Way-Too-Early Predictions for Every Major NBA Award Winner in 2014-15
Your crystal ball would probably need a crystal ball of its own to figure out who's going to lay claim to the NBA's most important superlatives in 2014-15. The season itself is still two-and-a-half months away, with another seven months or so after that before commissioner Adam Silver starts handing out any hardware.
But...well...there's not a whole lot going on in the basketball world nowadays, aside from FIBA tuneups, the official sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to tech tycoon Steve Ballmer and the occasional check-in on the free-agency stalemate of Eric Bledsoe.
That leaves yours truly with plenty of time in which to dig up however many crystal balls he needs to predict who the MVP will be, which rookie will rise above the rest and whether LeBron James might be eligible for Executive of the Year honors.
Until I find the proper equipment, though, check out these picks for the Association's top distinctions.
Executive of the Year: Ernie Grunfeld
Washington Wizards fans might bemoan the mere mention of Ernie Grunfeld in this realm, but given both his own accomplishments this summer and the shifting of the NBA landscape at large, his selection makes sense.
Marcin Gortat's new contract (five years, $60 million) isn't ideal, but it's well within the realm of defensibility, particularly in light of Gortat's contributions last season. Grunfeld did well to fill out the team's frontcourt with Kris Humphries on what's essentially a two-year deal and did even better to replace Trevor Ariza on the cheap with future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce.
In Pierce, the Wizards now have themselves not only a title-tested veteran and go-to scorer in crunch time, but also a mentor for Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr.—and the rest of the team's youngsters for that matter.
Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin would've gotten the nod if he'd actually been behind LeBron James' return and/or Kevin Love's impending arrival. Gar Forman could score some dap if Pau Gasol can still cut it at 34 and if rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott live up to the hype with the Chicago Bulls.
And let's not discount what Donnie Nelson has done (i.e. trade for Tyson Chandler, sign Chandler Parsons and Jameer Nelson, take fliers on Greg Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu) to boost the Dallas Mavericks back into the mix out West.
Still, if there's one executive who's (probably) done the most to tip his team's fortunes forward, it's Grunfeld.
Coach of the Year: Steve Clifford
David Blatt would be an intriguing candidate here, if not for the likelihood that the Cleveland Cavaliers' turnaround will be largely (and rightfully) credited to LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Instead, the Coach of the Year race could come down to two of last year's non-Popovich front-runners: Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford. Both did phenomenally well to turn around losing situations during their first years on the job with the Phoenix Suns and the Charlotte Bobcats, respectively.
Hornacek, though, might still be hard-pressed to push the Suns through the Western Conference morass and into the playoffs. Clifford, on the other hand, could have his revamped Charlotte Hornets among the top four in the East now that Lance Stephenson is on board.
That'd be quite the turnaround from where Charlotte was prior to last season—one for which Clifford would be more than worthy of recognition.
Most Improved Player: Bradley Beal
Guesswork is the name of the game for picking Most Improved Player, especially this early in the game.
Lance Stephenson and Chandler Parsons could both garner serious consideration in their expanded roles on new squads. Anthony Bennett is something of a default candidate here, if only because his rookie campaign was so terrible. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be in the mix if he pans out at point guard (or wherever he ends up playing) for the Milwaukee Bucks, and Andre Drummond could be extra beastly if the Detroit Pistons don't retain Greg Monroe.
But Bradley Beal could rise above them all in year three of his NBA career. The talented 2-guard broke out during the Washington Wizards' surprising playoff push this past season, averaging 19.2 points, five rebounds and 4.5 assists while nailing 41.5 percent of his threes in 11 games.
That added confidence should serve Beal well, as should the (admittedly limited) time he spent in training camp with Team USA. Another year alongside John Wall, with Paul Pierce sliding in on the wing, can only boost Beal's development into the All-Star striations of the stratosphere.
Sixth Man of the Year: Pau Gasol
If Dion Waiters weren't all but guaranteed to start for the Cleveland Cavaliers this coming season, he'd probably be near the top of the list of Sixth Man of the Year candidates. Jamal Crawford will be there, though becoming just the second to win it twice in a row (after Kevin McHale in the 1980s) and the first to do it three times in a career will be tough. Isaiah Thomas will get his shot at it, assuming Eric Bledsoe forces him onto the Phoenix Suns bench.
Whoever winds up the odd man out of the Chicago Bulls starting lineup would seem a strong choice at this point. Taj Gibson finished a close second in Sixth Man balloting last season while averaging 13 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks off the bench for the Bulls.
Gibson, though, figures to start now that Carlos Boozer is gone. Pau Gasol should have little trouble replacing Gibson's production as a reserve, assuming Chicago's newest resident doesn't score a spot in Tom Thibodeau's starting five. At 34, Gasol might be better suited to a smaller role, and if his arrival sparks an offensive revolution in the Windy City, all the better. As Ian Levy wrote for Vice Sports (h/t Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta):
Gasol gives the Bulls an opportunity to go even farther beyond the confines of what's proper and safe. For years, even with Rose healthy and attacking, their offense was as vanilla as it comes. It's time to move past vanilla, and let Gasol and Noah build a towering 38-flavor palace of decadent passing.
If Chicago's offense looks anything like that with Gasol subbing in for Gibson and Noah, the Spaniard's selection will be well deserved.
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker
The 2014-15 season could feature the most competitive Rookie of the Year field in years.
For now, Jabari Parker looks like the safest bet to come away with it. The Duke product put up 15.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while showing flashes of his NBA-ready game in the summer league.
The Milwaukee Bucks shouldn't be hurting too badly for scoring if Ersan Ilyasova performs more consistently, Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to grow and O.J. Mayo comes back in better shape. But none of those three figures to have the point-producing chops that Parker brings to the table, even at the tender age of 19.
Don't be surprised, though, if Andrew Wiggins turns his trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves into instant motivation, Julius Randle forges a starring role for himself with the Los Angeles Lakers and/or Elfrid Payton elevates the Orlando Magic out of the doldrums and himself into the awards discussion.
Defensive Player of the Year: Serge Ibaka
Serge Ibaka is to Defensive Player of the Year what Leonardo DiCaprio is to the Oscars: always in the discussion, but never quite the winner. Ibaka has finished second, third and fourth in the voting over the last three years while anchoring one of the NBA's best defenses.
It doesn't hurt, either, that he's led the league in blocks twice during that span and registered as one of the best rim protectors last season, per NBA.com.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's struggles in his absence during the 2014 playoffs should only help Ibaka's case, at least as far as early-season attention is concerned.
There won't be any shortage of competitors for Ibaka to outshine, though. Joakim Noah will once again be at the forefront of the Bulls' brilliant defense. Roy Hibbert could get some love if he's able to keep the Indiana Pacers afloat without Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Marc Gasol will be back in the mix if he stays healthy.
And let's not sleep on Kawhi Leonard, who could parlay his Finals MVP performance into a DPOY campaign on the perimeter.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James
The cases for LeBron James and Kevin Durant for MVP figure to be as close as ever this coming season. Durant unseated James rather easily in 2013-14, in part because of the Thunder's success in Russell Westbrook's absence but mostly because KD was a flat-out beast in OKC.
Barring another setback on Westbrook's part, Durant won't have that narrative driving his candidacy. Heck, with the way Westbrook played in this past postseason (26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists), Durant might have to worry about losing votes to his own teammate.
James, on the other hand, has already drawn up the outline of a story that sports writers (yours truly included) will be filling in and fleshing out from October until June. He already has a leg-up in the P.R. department for returning to his roots to not only save the Cavs, but lift up the entirety of northeast Ohio.
If he fulfills the former, by carrying Cleveland into the East's upper echelon, and puts up strong numbers in doing so, James should be well on his way to snagging his fifth MVP trophy.
And if we're willing to expand the definition of value here beyond on-court contributions, LeBron gets an extra bump for bringing Kevin Love, Mike Miller and James Jones (and possibly Ray Allen) to Rock City.
"I’m going to have to teach, lead and inspire those guys," James said during his first rap session with the media since signing with the Cavs, per The Associated Press (via New York Daily News). “But my No. 1 goal is to win the championship here. I think it would be the greatest achievement in my life as far as on the court. Hopefully it will happen. I’m looking forward to the challenge."
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