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MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

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USA TODAY

MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Following the wildest offseason in recent memory (perhaps ever), when a record seven All-Stars from a year ago changed teams, the chase for the Larry O'Brien trophy begins tonight in Cleveland.

While the Warriors remain the class of the league and, barring significant injury, should repeat as NBA champions, there are dozens and dozens of other storylines to keep us intrigued from now until the third week of June.

But enough with introductions. Let's get into predicting how the NBA's 72nd season will play out.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

You've likely heard the statistic by now, but it bears repeating: Last season Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to rank in the top-20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He was also the fifth player ever to lead his team in those categories, joining Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan. Pretty good company for a player who turned 22 in the middle of that extraordinary campaign (Cowens and Pippen were 29, Garnett was 26 and James was 24 when they respectively accomplished that feat). Simply put, Antetokounmpo checks all the boxes. He's got the skill (see: the stat you just read). He's durable, having missed just nine games in four seasons. He's got the personality (dad jokes FTW). And he's got the storyline, as sidekick Jabari Parker is sidelined with another ACL surgery. The Bucks should improve on their 42 wins from a year ago, but Russell Westbrook proved last year you don't need to be on a top-2 team in your conference to win the award. He's got competition to be sure, but last year's Most Improved Player will become this year's Most Valuable Player.

Runner-ups: LeBron James, Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

No other NBA award seems to have as much repetition and consistency as this one. Since the award was first handed out in 1983, there have been nine players to win the award in consecutive years (Dwight Howard won it three straight years from 2009-2011). Green will join that list after what should be yet another fantastic defensive campaign. The raw stats were impressive on their own: last year Green averaged a league-best 2.0 steals and added 1.4 blocks and 7.9 rebounds. He was second in the league in defensive efficiency and was the most talented defender on the league's best defense by a long shot. The Warriors return the same unit from a year ago, and assuming Kevin Durant doesn't miss 20+ games again the defense should only get better. Green can guard all five positions (he actually can, I'm not just helping you fill out your NBA Bingo card) and has an unmatched intensity that voters take note of. With Kawhi Leonard nursing a hamstring injury that could linger, and Rudy Gobert becoming a focal point offensively, Green should be in line to take home another trophy.

Runner-ups: Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, LA Clippers

Playing for his fifth team in as many seasons, Williams has changed uniforms but not his playing style. A finalist for the award last season (teammate Eric Gordon rightfully took home the honors), Williams averaged 17.5 points per game in just 24.6 minutes for the Lakers and Rockets. His efficiency dipped after he was dealt to Houston, as his 38.6/31.8/86.7 splits underwhelmed in the shot-happy Rockets system. A year later he finds himself in a terrific situation with the Clippers, who moved on from three-time Sixth Man winner Jamal Crawford this offseason. Williams will be tasked with being the leading scorer on a second unit that isn't exactly oozing with depth. The good news is that he'll have one hell of a passer alongside him in 30-year-old rookie Milos Teodosic. Teodosic averaged 5.5 assists in limited action for the Clips, and he'll be finding Williams early and often with that second group. Expect a bounce back campaign from Williams, with perhaps some added efficiency playing next to Teodosic.

Runner-ups: Eric Gordon, Tristan Thompson

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

You've got 24 hours until the hype train leaves the station, so hop on board now or you'll be kicking yourself all season. The top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft will finally make his debut on Wednesday night, and when he does you'll see why the Sixers believe in him as a cornerstone for this franchise. He'll be listed as a forward but Brett Brown expects him to initiate just about all of Philly's offensive sets this season. In five preseason games he averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists in just 22.8 minutes per game. The best news? He won't be on a minutes restriction after last year's broken foot. He's an absolute blur in transition, can finish with both hands and understands his limitations (his jumper is anything but reliable, yet he shot 57 percent from the field in the preseason). He's also going to be on a team that wins (see below), and the presence of Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick will provide ample opportunities for him to rack up numbers. Get on board, and get on quickly: Ben Simmons is about to jump to stardom in the next few seasons, and it begins with what will be a stellar rookie campaign.

Runner-ups: Dennis Smith Jr., John Collins

Most Improved Player: Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

The casual NBA fan might not know who Gary Harris is. That will change this season. Fresh off a four-year max deal that could pay him up to $84 million, the Nuggets showed exactly how they feel about the 23-year-old wing. Injuries limited him to 57 games last season, but we'll bank on him playing closer to the 76 games he logged in 2015-16. And the Nuggets are going to give him plenty of run, which is good news: of the last 18 players to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award, none have averaged fewer than 32.2 minutes per game. After the All-Star break last season Harris averaged 16.8 points on 53 percenet shooting, and he was just as good on the defensive end. The Nuggets are going to have plenty of firepower around Harris, including Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray. But Harris is going to be a focal point in this system, and he could emerge in Year 4 as a legitimate All-Star candidate (note: the West is absolutely stacked; Harris will not be an All-Star; but his numbers could be worthy of consideration).

Runner-ups: Josh Richardson, Clint Capela

Coach of the Year: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets jumped to 33 victories in Malone's first year with the Nuggets, and last year made a seven-win jump and nearly made the postseason. Denver won't need to sweat out the final week of this season to see if they're playoff-bound. Their budding stars in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, while replacing Danilo Gallinari with four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, could potentially move them into the top-5 in the West. The Timberwolves will make headlines as the team expected to make "the jump," but watch out for Denver. Malone has taken an offense left for dead and improved them from 21st to 20th to 5th in offensive efficiency. There are certainly questions about their defense, which could be a recipe for disaster in the Western Conference, but expect Denver to flirt with 50 wins this season, making Malone an easy choice for Coach of the Year.

Runner-ups: Erik Spoelstra, Jason Kidd

Eastern Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
2. Boston (55-27)
3. Washington (51-31)
4. Toronto (46-36)
5. Milwaukee (45-37)
6. Miami (44-38)
7. Philadelphia (41-41)
8. Charlotte (38-44)
9. Detroit (35-47)
10. Atlanta (30-52)
11. Indiana (30-52)
12. Orlando (29-53)
13. Brooklyn (24-58)
14. New York (24-58)
15. Chicago Bulls (21-61)

Western Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Golden State (70-12)
2. Houston (60-22)
3. Oklahoma City (54-28)
4. San Antonio (53-29)
5. Denver (49-33)
6. Minnesota (47-35)
7. LA Clippers (45-37)
8. Utah (43-39)
9. Portland (41-41)
10. New Orleans (39-43)
11. Memphis (37-45)
12. Dallas (35-47)
13. Los Angeles Lakers (33-49)
14. Sacramento Kings (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

NBA champions: Houston Rockets

Oh, come on. Picking the Warriors is no fun. Let's think outside the box for a change and act like Golden State won't win its third title in four seasons. That's too easy. Then again, it may not be too much of a stretch to consider that the Rockets could top them in a seven-game series. Let's start with the obvious: Chris Paul joining James Harden is going to make the Rockets one of the most efficient offenses in league history. Moving Harden off the ball means he won't lead the league in assists again, but he should improve his shooting efficiency (44.0/34.7/84.7 last season). Meanwhile, Paul continues to be overlooked as still one of the game's great point guards. Crack all the conference finals jokes you want; he just averaged 18.1 points and 9.2 assists in his 12th NBA season.

Moving to the wings, the Rockets shored up a defense that ranked 18th in efficiency by signing plus defenders in P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Add Trevor Ariza to that mix and the Rockets tout three capable defenders to counter small-ball lineups Golden State might deploy. It remains to be seen if Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon could be used significantly in a series against the Warriors, but Houston can cover up those defensive weaknesses with this offseason's moves.

Clint Capela shot 64 percent last season, obliterating defenses on pick-and-rolls with Harden. Now he gets Paul, the league's best pick-and-roll ball handler? Unfair. Depth could be a concern, but in the postseason Mike D'Antoni can try an eight-man rotation - or add someone at the trade deadline.

There's no easy way to beat the Warriors, and the last three seasons there hasn't been any way, really. The Rockets don't need to shoot the ball better than Golden State for 82 games. They need to shoot it better than Golden State for two weeks in late May. Chemistry shouldn't be an issue once the Western Conference Finals roll around, and D'Antoni will have found a good minutes stagger to utilize Paul and Harden best. Houston has sneaky flexibility with the aforementioned wings, and that's the only real way to stick with the Warriors and their abundance of rotation options.

Assuming Cleveland comes out of the East, the Cavs would make for an incredible test in the NBA Finals. But after toppling the defending champions, Harden and Paul would be playing with unprecedented confidence. They win it in seven games on their home floor.

NBA Draft Tracker: Texas A&M PF-C Robert Williams

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NBA Draft Tracker: Texas A&M PF-C Robert Williams

For all the times coaches, executives and media members lament college prospects leaving too early to start their NBA careers, there are also instances where returning for another collegiate season winds up costing a player some money.

Take the case of Texas A&M big man Robert Williams. He was projected to be a top 10 pick after averaging a modest 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds as a freshman in 2016-17. Scouts liked his explosive leaping ability at 6'10", 240 pounds, and figured his offensive skills would continue to expand with more drill work and better coaching at the NBA level.

Instead, Williams decided to return to College Station for his sophomore season and looked even more unpolished on the offensive end when he was asked to move out of the post to make room for fellow big man Tyler Davis. Williams put up comparable numbers this past season, averaging 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds, and he did improve his shooting percentage from .558 to .632.

Problem is, most of those shot attempts were alley-oop dunks and putbacks. Williams failed to develop any consistent low post moves last summer, and seemed to be lost playing in the shadow of the more offensively talented Davis.

Still, Williams showed off enough raw athletic ability that he has a decent shot at being selected late in the lottery this June.

The Clippers hold back to back picks at 12 and 13, and there's a chance the Clips could lose veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency (although Jordan will have a difficult time topping his 24.1 million dollar player option for next season). Doc Rivers' team might not be known as "Lob City" any more with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul no longer around as headliners, but adding an explosive athlete like Williams could make sense at that point in the draft.

Is Williams a possible fit for the Bulls? Not likely, unless he somehow falls to the pick they acquired from the Pelicans, which is No. 22 overall. The Bulls could consider drafting a developmental big at that point since both Robin Lopez and Omer Asik are entering the last year of their contracts (Asik has a $3 million buyout for 2019-20), leaving Cristiano Felicio as the only true center on the roster.

Don't be surprised if the Bulls look at a possible international draft and stash prospect (Dzanan Musa or Rodions Kurucs, both small forwards) at No. 22 with so many young players already on the roster.

With the NBA again talking about eliminating the one-and-done rule (perhaps as early as the 2020 draft), players like Williams and Michigan State's Miles Bridges might find themselves getting over-drafted right out of high school based on potential alone. But that's a discussion for another day.

The 2018 draft will provide another lesson that it's dangerous to assume players will automatically get better by spending an extra season or two competing on the college level.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Do Bulls have a realistic chance of landing Paul George?

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Do Bulls have a realistic chance of landing Paul George?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson discuss the chances of the Bulls signing Paul George in free agency this summer.

Plus, would Jimmy Butler really want to finish his career in Chicago? Also, a look around the NBA playoffs including the surprise performance of Derrick Rose, and you don’t want to miss the offer that Kendall makes Vincent Goodwill – it may be too tough for Vinnie to pass up.

Listen to the full Bulls Talk Podcast right here: