Giannis Antetokounmpo

The start of NBA season reminds me of a popular Christmas song by Andy Williams: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

The 2018-19 season kicked off Tuesday night with two games featuring the two leading NBA championship contenders. First, the Eastern Conference favorite Boston Celtics faced off against the Philadelphia 76ers. Behind Jayson Tatum’s brilliant 23-point, 9-rebound performance, the Celtics spanked the 76ers 105-87.

In the second game, the defending champs opened the season with a ring ceremony and a win. The Golden State Warriors earned a 108-100 victory over the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder. Steph Curry lead the Warriors with 32 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists.

Though the Warriors and Celtics are considered overwhelming favorites to battle it out for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in June, it’s open season on the individual awards. Big-name players such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have switched zip codes. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back on the court after suffering serious injuries. Who knows where Jimmy Butler and other tradeable superstars will land?

Since players have been moving around the league like musical chairs, I’ve decided to put a little poetry in motion in this week’s column. I’ll be unveiling my (not-quite) preseason awards predictions via Haikus. Let’s start with an easy one.

MVP

Greece to Milwaukee,

First-time MVP will be,

Antetokounmpo.

Yes, to no surprise, I’m picking Giannis Antetokounmpo as the league’s MVP. Since I wrote about the Bucks last week as one of this year’s most exciting teams to watch, I’ll keep it brief here.

New coach. New arena. More shooters. Less LeBron.

With King James in Los Angeles, Antetokounmpo is ready to feast in the East. The Bucks will win more than 50 games and finish as a Top 3 seed in the conference. Antetokounmpo will outpace James, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant as the regular-season MVP.

Defensive Player of the Year

No more Boogie nights,

Blocks leader a season ago,

It’s Brow or never.

Figured it out? This season’s Defensive Player of the Year will be none other than Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. Last season, Davis finished first in blocks (2.6 bpg), fifth in rebounds (11.1 rpg) and 15th in steals (1.5 spg).

Compare that to the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert, the 2017-18 DPOY who averaged 2.3 blocks, 10.7 rebounds and 0.8 steals per game. Plus, Gobert only played in 56 games last season.

Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis

Last season, Rudy Golbert was named Defensive Player of the Year despite the fact that Anthony Davis averaged more blocks, rebounds and steals.

Davis made a good case to have been named DPOY last year. He blocks more shots and defends more positions than Gobert. However, the NBA is often a year behind in giving breakout players their due in awards season. Davis will surely get the nod this year.

Rookie of the Year

All eyes on Ayton.

Yes, Luca was a pro, but

Sac-Town won’t back down.

Many sportswriters are picking either the Suns’ Deandre Ayton or the Mavs’ Luca Doncic to walk away with the Rookie of the Year honors. Both players are excellent talents and will surely develop into Hall of Fame caliber players down the line. But the ROY award often has as much to do with opportunity as talent.

In Ayton’s case, Devin Booker will take away some of the No. 1 pick’s shine. For Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr. will likely have a breakout year and Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan will need to eat also.

However, for the Sacramento King’s Marvin Bagley III, the show is all his. Sure, Buddy Hield will jack up a ton of shots, but I expect the Kings to build around Bagley. He can finish anywhere around the basket and has a solid jumper. Plus, the Suns’ young stars always find a way to get hurt, meaning Ayton will likely find a way to miss at least 20 games.

Sixth Man of the Year

Thank you LeBron James,

For absconding the spotlight.

Now I can shine bright.

A combination of the bright lights in Los Angeles and the loud mouth of his pops left Lonzo Ball in a tough situation last season. The then-rookie point guard constantly had a target on his back, a camera in his face and a broke jumper in his tool belt. 

With James in L.A., all the pressure will be lifted off the elder Ball boy’s back. Lakers’ coach Luke Walton has decided to start Rajon Rondo at point guard in order to allow Ball to continue his development and provide a spark off the bench. 

Ball will thrive off the bench in L.A. Despite his broken jump shot, he was a nightly triple-double threat as a rookie. With a full offseason under his belt, his jumper should improve. With Rondo and James serving as the primary ball handlers, his looks at the basket should also improve exponentially. The only way he won’t win this award is if he supplants Rondo as the starter.

Coach of the Year 

Sorry Coach Casey,

Last year was grand larceny.

It’s Boston. Mark it.

No disrespect to Dwane Casey. He’s an excellent coach. But the best coach in the NBA is Brad Stevens

Casey won the Coach of the Year award based on the Toronto Raptors’ surprise first-place finish during the regular-season in the East. However, the Celtics finished second despite losing two All-Stars to injury. 

Stevens has been the best coach in the NBA for a few years and he has nothing to show for it. Yes, even better than Gregg Poppovich. It was remarkably petty last season that he received zero votes from the coaches. 

Now, with a stacked (and healthy) squad and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on his resume, there’s no way Stevens can be denied again. 

Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch on Twitter @ishcreates.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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