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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 offseason gone wild as league executives go into overdrive to compete with Golden State

NBA offseason gone wild as league executives go into overdrive to compete with Golden State

NBA free agency doesn't officially begin until 11 p.m. Chicago time on Friday, but league executives have already gone into overdrive in their race to create the next super-team to compete with the Golden State Warriors.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey hinted he had a big move up his sleeve last week, suggesting the Warriors "aren't unbeatable." Well, Morey unveiled that big move on Wednesday, rounding up a bunch of non-guaranteed contracts from all over the league to help him acquire Clippers' All-Star point guard Chris Paul before free agency even begins.

Paul met with Clippers officials on Tuesday, and basically told Doc Rivers he was going to sign with Houston as a free agent, so if the Clippers wanted to get anything for him, they better work out a trade right away. The return L.A. got in the 7-for-1 deal was hardly overwhelming, headlined by Chicago native Patrick Beverley and super-sub Lou Williams, and it showed once again how league executives are powerless if a star player decides he wants a chance of scenery.

Paul and James Harden wanted to play together, and Morey and his staff came up with a creative way to get it done. And, by all reports, Morey isn't done yet. The Rockets are hoping to swing a deal for either Paul George or Carmelo Anthony as a third star in the frontcourt, giving them a shooter's chance against the champion Warriors.

George is one of the biggest chess pieces being moved around boards in executive offices all around the league. Ever since George informed Pacers management he isn't interested in re-signing with the team, GM Kevin Pritchard has been searching for the best possible deal.

The Cavaliers would love to add George as the new third star on their super-team with LeBron and Kyrie Irving and send Kevin Love to the Pacers or to a third team that would provide Indiana with young players and/or draft picks.

Boston is hoping to trade some of Danny Ainge's treasure-trove of draft picks to bring George in, but only after they make a free agent run at Utah All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward, who played his college ball for Celtics coach Brad Stevens at Butler. Remember, making a trade for George carries a lot of risk, since he's eligible to become a free agent next summer and could wind up being a one-year rental.

George has told anyone who will listen he plans to sign on with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, but will new Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson get antsy with all the trade interest in George and try to bring him in now? Is it worth it for Magic to give up young players like Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson if he can just wait a year and sign George without giving up any assets?

We're already hearing reports of George trying to recruit Warriors sharp-shooter Klay Thompson to join him on the Lakers when Klay becomes a free agent in 2019. And, speculation continues about LeBron heading west to join the Lakers if the Cavs come up short of a championship again next season.

So many questions as we approach the start of free agency. Where will Derrick Rose end up after a fourth knee surgery? Will the Clippers be interested in bringing Rose in to play with Blake Griffin and keep Lob City going? And what about veterans like Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, George Hill, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague? What kind of market will they find with fewer teams having the kind of cap space we saw last summer?

And, where will Carmelo Anthony wind up now that Phil Jackson is out as Knicks President? Jackson might be the greatest coach in NBA history after winning 11 championships with the Bulls and Lakers, but it was clear the Zen Master was overmatched as a front office executive. Phil didn't want to travel to scout top college prospects, didn't stay on top of day to day roster moves around the league, and insisted on saddling his coaches with running an offense that didn't translate in today's game.

Maybe now Jeff Hornacek will be able to run his up-tempo offense that had some success in Phoenix instead of Phil's beloved triangle. But don't count on Anthony being a part of next season's Knicks team. Reports out of New York suggest the organization is still intent on dealing Melo, problem is that nasty no-trade clause that Phil gave Anthony on top of a $127 million contract back in 2014.

In the coming weeks, you can count on hearing all kinds of Anthony-related rumors. Maybe a trade to Houston, Boston or even Philadelphia. And, if Melo is able to convince the Knicks to buy out the remainder of his contract, look for him to join forces with LeBron in Cleveland for a shot at that elusive championship ring.

The Knicks may have rid themselves of Phil’s front office mismanagement, but their roster is still a mess with no easy solutions in sight.

The great thing for NBA fans is the buzz created by all the speculation. NBA offseasons are the most impactful of any sport since the acquisition of a star player can cause a major shift in any team's fortunes. Unfortunately here in Chicago, don't expect any free agent buzz this year, unless you're excited about the possibility of a Dwyane Wade buyout.

Bulls Executive VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear the Bulls are going in a new direction and will be patient and disciplined in their rebuild. That means no spending on veterans this summer as the front office keeps its power dry for some time in the future when the Bulls are closer to being a playoff contender again.

Player development will be the focus of the next couple seasons as Fred Hoiberg and his staff try to find out exactly what they have in young players like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne, Paul Zipser, Jerian Grant, Cris Felicio and Niko Mirotic.

Ideally, the Bulls will lose enough games next season to put themselves into position to land a top-3 pick in next year's top-heavy draft. Paxson talked about building a contending team through the draft, and that will require a lot of patience from everyone involved. Adding a Michael Porter, Jr. or Luka Doncic to a young backcourt of Dunn and Zach LaVine and a promising "stretch 4" in Markkanen could be the foundation of the next Bulls playoff team.

So, while the league's top teams engage in a massive arms race to try to close the gap on the Warriors over the next few weeks, all will be quiet in the city of Chicago. The buzzword for Bulls fans for the foreseeable future is PATIENCE.

James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

James Harden's decision making on full display as the MVP frontrunner slices up Bulls

As the Houston Rockets were putting the finishing touches on a rout of the Bulls, James Harden took a baseball pass from Patrick Beverley and had a clear path to the basket. Instead, the MVP frontrunner took one dribble and flipped the ball to a streaking Clint Capela, who flushed it home.

It was a situation Harden found himself in much of Friday night. The man who has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league was tasked with plenty of decision making. And as he's done the entire year - in his first season playing point guard - Harden made all the right calls as the Rockets picked up a 115-94 road victory.

Harden didn't light up the box score against a Bulls defense limited to Jimmy Butler and Jimmy Butler only as potential stoppers. He wasn't able to match the 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists he posted in Houston's victory over the Bulls last month. And he was more methodical than flashy, carving his way through the Bulls defense for 19 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists, his 33rd double-double.

But after an ugly start in which he committed five turnovers in his first 13 minutes - and watched the undermanned Bulls take a surprising 13-point lead - Harden was as solid as he could have been. Though just about every Rocket contributed to it, Harden's pacing of the Houston offense allowed for seamless transition buckets, 3-pointers and open layups off pick-and-roll sets. The end result was an unimaginable 72-28 run spanning the end of the first quarter to the end of the third quarter.

In that span Harden 15 points, six rebounds, eight assists and was a +30. He also committed just one turnover in the final 20 minutes of action, and his 13 assists created 32 points for the Rockets.

"James and I have pretty good chemistry. I know when he wants me to come set a screen or when he’s going to isolate or go to the basket on his own," said Ryan Anderson, who led the Rockets with 21 points and six 3-pointers. "We’re pretty much ready and prepared to spread the court around him and give him space to work and distribute. And for us we just want to make the best decisions."

Harden's ability to know when the flow of the game calls for him and his 29.1 points per contest to take over, or when his league-leading 11.2 assists need to help others involved, was on full display.

Late in the second quarter, after Dwyane Wade converted a three-point play to give the Bulls a one-point lead, Harden buried a pair of triples on successive possesions, with the latter becoming a four-point play after he baited Michael Carter-Williams into a foul.

Harden stayed aggressive in the third quarter, but with the Bulls keying in on him he became D'Antoni's distributor. He handed out five assists in various manners. First he found Capela on a pick-and-roll for an alley-oop dunk. Twice Anderson popped out off screens and buried triples. Later Harden drove and kicked to a wide-open Trevor Ariza (19 points), and he finished the quarter with a dart to Nene at the foul line for a 17-foot jumper.

"That’s probably his thing that we talk more about is him staying right in the middle in the sense of how much you score and how much you help the team," D'Antoni said. "You can’t do both, and it’s a fine line of some days it’s too much team and some days it’s too much 1-on-1. So he’s trying to stay right on that road in the middle where that’s how we win."

Friday he was clearly a distributor, as a sub-par Bulls defense struggled to keep up. Harden's 19 points were the second fewest he had scored in a month, and he only made five trips to the free-throw line, far less than the 11.0 attempts he averages per game. He picked and choosed his spots to score, and there weren't too many high-pressure situations for him to make decisions on in the blowout.

But it was yet another opportunity for him to build his skills and grow as a point guard. D'Antoni opted to make Harden the primary ball handler and point guard when he took over this summer. He stressed to Harden the importance of not worrying about turnovers - Harden leads the league with 6.8 turnovers per game - because of how often the Rockets wanted the ball in his hands.

Harden's made good on that. His usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in both assists per game and passes per game, showing that while he's finding open shooters he's also keeping the offense moving.

"You don’t really know how difficult it is to be the point guard until you’re really in it," he said. "I don’t really worry about the turnovers. I just go out there and try to make the right play and get everyone involved and play my game."

It's working for the Rockets, who are comfortably sitting in the No. 3 spot in the West. Already touting wins over the two teams ahead of them in the standings in Golden State and San Antonio, there's a belief their NBA-record 3-point shooting could help propel them to the Finals for the first time in two decades.

Harden has become one of the game's best passers, but in reality it's more fair to say he's one of the best decision makers. D'Antonio admitted that Harden's innate talent has made the transition a smooth one, and on Friday night it resulted in their 45th victory of the season as the playoffs near.

"James is also a guy that can (pass) and know when the right time for him to score is, too," Anderson said. "We trust his decision making, and he's just a superior player. What he’s doing, I’ve never played with anybody like that. I don’t know that there’s been many guys like that."