Early Season NBA Award Predictions

The picks from this article were chosen on November 1st, about a week and a half into the 2019-2020 season. Stats from this article are accurate as of November 3rd.

The NBA season is in full swing and with that comes everyone’s early predictions for the league’s yearlong awards. After Zion underwent surgery to start the season, his odds to win Rookie of the Year went to +125, making it so there were no odds on favorites to win any of the league’s major awards. The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, and anything can happen throughout the duration of the long season. Injuries, trades, and coaching changes are inevitable, but here are my predictions for this year’s NBA hardware.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis is the reigning league MVP, and it is to no surprise that he is the favorite and popular pick to repeat this season. The Bucks superstar averaged 27.7 points a game, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists a night last season, and led his team to the best record in the league last year at 60-22.  

The Bucks being a top of the league last season was an important factor in Giannis winning MVP, but his individual efforts were what warranted his MVP votes more than anything. Not only does Giannis fill up the stat sheet on the offensive end, but he is also an elite-level defender. He averaged 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks a game last season and is a part of a rare breed of players that can guard every position on the floor. Antetokounmpo is quick enough and long enough to guard smaller players on the perimeter, but can also guard opposing teams bigs down low and protect the rim with the best of them. His defensive presence did not go unnoticed, as Giannis finished 2nd in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, receiving 26 first-place votes.

This season Giannis will have to produce at the same level as he did last year to keep the Bucks a top of the East, as they’ll be battling with a revamped 76ers team for the top seed. The Bucks extended their second option on offense Khris Middleton for the next five years, but their biggest offseason move is arguably that they let point guard Malcolm Brogden walk. Some would argue that Brogden is the smarter investment oppose to the contract they gave Bledsoe back in March. With this departure, Giannis will have to carry the load and continue to make the players around him even better to fill the shooting void Brogden left.

With the exception of his assist totals from the 2017 season to the 2018 season, Giannis has improved his PPG, APG, and RPG in each of his seasons in the league. If Giannis continues this trajectory, and as he starts to shoot more consistently, there is no reason he shouldn’t repeat as the league MVP. Steph Curry had the next best odds to open up the season for MVP, and he is going to miss the next three months recovering from a broken hand, so you can count him out already. The next four players behind Curry for MVP odds all play on a team that is built around superstar duos, and each is a part of a said duo. LeBron and AD are the next two and share the court together. Next is James Harden who plays alongside Russell Westbrook in Houston, then Kawhi who plays alongside Paul George. Giannis has Khris Middleton, but he is not the same stature of a player as to the others. When the Bucks win, all the credit is going to go to Giannis, which will give voters no choice but to vote for him for MVP.

Rookie of the Year: RJ Barrett

If Zion Williamson was healthy to start the year, he would be my pick. Going into the season it was hard to imagine anyone else besides Zion winning this award. The timetable for Zion to return from his torn meniscus is 6-8 weeks, and if it takes the full eight weeks to get back to full health, he will not play until December 17th. If that is the case, which it is looking like it is, it will be hard to give him first place votes even if he has an outlandish second half of the season.

Insert RJ Barrett, the third overall pick and Zion Williamson’s former teammate at Duke. The race for Rookie of the Year will be wide open, with players like Ja Morant, Coby White, Tyler Herro, and DeAndre Hunter all likely to make strong cases to bring home this honor. There are a few different reasons why Barrett may have a slight edge on these guys for Rookie of the Year early on in the season.

First, RJ Barrett has been on the court more than any rookie to start the season by 17 minutes. Obviously it all matters what he is going to do with those minutes, but being on the court for more possessions early on in his career is going to allow Barrett to learn on the fly, and give him opportunities that other rookies may not get. It was made clear in the preseason that David Fizdale wants to give RJ all the chances he can get in his rookie season, and this is going to give him the opportunity to grow into a better player at a quicker rate. He did the same last year with Kevin Knox, and Barrett is already off to a much more promising start than Knox had last year.

Secondly, RJ Barrett is going to put up good enough numbers on the Knicks which will give voters no choice but to consider him for the award. Through six games, Barrett is averaging 17.7 points a night, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Something interesting worth noting however is the percentages Barrett is putting up in this small sample size. Rookies usually aren’t too efficient early in their careers, and the same goes for RJ thus far. He is shooting 44% from the field and 39% from three on 4 attempts per game. At first glance, those numbers don’t look awful, but what is concerning is that Barrett is only shooting 45% from the free-throw line on 5.5 trips a game. As I said, it is a small sample size and RJ has plenty of time to improve, but seeing an alarmingly low free throw percentage is warranted for some concern towards his jump shot going forward. Regardless, Barrett is still going to put up an impressive stat line for a first-year player as he is on a team that is game planning with player development being a focal point. If Barrett’s numbers are on pace or better than the other players in his class, he’ll have an argument for the award at the end of the season.

The last factor that can help RJ Barrett’s Rookie of the Year case is how the Knicks are trying to utilize him in the offense. Barrett’s true position is a wing, and he played mainly off the ball at Duke, but it was clear that he is a more than capable playmaker. He just needs to be willing to do it. Fizdale has put the ball in Barrett’s hand early on in select situations allowing him to initiate the team’s offense. His usage rate ranks 4th among rookies who have played over 80 minutes this season, and he ranks first in usage among rookies who aren’t point guards. If Barrett is able to realize and unlock his playmaking potential, it’ll add another dimension to his already strong offensive game and make him an even more dangerous player offensively. Showing the voters consistent improvement throughout the season can be an important factor when it comes time to submit their votes. If Barrett can improve this part of his game, it’ll give Knicks fans something to look forward to for their team’s future.

6th Man of the Year: Kyle Kuzma

It is no question that the Lakers are going to be a contender this season with the addition of Anthony Davis. But going into the season many people pegged the lone young player that wasn’t dealt for AD to be the team’s x-factor in a potential championship run. Kyle Kuzma will be slid into a new role this season coming off the bench, but he has the tools to be an elite sixth man if he buys into this role.

Kuzma is a microwave and has the ability to heat up quickly on the offensive end. Take Lou Williams and Eric Gordon for example, two players that have won the last three 6th man of the year awards. They come off the bench and provide instant offense, inside and out. Kuzma is 6,9 and has both back to the basket and face up ability in the post, an area where he may see a lot of mismatches when playing with Anthony Davis. Kuzma also is a very effective three-point shooter. He is a versatile scorer that can put points up in bunches, as we saw last season when he put up 41 points in just 29 minutes against the Pistons. That scoring ability is a common trait among the most elite second unit players around the league.

Although Kuzma is going to coming off the bench, it is likely that Frank Vogel will role a lineup out with AD at the 5 and Kuzma at the other forward while LeBron runs the point to close out games. Kuzma is still going to be playing crucial minutes for the Lakers and he’ll be put in spots where he will be taking meaningful shots at the end of games. Outside of Danny Green, the Lakers lack depth when it comes to shooters and it’ll be important for Kuzma to provide shooting down the stretch for the team. Something to watch throughout the year will be how efficient Kuzma is with his shots. With opposing defenses keying in on Anthony Davis and LeBron James there will be many times where Kuzma will find himself wide open on the perimeter. LeBron and AD are both great playmakers and will make the right pass when Kuzma has an open look. If Kuzma can improve on his 30% shooting from three from last year, he can move into the elite tier of shooters in the league.

A lot of the Laker’s success does fall on Kuzma. He provides the team with a third option on offense next to LeBron and Anthony Davis. If he is able to hit his shots at a high percentage, defenses will have no choice but to make sure that he is guarded, which in turn creates less double teams for the Lakers two stars. If Kuzma is able to adjust early on to this new role, and pick his spots within the offense to provide the Lakers with instant scoring, there is no doubt that he will be in the discussion for 6th Man of the Year. It has been 10 years since a forward won 6th Man of the Year when Lamar Odom won the award, and now another Laker has the chance to end the streak of guards winning this award.

Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo

The Heat moved on from Hassan Whiteside this offseason, which goes to show how much trust they already have in their 3rd-year center Bam Adebayo. The Kentucky product has moved into the starting lineup for the Heat and is off to a hot start on a 4-1 team. Through five games, Bam is averaging 15 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 5.2 assists to go with 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks. These marks are all career highs and show just how versatile a player he is on both ends of the court.

The main selling point in Adebayo’s game coming out of Kentucky was his defense and energy. From the moment he stepped into the league, he showed that he was able to play defense at a high level and that whenever he was on the court you were getting every ounce of energy that Bam possessed. The energy led to easy fast-break buckets and alley-oop finishes from pick and rolls. The energy obviously translates to the defensive end as well. Bam is versatile and can guard multiple positions, and has the athleticism and timing to block shots at a high rate. It has been shown early on in the season that Bam is taking another leap defensively as he ranks in the top 10 in defensive rating among starting centers.

An underrated part of Bam’s game that goes unnoticed at times is his playmaking ability. Being such a high energy player, Bam is always a threat to face up and rip through to attack the basket, but he has also proved he’s capable of finding the open man if his shot isn’t there. He is second among centers in assists this year, only behind Nikola Jokic who is one of the best playmakers in the whole league. Bam’s ability to make plays from the center position is especially valuable because the Heat do not have a true point guard in their starting lineup. Justice Winslow has been manning the point guard duties for the Heat, and though he is a good playmaker, he isn’t going to go out and get ten assists a night. Because this is the case, having players that can make plays on the floor will prove crucial to the success of the Heat this season.

There are many good candidates to win Most Improved Player, such as Jayson Tatum, Jonathan Isaac, and Brandon Ingram. Bam Adebayo is in the best position to take the greatest leap from last season to this season out of any player, however. Offensively his game is coming along faster than people expected, and his value on the defensive end is going to separate him from the rest of the field as the season develops. If Bam Adebayo continues at the trajectory he is at, he as the opportunity to develop into one of the league’s most versatile centers.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid

There is no discussion to be had on what kind of player Joel Embiid is on the defensive end. He has made the NBA’s All-Defensive second team each of the last two seasons and easily could have made the first team if it wasn’t for the center spot being occupied by Rudy Gobert, the player who has won DPOY the last two seasons. Embiid has finished 4th and 2nd in the past two seasons in Defensive Player of the Year voting as the anchor of a 76ers defense. This year Embiid will finally jump Gobert and claim the title as the league’s top defender.

One of the main reasons Rudy Gobert has taken home this award the past two seasons is because he is the anchor of the league’s best defense collectively. In the 2017-2018 season, the Jazz were the top-ranked defense, and in the 2018-2019 season, they were ranked second behind the Bucks. This season many believe that the 76ers will bolster the league’s top defense with the acquisitions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, two above-average defenders. With a lineup of Ben Simmons, J-Rich, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid, the 76ers will have one of the most versatile defenses in the league, which will undoubtedly help Embiids case. More often than not, the best defender on the league’s best defensive team usually wins Defensive Player of the Year.

Last year Joel Embiid was an MVP candidate, as his offensive game was equally impressive as his defense. With Ben Simmons running the offense and having a full year with Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, Embiid will be able to take a step back on offense this season and focus his energy on the defensive end of the ball where he is the most valuable. Having Al Horford to control the defense when Embiid is off the court will make it difficult for opposing teams to get in any sort of rhythm offensively throughout the course of the game. Then when Embiid returns and plays alongside Horford, the luxury of having another elite inside defender will only amplify how good Embiid is on that end of the court.

It’s not a matter of if he is capable, but if Embiid is going to win this award it will because his main focus will be on the defensive end. We have already seen Embiid show that he isn’t going to be pushed around when protecting his basket, as he already was dished out a two-game suspension for getting into it with Karl-Anthony Towns earlier this year. If Embiid is able to buckle down defensively and lead the 76ers to the top of the league’s defensive standings, Embiid will have a very strong case for Defensive Player of the Year.

Coach of the Year: Monty Williams

It’s early into the season, but I am ready to finally call the Suns an actual basketball team that can compete nightly. The Suns are off to a 4-2 start and beating opponents by an average margin of 9.2 points a night. Another telling point that shows the Suns have been really good to start the year is their net rating. They are third in the league only behind the 76ers and the Lakers, and although it’s a small sample size, it’s promising. Keep in mind Monty Williams has made this all happen without last year’s number one overall pick DeAndre Ayton, as he is serving a 25 game suspension for violating the league’s policy on drug use.

One of the biggest changes from last year to this year is the emphasis of ball movement on the offensive end for Phoenix. They are currently second in the league in assists with 28.3 a game, an improvement from their 23.9 last season. A lot of the credit here can be given to Ricky Rubio, who signed a 3yr/$51 million deal in the offseason. Many at the time thought of this to be a bad signing based on value, but so far it’s evident that bringing in Rubio is paying dividends. This is the first time in Devin Booker’s career that he is playing with a true point guard, and being able to take the pressure of running the offense off of Booker is allowing him to play off the ball, where he is much more comfortable. This season Booker is averaging to start 23.8 points a night, 3.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. The statistic where Booker has improved the most in so far this year is his 3-point percentage, as he’s shooting 47%, up from 32% last season. With Rubio running the offense, Booker is getting a lot more catch and shoot looks, and he isn’t having to force up as many threes off the dribble. Although 47% from three probably can’t be maintained, the increase in efficiency has a lot to do with Rubio being in the lineup.

For the other COTY candidates, we know that the top coaches in the league are elite at what they do. For Monty Williams, he has something to prove. He hasn’t had a head coaching job since 2015 when he was with the Pelicans, and it is his time to show the league that he is capable of leading a team to wins. With a young core of Booker, Ayton, and Oubre Jr, the Suns now have a group of veterans such as Rubio, Aaron Baynes, and Dario Saric giving them a balance of youth and experience that is built to compete. If the Suns are able to sneak into the playoffs as an 8th seed, it’ll be hard not to give Monty Williams the Coach of the Year award as he would be able to turn this franchise completely around.

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