National Basketball Association
 
By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor - Archive - Email
Awards season
(L-R) Jabari Parker, Serge Ibaka, Taj Gibson, Jonas Valanciunas, David Blatt and LeBron James LeBron James, far right, has won four of the last six MVP awards.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In our society, it's never too early to think about awards.

You can easily access information on this season's Oscar frontrunners, despite the fact the show is not for another almost four months.

I have no special powers to see into the future. (No one does.) But here's a heavily-educated, mildly-expert man's best stabs at the 2014-15 NBA individual award winners.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - JABARI PARKER, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Last season, it was the worst rookie class in history and everyone was rubbing two sticks together just to come up with multiple realistic candidates for this award.

This season, it's the opposite. There are a few great nominees, but Parker is the best fit. Parker was the most-polished prospect in the draft. He's an NBA- ready scorer who can contribute on the interior, outside and by slashing to the basket. He's capable of playing both forward positions and should lead all rookies in scoring and be high on the list in rebounding.

Parker will also have a lot of opportunity in Milwaukee. The team is bad and will be built around Parker offensively. Playing time is a significant factor in this particular award and Parker should get plenty of it. He's the face of the Bucks and head coach Jason Kidd will give him a long leash in the early stage of the season.

Andrew Wiggins was the first pick in the draft and is destined for greatness. He's a legit two-way star waiting to happen in the NBA, but his rookie season might be too early. The Minnesota Timberwolves aren't going to be good, however, they have pieces ahead of Wiggins in the rotation. Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin. Either could be moved to give Wiggins more of a chance, but until then, Parker is ahead.

Marcus Smart is an interesting horse in this race. With Rajon Rondo injured from a banana peel incident, or shower, or whatever it was, Smart will get plenty of run for the Boston Celtics. He's a great two-way prospect, who, if he develops a consistent jump shot, could be a star.

The dark horse in the race is Orlando's Elfrid Payton. The Magic have enough faith in Payton they released incumbent point guard Jameer Nelson. Payton is a ball hawk defender (noticing a theme among rookies?), and the offensive game will come. Playing time shouldn't be an issue for Payton.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR - SERGE IBAKA, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

Ibaka has made the All-Defensive First Team the last three seasons. Clearly, he's a staple in voters' minds and big men have taken this trophy the last 10 seasons.

Ibaka has finished in the top three in blocked shots per game the last four campaigns. He posted the most total blocks in the league every season since 2010-11. He's the anchor for the Thunder's defense and it's not just about rim protection. Ibaka is such a remarkable athlete, he can go out and defend people on the perimeter. Few bigs can do that.

Joakim Noah can do that. He did it so well that he won this honor last season. Noah will be a candidate again, but Ibaka is going to shine loftier in the spotlight than Noah. Kevin Durant will be shelved until December with a broken foot and Ibaka will be the second-biggest star in the OKC lineup. Noah's Bulls will all be about Derrick Rose.

If voters wanted to reward a wing defender, LeBron James comes to mind. He will have a hard time winning this award because he will get most of his votes in the MVP race. Other than James, perimeter players with a shot could be Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR - TAJ GIBSON, CHICAGO BULLS

Gibson could easily start for most teams in the league, including the Bulls. He got the bulk of fourth-quarter minutes in seasons past, but that was because Carlos Boozer was the one in his way.

Pau Gasol is now the starting power forward. Defensively, Gasol's not up to head coach Tom Thibodeau's standards. Does that mean Gibson will still play in pivotal moments ahead of Gasol? Probably not, but Gibson could be the late-in- game small forward. Gibson has a decent and improving midrange game and is tougher than bad steak.

Gibson has been reportedly upset about not starting and this might be the reward from voters. He's extremely important to Chicago's success, especially defensively. The Bulls are going to be very good this season and Gibson will be a huge part of it.

Phoenix's Isaiah Thomas may score the most points for a second-unit player in the NBA. He averaged 20.0 ppg as a starter for the Sacramento Kings and he won't see enough playing time to reach that plateau. The Suns are going up- tempo, so Thomas should fit right into that scheme.

Jamal Crawford won the award last season and should be a contender again. The Los Angeles Clippers are thin at the small-forward spot, so Crawford might get the run there in the fourth quarter.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER - JONAS VALANCIUNAS, TORONTO RAPTORS

Valanciunas' career has trended upward in his two seasons. Last season, he averaged 11.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg, which were both up from his rookie campaign. The near double-double production leapt the Raptors into an Atlantic Division title.

Toronto should be very good once again, and this choice is somewhat risky considering the Raps are dominated by the elite backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

Valanciunas' touches should go up even more this season. He's proven his worth as a valuable low-post scorer, his shooting touch isn't hideous and the Raptors have had him working hard on his conditioning through camp.

Valanciunas has all the makings of an elite big man. He's young, it's taken him a little while to find his groove and this season, he will.

The other name that occupied this here brain canal was Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks. He's a freak and not just because that's his nickname. Antetokounmpo grew two inches this summer and now stands 6-foot-11. He got time at the point guard during the summer league and preseason. Antetokounmpo will have a bigger role alongside Parker for Kidd and he'll see a bump in playing time which has historically helped players in this category.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Hornets intrigued me. Reports say, MKG worked this summer on his shooting form, which badly needed help. With Lance Stephenson in town, Kidd-Gilchrist needs to improve or potentially fall out of the rotation. If the shooting has truly gotten better, and Charlotte consistently wins, the former No. 2 overall pick makes sense.

COACH OF THE YEAR - DAVID BLATT, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

This honor is bestowed on a coach who either guides his team to a substantial turnaround in record, or leads one of the best teams in the whole association.

Blatt has a chance at both.

The Cavaliers won 33 games last season and that number should go up considerably in 2014-15. You may not have heard, but LeBron James returned to Cleveland. Kevin Love was traded to the Cavs. Kyrie Irving is still a member of the roster.

The Cavs will be very good. In fact, they should finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference, something close to 60 wins. That would fulfill both criteria normally needed for this award.

Blatt will have skeptics who might say he doesn't deserve the praise since he has James, Love and Irving. Coaching stars, coupled with the expectations as humongous as they are in Cleveland, won't be easy.

Blatt is going to infuse a ball-movement system in Cleveland. He's regarded as smart and funny. Blatt is respected from his years coaching overseas. Blatt is the man.

Thibodeau will always be a factor in this race. Same goes for reigning champion, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks will guide a team that should improve and be a real factor in the crazy Western Conference. Denver's Brian Shaw might actually coach the team with one of the biggest win differentials. Blatt is still the one to beat.

(Side note: Kevin McHale is my choice for first coach fired. The Houston Rockets are going to struggle this season and McHale will take the fall. He hasn't seemed totally comfortable on the bench with this roster, plus the team got worse in the offseason.)

MVP - DUH

LeBron James has won four of the last six MVP awards, so even if he didn't put the league and Ohio on his back, he'd be favored to win.

James is the face of the NBA. He is the NBA. He lost last season's award to Kevin Durant, so voters who were tired and frustrated of writing James' name can do so once again with a clear conscience.

LBJ is so clearly ahead of everyone on the court. He will be the MVP not just because of his on-court prowess, but the Cavs' success and bringing basketball back to Cleveland.

James has this MVP in the bag.

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