B/R Staff Predicts Every Major Award for 2019-20 NBA Season
The 2019-20 NBA season can't get here soon enough.
Preseason hoops already have fans hooked from the first taste. And while "Who is the title favorite?" may be the biggest question to examine (and a refreshing one at that), quite a few other pieces of hardware not named Larry O'Brien are up for grabs.
Bleacher Report polled six NBA experts, asking each to make a prediction about one of the league's top individual honors.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert is already one of 10 players in NBA history to win more than one Defensive Player of the Year award. This season, he'll become the fourth to win three and just the second to win three in a row (Dwight Howard is the other).
With Derrick Favors now on the New Orleans Pelicans, Gobert will shoulder even more defensive responsibility. Jae Crowder's absence could add some strain, as well. But the Stifle Tower may be more prepared to anchor Utah's new defense than some might think.
Last season, Gobert played nearly 4,000 possessions without Favors. Utah's defense surrendered 105.4 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile) with those lineups on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. In Gobert's nearly 1,000 possessions without Favors and Crowder, the defensive rating dropped even further to 102.9 (97th percentile).
Gobert surrounded by multiple switchable stoppers such as Dante Exum, Royce O'Neale, Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell should be a recipe for a good team defense. And if the Jazz are in the top five, the man in the middle will get plenty of credit.
That, along with the reputation he's already earned over the last two seasons, will give Gobert the three-peat.
Most Improved Player: Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Most Improved Player is as much about narrative as performance. No one has the potential to thrive in that category quite like the Los Angeles Lakers' fallen star and 2017 No. 2 overall pick, Lonzo Ball.
Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans after two injury-plagued seasons with the Lakers (one filled with trade rumors), Ball's underwhelming start has inspired doubt in the former Bruin. His disappointing performance even led his own father to refer to him as "damaged goods," so Ball losing confidence would be understandable.
But with the end of the Los Angeles-based failure came new life. During a recent appearance on The Woj Pod with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t LonzoWire's Jacob Rude), Ball explained the changes he's making to his personal and professional approach in 2019-20:
"I'm controlling everything now. You really can't tell me what to do. It's my life, my career. I'm making all the decisions now. ... There was that whole situation with [Big Baller Brand] and then me having my daughter. I feel like those two things kind of shaped me to what I am now. I'm a lot different than the kid I was last year."
Ball will get plenty of opportunities to accrue stats in what should be one of the league's fastest and highest-scoring offenses. And thanks to Zion Williamson, he'll have a nationally televised audience for 30 of his 82 potential appearances. Williamson will aid this quest considerably, as feeds like this one are sure to go viral on a nightly basis.
The 21-year-old will need to stay healthy, and the work put into his jump shot will need to pay off. A 48.8 effective field-goal percentage and 41.7 free-throw percentage will not cut it. His confidence, though, has already translated in preseason play, where he debuted a James Harden-esque step-back jumper, as well as another silky-smooth three.
Looking ahead, it's improbable Ball will score 20 or more points per night in a rotation featuring Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick and Williamson, among others. To outpace his competitors, he'll instead need to keep up his assists and rebounds while maintaining the high level of defensive play that saw him finish 12th among guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus during 2018-19.
And like the teams of the last five winners of this award, the Pelicans will need to make the playoffs.
Executive of the Year: Lawrence Frank, Los Angeles Clippers
While it's not the most glamorous award, this season's Executive of the Year competition should actually be an exciting race following some major roster shake-ups this summer.
David Griffin should draw some votes, given how he rebranded the New Orleans Pelicans by drafting Zion Williamson, getting supreme value back for Anthony Davis and adding veterans such as JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.
While Durant will likely miss the season with a torn Achilles, Marks added a strong supporting cast in DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and David Nwaba. Trading for Taurean Prince gives them a scoring small forward while Durant recovers, and a three-year extension for do-it-all wing Caris LeVert keeps the 25-year-old out of restricted free agency this summer.
But as strong as Griffin and Marks were this offseason, Lawrence Frank of the Los Angeles Clippers should win top executive.
As president of basketball operations, Frank finished third in EOY voting this past season, and that was before he added two MVP candidates. Simply signing Kawhi Leonard would have put him in the conversation, but adding the trade for Paul George, which left the NBA world blindsided, has allowed the Clippers to go from feel-good story to possible title favorites.
Frank also got Patrick Beverley to re-sign on a three-year, $40 million deal after he turned down an additional $10 million from the Sacramento Kings. L.A. used its cap space beautifully by taking on Maurice Harkless from the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a four-team trade, which netted them a first-round pick that became part of the package for George.
The team also brought back Ivica Zubac on a team-friendly four-year, $28 million deal while signing JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder to new contracts.
Despite this summer's many successful front offices, Frank should come out on top.
Coach of the Year: Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Trust the Success.
While Coach of the Year voters sometimes reward those who exceed expectations—especially if there's an intriguing narrative involved—they almost always side with one of the season's biggest winners. The last seven honorees won at least 55 games, and four of them cleared 60.
That streak was only halted by the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season when recipient Gregg Popovich steered his San Antonio Spurs to a 50-16 mark.
Brett Brown's Philadelphia 76ers haven't hit their mind-boggling win total yet. No one is scoffing at 103 victories over a two-season stretch, but a team with this kind of star power has a ceiling somewhere in the 60s.
Why can't Philly hit that mark this year? The East is (further) watered down, and the Sixers are loaded up.
Joel Embiid has visions of 70-plus appearances, 60-plus wins and one or both of the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Ben Simmons might have a jumper. Tobias Harris should make his All-Star debut. Al Horford and Josh Richardson give this group tremendous size without sacrificing versatility. Ahead-of-the-curve rookie Matisse Thybulle and pogo-stick sophomore Zhaire Smith can quiet any depth concerns.
This could be the Association's best defense. Brown will get bonus points if he can turn his jumbo-sized group into a top-five offense in this small-ball-crazed league.
Everyone knows this team is good, but injuries and inconsistencies have kept it from leaping to great. My crystal ball says the Sixers finally make that jump, and voters will shower Brown with praise.
Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant could have a Rookie of the Year-type season by finishing among the league's top five in assists. But he's not winning the award while Zion Williamson is healthy.
A small sample size during Williamson's preseason debut was enough to confirm that even NBA opponents won't have answers for his power, quickness and explosiveness.
At 18 years old, Williamson was first in the nation last year in points per game around the basket, per Synergy Sports. He's going to continue earning himself easy buckets inside by playing through, over and around rim protection.
While he'll often find himself positioned to easily catch and finish off passes from Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball, Williamson can also create his own opportunities by using his handle and jets to capitalize in transition and on open driving lanes.
He'll lead all rookies in scoring and rebounding while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. But he'll seal the deal over Morant with defensive playmaking stats (steals and blocks) few NBA players wind up matching.
The fact that the New Orleans Pelicans will actually win games should only help solidify his case.
Sixth Man of the Year: Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Predicting a third consecutive—and fourth overall—Sixth Man of the Year award for Lou Williams is tempting. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will cut into his volume, but the Los Angeles Clippers don't have a conventional floor general. Williams is their best pick-and-roll maestro and should get ample opportunity to showcase his on-ball stuff.
Still, forecasting a repeat is boring. Also, there could be a chance Williams isn't on the floor as much for Los Angeles in crunch time.
Spencer Dinwiddie is a more enticing pick. He finished fourth on the ballot last year and checks most of the boxes voters typically look for in their SMOY—mainly scoring and playmaking.
The Brooklyn Nets' offseason overhaul does not detract from Dinwiddie's preseason case. If anything, it is amplified by Kevin Durant's likely year-long absence.
The Nets have Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, but they're barren of self-sufficient scorers beyond them. Their need for a concrete No. 3 bodes well for Dinwiddie's chances. There will even be nights on which he's their No. 2. Detonating on an every-game basis remains a process for LeVert.
Dinwiddie wrapped last season averaging 16.8 points and 4.6 assists while finishing in the 86th percentile of pick-and-roll efficiency and the 85th percentile of isolation scoring. The Nets will be good enough, even without Durant, to keep him on the radar. Lateral production will ensure Dinwiddie gets mentioned among the other favorites. And if he knocks down his threes at a league-average rate, it could be game over.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James (twice) and Stephen Curry all went back-to-back as MVP winners, and that's just in the last 18 seasons. Based on that recent history, voter fatigue won't keep Giannis Antetokounmpo from doubling up.
What's more, much of Giannis' top competition for the 2019-20 MVP figures to miss time because of load management (Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid) and teammate vote-splitting (James and Anthony Davis, James Harden and Russell Westbrook).
That leaves Stephen Curry as Antetokounmpo's most logical threat, but Westbrook (2016-17) is the only MVP since Michael Jordan in 1987-88 to come from a team that failed to finish first or second in its conference. Curry's Golden State Warriors, painfully thin on the wing and suddenly dependent on a horde of unproven youngsters, don't profile as anything close to a top-two seed.
This all seems like an argument for Antetokounmpo winning by default, which undersells his case.
He flattened the league last year, posting averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists on a 64.4 true shooting percentage. Nobody had ever done that before, and nobody other than Antetokounmpo seems capable of doing it again.
Everyone fixates on the small step he might take with an improved jumper. But even without an outside shot, he's already a giant leap ahead of everyone else. Throw in the Milwaukee Bucks' likely finish atop the East and another 60-win season, and you've got a pretty clear path to an Antetokounmpo repeat.