Here we go again, finally.
In the NBA's 75th anniversary season, it's the first 82-game NBA season in three years starting Tuesday with the champion Milwaukee Bucks in their ring ceremony hosting the mostly-favored-to-dethrone-them Brooklyn Nets with/without Kyrie Irving. And then LeBron and The Geriatrics meeting the long ago champion Golden State Warriors still without Klay Thompson.
The Bulls traveling to Detroit Wednesday are one of 11 other games then to begin the six-month marathon that promises as much a return to normalcy as the capricious NBA season permits. Last season over a surprisingly consistent 72 games, Nikola Jokic was Most Valuable Player, Rudy Gobert Defensive Player of the Year, LaMelo Ball Rookie of the Year, Jordan Clarkson Sixth Man, Julius Randle Most Improved and Tom Thibodeau Coach of the Year. So who will be taking those pre-championship trophy bows this season? Here's some possibilities:
Most Valuable Player: Zach LaVine. The Bulls guard finally surrounded by elite scorers should continue his effective offensive player and finally get into those meaningful games.
Defensive Player of the Year: Lonzo Ball. The Bulls new point guard could/should/might lead the league in steals with an improved defensive team.
Rookie of the Year: Ayo Dosunmu. Perhaps injuries or rotation changes, but the should-have-been-a-first-rounder guard could emerge as a two-way player.
Sixth Man: Alex Caruso. The Lakers expatriate takes his popularity, defense and dunking to go East, young man.
Most Improved: Alize Johnson. There's no way Charles Barkley even knew this next Rodman was in the NBA the last three years.
Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan. Finally unburdened of first ballot Hall of Famers, Billy the Kid mans up.
So who's excited about this Bulls season?
Taking a deep breath and beginning to relax, here's what I believe might actually occur as the NBA seeks to overcome my Bulls award bias.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets.
The MVP generally comes from one of the elite, contending teams, which the Nuggets were even with Jamal Murray getting injured. The Nets should be even more elite this season despite the Irving drama as they were the destination of all the veterans who decided not to hook on with LeBron. More than that, Durant is the best player in the NBA. He showed it again in the Olympics and is the least defendable with his size and range. His return from serious injury has been remarkable. Yes, like his game. It's a top five for the award, which probably includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell and James. Zach, seriously? If the Bulls get into that top four in the East, which they could, he might actually make that top five.
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics.
This is perhaps my least favorite award because it so often goes to centers, and now with Rudy Gobert winning three of the last four we'll have to make him a Hall of Famer in the Ben Wallace—seriously, Hall of Fame—- mold. I know Gobert is tough at the basket, but the NBA these days requires so much switching and movement he cannot do. Plus, if you attack his body he isn't a quick jumper. But enough Bad Rudy. Smart doesn't have the offensive responsibilities of players like LeBron and Jimmy Butler, who take some short cuts at times because they have to score and assist. Kawhi Leonard is out this season and who knows what's up with Ben Simmons. Can't reward him for his escapades. Giannis? He's got enough stuff. Lonzo Ball does have a chance here with his steals and play, though so does good defenders like Matisse Thybulle, OG Anunoby and some big guys like Anthony Davis. Perhaps second for Draymond Green and third for Jrue Holiday.
Rookie of the Year: Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons.
He has a good chance if he actually plays a game. He didn't play in the preseason and who knows when he will with an ankle injury. This is a tough one because with this supposed great class no one has looked that good in preseason. The general consensus is Jalen Green is the favorite because Houston is so bad and he'll get a chance to shoot and miss a lot. Oklahoma City's Josh Giddey may have been the best in preseason, but with the mess of young players they have there who knows who'll play and how much. Scottie Barnes is interesting with Toronto, but they still have enough veterans to compete for a play-in and likely won't let him control things as much as he has in preseason. So Green second and then maybe a reach with Indiana's Chris Duarte as they have a bunch of guard injuries.
Sixth Man: Alex Caruso, Bulls.
I believe he does have a chance the way Billy Donovan seems likely to be using him, often with the starters and in a prominent role with Coby White out seemingly into December perhaps. Though you usually have to score a lot for this award. Not that it's bad to be with LeBron, but Caruso is a clever ball handler and passer, which you don't do much with LeBron. Patty Mills is an obvious choice going to Brooklyn, though perhaps he starts with Kyrie Irving's misadventures. Others getting mentioned include poor financial analyst Dennis Schroder, Tyler Herro, 2021 winner Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Jalen Brunson and Derrick Rose. Hey, what about Cameron Payne? I'd go with Rose second and Mills third.
Most Improved: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies.
Perhaps he should be in the former Comeback Player category since injuries have been the issue the last two years. But he's been almost forgotten about and with the Grizzlies swapping interior scoring for interior bulk, he'll get plenty of opportunities also playing with Ja Morant. It's a busy category. Miami seems ready to feature Tyler Herro again after a bubble bust out a few years ago and there's Kevin Porter Jr. who could be wrestling shots away from Green. Also OG Anunoby, Michael Porter Jr., old buddies Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Daniel Gafford, various 76ers guys like Tyrese Maxey and Isaiah Joe with Ben Simmons' soap opera, Terance Mann, Jordan Poole, Lonzo Ball, Mitchell Robinson, Robert Williams and Lu Dort. Anunoby runner up and Gafford third.
Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat.
He's a really good coach who never has gotten the award, first because everyone said LeBron deserved it, and then because he isn't the campaigning type and it's supposedly Pat Riley's culture. But he does all the right things in getting players to commit and play seriously consistently. And he must coach Jimmy Butler hard. Because it seemed no one else did. Others overlooked have been Quin Snyder, Mike Malone and Billy Donovan. Snyder second and a third place tie with Malone and Donovan. I know, pick someone! But it's more than a participation trophy.
First-team: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic.
Second-team: Donovan Mitchell, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid.
Third-team: Trae Young, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, Jaylen Brown, Anthony Davis.