Highlander NBA Preview

Courtesy of NBA
Courtesy of NBA

This NBA season could prove to be one of the most memorable in recent memory, following former MVP Kevin Durant’s departure to join the Golden State Warriors. Despite this, not all is set in stone, so we take a look at the rest of the league and our predictions for individual awards.

MVP

Jon: Anthony Davis. If the New Orleans Pelicans can make it into the playoffs at all, it will likely be largely thanks to Davis. He absolutely erupted on opening night with 50 points, 15 rebounds and five assists despite losing to the Denver Nuggets. However, Davis does everything for this team but write the checks. He not only leads the Pelicans offensively with 47.5 points per game, but he also leads in rebounds with 16 per game, steals with three and a half per game and blocks with three per game. Davis can play multiple positions for the Pelicans and he can defend all five. Davis is ready to prove he is on the same tier as Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or even Russell Westbrook.

Christian: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has all the tools to be an MVP candidate. He’s on an elite team that will finish in the top three in the West. He produces offensively in an efficient manner, shooting 50.6 percent from the field in 2015, and has continued that trend for the first few games of the 2016-2017 season. On top of that, he is widely regarded as the best overall defensive player in the league. What else are people looking for?

Earl: Russell Westbrook. The departure of Durant has finally unleashed Westbrook. The man is a coin flip for a triple-double on any given night. Westbrook is likely to finish with a usage rate similar to his 38.37 percent usage rate in 2014. Leonard’s improved offensive abilities and consistent defensive prowess will provide an exciting battle as the season progresses, but Westbrook’s gaudy numbers and consistent triple-double threat just barely gives him the edge over Leonard. Expect over 30 points per game, eight rebounds per game and 10 assists per game for the otherworldly athlete.

Most Improved Player

Jon: Clint Capela. Now that Dwight Howard has found a new franchise to underachieve for, Capela is likely going to see an increase in minutes per game as well as in offensive touches per game. Capela has already proven that he can make adjustments to his game, coming off a rookie season in 2014-15 when he saw action in seven games, averaging seven-and-a-half minutes and shooting a whopping 17 percent from the free throw line. Granted, his free throw percentage is an abysmal 38, but at least Capela has matured his offensive ability with a 58 percent field goal percentage. If he continues to improve further offensively and become a reliable defensive anchor, he’ll be a major asset to the Houston Rockets.

Christian: Nikola Jokic. Jokic was an efficient, per-minute monster last season. He played only 21.7 minutes per game, but averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, 2.4 assists, one steal and 0.6 blocks per game on 51.2 percent shooting. Jokic’s moves are fluid and he has great basketball I.Q. on both ends of the floor, talents rarely seen in such a young big. Slated as the starting power forward for the Nuggets this season, Jokic is bound to produce some impressive numbers.

Earl: Devin Booker. Booker took the league by storm late in his rookie season and it doesn’t look like he’ll stop now. His offensive game is continually improving and Watson has given the young gun the green light. We’ve seen offensive stars with the likes of CJ McCollum, Khris Middleton and Rodney Hood embrace prominent roles utilizing their scoring talents. It’s not hard to expect Booker to average over 20 points for a Suns squad that looks to push the tempo with their loaded backcourt.

Coach of the Year

Jon: Alvin Gentry. Disclaimer: I’m basing this off the assumption that Anthony Davis wins MVP and that the Pelicans make the playoffs. This fan base and franchise basically recieved a gift from the basketball gods in Davis, and I believe he and Gentry want to establish this franchise as a contender immediately. New Orleans is a tough city, and Gentry will find a way to infuse that toughness into this team as it begins to build its identity.

Christian: Jason Kidd. Kidd has been able to get the best out of veterans since becoming Milwaukee’s head coach, along with developing young studs like Giannis Antetokounmpo. It takes time for young talent to fully acclimate to the level of the NBA, and this is the year that Kidd and the Bucks begin putting things together.

Earl: Brad Stevens. Brad Stevens’ emotional and intellectual relationships with his players has echoed through their play. Stevens found consistent contributions from role players Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. He has a formidable backcourt with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley while also unlocking the untapped potential of Jae Crowder. This Celtics team plays hungry and smart, but their development is closely aligned with the growth of Stevens. Stevens routinely brings the best out of his players, and it seems even injury concerns do little to affect the performance of this squad. Look for the Celtics to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this year.

Defensive Player of the Year

Jon: Kawhi Leonard. No disrespect to Draymond Green or Hassan Whiteside, but Leonard is going to repeat this award hands down. The San Antonio Spurs want one thing and one thing only this season: A ring. For them to do that, the Spurs are going to have to go through offensive juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers and Leonard is going to be the key to limiting the damage that Steph Curry and LeBron James can do. Leonard has already proved his mental tenacity on defense, averaging almost two steals per game last year and four per game this year. His physical tools, like his 7’3” wingspan, are paramount to him locking down number one players of all positions.

Christian: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is the best defensive player on what will most likely be the best defensive team this season. With great poise, a huge wingspan and solid strength and foot speed, he has also proven to be one of the elite perimeter defenders in the league. Even with players like Draymond Green and Hassan Whiteside putting up elite defensive numbers, voters’ fatigue should not deny Leonard his second straight DPOY recognition.

Earl: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has the tools to shut down any player, from point guards to power forwards. His defensive tenacity is matched with elite instincts and a very cerebral defensive system. Leonard has proven the ability to erase all-star talents such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Whiteside’s monstrous block totals will give Leonard a run for his money but don’t expect voters to deny the best defensive player in the league a repeat performance.

Rookie of the Year

Jon: Ben Simmons. The Philadelphia 76ers might not be a competitive team just yet, but Simmons and Joel Embiid can change that. Simmons is likely going to shoulder the brunt of the playmaking responsibilities and after a brief acclimation period to the league, we’ll start seeing why this kid drew LeBron James comparisons.

Christian: Domantas Sabonis. The son of Arvydas Sabonis — one of the best bigs to never show American crowds his prime — Domantas does not have quite the skill that his father does. He has a nice lefty touch inside 15 feet, and has an uncanny ability to position well on box outs using his feet. The Thunder will be competitive as well, giving Sabonis the opportunity to play at a recognizable level.

Earl: Joel Embiid. The injury-riddled big man has had a tough ride to start his NBA journey, but if his Twitter is any indication of his demeanor, we know Embiid will always find a way to smile. The Sixers should be applauded for sticking with their draft pick, as Embiid carries a higher ceiling than both Okafor and Noel. His injury concern will likely follow him until he retires, but his ever-improving offensive game combined with a mature understanding of defensive tasks displays scary potential for opponents.

Sixth Man of the Year

Jon: Andre Iguodala. The Warriors want to avenge last year’s finals heartbreak, and the only way to do that is with depth. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson cannot carry this team to a championship by themselves, and Golden State is going to make sure they don’t have to do it alone with Iguodala providing plenty of versatility off the bench.

Christian: Jamal Crawford. Crawford is a perennial candidate for this award, and the pool of players competing for this award should allow Crawford to run away with it this season. With a great handle and the potential to score like a superstar on any given night, Crawford should have another good year as the Clippers’ primary scoring option off of the bench.

Earl: Zach Randolph. The Memphis grinder has found himself in a bench role this year, but don’t assume his numbers to drop off dramatically. Z-Bo has a soft touch for a big, while showcasing the ability to grind in the trenches for rebounds and points. He will have a pivotal role commanding the bench for the Grind House this season.

NBA Finals Prediction

Jon: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. Run it back! There are literally gigabytes worth of memes about how the Warriors blew the 3-1 lead last year, how Durant and the Thunder also blew a lead and how LeBron James has stolen Steph Curry’s powers. All that aside, these two teams are going to be tuned to near perfection come June, and Durant will find a way to assimilate into the Warriors’ flow without drastically disrupting their play style. Golden State is now free of the pressure of last year’s 73-9 season and James and company are now feeling the pressure of repeating for “The Land.” Ultimately, the Warriors will likely overwhelm the Cavs with their offensive and defensive versatility, but I don’t think a single game in this series will be decided by more than a dozen points.

Christian: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. The Warriors and the Cavs were mostly unchallenged in their respective conferences last season, and there is no reason not to expect the third rumble between these two behemoths. With the addition of Kevin Durant, and the pressure of chasing a NBA-record 73-9 season behind them, the Warriors should avenge their devastating 2016 Finals loss with a second title in three years

Earl: San Antonio Spurs over Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. The Spurs have a bonafide MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Kawhi Leonard while adding prized big man Pau Gasol to counter the Warriors’ small ball approach. The Western Conference Finals should provide plenty of excitement, but expect the Spurs to take advantage of their size and elite perimeter defense against the Warriors’ high-powered offense. The Cavaliers will provide a different challenge, as LeBron James is simply an animal in the playoffs. The loss of Tim Duncan may have dealt an irreplaceable void. However, Pau Gasol’s presence along with Aldridge’s increased comfort presents a tough challenge for Cleveland’s small front court. I predict the Spurs will have the best record in the NBA, thus giving them the slight edge over the defending champs.

Darkhorse

Jon: New York Knicks. Before you preorder your “2017 NBA Champs” T-shirts, be aware that I don’t think the new-look Knicks are poised for a championship run, but I do believe they are equipped to surprise a few teams and win around 40 games. Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick Rose will help lighten the load on Carmelo Anthony offensively, potentially providing more energy to exert for a defense that will probably be anchored by Joakim Noah. Also, ‘Melo has shown great maturity this summer with his role on team USA and that will likely carry over into the Knicks’ locker room and motivate this whole roster to improve.

Christian: Milwaukee Bucks. After a year that left much to be desired, the Bucks’ young talent should mesh more smoothly now that they have had a year to establish their roles. With 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo set to handle the ball for Milwaukee this season and forward Jabari Parker finally coming into his own, the Bucks should be able to contend in the top heavy East, despite not being at full power to start. The Bucks’ second half playoff push will be fueled by the return of shooting guard Khris Middleton, who will remain out for a substantial period to open the season due to a torn hamstring.

Earl: Utah Jazz. This team is loaded with potential, but their success will ultimately depend on their ability to repeat their defensive excellence. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood can provide offensive sparks on any given night, with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert maintaining an imposing defensive presence. A trio of young point guards in Trey Burke, Alec Burks and Dante Exum gives the Jazz versatility in the backcourt. Quin Snyder preaches fundamental soundness both on the offensive and defensive end in order to limit mental breakdowns. With a young core and an impressive defense, the Jazz should surprise a lot of people this year.

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