by Leo Sepkowitz / @LeoSepkowitz
You guys know the drill here, but first, a couple notes:
— There are 20 awards in total: the six NBA awards plus 14 Hoop Plus The Harm awards (named Slammmies, as in “And the Slammy for the Vinny Del Negro ‘Doing Less With More’ Award goes to…”). With a few exceptions, each Slammy is named for the ’12-13 winner of the given award. For instance, the award for the first coach fired in ’13-14 is named after Mike Brown, who was fired by the Lakers after five games last season. Next year, the Slammy will be named in honor of this season’s eventual winner and so on and so on.
— Literally the only thing I predicted correctly last season was LeBron winning MVP. Taking that into consideration, I should probably make sure I correctly pick the ’13-14 MVP to avoid going 0-for-20 this year. Good thing it’s really obvious who the best player in the world is!
I’m gonna go 0-for-20, but seriously, I like CP3 here. Any MVP candidate is running against LeBron this season, so first the case against the Heat’s incredible forward: There have only ever been three players to three-peat for MVP: Russell then Chamberlain then Bird. MJ “only” repeated once. In what would have been his three-peat campaign, Charles Barkley’s numbers were about on par with Jordan’s, the Suns won a few more games than Chicago and, perhaps, people simply got bored of voting for MJ. I think we’ll see the same thing happen this season, but somebody will need to be the Barkley to LeBron’s Jordan. Paul fits the bill. His numbers figure to hold up against anybody’s, but that’s not all.
The Heat will contend with teams built to mop up regular season wins in the East—Indy, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York. Might Miami save its bullets for the Playoffs and go 55-17, while one or two of the aforementioned four teams win 56-60 games? If Miami’s a two- or three-seed in the East, wouldn’t that make it at least a little harder to vote for LeBron?
Meanwhile, out West, last season only the Thunder won 60 games, the Spurs won 58 and Lob City (RIP) and the Grizzlies won 56. If OKC settles for 50-55 wins because of the Westbrook injury, San Antonio drops down a couple of games due to age/resting the veterans down the stretch (don’t forget Tim Duncan logged an extra 735 postseason minutes after a 2,050-minute regular season) and Memphis doesn’t improve under its new coach, the conference will be right there for the Clippers’ taking. I’m fully on LA’s bandwagon, and I think Paul, the leader of his top-seeded Clippers, upends LeBron in 2014.
2. DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Winner: Roy Hibbert
Falling Short: Larry Sanders, Marc Gasol
Historically, the Defensive Player of the Year award goes to a defensive stopper on a good team. Dwight Howard’s Magic won between 52-59 games each year when he won the award three straight times. The Knicks went 36-30 during the lockout-shortened ’11-12 season in which Tyson Chandler was named DPOY. Last year, Marc Gasol’s Grizzlies won 56 games. That might rule out Sanders, whose Bucks look a lot like a lottery team (with a potentially incredible frontcourt—Sanders/John Henson/Giannis Antetokounmpo—in 2015).
Hibbert was absolutely dominant defensively during the Playoffs, especially against Chandler’s Knicks, and I get really excited whenever I see a young player turn his game up a notch or two in the postseason. I think he’ll carry that momentum through this season and cement his name as the League’s best defensive anchor.
3. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Winner: Victor Oladipo
Falling Short: Ben McLemore, Cody Zeller
If Trey Burke returns from his finger injury sooner than expected, we might have a tremendous race here. If he misses, say, the first month of the season, Oladipo might run away with this thing. The former Hoosier was a stats machine in the preseason, averaging about 15 points, 6 boards, 5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 three per game. I think Oladipo was the best player in the ’13 Draft and, unlike fellow top picks McLemore, Zeller and Anthony Bennett, he’ll see all the minutes he can handle in his rookie season.
4. COACH OF THE YEAR
Winner: Doc Rivers
Falling Short: Maurice Cheeks, Frank Vogel, Kevin McHale, Mark Jackson
I went back and forth on this one, first picking Vogel and then deciding he burned me too badly last season when I predicted he’d win the award, then picking Jackson before deciding not to bet on Steph Curry’s ankles, then picking McHale before deciding not to bet on Dwight Howard’s coach, then picking Mo Cheeks before deciding not to bet on whatever the Pistons are because what the fuck are the Pistons?
I’ve made my case for the Clippers’ upcoming Western dominance already, so I won’t rehash it here. The Coach of the Year and Most Valuable Player will come from the same team for the first time since Mike Brown and LeBron in 2009.
5. SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Winner: Harrison Barnes
Falling Short: Jamal Crawford, Jarrett Jack, JR Smith
Some saw the Warriors’ acquisition of Andre Iguodala as an indictment of Barnes, or at least a move that will slow the UNC alum’s development. I see it as exactly the opposite.
In his rookie campaign, Barnes was good enough for a top-10 pick during the regular season: 9 points and 4 boards per game, some big moments (so loud!) and a few too many 25-minute, 6-point efforts. In the Playoffs, though, he came alive. He was solid in the opening series against the Nuggets, and played the best ball of his career against the Spurs in Round 2.
He saw over 41 minutes per game against San Antonio, and responded by averaging over 17 and 7 during the six-game set. Most of those minutes came in small-ball lineups alongside three of Curry, Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack and Draymond Green, as well as one of Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli at center. Barnes thrived as a power forward, and perhaps we’ll see him function as the Dubs pseudo-starting four most nights—sort of the way Smith only technically comes off the bench in New York. In that role, Barnes would cruise to the Sixth Man award.
6 MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Winner: Derrick Favors
Falling Short: Andre Drummond, Jimmy Butler, Jonas Valanciunas, Kawhi Leonard
This award usually goes to a player who, generally speaking, leaps from having B-minus stats to A-minus stats in one season, rather than a guy who jumps from posting C-minus stats to posting B stats (John Henson, anybody?).
Favors looked just about ready to dominate the L last season, but was held to about 23 minutes per game while sitting behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The veterans are gone, though, and Favors’ top competition for run this season will be Andris Biedrins. Andris Biedrins!
It’s tough not to pick Drummond here. He mini-erupted last year and might be near-unstoppable this season. But a couple of things scare me off—he has a tough time staying out of foul trouble and sometimes the Pistons will need to shift Greg Monroe to center, Josh Smith to power forward and Drummond to the bench to get a little more spacing on the floor. I just think he’s a year away from the full breakout.
Meanwhile, Favors might see 35-40 minutes nightly in ’13-14, and, if last season’s stats are any indication, 15-17 points, 10-12 rebounds and 2+ blocks per game seems well within reach.
7. PAUL GEORGE AWARD
Given annually to an Eastern Conference player 25 or younger who puts his team on his back throughout the Playoffs. Bonus points given if team is considered underdog. Must advance at least one round to qualify.
Winner: Kyrie Irving
Falling Short: John Wall
We were spoiled during the 2013 Playoffs, when both George and Curry carried their teams with electric performances. This year, the East’s top teams—Miami, Chicago, Indy, New York and Brooklyn—feature no candidates for the Paul George Award (Iman Shumpert’s the closest guy).
That means that a potential winner of the PGA will have to come from a true underdog—likely one of Washington, Detroit, Cleveland and maybe Atlanta.
A healthy Cleveland squad—even one minus Andrew Bynum—seems like a good bet to sneak into the Playoffs. Assuming they make it, who better to shoulder the load during a first-round upset than Kyrie?
8. STEPHEN CURRY AWARD
Given annually to a Western Conference player 25 or younger who puts his team on his back throughout the Playoffs. Bonus points given if team is considered underdog. Must advance at least one round to qualify.
Winner: Damian Lillard
Falling Short: Ricky Rubio
Similar to the East, the West figures to have some pretty good young teams fighting for low Playoff spots. Oklahoma City, Houston, LA (Clippers), Golden State, Memphis and San Antonio seem like locks for the postseason. That leaves two seeds for Portland, Denver, Dallas, Minnesota and maybe LA (Lakers) and New Orleans. I like the Blazers and TWolves most out of that bunch, and if they grab the final spots, Lillard and Rubio would be perfect Curry Award candidates.
Rubio’s great, but Lillard seems more likely to have a Curry-esque series or two. Portland has a tremendous home crowd, a remade bench and added size in the paint. I like Lillard’s odds.
9. NIKOLA VUCEVIC AWARD
Given annually to the player who comes out of nowhere to have a major season. Candidates must have played fewer than 850 minutes in previous season to qualify.
Winner: Evan Fournier
Falling Short: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steven Adams, Donatas Motiejunas, Luigi Datome
The Nuggets are, as usual, nine or 10 or 11 legitimate players deep this season. Only most of the depth is in the frontcourt, leaving some open minutes in the backcourt. Fournier hardly played last season, but he’s been getting run in the preseason (I know, I know) and has responded fairly well, though his field goal percentage leaves something to be desired. The 20-year-old Frenchman is probably better than Randy Foye, 17 years younger than Andre Miller, a lot healthier than Danilo Gallinari and could easily be more reliable than Nate Robinson. Those are the guys he’ll compete with for minutes, and I think he’ll carve out a steady role out for himself.
Keep your eyes on those other four, though. Giannis is just about my favorite player in the League already, more-or-less entirely based on this highlight reel (Durant-esque at 0:30). Adams looked really good in the preseason (7 & 7, 60 percent shooting with a block and a steal per game), and OKC badly needs a solid center. Motiejunas has a nice outside shot, and could play the Ryan Anderson role in a Howard-centric offense. The Pistons need a floor-stretcher, and Datome is a deadeye shooter.
10. ANTI-ANDREW BYNUM AWARD
Given annually to the player who brings his new team to the next level in his first season with the squad.
Winner: Andre Iguodala
Falling Short: Dwight Howard
The best player who moved teams this summer was Howard, but that doesn’t mean he gets the Anti-Bynum Award. Last season, the Rockets averaged 106 points per game—fractions of a point fewer than Denver, who had the League’s top offense points-wise. Enter Howard—when healthy, one of the League’s most disruptive defensive presences, a legitimate beast on the glass and a mediocre offensive player who after nearly a decade in the L still doesn’t seem to know what his strengths are.
Howard is really bad when he’s not under the basket (his 35.6 percent shooting from inside the paint but beyond the hoop last year was five points worse than Kendrick Perkins’). Dumping it down to an isolated Howard in the paint is never a great option, as he doesn’t take enough advantage of double teams and he lacks a soft touch around the rim. Exactly how confident are you that Howard will do something productive when he touches the ball?
More than anything, he’ll suck up possessions from an already potent offense. Are we sure that a Harden/Lin + Howard pick and roll will be that devastating? It’s nice in theory and will likely be pretty effective, but it’s kind of weird that Dwight had no chemistry with (an admittedly banged up) Steve Nash last season.
Landing Howard was a no-brainer for Houston—he’s a top-three center and pairing him with Harden has major potential down the road. Only Houston’s main problem last year was defense—they gave up the third most points in the league—and now they’ll be forced to either sit Omer Asik, a comparably elite defender and glass-eater, or try Asik and Howard together. After one preseason game in which they played some minutes next to each other, McHale had this to say: “Offensively, it may be jammed up a little bit more. They’ll figure it out. I played that way with bigs. I’ve seen it work before.” Yeesh. I can’t decide what’s worse between (A) intentionally jamming up an upper-echelon, typically spread out offense, (B) assuming they’ll figure it out or (C) McHale comparing his insane post talents to either of the Rockets’ bigs’.
Getting Howard is great, the Harden-Dwight combo will be great on and off the court and the Rockets will be a threat this season. Still, I think they would have been better served going after a power forward who can play D—Josh Smith, specifically—and letting Asik grow into the defensive-minded force he was on his way to becoming. Meanwhile, Golden State added the perfect guy.
Iguodala has major defensive skills, and the Dubs will need him when they go up against the League’s big dogs—LeBron, Melo, KD and the rest. I’ve already talked about Barnes’ shift to power forward—Iggy’s presence should allow Barnes to thrive there.
The Rockets got a great player, but I don’t know how much better he makes them. The Warriors got a really good player who might make them great.