And the Award Goes To ...

by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Managing Editor

Crystal Ballin'

We’re down to one preseason game a few more days before the Wine and Gold officially tip off the 2017-18 campaign.

The Cavaliers hope to be lifting the heavy hardware when the Playoffs peak in mid-June, but as far as individual awards, it’s anyone’s guess.

Can LeBron James, who last won MVP in 2012-13 and finished outside the top three voting last year, win No. 5 this season? Can Tristan Thompson make good on his goal to win Sixth Man – or will J.R. Smith, who took the trophy in 2012 – win it again as a 32-year-old? Will Tyronn Lue be recognized for pushing all the right buttons on Cleveland’s star-studded squad?

Before the ball goes up early next week, Cavs.com breaks out our crystal ball and posits a possible grouping of guys who could take home some of the NBA’s big individual awards – and the Wine and Gold’s potential winners in each category.

So without further ado, the nominees are …

MVP

Last year’s MVP race came down to a two-man Western Conference contest between James Harden – who led the league in assists and was second in scoring – and the eventual winner, Russell Westbrook – who became the first man to average a triple-double in 55 years.

Kawhi Leonard, arguably the best two-way player in the NBA, finished third in the voting. His value was demonstrated in San Antonio’s WCF matchup with the Warriors. The Spurs were up 25 points in the first half of Game 1 when Leonard went down, then proceeded to lose that game and the next three without him.

Both Westbrook and Harden’s numbers could take a dip this season, with the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in OKC and Chris Paul in Houston. The Spurs didn’t make any major moves and it probably wouldn’t affect Leonard if they did; he’s been the model of excellence and consistency since the 2014-15 season.

One young player who could sneak into the conversation is Giannis Antetokuonmpo, whose meteoric rise landed him the league’s Most Improved award last year and could propel him into the MVP conversation this year. In 2016-17, the Greek Freak led Milwaukee in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks.

And that brings us to LeBron James, who – as Tyronn Lue said on Wednesday – could win MVP every season. Like Leonard, sometimes it’s best to examine Number 23’s value by how the squad does without him – and the numbers ain’t pretty. With James – the only player in the NBA last season to average at least 26.0 points, 8.0 boards, 8.0 assists and shoot better than 50 percent from the floor – the Cavs have gone to three straight NBA Finals and expect reach a fourth this June.

Sixth Man

If the pattern holds true, it’s Jamal Crawford’s turn to win the NBA’s Sixth Man award – which he’s done in 2009-10, 2013-14 and 2015-16. If not, it’s more of the usual suspects – including Eric Gordon, who took the honors last season after averaging 16.2 off the bench for Houston.

Gordon and Lou Williams, who took the trophy two seasons ago, will still have plenty of opportunities to repeat the feat this year. Williams was part of this summer’s Chris Paul mega-deal and after winning Sixth Man with the Raptors in 2014-15 and spending part of two seasons with the Lakers, will try to do it again with their crosstown rivals.

But some new names could emerge into the conversation this year, speaking of the Lakers. With prized rookie Lonzo Ball running the show in L.A., Jordan Clarkson becomes a powerful offensive threat off the bench. The fourth-year guard from Missouri played in all 82 games, coming off the bench in all but 19 – averaging 14.7 ppg.

Flying under the radar in Denver over the past couple years, Will Barton has quietly become one of the league’s most efficient reserves – averaging 14.4 points off the bench in 2015-16 and 13.7 ppg last year. Of course, Barton is no secret to the Cavaliers, who he’s averaged 22.0 points against in the last four meetings.

The Cavaliers have at least two viable candidates for the award this year.

Tristan Thompson, who will start this season coming off the bench, has excelled in a reserve role before. But it’s difficult for a center to take Sixth Man honors. The last time a big man won it was Cliff Robinson in 1992-93.

J.R. Smith is a previous Sixth Man winner, earning honors with the Knicks in 2012-13, averaging 18.1 points in 80 games off the bench – leading New York to the postseason, where they fell to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat in the first round. Swish is coming off his lowest mark since his second season in the league and will be looking to bounce back in a big way.

Rookie of the Year

This could be a crowded field – featuring some young guns from this year’s Draft and a high-profile holdover from last year’s.

Ben Simmons, the top pick out of LSU last June, didn’t play a single game for Philly in 2016-17 (while his teammates Joel Embiid and Dario Saric finished second and third respectively in Rookie of the Year voting). He hasn’t put up massive numbers in preseason, but he has shown his enticing versatility. Markelle Fultz, the top pick in this year’s Draft, was picked as a point guard, but Simmons could very well run the point for Philly this year, with Fultz playing off the ball.

The hype machine loves Lonzo Ball, but the rubber’s about to hit the road next week and we’ll see if he lives up to the advanced billing. Ball had a strong Summer League run, and even though a sore ankle slowed him down in the preseason, he’ll be ready to roll when the regular season tips off.

Some thought Malik Monk was the steal of the Draft at No. 11 to Charlotte and the explosive guard has already proved in the preseason that he can score in bunches. Boston’s rugged forward Jayson Tatum has been solid in the preseason and, by all accounts, Frank Ntilikina is opening eyes in the Big Apple. The man drafted one spot ahead of Ntilikina, Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, was very impressive against Cleveland on Tuesday night.

On a veteran-heavy team like the Cavaliers, youngsters Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic likely won’t see a ton of time. But each has been impressive in their own way in the preseason. Osman shows a good feel for the game on both ends, is more athletic than people thought and hasn’t been overwhelmed by NBA competition. Zizic, who doesn’t turn 21 until January, has also pleased the coaching staff with his ability to run the floor and defend around the rim.

Defensive Player of the Year

The candidates for Defensive Player of the Year this year shouldn’t deviate much from any of the previous few years. Draymond Green, last year’s winner, and Kawhi Leonard, who finished third in the voting, should be right back in the running this season, and for good reason – they’re easily the two toughest and most versatile defenders in the league.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, who finished second in last year’s voting, had a breakout season in his fourth year in Utah and he’s averaged at least 2.4 blocks a season over the last three. Last year, he led the league in that category, piling up 42 more swats than his next-closest competitor, Indy’s Myles Turner.

This season, guards like Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley might be able to sneak into the conversation. And former Cavalier Danny Green has turned himself into one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

During the 2016 Finals, LeBron James said one day he’d like to win DPOY – one award that’s eluded him over the course of his 15-year career. He’ll be joined along the frontline with one of the most rugged defenders in the Conference, Jae Crowder, who’ll likely draw the opponent’s toughest matchup. And Iman Shumpert, who came to Camp this year on a mission, is still considered one of the Wine and Gold’s top perimeter defenders.

Coach of the Year

Last season, Mike D’Antoni took Coach of the Year honors after leading Houston to 55 wins in his first season at the helm. This year, he’s got some added weaponry to work with.

But if we’re going to look around the league at some locations where a coach could make a big splash include Scott Brooks in Washington, where the Wizards are looking to join the conversation as one of the East’s top teams, joining Cleveland and Boston. Jason Kidd’s Bucks are a trendy pick to accompany the Wizards as a serious challenger in the East – sticking to their formula of long position-less players with a focus on tough defense and offensive production inside the arc.

Speaking of trendy picks, Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves are expected to make a big jump in the ultra-competitive West this season behind the development of young studs, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the addition of Jimmy Butler from the Bulls. And let’s not forget about our old friend, Mike Malone, who’s patiently built a positive culture in Denver, where the Nuggets barely missed the postseason last year and look to reach the Playoffs for the first time since 2012-13.

In Cleveland, it’s a matter of whether Tyronn Lue will get the credit he deserves for meshing a group of stars and getting the most out of them. This past summer saw some serious roster turnover, and Lue’s job all season will be to make sure the gears mesh as they try to make a fourth straight run at the Finals.

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