By Jefferson Akers
After 6 months of withdrawals the 2018 NBA season is inching closer and closer. The 2017 NBA Awards Show was a huge success for the Association a season ago. Check out my predictions for the major individual NBA awards and the 2018 NBA finals below.
MVP – John Wall, Washington Wizards
The analytics revolution has made choosing the league MVP even more of an arduous task. I believe LeBron James is the MVP every year, but his excellence has become the norm and no longer seems to impress voters. Therefore, the ideal MVP candidate would have the right mixture of individual stats and team success, although I still don’t understand how team performance weighs so heavily on an individual award. John Wall is the straw that stirs the drink in Washington and is coming off a season where he was second in the league in assists and averaged 23 points per game.
The NBA’s most complete point guard was able to operate very efficiently and keep turnovers at a minimum, despite such a high usage rate. Just like all of the NBA’s elite point guards, Wall is comfortable attacking in both isolation and ball screen situations in the half court. The half court efficiency has manifested itself only in recent years but John Wall’s speed still makes him a nightmare in transition. It seems like John Wall has found the perfect balance between getting his own shot and creating for others, as evidenced by his numbers. At this point in time, his outside shooting is the only issue that needs to be addressed, as defenses often sag off of him to prevent him from using his speed to get downhill. With all the good John Wall does offensively, it is easy to forget that his athleticism and wingspan make him a legitimate candidate for the all-defensive team. Wall is very rare for a point guard in this NBA, as he consistently guards his position. If I am correct, the Wizards should finish as a top four team in the East again, and John Wall will add his first MVP to his resume, next June.
Other Candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving.
Rookie of the Year – Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Despite not being talked about as much as other members in such a highly touted draft class, DSJ is the best bet to take home this season’s Rookie of the Year Award. Smith Jr resembles a young Steve Francis with his play style and open court explosiveness. Out of the members of this rookie class, he is most well prepared to carry a scoring load at the NBA level.
Doubters need look no further than his performance against Duke in Durham for evidence of Dennis Smith’s offensive abilities. The Mavericks have enough shooting on the roster to space the floor and give Smith plenty of chances to get buckets at the rim. I also think pick and pop situations with Dirk will give him plenty of chances to get easy assists, to add to the stat sheet.
Similar to John Wall, the biggest question Smith Jr. must answer going forward is his outside shooting. In Summer League and Pre-Season, Smith’s jumper appears to have more touch and arc, along with more compact mechanics. Shooting will be the key factor in determining how DSJ adjusts to NBA defenses. Realistically, I expect Smith Jr to average in the neighborhood of 14 points and 5 assists in his debut season and take home Rookie of the Year honors in the process.
Other Candidates: Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk.
Sixth Man of the Year – Jordan Clarkson, LA Lakers
The Lakers new additions of Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will force Jordan Clarkson to come off the bench this year, which should bode well for both parties. In the past two seasons, Clarkson has only missed three games and was good for about 15 points per contest.
Luke Walton’s up-tempo offense will allow Clarkson to showcase his athleticism and utilize all of his combo-guard instincts. His ability to jump the passing lanes will also cause havoc on defense. Clarkson works with Drew Hanlen in the offseason, so he should come into this season much more refined from a skill standpoint as well.
Clarkson did struggle a bit with turnovers last season which is a little concerning, considering that he will have to run the Lakers second unit. Either way Clarkson should flourish in this new role for the Lakers, and I anticipate he will dethrone Jamal Crawford as the NBA’s best sixth man.
Other Candidates: Eric Gordon, Andre Iguodala, Jamal Crawford, William Barton, Marcus Smart.
Defensive Player of the Year – Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
A DPOY finalist last year ago with a net defensive rating of 100.6, The Stifle Tower should be able to secure the bag this season. Over the last two seasons Gobert has averaged over two blocks per game and fits the mold of a modern NBA center to a tee. For the most part, Gobert is effective when switching onto smaller guards in pick and roll situations.
Gobert makes good use of timing and his 8-foot wingspan to recover when beat off the dribble. At the rim he blocks shots and keeps them in bounds to start the fast break like Bill Russell, while altering countless more shots. This will be very valuable to the Jazz as backcourt members like Ricky Rubio are not known to be lockdown defenders.
Many of the NBA’s top offenses come from the Western Conference, which will give Rudy Gobert tons of chances to prove himself on the defensive side of the court.
Other Candidates: Avery Bradley, Hassan Whiteside, Nerlens Noel, Tony Allen, Andre Drummond.
Most Improved Player – Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
In years past, the Most Improved Player award has had some element of surprise to it. For instance, when CJ McCollum won the award his offensive output surprised a lot of people in the basketball community. Given the amount of changes to the Utah Jazz roster this offseason, I think Rodney Hood is in a perfect position to surprise a lot of people.
Utah will be without George Hill and Gordon Hayward, last season’s top two scorers and Rodney Hood is the best option to fill these scoring vacancies. Hood shares many similarities to Gordon Hayward offensively; both players are good three point shooters and are comfortable using screens as ball-handlers and for curls/flare catch and shoot action. These similarities suggest Hood should comfortably fill an increased scoring role, assuming he stays healthy.
The addition of Ricky Rubio will also make Rodney Hood’s life easier. Rubio is a pass first point guard and will take pressure off of Hood to create shots off the bounce. If I am correct, Rodney Hood is in for a big numbers increase this year and will help Jazz fans forget about Gordon Hayward.
Other Candidates: Myles Turner, Brandon Ingram, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Dion Waiters.
Coach of the Year – Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets seem poised to bring playoff basketball back to the Pepsi Center for the first time since the Carmelo Anthony/George Karl days. Malone’s coaching should play the biggest role in this as the Nuggets are not blessed with superstar talent. Despite their lack of a true star the Nuggets finished last season with the third highest scoring offense in the NBA, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
Their offense also traveled well, averaging only about 4 less points per game on the road than at home. This is an obvious testament to Malone’s offensive acumen. He was able to use Nikola Jokic in a point-center offensive role, which yielded great results. The Nuggets also ran very solid sets on offense with great use of screens and off ball movement.
Containing the offenses in the West is much easier said than done but this is where Denver must improve. The Nuggets were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA despite being dynamic on offense. The Nuggets will be in a tight battle with Minnesota, to vacate the playoff spots left by the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers. If they are successful, Mike Malone is a shoe in for COTY.
Other Candidates: Terry Stots, Tom Thibodeau, Brad Stevens, Ty Lue, Jason Kidd.
Executive of the Year – Scott Layden, Minnesota Timberwolves
Given the number of acquisitions that occurred this offseason this award could go several ways. Danny Ainge is a candidate that comes to mind as he was able to acquire Kyrie Irving but keep the Celtic’s young assets in tact. Sam Presti also deserves consideration, for trading for Carmelo Anthony and Paul George and signing Patrick Patterson. Ultimately I settled on Scott Layden for my pick because his decisions have put the Wolves in a position to end their 13 year playoff drought (the longest in the NBA).
Off-season acquisitions of: Jamal Crawford, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague should mesh nicely with the Wolves’ young core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns. On paper it appears Scott Layden has assembled a playoff roster.
Going forward, Scott Layden and the Minnesota Timberwolves’s management must address their salary cap situation. Minnesota currently has the fourth highest salary cap in the league, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers. This problem must be addressed ASAP, especially with Karl Anthony Towns’ rookie scale contract nearing its end. In one offseason the Timberwolves went from a lottery squad to a Western Conference Playoff contender, and for that Scott Layden deserves all the credit in the world.
Other Candidates: Danny Ainge, Daryl Morey, Sam Presti.
Comeback Player of the Year – Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Going into the 2016 season it was not too farfetched to say Khris Middleton was the Buck’s best offensive player. A hamstring tear caused Middleton to miss six months last year but with Jabari Parker out until 2018, Middleton will have some big shoes to fill this season.
Giannis taking over at the point on offense should be a big help for Middleton, as he hopes to bounce back from an injury plagued season. The help defense Giannis commands while attacking will create many opportunities for Middleton to do what he does best, shoot.
In fact, Khris Middleton has averaged close to 50/40/90 shooting percentages for his entire CAREER. Given that the role he will be filling matches his skillset so closely I think it is safe to say Khris Middleton is on his way to reclaiming his spot as one of the top wings in the East.
Other Candidates: Michael Beasley, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jabari Parker, Zach Lavine.
2018 NBA Finals – Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers, Warriors in 6
LeBron James hasn’t missed the finals since 2011 and all signs point to another collision with the Warriors for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. I don’t believe in ever betting against LeBron James but after watching the 2017 finals unfold, I don’t think the Cavs off-season moves will get them over the hump.
Cleveland has obviously added new pieces that will help both on the offensive and defensive end, but still do not have a legitimate answer to the duo that is Wardell Stephen Curry II and Kevin Durant. Even with Isaiah Thomas and DWade in the mix, the Cavs offense is still too prone to go on scoring droughts, a near death sentence when facing Golden State.
To further complicate things it is almost impossible to prepare for the plethora of ways the Warriors use screens. Golden State makes effective use of: high ball screens, drag screens, pin downs, back door screens, and the short roll to capitalize on opponent’s mistakes and get easy buckets.
Basketball is a game of runs and no team in NBA history has embodied this more than the Golden State Warriors, who should win their third championship in four years. That being said I do believe this year’s finals will be more entertaining than last, and should cap off a hell of a 2017-2018 season.