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Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

Will LeBron James win his first MVP since 2013 or will another Warrior take the crown? With the 2017-18 NBA season almost here, The Crossover's writing staff dishes its predictions for every award.
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With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.


Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.​

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk. 

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors.A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated. 

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive. 

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph. 

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy. 

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).


Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.  

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix. 

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart. 

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop. 

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year. 

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.


Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well. 

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.  

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee. 

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos. 

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.


Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram. 

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign. 

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell. 

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.