Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant says Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the greatest basketball player ever

Thunder give P.J. Dozier No. 35, Kevin Durant’s old number

Dozier says he wanted to honor cousin Reggie Lewis

Thunder give P.J. Dozier No. 35, Kevin Durant’s old number

Dozier says he wanted to honor cousin Reggie Lewis

Thunder give P.J. Dozier No. 35, Kevin Durant’s old number

Dozier says he wanted to honor cousin Reggie Lewis

The Thunder gave Kevin Durant’s jersey number to an undrafted rookie

The Thunder Gave Kevin Durant’s Number to an Undrafted Rookie

Oh boy, it’s the first day of the NBA season and we’ve already got some drama brewing.

Kevin Durant, you may remember, spent some time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he wore the number 35. He’s not there any more, but there will be a No. 35 on the court for OKC this season.

P.J. Dozier, an undrafted rookie who wore No. 15 at South Carolina, wore 35 in the preseason with the Mavs. The Mavs cut him and he signed a two-way deal with the Thunder. The Thunder gave him... you guessed it, No. 35.

This did not go over well with Durant’s agent, Rich Kleiman.

It’s tough to see this as anything but a slight to Durant. The Thunder have no obligation to accommodate a guy who will likely spend most of the season bouncing between the G-League and the big club, even if Kyle Singler already claimed his college number. (Dozier says No. 35 is a tribute to his second cousin, former Celtic Reggie Lewis.) After all, they waited until Paul George’s arrival to give away James Harden’s old number.

FILE - In this June 7, 2017, file photo, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) defends Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half of Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals in Cleveland. The Warriors and Cavaliers are being penciled in to meet in the NBA Finals once again. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

NBA Opening Night: Seven Storylines to Watch

The wait is over! No more listening to NBA writers drone on about national parks on their podcasts. No more waiting for Charles Barkley to forsake teams who rely on three-pointers. And no more wondering if Mike D’Antoni is going to bring back the Pringles mustache. (Unfortunately, he's not.) The 2017–18 NBA season is finally here, and opening night is filled with exciting storylines sure to result in at least one passive-aggressive Instagram post.

We know the NBA season is starting a little earlier this year, and it’s hardly feeling like fall around much of the country. So if you’re not fully ready for the start of the season—or you just a little reminder of what’s going on—here’s what to watch for on opening night. (Reminder: Cavs-Celtics tips at 8 p.m. ET followed by Warriors-Rockets at 10:30 p.m.)

1. The Kyrie Reaction

What kind of reception will Kyrie Irving get in Cleveland? Irving hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers history with his series-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He destroyed much of that goodwill this summer when he a) requested a trade and then b) decided to not-so-subtly trash both the Cavs and the city of Cleveland after being sent to Boston. Cleveland, of course, has a bit of a sordid history with homecomings, like when some fans threw batteries at LeBron James in his first game at Cleveland as a member of the Heat in 2010. Irving won’t draw the anywhere near the same level of vitriol, and you have to imagine the Cavs will at least give him the obligatory tribute video. (I like when they set these videos to a OneRepublic song but maybe that’s just me.) Watching how the fans as well as Irving’s former teammates react should provide the first juicy moment of the season, non-pregame-handshake division. I’m looking forward to everyone’s reactions being dissected like the Zapruder film on Twitter.

2. Cleveland’s Crunch-Time Lineup

Instead of trying to fix their defensive issues from last season, the Cavs are leaning in to their best offensive tendencies to begin the year. Kevin Love will start at center, and Jae Crowder at forward, which means Cleveland will shoot threes early and often. Sure, Love won’t exactly protect the rim on defense, but Cleveland is betting that most nights, an offense led by LeBron James will be able to score more points than your favorite team. The issue? Starting guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade don’t exactly fit the 3-and-D criteria, so they may derail the Cavs’ bombs-away attack. If Boston and Cleveland are playing each other close in the fourth quarter, who the Cavs put on the court could reveal how much faith Ty Lue actually has in some of his new additions.

3. Boston’s Chemistry

If anyone can overcome an overhaul of more than two-thirds of his roster, it’s boy genius Brad Stevens. The Celtics are going to look even more new than Cleveland this season. How will Irving get along with Gordon Hayward? Who gets the ball in clutch situations? How will Jayson and Jalen hold up against elite competition? While the Cavs are moreso mixing in role players to their current system, Stevens and the Celtics will be building a bit from scratch this season. Opening night will (hopefully) be the first real test of how the new parts respond to adversity.

4. Will the Warriors Care?

Golden State has a habit of putzing around for two quarters, letting Zaza Pachulia play too much, and then turning on the jets in the third before burying opponents with ease. Will they get up for opening night? The Dubs will be hosting the revamped Rockets, who won a game at Oracle last season. Will the addition of Chris Paul give Golden State any kind of trouble? The Warriors love disrespecting opponents, and a particularly savage way to do that would be to treat opening night like a January game against the Pacers—especially when they know Paul and James Harden will be giving 110%. In an ideal scenario, the Warriors will be locked in from the opening tip but the Rockets still manage to keep things close for 48 minutes. If Golden State runs a bunch of Pachulia and Shaun Livingston post-ups for two quarters and win by 20 any way, then Houston’s high-risk offseason could already start to feel like an unworthy gamble.

5. How Fresh are Harden and Paul?

Perhaps the most important part of the Harden-Paul pairing—besides bringing together two of the best seven players in the NBA—is what it could do for each of them at the end of games. Both Paul and Harden’s most recent playoff defeats were marked by ineffectiveness down the stretch, largely because each player was carrying a ridiculous burden for their team. Now, Harden and Paul can hand the keys of the offense off to each other instead of having to create every single second of every possession. Again, this will be dependent on a close game, but keep an eye on how Harden and Paul look in the last few minutes of the fourth. If both have extra energy, both could be in a position to improve their efficiency in the clutch.

6. Stephen Curry

Remember Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP? Curry’s been overshadowed by Kevin Durant since the Finals, from KD winning Finals MVP, to Steve Kerr forgetting to thank Curry at the parade, to KD getting wall-to-wall coverage (rightfully so) for his Twitter antics. Though Durant is thought of as the NBA’s biggest challenger to LeBron, Curry is still the most important player on the Warriors. I can’t state this enough: Curry’s shooting ability is the single most devastating skill in the NBA, and it’s a skill so great that it’s changed the landscape of the NBA. Opening night could be the start of Curry’s third MVP campaign, and it’s time to start having serious discussions about Curry’s legacy and where he’ll ultimately fall in the league’s pantheon of greats.

7. Dunks

Seriously. Dunks are awesome! I hope we see lots of them tonight.

NBA Opening Night: Seven Storylines to Watch

The wait is over! No more listening to NBA writers drone on about national parks on their podcasts. No more waiting for Charles Barkley to forsake teams who rely on three-pointers. And no more wondering if Mike D’Antoni is going to bring back the Pringles mustache. (Unfortunately, he's not.) The 2017–18 NBA season is finally here, and opening night is filled with exciting storylines sure to result in at least one passive-aggressive Instagram post.

We know the NBA season is starting a little earlier this year, and it’s hardly feeling like fall around much of the country. So if you’re not fully ready for the start of the season—or you just a little reminder of what’s going on—here’s what to watch for on opening night. (Reminder: Cavs-Celtics tips at 8 p.m. ET followed by Warriors-Rockets at 10:30 p.m.)

1. The Kyrie Reaction

What kind of reception will Kyrie Irving get in Cleveland? Irving hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers history with his series-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He destroyed much of that goodwill this summer when he a) requested a trade and then b) decided to not-so-subtly trash both the Cavs and the city of Cleveland after being sent to Boston. Cleveland, of course, has a bit of a sordid history with homecomings, like when some fans threw batteries at LeBron James in his first game at Cleveland as a member of the Heat in 2010. Irving won’t draw the anywhere near the same level of vitriol, and you have to imagine the Cavs will at least give him the obligatory tribute video. (I like when they set these videos to a OneRepublic song but maybe that’s just me.) Watching how the fans as well as Irving’s former teammates react should provide the first juicy moment of the season, non-pregame-handshake division. I’m looking forward to everyone’s reactions being dissected like the Zapruder film on Twitter.

2. Cleveland’s Crunch-Time Lineup

Instead of trying to fix their defensive issues from last season, the Cavs are leaning in to their best offensive tendencies to begin the year. Kevin Love will start at center, and Jae Crowder at forward, which means Cleveland will shoot threes early and often. Sure, Love won’t exactly protect the rim on defense, but Cleveland is betting that most nights, an offense led by LeBron James will be able to score more points than your favorite team. The issue? Starting guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade don’t exactly fit the 3-and-D criteria, so they may derail the Cavs’ bombs-away attack. If Boston and Cleveland are playing each other close in the fourth quarter, who the Cavs put on the court could reveal how much faith Ty Lue actually has in some of his new additions.

3. Boston’s Chemistry

If anyone can overcome an overhaul of more than two-thirds of his roster, it’s boy genius Brad Stevens. The Celtics are going to look even more new than Cleveland this season. How will Irving get along with Gordon Hayward? Who gets the ball in clutch situations? How will Jayson and Jalen hold up against elite competition? While the Cavs are moreso mixing in role players to their current system, Stevens and the Celtics will be building a bit from scratch this season. Opening night will (hopefully) be the first real test of how the new parts respond to adversity.

4. Will the Warriors Care?

Golden State has a habit of putzing around for two quarters, letting Zaza Pachulia play too much, and then turning on the jets in the third before burying opponents with ease. Will they get up for opening night? The Dubs will be hosting the revamped Rockets, who won a game at Oracle last season. Will the addition of Chris Paul give Golden State any kind of trouble? The Warriors love disrespecting opponents, and a particularly savage way to do that would be to treat opening night like a January game against the Pacers—especially when they know Paul and James Harden will be giving 110%. In an ideal scenario, the Warriors will be locked in from the opening tip but the Rockets still manage to keep things close for 48 minutes. If Golden State runs a bunch of Pachulia and Shaun Livingston post-ups for two quarters and win by 20 any way, then Houston’s high-risk offseason could already start to feel like an unworthy gamble.

5. How Fresh are Harden and Paul?

Perhaps the most important part of the Harden-Paul pairing—besides bringing together two of the best seven players in the NBA—is what it could do for each of them at the end of games. Both Paul and Harden’s most recent playoff defeats were marked by ineffectiveness down the stretch, largely because each player was carrying a ridiculous burden for their team. Now, Harden and Paul can hand the keys of the offense off to each other instead of having to create every single second of every possession. Again, this will be dependent on a close game, but keep an eye on how Harden and Paul look in the last few minutes of the fourth. If both have extra energy, both could be in a position to improve their efficiency in the clutch.

6. Stephen Curry

Remember Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP? Curry’s been overshadowed by Kevin Durant since the Finals, from KD winning Finals MVP, to Steve Kerr forgetting to thank Curry at the parade, to KD getting wall-to-wall coverage (rightfully so) for his Twitter antics. Though Durant is thought of as the NBA’s biggest challenger to LeBron, Curry is still the most important player on the Warriors. I can’t state this enough: Curry’s shooting ability is the single most devastating skill in the NBA, and it’s a skill so great that it’s changed the landscape of the NBA. Opening night could be the start of Curry’s third MVP campaign, and it’s time to start having serious discussions about Curry’s legacy and where he’ll ultimately fall in the league’s pantheon of greats.

7. Dunks

Seriously. Dunks are awesome! I hope we see lots of them tonight.

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

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1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

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1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

?

1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

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1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

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1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

72 Reasons to Watch the 2017-18 NBA Season

With the NBA tipping off its 72nd season on Tuesday, here are 72 reasons to watch in 2017–?18, in case a budding Warriors dynasty, a LeBron James contract year, and a compelling new pack of superstar-laden challengers wasn’t enough for you.

(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)

?

1. The NBA’s offensive boom shows no signs of abating. Last season, the average NBA team scored 105.6 PPG, the highest mark since 1991 and well, well above the 96.3 PPG that teams averaged just five years ago. The pace-and-space phenomenon has trickled out in all sorts of ways: three-point shooting records, 50-point games, triple-doubles galore, super small lineups, and more. While some voices lament the Warriors’ dominance, remember that their influence has made for a far more entertaining and electric product. — Ben Golliver

2. Kyrie Irving, out from LeBron James’s shadow and straight into the Boston fishbowl. It’s never quite clear if Mr. Very Much Woke knows exactly what he is doing or if he has no clue what he’s getting into. Either way, his split from Cleveland intensifies an already lively rivalry and sets up the new-look Celtics as perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. — BG

3. Kevin Durant’s run at the throne. There’s no use waiting around for LeBron’s decline, but with every passing year, Durant inches closer. The NBA could have a new top player by season’s end. — Rob Mahoney

4. The Warriors’ understanding that their place in society extends beyond the court. Even before the season started, Golden State had already expertly maneuvered through a tricky dilemma concerning its White House visit and come out loudly in favor of its basic core values of decency and mutual respect. There seems to be a clear organizational alignment—from ownership to Steve Kerr and on to the players—that the Warriors will participate in and help drive the conversation when politics and sports intersect. There’s no telling how many flare-ups and controversies will arise this season, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver is lucky that his league’s flagship franchise looks ready to rise to this moment. — BG

5. Gregg Popovich’s willingness to thoughtfully consider current events and to unleash biting commentary on the powers that be. As the NBA heads straight for a political minefield that has consumed the NFL, Pop’s blunt, fearless and fair-minded talk provides genuine support to a group of players that has already gone back and forth with the commander-in-chief. — BG

6. A superstar turn for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are still some i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but no young player in the league is better equipped to break through. — RM

7. The Lonzo Ball Effect. Sure, the hype currently exceeds the reality around the Lakers’ No. 2 pick, but Ball’s passing ability and pace command clearly set him apart from most one-and-done rookies. He’s bound to struggle with turnovers and his shooting will likely prove to be inconsistent, but Ball may well prove to have a bigger stylistic impact on his team than any teenager since... LeBron James. — BG

8. The undeniable flair of Miloš Teodosi?. In all seriousness: it would be a worthy investment of your time to watch every assist Teodosi? throws this year. Every. Single. One. — RM

9. Some long overdue diversity in the broadcast booth. Doris Burke, queen of the NBA, will become the league’s first full-time national TV analyst this season. Sarah Kustok (YES) and Kara Lawson (NBC Sports Washington) will join Stephanie Ready (Fox Sports Southeast) and Ann Myers Drysdale (Fox Sports Arizona) as regular color analysts on the team broadcast scene. Ros Gold-Onwude’s move to Turner Sports is just icing on the cake. — RM

10. Another round in an endless cycle of history-making for LeBron James. The four-time MVP will almost certainly become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points during his age-33 season, eclipsing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (34 years, 104 days). He needs just 1,213 points to hit the threshold and has easily surpassed that total during each of his 14 seasons. James also has a good shot at becoming the 11th player (and first forward) to reach 8,000 career assists. — BG

11. New blood on Christmas. The league office decided to bet big on two up-and-comers for its annual holiday quintuple-header, adding Philadelphia and Minnesota to the mix this season. This year will potentially mark Christmas Day debuts for four No. 1 picks and a No. 3 pick: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. — BG

12. The NBA’s reformed schedule, which starts a week earlier, totally eliminates the dreaded “four games in five nights” stretches. It ensures that marquee nationally-televised games don’t fall on back-to-backs. Last season, multiple high-profile showdowns were sabotaged by the strategic resting of star players. The new schedule framework should significantly reduce those major letdowns. — BG

13. Golden State and Cleveland look destined to become the first pair of teams to face each other in four straight Finals, but it’s difficult to overstate how different the Cavaliers will look this season. LeBron James is the only Cleveland starter from the 2017 Finals to open the season in a similar role; Kyrie Irving is gone, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith have been demoted, and Kevin Love has shifted positions. Two other key reserves who played Finals minutes—Deron Williams and Richard Jefferson—are out too.

James’s overhauled cast features a long list of notable newcomers—Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jeff Green—that will likely spend most of the season gelling. Bottom line: Don’t assume that the 2018 Finals would mirror the 2017 Finals just because it features the same two franchises. — BG

14. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, picking up their bromance right where they left off. Peanut butter and jelly might somehow be an undersell. — RM

15. The baby Raptors. With much of last year’s reserves gone, it’s time for Toronto’s deep store of up-and-comers to do their part. Hold on to your butts. — RM

16. An MVP field so deep and clustered that the “Teammates will split votes” truism no longer applies. With six possible candidates now crunched onto three of the West’s top teams, compelling friendly-fire debates are bound to emerge. Steph or KD? Harden or CP? Russ or PG-13? Voters better start stretching now in preparation for the mental gymnastics that will be required to weigh superteam stars against solo acts like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. — BG

17. A chance for Rudy Gay to rework a reputation that went from “Promising lottery talent” to “Advanced stats pariah” to “Perennial loser” in the blink of an eye, without stopping on anything resembling glory or postseason impact. San Antonio is the ideal place to fade gracefully, but Gay is still young enough at 31 to be more than a hanger-on. — BG

18. Stiffer penalties for the slide-under closeout. Unfortunately, one of the dirtiest basketball acts—moving under a defenseless shooter while he’s off the ground—was the turning point of the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Spurs and Warriors. The NBA responded swiftly and smartly to Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury with rule changes that enable referees to assess flagrant or technical fouls for undercutting a shooter. — BG

19. The West’s ongoing arms race. Houston and Oklahoma City both made big deals this summer for the sake of challenging Golden State. Don’t expect either to sit quietly the rest of the way—not with active traders at the helm in both front offices and a fascinating buyout season ahead. — RM

20. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dark horse candidacy for MVP. Go ahead and pencil in a spot on your ballot for the basketball anomaly no one knows how to stop and few know how to score on. — RM

21. ‘Fear the Deer’ nights in Milwaukee. Alternate jerseys are a nice touch, but there’s something special to the pageantry of pairing a fresh look with its own alternate court design. — RM

22. Russell Westbrook’s latest reinvention. After playing 1B to Kevin Durant for years and then playing 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D without Durant last season, the 2017 MVP gets perhaps his best setup to date. This year, he’ll be The Man and he’ll have real help in the form of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Will he thrive in the best of both worlds? Or, will his domineering style leave Thunder fans, and potentially his new star teammates, wanting? — BG

23. A fearsome, flexible Thunder defense … and Carmelo Anthony. The prospect of working around Paul George and Andre Roberson on the perimeter is daunting. Outfoxing Steven Adams in rotation is no small feat. OKC has the personnel to match up with almost any offense in the league, if only it can find somewhere to put Melo. — RM

24. The very real chance that a bunch of Summer League heroes—Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and John Collins—will log meaningful minutes right out of the gate. Instant gratification. — BG

25. Frenetic rookie big man Jordan Bell emerging immediately as a garbage time All-Star in Golden State. Switch the channel during a blowout at your own risk. — BG

26. Dragan Bender, healthy again and free of expectations after a forgettable rookie year. Still a teenager, the 2016 lottery pick gets a second chance to make a first impression for a Suns organization that badly needs him to deliver on the pre-draft hype as soon as possible. — BG

27. The off chance that, during another late-season losing streak, Devin Booker puts his mind to chasing a new career high. — BG

28. George Hill’s new dual life in Sacramento: starting point guard by day and De’Aaron Fox’s driver’s ed instructor by night. The sooner the lightning-quick rookie is ready to take the keys the better for the Kings’ long-term outlook. In the meantime, the unselfish Hill is the right guy to hold down the fort and set up a successful transition. — BG

29. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons aren’t the only rookie ballhandlers injecting new life into once-proud franchises. Meet Dennis Smith Jr., the high-flying and basket-attacking lottery pick who brings much-needed athleticism to the aging and fading Mavericks. Could he sneak into the Rookie of the Year conversation? — BG

30. Love a good comeback story? Then look no further than the Grizzlies, who have somehow collected Chandler Parsons (a $94 million man who barely saw the court last year due to injuries), Wayne Selden (a highly-touted high school prospect who went undrafted), Tyreke Evans (a former Rookie of the Year who has played just 65 games combined over the last two seasons), Ben McLemore (the latest Kings cast-off to get a badly-needed fresh start), and Mario Chalmers (a two-time champ in Miami who is back after missing last season entirely) on the same roster. How many careers can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol resurrect at once? — BG

31. A trigger-happier Mike Conley. The world is a better place when Money Mike comes around every ball screen ready to let loose. — RM

32. David Fizdale’s next bit of rousing press conference oratory. Ready the t-shirt presses. — RM

33. The playground-style All-Star draft. While the NBA should have gone further to improve the quality of its All-Star Game by allowing fans, players and media members to vote for the 24 best players regardless of conference, their compromise solution will still be fun. Rather than have the East face the West, top vote-getters like LeBron James and Stephen Curry will get to select their teammates from a pool of All-Stars. Will James and Curry pick their teammates? Their former teammates? Will they pick each other’s rivals to spite each other? Which top star will be unfairly snubbed? And who will be the last player selected? All of those questions should make for great theater, jumpstarting an event that has felt increasingly pointless and one-sided over the last five years. ?— BG ?

34. Thanks to a major westward movement of talent, the first-time All-Star and snub conversations are both extra spicy this year. In the East, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Goran Dragic could all make their first appearances. In the West, potential first-timers Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and C.J. McCollum could all have trouble sneaking in. — BG

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35. Every glorious (and anxious) minute of Joel Embiid. — RM

36. Ben Simmons and the nightly mismatches he creates. The 2016 No. 1 pick is a point guard in a power forward’s body playing for a Philadelphia team that might just be creative enough to use him as a small–ball center at times. What’s the best way for opponents to handle that walking, talking, no-look passing, dunking predicament? And what line-up benefits can the Sixers extract while building around such a unique commodity? — BG

37. Brett Brown, finally stepping out of the darkness. Philadelphia made a brilliant hire in Brown, whose cheer buoyed the franchise through years of losing. The man has earned a core as promising as this one. — RM

38. The warm reception for Zach Randolph’s first game back in Memphis. All heart. — RM

39. A new, inverted sort of two-man game between Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris. — RM

40. The ongoing tension between the Nuggets and their rising expectations. With the justified hope of a playoff berth—the first in five years—comes the pressure to measure up. — RM

41. One more chance for the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors frontcourt pairing. The best-case: Utah finally has its two franchise bigs healthy and their shared size, skill and commanding presence stands as a nightly nightmare for opponents in a San Antonio-like manner. The worst-case: The NBA’s downsizing trend has passed this duo by, and Favors is reduced to a smaller role or, given his expiring contract, turned into a midseason trade chip. It would be a shame if these two never truly sustained their high-level ceiling. — BG

42. The strange, ongoing subplot between the Mavericks and Nerlens Noel. Oh, how quickly a promising trade can sour. A presumed building block center will wind up coming off the bench for a lottery team while playing on an qualifying offer. — RM

43. An ever-improving and constantly overlooked Anthony Davis. The transcendent four-time All-Star is quite possibly the only thing standing between New Orleans and a total shake-up, not to mention a DeMarcus Cousins trade. — BG

44. Houston’s push for smaller and stranger lineup combinations. When the Warriors are the elephant in the room, why not try P.J. Tucker at center? — RM

45. Double the lobs for Clint Capela, who should make a killing as a DeAndre Jordan Starter Kit. — RM

46. Brooklyn should be marginally more interesting thanks to the arrival of D’Angelo Russell, but the biggest story about their success (or lack thereof) once again concerns their pick. Thanks to the Kyrie Irving blockbuster, Cleveland now owns the rights to Brooklyn’s first-round pick in June’s draft, which will almost certainly fall in the lottery. How will the Nets’ early play influence the Cavaliers’ willingness to trade the piece in a midseason deal? If Brooklyn starts fast and the pick’s value drops, does Cleveland pull the trigger? Or, if Brooklyn struggles out of the gate, does Cleveland find itself weighing juicier offers? No matter how it plays out, the also-ran Nets should once again wind up playing a major role, tangentially, in shaping the East’s power balance at the top. — BG

47. Omri Casspi, at long last, on a contender. A great team player joins the greatest team going. — RM

48. Ricky Rubio, feeling the love. How freeing it is to play for a team that isn’t trying to trade you at every opportunity. — RM

49. The Jazz, uptempo. The slowest team in the league last year played nearly 10 possessions faster in the preseason. What might that mean for a team built around its deliberate execution? — RM

50. Portland’s scoring brought to perfect balance. One might think the skill sets of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are too similar for high efficiency. The Blazer offense—with its churning fluidity and many misdirections—begs to differ. — RM

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51. The search for the right lineups in Boston, featuring every wacky possibility imaginable. The Celtics’ roster is stocked with tantilizing possibilities and led by a coach creative enough to try them all. — RM

52. The Caris LeVert experience. LeVert is too erratic to be destined for any one fate, but he’s the rare net for whom great things seem possible. — RM

53. Myles Turner, on an island. We’ve seen what the upstart 21-year-old forward can do while Paul George, Jeff Teague, and Monta Ellis control the ball. Now we see Turner left to his own devices. — RM

54. The Great Dwight Howard versus Cody Zeller debate. Yes, this one is for the basketball nerds, but there’s good reason to track how this unfolds. On one hand, there’s the aging former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star with an established relationship with his new coach and questions about his mobility, free-throw shooting, offensive effectiveness and personality. On the other hand, there’s the relatively anonymous up-and-coming advanced stats darling who fits more naturally with Charlotte’s other pieces. How will coach Steve Clifford handle his two centers? And how will Howard handle himself if his role starts to shrink? — BG

55. The genuine surprise of watching John Wall. To see Wall rev up in the open court is to have no idea what comes next. — RM

56. Washington knocking on the door of the East’s upper tier … and yelling loud enough to let everyone in the neighborhood know. — RM

57. Contract Year Jusuf Nurkic. Everything is lined up for the Bosnian Beast in Portland: He’s in good shape, he has a starting role, he can count on major minutes, and he plays with trustworthy guards that make a point to keep him involved. Sounds like a great formula for a major payday. — BG

58. All the ways that James Harden and Chris Paul will make each other’s lives easier. Tension can be riveting, but at the heart of Houston’s superstar pairing is the creative spirit of two fantastic playmakers. Their instincts won’t be competing so much as compounding. — RM

59. The Magic's new starting lineup will finally move Aaron Gordon to the four. If Orlando is going to make noise at any point in the near future, the 22-year-old former lottery pick must play a central role. Saving him from life at the three, where he started last season, was an absolute must. — BG ?

60. Patrick Beverley, amped beyond reason for some random game in March. — RM

61. After two tumultuous seasons in Chicago, Fred Hoiberg finally has the kind of roster that can put his system into action. The “three alphas” are gone, and with them the red tape of accommodating three ill-fitting veterans. — RM

62. The never-bashful, always-aggravating Dennis Schroder has been entrusted to be The Man with a real, live NBA franchise. Fasten your seatbelts. — BG

63. Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Chicago’s Zach LaVine—a pair of 22-year-olds with burgeoning potential—are slated to return from devastating season-ending injuries. Both the Bucks and Bulls will welcome back their former lottery picks with open arms and as many minutes as their surgically-repaired knees can handle. — BG

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64. The Heat, working from a clean slate. Think of what they might accomplish without an 11–30 start hanging around their necks. — RM

65. Justise Winslow, back in the mix. One of the league’s most precocious young wings rejoins the Heat rotation just after the team learned to live (and win) without him. Whether there’s really a place for Winslow in Miami depends on the lengths the Heat are willing to go to work around his wobbly jumper. — RM

66. Nike’s sleek new jersey design, which dumps the gimmicks that held back prior Adidas models. The alternate looks still need some fine-tuning and reimagining, but the overall product is a big and noticeable improvement that helps compensate for the long-dreaded addition of sponsor logos. — BG

67. The moment that the depth of the Knicks’ futility truly sinks in for Kristaps Porzingis. New York executed the first steps of a teardown this summer, parting ways with Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose in a matter of months and leaving Porzingis as the last man standing. How will the budding star handle what is sure to be a dreadful dead-end of a season? Will the inevitable adversity bring the best out of his game and/or reveal a new ferocity? The stage is his. — BG

68. The Avery Bradley test case. For years, Bradley looked like a model of transferability, a quality 3-and-D whose comfort playing without the ball made him an ideal backcourt partner for virtually any high-usage lead scorer. An offseason trade from Boston to Detroit will test that hypothesis, as Bradley must now run alongside the polarizing Reggie Jackson. If the pairing works, the Pistons become infinitely more relevant. If not, Bradley becomes a fascinating target for contenders at the trade deadline or as a free agent next summer. — BG

69. The last year of completely shameless tanking. Back in September, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to tweak the draft lottery odds so that the three worst teams would have the same chance to receive the top pick in the draft. In other words, the league was trying to cut down on teams resting players and playing marginal talents in hopes of accumulating losses in a race to the absolute bottom. The new system, however, doesn’t kick in until the 2019 NBA draft. In other words, Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Sacramento and others will all get one final shot at marginally improving their chances at landing a franchise player through aggressive tanking. Let the games begin. — BG

70. Cutthroat competition for the West’s bottom four playoff spots. In all likelihood, three of the Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves will miss the postseason cut, likely with serious implications. The Western Conference is not for the faint of heart. — RM

71. The building of a dynasty in real time. These Warriors are quite possibly the greatest team of all time. In all the madness of the season—the moves, the squabbles, the dramatic flourishes, and the lingering questions—don’t let the magnitude of that standing go unappreciated. — RM

72. Manu Ginobili decided not to retire! — BG

Jun 12, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles the ball against Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first quarter in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena.

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, left, comments to Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) as they walk off the court for a timeout in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City. There is bad blood once again in the NBA. No, it’s not just the Pistons-Bulls or Celtics-Lakers type of feuds. Sure, there’s Warriors-Cavs, Thunder-Warriors and Cavs-Celtics. But these days, it’s more individually driven _ thanks in large part to social media. There’s Russ-KD, LeBron-Kyrie, and even a Whiteside-Embiid can get in on the action. The back-and-forth makes for matchups worth circling on the calendar _ beginning Tuesday night with Boston-Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, left, comments to Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) as they walk off the court for a timeout in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City. There is bad blood once again in the NBA. No, it’s not just the Pistons-Bulls or Celtics-Lakers type of feuds. Sure, there’s Warriors-Cavs, Thunder-Warriors and Cavs-Celtics. But these days, it’s more individually driven _ thanks in large part to social media. There’s Russ-KD, LeBron-Kyrie, and even a Whiteside-Embiid can get in on the action. The back-and-forth makes for matchups worth circling on the calendar _ beginning Tuesday night with Boston-Cleveland. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

En la imagen, Kevin Durant (d) y Stephen Curry (i) de los Warriors de Golden State. EFE/Archivo

Watching the NBA That Kevin Durant Created

The new era began at the end of Game 3 in last June's NBA Finals. LeBron James finished with 39 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds, and the Cavs were unbelievable for most of the night. But Kevin Durant was fresh after picking his spots for the first three quarters. He was gliding all over the floor. He scored 14 of his 31 points in the final nine minutes, and with the Warriors down two, Durant hit a three in LeBron's face to take the lead and seal the win in the closing moments. LeBron was exhausted and a step slow to close out when it mattered, and that was the end. "I've played against some great teams," LeBron said afterward, "but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower."

That Durant shot was a torch-passing moment. Not necessarily because Durant was suddenly the better player, but because KD took LeBron's playbook and beat him at his own game.

Just as LeBron did with Miami in 2010—and again with Cleveland in 2014—KD used free agency to give himself the best chance possible to secure his legacy. He chose a team with young, unselfish superstars to ease his workload and an elite coach to optimize his talent. It wasn't an accident that Durant was peaking at the end of a Finals game just as LeBron was beginning to look mortal.

There are important qualifiers to consider here. 1) Again, LeBron is probably still better than KD if we're analyzing everyone in a vacuum; 2) Steph Curry and Draymond Green are both more valuable than Durant in Golden State; 3) What Durant did—join a 73-win team and a unanimous MVP that were one year removed from a title, and also join the team that had just beaten him in a playoff series that was more humiliating than most people remember—was several measures more extreme than any of the power-plays LeBron ever made.

That last point is the important one, because that's what gave us this summer. It's true, teams all over the NBA watched the Warriors in the Finals and realized that they would have to "up their risk-profile" to compete, but that was only half the equation. Durant's decision was so bold, and so effective, it freed superstars to try anything.

Chris Paul forced his way to Houston, the team that humiliated the Clippers a few years earlier. Paul George forced his way out of Indiana with his agent openly pining for the Lakers. Jimmy Butler got traded to become a 21-year-old sidekick in Minneapolis, and he was genuinely thrilled. Carmelo Anthony embraced Oklahoma City, and Dwyane Wade embraced Cleveland. Kyrie Irving watched Warriors in the Finals, heard LeBron rumors, and demanded a trade. All of them were making career decisions that would have seemed insane even two years ago, but they were mostly insulated from skepticism this summer. After KD, nothing feels that crazy.

The same way LeBron's Decision empowered a generation of superstars to go build their own empires with varying success—CP3 to LA, Carmelo to New York, Dwight to the Lakers—Durant's decision seems to have ushered in an era that's rendered all NBA alliances more fluid than ever. For teams like the Celtics and for stars like Kyrie Irving, every move on the board is now in play.

It's fair to have concerns about what's changed. For one thing, it seems unhealthy for the NBA if players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Anthony Davis can't make it halfway through contract extensions before their incumbent teams are overwhelmed with trade rumors. Kyrie Irving had two years left on his deal, and that still gave him enough leverage to scare off suitors like the Nuggets and Bucks as he forced his way to Boston. Likewise, it's definitely not great that, just as the NFL was losing its grip on the mainstream and the NBA was building momentum, last year's playoffs were flat-out terrible.

The absence of drama hurt the NBA in some tangible ways. With the Cavs and Warriors barnstorming through the league, the NBA had the fewest playoff games since expanding to a best-of-7 format in 2003, culminating in an estimated-$70 million revenue shortfall, which made for a smaller salary cap this summer. Then, consider that the tighter cap will make it harder for Golden State's competition to level the playing field. Recall that Durant gave the Warriors a significant discount when he re-signed this summer, and that Klay Thompson is apparently considering doing the same in 2019. If you think the Warriors are a problem, they might not be going away away anytime soon.

"It’s pretty f***ing sick to see," Draymond Green told GQ this month. "Everybody is just in a f***ing panic about what to do. You sit back and think, like, these motherf***ers, they know. That’s the fun part about it: They know they don’t stand a chance.”

Two reactions there. First, a personal note: Every time I start to complain about the Warriors, Draymond Green reminds me not to take any of this too seriously. And second, if we're talking panic: I've worried about the Warriors' effect on the league to varying degrees over the past year, but I'm less concerned than ever.

If the Durant-era Warriors produced the offseason we just had, they deserve credit, not blame. This summer's anarchy should be part of the NBA's business model. But what's great about the Warriors is that they haven't only changed the calculus for teams and superstars. Fans are adapting, too.

Nobody is following this year's NBA to see who will win the Finals. Fans are watching to see what Kyrie Irving will do in Boston. Also: How will LeBron and Wade look in Cleveland? What does a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons pick-and-roll look like? Will Westbrook, George, and Carmelo find a way to make it work? What about Paul and Harden? Is Karl-Anthony Towns ready to take over the world? And where will Anthony Davis end up?

This is how hardcore fans have always consumed basketball. Everyone has a favorite team, but if you love the NBA, you're following the entire sport. The trades, the draft picks, the personalities, J.R. Smith dapping up Jason Terry in the middle of a game, Giannis going nuts to win you over with a game-winner in the middle of January—the full spectrum of characters and subplots is what makes basketball great.

My guess on the Durant-Warriors era is that a lack of drama at the top of the league will force more mainstream fans to watch the NBA the way hardcore basketball fans always have. And that shift will come just as every league-wide subplot becomes twice as entertaining in the chaotic era that Durant helped forge.

There will always be Twitter eggs who claim that Warriors dominance has made the entire sport a waste of time, but I don't think the real world agrees with the comments section. Compare basketball and football. Both sports have seen TV ratings suffer in recent years, but everyone is consuming media differently today, so that's not necessarily indicative of health. More relevant: When is the last time you had a heated argument about NFL news that actually happened on the field? Are you more interested in following the next three months of Andrew Luck or Kyrie Irving? How many stars does football have who are more famous Joel Embiid? And how many of those NFL stars are under 30 years old?

Basketball is already winning in the modern era. Durant and the Warriors will just sharpen the focus on what fans are actually following. The same way soccer fans follow superstar players all over the planet, younger basketball fans are learning to watch the entire NBA and follow the offseason as obsessively as the playoffs. Whenever Golden State stops winning titles, parity at the top of the league will add one more advantage to a sport that's already well-positioned to own the next decade.

In the meantime, this season features more superstars than the NBA has ever seen, and it feels like half of them will be in new uniforms. Then next summer will feature LeBron James, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Paul George all hitting free agency at the same time, with Anthony Davis looming as the most talented trade target since Kevin Garnett. None of this is slowing down. And as for the Finals MVP who lit the fuse on this new era, he's in a strange spot.

After the summer of the burner accounts and staged ESPY reactions and Nike trash talk, Durant's not less popular than LeBron was after Year One in Miami, but he seems less fulfilled. And what's interesting is that what KD seems to be looking for—broad appreciation of his game and his decisions—is everything LeBron eventually found on the court in Game 6 against Boston, the Finals against San Antonio, and obviously, the Finals against Golden State.

LeBron won over critics by winning games he was supposed to lose. The current version of Warriors is so incredible that it's unclear whether Durant will have the chance to give us those moments. He has, however, given the rest of the NBA the chance to take more risks, avoid scrutiny, get weird, and lean into everything that made basketball great in the first place.

Watching the NBA That Kevin Durant Created

The new era began at the end of Game 3 in last June's NBA Finals. LeBron James finished with 39 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds, and the Cavs were unbelievable for most of the night. But Kevin Durant was fresh after picking his spots for the first three quarters. He was gliding all over the floor. He scored 14 of his 31 points in the final nine minutes, and with the Warriors down two, Durant hit a three in LeBron's face to take the lead and seal the win in the closing moments. LeBron was exhausted and a step slow to close out when it mattered, and that was the end. "I've played against some great teams," LeBron said afterward, "but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower."

That Durant shot was a torch-passing moment. Not necessarily because Durant was suddenly the better player, but because KD took LeBron's playbook and beat him at his own game.

Just as LeBron did with Miami in 2010—and again with Cleveland in 2014—KD used free agency to give himself the best chance possible to secure his legacy. He chose a team with young, unselfish superstars to ease his workload and an elite coach to optimize his talent. It wasn't an accident that Durant was peaking at the end of a Finals game just as LeBron was beginning to look mortal.

There are important qualifiers to consider here. 1) Again, LeBron is probably still better than KD if we're analyzing everyone in a vacuum; 2) Steph Curry and Draymond Green are both more valuable than Durant in Golden State; 3) What Durant did—join a 73-win team and a unanimous MVP that were one year removed from a title, and also join the team that had just beaten him in a playoff series that was more humiliating than most people remember—was several measures more extreme than any of the power-plays LeBron ever made.

That last point is the important one, because that's what gave us this summer. It's true, teams all over the NBA watched the Warriors in the Finals and realized that they would have to "up their risk-profile" to compete, but that was only half the equation. Durant's decision was so bold, and so effective, it freed superstars to try anything.

Chris Paul forced his way to Houston, the team that humiliated the Clippers a few years earlier. Paul George forced his way out of Indiana with his agent openly pining for the Lakers. Jimmy Butler got traded to become a 21-year-old sidekick in Minneapolis, and he was genuinely thrilled. Carmelo Anthony embraced Oklahoma City, and Dwyane Wade embraced Cleveland. Kyrie Irving watched Warriors in the Finals, heard LeBron rumors, and demanded a trade. All of them were making career decisions that would have seemed insane even two years ago, but they were mostly insulated from skepticism this summer. After KD, nothing feels that crazy.

The same way LeBron's Decision empowered a generation of superstars to go build their own empires with varying success—CP3 to LA, Carmelo to New York, Dwight to the Lakers—Durant's decision seems to have ushered in an era that's rendered all NBA alliances more fluid than ever. For teams like the Celtics and for stars like Kyrie Irving, every move on the board is now in play.

It's fair to have concerns about what's changed. For one thing, it seems unhealthy for the NBA if players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Anthony Davis can't make it halfway through contract extensions before their incumbent teams are overwhelmed with trade rumors. Kyrie Irving had two years left on his deal, and that still gave him enough leverage to scare off suitors like the Nuggets and Bucks as he forced his way to Boston. Likewise, it's definitely not great that, just as the NFL was losing its grip on the mainstream and the NBA was building momentum, last year's playoffs were flat-out terrible.

The absence of drama hurt the NBA in some tangible ways. With the Cavs and Warriors barnstorming through the league, the NBA had the fewest playoff games since expanding to a best-of-7 format in 2003, culminating in an estimated-$70 million revenue shortfall, which made for a smaller salary cap this summer. Then, consider that the tighter cap will make it harder for Golden State's competition to level the playing field. Recall that Durant gave the Warriors a significant discount when he re-signed this summer, and that Klay Thompson is apparently considering doing the same in 2019. If you think the Warriors are a problem, they might not be going away away anytime soon.

"It’s pretty f***ing sick to see," Draymond Green told GQ this month. "Everybody is just in a f***ing panic about what to do. You sit back and think, like, these motherf***ers, they know. That’s the fun part about it: They know they don’t stand a chance.”

Two reactions there. First, a personal note: Every time I start to complain about the Warriors, Draymond Green reminds me not to take any of this too seriously. And second, if we're talking panic: I've worried about the Warriors' effect on the league to varying degrees over the past year, but I'm less concerned than ever.

If the Durant-era Warriors produced the offseason we just had, they deserve credit, not blame. This summer's anarchy should be part of the NBA's business model. But what's great about the Warriors is that they haven't only changed the calculus for teams and superstars. Fans are adapting, too.

Nobody is following this year's NBA to see who will win the Finals. Fans are watching to see what Kyrie Irving will do in Boston. Also: How will LeBron and Wade look in Cleveland? What does a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons pick-and-roll look like? Will Westbrook, George, and Carmelo find a way to make it work? What about Paul and Harden? Is Karl-Anthony Towns ready to take over the world? And where will Anthony Davis end up?

This is how hardcore fans have always consumed basketball. Everyone has a favorite team, but if you love the NBA, you're following the entire sport. The trades, the draft picks, the personalities, J.R. Smith dapping up Jason Terry in the middle of a game, Giannis going nuts to win you over with a game-winner in the middle of January—the full spectrum of characters and subplots is what makes basketball great.

My guess on the Durant-Warriors era is that a lack of drama at the top of the league will force more mainstream fans to watch the NBA the way hardcore basketball fans always have. And that shift will come just as every league-wide subplot becomes twice as entertaining in the chaotic era that Durant helped forge.

There will always be Twitter eggs who claim that Warriors dominance has made the entire sport a waste of time, but I don't think the real world agrees with the comments section. Compare basketball and football. Both sports have seen TV ratings suffer in recent years, but everyone is consuming media differently today, so that's not necessarily indicative of health. More relevant: When is the last time you had a heated argument about NFL news that actually happened on the field? Are you more interested in following the next three months of Andrew Luck or Kyrie Irving? How many stars does football have who are more famous Joel Embiid? And how many of those NFL stars are under 30 years old?

Basketball is already winning in the modern era. Durant and the Warriors will just sharpen the focus on what fans are actually following. The same way soccer fans follow superstar players all over the planet, younger basketball fans are learning to watch the entire NBA and follow the offseason as obsessively as the playoffs. Whenever Golden State stops winning titles, parity at the top of the league will add one more advantage to a sport that's already well-positioned to own the next decade.

In the meantime, this season features more superstars than the NBA has ever seen, and it feels like half of them will be in new uniforms. Then next summer will feature LeBron James, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Paul George all hitting free agency at the same time, with Anthony Davis looming as the most talented trade target since Kevin Garnett. None of this is slowing down. And as for the Finals MVP who lit the fuse on this new era, he's in a strange spot.

After the summer of the burner accounts and staged ESPY reactions and Nike trash talk, Durant's not less popular than LeBron was after Year One in Miami, but he seems less fulfilled. And what's interesting is that what KD seems to be looking for—broad appreciation of his game and his decisions—is everything LeBron eventually found on the court in Game 6 against Boston, the Finals against San Antonio, and obviously, the Finals against Golden State.

LeBron won over critics by winning games he was supposed to lose. The current version of Warriors is so incredible that it's unclear whether Durant will have the chance to give us those moments. He has, however, given the rest of the NBA the chance to take more risks, avoid scrutiny, get weird, and lean into everything that made basketball great in the first place.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Crystal Ball: 2017-18 NBA Awards Predictions

With the NBA season inside-your-jersey close, The Crossover asked its writers to give their awards predictions for the 2017–18 season.

The MVP races features some familiar faces (hello, LeBron and Steph), but there’s plenty of new names also in the running for awards this season. Can Rudy Gobert take home his first Defensive Player of the Year title? Will one of the Clippers’ many new guards win Sixth Man of the Year? And will Dennis Smith Jr. steal the spotlight from Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons and claim top rookie honors?

We asked our writers to predict who will take home the hardware. Check out our predictions for the 2017-18 season below.

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Most Valuable Player

Lee Jenkins: LeBron James, Cavaliers. In each of the past four years, someone other than LeBron James has won MVP, even though in all of those four years it was generally accepted that James was actually the best player. Come winter, the regularly scheduled hype train circles the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, until spring dawns and the refrain echoes: “Oh, I guess LeBron is still better.” It is a strange dynamic. MVP is the NBA’s most significant individual award, yet James has somehow transcended the trophy. His candidacy is too boring, too obvious. But Westbrook and Harden now have superstar sidekicks, like Steph Curry/Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard is nursing a troublesome thigh injury. James, sans Kyrie Irving, may have to be the choice this time.?

Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors. How is it that Stephen Curry, the man who received every single first-place MVP vote in 2016, has only the 10th–best odds, according to one oddsmaker, of taking home the 2018 trophy? This feels like a classic case of the NBA intelligentsia outsmarting itself. After all, Curry is a consensus top-four player, he’s virtually guaranteed to play for the league’s best team and, as coach Steve Kerr noted this week, he happens to be smack in the middle of his prime.

Some forecasters are worried that Curry and Kevin Durant will split Golden State’s share of the votes, or that voters will regard Durant as the Warriors’ top candidate, or that one-man armies like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo will have better individual stories, or that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will put up better individual numbers. All fair concerns. But Curry is a very compelling (fake) dark horse candidate because he’s the central force of the league’s best offense, he’s the league’s best shooter and a perennial 50/40/90 candidate, he’s the most popular player on the league’s most dominant team (Durant’s nightmare PR summer only widened the gap), and he’s become remarkably durable after early-career ankle issues (he’s missed an average of 3.2 games over the past five seasons).

MVP voters do tend to punish superteams: LeBron James didn’t win in 2011 and no Warriors player finished among 2017’s top five. However, voters came back around to pay James the respect he deserved in 2012 and 2013, and it will be hard for anyone to deny Golden State an MVP winner if the Warriors rack up 70 wins and the rest of the league is struggling to reach 60. If a backlash to Westbrook’s stats-based 2016 MVP case does emerge, Curry is perfectly positioned to benefit because he checks every box: winning, narrative, stats, advanced stats, intangibles, memorable moments, personality and impact. Sleep on Curry’s MVP candidacy at your own risk.

Andrew Sharp: Stephen Curry, Warriors. A month ago my pick would've been Kawhi, but his quad injury is lingering while the Rockets look poised to blitz the West for the No. 2 seed, and that's enough to give me pause. Instead, give me Steph. He's the most valuable player on the best team the league has ever seen, and this shouldn't be all that complicated.

Yet it is complicated, obviously. After winning unanimous MVP two years ago and ultimately falling apart in the Finals, two years of passive aggressive Curry skepticism gave way to a nation of critics openly second-guessing his talent and resenting his success, even among certain superstars. All of that criticism was dumb, but some of it stuck. For the past year or two it hasn't been cool to discuss how incredible Curry has been. Even Steve Kerr finished the NBA Finals talking about the value of Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

There are two ways this could play out from here. On one hand, it wouldn't be surprising if Curry never won another MVP. He's got too much help to make a compelling case, he's already won the award twice, and the skepticism around the league is still too pervasive.

On the other hand, maybe this is the year of the backlash to Curry backlash, where everyone realizes that he's the most valuable weapon in basketball. And as the Warriors put together the most dominant four-year run in NBA history, maybe it becomes cool and smart to state what's always been obvious: None of this is possible without Steph.

Rob Mahoney: LeBron James, Cavs. The setup for this season feels like the kind of opportunity LeBron would relish. A star teammate requesting to leave his well-constructed conference powerhouse is not a slight James could take lightly. One could imagine James feeling as if the world—and a certain ex-teammate—could stand to be reminded of what he’s capable of. On top of that, Isaiah Thomas’s extended absence will demand more of LeBron than before, albeit in ways he could clearly deliver. This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it. When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production.

Rohan Nadkarni: LeBron James, Cavs. Will James play in enough games to win this award? That’s what the MVP race could come down to. The King usually takes his fair share of breaks during the regular season, and rightfully so, considering James has played over 50,000 minutes in his storied career. But with the NBA’s new resting rules, James may play in a few more contests this season. And with the added motivation of an insane summer—Kyrie wanting out, contenders loading up, Draymond running his mouth—this could be the year James returns to the MVP mountaintop. LeBron, the best basketball player in the world, hasn’t won MVP in four seasons. That has to bother him on some level, right? James knows how hard it will be to beat the Warriors in a potential finals rematch, so perhaps he looks at the MVP race as another way to pad his legacy.

Jeremy Woo: Kevin Durant, Warriors. The argument that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry will steal MVP votes from one another until the end of time (or until someone breaks up the marriage) is a popular one. But I suspect the KD we saw dominate in the Finals, completely comfortable in the Warriors’ system and making a difference on both ends of the floor will be present once again. New star pairings are set to alter the landscape, but what’s to say 70-ish wins and a scoring title won’t get it done for Durant? Neither of those things is out of the question, and yes, that’s extremely scary. Here’s hedging that Year Two in the Bay is even more fruitful, and that KD can delete all his burner accounts and let himself live. (By the way, this is Kevin Durant).

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Rookie of the Year

Jenkins: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. The team will be mediocre, the scoring average will be modest and the headlines will be made for all the wrong reasons. But voters watch the games and they’ll see a culture-changing point guard who manipulates the tempo and the defense, inventing open shots and turning average players into productive ones. The Lakers need more snipers to take advantage of Ball’s passing skills, but he’ll make them fast and fun. In ’87-88, Mark Jackson averaged 10.6 assists per game for the Knicks in his first season out of St. John’s, a rookie record. Ball probably can’t reach that mark, not with these Lakers, but he eventually will.

Golliver: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. This award should come down to two skilled playmakers who will enjoy major minutes and leading offensive roles: Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons. While Simmons is bigger, a year older and lucky enough to play with a franchise center (when healthy) in Philadelphia, Ball is set up to make an immediate impact in L.A.

The UCLA product joins a Lakers roster that is geared to play his preferred up-and-down style and that is essentially designed around his distributing ability. While young athletes like Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma are all seeking to run with him in transition, Ball will also benefit from the presence of veteran center Brook Lopez, who represents a stable source of half-court offense, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who can take on the toughest backcourt defensive match-ups.

L.A. will likely finish well outside the West’s playoff picture, but Ball could potentially rank among the league’s top assist men if he stays healthy and plays as many minutes as expected. He will also come out of the gate with significant buzz thanks to his father’s incessant chirping and his own strong showing at Las Vegas Summer League. Finally, Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy will get a bump from sheer visibility, as the Lakers are set to make an absurd number of national television appearances. Although he might fall short of “Phenomenon” status as a rookie, Ball will surely turn heads and generate plenty of headlines.

Sharp: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks. The rookie class is loaded with potential stars, but almost all of them have weaknesses that will limit them in Year One. Ben Simmons and De'Aaron Fox can't shoot, while Lonzo Ball's shooting is quietly an issue of its own, and his defense could be horrific. Jonathan Isaac is going to be elite on defense but his offense will take longer. Jayson Tatum probably won't be consistent enough to earn regular minutes for a contending Celtics team. Josh Jackson will be a work-in-progress on both ends of the floor in Phoenix.

You know who will be awesome, though? Three players: Bogdan Bogdanovic in Sacramento, John Collins in Atlanta, and Dennis Smith in Dallas. Bogdan is a rookie in name only—he's 25 years old—and Collins is on the Hawks during a lost season. So give me Smith, the most explosive player in the class, who's about to get a ton of opportunities running the Rick Carlisle pick-and-roll and dunking his way into America's heart.

Mahoney: Ben Simmons, 76ers. Simmons is unlike the vast majority of rookies in that NBA opponents legitimately do not know how to guard him. His very presence creates problems; to have a special playmaker this tall and this strong demands all kinds of uncomfortable cross-matches, pushing defenses well outside the comfort of their typical scheme. The turnovers will flow freely and the shooting percentages will fluctuate dramatically. Such is the way of the rookie. But along the way, Simmons will storm his way into the paint in a way that many opponents will be powerless to stop.

Nadkarni: Lonzo Ball, Lakers. I’m a Lonzo believer, and the Lakers won’t have to be good, only exciting for Ball to start talk of L.A.’s comeback. There’s so much noise surrounding this rookie class. Ball’s dad. Markelle Fultz’s shot. Ben Simmons’s debut. People hardly talk about how talented this class actually is. Ball will be given the keys to the Lakers‘ offense, and he should have the most freedom of any top-five pick. Without great pressure on him to win, Ball will also be able to play through his mistakes. With Luke Walton likely counting on him to make things happen, Ball should rack up enough numbers to take home Rookie of the Year.

Woo: Ben Simmons, 76ers. It’ll certainly be an interesting year for rookies, and I like Simmons over Lonzo Ball here in what is technically his rookie season based on what ought to be a gentler learning curve. Simmons spent a year studying up and gets to spend the majority of his time at the playmaking controls on an improving team in a softer conference. Although Simmons’s jump shooting woes will be nitpicked all season, his size and knack for transition play will let him score enough to balance out useful assist and rebound totals that will be there from day one.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Jenkins: Eric Gordon, Rockets. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since Detlef Schrempf and, yes, Kevin McHale. Gordon lapped up his first season in Mike D’Antoni’s system, sinking a career-high 3.3 three-pointers per game, at a 37.2% clip. Expect him to get even more open shots now because it’s not just James Harden setting him up. He’ll have Chris Paul feeding him as well. The Rockets employ two of the league’s best playmakers and Gordon should be the primary beneficiary, provided he stays upright on the perimeter. Health has always been a question for Gordon, but last year he logged 75 games and discovered the sixth-man role. It suits him well.

Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers. Williams was sensational in 2016-17, posting a career-high 17.5 PPG on a career-best 59.3 True Shooting Percentage. He finished third in the Sixth Man race despite being traded midseason and splitting votes with teammate Eric Gordon. A classic candidate for this award due to his dependable volume scoring, shot creation, three-point range and highlight-making style, Williams joins a Clippers roster that needs a second-unit offensive linchpin following a major summer shake-up.

The 30-year-old guard is firmly in his prime, and he clearly benefits from the league’s stylistic shifts towards pace, space, spread lineups and offense-first approaches. With more room to work one-on-one and fewer people nagging him about his one-way game, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year award is even better positioned to win it again in 2018. There’s a decent chance Williams pushes his scoring and usage to even greater heights this season, especially if L.A. finds itself scrambling to cover for injury-prone starters like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley.

Sharp: Will Barton, Nuggets. The Nuggets will need the help in the backcourt, and Barton will be there all year to provide buckets off the bench. If he can stay healthy and the Nuggets improve as much as expected, Barton gets the slight edge over Eric Gordon in Houston or Greg Monroe in Milwaukee.

Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors. One of these years, the voters will get this one right. There’s more to being a bench player than scoring, even if the history of this award wouldn’t suggest it. Iguodala does it all. When Golden State needs a dedicated wing defender, Steve Kerr turns to Iguodala. If a situation calls for the Warriors’ best lineups, they build around Iguodala as a pivot point. His playmaking is the catalyst between brilliant scorers, his ball-handling a vehicle for the most unstoppable offense in the league. No bench player in the league is better than Iguodala, and none is more important. So why bother voting for anyone else?

Nadkarni: Milos Teodosic, Clippers. I’m all in on Teodosic, the slick-passing Euro rookie who is actually 30 years old. Teodosic’s passing is an art form, and he will keep the lights on in Lob City with frequent setups for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. It’s unclear how good the Clippers will be this season, but they definitely have the potential to be a League Pass favorite. Teodosic is a big reason why. If he racks up the assists and hits enough threes, he’ll compete for this award. Jamal Crawford is running on fumes. Andre Iguodala is getting up there. And Eric Gordon could be counted on less with the addition of Chris Paul in Houston. The circumstances are breaking right for Milos.

Woo: Tristan Thompson, Cavs. We’ll see how long the Kevin-Love-at-center experiment lasts, but Thompson is in great position to log his usual heavy, meaningful minutes for a very good Cavs team over the course of the year. Yeah, he was bad in the Finals, but remains one of the league’s premier energy bigs and a crucial cog for a Cleveland team that runs deeper, but remains thin up front. He will be productive, he will be nasty, and the Cavs will win the East again. Yes, this award usually goes to a random guard with a high shot volume... but we can dream.

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Most Improved Player

Jenkins: Brandon Ingram, Lakers. This pick is closely entwined with the Rookie of the Year winner, pushing Ingram over Myles Turner, a strong candidate given Indiana’s dearth of scorers. A 6’9” wing with a Durantian physique, Ingram averaged 9.4 points and shot 29.4% from three last season, well below expectation for the second overall pick in the ’16 draft and supposedly the safest choice. At times, especially early, Ingram looked deferential and aloof. He also didn’t have anybody to make rookie life easier for him. Enter Ball, who will pass ahead to him in transition and kick out to him for three. All the Lakers will benefit from Ball, but none more than Ingram.

Golliver: Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers. All signs point to Jusuf Nurkic enjoying a monster season in Portland: He’s set to start, he’s entrenched as a lead scoring option, he’s playing with two lead guards who value his contributions, he’s angling for a possible max contract, he’s healthy, and he’s significantly lighter after a summer of hard work. Now, contrast that with his situation last season. In Denver, he was fighting with Nikola Jokic for starts, minutes and touches, and he was stuck without a real point guard to set him up. Then, following a long-awaited trade to Portland, he enjoyed a mini-breakout only to suffer a leg injury that sidelined him for most of the playoffs.

Nurkic’s strong closing push helped the Blazers secure the West’s final playoff spot, and it put him on the national map for the first time during his career. The Bosnian center enters this season with real momentum, and a similar late-season explosion in 2015-16 helped set up Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2017 Most Improved Player campaign.

Sharp: D'Angelo Russell, Nets. The criteria for this award is anyone's guess, but given the last three winners—Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler—it appears we're setting on one point: the Most Improved Player is PRETTY GOOD. We're not talking surprising improvements among bench players (Joffrey Lauvergne in San Antonio!) or a mid-career renaissance from an also-ran starter (Pacers' Victor Oladipo!). So with that in mind, I was wrestling with three former Lakers lottery picks: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and D'Angelo Russell.

Ingram should be better this year, and he's got a chance to land in the Butler/Giannis category eventually. But the Lakers are still a mess, and it will be hard for him to stand out in the middle of another 50-loss season. Similar logic applies to Randle. His numbers should be better than Ingram, but his impact on winning is questionable. Also, his ceiling's lower, so that may undermine some of the progress.

Russell has a much better shot at making some meaningful progress in the East. The Nets have no incentive to tank, and Russell will have the keys to the offense, with more structure around him than he ever found in Los Angeles. Here's to betting that he'll open some eyes over the final few months of the season to steal the win here.

Mahoney: Rodney Hood, Jazz. Utah’s offense, in the absence of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, has to turn somewhere. Who better to fill that void than Hood? The 24-year-old wing has teased over his first three NBA seasons with tantalizing displays of shot creation. A little consistency (and some better health) could change everything. Hood clearly has the talent. Soon, he’ll have the ball in his hands for a team that very much needs him to take the next step.

Nadkarni: Gary Harris, Nuggets. I thought Harris’s teammate, Nikola Jokic, should have won this award last season. But with Jokic now on most people’s radars, Harris could be the next Nugget on the verge of a breakout. Denver should be frisky in the West this year, with the addition of Paul Millsap giving them one of the most skilled frontlines in the Association. Jokic’s passing and Millsap’s spacing should make Harris’s life a lot easier, giving him room to operate alongside teammates more than willing to share the ball. Harris shot a blistering 42% from three last season, and if he comes anywhere close to maintaining that pace, he will become a serious problem for opposing defenses.

Woo: Clint Capela, Rockets. Playing on the receiving end opposite big man-friendly Chris Paul should be catnip for Capela, who managed a significant step forward from 2015–16 to last season while playing about five more minutes per game. Now 23 and the Rockets’ best bet to anchor the inside of a suddenly intriguing defense, expect another uptick in playing time and an opportunity to average a double-double. Alongside Paul and James Harden, working comfortably in a system that creates extra possessions like clockwork, Capela stands to benefit the most of anyone on the Rockets and is a fun breakout candidate at the very least.

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Defensive Player of the Year

Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. From 1992 through 2014, traditional post players dominated this award, the only exceptions being Gary Payton and Ron Artest. In the past three years, with versatile wings blanketing almost every position, it shifted to Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. But Rudy Gobert has been right behind them, the NBA’s best rim protector and shot blocker. With all of Leonard’s scoring responsibilities in San Antonio, it’s hard to imagine he can still be the league’s stickiest defender. So the race likely comes down to Green and Gobert. Last year, the nod went to Green, though many advanced stats favored Gobert. Rudy’s team is obviously worse, with the Gordon Hayward defection to Boston, but he’ll stifle just the same.

Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Admittedly, part of picking Rudy Gobert comes down to a belief that voters will decide to spread the love around. Last year, the Jazz center finished second to Draymond Green, who himself had been runner-up to Kawhi Leonard in each of the two previous seasons. Gobert is next in line to receive the baton because he captains an elite Utah defense, he posts strong block and rebound stats, his defensive advanced stats are always off the charts, and his ability to dissuade, alter, contest and swat shots is easily observable to diehard and casual viewers alike.

Gordon Hayward’s summer departure will likely hurt the Jazz’s record and offensive efficiency, but it sets up the franchise to play to Gobert’s strengths and it sets up Gobert to receive full credit for their success. GM Dennis Lindsey spent the off-season adding a litany of hard-nosed types to complement his massive center, and coach Quin Snyder surely understands that continuing to prioritize defense will be Utah’s best hope at remaining in the West’s playoff picture. Gobert will only be more important to his team this season, which is saying a lot given his off-the-charts impact last year.

Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Only two other defensive players affect the game the way Gobert does. And since Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green have won this award the past two years, it may be time for the Stifle Tower to get some love. If he stays healthy and his defense is dominant enough to keep the Jazz in the playoff race, everyone else is coming in second.

Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors. When in doubt, give it to the league’s best defender. The speed and skill of the NBA game leaves bigs with almost no room for error; as soon as the ball-handler turns a corner into open space, the rotating big is expected to corral all possibilities across a wide swath of real estate. No player covers the full scope as effectively as Green. It’s not his foot speed that separates him, though Green is certainly quick enough. It isn’t his height or wingspan, either, both of which would be dwarfed by other players at his position. What most distinguishes Green is the way his brain works—reading, anticipating, and reacting within a fraction of a second. His best defensive performances are works of legitimate genius.

Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors. This award should belong to Green as long as the Warriors’ Death Lineup exists. Green makes all of that work by guarding every position on the floor. He's a once-in-a-generation talent on defense. Draymond will bang against your biggest body down in the post, or erase your best perimeter scorer from the top. He’s the unquestioned engine for a championship-level defense. In the small-ball era, I don’t think you can put a rim-protecting center in the same league as Green.

Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz. Gordon Hayward’s departure should give us an even better sense of just how meaningful Gobert’s defensive contributions are to his team. Changes and all, the Jazz should remain among the league’s top defensive units. Gobert will lead the league in blocks again and stay among the elite rebounders, and he’ll continue to scare guys away from the basket on a nightly basis. The last few playoff spots in the West are wide open, and Utah’s continuity and defined style of play should benefit them even if they struggle to score (they almost definitely will). But that’s where the big man comes in. Gobert should finally take home his first Defensive Player honors in what’s become an annual three-horse race with Draymond and Kawhi.

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Coach of the Year

Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics. Even though Hayward played for him at Butler, and Irving wanted to play for him in Boston, this won’t be an easy job. The Celtics chipped away at their hardscrabble identity this summer with the exodus of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. They are far more skilled, though, and Stevens is a master at putting gifted scorers in motion. If anyone can blend Irving’s solo act into a team structure, while keeping Hayward and Al Horford integral to the offense, it’s Stevens. The Celtics lost plenty of leadership in their locker room, but they retained enough on their sideline.

Golliver: Brad Stevens, Celtics. This candidacy writes itself: “Danny Ainge gave him a whole new roster and Brad Stevens put it all together to make the Celtics an overachieving contender yet again.” Start bracing now for the Boston media hype machine to dole out this narrative nonstop for the next six months.

Despite the inevitable oversaturation to come, Stevens is worthy of the hype. He’s consistently set up key players for career years, found unorthodox lineup combinations that magically work, and milked maximum value from fringe guys. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are two stars who could easily ascend to new heights under Stevens this year, and his system will get tons of credit, and deservedly so, if the Celtics manage to remain near the top of the East despite losing five of their top seven guys by minutes played during a busy off-season.

The Celtics might have trouble blowing away expectations—given that they were a No. 1 seed last year and landed Irving in one of the biggest deals of the summer—but reaching 53-55 wins with a reshaped roster could be enough to earn the well-respected Stevens his first Coach of the Year award.

Sharp: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Watch this video and tell me you'd rather vote for Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich:

If the Heat finish in the top half of the East, Spoelstra gets the coach of the year award that he probably should've won last year, too.

Mahoney: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. The premise that made the Heat one of the most surprising teams in the league last season remains unchanged: Miami is poised to outperform the talent level of its roster. Spoelstra is a critical reason why. It can be difficult to determine where Heat culture ends and Spoelstra’s influence begins. That, in a way, is what makes his contributions so valuable. Few coaches in the league work in such perfect concert with a larger organizational philosophy. In Spoelstra’s case, that manifests in pushing players beyond their career standards, elevating the group on the sum of personal bests.

Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat. Spo obviously deserved this award last season, and I need to make at least one homer pick after passing on Bam Adebayo for rookie honors. There is a serious path for Spo to win this award, however. The Heat don’t exactly have someone who you would call a star, even if Dion Waiters is calling himself one. Without the top-end talent he’s grown accustomed to, Spo still coaxed a top-five defense from this team last year, and an offense that was top-ten after the All-Star break. If the Heat prove their 30–11 run to finish 2017 wasn’t a fluke, Spo should finally be rewarded for the job he’s doing with a group of cast-offs.

Woo: Brad Stevens, Celtics. In keeping with tradition, I decided I’m just gonna keep picking Stevens until he actually wins this award. It’s gonna happen eventually. Although the Celtics won’t emerge fully-formed, meshing new players and developing talent presents an appealing task that could and probably should lead to 50-plus wins in a crappy East. People sure do laud Stevens’ wizardry when it comes to both the on-court details and locker room balance, but it’s mostly because those things are true. This feels like his year.

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant

NBA Fearless Forecast Weekly Rank: 1

Kevin Durant

NBA Fearless Forecast Weekly Rank: 1

Kevin Durant

NBA Fearless Forecast Weekly Rank: 1

Kevin Durant

NBA Fearless Forecast Weekly Rank: 1

Kevin Durant says Giannis Antetokounmpo could become GOAT

It's not shocking Durant that likes long, athletic players. 

Kevin Durant says Giannis Antetokounmpo could become GOAT

It's not shocking Durant that likes long, athletic players. 

Kevin Durant says Giannis Antetokounmpo could become GOAT

It's not shocking Durant that likes long, athletic players. 

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook 'broke the ice' after Thunder star won MVP, Kendrick Perkins says

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook 'broke the ice' after Thunder star won MVP, Kendrick Perkins says

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook 'broke the ice' after Thunder star won MVP, Kendrick Perkins says

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook 'broke the ice' after Thunder star won MVP, Kendrick Perkins says

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