The NBA season is nearly upon us! In less than one week the defending champion Denver Nuggets will host the Los Angeles Lakers and kick things off. The Cleveland Cavaliers will start their season the following night, and by Thursday all 30 teams will have played their first contest.
These days leading into the year are the perfect time to make predictions. Over the next week, I’ll lay out some predictions for wins, for the playoffs, and ultimately for who will win it all. First, however, let’s look at the individual stars.
The NBA has never had more star power, from a team like the Golden State Warriors laden with household names to the Washington Wizards who lack a No. 1, 3 or 3 but have Kyle Kuzma, who brings inordinate celebrity to the role of overpaid high-volume scorer.
Who will bring home the hardware this season? Let’s look at all of the major awards and pick a winner. The goal is to accurately predict who will win the awards, not necessarily who will deserve to win.
We begin with MVP and go through the list; how many Cavaliers will show up on our list?
Nikola Jokic is the best player in the NBA (ESPN’s NBArank trolling notwithstanding) and is coming off of a validating and dominant run to the title. The Nuggets should be the clear best team in the West all season and there won’t be a narrative pulling against Jokic as there was last year when the award was reasonably but incorrectly given to Joel Embiid.
The All-NBA teams will now be positionless, which likely leads to the NBA’s guard depth being highlighted in the 15 players selected (while we’re here, the league needs to add a fourth team).
First Team: Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid
Second Team: Damian Lillard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic
Third Team: LeBron James, Anthony Edwards, Donovan Mitchell, Zion Williamson, Timmy Butler
Players will need to log at least 65 games to qualify for an All-NBA team, so it’s likely that players such as Curry, Durant, LeBron, Zion and Butler will end up close to the cut line (as will Paul George and Kawhi Leonard). That could leave room for players such as De’Aaron Fox, Jamal Murray, Tyrese Haliburton and Trae Young to push onto the list.
The league should probably add a fourth All-NBA team; they absolutely need to expand the All-Star rosters. The league has more than doubled since the NBA first started selecting 24 All-Stars each season; NBA rosters are made up of 15 players plus another three two-way deals. Shouldn’t the league at least expand the All-Star rosters to 15, if not 18?
Eastern Conference Starters: Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid
Eastern Conference Reserves: Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, Mikal Bridges, Trae Young, Darius Garland
There are not any massive surprises in the Eastern Conference, and the starters seem very nearly etched in stone if everyone stays healthy for the first few months of the season. The Boston Celtics will be good enough for (at least) two All-Stars; it’s possible that Kristaps Porzingis will make it over Brown. Darius Garland is the final Wild Card as he takes a step forward, making it over players such as Bam Adebayo, Porzingis, Julius Randle, Pascal Siakam and Cade Cunningham.
Western Conference Starters: Stephen Curry, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic
Western Conference Reserves: Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson, Anthony Edwards, Jamal Murray
The Western Conference probably has six of the Top 10 players in the league, meaning one of them will be pushed out of the starting lineup; that’s Luka Doncic here, but it could easily be SGA instead. From there the rest of the roster may depend on the health of players like Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson, but both deserve a spot based on talent. Guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram, Bradley Beal, Domantas Sabonis, Jaren Jackson Jr. and, yes, Victor Wembanyama will be waiting just outside.
Evan Mobley was already a finalist for the award last season as a second-year player, and if the Cavaliers yet again have an elite defense and Mobley plays both big minutes and a full complement of games, he has a great shot at winning the award. He might be the best defender in the league when you account for playing time, and as the rest of the field ages, he could beat out the foul-happy Jaren Jackson Jr. for the award.
First Team All-Defense: Alex Caruso, Marcus Smart, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Evan Mobley, Bam Adebayo
Second Team All-Defense: Jrue Holiday, Jaden McDaniels, Draymond Green, Jaren Jackson Jr., Rudy Gobert
Brook Lopez, Joel Embiid, OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, Matisse Thybulle, Derrick White, Victor Wembanyama and Dillon Brooks would all like a word.
The Boston Celtics are currently signaling that they will go into the season with Jrue Holiday coming off of the bench. That won’t be every night even if they stick to the plan, as Al Horford will sit back-to-backs and other players will miss time. If Boston keeps Holiday as the Sixth Man, however, he will start enough games to up his numbers while still qualifying and providing solid connective tissue on offense and elite stopping ability on defense.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are built for regular season success, and they will surprise many by being firmly in the Western Conference’s Top 6 and thus avoid the Play-In Tournament. Finch’s ability to field a Top-10 defense and a solid offense will earn him the award, beating out Toronto’s Darko Rajaković and Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff.
The Boston Celtics will have the best record in the league, and it may not be particularly close. After swinging trades this summer for Porzingis and Holiday he will earn the award over James Jones, Jon Horst and Rafael Stone.
It’s nearly impossible to predict an award like “Clutch Player of the Year” because it’s largely a prediction of which player will hit the highest percentage on some low-percentage shots. Anthony Edwards will have the ball in his hands at the end of games, the Timberwolves will have a good record, and Edwards isn’t afraid of the moment.
After missing most of his second season due to injuries, Cade Cunningham will return this year and take a big step forward. His shot should start going down at a higher clip, he will accrue plenty of volume for the Pistons, and he will garner some All-Star attention and earn a Most Improved nod.
This year’s rookie class could be special. Scoot Henderson is an elite point guard prospect who should be a perennial All-Star. Chet Holmgren looks like a two-way star as a towering big with guard skills. The Thompson twins have truly special athleticism.
Yet Victor Wembanyama has already done things no one has seen before and that was in preseason games. He is a special player who will step onto the court as a teenager and revolutionize the game of basketball. He will unanimously win the Rookie of the Year award.
The All-Rookie teams are generally made up of the top players from the draft plus a few surprise interlocutors; we predict that Jaime Jaquez and Sasha Vezenkov crash the party.
First Team All-Rookie: Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, Ausar Thompson, Victor Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren
Second Team All-Rookie: Amen Thompson, Cason Wallace, Keyontae George, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Sasha Vezenkov
Who do you have winning the NBA’s awards?