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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.

Pace, bouncing back, Holiday shines: Observations from Bulls-Bucks

Pace, bouncing back, Holiday shines: Observations from Bulls-Bucks

 

The Bulls picked up their second win of the preseason, topping Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks 114-101 Friday night at the United Center.

Here are three observations from the victory:

Pace, pace, pace: Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wouldn’t definitively say whether he wanted this team to lead the league in pace in terms of the advanced stats, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say being a top-five team is a micro goal.

With that said, they got up shots early and often, not allowing the shot clock to get in the danger zone many times.

Eight of their 10 first-quarter field goals were assisted and they finished with 30 assists on the night.

“We want to play with pace and draw two to the ball. Our bigs were much better, our space was much better,” Hoiberg said. “When you can collapse the defense, generally good things happened. We had a lot of good to great plays, where we had a good shot and turned it to a great shot.”

The great equalizer? Denzel Valentine hit four triples in the first half, and Nikola Mirotic hit three of his own. Over half the Bulls’ 23 field goals came from behind the 3-point line in the first two quarters, enabling them to score 60 points. They only hit three in the second half but the tone was set.

Valentine was perfect with his first five 3-point looks before missing his final attempt. He scored 15 off the bench. Mirotic matched him and added seven rebounds.

“Playing unselfish and open shots came,” Valentine said. “I shot confidently and made my open looks. The trust factor, we’ll keep gaining that.

“We all believe in ourselves and trust ourselves. If we have an open shot, take it. Sometimes we’re almost too unselfish.”

Bouncing back from a bad loss: No matter if it’s preseason, regular season or CYO ball, getting outscored 44-11 like the Bulls were in the fourth quarter Wednesday to Dallas is bound to shake a team’s confidence, especially one as young as the Bulls.

Seeing them play with a consistent and confident effort bodes well for a season that’s sure to have more than its share of lumps.

“I give our guys a lot of credit for coming in with a great mentality this morning with practice. Our guys went out there and got better,” Fred Hoiberg said. “I think it really bothered them the way the game ended the other night. They came in focused and had a great teaching moment and carried that over to a good session on the floor.”

The Bulls played with energy and competed, two things they’ll need in full supply this season to keep the fans engaged and hopeful this rebuild is going in a position direction. 

“We know we played uncharacteristic (Wednesday),” Valentine said. “We were taking shots that weren’t good shots. On the defensive end, they were doing whatever they wanted. It was right there for us, we gotta keep playing hard, keep playing together.”

Holiday: With Zach LaVine out until at least December, Justin Holiday is admirably filling in, being aggressive without being too thirsty with his shots and getting them into the flow of the offense.

Scoring 21 and looking for his offense, there will be shots to take and he’ll be glad to do so, which will be a necessity from the shooting guard and small forward spots no matter if LaVine is on the floor or not.

“The way Fred has been with us, play your game and take what the defense gives you,” Holiday said. “So we’re moving the ball to get a situation where we can attack or have an open shot. If you have it, you have to go.

“You don’t have to, but pick and choose your times. I’m the type of person where I’ll go. In attacking those slots, the ball will still move.”

Holiday recalled an instance where he caught the ball and swung it, then looked around to realize every player on the floor was a threat to hit an outside shot—not something that will happen all the time, but enough of an instance to see nights where the Bulls can be effective.

Being in this type of offense will certainly allow him to improve on that 5.7 career scoring average. No one should be surprised if it doubles this season.

“That’s something I’ve tried to work on, something I try to do, improving my game, moving forward in my career,” Holiday said. “This offense allows you to do that. It’s so many spots I can shoot, drive and open up things for other people.”

Battling for point guard spot, Kris Dunn dislocates finger and will miss multiple weeks

Battling for point guard spot, Kris Dunn dislocates finger and will miss multiple weeks

The Kris Dunn reclamation project hit a bit of a snag Friday night—literally and figuratively.

Dunn will miss at least the next couple weeks with an open dislocation of his left index finger in an awkward basketball play in the Bulls’ 114-101 preseason win over the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center.

Dunn was having his best outing of the preseason, playing confidently and assuredly before his progress came to a halt, as he’ll lose valuable time picking up the offense and learning to play with his new teammates.

With 8:53 left in the fourth quarter, Bucks guard Sterling Brown made a quick move to the basket for a dunk and foul on Bulls guard David Nwaba. Nwaba made contact with Dunn’s finger and it twisted in what didn’t look like a natural position.

Teammates squirmed.

“I saw it for a second, I had to turn away, I can’t look at things like that,” teammate Justin Holiday said.

“It was almost at a 90-degree angle,” said guard Denzel Valentine.

Fred Hoiberg said he could almost see the tendon on Dunn’s finger, thus explaining the “open dislocation” as the bone went through his skin.

Dunn writhed in pain as he immediately went to the locker room with trainer Jeff Tanaka. Unlike a normal dislocation where a bone can be popped back into place, Dunn’s wound will have to heal after stitches are applied.

If it sounds wrenching, it’s because it is.

“The first thing that will have to be done, Jeff Tanaka popped it back into place. But with the open wound it’ll be at least a couple weeks to get that healed,” Hoiberg said. “He’ll get that stitched up and have an appointment with our hand specialist tomorrow and go from there.”

If one is counting, it means all three participants from the Jimmy Butler trade are all out with injury—Zach LaVine is recovering from an ACL injury, first-round pick Lauri Markkanen is dealing with back spasms and now, Dunn with this injury.

It certainly appears Dunn will miss the season opener against Toronto, which is less than two weeks away, and for the eternal optimist, a game like this could’ve been a confidence builder for the season.

Dunn was aggressive in going to the basket, playing under control and hit his lone 3-point attempt in 16 minutes, hitting five of seven shots to score 11 points. With his outside shooting struggles well known, he took smaller Bucks guards to the midrange area, deliberately setting himself up for easy shots in the 10-foot range.

“Kris was unbelievable tonight. He was ballhawking on defense, getting to the paint, making plays,” Hoiberg said. “His shot was looking really good on that 3 that he hit on the right wing. He looked really comfortable out there.”

Dunn was a big part of the Bulls playing with pace and getting into their offense quickly as opposed to rushing shots, making his case to start opening night as he and Jerian Grant vie for honors.

“Just trying to get my groove. Yesterday was the most shots I took in a game, in awhile. It felt good,” Dunn said at the morning shootaround, speaking of his one-for-nine shooting performance against Dallas Wednesday night.

Grasping Hoiberg’s offense hasn’t been a problem for Dunn, as he’s trying to wash away the negative memories of a bad rookie year in Minnesota with a fresh start in Chicago.

“It’s a lot of read and react,” Dunn said. “Trying to get a good rhythm going into the regular season. I’m a competitor, they want to see that every day out of me. I have to bring that to the team.”

Now that recovery has been put on hold for one of another kind, and more will be known in the days ahead.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened in this game, it can happen to anybody,” Hoiberg said. “He’s gotta keep his spirits high as he goes through the recovery process and hopefully we’ll get him back before too long.”