2019-20 NBA Season Preview: Predictions for MVP, player awards
The NBA experienced an unprecedented amount of player movement during the 2019 offseason, and the Warriors are no longer the overwhelming favorite for the championship. Now that the hierarchy in the league has changed and both conferences are more wide open than ever, how will that impact the league's award races?
Chris Forsberg and A. Sherrod Blakely give their predictions for the 2019-20 NBA Awards, including who they think will win MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year... as well as some of our own superlatives.
Chris' Pick: Stephen Curry, Golden State
Giannis Antetokounmpo should probably repeat. LeBron James might go scorched Earth trying to prove the king still wears a crown. But we can't shake the notion that this is going to be a monster year for Curry. As our NBC Sports hoop guru Tom Haberstroh noted last season, the Warriors’ offense doesn’t miss a beat as long as Curry is on the floor. If Curry puts up big scoring numbers, keeps Golden State afloat without Kevin Durant and while Klay Thompson rehabs, all in the ruthless Western Conference), then voters will have to look his way.
Sherrod's pick: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The Greek Freak put up eye-popping numbers a year ago (27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists) in winning his first league MVP award. Guess what? His numbers will be even more impressive this year based upon two things: motivation and the make-up of the Bucks’ roster. The latter point will be the more significant factor as Milwaukee moves on without Malcolm Brogdon (Indiana), who was one of the more underrated impact players in the league last season. Look for Antetokounmpo to be even more dominant than he was last season when he averaged a league-best 17.5 points in the paint, which will be fueled by his usage rate of 31.4 percent being higher this season. Throw in the fact that most of the top contenders for league MVP honors have stiff competition not just across the league but also on their own roster (LeBron James with Anthony Davis; Kawhi Leonard with Paul George) and it opens up the portal of possibility that Antetokounmpo will walk away with the league MVP award for the second straight season.
Rookie of the Year
Chris' Pick: Zion Williamson, New Orleans
It’s Zion in a landslide here — as long as he’s healthy enough to stay on the court. If the Pelicans tread really carefully with his knee issues this season it might create a really intriguing competition for the honor. We like some of the longer shots: Coby White will be in the spotlight if the Bulls overachieve, while Tyler Herro looks legit in Miami (much to the chagrin of Celtics fans who watched him go one before they were on the clock). RJ Barrett, if not ruined by the circus that is the New York Knicks, is probably the best option behind Williamson. Michael Porter Jr., after a redshirt year last season in Denver, could be an interesting option as well.
Sherrod's pick: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
The only thing standing in the way of him winning this award is health, which is already a factor before the season has started. With him out of the spotlight for the first few weeks of the season, that’ll afford a number of players to get a jump on establishing themselves as the best first-year player out there. They’ll need the head start. Because once he starts playing, Williamson will quickly gain ground, showcasing an almost unprecedented combination of elite athleticism and power, which will be more than enough to power his campaign going forward to being the league’s Rookie of the Year award-winner.
Sixth Man of the Year
Chris' Pick: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings
We wrote up a whole blurb about how Lou Williams will win this award for the 47th consecutive season but we’re walking it back. Yes, Williams will probably score 20-ish points per game for a Clippers team that might be the best in the West, but he might also split votes with teammate Montrezl Harrell. So we’re going sleeper pick with Bogdan Bogdanovic, who averaged 23 points per game at FIBA while shooting an absurd 53 percent beyond the arc. Playing for his next contract, Bogdanovic puts up big scoring numbers off the Kings’ bench this season.
Sherrod's pick: Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic
The Magic’s disappearing act from being a lottery club to a playoff squad was fueled in large part to moving Ross from the starting lineup to being a key reserve. He will continue to thrive in that role because his strength — providing instant offense in a limited amount of time — fits in well with a clear and undeniable need of Orlando. Plus, there’s likely to be a bit of voter’s fatigue when it comes to Los Angeles Clippers super-sub Lou Williams, who has won the award each of the last two years, and three times overall. Others to keep an eye on this year include Williams’ teammate Montrezl Harrell who finished third in the voting last year; J.J. Redick in New Orleans, Boston’s Marcus Smart if he drains a few more 3’s and continues defending at an elite level; and Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, who would have been on the short list of potential winners last season if not for a thumb injury that sidelined him for more than a month.
Most Improved Player
Chris' Pick: Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
No player in the league is going to have an opportunity to make more of a statistical leap than Rozier, who averaged a ho-hum 9 points on 38.7 percent shooting overall last season. But the Hornets dumped a three-year, $58 million contract on him based on his 2018 playoff performance and — if he puts up those sort of numbers — 16.5 points, 5.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds — as a focal point in Charlotte, he’s going to be an obvious nominee for this honor. The only thing working against him: Voters probably won’t want to reward a player on a team that might only win 25 games.
Sherrod's pick: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could not have walked into a better situation for a young guard wanting to prove his worth in the NBA. With both Russell Westbrook and Paul George gone, Gilgeous-Alexander will be running the show in Oklahoma City for years to come. While still young, the 6-foot-6 wing has shown promise that with an expanded role — like the one he has now — he will deliver. In the months of March and April with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, he averaged 14.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 52.0 percent from the field and 50 percent (20-for-40) from 3-point range. With more freedom to expand his game without little pressure because expectations — outside the organization at least — are so low, Gilgeous-Alexander should thrive in this environment.
Defensive Player of the Year
Chris' Pick: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
The only thing that should ever prevent Leonard from landing this honor is an egregious amount of load management. Not only is Leonard one of the NBA’s most elite perimeter defenders but, in pairing with another elite defender like Paul George, the Clippers could be one of the best defensive teams in recent memory. If the Warriors struggle a bit more than usual on defense and voters hold it against Draymond Green, and voters can resist the typical urge to reward a big like Rudy Gobert, then Leonard gets the nod.
Sherrod's pick: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
This is going to be a tightly contested race all season long, simply because you have a handful of elite defenders whose impact is undeniable, which makes choosing one over another difficult. But here’s why Green will win the award over others such as Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard. Gobert has won the award each of the last two seasons. The only player in NBA history to win it three years in a row was Dwight Howard (2008-2011). And Leonard isn’t likely to win it because one of his chief competitors this year for the award is teammate Paul George, whose defensive prowess will take some of the shine away from what Leonard does. That leaves Green, an elite do-it-all defender who has shown the ability to hold his own in switching out and guarding smaller players in addition to having enough strength and muscle to defend bigs in the paint. And if the Warriors are to shock many and finish among the top three or four teams in the West, you can bet a good chunk of the credit will go to the job Green does defensively.
Coach of the Year
Chris' Pick: Mike Malone, Denver
Malone should have won this award last year. He’ll get it this time around by keeping Denver among the West elite despite all the teams loading up around them. Having an MVP-caliber talent like Nikola Jokic helps, too, but Malone legitimately deserves the honor if Denver pushes teams like L.A. that simply imported their stars rather than nurturing them on their path to stardom like Malone has done.
Sherrod's pick: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
This award typically goes to the coach who does the most with the least amount to work with, and there’s little doubt that the Celtics are not as good on paper now as they were a year ago this time. Despite all the internal strife from a year ago, that team still won 49 games and got to the second round of the playoffs. With improved chemistry and the East more wide open than usual, the Celtics could be the shock of the league in eclipsing the 50-win barrier and finishing with a higher playoff seeding than last season.
Most disappointing new addition
Chris' Pick: Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
Can we just call this the “Dwight Howard award” now? It feels like Howard should just carry the trophy to every new team he signs with. What’s hilarious is that the Lakers have already watched him earn this award once in L.A. and they’re like, “Hey, let’s try this again!” To be fair, expectations are now impossibly low for the still-only-33-year-old Howard. And yet he’ll still somehow be a disappointment.
Sherrod's Pick: Stanley Johnson, Toronto Raptors
The eighth overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft has never found a comfort level in the NBA. That’s not going to change now that he’s joined the defending NBA champion Raptors. The 6-foot-7 small forward was billed as a versatile defender whose perimeter shot-making could use some work. Thus far, his defense has been spotty at best. And his shot-making? He shoots 29.3 percent on 3’s for his career, shooting better than 30 percent on 3’s just once — his rookie season. No one expected Toronto to bring in the second coming of Kawhi Leonard, the NBA Finals MVP who is now with the Los Angeles Clippers. But the addition of Johnson won’t do much for the Raptors this season.
Chris' Pick: Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
Garland might very well be an excellent NBA player but he’s in a really tough spot to start his career. Not only is his team one of the worst in the league but they’ve got two young point guards battling for touches with (former #Netspick selection) Collin Sexton. It simply sounds like a recipe for discontent, at least in Year 1 for the No. 5 overall pick.
Sherrod's Pick: Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic
Drafted by the Magic with the 16th overall pick, Okeke will spend all season rehabbing from a torn ACL injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament last spring. While the Magic get props for coming up with a creative way to add the 6-foot-8 forward from Auburn while pushing back the start of his rookie scale contract, it doesn’t change the fact that Orlando will get zilch out of their first-round pick this season. Could he turn into a draft-night steal? Absolutely. But for now, he’s the only first-round pick that we know for sure will not do anything on the court this season to help his team.
Chris' Pick: De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Fox absolutely dazzled for stretches at Team USA’s mini camp in Vegas, so much so that it was a bit baffling that he didn’t make the FIBA roster. If Fox can dial down his turnovers, his ability to score, create, and wreak havoc defensively could put him into All-Star consideration.
Sherrod's Pick: De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
He came on the scene with Usain Bolt-like speed from one end of the court to the other. But in time, he has developed a better all-around game and was one of the most improved players in the NBA last season. His talent combined with more experience has him poised for a strong season that should be good enough to put in him the conversation when it comes to All-Star caliber guards out West. The Kings have to win more games, obviously. If that happens, you can bank on Fox being a big part of it by elevating the team’s play and in doing so, raise his level of stardom across the NBA landscape.
Coach on the hot seat
Chris' Pick: Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
Can you be on the hot seat before you even coach your first game with a team? In a league where there’s a surprising amount of job security to start the year, it feels like the Lakers are one five-game losing streak from LeBron James power-playing Jason Kidd into the head coaching spot. The only other strong option here is Brett Brown, who could be the fall guy if things don’t work in Philadelphia for any reason.
Sherrod's Pick: Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
I would love to go in a different direction with this, but it’s impossible this season for a variety of reasons. As widely reported, Vogel was not the Lakers’ first (or second) choice for this job, so there’s that. And while most agree he’s a good coach, it’s not a good look when your last two seasons as a head coach (in Orlando) delivered 29- and 25-win seasons, only for your successor to lead the same group essentially to the playoffs. And finally, LeBron James. We’ve seen him at odds in the past with coaches for a variety of reasons. Did we mention his likely successor (Jason Kidd) is already on staff, and Kidd’s hiring was not Vogel’s call (which is never a good sign). When you’re working with all this … we all know how that story ends, right?