By: Darius Thornton
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s about that time of the year again. After a long four-month absence, an entire offseason of both expected and completely unexpected transactions, speculation, and hype, the NBA season is finally upon us. Things kicked off Tuesday night, with the defending champion Toronto Raptors defeating the New Orleans Pelicans, 130-122 on the same night they received their championship rings. The night was capped off by the Los Angeles Clippers getting the better of their crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, 112-102. The opening week represents a fresh start for all 30 teams. This season, in particular, has garnered much excitement because the cosmic scales have seemingly shifted back to parity, with the departure of Kevin Durant from the Golden State Warriors. For the first time in three years, the result of the Finals is not a forgone conclusion in the eyes of many fans. With that being said, I will try my hand at predicting several facets of the season, from the individual performance awards, to some of the most underlooked teams, to this year’s NBA champions. We’ll see how stupid I look at the season’s end in June.
Rookie of the Year
Zion Williamson. Yes, I’m on the hype train, just like everyone else, but can you blame me? The 6’7”, 280-pound first overall pick out of Duke is literally a freak of nature in every sense of the word. A never before seen combination of size, speed, athleticism and pure power. During the preseason, he averaged 23 points, six rebounds and two assists on an absurd, 71% from the field. Granted, preseason is just preseason, but if he can even somewhat replicate those numbers during the season, he will easily claim the award. However, with the news that he will be out for the first six to eight weeks of the season, a tiny window of opportunity has opened for other rookies, such as second overall pick and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Marant and Miami Heat standout shooting guard Tyler Herro. If one or both of them do enough to raise some serious eyebrows while Zion is out or finding his footing, this race could end up a whole lot tougher than people anticipate. Overall, it’s still Zion’s race to lose. Though I wouldn’t sleep on Carsen Edwards of the Boston Celtics either, he also lit it up during the preseason.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert has won the award twice in a row, but he can he complete the hat trick? I don’t think so. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak”, finished second in the race last year and I believe he will take it home this year. It’s rare anyone wins any award three times in a row, since the NBA likes to mix of their winners up every few years, due to voter fatigue, which is the tendency for voters to be tired of voting for the same person. Giannis has been close to winning for years and when voters see his name on the ballot, they’ll be clambering to flock to someone new.
Most Improved Player of the Year
This is often the most difficult award to predict due to its nature. It’s hard to gauge how much a player will improve from year to year before the season starts. Despite that, guess I’ll give it a try. Alright I’m just gonna say it, I predict that Markelle Fultz of the Orlando Magic will be this year’s most improved player. Yes, I’m aware that the former number one pick and 76ers guard has been derailed by injuries thus far in his career, but that is reportedly behind him. He is set for a big year, no longer having to play behind starting point guard Ben Simmons and getting to be a part of a young, up-and coming team in Orlando. If he can become a consistent threat from the mid to long-range, it would complement his already exquisite ball handling, court vision, and athleticism. It would make for a great story: a high pick bouncing back from a rough start to make his mark. And what voter isn’t a sucker for a good story?
Coach of the Year
This one really required some thought. The NBA is home to many great coaches, so trying to narrow things down to one, proved to be difficult. Alas, I found my answer in the Denver Nuggets head coach, Mike Malone. I expect them to take a big step forward this year; so big that Malone will be recognized for this team finishing with the best record in the western conference and the entire NBA. Yes, I’m aware this is a very bold claim, considering that the west is populated by teams like the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.
Most Valuable Player
Ah yes, the most coveted of all the regular-season player awards, the MVP. The yearly conundrum of what the word “valuable” means. This year, I believe that honor will be given to Stephen Curry, as opposed to the usual suspects like James Harden, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. Reason being, Kevin Durant just departed from the Warriors and Curry’s backcourt mate Klay Thompson has no timetable for a return after suffering a torn ACL in last years’ Finals. Curry is left with a declining Draymond Green, newcomer D’Angelo Russell and a cast of unproven young players that other teams passed on. It is safe to say that he will be asked to carry a massive load in order for the Warriors to just make the playoffs. This load will be a significant increase in stats for Curry, most notably points. To put it simply, the Warriors fate hinges on how Curry performs and he will almost certainly have to put up historic numbers to answer the bell. This is the very NBA definition of “valuable”.
The NBA Finals
The 2019 NBA Finals will be played between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers. I don’t think having the 76ers going to the Finals is an exceedingly controversial opinion, with how pitiful it looks, outside of a few decent teams. The biggest and only threat to them would be Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost a vital part of their team over the summer in Malcom Brogdon, which will hurt their offense when it counts. The Lakers, on the other hand, have a bloodbath of a Western Conference to contend with. The Clippers, the Rockets, the Blazers, the Nuggets, the Jazz, the Kings and the Spurs, among others. All that matters, however, is the Lakers have Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Who’s stopping that pick and roll in the playoffs? Add a deep roster that can defend and shoot, and the Lakers will capture their 17th championship in six games.