarly on a high-volume guard (Allen Iverson) and leaned on an army of bigs (Dikembe Mutombo, Tyrone Hill, Theo Ratliff) to own the offensive glass and clean up misses. That’s a fair way to think about Oklahoma City, who are going to have to own the paint on both ends to make up for shooting difficulties. Adams is poised to be a huge beneficiary here. Plus, I just want another reason to root for him.
Rookie of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Joel Embiid, 76ers
Well, it’s going to be a 76er, just not the one anybody expected. With Ben Simmons sidelined for at least three months, attention turns to Embiid, the genial giant and sentimental favorite. Embiid has not played a regular-season game since Philly drafted him third overall in 2014, but as long as his troublesome right foot holds up and his minute restrictions rise, he will demonstrate why many general managers slotted him above Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker way back when. He can play inside-out, he can defend, and he can finish over opponents far more formidable than 5’10” trainers in Instagram videos.
Ben Golliver: Kris Dunn, Timberwolves
This is shaping up to be a relatively weak field thanks to Ben Simmons’s long-term foot injury and the Lakers’ decision to gradually work in Brandon Ingram rather than tossing him into the deep end. I’ll go with the “safe” option and take Kris Dunn, who at 22 is older and more refined than most of his lottery classmates. While Dunn will theoretically be competing with Ricky Rubio for the car keys in Minnesota, I expect new coach Tom Thibodeau to give his first lottery pick as many minutes and touches as he can handle. Dunn, who flashed a mature, two-way game at Las Vegas Sumer League, should also benefit from Minnesota’s projection as a playoff bubble team: Come April, voters will be able to reasonably argue that Dunn’s numbers should count extra because they occurred in a relevant setting and (hopefully) contributed to a noticeable improvement in the standings. Playing with the last two Rookie of the Years on one of the league’s most anticipated up-and-coming teams shouldn’t hurt his chances, either.
Andrew Sharp: Dario Saric, 76ers
Kris Dunn feels too obvious. Joel Embiid may not play enough games. Brandon Ingram weighs 160 pounds. Marqueese Chriss has quietly put up nice numbers for the Suns through the preseason, so he's a tempting dark horse right now. But you know who will have minutes, numbers, and an army of thirsty Process-followers plastering his highlights across the side of buildings? Big. Homey. DARIO.
Rob Mahoney: Joel Embiid, 76ers
I want to believe. Already Embiid has proven to be an NBA treasure by force of game and personality. He has moves on the block and real shooting range. His want to protect the rim and relative agility for his size make him a tremendous defensive prospect. The question with Embiid, as always, is availability. I’m sold on Embiid’s ability to play well but less so on his ability to play big minutes. Even so, Embiid showed in the preseason that he can score in the kind of volume necessary to win this award and has the all-around game to make his ROY candidacy pop.
Jeremy Woo: Kris Dunn, Timberwolves
Ben Simmons was a shoo-in before the foot injury. Joel Embiid is worthy of some wishful thinking, but that minutes limit hurts. Brandon Ingram is likely to have some ups and downs, and that leaves Dunn, by my math, with a very clear path to this award. Ricky Rubio gets an unfair shake a lot of the time, but Dunn looks like the future of this team at point guard, and I won’t be shocked if Thibs takes the training wheels off on this team if they stumble a bit early. Some teams graded Dunn as the best prospect in the draft, and by my estimation, he’s the most NBA-ready. He’s going to be fun.
Defensive Player of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hornets
It used to seem like wings were almost ineligible for this award, but Kawhi Leonard changed all that, and Kidd-Gilchrist is his Eastern Conference cousin. Kidd-Gilchrist suffered through a miserable 2015-16, separating his right shoulder in the pre-season, undergoing surgery, rushing back by January, and promptly suffering another injury to the same shoulder less than two weeks later, requiring yet another operation. The Hornets, who lost Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin, will lean heavily on Kidd-Gilchrist. He obviously can’t score like Big Al or create like J-Lin, but he wreaks havoc on the other end, smothering anybody in his sights.
Ben Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have finished 1-2 in each of the last two years, and they should both factor heavily into the discussion again this year. I think both players, while deserving individually, will suffer in the end-of-season voting because their teams will regress defensively this season due to the departures of strong interior defenders like Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. While both Golden State and San Antonio should be in the top-five mix again, I think Utah has a strong chance of squeezing in to claim the NBA’s No. 1 defensive efficiency ranking. If that happens, the Jazz’s improved depth and experience will have played big roles, but voters looking to reward the team’s progress will need to settle on one player.
That’s where Rudy Gobert comes in. The 7’1” French center should have a strong all-around case: he puts up big block and rebounding numbers, his defensive impact statistics are typically off the charts, and he passes the eye test thanks to his monster wingspan and ability to dissuade shots in the basket area. Last year, the Jazz were a totally different team when he was injured. If he stays healthy for a full season, helps Utah climb into the playoffs and captains an elite defense, it will hard to overlook him for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Andrew Sharp: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
It could go to Draymond Green, but unlike MVP, this is still a category where narratives reign supreme. Warriors fatigue was probably the tiebreaker between Kawhi and Draymond last year, for example. A year later, Kawhi fatigue may factor into this year's voting. With that in mind, let's sidestep Kawhi and Draymond altogether. There's a good chance the Wolves win around 45 games this year. If they can surpass that number, voters will be looking to reward the best young player in basketball. They won't have the courage to make him MVP, but assuming his defensive dominance progresses under Thibs, Defensive Player of the Year seems like a good bet for KAT.
Rob Mahoney: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
The inertia of this award works in Leonard’s favor. There is near-universal agreement on the fact that Leonard is an excellent defender – the very best in the league according to the last two years of voting. I’d expect neither Leonard’s ability on that end nor the perception of it to change all that much this season. San Antonio won’t be able to muster the same historic team defense without Tim Duncan in the mix, but Leonard alone is stifling enough to elevate a team to top-10 standing on that end with even moderate support. No player is as disproportionately valuable on defense, relative to his position, as Leonard. The trophy is mere affirmation.
Jeremy Woo: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things. A full, healthy season from Kawhi should equal his third straight award. It’s rare that the argument for best defender in the league stands as largely undisputed as it currently does, and there are few players with the combination of proper talent and quality team scheme behind them to have a chance at knocking Leonard off his throne. This will never be an easier call.
Sixth Man of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Enes Kanter, Thunder
He built a convincing case last season, and he should win it this time around, unless the Thunder start him alongside Steven Adams. Oklahoma City will probably lead the league in offensive rebounding, thanks largely to Kanter and Adams, but it’s hard to space the floor when both ‘Stache Brothers are out there at the same time. Coming off the bench, Kanter will be the focal point of a second unit badly in need of scoring punch, and when he’s reunited with the starters, he will clean up and put back a lot of those Westbrook misses.
Ben Golliver: Patty Mills, Spurs
This one might seem like it’s a little bit out of left field, but Mills is well-positioned to capitalize during what will inevitably be a transition year in San Antonio following Tim Duncan’s retirement. Quick guards who can score off the dribble and play big minutes for winning teams tend to do well in the Sixth Man voting, and Mills cleanly fits that bill. At 28, the Australian guard is coming off a season in which he played the most minutes of his career. Given the effect of age on both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the offseason departures of Boris Diaw and David West, Mills’s role—in terms of minutes, touches and shots—should only increase. Although he may or may not be able to match past winners like Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams in terms of pure scoring, Mills should have the edge when it comes to efficiency and his impact numbers, as he is a strong outside shooter who plays for San Antonio’s notoriously effective bench units. Clearly, some major conditions will need to be met here: Mills will need to have a career year scoring-wise, he’ll need to surpass Ginobili as the consensus pick for San Antonio’s “most important” sub, and the Spurs will need to hang around the top of the West standings. If those three things happen, and they easily could, Mills should get some Sixth Man love. As a postscript, Mills is in a contract year just like Williams and Crawford were when they took home the award in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Andrew Sharp: Joe Johnson, Jazz
I never understand how this award gets decided. There's a chance Jamal Crawford is the Boss Tweed of the NBA and nobody's realized it yet. For now, though, let me nominate Joe Johnson. Every time someone talks about Utah winning 50 games this year I roll my eyes a little bit. Then someone reminds me they signed Joe Johnson this summer, and it becomes, "Hey, Utah..." I don't know if I believe in the Jazz, but I definitely believe in 25 minutes of Joe Johnson off the bench.
Rob Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Iguodala is the best player coming off of any bench in the NBA. That he’ll be an integral part of the single most terrifying lineup in the league is a nice bonus; the Warriors, even at their best, need his defense, shooting, and facilitation to function. Iguodala finished fourth in the running in 2015 and second last season. This is the year he finally breaks through, bucking the annoying trend of only valuing bench play so long as it comes in the form of microwave shot creation.
Jeremy Woo: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
After two seasons with a team that evolved into something more absurdly dominant than anyone imagined, Iggy still hasn’t won this award yet. He’s been so vital as a defender and passer to Golden State’s approach that I’ll keep picking him until he does. The statistical case will never support him, although he finished second in voting last season. And although adding Kevin Durant to the mix might lessen the value of Iguodala’s impact, here’s hoping he gets the recognition he deserves. Picking this award is a crapshoot anyway.
Coach of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics
Steve Kerr will repeat if he goes 83-0. Otherwise, the stage is set for Stevens, whose methodical rise among NBA head coaches has mirrored his team’s gradual ascent in the Eastern Conference. Since Stevens arrived in Boston, the Celtics have marched from 25 wins to 40 to 48, relying on a suffocating defense more than a single superstar. This season, Stevens will add Al Horford to his brew, as the Celts eclipse 50 wins and capture the second seed. Vanquishing LeBron is another matter, but if Stevens remains true to form, they’ll at least come within a step.
Ben Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics
If Boston’s season plays out as expected, with Al Horford’s arrival driving a 50+ win season and homecourt advantage in the East, the circumstances will be too tidy for voters to avoid picking Stevens. His case starts with the evident progress made during his tenure, as the Celtics have improved from 25 wins in 2014, to 40 wins in 2015, to 48 wins in 2016, transforming themselves along the way from a rebuilding team going nowhere to perhaps the East’s biggest threat to Cleveland. Stevens’s pristine reputation, as both a manager of personalities and an in-game tactician, will obviously work in his favor, as does Boston’s distinctly aggressive style of play, which is easily attributable to his philosophies. The Celtics’ lack of a true A-list superstar puts him in line to be the franchise’s “designated award recipient” at the end of the year, and it helps that both Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich -- two coaches who are bound to stack up lots of wins this season -- have received this award in recent years. To boil it down, Stevens should appeal to voters as someone who built his team from the ground up, who did it with the requisite class and patience, who gets the most out of his talent, and who is a fresh face who isn’t held back by voter fatigue.
Andrew Sharp: Brad Stevens, Celtics
Every bone in my body wants to give this award to Thibs, but the case for Stevens will be tough to beat. Consider the team we're about to get in Boston: Going from Jared Sullinger to Al Horford is like going from a Buick to a Bentley, and almost everyone else is back from last year. There will be more spacing on offense with Horford, and nightly fits of harassment (Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Avery Bradley) on defense. If the Cavs decide to rest at various points of the season—they probably should, right?—there's a good chance the Celtics finish this season with the best record in the East. Stevens has been considered elite for two years now, but he's never gotten much Coach of the Year love, mostly because his teams haven't been quite good enough yet. I bet that'll change this year.
Rob Mahoney: Quin Snyder, Jazz
There are plenty of candidates for this award, as usual, but Snyder checks out as the coach of a team ready to take a leap—particularly one bursting into the playoff picture after a five-year drought. The combination of Utah’s offseason additions and its depressed win total (via injuries) from a season ago position Snyder to look very good this season. It helps that he actually is; expect Snyder’s sophisticated offense to pack even more punch this season and Utah to return to the ranks of the best defenses in the league. With that, and a likely top-four seed in the West, comes hardware.
Jeremy Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics
Stevens is eventually going to win this award, and with Boston in position to take a step forward, eventually might be now. He’s earned the respect of the entire league, returns all the key players and adds Al Horford, who might be the perfect cog to enhance both the offense and defense here. So much of Atlanta’s success was enabled by what Horford allowed them to do, and Stevens will enjoy himself meshing things together in what should be a recipe for 50-plus wins. A top-two finish in the East isn’t out of the question, and could sew this award up nicely for Stevens.