Most Valuable Player (MVP): Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Last season, Kawhi Leonard put the NBA on notice. A tumultuous offseason saw the the soft-spoken Leonard go from hero to villain after severing ties with the NBA’s model franchise, the San Antonio Spurs. Critics lambasted Leonard for forcing his way out of a franchise that watched Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker harmoniously dominate the NBA. Then Leonard went and carried the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history.
This season, Leonard’s ascension to the elite echelon of the NBA won’t come as a surprise. Now playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard’s offensive and defensive prowess will allow Los Angeles’s baby brother franchise to finally challenge the Lakers as the city’s premier team. Though playing alongside another 2018-19 MVP finalist might hamper his chances, no one doubts that this is Leonard’s team to run. Should the Clippers ascend to previously unseen heights, Leonard will receive the lion’s share of the credit and, subsequently, win his first regular season MVP award
Honorable Mentions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis
Dark Horses: Luka Dončić, Kemba Walker, Nikola Jokić
Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY): Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
It is hard to bet against Rudy Gobert three-peating as Defensive Player of the Year. The two-time DPOY winner routinely alters games with his defensive prowess, forcing opposing teams to abandon their strengths and find alternative ways to score. A prolific shot-blocker, Gobert has averaged 2.2 blocks over the course of his career, leading the league in said category during the 2016-17 season (2.6 bpg). However, his numbers would look even better had teams not given up on trying to drive the lane on him. Look for voters to once again rewarded Gobert for anchoring a Jazz defense that led the league in defensive rating last season.
Honorable mentions: Joel Embiid, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Patrick Beverly, Draymond Green
Dark Horses: Otto Porter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Marcus Smart, Myles Turner
Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Coming out of Duke this year, Zion Williamson was widely considered the consensus No. 1 overall pick and a rare, generational talent. This preseason, Williamson justified such lofty praise, dominating opponents to the tune of 23 points per game (ppg), 6 rebounds per game (rpg) and 2 assists per game (apg) in 27 minutes per game all while shooting an otherworldly 71% from the field. No, that’s not a mistype. No, those aren’t his video game numbers. Those are his actual, real-life numbers.
The only three players averaging more points per game this season? Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry, three player included in the honorable mentions portion of the MVP race. Barring a startling regression or a stellar season by another rookie, this award is Williamson’s to lose.
Honorable Mentions: R.J. Barrett, Ja Morant
Dark Horses: Coby White, Cam Reddish, Jarrett Culver, Darius Garland
Most Improved Player: Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Originally, Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls was the front runner here, but instead the nod must go to Lonzo Ball. Ball, whose career has thus far been highlighted by shooting woes and an overzealous father, finally seems to have landed in a favorable spot, serving as the floor general for a rapidly rebuilding Pelicans organization. The former No. 2 pick of the Lakers, Ball has the opportunity to develop his game away from the bright lights of L.A. Furthermore, he seems to have severed his business relationship with his father, who, in this writer’s opinion, exploited his three sons for personal gain. For a better idea of how abrasive LaVar Ball was toward his sons, remember that he campaigned for Lonzo to be drafted No. 2 rather than No. 1, costing Lonzo $1.62 million dollars in guaranteed money and a potential $3.54 million overall. Next, he petitioned for Lonzo to reject shoe deals from established brands in order to start the Big Baller Brand which, two years later, has all but folded. Since the end of last season, Ball has wiped all references of the Big Baller Brand from his Twitter page and publicly admitted that the brand’s shoe would routinely “explode” on him during games. Finally, he convinced his two youngest sons to abandon their college aspirations in favor of playing professional basketball in Lithuania, essentially costing LiAngelo Ball any chance at reaching the professional level.
Absent of such suffocating distractions, it’s not difficult to envision Ball developing into the player the Lakers hoped he would when they selected him No. 2 overall in 2017, especially considering he’ll be playing alongside a cast of Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram and Williamson. Ball’s passing prowess is elite. His defense ranks him amongst the upper echelon of point guards. If his head is in the right space, look for Ball to develop into a perennial all-star.
Honorable Mentions: Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Huerter, Jaren Jackson Jr., Terry Rozier
Dark Horses: Anfernee Simons, Kevin Knox, Dejounte Murray
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
The popular pick right now seems to be Kyle Kuzma, who will likely be relegated to a bench role following the acquisition of Anthony Davis. However, it is tough to pick against Lou Williams, who last season led a relatively weak Clippers roster to a postseason berth. This season, Williams will have the chance to either spell or play alongside Leonard and Paul George, each of whom should elevate his game. It is not out of the realm of possibility that playing third-fiddle to two franchise cornerstones will cause his numbers to dip, but if Williams is tasked with anchoring a second unit on a championship caliber roster, look for the voters to reward him with a second consecutive Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Honorable Mentions: Kyle Kuzma, Terrence Ross, Dennis Schroeder, Kelly Oubre
Dark Horses: Enes Kanter, Fred VanVleet, Spencer Dinwiddie
Coach of the Year: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets
Mike Malone got the short end of the stick in Sacramento. Back in 2014, Malone, then a second-year coach, was tasked with restoring a desolate Kings franchise. After two consecutive seasons of winning 28 games, Malone’s Kings began the 2014-15 season with a 11-13 record. While unimpressive on the surface, it would have been good enough for a 10-win increase had they maintained that pace, despite an underwhelming roster headlined by volatile superstar DeMarcus Cousins.
Fast forward to 2018-19 and Malone coached the Denver Nuggets to the second best record in the NBA, only behind the powerhouse Golden State Warriors. Here is the kicker: on paper, the Nuggets aren’t a top-two team. In fact, they might not even be a top-10 team. What Malone did was fine-tune a roster full of useful pieces and massage them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. He formulated a game plan that fit his personnel, allowing Nikola Jokić to navigate the floor and transform into a triple-double threat from the center position. He placed Jamal Murray in an ideal position to improve upon his breakout sophomore campaign. Malone even found a way to coerce Malik Beasley and Monte Morris, two players who hadn’t averaged more than 3 ppg durng their careers, into viable bench contributors. Malone should have won this award last year. This season, the NBA is ready to notice him.
Honorable Mentions: Quin Snyder, Frank Vogel, Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens
Dark Horses: Jim Boylan, Alvin Gentry