With seemingly more talent in the league than we’ve seen in years, there is no shortage of candidates for the NBA’s annual awards.
Last year some of the biggest awards, like MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, came down to the wire and you can expect a close race across the board again this time around. As the regular season nears tip-off, Sportsnet’s Eric Smith, Donnovan Bennett and myself weighed in with our predictions of who will take home the hardware when all is said and done:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Eric Smith, SN590 Raptors broadcaster
Kevin Durant. Honestly, throw five names against a wall and see which one sticks! We’re witnessing such an incredible era of marquee talent throughout the league, but Durant should be even more impressive in his second season with the Warriors.
Dave Zarum, NBA Editor
LeBron James. Expect to see an even more motivated James look to carry the Cavs to another level after watching his sidekick ask out. James is looking more spry than he’s been in years and the Isaiah Thomas injury means he’ll be carrying a heavier load than usual, if you can imagine that.
Donnovan Bennett, staff writer
LeBron James. The MVP is about narratives. James has been over looked for personal awards lately, partly because of his lack of interest in the regular season, and partly because we get immune to his greatness. Now with Kyrie Irving no longer sharing the usage rate and newcomer Isaiah Thomas hurt for half the season, James will once again take centre stage.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kawhi Leonard. Until somebody steps up and proves to be a better and more impactful defender, I’ll pick him every year! The only thing that could hurt his chance, aside from health, is that he’s being asked to do more and more offensively each year, too.
Rudy Gobert. While he might not have the defensive versatility of other elite defenders around the league, nobody is better at what they do than Gobert is at protecting the basket. He is the NBA’s best shot-blocker and his presence alone alters countless shots at the rim each night. Despite losing their best player in the off-season, the Jazz will remain in the playoff hunt in large part because of Gobert patrolling the paint.
Draymond Green. He guards all five positions— and lets you know about it. The Warriors won’t be shut out of major award winners, and Green has the best chance to win one because he’ll campaign for it.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Lonzo Ball. Lost in the hype from his father is that fact that this kid is a very good player and future all-star. He’ll have every opportunity to shine in LA.
Ben Simmons. In the calendar year since he was drafted first overall in 2016, we may have— fairly— lost sight of just how skilled and dynamic Simmons is. A point guard trapped in young LeBron James’ body, he has the speed, strength, and size to do damage on both ends of the floor and should be given a long leash and meaningful role with the ball in his hands more than any other Sixer.
Dennis Smith Jr. If we did the draft over again how high would Smith go? Top five? Top three? Smith will be in enough highlight plays to be a social media favourite and be a part of the general basketball consciousness, and will be given credit when the Mavericks rebound and make it back to the playoffs.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Billy Donovan. Assuming the Thunder don’t implode (which I don’t expect at all), he should get a ton of credit for finding ways to make OKC’s new “Big 3” click. His roster— and expectations— have been totally overhauled.
Brad Stevens. Already considered one of the NBA’s premier tacticians, if the Celtics come even close to replicating their regular season success from last year it will be largely due to Stevens’ ability to adapt his systems on the fly around an entirely re-tooled roster.
Quin Snyder. The Jazz lost their superstar in Gordon Hayward, but will probably have around the same record as they did a year ago. If Snyder leads Utah back to the postseason in the uber-competitive West without an all-star or high-lottery pick on his roster he’ll be deserving of an award he’s already been in the running for over the last few years.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Jusuf Nurkic. He was a stud— before breaking his leg— when he first arrived in Portland from Denver at the trade deadline last season. A full season with Lillard and McCollum should be huge for the big man.
D’Angelo Russell. A fresh start was desperately needed for Russell, an ultra-talented point guard mired on dysfunctional Lakers teams during his first two NBA seasons. In Brooklyn, he’ll be given the reigns and be the go-to player in crunch time for a Nets team that will perform better than you think.
Thon Maker. Maker was a totally different player at the end of the year than he was at the start of his inaugural NBA season. Everything you hear out of Milwaukee as that he’s had a tremendous offseason. His defensive intensity, rim protection and ability to pick and pop will make him a household name in 2017-18.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Lou Williams. With JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford no longer with the Clippers, the door is wide open for Williams to have a big-time role under Doc Rivers.
Eric Gordon. The Rockets sharpshooter is experiencing a career rejuvenation in Houston, where he’s taken to his well-defined role and fits in seemlessly in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He should remain one of the NBA’s most impactful scorers from beyond the arc and integral to the Rockets high-octane scoring attack.
JR Smith. He’s going to close games for the Cavaliers, even though Dwyane Wade will start at shooting guard, and should see upwards of 30 minutes of court time each night. Smith now becomes the Cavaliers over-qualified version of Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams.