By: Dan Grant and Dave Osubronie
With the Blue Jays storming towards the playoffs and the NFL season in full swing, the NBA’s return to training camp this week seemed a little subdued here in Toronto. A little under the radar.
Here at the Same Page, we noticed so that you didn’t have to. That’s our made-up job. We debated at first whether or not to tread lightly, to dip a toe in the water, to walk before we ran.
Then, as usual, we said ‘screw it!’
Without further ado, here are your ‘way-too-early’ player predictions for the NBA season.
Rookie of the Year
Osubronie: Although he slipped to #8 in the 2015 draft, Stanley Johnson has a good chance at surpassing the touted franchise picks that were chosen before him. While Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor will attract most of the attention, Johnson will have time to improve under the radar. Already being compared to Ron Artest because of his size and aggressive defense ability, he boasts speed and offensive weapons that could have him resembling Jimmy Butler by season’s end. Since I have an affinity for defensive minded two way players, Stanley Johnson is my bold choice for Rookie of the Year.
Johnson has already impressed Stan Van Gundy during Summer League and the first Pistons practice of the year. He will have to continue to prove his worth very early in the season to establish a starting spot on the roster. After playing his college career as a small forward, he has the versatility to play multiple positions. SVG has already hinted at Johnson playing the 2 spot which will only help him improve his offensive prowess. With a mid range jumper that consists of everything from step backs to floaters, the potential for Johnson to score 15-20 points per game looks very realistic. These numbers may not be as high when the shot-chucking Brandon Jennings returns from his Achilles injury, but Johnson is still a versatile rookie with the best chance at the award.
Grant: He wasn’t the first pick in the draft and if you pulled a re-draft exercise in five years, I think there’s a chance he’ll be outside the top 5, but as of now, I believe that the Philadelphia 76ers Jahlil Okafor is your 2015-16 NBA Rookie of the Year.
Okafor has a polished post game that has been likened to Al Jefferson. He’s been described by many outlets as nimble, with great feet and great offensive instincts. And at 6’11 and 270 pounds, he doesn’t have any growing to do. With Joel Embiid doing his best Sam Bowie impression, Okafor is going to get as much run as he wants for a horrible Sixers team, which looks like it might be the recipe to winning the ROY in today’s NBA. Look at the team records of the past five winners:
2014-15 Andrew Wiggins: Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66)
2013-14 Michael Carter-Williams: Philadelphia 76ers (19-63)
2012-13 Damian Lillard: Portland Trail Blazers (33-49)
2011-12 Kyrie Irving: Cleveland Cavaliers (21-45) *lockout year
2010-11 Blake Griffin: Los Angeles Clippers (32-50)
Pretty horrendous! But also, a pretty clear-cut recipe. Be ‘the Man’ on a terrible team and you can put up the gaudy individual numbers that Rookie of the Year voters like to see. The only knock on Okafor is his motivation, so we’ll see if he can keep focused through an 82 game schedule. If he does, the award is his.
Most Improved Player
Grant: This years post-post-hype sleeper is the Milwaukee Bucks. Many anointed the 2013-14 Bucks as a team that would probably compete for a playoff spot, after they signed a bunch of middle of the road veterans. Then OJ Mayo got addicted to his namesake and they flamed out badly enough that they landed the #2 overall pick. After adding head coach Jason Kidd and the talented Jabari Parker before the 2014-15 season, many felt that the Bucks would start from scratch and compete a few years down the road; the Bucks again shook the critics, roaring out of the gate with a weird player rotation, weirder on-floor combinations and tantalizing athleticism. Even with a season-ending injury to Parker, they finished the year 41-41. They added Greg Monroe in one of the most surprising moves of the off-season and look poised to compete in the Eastern Conference.
At the centre of this whirlwind was the kid they call the Greek Freak: Giannis Antetekounmpo.
The strides he made last year were noticeable (pun intended!). He increased his FG% to 49%, nearly a ten percent jump from the year before. He improved every facet of his offensive game; I don’t have enough space to here to illustrate just how different he looked from the long-limbed Bambi-like player he was the year before. After Parker went down, Coach Kidd began playing Giannis at multiple positions, including power forward, and he began to dominate. In March, Antetekounmpo averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while posting a 53% FG% and a True Shooting percentage of 59.2%. By comparison, that True Shooting rate was identical to what Anthony Davis and Klay Thompson posted for the 2014-15 season. Now, I’m someone who always says beware of a small sample size, but what it does show is that Antetekounmpo has brilliant talent hidden inside that crazy body. And he’s still just 20 years old. He’s going to be a superstar.
Osubronie: Despite suffering one of the most gruesome injuries seen in years, Paul George found his way back to the court within a year. There were reports he could have returned earlier but with the Indiana Pacers out of a playoff spot, there was no need for him to rush back. He was just starting to get his stroke back before the end of the Pacers disappointing season.
The Pacers have a new look this year after losing Roy Hibbert and David West to the Lakers and Spurs. Fortunately for them, Paul George is a top 5 player when healthy so there’s no reason to think he cannot lead his new teammates back into the playoffs. With the additions of Monta Ellis and Ian Mahinmi, he will have some help on both the offensive and defensive end. The only challenge I foresee for George this year will be his transition from a small forward to a stretch power forward. While he may get taken advantage of by larger veteran players under the rim to start the season, his versatility and speed will enable him to quickly adapt to the new position. He is constantly compared to another player with a similar all around game, who was reluctant to transition to the 4 spot and he seems to be doing OK. I think PG will do just fine as well. With his move to a new position, George looks to me like a lock to win the Most Improved Player Award.
All NBA First Team
Russell Westbrook – Despite being injured last year, Westbrook managed to record 11 triple doubles. His PPG numbers should go down slightly with the return of Kevin Durant to the floor, but look for his assist and rebounds to increase, practically guaranteeing him a triple double every night.
Stephen Curry – Defending MVP & NBA Champion. As is always the case with Curry, as long as he is healthy, he will continue to decimate opposing point guards. Also, the world is a better place with more Steph and Riley Curry highlights.
Anthony Davis – The “Brow” has shown multiple times that he is ready to dominate the league. Anthony Davis also claims to have added a three point shot to his arsenal this year. If this is true even the top heavy Western conference is not safe.
LeBron James- Until we discover life on other planets, LeBron is the best basketball player in the universe. Period.
Since my counterpart went with the safest picks possible (shots fired), I decided to shake things up a bit.
‘But…but where is LeBron James, Daniel?’ you ask, a dumbfounded look on your face. ‘Oh, you silly goose’ you laugh. ‘You forgot him!’
I did not.
Now before you start throwing rotten vegetables at me (I know you have some ready), please allow me to explain. As my cohort stated, LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. I agree with that. But as we saw last season, LeBron James of 2015 is not LeBron James of 2008. He’s older, wiser and needs more rest. He played just 69 games last year, taking a mid-season sabbatical and coming back reinvigorated. He’s made eight straight All NBA first teams. He’s also gone to the Finals five seasons in a row, something that hasn’t been accomplished by a player since Bill Russell with the 1960’s Boston Celtics.
Suffice it to say, LeBron James is probably pretty friggin’ tired.
An article was released today in which James stated that the Cavaliers are committed to featuring Kevin Love more this season, and while that might be lip-service, I’m not so sure. Kyrie Irving is hurt and might not be back at full strength until January. Using Love as the bell-cow during the regular season so that James can rest as much as possible makes a lot of sense to me. I think you’ll see James and Love running the pick and roll like gangbusters to start the season, and when Irving comes back in January, James will take a more tertiary role, as he gears up for another punishing playoff run.
I also might be completely out of my mind. But I do think LeBron, who calls himself a historian of the game, has seen the success San Antonio has had with resting their players over the past decade, and isn’t at all opposed to doing the same thing if it will achieve him his ultimate goal. LeBron has nothing left to prove in the regular season. It’s all about titles at this point.
So that’s why my choices are what they are. Curry and Davis are automatic. KD will be in eff-you mode. James Harden worries me the most, because the addition of Ty Lawson will either work really well or blow up in the Rockets face. Plus his off-season has been interesting, to say the least. And Boogie? Well, the voters still like having a traditional center in there, and I think Boogie is the most talented one in the NBA.
Most Valuable Player
Osubronie: LeBron is the best player and Curry may currently be the most enjoyable to watch but Kevin Durant sat out most of last season after winning the 2013-14 MVP award. With this being a contract year and with him being pissed off at missing most of last year, I see absolutely no reason why he won’t be back at the podium by the end of the season, telling us once again who the real MVP is.
Grant: A good choice David, but Kevin Durant is so 2014.
Every now and again, we get to witness a player make the supreme leap. It’s usually a player with a middling supporting cast, who has to push himself to the absolute limits of his powers to drag his team to the playoffs. We’re talking 1971 Kareem, 1978 Moses, 1987 MJ, 2007 LeBron.
I think that after this year, we’ll be able to add 2015 Anthony Davis to that list. After posting the 11th highest PER of all-time last year, the man they called ‘The Brow’ is about to furrow his namesake in the general direction of the entire NBA. LeBron might still be the most cerebral, Durant the best scorer, Curry the most lethal and Harden the most savvy, but Davis, with his combination of athleticism, talent, youth and size, is poised to assume the mantle of the leagues best all-around player.
When you can block shots like this
And make shots like this
And dunk like this
It’s really not fair.
Anthony Davis for MVP in 2015-16.