Rookie of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Jaren Jackson Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
Jackson checks nearly all of the requisite boxes. He’s already excellent defensively which will ensure he gets plenty of playing time. He’s been a knockdown shooter through preseason and the Summer League. He has an NBA ready body and can play both front court spots. The Grizzlies don’t have a go-to scorer giving him a shot to put up enough counting numbers. I’m all in on Jackson this year, and after the Grizzlies trade Marc Gasol to a contender, there’s going to be nothing keeping him from a big season.
Dylan Fraychineaud: Luka Dončić – Dallas Mavericks
Dončić enters his first NBA season with a ton of hype. Dončić’s hype is not unwarranted. While playing for Real Madrid last year, he led the club to the EuroLeague title. As an 18-year-old, Dončić became the youngest player to win EuroLeague MVP. Dončić’s vision and feel for the game should lead to a lot of success. His experience playing in a professional league will give him a leg-up on his fellow rookies this year. Dončić has the ability to be a transcendent player for years to come.
Jason Fray: Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks
Dončić and Ayton are the trendiest of picks. However, I’m going to skip over them. Both should be very good from the jump. However, each will be battling with fellow teammates for strong statistical outputs. Dončić may nab the award if Dallas makes the playoffs — though that proclamation seems unlikely at this point. A prototypical ROY candidate will have to play a lot. Fortunately for Trae Young, he’ll be playing a lot — and with the ball in his hands. There’s absolutely no pressure on him to do much of anything this year. He can play freely — which includes launching threes from 35 feet without a second thought. He could very easily average a double-double this season.
Blake Hoffman: DeAndre Ayton – Phoenix Suns
At 7-foot-1, Ayton might be the most fluid athlete for a guy over seven feet tall that the league has ever seen. With footwork beyond his years, a reliable mid-range jumper and tremendous explosiveness, Ayton’s floor looks to be 16 points and 8 rebounds in Year 1. Barring a Donovan Mitchell-style season from a rookie who miraculously leads his respective team to the playoffs, Ayton should be the runaway victor for this award.
Coach of the Year
HA: Mike Budenholzer – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have the chance to be the biggest mover in the Eastern Conference. With another year of development for Giannis, a summer for Eric Bledose to be assimilated, and addition by subtraction with the departure of Jabari Parker, the Bucks are primed for a big year. Budenholzer will have the team playing fast, and the roster Milwaukee has built lends itself to operating at a quicker pace. Coming off a 44-win year, and with only a few contending Eastern Conference teams of note, the Bucks could be looking at a a 10-12 win increase in 2019.
DF: Mike Malone – Denver Nuggets
With LeBron not holding residency in the East anymore, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is the sexy pick to win Coach of the Year. However, in my mind, it comes down to two names: Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz and Mike Malone of the Denver Nuggets. Both coaches are in charge of talented teams. Neither have expectations to finish atop the West. I give Malone the slight edge because I believe the Nuggets will finish within the top-4 of the conference. Malone’s team has improved each year he has been in charge. After winning only 33 games in 2016, Denver won 46 a season ago and barely missed the playoffs. I see Malone leading his team to 49-54 victories this season, securing both home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and also a CoY trophy for the fourth-year coach.
JF: Brad Stevens – Boston Celtics
When analyzing past winners of the award, a usual barometer includes winning more than 50 games. It’s rather inexplicable that Stevens has yet to win the award. He’s regarded by many to already be a top-three coach in the league. Boston is expected to be a juggernaut this year. Barring injury, the Celtics are a lock for 60-65 wins. In the process, Stevens will win the award.
BH: Brad Stevens – Boston Celtics
Although the recipient of this award often goes to a team that overachieves in a massive way, that won’t be the case this season. Tasked with figuring out how to maximize Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and a deep bench with only one basketball is no easy job, but Stevens will handle it masterfully and help guide Boston to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Set to be only 42 years old at season’s end, this won’t be the last time Stevens is this award’s recipient.
Sixth Man of the Year
HA: Dennis Schröder – Oklahoma City Thunder
Nobody knows when Russell Westbrook will be back. He could play opening night, or miss the first month of the season. Either way, Schröder figures to play a big part in OKC’s plans this season, and will make the start at point guard in Russ’s absence. The former Hawk is a favorite to lead all ‘bench’ players in combined points and assists. He’ll play crunch time minutes even when Westbrook returns, and will have plenty of time to shine on the national spotlight on a playoff team.
DF: J.J. Redick – Philadelphia 76ers
Redick is coming off a year in which he scored a career-high 17.1 PPG in 70 starts for the 52-win Sixers. As a reward, Redick has been replaced in the starting lineup by Markelle Fultz. The same Markelle Fultz whom forgot how to shoot a basketball and appeared in only 14 games. Even with the sharpshooter coming off the bench, Redick should be given plenty of minutes. He most likely won’t score as many points as a season ago, but the de facto sixth starter will produce at a good clip.
JF: Eric Gordon – Houston Rockets
Houston is not a deep team. Chris Paul is injury prone — and figures to miss more than a handful of games this upcoming season. Gordon is in the middle of his prime (29 years old), and will be gifted plenty of opportunities to score the basketball. He put up 18.0 PPG a season ago — and there’s no reason why that can’t happen again. It also helps his case that Lou Williams plays with 48 other guards, and that Jamal Crawford is approximately 123 years old (though he’s really 38).
BH: Lou Williams – Los Angeles Clippers
I don’t remember the last time Lou Williams had four assists in a game, but luckily, this award isn’t for passing. Clearly the Clippers’ go-to scorer, Williams essentially games the system by coming off the bench. Last season, Williams averaged more minutes per game than Stephen Curry (32.8 vs. 32.0), but his meager 19 starts ensured his second career Sixth Man of the Year award. Another season averaging 20+ points per game should be enough to make ‘Sweet Lou’ the first back-to-back winner since 1991-1992.
Most Improved Player
HA: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Hornets
It’s almost impossible to peg this award before the season, so it usually ends up as my most ‘homer-ish’ pick every year. I’ve been on the Kidd-Gilchrist bandwagon ever since he was selected one spot behind eventual league MVP Anthony Davis. While his Kentucky teammate possessed all the talent in the world, Kidd-Gilchrist made his name with an endless motor and supreme defensive instincts. Those traits are still there, but he hasn’t been able to elevate other aspects of his game to match. I have the Hornets as a playoff team this year, and I think in large part that will be from MKG’s improvement. The 25-year-old is nowhere near a finished product, and could finally burst in a crucial year.
DF: Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers
People around the league have been anticipating a breakout season from Turner for the past two years. Turner improved upon his rookie season by posting nearly four more points and two more rebounds per game in 2017, but the big man went through a rough patch last year. His numbers dropped and Turner missed 17 games. This offseason, Turner turned to yoga in an effort to build his core and foundation. If Turner plays to his capability, the talented big man can become an All-Star in the East. A bold prediction — Turner will average 18.4 PPG and 9 TRB.
JF: Brandon Ingram – Los Angeles Lakers
Ingram appears ready to pop as a legitimate player. The tools have always been there, though Ingram has been beset by indecisiveness and a rather gaunt frame. The former Duke star has packed on some much-needed muscle. This will better allow him to endure the expected contact when driving to the rim/not getting pushed off his desired spots. With LeBron James now commanding all the attention, the third-year wing should be able to capitalize on tasty single coverage looks.
BH: Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
While the return of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving would seem to cut into Tatum’s production, I expect the exact opposite to occur. The second-year player will receive more one-on-one opportunities with defenses unable to help off the aforementioned All-Stars, and Tatum will also get some run with the second unit as the go-to scorer. After shooting 47.5 percent from the field while averaging 13.9 points as a 19-year-old rookie, Tatum’s efficiency and feel for the game will only improve in his second year. Don’t be surprised when people start throwing Tatum’s name into the discussion as one of the 10 best players in the league by season’s end.
Defensive Player of the Year
HA: Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans
Davis graced his first of many All-Defensive First Teams in 2018. The 6-foot-10 superstar led the league in blocks by a wide margin, and finished in the top-15 for steals. Those counting numbers will matter in the voting process, especially considering Davis checks out on all advanced defensive metrics as well. Finishing in the top-10 in blocks, rebounds, and steals in 2019 is completely in-play. Davis is as strong of a candidate as we’ve seen in years to become the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon to win both the MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year award in the same season.
DF: Kawhi Leonard – Toronto Raptors
I’m not quite ready to anoint Leonard as my MVP pick, however, I believe the man with a majestic laugh will enjoy a tremendous season. Before making only nine appearances last year, Leonard took home DPOY honors in both 2015 and 2016. In his last full season, Leonard finished third for the award. Leonard is one of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history. Utilizing his tremendous wingspan and supersized hands, Leonard neutralizes anyone he guards. I believe Toronto will be a top-5 defensive team and Leonard will be the main catalyst.
JF: Victor Oladipo – Indiana Pacers
Oladipo became a First Team All-Defensive selection a season ago. Resembling a thoroughbred on the floor, the former Indiana product pairs sublime athletic ability with terrific basketball I.Q. He’s excellent in reading passing lanes, and thus then reacting to the play. Oladipo’s quick hands and tenaciousness on that side of the court will enable him to come away with the award. He’ll also be motivated to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke — and rather that he’s arrived as a perennial All-Star.
BH: Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year has the perfect opportunity to repeat the feat this season. While Kawhi Leonard’s return certainly adds some competition to the award, Gobert remains the most intimidating rim protector in the game today. Using his gangly 93-inch wingspan, Gobert’s ability to contest shots without fouling is second to none. Anchoring a strong Jazz defensive unit, Gobert will become the 10th player in NBA history to win the award in back-to-back seasons.
Most Valuable Player
HA: Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
There are a handful of strong candidates — Davis, LeBron James, and James Harden come to mind — but Giannis has the best set-up to capture his first MVP trophy. As alluded to earlier, the Bucks will be playing at a faster pace, which will help Giannis put up more efficient numbers. The Greek Freak posted a ridiculous stat line of 26.9 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.4 BPG, and 1.5 SPG in 2018 with an archaic offense and no secondary ball handler to speak of. Even the slightest increase in those averages across the board will make him an undeniable candidate. If the Bucks can push for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference, this is Giannis’ award to lose.
DF: LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
There are a few things working in LeBron’s favor this year. For starters, last year he produced one of the best statistical seasons of his career. His 9.1 APG set a career-high. With 8.6 RPG, James matched his career-best. In scoring 27.5 PPG, LBJ had his most prolific scoring season since the 2009-10 campaign. Playing in a more uptempo system, I anticipate LeBron putting up similar numbers. Also, there is no denying that LeBron winning an MVP as a member of the Lakers would be a storyline the NBA would love. If the Lakers win 52+ games, it will be LeBron’s award to lose.
JF: Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo is about to start his sixth year in the league. As he approaches his 24th birthday, it’s rather impressive to see just how good he’s been throughout his career. Antetokounmpo continues to see steady improvement in all major statistical categories. Last year, the 23-year-old averaged 26.9 PPG, 10.0 RPG, and 4.8 APG on 52.9 percent from the field. His three-point shot expects to see improvement this year — as does his prospects for easy buckets. New coach Mike Budenholzer employs a free flowing offense predicated upon spacing. Antetokounmpo put up gigantic numbers under Jason Kidd’s methodical, slow, bog of an offense. With Budenholzer at the helm, Giannis will be more efficient — and thus more potent. He’ll win the award if he can lead Milwaukee to a top-four seed in the East.
BH: LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
Despite being the best player on the planet for at least the past eight seasons (having made the NBA Finals each of those years), LeBron hasn’t won the MVP award since 2013. Voter fatigue is largely to blame, as he took home the prestigious hardware four out of five years from 2009-2013. Now in Los Angeles, James enters a refreshing new era tasked with leading a young Lakers squad back to prominence. We know James will casually average his usual 27-8-8 stat line, but carrying a team that only won 35 games last season to the upper-echelon of the Western Conference will be enough for him to capture his fifth MVP award.
Image Sources: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports, Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports, Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports, Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports, Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports