Ranking the Top 5 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award Entering 2015-16 Season

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterOctober 21, 2015

Ranking the Top 5 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award Entering 2015-16 Season

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    Crystal balls are mighty popular this time of the year in the NBA. How else are we supposed to peer into the future, with only preseason scrimmages to go on?

    Even all of the world's best fortune-telling tools can't tell us exactly what the league will look like in six to seven months, when the ballots will be cast for the annual round of individual awards. There's no predicting who will get hurt or who will come out of nowhere to take the Association by storm. Only a grueling 82-game season can decide all of that.

    So, rather than spend inordinate sums of time and money reading palms, tea leaves and tarot cards, let's lay out who the top five contenders are for each of the seven major honors ahead of what's shaping up to be an exciting 2015-16 campaign.

Rookie of the Year

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    5. Stanley Johnson, G/F, Detroit Pistons

    Competing for the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy is as much about opportunity as it is talent. Most rookies don't get to play prominent roles on their respective squads, so those who do have an instant leg up on the rest of the field.

    Johnson figures to be among the fortunate few. He's been the Pistons' starter at small forward since the third game of the preseason—a role he pushed for prior to learning where exactly he would land.

    "During my predraft workouts, I was very adamant about being a starter right away, because I’m a competitor that way," Johnson told Bleacher Report over the summer.

    Johnson's much more than that. The Anaheim, California, native also happens to be a 6'7", 245-pound block of granite whose frame and game resemble those of a young Metta World Peace.

    4. Karl-Anthony Towns, F/C, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Towns could have a tough time distinguishing himself from his first-year peers, given his situation in Minnesota.

    For one, the T-Wolves are loaded with young talent across the board, from Ricky Rubio at the point to Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad on the wings to Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne and Nemanja Bjelica up front. The middle won't be any less crowded with Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic pining for minutes.

    Despite all that competition, Towns' talent alone may be too much to deny. As Grantland's Andrew Sharp wrote during the Las Vegas Summer League: "I watched Karl-Anthony Towns defend, pass, turn in for easy hook shots, step into jumpers, and move like all of this is completely natural. At some point I started wondering, When was the last time we had an ass-kicking center who could just do everything?"

    Towns may not dominate his fellow first-years in any particular category, but his overall contributions could combine to give him tremendous clout in the Rookie of the Year race.

    3. D'Angelo Russell, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

    What do Kobe Bryant's late-career renaissance, Jordan Clarkson's growth into a cornerstone and Julius Randle's emergence as a frontcourt force have in common? They're all tied to Russell.

    The Ohio State product will be charged with spearheading the Lakers offense, be it in head coach Byron Scott's half-court sets or on the break. To that end, Russell already seems to know what his new gig will require of him.

    "If you're open, I'm going to get it to you," he said after L.A.'s preseason game against Maccabi Haifa, during which he racked up 11 assists, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan. "Half the time, you probably won't know you're open."

    The other half the time, you won't know Russell's a Rookie of the Year contender until you see his name pop up in the league-wide assist standings.

    2. Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Denver Nuggets

    Mudiay couldn't have asked for better ROY-caliber circumstances with the Nuggets if he'd come up with them himself. Denver traded away Ty Lawson, its incumbent point guard, over the summer and will now hand the rookie the keys to a fast-paced offense under new head coach Michael Malone.

    The team has already surrounded its young floor general with the sorts of shooters (Danilo Gallinari, Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Gary Harris) and finishers (Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Jusuf Nurkic) he'll need to turn the Nuggets back into a point-scoring machine.

    For his part, Mudiay (6'5", 200 lbs) is much more prepared for the job than the typical 19-year-old. As far as point guards go, he's a physical specimen capable of overpowering smaller guards and blowing by bigger defenders. He's more mature than most players his age, too, after spending last season in China.

    Not that Mudiay's game is without blemishes. As one scout told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, "With him having the keys to the car, they're going to have to deal with his mistakes. He needs to improve his shot, but it's not broken where he won't be able to shoot. When he really learns how to play and the other guys learn how to play with him, he could be special."

    1. Jahlil Okafor, C, Philadelphia 76ers

    The same formula that made Michael Carter-Williams the Rookie of the Year two seasons ago could put Okafor in the driver's seat this year. Like MCW, the Duke product will get all of the touches his heart desires (and all of the ones it doesn't) as one of the few viable offensive options for the 76ers. Since the organization isn't trying to win just yet, the higher-ups in Philadelphia will be happy to let Okafor work through his growing pains throughout the campaign.

    There will be plenty of those to go along with a slew of encouraging moments. For all of the concerns about his not-so-svelte frame (6'11", 275 lbs) and middling athleticism, Okafor's footwork and bag of tricks in the low post should allow him to score over or around most defenders, youngsters and veterans alike.

    The Sixers will stink once again, but their lack of talent could be just what Okafor needs to feed his game and take home a trophy of his own at season's end.

Most Improved Player of the Year

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    5. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

    It might not be fair (or wise) to include Gobert here. The Stifle Tower finished a distant third in MIP voting last season, after seemingly single-handedly turning Utah's defense into a destroyer of Spaldings after the All-Star break.

    Gobert's own leap in production justified that consideration, as well:

     MinsPtsFGA FG%RebsAstBlksTOsPFs
    Pre-All-Star21.96.94.2.6297.31.12.21.12.2
    Post-All-Star34.411.17.0.57613.41.82.61.82.1

    Hence, the bar is already pretty high for Gobert. But if the 23-year-old continues to improve, both in his own capacities and as a key cog for the fast-improving Jazz, he'll be right in the mix for this nebulous piece of hardware.

    4. Marcus Smart, PG, Boston Celtics

    I know, I know: It's lame to say a second-year player will be the NBA's most improved. After all, as the late, great Al McGuire once quipped, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores."

    That is to say, they improve if only because that's what young players acclimating to a new level of basketball are supposed to do.

    That being said, Smart's rise could be unusually dramatic, given both his rookie struggles and the organization for which he plays. The Oklahoma State product missed 15 games last season and shot just 36.7 percent from the field (33.5 percent from three) when he did play.

    Even so, Smart looks like the Boston Celtics' best bet to break out as a true franchise cornerstone. Should that revelation come this season, Smart will get plenty of play as the 21-year-old who might restore one of the NBA's marquee brands.

    3. C.J. McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    If you tuned out the Blazers after Wesley Matthews' Achilles snapped last season, you missed out on McCollum's scintillating sneak preview. During a seven-game stretch to start the month of April, the Lehigh product averaged 17.3 points on 55.8 percent shooting (44 percent from three) in 28.2 minutes a night.

    That hot streak carried into Portland's brief postseason appearance. The Memphis Grizzlies made quick work of the Blazers, but they couldn't slow down McCollum, who averaged an outstanding 25.7 points on 60.9 percent shooting (64.7 percent from three) across Games 3, 4 and 5.

    He'll have every opportunity to prove his late flourishes were no flukes. With Matthews and Arron Afflalo gone, McCollum is slated to start at shooting guard next to Damian Lillard.

    And if he needs to play the point in a pinch, McCollum can call upon the wisdom offered to him by future Hall of Famer Steve Nash this past summer.

    "Working with Steve Nash helped me slow down the game some more, helped me understand pick-and-rolls and how point guards think," McCollum told the Oregonian's Mike Richman. "Having the ability to manipulate guys with your eyes, use your body to hold guys off and then just make the proper reads."

    2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

    There were few, if any, days off for Antetokounmpo over the summer. When he wasn't training on his own or representing the NBA in Africa, the Greek Freak was busy hamming it up on behalf of his national team at EuroBasket 2015.

    That experience should serve Antetokounmpo well, if for no other reason than that the 20-year-old still hasn't played a ton of basketball compared to even his younger peers.

    Despite that, Antetokounmpo has the tools to emerge as a star for the Milwaukee Bucks in the not-so-distant future. Now, head coach Jason Kidd appears prepared to let his youngster launch from long range again, after limiting him to 0.5 three-point tries per game in 2014-15.

    "I think I’ll be allowed to shoot the 3-point shot this year," Antetokounmpo told Bucks.com's Truman Reed. "I think it’s going to take my game to the next level by bringing the defensive guys so far out there. It will allow me to go to the basket and score or create for the other guys." 

    1. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards

    Beal's been blessed with All-Star-caliber talent since well before the Wizards made him the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft. Like Jimmy Butler, the reigning MIP, the St. Louis native seems poised to truly break out in year four of his pro career.

    Health figures to play a huge part in boosting Beal's stock. He's missed an average of 18 games through his first three NBA seasons but claims to be "100 percent" fit heading into the 2015-16 campaign.

    The other big factor for Beal? Shot selection. With help from longtime trainer Drew Hanlen, Beal spent the summer focusing on ways to trade in mid-range jumpers for higher-percentage looks.

    "I have to do as much as I can as best as I can to eliminate those long twos and get to the basket, get to the free-throw line," he told Bleacher Report. "Those are just easy points."

    Beal's keener eye for quality looks will be all the more important as he looks to take over the clutch shooting duties Paul Pierce previously assumed.

Sixth Man of the Year

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    5. Jamal Crawford, SG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Crawford, 35, started to show his age last season. His scoring (15.8 points) and shooting numbers (39.6 percent from the field; 32.7 percent from three) all dipped to new lows for his Clippers tenure amid a rash of injuries.

    Holding onto his spot as L.A.'s top bench scorer won't be easy this season, not with the likes of Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Austin Rivers and Josh Smith competing for touches—not to mention all that'll go into those guys getting acclimated with one another.

    "We have a whole new group," Crawford said after a recent shootaround. "Sometimes, it's weird just getting one person in to be acclimated...so imagine a whole group."

    Crawford, though, could be the leader of that group, and as a two-time Sixth Man winner, he will always have the defense on edge when he comes into the game.

    4. David West, PF, San Antonio Spurs

    West could've earned about $12 million this season continuing as a cornerstone of the Indiana Pacers' frontcourt. Instead, the two-time All-Star will earn the veteran's minimum from the Spurs as the league's most overqualified second-string power forward.

    To hear West tell it, this was practically his destiny. As he told USA Today's Sam Amick:

    I’ve been a Spurs fan my whole life, and having an opportunity and wanting to learn from (Tim) Duncan and Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker) and obviously Coach (Gregg) Popovich and all his knowledge, I just felt like it was a good environment, and it was the best environment.

    If West fits as seamlessly into San Antonio's selfless system as his talent and attitude suggest he will, he could replace the aging Manu Ginobili as the Spurs' leading sixth-man candidate.

    3. Andre Iguodala, G/F, Golden State Warriors 

    Speaking of overqualified reserves, Iguodala's the only one in the NBA with a Finals MVP trophy on his resume. He practically saved the Warriors' bacon when he replaced Andrew Bogut in Steve Kerr's starting five and started wreaking havoc against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Granted, coming to the rescue as a starter in a seven-game series is far different from coming off the bench during an 82-game slog. Iguodala's first stab at that role last season was uneven at best: 7.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists, with 466/.349/.596 shooting splits.

    Perhaps year two in that role will go more swimmingly for the Arizona product. So far, Iguodala seems more at peace with it than he was a year ago.

    "You learn how to embrace (the role), and when you embrace things, things tend to work out in your favor," he told USA Today's Sam Amick. "I’ve been through (playing sixth man) for a year; (I) understand it a trillion times more than last year. Definitely more comfortable. I’m actually looking forward to it."

    2. Nikola Mirotic, F, Chicago Bulls

    Mirotic has spent the preseason as one of Fred Hoiberg's five starters. That figures to change once Mike Dunleavy Jr. recovers from his recent back surgery.

    Until then, the 6'10" Mirotic will get to show off the wily repertoire that made him a late contender for rookie of the year, when he averaged 17.7 points and 6.3 rebounds from March onward.

    And if Mirotic does, in fact, return to the bench, he might be in even better position to pile up points as a versatile shooter and deceptively capable driver in Hoiberg's free-flowing offense.

    1. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics

    Last season, Thomas practically propelled the Celtics to a surprising postseason berth. The diminutive point guard from Tacoma, Washington, averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists in 21 games, with Boston posting a record of 14-7 therein.

    Assuming Marcus Smart starts for the C's this season, Thomas will once again be Brad Stevens' first choice off the bench. Regardless of his role, he'll be ready to flash his new slew of one-footed shots, with Stevens' fervent support. As Stevens told ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg:

    It's great. Hey, creative players have to make creative plays. If you’re 5'9" or 5'10", and if you’re the kinda scorer that he is, if you’re going to draw a ton of attention like he does, traditional is not going to work. So just because somebody says it’s untraditional or just because somebody deems it to be unsolid or whatever the case may be, the great players have those plays in their game.

Defensive Player of the Year

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    5. Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors 

    Green mounted a strong case for DPOY that ultimately fell 16 points short of first place. He was at once a mascot for and the most important piece of the Warriors' switching, suffocating defense. 

    Green's biggest impediment to taking home the award may once again be his teammates. Andrew Bogut is still one of the best defensive bigs in basketball, despite his no-show in the 2015 Finals. Andre Iguodala, the player who replaced Bogut in Steve Kerr's starting five against Cleveland, is a top-notch perimeter defender. So are Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston.

    None of this should diminish the Michigan State's product defensive brilliance. But being the engine driving a defense isn't always the same as being the one to dominate to an award-winning extent.

    4. Serge Ibaka, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Ibaka is to the DPOY what Jim Kelly was to Super Bowls in the early 1990s: always a groomsman, but never the groom. Before his injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign, the Congo native had finished among the top four in ballot points for the prestigious award three years in a row. Each time, he was also named first-team All-Defense.

    This season, Ibaka will have a whole new challenge on his hands. He'll have to share the OKC frontcourt with Enes Kanter, one of the worst defenders among NBA bigs. If Ibaka can cover for Kanter's deficiencies and keep the Thunder's defense humming at a top-five clip, he'll have as strong of a case as ever to be the belle of the DPOY ball.

    3. Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

    If you were trying to make a bigger, better Bruce Bowen in a lab, you'd probably end up with a player just like Leonard. Last season, the 24-year-old wing became the first non-big to be named DPOY since Ron Artest took home hardware on behalf of the Indiana Pacers in 2004.

    Leonard's feat was all the more impressive since he earned it during a season in which he missed 18 games. So far, he's managed to avoid the setbacks that hampered his performance to start the 2014-15 campaign. If he can stay healthy and continue to dominate opposing players with his quick feet and massive mitts, Leonard could be the first player to defend his defensive title since Dwight Howard did it twice, in 2010 and 2011.

    2. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

    The Jazz weren't just the NBA's best defensive team after the All-Star Game last season; the leap they made before and after the break was the largest of any team in a non-lockout campaign since 1996-97, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton.

    The chief culprit behind that change? Gobert, of course. The Stifle Tower replaced Enes Kanter, one of the league's weakest frontcourt defenders, after the trade deadline and immediately turned Utah's defense, once a devastating weakness, into a clear strength.

    If Gobert can come close to replicating his individual production (13.4 rebounds, 2.6 blocks post-break) and team-wide effect over the course of a full season, he should finish much higher than fifth in DPOY voting, like he did in 2014-15.

    1. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

    Jordan has emerged as one of the league's premier rim protectors since Doc Rivers arrived in L.A. Last season, the Houston native led the NBA in rebounding, ranked fifth in blocks per game and, for his efforts, was named to the All-Defensive First Team at center.

    Those accomplishments alone put Jordan in the running for DPOY. They were also enough to make him the players' choice as the league's "Best Defender."

    But the fact that the unit he captained was merely middle-of-the-pack in defensive efficiency made it difficult for him to compete with Leonard and Green, both of whom played for top-three defenses.

    If Jordan keeps doing what he's been doing and the Clippers around him do a better job of tracking their marks, the seven-footer could leave his controversial summer in the dust with a hefty piece of hardware.

Executive of the Year

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    5. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

    Three years ago, Ujiri took home this award on behalf of the Denver Nuggets. He'd managed to turn the supposed death sentence of a superstar's trade demand into a new lease on life for the Nuggets as a fast-paced, egalitarian outfit.

    Ujiri has yet to pull off anything quite so dramatic in Toronto. What he did do this summer, though, was retool the Raptors roster in a big way. After watching his team slip to 23rd in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com, and fall in four games to the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs, Ujiri spent the offseason loading up on stoppers.

    Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph were nice additions to the bench, but they paled in comparison to the coup that was DeMarre Carroll—the second major signing for the Raptors in as many summers, following Kyle Lowry's return to Toronto in 2014.

    Despite those additions, the Raptors figure to have a tough time improving upon last season's 49 wins, which, in turn, could make it difficult for Ujiri to boost his own awards stock.

    4. Pat Riley, Miami Heat

    Riley will only be in the running here if his fellow executives consider the apparent home runs he hit during the 2014-15 regular season. Between Hassan Whiteside's emergence in December and Goran Dragic's arrival in February, Riles did plenty to pad his stacked resume in the span of just three months.

    He wasn't about to win any awards after his team slumped into the lottery in the wake of LeBron James' departure and Chris Bosh's season-ending diagnosis of blood clots. But if the Miami Heat's projected starting five fares as fabulously in reality as it does on paper, Riley could get the retroactive votes he needs to snag his second EOY. 

    3. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

    Rivers already has a Coach of the Year trophy on his mantel. After the summer he had, the Clippers' basketball boss might have to make way for another accolade.

    DeAndre Jordan's shocking about-face stole the headlines, but the real story of L.A.'s offseason is what Rivers was able to do with the rest of his roster. Despite having little more than the mini-mid-level exception and veteran's minimum contracts with which to rework his squad, Rivers managed to bolster his bench by trading for Lance Stephenson and signing Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson and Pablo Prigioni.

    "This is clearly the most talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here," Rivers said at Clippers media day. "I don’t even think it’s close."

    And if the Clippers win more than they ever have, his competition in the awards race won't be any closer.

    2. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

    Morey is the Rodney Dangerfield of NBA GMs: He can't get no respect. He finished third in Executive of the Year voting in 2012-13, after stealing James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He's failed to so much as sniff those heights since then, despite signing Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013 and reloading his roster on the fly throughout the 2014-15 campaign.

    Morey's latest offseason was marked by yet another potential stroke of genius. He managed to snag Ty Lawson from the Nuggets in exchange for a lottery-protected first-round pick and a slew of salary fillers.

    And if/when Lawson's backcourt partnership with Harden sparks the Rockets to a pristine record in the Western Conference...Morey will probably still be left short on respect from his peers.

    1. R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs

    Buford won this award in 2014 and, like Gregg Popovich in Coach of the Year voting, should be a candidate every year with the work he does to keep the Spurs at the top, year in and year out. But the kind of summer San Antonio had in 2015 was unusually fortuitous, even for the five-time champions.

    The team made up for previous misses in free agency (see: Jason Kidd in 2003) in a hurry by luring LaMarcus Aldridge and David West away from Portland and Indiana, respectively. In doing so, Buford assured the Spurs would remain potential title contenders for at least the next half-decade, pending Tony Parker's decline, Kawhi Leonard's rise and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili's impending retirements.

    That in itself should be enough to cement Buford as the best of his peers for about as long.

Coach of the Year

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    5. George Karl, Sacramento Kings

    The Kings have the potential to be a fascinating soap opera masquerading as a basketball team this season. Between the volatile cocktail of personalities—particularly those of DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo—the expectations to end a nearly decade-long playoff drought and the stiff competition out West, any coach would have his or her work cut out for him or her...and then some.

    Karl could tip the scales either way. On the one hand, he has a strong personality of his own that he's been known to throw around as a means of pulling strings within a given organization. On the other hand, he's also a darn good coach, with a Coach of the Year award already in his collection and just 13 wins separating him from Phil Jackson for fifth all time.

    Should Karl succeed in draining Sacramento's basketball swamp, he'll deserve at least some consideration for his second COY honor.

    4. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors

    Kerr came close to snagging the Red Auerbach Trophy following his first season on the job at Golden State. He fell just 42 points shy of Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, despite turning the Warriors into a 67-win juggernaut in no time flat.

    Topping last season's roaring success will be tough for Kerr. However long it takes him to recover from complications with his offseason back surgeries, his squad will be up against a whole new gauntlet of challenges in 2015-16.

    For one, the Warriors will have a bull's-eye on their backs from the jump. Their young core, talented and wise beyond its years though it may be, will have its maturity and moxie put to the test in what figures to be an arduous title defense.

    Still, several of Golden State's players have insisted that this team "will be even better" in year two of Kerr's regime. Any material improvement over last season's outstanding showing would have to put Kerr in the mix for his own award.

    3. Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans

    Gentry could have the same effect in New Orleans that his old boss had in the Bay Area. Like Kerr's Warriors, Gentry's Pelicans will be coming off a first-round playoff ouster, with an MVP candidate (Anthony Davis) on board, with questions about playing style and roster health still to be answered.

    New Orleans figures to have a tough time adding much to last season's 45 wins. The Western Conference, as crowded as it is with legitimate contenders, won't afford the Pelicans much wiggle room.

    If Gentry can push his club past 50 wins, in spite of that, he'll have a strong case to make for Coach of the Year in his 13th season in such a role.

    2. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks

    In pretty much any other year, Kidd's quick turnaround of the Bucks—from a league-low 15 wins in 2013-14 to a respectable 41 last season—would've been enough for him to run away with the Coach of the Year award like a dish with a spoon. Instead, he finished a distant third, behind Budenholzer and Kerr.

    Kidd could get his due this time around. The Bucks will be looking to take that all-important next step in the Eastern Conference. Even with the addition of experienced talent like Greg Monroe and Greivis Vasquez, this squad remains exceedingly young and, as such, ripe for backsliding.

    Kidd figures to have a heavy hand in determining whether or not that's the case. It could sink while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams work through their remaining growing pains.

    Or, the Bucks could continue to swim on the strength of their defense, beef up their offense a bit and come close enough to 50 wins to make Kidd a hardware contender.

    1. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder

    There are certainly safer choices for coach of the year who deserve as much consideration as Donovan does, if not more so. Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder and Kevin McHale have all done bang-up jobs in their respective stops and will all be looking to push their teams to the next level in 2015-16.

    Donovan, on the other hand, will be coaching against the ghost of Scott Brooks, who had the Thunder performing at or around a 60-win clip seemingly every season Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were (mostly) healthy. To that end, getting OKC back into the West's upper echelon would look more like a return to the old rather than a new dawn for the team under Donovan.  

    What if Billy D. really is the coach to put OKC over the top? What if he's able to unleash this Thunder roster to a degree that Brooks never did? What if Durant, Westbrook and company storm to the best record in the NBA and look like gangbusters in the process?

    Would there be any denying Donovan the award then?

Most Valuable Player

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    5. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

    If defending a title is the hardest thing to do in the NBA, Curry's 2015-16 season could be doubly difficult. In addition to the team-wide target he'll have on his back after winning a championship, the league's reigning MVP will have to fend off other players—particularly those at his position—looking to seize his real estate atop the basketball landscape. 

    Not that Curry isn't equal to the task. Rather than rest on his laurels, he spent the summer trying to "get more explosive, with creating space," as he told NBA.com's David Aldridge

    That should leave the rest of the league shaking in its boots. If Curry could drain an NBA-record 286 threes last season, imagine how many good shots he'll be able to create (and knock down) with a more efficient dribble.

    4. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

    Harden, not Curry, was the players' choice to be MVP last season. Through all of the injuries that plagued the Rockets, the Beard was the one constant, snaking his way either to the cup or the free-throw line when he wasn't busy launching threes or finding his teammates for open looks.

    This time, Harden is looking to do even more. "You don't think I can do more?" he asked NBA.com's Fran Blinebury. "Just wait. I'll show you."

    Except, what he shows us this season could be a very different Harden. He won't have to run the Rockets offense, let alone be the Rockets offense, all by himself now that Ty Lawson's in town.

    "By having a guy who can take the ball out of my hands on a few possessions every game, it will keep me fresh later in games, later in the postseason," he told NBA.com. "Doing a little less helps me do more."

    If Harden garners MVP consideration this season, it will not be because of how much he does, but rather it will be due to how efficiently he does it.

    3. Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

    The last time Durant survived a season with his health intact, he wound up as the league's clear-cut MVP. With an injury-plagued campaign behind him and free agency up ahead, the four-time scoring champ figures to be back on the warpath in 2015-16.

    That is, assuming his foot stays intact. Navicular bone injuries can be tricky, but Durant insists his feels fine.

    "I told myself I'm not going to answer that question no more," he said after the Thunder's preseason win over the Dallas Mavericks, per ESPN.com's Royce Young.

    What can't be questioned is Durant's ability to dominate when healthy. Even amid a frustrating series of setbacks last season, he managed to average 25.4 points on 51 percent shooting (40.3 percent from three), 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

    2. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans

    ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh has a thing for tooting the Brow's MVP horn, and rightfully so. Davis was, by some measures, the best player in basketball last year, and at 22, he still has plenty of room for improvement.

    As Haberstroh pointed out in his latest pro-Brow epistle, the New Orleans Pelicans' prized power forward should see his case boosted by his team's fortunes:

    After winning 45 games last season, the Pelicans' improvement will be the flame that ignites Davis' MVP campaign. In a piece back in 2013, I found that the MVP hailed from a team that won on average 61.6 games during the regular season. That makes it pretty clear: If Davis wants to put himself over that MVP hump, history says the New Orleans Pelicans had better cross that 60-win threshold. Just ask Curry.

    So much as sniffing 50 wins, let alone 60, will be an uphill climb for Davis and the Pelicans in the loaded Western Conference. Chances are, that and health (he's missed nearly 16 games per season as a pro) will be the Brow's biggest obstacles to being named MVP.

    1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    For the fourth year in a row, the league's general managers favor James as their preseason MVP pick, according to the 2015-16 NBA.com GM Survey, courtesy of John Schuhmann.

    Not that their choice means anything. James didn't garner his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy last season or the season prior, despite GMs voting overwhelmingly in his favor.

    For what it's worth, they seem to have learned from the recent past. Where once James was a shoo-in among front office folks, regularly seizing about two-thirds of the votes, this year he garnered a mere 39.3 percent plurality.

    Clearly, the field is quickly catching up to James, assuming it hasn't pulled even already. But this season will offer him a golden opportunity to solidify his status as not only the game's premier player today, but also as one of the all-time greats.

    With the Cleveland Cavaliers ailing amid injuries from the get-go, James can capture the early spotlight by keeping his team humming along, even without the likes of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert ready to lend a hand.

    If he can run with that narrative for close to 82 games and lead the Cavs to one of the NBA's best records along the way, James may well be seen hoisting another MVP trophy next spring, months after celebrating his 31st birthday.

    Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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