Way-Too-Early NBA Predictions: Wildly Guessing the Major Award Winners, Part 1

Can’t wait for the 2015-’16 season to start? We neither. Now that most of the off-season’s major moves are complete, we’ll dive into some ludicrously premature predictions for next season. Last week we wrapped up our projected standings for the 2015-’16 season. For the next few weeks, we’ll dive into some predictions for this seasons NBA Award Winners. We’ll start with Sixth Man, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. 

Let’s get this out of the way early: most of the NBA’s year-end awards are silly. Every season, the conversation in the final months of the year doesn’t so much revolve around the basketball actually being played on the court – rather, March and early-April are wrought with unnecessarily heated MVP discussions and debates over whether or not team success or pure numbers should be valued higher in Rookie of the Year balloting.

There are annual shouting matches over Coach of the Year, even though the trophy often ends up on the shelf of the league’s most surprising coach rather than in the hands of its rightful owner, Gregg Popovich. There’s the complex, vaguely-defined Most Improved Player award which generates less vitriolic conversation than MVP or Rookie of the Year honors – mostly because it’s far less meaningful; Tracy McGrady, Zach Randolph and Jermaine O’Neal’s legacies wouldn’t be any less impressive if you stripped them of their respective Most Improved trophies.

And of course we can’t forget the Sixth Man of the Year award – a title that we heap upon the player who is inherently not good enough to start for his team, but manages to excel in the art of secondary contribution. Giving out a trophy for the league’s top bench player is as logical as a team raising a banner for being a pesky, spoiler-playing ninth seed. But the Lou Williams’, Jamal Crawfords and J.R. Smiths of the world need their glory too, I suppose.

All that said, award season still matters for players. Adding a year-end award to a resumé can fetch guys precious extra dollars in contract negotiations. And for that reason, awards are not exempt from our summer content stream.

Let’s get our 2015-’16 awards projections wild guesses started. Here’s a way-too-early prediction for who will take home the Sixth Man, Rookie, and Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Sixth Man of the Year – Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls

Runners Up – Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors

Two of the usual suspects in the annual Sixth Man race might find themselves trailing the pack this season. Jamal Crawford is no longer the soul offensive weapon on the Clippers bench after Doc Rivers’ excellent off-season. As a result, Crawford’s sky-high 27.6 Usage Percentage is sure to take a dip along with his per game numbers (if he is even in Los Angeles for the entire season). Defending Sixth Man winner Lou Williams finds himself on a Lakers team where he’ll have to jockey for shots alongside Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson. He won’t be the second unit catalyst he was in Toronto last season with so many gunners surrounding him, so it might not be wise to bet on him capturing a second straight award for his excellence in being complementary.

Forward Nikola Mirotic earned a pair of second and third place votes in this category for his rookie performance with the Bulls last season. For stretches during the latter half of the season,when Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose were nursing injuries, the 24-year-old was Chicago’s primary offensive weapon. If coach Fred Hoiberg plans on setting his starting line-up based on merit alone, Mirotic might quickly find himself eliminated from Sixth Man contention. The bearded one could easily find himself inserted into Pau Gasol’s starting spot if Hoiberg wants to implement a more fluid offensive scheme. While Mirotic shot just 31.6 percent from three last year, a 39.3 percent clip during his Real Madrid career suggests there could be room for improvement in that area as he grows more comfortable with the North American game.

But if he’s asked to contribute coming off the pine, Mirotic could be the league’s ultimate super-sub. He illustrated an ability to carry a depleted offense last season. It stands to reason that he could spearhead a powerful Bulls second unit in 2015-’16 –  and pick up a shiny, albeit meaningless trophy in the process.

Rookie of the Year – Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets

Runners Up – Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers; D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers 

Like it or not, raw numbers matter when it comes to Rookie of the Year voting, regardless of how empty they may be. Just look at Michael Carter-Williams’ award-winning 2013-’14 season. Playing for a tanking Sixers squad, Carter-Williams was one of just a few viable, NBA-worthy options on his team. Given the chance to play 34.5 minutes a night on that 19-win team, the former Syracuse guard put up 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds in his rookie campaign. Those totals, however inflated by his disproportionate level of opportunity, were enough to lift Carter-Williams above an underwhelming first-year class and land him his first (and, let’s be real, probably last) piece of major NBA hardware.

Denver’s first-round pick Emmanuel Mudiay should benefit from a similar abundance of playing time this season. With Ty Lawson out the door, and the Nuggets seemingly headed for a season near the bottom of the West standings, Mudiay should start ahead of back-up Jameer Nelson from day one. With his raw talent (which far supersedes MCW’s), the ability to play boatloads of pressure-free minutes could be all Mudiay needs to vault himself to the top of the rookie charts.

Point guards have excelled on Mike Malone-coached teams too. In Malone’s one full season in Sacramento in 2013-14, his top point guard Isaiah Thomas averaged 34.7 minutes per game, posting 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds a game in the process. And until Malone was fired in mid-December last year, Darren Collison played 34.9 minutes nightly while putting up a 16.0/6.3/3.6 stat line.

Malone’s history suggests Mudiay will be given plenty of responsibility in his first NBA season. Even if the Nuggets are terrible, it shouldn’t impede Mudiay’s bid for top rookie honors. Keep in mind, the last two winners of the award came from the horrendous Sixers and Wolves.

Defensive Player of the Year – Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Runners Up – Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs 

Logic doesn’t always reign supreme in Defensive Player of the Year voting. This past year, Draymond Green was relegated to runner up status despite earning more first place votes than the eventual winner, Kawhi Leonard. Third in that race was DeAndre Jordan, who benefited from sexy rebound and block numbers and having Doc Rivers work as his own personal hype man. Jordan is a very good defensive anchor, but for him to garner 32 first place votes while Tim Duncan received one and defending DPOY Marc Gasol received none, was a little outrageous – particularly when you consider that even with Jordan’s ball-swatting, the Clippers ranked 15th in defensive rating in 2014-’15.

Our changing view of defensive value as a result of advanced player tracking made it possible for a wing player like Leonard and a versatile stopper like Green to finish one-two in balloting this season. But classic rim protectors are historically loved by voters. Rudy Gobert is exactly that – and if the back half of last season was any indication, he’ll be the anchor of one of the NBA’s best defensive units.

After the trade deadline deal that sent Enes Kanter and his non-existent defense packing, the Jazz were impossibly good at stopping opposing teams. Utah’s 94.8 post-All-Star Defensive Rating ranked almost 5 points better than the next best team in the league, and marked an almost unbelievable 11.3 points per 100 possessions better than its pre-All-Star pace. Gobert’s revelatory 40.4 Opposing At-Rim Field Goal Percentage was a big reason for the stark improvement. And his raw stats in the seasons’ final 29 games –  2.7 blocks and 14.0 rebounds per 36 minutes – are the kinds of numbers voters tend to adore. So while shut-down wing players with positional versatility like Green, Leonard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may provide more of a defensive punch than shot-blocking behemoths like Gobert next year, it will be tough to contend if the Frenchman carries over his gaudy late-season numbers and helps launch Utah into the playoffs with one the the league’s best defenses.


Stay tuned for next week when we’ll attempt to predict the Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player and MVP awards for the upcoming season. 

About Sean Woodley

Sean graduated from Ottawa's Carleton University with a Journalism Degree in 2014. Since then, he's regularly contributed at SB Nation's Toronto Raptors site, Raptors HQ, while writing and hosting podcasts for Crossover Chronicles. Follow him on Twitter (@WoodleySean), and email him at sean.woodley1@gmail.com if you're interested in exchanging food for written or spoken words.