With more than 80 days left before the 2013-14 NBA season kicks off, it might be too early to be picking winners of awards that won’t be decided until Spring. But it’s well documented that NBA fanatics have the patience of Joey Crawford. Plus, the mother hen known as NBA.com has already opened up the floodgates, predicting their own crop of hardware winners. So why not just do it now?
Instead of the tired practice of picking one name, or possibly even a pair of them, for every category, we’ve done something a little different. With no fealty to numbers, players will be chosen under the umbrella of three categories:
Surefire – The spot for guys like LeBron who make public opinion look one-dimensional. Players whose only competition is themselves or a small stock of one to three other guys. Shoe-ins who, like Shaq, wear size 22’s.
Dark Horse – Fan favorites who tend to get overlooked by the journalistic elite. They contribute to their teams in bunches and across all checkboxes and who might be just be a few great games or padded stats away from stealing a new shiny paperweight.
Untapped – In a perfect world, talented employees of the court would all be gunning to be their teams’ proven leaders, and with enough hard work, live up to the mountainous expectations the world awaits from them. Unfortunately, that happens way too rarely. Instead, there are nutcases like DeMarcus Cousins, or gents like Blake Griffin who haven’t played to their Olympian physiques, who haven’t lived up to all the hype. They have the tool sets, but lack the X factor. Or, perhaps they do have the goods but are on losing teams.
LeBron, LeBron, LeBron
The Chosen One will turn 29 this season, which means he’s still on the uphill climb to the top of his prime. There’s not much room left to get any better but James seems unwilling to stop improving his game. There are knocks to his candidacy: he plays on one of the best teams ever assembled. But he’s by far the best player on last season’s best team, which only one person can have dibs on at any given time. Barring injury, some major athletic regression, or a year for the ages from another candidate, LeBron will win his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Away, from under the oppressive gaze of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard should rediscover himself. In an off-year, he still led the league in rebounds and averaged 17-plus points, not to mention that he was shaping up to be a defensive anchor once more as the season came to an end. With Harden, and a barrack of shooters around him, he can lead Houston up to the top-5 of the Western Conference Finals, which will re-endear him in people’s eyes.
Curry proved that he’s the future of the point guard position: someone who can make veteran defenses like San Antonio clutch their pearls and hope he doesn’t go off for a 50-50-90 night. With Jarrett Jack gone, he’ll have to play more minutes, which isn’t a good omen for his ankles, but if he stays healthy, look out for another record-shooting year.
Durant is only a dark horse in this contest because of the Grendel known as LeBron. He’ll have a recovering Westbrook and a reduced offense to carry forth, which should coincide with a year of improved performance from his part. That means monster numbers for the 24-year-old.
Paul is a Hall of Fame point guard and this, by no means, should be seen as a snub. It just doesn’t look like the Clippers will be the offensive league powers everyone is anticipating. Even if they are, they still have to contend with subpar rebounding which is going to cost them games. Plus, Paul is so exceptional at making those around him better that individual awards might never make it his way.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
If the injury bug hadn’t hit Noah last year, he would have won Defensive Player of the Year. Tom Thibodeau says he’ll be reducing his minutes in an effort to keep him healthy come this year. Although that’s hard to believe, reduced minutes should keep the big man on top of the defensive polls.
LeBron will be a close second. He trailed Gasol last year and is on a quest to be the king of defensive honors. Competition be wary.
Hibbert has gotten leaner and stronger. Not only did the Heat have a hard time stopping him from scoring but they were hesitant to attack a Hibbert-protected hoop. With more limelight on the Pacers, this might be the big guy’s trip to the podium.
Leonard did the best job of “guarding” LeBron in the playoffs. Under Pop’s wing, he can become a two-way player perfectly suited to stop players of KD’s or LBJ’s ilk. Though, he might have to get there first as a defensive brute.
Sanders, Sanders, Sanders. The Milwaukee Buck likes things in three and he has the potential to attain three Defensive Player of the Years if he just learned how to stay on the floor. If he can play 33 minutes-plus while curtailing his fouls, he can be a dark horse this year.
Allen is due at least one DOPY.
Very few players, and fans, liked Gasol as the DOPY but there’s a reason why he won the award. Pulling it off two years in a row would be all kinds of unexpected, but so was pulling it off the first time. Expect riots at sports bars if he gets a second one.
Butler first got the spotlight as a perimeter stopper and he’s only going to get better. Surprisingly, he’s only five pounds lighter than Leonard, who looks much broader, but could do with some added muscle (to help with LeBron, of course).
On what should be a lottery team, Bradley will have a hard time winning anything, let alone games, despite how much he deserves consideration. Only 22, he’ll have plenty of time to become the new Tony Allen, however.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Butler, Davis, Leonard, and Valanciunas all have equal chance at owning this year’s MIP award.
Butler will become a bonafide starter, which means a huge boost in minutes and numbers. Davis recently showed off an improved jumper, and if healthy, looks to be a headache this year for small and big lineups alike. Leonard missed a crucial free throw but did just about everything else right in the 2012-13 NBA Finals. With another year under his belt, he’ll slowly become one of the game’s best active players. And, finally, Valanciunas. As the Summer League’s MVP, he decimated the opposition and might be one of the top four most skilled big men in the game already. There’s still plenty to be improved with him, but expect a lot of bloody teams in his wake.
Barnes is not afraid of the Spurs or the big stage. If Jackson can plug the young guy into a bolstered lineup just right he won’t be afraid of trending upward.
Some of Harris’ stat lines were plain ridiculous last season. On April 10th, against the Bucks, he posted 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 5 assists on 65.0% shooting. Bonkers. Only 21, and with a full year of being Magic’s starting SF ahead of him, he can really cause some waves.
Even at only 23, Hayward might be the veteran Jazz on their starting lineup. The pressure will be on him to score, defend, and lead his very young cohorts to at least 20 wins this year. He might not do it but he’ll play splendidly throughout. The kid is just not given enough credit.
Yes, George won the MIP last year. But it will only be his fourth year in the league, he’ll be 23 for most of it, and has plenty of areas to improve on. He shot only 41.9% from the field, 36.2% from three, averaged 0.6 blocks, and 4.1 assists. All places that can see significant jumps with Danny Granger back to share the offensive and defensive load.
Jennings has vowed to become a pass-first point, which is exactly what he needs to become in Detroit. But it’s unlikely he’ll be an effective one since his game is so flawed.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Jamal Crawford and Jarrett Jack
J.R. Smith ended the year like Jamal Crawford started it, which is why J Crossover was the runner-up. With a hobbled Smith and less pressure to be the Clippers’ bench messiah, Crawford can end up with a more consistent year.
With essentially a college team around him (plus Kyrie Irving), Jack might have put himself in a tricky situation. Going with a contender, like San Antonio, would have done wonders to his short-term legacy but Jack might be more interested in becoming the sage that helps lead the young buck Cavaliers to the promised land.
The Pacers’ bench went from abysmal to above-grade, which should help their 23rd-ranked offense greatly. Scola should lead the charge, as his late-season numbers from last season prove he can still have monster games.
Anderson is now surrounded by a squadron of young guards and a possible future HOF big man who all command attention. Coming off the bench, he’ll be able to take advantage of overworked defenses as a stretch 4 with unlimited range.
Portland has become Mo-town. The veteran point guard will be coming off the bench for the Blazers who will love him for his outside shooting and driving abilities. If he still has some speed in the engine, he is primed to pull off a spectacular year for the Blazers.
Last year’s 6th Man of the Year will have a hard time matching his productivity having just come off of knee surgery. He can end the 2013-14 season with elite numbers again, but a shortened time on the hardwood will cost him a consecutive nod.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Trey Burke and Kelly Olynyk
The race will probably be between Oladipo and Zeller but Burke and Olynyk are supremely skilled and should have plenty of playing time waiting for them on rebuilding teams. Big men Zeller and Olynyk were the best rooks of the Summer League but it remains to be seen which one’s game will translate better to prime time. If the Magic can fight the questionable need to put Oladipo at the 1, this will be his award to lose.
C.J. McCollum and Michael Carter-Williams
On a team that has improved nicely, McCollum won’t have quite the room for success his rookie predecessor, Damian Lillard, did. That doesn’t mean that he won’t have a solid year just one that trails what the four above are likely of achieving.
Carter-Williams will find a similar situation to that which Lillard was presented with in his rookie campaign. The only trouble is that he doesn’t have Nicolas Batum or LaMarcus Aldridge to feed the ball to. Maybe Spencer Hawes will be his go-to guy?
Reggie Bullock and Ben McLemore
The Kings have had a Rookie of the Year rather recently but when you have Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as your fellow starting teammate, Ben McLemore can only hope for good things if he plans on never missing.
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