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MVP Award predictions: In a wide-open field, will Giannis Antetokounmpo repeat?

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With the start of the NBA season just more than a week away — it’s predictions time. We’ll be covering most of the postseason awards between now and the opening tip of the NBA season.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks. Today…

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers). Last season, James Harden was the best offensive player in the league, putting up historic numbers. Yet he came in second in MVP voting (including on my ballot) to Giannis Antetokounmpo because the Greek Freak had impressive offensive numbers as the guy Milwaukee’s attack was built around, plus he also played defense at a level that had him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. I see Davis following Antetokounmpo’s model to the MVP award. After years feeling in the shadows in New Orleans, and a very awkward last season, Davis is going to look to break out now that he is in Los Angeles, putting up big numbers on offense and being a beast of a rim protector on defense. Davis is going to shine in the spotlight the Lakers give him — if Davis can just stay healthy. He’s had a history of nagging injuries slowing him down (although, before last season, he had played 75 games two seasons in a row). This year’s MVP race, much like the league itself, is wide open with a lot of contenders. Davis, however, will have the numbers and the narrative.

Dan Feldman: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors). We’ve collectively forgotten how great Curry was playing before Kevin Durant joined the Warriors. Not only did Curry win back-to-back MVPs, he was hitting unprecedented offensive levels. Curry is 31, maybe still in his physical prime. With Durant gone, Klay Thompson injured and Golden State facing a tough road just to make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, Curry could return to that elite individual status. He showed a glimpse last postseason.

Is Curry the best player in the NBA? Maybe. Will Curry push as hard as he can next regular season? Maybe. In an open race during the load-management era, those two maybes are enough for him to be my pick.

Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks). There are lots of challenges ahead for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics are at full strength and don’t need to deal with Kyrie Irving’s galaxy brain on a night-to-night basis. The Sixers have Al Horford. The Raptors will still be very good. But at the end of the day, Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo and a squad that looks much like it did last season. With Kawhi Leonard no longer out East, Milwaukee could rack up even more wins than when they took home the conference pennant last season. If that’s the case, all signs point to Antetokounmpo repeating at MVP. He’s got a better chance than either of the top Clippers players, who will lose votes due to load management. Houston’s top stars will battle for screen time (and a playoff spot). That leaves the Greek Freak, whose only problem will be his own 3-point shooting percentage. The Bucks star will only lose the MVP race if his team is clearly unable to fulfill its potential due to his lack of range. But if Antetokounmpo can be serviceable from deep, he’ll take home the Podoloff trophy again.

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.