As the 2012-13 NBA season gets underway, the goal of every player should be to win the championship.
But before finding out who will raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy this season, there's a regular season to be played and individual awards to be won. And now that the owners aren't locking out the players due to pure selfish greed, all that will be decided over the course of 82 games.
Who will be the top rookie, defensive player and sixth man? Can LeBron James repeat as regular season and/or Finals Most Valuable Player?
Here's my answer and more.
Anthony Davis isn't just your run-of-the-mill No. 1 pick. ESPN's Chad Ford estimated that of all the No. 1 picks in the past 20 years, Davis would have been taken sixth, right before Allen Iverson and Dwight Howard.
Davis proved that Ford isn't a total quack this summer during his time with the USA Olympic basketball team. Admittedly, he only made the roster due to a slew of injuries to the NBA's other elite big men, but then spent nearly a month learning from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
That type of experience for a rookie? Priceless.
Davis can now come into training camp with no reservations about being a leader on his team, despite his rookie status. He might not be a fantasy basketball monster in 2012-13, but he'll establish enough of a tone on defense for the Hornets that he should be able to hold off any Rookie of the Year challengers.
Keep an eye out for: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats.
I'm picking Mike Brown for this award for one reason and one reason only: I'm expecting the Los Angeles Lakers to be really, really good in 2012-13.
With Dwight Howard reportedly on track to play on opening night, five months removed from back surgery, the defensive-minded Brown has a three-time Defensive Player of the Year at his disposal for a full 82 games. From all reports (ESPN and the Los Angeles Times), Howard has looked phenomenal in practice thus far.
So, between Howard and 7-footer Pau Gasol, the frontcourt defense is fortified. Metta World Peace came into training camp having lost 18 pounds, so he should be fit enough to serve as the Lakers' designated Kevin Durant or LeBron James stopper on the wing.
In the backcourt, the addition of Steve Nash frees Kobe Bryant to play more off the ball than ever before. If the thought of Bryant spotting up wide open for a corner for three doesn't drive fear into the hearts of opposing coaches league-wide, they're in the wrong profession.
There's no guarantee that the Lakers can develop the chemistry they'll need to win a championship. For Brown to win this award, the Lakers will need to win at least 60 games and earn the top seed in the Western Conference.
But unlike the Miami Heat experiment from two years ago, the Lakers' new additions all fit logically together. James and Dwyane Wade largely served the same roles on their respective teams before coming together, which led to frequent moments of awkward "you take it!" offense during their first year together.
The Lakers don't have that problem. Nash and Bryant can take turns handling the ball and spotting up for easy jumpers. Gasol and Howard can take turns bullying opponents on the interior while setting the tone defensively. And the Lakers' bench is much improved from last year, with the additions of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks.
For the Lakers and Brown, it's all there for the taking.
Keep an eye out for: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls; Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics; Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder.
While we're at it...let's just keep heaping praise on the Los Angeles Lakers and general manager Mitch Kupchak for the Dwight Howard trade.
Billy King of the New Jersey Nets took the early lead in the Executive of the Year race this summer by getting Deron Williams to spurn his hometown Dallas Mavericks and sign a five-year, $98 million contract with the Nets.
By that point in free agency, King had already traded for six-time All-Star Joe Johnson (and his $90+-million albatross of a contract), gotten Gerald Wallace to verbally agree to a four-year, $40 million deal and remained active in Howard trade talks.
Then, slowly but surely, the Lakers swooped in.
First, Kupchak convinced the Phoenix Suns to finally part ways with Steve Nash for a handful of draft picks, making the Lakers that much more appealing to Howard. By mid-August, a four-team blockbuster deal was consummated and Howard officially became a Laker.
Just by virtue of adding a two-time MVP and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Kupchak should win Executive of the Year. If that doesn't seal the deal, the bolstering of the bench with Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Earl Clark should.
Keep an eye out for: Billy King, New Jersey Nets; Rod Thorn, Philadelphia 76ers.
Anyone who paid attention to the Utah Jazz after the 2012 All-Star break knows why Derrick Favors should be considered a favorite to win Most Improved Player in 2012-13.
Per 36 minutes a game last season, Favors averaged 14.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. The 6'10", 250-pounder has the size and strength to hold his own in the post, which has allowed him to knock down nearly 65 percent of his shots in the lane over his two-year career.
Outside of the paint, it was a different story for Favors in 2011-12. He didn't attempt many shots from outside of nine feet (only 1.4 per game), but when he did, he shot 21.7 percent from 10-15 feet and 28 percent from 16-23 feet, according to HoopData.
Like most young NBA big men, Favors struggled with foul trouble in his rookie season, averaging 5.8 per 36 minutes during his time with the Jazz and the New Jersey Nets. Last season, he cut that rate significantly, only averaging 3.8 fouls per 36 minutes. That decline should only continue in 2012-13.
A frontcourt logjam is the only thing that could hold Favors back, as Enes Kanter, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are all vying for Favors for minutes. Jefferson and Millsap are veterans in contract years, which means Favors will likely start the year coming off the bench.
If Favors takes a third-year leap, however, the Jazz won't be able to keep him there for long. Expect the Jazz to make some trade noise before February with either Jefferson or Millsap to make room for a much-improved Favors.
Keep an eye out for: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs; Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons.
Like my Anthony Davis Rookie of the Year prediction, it's not exactly bold to predict a repeat Sixth Man of the Year award for Oklahoma City Thunder standout James Harden, at least on the surface.
Unless the Thunder and Harden reach common ground in the next few weeks, he'll be entering a contract year in 2012-13. With Harden reportedly seeking a max contract from the Thunder, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, he'll have all the incentive in the world to continue elevating his play this coming season.
Harden repeating as the award winner would be unprecedented, though, at least in the past two decades. There are only three two-time winners, according to Basketball Reference: Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf. Schrempf was the last back-to-back winner, in the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons with the Indiana Pacers.
While that history doesn't favor a Harden repeat, here's something that does: He just turned 23 and was on a team that came within three games of an NBA championship last season.
The bitterness of the Thunder's Finals defeat—especially given the egg Harden laid during most of that series—should only drive him to perform at an even higher level in 2012-13.
Harden spending the summer with teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the USA Olympic team should only help the Thunder get off to a running start. Don't be surprised to see Harden average somewhere around 20 points a game despite coming off the bench, which should make him the runaway choice for for Sixth Man of the Year.
Keep an eye out for: Jason Terry, Boston Celtics; Elton Brand, Dallas Mavericks; Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers.
You know by now that I have extremely high expectations for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13, and it really all starts with one man: Dwight Howard.
If Howard is as healthy as advertised and plays on opening night without any complications, he'll be the Lakers' defensive tone-setter from the get-go.
Pairing a three-time Defensive Player of the Year next to another 7-footer, Pau Gasol, just doesn't seem fair, even if Gasol does have the reputation (fair or not) of being "soft."
Gasol averaged nearly a block and a half per game in 2011-12 next to Andrew Bynum. Paired with Howard's career averages of more than two blocks per game, it's not unrealistic to expect four or five blocks per game coming from the Lakers' starting frontcourt.
Opponents will have significant struggles scoring inside against the Lakers as long as Howard stays healthy. He finally gives the Lakers an answer to the Russell Westbrook conundrum that's haunted them over the past two seasons.
No longer can speedy guards drive around the Lakers' slow-footed point guard platoon and drive with reckless abandon to the rim. Howard will have something to say about that.
Like Mike Brown's chances to win Coach of the Year, the Lakers will need to be at or near the top of the Western Conference for Howard to take home his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, but it's not difficult to see them doing so.
Keep an eye out for: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks; Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors.
Miami Heat fans, before you scroll down to the comments section to flame me, hear me out on this one.
It's virtual heresy to pick against LeBron James as Most Valuable Player in 2013. I know this.
Recently, I even said James enters the season as the 2013 MVP favorite, having won the award in 2012 with one of the most statistically dominant seasons in league history. As an encore, he then won an NBA championship, Olympic gold medal and a Finals MVP award.
With that championship monkey finally off his back, James now looks and sounds freer than ever. He could well post a ridiculous 35-10-10 season and prove me a complete idiot for betting against him as MVP.
I just can't help but shake the feeling that much like the 2011-12 season ended up being the Year of LeBron, 2012-13 will be the Year of Kevin Durant.
K.D. has led the league in scoring for three straight years (28 points per game in 2011-12), with a lightning-fast release and a 6'10"-in-shoes frame that make him essentially unguardable. Now, Durant comes into the season having "bulked up" over the summer, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, allowing him to play more at the 4 this coming season.
If there's anything we learned from last season, Durant at the 4 is almost as much of a nightmare matchup as James at the 4. And Durant easily possesses the shooting advantage over the reigning MVP.
This season, I'm expecting Durant to not only average at least 30 points and eight rebounds per game, but to continue expanding the other facets of his game, such as his assist totals and on-ball defense.
If Durant averages somewhere around 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game—not a stretch, considering he averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in 2011-12—James will need to post another statistically legendary season to hold off Durant and repeat as MVP.
Plus...voter fatigue, anyone?
Keep your eye out for: LeBron James, Miami Heat; Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers; Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers; Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves.
See? It's not all bad, Miami fans.
LeBron James may finish in second place behind Kevin Durant for the 2013 regular-season MVP, but here's guessing he'd gladly trade that for a repeat Finals MVP award.
The Miami Heat's road back to the NBA Finals for a third straight year won't be a cakewalk, as the Eastern Conference contenders only got stronger this summer. The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers all loom as challengers for the Heat, and the Chicago Bulls are lurking if Derrick Rose can come back from his ACL tear early enough.
There's only one problem for the rest of the East: Miami got better this summer, too.
The additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis provide the Heat with even more positional flexibility than they possessed in their championship-winning 2011-12 season. Neither Lewis nor Allen will likely provide much help on the defensive end, but their offensive contributions will take some much-needed pressure off James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
As long as the Heat have all three of their Big Three healthy for the playoffs, they'll be the favorites to make it through to the NBA Finals once more. Presumably, either the Los Angeles Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder will await.
While both teams would wage a slugfest with the Heat, James and company should have the upper hand against either. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Lakers' chemistry crumble during the Finals (a la the 2010-11 Miami Heat) if they manage to emerge from the West, and the Thunder would largely be relying on internal improvement to beat a team that won four straight games against them in the 2012 Finals.
It's James' world now, and we're all just living in it.
Don't be surprised to see the Heat repeat as NBA champions in 2013, with James taking home his second straight Finals MVP award.
Keep your eye out for: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder; Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers; Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat; Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers.