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Prediction time: NBA champion, MVP, all of the top awards

Kurt Helin talks with Michael Holley about his NBA tiers, including if the Celtics can keeping things rolling without Ime Udoka and who will start making moves to secure the top lottery pick.

With the NBA season tipping off in less than 48 hours, it’s time to be wrong to put my predictions for the upcoming season on the record.

In a wide-open NBA season with a deep pool of title contenders, most of the awards feel the same way — this is going to be an unpredictable NBA season. Still, we’re going to try. So here are my predictions for the upcoming NBA season.

NBA Champion

Eastern Conference Finals: Bucks over Celtics
Western Conference Finals: Clippers over Warriors
NBA Finals: Bucks over Clippers

It’s been a quiet offseason for Milwaukee compared to its competitors, and with that, the Bucks have flown a bit under the radar. You know Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mike Budenholzer are just fine with that. This team won the title two seasons ago and might have returned to the Finals to defend that crown if not for Khris Middleton’s knee. The Bucks have the best player in the world in Antetokounmpo, a solid supporting cast, continuity and defense. There are just fewer questions about Milwaukee than any team out there.

Picking the Clippers is a bet on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George being healthy (as well as the Warriors just not coming through the way they did a season ago). Golden State has the roster to repeat, and the Nuggets and Suns must be considered. Still, I will take the versatility of the Clippers — they are 12 deep with quality rotation players, and Tyronne Lue is an underrated coach by many who will know how to use them.

Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP — for good reason. With Jalen Brunson having packed up and left for New York, Doncic will be asked to carry even more of an offensive load for the Mavericks. He will put up massive numbers, but can he lead the Mavericks to enough wins? The 76ers are going to win a lot of games, Joel Embiid is their best player and will not just put up MVP numbers again but will impact winning. Plus, after finishing second the last two years, there is a narrative voters will latch onto.

Others in the mix: Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry and, if the Nets win a lot, Kevin Durant. Nikola Jokic should be in this group, too, but to win his third MVP in a row it will have to be such an undeniable choice voters don’t have another option.

Defensive Player of the Year: Bam Adebayo (Heat)

There’s good reason to think Rudy Gobert could win his fourth DPOY — we grew numb to what he did in Utah and took it for granted, but now thrust into a new situation in Minnesota he could remind everyone what a force he is on that end of the floor. That said, I will take Adebayo and his versatility keeping the Heat defense near the top of the league. After watching him thrive the past couple of postseasons, voters are catching on to what Adebayo can do. Antetokounmpo and Mikal Bridges could also be in the mix, and Evan Mobley is a great long-shot candidate. (Robert Williams might have been the favorite to win the award, but after his latest surgery the Celtics big man will miss too many games.)

Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero (Magic)

It’s hard to pick anyone but Banchero, the No.1 pick should run away with this. He can get buckets, and he’s got impressive shot creation skills on a Magic that doesn’t have anyone else who fills that role nearly as well. Banchero is going to get all the touches he wants. Two long-shot candidates to watch based on seeing them at Summer League and in the preseason: Bennedict Mathurin of the Pacers and Keegan Murray of the Kings. Both will get a lot of run and are great fits with their teams.

Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Poole (Warriors)

Poole is the obvious choice, but the new $140 million man is primed for a huge season and the biggest obstacle to him winning the award is likely him starting too many games (because of injuries/rest for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson). Poole found his form last season and the Warriors are going to lean into him more this season.

I almost chose Malcolm Brogdon of the Celtics, but I just trust Poole more. If John Wall bounces back with the Clippers he could be in the mix, and same for Kevin Love if he continues to play well off the bench for the Cavaliers. Finally, Christian Wood is an interesting bet out of Dallas, he could have a monster offensive season.

Coach of the Year: Chris Finch (Timberwolves)

Erik Spoelstra has a real chance — people nationally are a little down on the Heat after a quiet offseason, but his teams always beat expectations. A top-3 finish for the Heat and Spo could get the hardware. But I will bet on Finch because the Timberwolves will win a lot of games and fitting Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns together with Anthony Edwards is not simple. It’s a wide-open field this year and a lot of quality coaches could be in the mix at the end: Taylor Jenkins in Memphis, Michael Malone in Denver, Willie Green in New Orleans and more.

Most Improved Player: Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers)

Always the most challenging award to predict because the very concept is the player who surprised us with the biggest jump in skills. Haliburton isn’t so much improved as just put in a better spot to showcase those skills on what will be an otherwise unimpressive Pacers team (looking to trade its other best players in Myles Turner and Buddy Hield). Other players to watch in this category, Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Maxey. (Zion Williamson is a betting favorite, but is he really improved or just healthy for the season?).