James Harden broke through, after two near-misses in his career, and won the MVP last season. Considering the Rockets were the best team in the league and Harden was clearly the best player on that team — and the most productive offensive player in the game — there was little arguing his claim to the MVP.
This year will be different.
The Rockets, after some roster upheaval, figure to come down a bit in the standings this season, and Harden will have a hard time matching his impact from last season. That’ll hurt his candidacy.
And when looking at MVP, we’ve bypassed the usual suspects to find a guy who has not won the award to this point, and whose team probably won’t even be top four in its conference. Just feels like that sort of season.
Our awards predictions do have some predictable choices — the No. 1 pick in the Rookie of the Year and an oft-heralded boy wonder is the top coach — but we do foresee some surprises.
Here’s how things could shape up at awards time...
MVP: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
It’s entirely possible that we’ll see a cast of usual suspects at the top of MVP lists in six months, and a James Harden repeat, a LeBron James return or a Kevin Durant redux are all safe bets.
But just remember how dominant Davis was in the latter half of last year when his team really needed him to be. As great as Davis was in his first five-and-a-half seasons, something seemed to click with him last year when DeMarcus Cousins went out with an Achilles injury and New Orleans’ playoff hopes were ready to flushed away.
Davis took over. He was determined not just to be a great player, but was determined not to lose, no matter how many shots he had to take, rebounds he had to grab or blocked shots he had to rack up. It was an aggressiveness he had not shown before over an extended period.
With Cousins gone, Davis is going to have to play that way again for the Pelicans to have a playoff chance. It’s rare that an MVP comes from a team that lands in the lower half of the playoff pecking order, but Davis’ individual brilliance will be difficult to ignore.
Rookie of the Year: Deandre Ayton, Suns
This will start as a two-man race, with Ayton’s power game on a bad Phoenix team giving him an advantage — he’ll rack up points and rebounds, all while shooting a high percentage.
That won’t eliminate Dallas’ Luka Doncic from the mix. Doncic won’t have the big-time numbers that Ayton has, but he plays winning basketball, and if the Mavs make a run at the playoffs, Doncic will receive a chunk of credit for it.
There will be other contenders. Trae Young will get a chance to run the Hawks' offense from the get-go, and the team has much invested in his success. Marvin Bagley may be an enormous defensive liability in Sacramento, but defense rarely is a factor in ROY voting.
And we’re not counting out some longshots with a chance to surprise, including Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Celtics
Stevens has not won Coach of the Year yet, so if he can keep the Celtics on track and prevent chemistry issues from bubbling up, he’s likely to win the thing because, hey, it’s his time.
The same could be said of Quin Snyder in Utah, especially if he somehow gets that team to finish ahead of Houston in the West, and Nate McMillan has been impressive in Indiana. But Stevens is a pretty strong favorite.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Gobert played 56 games last year and still won Defensive Player of the Year, so the logic goes that if he plays something close to 82 games, he’s a lock to repeat for the award. There are good odds that he will — the award has been given out 36 times, but only to 22 different players.
If things go well in Toronto, expect Kawhi Leonard to get a lot of attention for DPOY, too. The Raptors were fifth in defensive efficiency last year, allowing 105.1 points per possession, so the team would have to push its way into the top two or three and knock a couple points off that number to justify voting for Leonard. But it’s possible.
And Draymond Green, if he plays the way he did in last year’s postseason, should not be counted out.
Sixth Man of the Year: J.J. Redick, Sixers
This presumes that Redick rides out the season in the sixth-man role that Philly has given him, the idea being that the Sixers can bring guard Markelle Fultz along slowly as the fourth option with the starting five and allow Redick to thrive with the bench unit.
So far, Redick has taken to it, but if the Sixers stagnate offensively and the spacing Redick provided Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons disappears, expect Brett Brown to put Redick back in the starting unit and short-circuit his burgeoning candidacy for this award.
In that case, look to Houston’s Eric Gordon, Indiana’s Tyreke Evans, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and old standby Lou Williams for possibilities.
Most Improved Player: Myles Turner, Pacers
Three years in the NBA, and Turner has not taken the stride forward most thought he would have taken by now. His per-36-minute numbers each season: 16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds as a rookie; 16.6 points, 8.3 rebounds in Year 2; 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds in Year 3.
He’s been much the same player from the start. Turner has had injury troubles that have slowed his progress, steps backward that hid the promising stretches he has put together in the last two seasons. This could be the year that changes.
Turner is only 22, and big men usually develop slowly. Turner has worked on conditioning this offseason, and that’s been one of the big issues keeping him from breaking out. He’s shown himself to be an adept shooter, and as confidence grows in his perimeter shot, his all-around game should get a boost.
Brandon Ingram, now playing with LeBron James, will be a candidate here, and others include Cleveland's Cedi Osman, Toronto's Pascal Siakam and Brooklyn guard Caris LeVert.
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