The NBA season is finally upon us! That means we’re in for a new season full of dunks, crossovers, broken ankles, 3’s for days and Warriors vs Cavs part IV. Ok, so that last part isn’t set in stone (yet). People may think the regular season has become banal and that it’s simply a long detour to a known destination but, you never know when that road can take you to a place you never thought you’d see. It is because of this, that the regular season does still hold a certain mystique about it, and stuff that happens between October and April certainly affects who hoists the old Larry O’Brien trophy in June. A lot of changes were made this summer and has put stacks on an already stacked western conference. Will these changes cause the Warriors to stumble on their way to the finals and is Lebron’s journey easier than ever? It is with this long prologue that I give to you my NBA season preview, so sit down, relax and assume that everything I say is golden.
I thought I’d start with what will be the most important part of the upcoming season, what player changing teams will have the biggest impact on his new franchise? By my estimation a total of eleven former All-Stars changed teams this summer, those being: Butler, Wade, Rose, Isiah Thomas, Irving, Hayward, Milsap, Howard, Paul, George and Melo. Discounting players that will make minimal impact on their new teams (Seeya, Wade, Rose and Howard), we’re left with eight quality players looking to make a huge impact on their new homes. Some will be hoping to vault their teams into contender status, while others will just be looking to uplift their teams into the playoff picture. After closer inspection I’m left with four possible contenders for three different reasons as to why they can possibly better bring their teams to new heights.
First off we have Jimmy Butler, brought in to bring the Timberwolves out of the doldrums of NBA obscurity. The Timberwolves have not been to the playoffs since 2004, when Kevin Garnett won MVP and they were the number 1 seed! The following year they tumbled to 9th and despite high picks in the lottery haven’t been able to build a decent roster until now. The Timberwolves on paper boast one of the best starting 5’s on paper, now it’s about putting it all together on the court and Jimmy Butler was brought into band this team’s young roster in a juggernaut. I can’t help but think though that Karl-Anthony Towns is still the star and his development would impact Minnesota’s rise more than Butler’s play.
Next we have Paul George and Chris Paul. Obviously PG13 is the secondary star on this roster to the mercurial Russell Westbrook, his freakish talent and overpowering demeanour make him the clear cut leader of this team. The same can be said for Chris Paul, as at this stage of his career James Harden is clearly a better player, although one could argue Paul’s personality will lead that team. However, George’s talents always seemed to point to a role as a secondary star, not the best at creating his own shot and for others, but an elite defender that can score the basketball. Paul is somewhat the opposite, clearly beyond elite, he’s legendary at being able to set up his teammates, but as seen in his playoff career he needs a dominant scorer to take over games where his diminutive stature and efficiency obsessed mind won’t let him. George’s impact is felt more than his play on the court as his arrival convinced Melo to waive his no-trade clause and accept coming to the Thunder, instantly vaulting them from entertaining one man band last year to instant contenders this year, the same can be said for the Rockets.
Finally we have Kyrie Irving. Brought into the Celtics to clearly be the face of the franchise, Irving has somehow seen his stock go down this summer slightly despite putting up his best regular season and being an absolute monster in the finals. Such is the Lebron effect, someone who would leave the greatest player on the planet must have something wrong with him, this narrative led to Irving’s game being completely and absurdly picked apart to people forgetting who hit possibly the biggest shot in NBA history while arguably the third greatest player in history was on his team. It’s interesting that the man who won Lebron his 3rd championship is now his biggest obstacle in him competing for his fourth. Kyrie is the real deal and he’s my pick for best newbie.
Most Interesting Team
This one is easy, it’s not even up for debate, it’s the Philadelphia 76ers. Their core consists of the most intriguing players both in talent, personality and background. Let’s simply take their ‘big 3’. The Sixers pulled off what looked like at the time a masterstroke and traded up in the draft to land the number 1 pick and select consensus number 1 Markell Fultz. A 6’5″ do it all point guard with unlimited potential, a no-brainer right? Well apparently not, in the annual GM survey Lonzo Ball was their pick to win rookie of the year, with Fultz’s teammate Ben Simmons coming in second, Fultz didn’t even receive a vote. He then changed his jump shot over the summer even though it wasn’t broken and now it looks horrible.
Ben Simmons is also taking over point guard duties for the Sixers as announced in the summer, pushing Fultz over to the secondary ball handler role. This will obviously affect Fultz’s play as he is used to having the ball in his hands. However, you can’t not have a 6’11” passing demon run your offence. The fact that Simmons has a jump as flat as Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner (I’m sorry you can’t convince me otherwise), suggests he needs the ball to be effective more so than Fultz, pinging passes to open cutters and dishing to corner shooters on drives. The fact he missed all of last season has built a certain hype around the Australian to come and deliver in the NBA.
Finally we have the most interesting man in the NBA. Blessed with talents mere mortals can barely comprehend, Joel Embiid holds the faith of the Sixers in his absurdly sized hands. His talent is undeniable. The only problem is that in three NBA seasons he has only played 31 games. What he has produced when he has played has been magnificent and simply has kicked the hype machine into turbo drive. If they can stay healthy, and it’s a big ‘if’, the Sixers have a possible dynasty on their hands. They rolled the dice on giving Embiid a big contract extension (the biggest no brainer of a risk #trusttheprocess) and their entire process is predicated on promise and health.
Best Rookie (Rookie of the Year?)
I feel like these are two different questions. It is thought that the best rookie wins rookie of the year, however, circumstances often decide who actually wins rookie of the year. I’m not simply talking about potential and who turns out to be the best years down the line, I’m talking about that year. For example, Lebron was clearly the best rookie in 2003 and won the award. However, take 2009, Tyreke Evans won rookie of the year even though Stephen Curry was clearly the more talented rookie. Despite similar stats, although Evans scored more, Evans won rookie of the year because he was handed the keys to his team and could do whatever he wanted, whereas Steph shared a backcourt with Monta Ellis, a ball dominant scoring guard. Even last year, a terrible draft class, Brogdan won the award even though Embiid was the better player, he just couldn’t stay on the court. With that I propose to you that Denis Smith Jr. will win rookie of the year. He has obvious talent with huge highlight reel hops, which will garner him much attention. However, Dallas don’t have a clear star, Dirk is in what is likely his final year, while Harrison Barnes averaged 19.2ppg for them last season. Smith is going to get opportunities and that coupled with his talent could land him the award. The best rookie however is between Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons, Simmons was talked about the man who is the face of the big baller brand. Lonzo’s talent is undeniable but will it translate into today’s NBA of scoring guards. Somewhat of a throwback Lonzo gets rid of the ball early and keeps teammates involved and running, ‘Showtime Light’ anyone? For arguments sake I’m going to go Lonzo as the best rookie but Denis Smith Jr. to take home the award.
Defensive Player of the Year
This award in the last number of years has come down to Kawhi Leonard vs Draymond Green, with the added wrinkle of Rudy Gobert thrown in last year. Expect nothing to change. These men are in the right in the middle of their primes with no way of slowing down on the defensive end barring injury this year. I expect Rudy Gobert to end the duopoly of Leonard and Green this year. The Jazz are still regarded as a playoff team despite losing Gordon Hayward and that’s all because of Rudy Gobert. Not exactly an offensive juggernaut, this man locks down and is a human eraser at the rim. When you’ve got a 7’8″ wingspan your hands can and will reach everything.
Most Improved Player of the Year
Most of the time this award doesn’t actually go to someone who got better, it is bestowed upon someone who got a new role, be it moving team or otherwise, and see an increase in minutes and scoring opportunities. Therefore who I actually think will get better this year is ‘The Greek Freak’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns, not exactly who you think of when winning this award because they’re already great. I think Victor Oladipo has the best chance of winning this award. Often an overlooked player, his luck on situation hasn’t always been the best. Blessed with obvious skills and thrown into a situation where he’ll get to lead a team has him front-runner for this award, if he takes the opportunity. Of course Giannis could shape shift into Godzilla with a wingspan that stretches over centuries and a basketball IQ equivalent to the mind of Joe 90 (look him up), and simply tear the basketball world to shreds. Each totally plausible.
Coach of the Year
Gregg Popovich, book it.
Sixth Man of the Year
This award is always a little hard to call but usually goes to the guy to come off the pine and score in bunches. Please can we stop giving it to Jamal Crawford, I know he’s in a new city but just no. However, this award does throw up the regular suspects, so it’s between Lou Williams and Eric Gordon, both are needed to come off their respective benches and provide scoring. One more I’d like to throw in is Marcus Morris, although the Boston frontcourt is loaded, he can come in and provide scoring against second unit opposition, he’s averaged at least 14 points per game (ppg) the last two seasons. Another up for consideration will be Derrick Rose, depending on how many games he starts with Isiah Thomas’s injury. People think he had a terrible year last year, but he averaged 18ppg last year in the triangle offence which is detrimental to a point guard’s production. The man is a former MVP, and is only 28 years old! Despite that I’m going with Lou Williams, go figure.
Executive of the Year
Not a question, not a debate, it’s Sam Presti come on. He pulled off the biggest robbery since France stopped Ireland from going to the 2010 World Cup (sheds tear*). Turning Olodipo, Enes Kanter and some of the coins he found stuck in his couch into HOODIE MELO and Paul George. Take a bow lad.
Let’s not even pretend there’s anyone outside the Cavs and Celtics to contend for the Eastern Conference. And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the Celtics got so much better that they can now beat Lebron James, I mean the Cavs. I apologise (to absolutely nobody!), but the Celtics are at least a year and possibly another move away from beating the Cavs. The Cavs got better. They added a former MVP, a former finals MVP, a guy who averaged nearly 30 last season and a good 3 and D guy. AND, they got the Brooklyn pick they can easily flip into another asset. Cavs in six.
The West as always is a minefield and a lot trickier to navigate through to a winner. Just to list the contenders in the West you’ve got the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Timberwolves, Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Suns, Grizzlies, Mavs and Lakers. Oh wait that was everybody? Ok so it’s not that bad, but you have got 4 genuine contenders in the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets with second tier possibilities in the Timberwolves and Clippers. Most people think it’ll be a cakewalk for the Warriors to get to the finals again this year judged on their 12-0 walk there last year. However, people must remember the Blazers lost Nurkic in the first round, the Jazz had injuries to Gobert and food poisoning to Hayward, even if they played they were hobbled and finally the Spurs were up by 23 points in the third quarter in Golden State before Kawhi Leonard went down with injury. I’m not saying these injuries don’t change the results but it takes chunks out of Golden State. Finally the top half of the West just got stacked! Golden State have played a lot of games the last three years getting to the finals every year, and that takes it out of a team. Most teams don’t go to the finals four times, it’s so rare and this OKC team is loaded to take them out. That said, Durant only came in last year, so there is room for improvement for the Warriors. Golden State in seven.
Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner
Honestly, I find it a lot harder to pick a winner this year than last year. The Cavs have gotten better, while the Warriors remain pretty much the same. Coupled with the fact that Golden State’s journey to the finals will be a lot tougher this year, it can go either way. The Cavs have the best player on the planet but the Warriors have the better team. This is a head vs heart debacle for myself. Head, Cavs and heart, Warriors. I’m no good at using my head. Warriors in seven.
Steph Curry. Robbed in 2015. I don’t care what inserting Igoudala into the starting line-up did to the series that team does not win without Steph controlling games and being the best player. People said he had a bad series but his stats were comparable to his stats that season. Last year Kevin Durant had to win it because he was the story, but trust me, Durant may have scored more efficiently, but Steph controlled the finals. I’m expecting this year the wrongs to be right and Steph to pick up the last piece of silverware he needs for his resume.
Why did I leave my MVP discussion until last? Because it’s the most important and interesting part of the NBA this season with no clear cut winner in sight. Last year’s race was historical in terms of closeness and just the seasons the top five guys were having. Russell averaged a triple double, which hasn’t been done since Oscar Robertson in 1962. The man had to win it. This year is not so clear cut for him and the narrative, which is OH so important in deciding the MVP, is clearly different this year. Russell has more help, probably won’t average a triple double again (although I would never bet against that man) and won it last year, all narratives which go against him. Harden got a superstar point guard to play beside him, which will probably make his assist numbers from last year take a hit. I’m not ruling those guys out but I’m just saying what stands against them. Isiah Thomas won’t win it, he plays with Lebron now, however, the guy who went the other way has a chance if he can really up his play and lead the Celtics, the narrative there would be perfect. Left the shadow of Lebron to dominate his own team against Lebron. The two men I think it is between however is Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard. Lebron James is the best player in the league and has been for the last decade, he simply doesn’t win the award every year (narrative). However, I feel the narrative could be in his favour this year. It’s been so long since his last one that people would be willing to vote for him again and he’d be the first player in his 15th season to win the award. Also, Kyrie left him, therefore he’ll be in revenge mode and motivated for the season. The other is Kawhi, the only superstar who is contending by himself. Leonard does not have the all-star talent around him that those other players do. He’s going to up his play again this year and I think become a better passer, the only weapon he needs to add to his arsenal. The him against the world narrative will bode well when it comes to voting, therefore he’s my pick.
If you made it through this article I commend you. You have been bestowed with the unarguable knowledge of what is going to happen in the NBA this season. Go forth and brag to your friends.
By Lee Shields