Anybody can predict that the Miami Heat will win another championship or that LeBron James will claim another NBA Most Valuable Player trophy — and they probably will.
But among teams and players who are still looking to break into the league’s exclusive club, who is most likely to collect some hardware for the first time? Which non-repeat award winners are most likely to get their due in 2013-14, when half the league believes the Heat finally look vulnerable and the other half is tanking for the 2014 NBA Draft?
Without further ado, here are my best predictions for first-time winners of the NBA’s biggest achievements.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Rockets. All the hoopla in Houston has been over the arrival of Dwight Howard, but even though Howard will be the Rockets’ highest-paid player, he won’t be their best player.
NBA general managers have already weighed in on Harden, dubbing him the best shooting guard in the game in a preseason survey. And he could probably be ranked highly among the league’s point guards, too. No off-guard runs the pick and roll as effectively as Harden, and he’s got a great new toy to play with in Howard. With his ability to draw fouls, Chandler Parsons‘ 3-point shooting and finishing skills and Jeremy Lin‘s alleged improvement as a shooter, Harden could blow up the Toyota Center’s fancy scoreboard for the fast-paced Rockets.
Defensive Player of the Year: Larry Sanders, Bucks. This was a tough one, because it comes down to who is most likely going to be the best defensive player versus how voters typically approach this award. Sanders will be the biggest difference-maker in the NBA on defense. He was arguably that last season, too.
But this award’s recent history has been a “wait your turn” affair. Kevin Garnett won it after years of being the best defensive player in the league; Tyson Chandler won it the year after being the most dominant defensive player in the playoffs with the Mavericks, despite not being the best defensive player in the season he won it with the Knicks; Marc Gasol won it last year, even though he was arguably the more deserving winner the year before, when Chandler took the crown.
In that vein, it’s tough to bet against Roy Hibbert, who everybody could not stop oohing and aahing over in last year’s playoffs. No matter how good Sanders is on defense this season, it’s likely that Hibbert’s reputation — and the perception that it’s his “turn” — will put the hardware in the hands of the Pacers big man. Still … I’ll go with Sanders.
Sixth Man of the Year: Patrick Beverley, Rockets. If you want, go ahead and replace Beverley’s name with “Somebody on the Rockets.” It’s not yet clear how coach Kevin McHale will structure his rotation, but whoever ends up being the primary reserve for Houston is going to light up the stat sheet. Beverley seems like a good guess because his per-minute numbers were promising as a rookie, and because McHale has waffled on how much faith he has in Lin.
Whoever ends up sharing the backcourt most of the time with Harden is in for a really nice year. If it’s Beverley, watch out.
Most Improved Player: Anthony Davis, Pelicans. As always, “most improved” is an imperfect title, since previous winners have not actually improved — they have just gotten more minutes, translating to better statistics.
So it goes with Davis. If the second-year forward can stay healthy, there is no limit to how great he could be defensively. On the other end of the court, his averages of 16.9 points and 3.2 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes were not too shabby last season, either. Look for Davis to make the jump from nice, promising player to perennial All-Star material.
Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, Magic. Staying within our “first timer” criteria should be easy on this one, since nobody can be a repeat winner as a rookie. But to stay true to the cause, I’ve disallowed anyone who won best freshman or best newcomer awards in college. So 2013 Mountain West Freshman of the Year and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett is out, as is 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Cody Zeller.
The Oladipo pick has as much to do with thinking he’s a good player in the making as it does with Orlando’s situation. Because of how terrible the rebuilding Magic figure to be, Oladipo is likely to have a long leash as a rookie. For instance, Bennett is the opposite position: The Cavs have playoff aspirations and some established stars already, so he could find touches tough to come by. That’s why the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk or the Sixers’ Michael Carter-Williams seem like other strong picks — despite being rookies, they are likely to have the ball in their hands often.
Western Conference All-Star: Stephen Curry, Warriors. The term “snub” is overused around All-Star selection time, but for the first time in years there was a true snub last year. Curry not being included looked worse and worse as he continued to explode in the second half of the regular season and the postseason, and if Tim Duncan was only going to play eight minutes in Houston, he could have stayed at home. (Swapping Curry for Duncan would have given the West three big men and four guards on the bench, so lack of size wouldn’t have been a problem.)
Curry had better not make plans for this year’s All-Star break, however. While Davis is a great pick to be a first-time All-Star — the game is in New Orleans — not even Davis is the shoe-in Curry will be this season.
Eastern Conference All-Star: Greg Monroe, Pistons. The East frontcourt will be loaded once again with James and Carmelo Anthony carved into stone as two of the three starters. Brook Lopez is likely to get a huge boost from the Nets’ newfound celebrity and the fact that he plays in New York. But nobody ever said Monroe had to start.
If Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh are not voted in as starters, one or both could be left at home. Tyson Chandler will need to compensate for a lot of Andrea Bargnani‘s weaknesses to maintain his standing. That is potentially three vacated spots for a budding big man like Monroe to fill. The main question is whether Monroe’s teammate, Andre Drummond, leapfrogs him into this spot.
All-NBA: Kyrie Irving, Cavs. Fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance in 2013, Irving is ticketed for the big time. The backcourt will be crowded with stars, including the likes of Derrick Rose, who is returning after missing an entire year with a torn ACL.
But quite a few high-profile guards are either injured or positioned to take a step back while Irving is primed to take a step forward. Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook are coming off injuries. Dwyane Wade looks less and less consistent with every year. The emergence of Klay Thompson could cut into Curry’s numbers.
If I seem high on Irving, it’s because I am. I seriously considered putting him in Harden’s spot for first-time MVP at the top of this list. As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got some votes.
All-NBA Defensive Team: Kevin Durant, Thunder. This may be overconfident, but I have a feeling this is the year Durant finally joins James, Bryant and Michael Jordan in the upper strata of superstars capable of dominating at both ends of the court. He has always had the tools, and he has no lack of desire to improve. So far, it’s simply been a matter of time. First, he needed to become the NBA’s best scorer. Check. Then, he needed to improve his passing and court vision. Check. Now he can focus on the defensive end, where the Thunder will really need him if they are to finally advance into championship contention.
NBA champion: Oklahoma City Thunder. It is tempting to pick the Clippers, Rockets or Nets based on the big splashes they made this summer. But the Heat lost in the NBA Finals in the first year after “The Decision” and the Lakers were a fiasco last season. Winning a title after an offseason full of major additions does not always translate as easily as it did for the 2007-08 Celtics.
So until I see the Clippers, Rockets or Nets play an actual NBA game, I’m going with Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to prove that Sam Presti made the right call when he traded Harden last year. Durant has shown that he can get his team to the Finals in a stacked conference. With his improvement on defense and Westbrook’s desire to prove he has not lost a step after knee surgery, the Thunder could raise the franchise’s first banner in Oklahoma City.