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NBA predictions for the stretch run: MVP, Rookie of the Year and what to watch

Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports illustration
Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports illustration

With the NBA All-Star break over, teams are heading into the final stretch of the 2022-23 regular season with around 23 or so games remaining.

With that in mind, Yahoo Sports' NBA staff resets its preseason predictions for a number of awards, late-playoff matchups and what will be the most interesting storylines heading into the postseason.

MVP

Dan Devine: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Jake Fischer: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Vincent Goodwill: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Ben Rohrbach: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Rookie of the Year

Dan Devine: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Jake Fischer: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Vincent Goodwill: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Ben Rohrbach: Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Coach of the Year

Dan Devine: Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings

Jake Fischer: Joe Mazzulla, Botson Celtics

Vincent Goodwill: Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings

Ben Rohrbach: Joe Mazzulla, Botson Celtics

Western Conference finals matchup

Dan Devine: Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors

Jake Fischer: Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors

Vincent Goodwill: Phoenix Suns vs Golden State Warriors

Ben Rohrbach: Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns

Eastern Conference finals matchup

Dan Devine: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics

Jake Fischer: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics

Vincent Goodwill: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics

Ben Rohrbach: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics

NBA Finals matchup

Dan Devine: Bucks vs. Warriors

Jake Fischer: Nuggets vs. Bucks

Vincent Goodwill: Bucks vs. Suns

Ben Rohrbach: Celtics vs. Nuggets

Most surprising team

Dan Devine: The (all but certainly, he said, knocking on wood) playoff-bound Sacramento Kings!

Jake Fischer: Sacramento Kings

Vincent Goodwill: Sacramento Kings

Ben Rohrbach: Golden State Warriors (More on this in a second ...)

Most disappointing team

Dan Devine: The Toronto Raptors, who I thought had a chance to be legit good, but turned out to be aggressively mid.

Jake Fischer: Los Angeles Clippers

Vincent Goodwill: Los Angeles Lakers

Ben Rohrbach: Golden State Warriors ... It is mind-bending to consider the Golden State Warriors are .500 with 24 games to play in the regular season, in danger of missing the playoffs entirely, and yet no team would want to face them if they make it. How can they be so dangerous but so average?

It’s that championship DNA, I guess — the mundanity of the regular season after winning four titles in six Finals appearances over eight years. The Warriors have one fewer loss than the Portland Trail Blazers, and Draymond Green is on Twitter claiming, “Told y'all they can't beat us,” when the starting five is together.

That starting five — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney and Green — is outscoring opponents by 21.9 points per 100 possessions, easily the best of any NBA unit that has played 300 minutes, but they are also 14-13 in games they have been on the floor together. That speaks to a lack of depth, and trading a recent No. 2 overall pick to reacquire an injured Gary Payton II (who they could have just re-signed this past summer) is an admission of that fault. The Warriors won’t need as much depth in the playoffs, but first they have to get there, and get there with enough gas left in the tank to win four rounds.

What we’re looking forward to watching down the stretch

Dan Devine: With all due respect to the recent shake-ups out West — KD to Phoenix! Kyrie to Dallas! Half a team to the Lakers! — I think we should be keeping an eye on whether the Bucks can overtake the Celtics for the top seed in the East. Boston’s been in pole position since the season tipped off. But Milwaukee’s got the better record and net rating since the calendar flipped to 2023, has been lights out since Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton got healthy, finally added their hoped-for missing piece in Jae Crowder, and has a slightly softer post-All-Star break schedule than the C’s.

Many public-facing playoff projection systems see Jayson Tatum and Co. holding off the Bucks’ charge. It’s notable to me, though, that Mike Beuoy’s model at Inpredictable — which seeks to “reverse-engineer an implied power ranking from the Vegas point spreads [and] figure out who the betting market ‘thinks’ are the best teams in the league” — pegs Milwaukee as the team with the higher likelihood of finishing with the No. 1 seed. Given how good these teams are in their own gyms and how slim the margins between them are, home-court advantage could matter a ton … which is why this 20-odd-game sprint bears close watching. (Also: If Milwaukee finishes first, Mr. “Unseen Fr34ky Hours” over here might have something to say to the big Serbian fella about that MVP race.)

Jake Fischer: The power struggle atop the Western Conference will be something to behold. Denver is well-positioned to emerge as the No. 1 seed, but how hot will the Suns burn after Kevin Durant returns from injury? Can the Memphis Grizzlies play their villain card perfectly, and make do on Ja Morant's claims of being "good" in the conference? Will the Clippers find stability? Can Golden State regroup once Stephen Curry returns? How will the Wolves look with Karl-Anthony Towns back in the mix? Top to bottom, the entire conference is facing critical questions.

Vincent Goodwill: Seeing if the champion Warriors can find some level of consistency when Stephen Curry returns. They don't want to be in the play-in tournament and will have to put on a rush to get there.

Ben Rohrbach: Kevin Durant on the Phoenix Suns. Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul give the Suns three of the deadliest crunch-time playmakers in the league, and Deandre Ayton should not be an afterthought in any discussion about how deadly Phoenix can be, even if they do not have many players beyond them you can reliably trust in a big playoff moment.

They are going to be a ton of fun to watch, especially to see how quickly they can develop their on-court chemistry. Durant fits into any system as well as any superstar who has ever lived, but there are 23 games left on the schedule, and he has not played since Jan. 8. Paul and Booker have also missed significant time with injuries that could linger for the remainder of the season. How they walk the fine line of creating a cohesive unit and maintaining their health could determine which team is left standing at the end of the season.

We got these preseason predictions right

Dan Devine: The Nuggets were right to bet on the brief glimpse of their team they saw before Jamal Murray blew out his knee. Zion Williamson could elevate the Pelicans to another level (when he’s healthy, at least). “Maybe everything finally breaks right in Brooklyn. It seems equally likely, though, that everything finally just breaks.”

Jake Fischer: The Kings are good! Keegan Murray is not quite the Rookie of the Year candidate I predicted, but he's been a super-valuable fifth starter in Sacramento, shooting over 40% from distance as Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox's All-Star campaigns have the Kings entering the break as an improbable No. 3 seed. Never did I think Sacramento would end its postseason drought with home-court advantage in the playoffs, but we believed in the talent assembled in Cowbell Kingdom, and Mike Brown has done an excellent job piloting it all from the sideline.

Vincent Goodwill: That the Brooklyn Nets would be a mess. Coach gone, transcendent star gone, Kyrie Irving gone, Ben Simmons remains.

Ben Rohrbach: Let me count the ways, my friends. None of the NBA's old guard is among the league's leading MVP candidates. The Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and even the Cleveland Cavaliers seem like they did enough to be just not good enough. The Celtics look more likely than the Warriors to return to the Finals. There’s even still hope for Luka Doncic to rise to the top of the MVP discussion and for the Los Angeles Clippers to emerge as title contenders.

But no prediction in our “Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe” series was more spot-on than calling Kevin Durant’s Brooklyn Nets more combustible than LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers. It was a battle for the first three months of the season, and the Lakers are in 13th place out West, but the Nets still won the war. Kyrie Irving’s trade request imploded the team. They dealt him, then Durant, and now they are no more.