There is no such things as an NBA star who does not face some sort of scrutiny. Once up-and-coming players reach a certain level of success, dealing with the pressures from fans and the media becomes ingrained with their day to day life. There are however levels to this. The likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant are always under the pressure to deliver championships on a yearly basis. And this should be expected for the two best players in today’s game. The 2018-19 season comes with a certain set of challenges for the select few who seek to break status quo of the league. Young talent are trying to prove that they are the next generation of MVP’s. Established players look to rewrite the narrative that they are surrounded by. Heck, pressure is not something is exclusive to players; NBA executives and coaches also undergo the difficulties and burdens of professional sports. Everyone on this list is a household NBA-name that the average fan constantly sees in the sport’s new cycle. Each individual has a critical set of questions to answer with humps and hurdles along the way as they try to prove their doubters wrong.
Kawhi Leonard: A year ago, he was a regarded as a top-three player in the league and as the NBA’s preeminent heir to Scottie Pippen. Kawhi will once again regain his MVP caliber status once he is able to prove his physical health. If he is unable to fully recover from a quad injury that had derailed what would be the past his last season in San Antonio, the Toronto Raptors may not be dealt for a superstar. Injuries of wrecked the careers of numerous superstars who has faded into history books. Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and most recently, Derrick Rose have all had career altering injuries. With their respective superstar statuses’ gone, they each have slowly slipped out of the minds of the average NBA fan. An inability to reach his peak physical form will result in dwindling attention on Kawhi Leonard. The harsh truth is that slowly but surely, we will stop caring of Leonard is unable to get back to being a superstar.
Should Leonard return to full health and form, it will go a long way into ensuring that everyone forgets the mess that was last year. He became the first superstar player to leave San Antonio in their prime and dented the culture and ethos of the Spurs. Now with the Raptors, he’ll have to build on their franchise’s 59 win regular season. Toronto will finally have the chance to truly contend in the East now that their kryptonite is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s hard to know how much of a Leonard-led could alter the Raptor’s pushover status. Regardless, it will sure as hell will reset the franchise’s narrative. Assuming his body returns to full health and he can lead Toronto into a deep playoff run, we are still unsure as to whether he sees himself north of the border after June of 2019. Sticking with the Raptors would usher in a new era for the franchise and for the 27 year-old. That is if his plans to bolt to tinsel town are not still on the table.
Even if an exit inevitable, his level of play will determine the size of his paycheck and the number of possible suitors. If he is no longer able to establish himself as a star in the NBA, it’ll be harder to for people to care about which team he lands on. And the idea that he can be the Robin to LeBron’s Batman will be a harder idea to sell. Should he become the Kawhi Leonard of old, his future plans will determine the landscape of the NBA for years to come. In short, there is a lot of pressure on his back. He has redeem both his professional and personal status in the league. Leonard could very well determine the landscape of the league.
Terry Stotts: He was already on the hot seat towards the end of the 2017-18 regular season. That would not make sense for a head coach who had guided his team to the third seed in a loaded Western Conference. Portland closed their 49 win season on a 1-4 record and were on of the worst teams in the league for the month of April. The Blazers appeared to be over-seeded. They were heavily undermanned even though they were led by an All-Star caliber backcourt in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It also did not help that they were on a run of losing six consecutive playoff defeats before the faced on of the league’s best in Anthony Davis. Portland lost a nail biter in game one and the series was over from there. The Blazers were convincingly swept. Stotts now has lost ten straight playoff games and this could cost him his job. The problem is not McCollum or Lillard. A lack of a third guy to add with their backcourt and the fact that Stotts’ message to the team could be becoming stale. He survived this summer though the next year could be his last in Oregon. The Blazers did not address their lack of quality wing players. They did re-sign Jusuf Nurkic on a four year deal worth $48 million. Nurkic has shown stretches where he is capable of being the missing piece for the Blazers, though his inconsistencies are far more glaring. Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan are both young bigs who can stretch the floor and have the lateral movement to guard perimeter players. While they can inject life into a core that is slowly depleting, they play behind a big man who has plateaued.
The Blazers used their remains of their cap space to sign other free-agent guards who are capable of scoring though their minutes will be limited with Lillard and McCollum still on the team. While this may be in preparation for breaking up the pair, they are both bona fide scorers who have proved that they can win the regular season together. Stotts is known for his ability to get best out of a limited roster. But, this squad is quite flawed and the Blazers do not have the cap space to sign additional players and they have plenty of untradeable contracts on the books. Let’s not forget his playoff record, an abysmal 12-28. McCollum and Lillard are not easily replaceable. Stotts, who is on the last year of his deal, unfortunately is.
Kyrie Irving: Like Leonard, Kyrie Irving is also making a comeback from an injury that has made some people doubt his abilities. He did have an operation on knees after contracting complications that were related to a previous operation he had on the same knee. It knocked off Irving for the rest of the season and should have knocked off Boston’s chances of making a deep playoff run. The fact that Celtics were a fourth quarter away from making the NBA Finals without him complicates Irving future with the franchise. In addition to proving that he can healthy for a full season, he has to show Danny Ainge that he should be the go to option for the Celtics. Irving has never been associated with playmaking. With the talent that he is surrounded by, Uncle Drew has to show that he can get the best out of the likes of Brown and Horford while he bumps up his assist rate.
Jayson Tatum’s progress is ridiculously ahead of schedule and he was aided by the injuries to Irving and Gordon Hayward. He has all been but been marked as the future of the Celtics as he showed that he is unequivocally the best rookie the franchise has had since Larry Bird. Al Horford played like he was one of the five best players in the planet during the playoffs. He took apart Joel Embiid – who finished second in the race for the Defensive Player of the Year Award – with his ability to break him down on the perimeter and on the block. How of this would have happened had Kyrie Irving been healthy? We learnt so much about who the Celtics could have been without the services of Jersey native. Heck, had somebody told Jason Tatum that he was the best player on the roster the Celtics could have made their first NBA Final since 2010. Was Kyrie Irving the one roadblock that stood in the path of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford being the next Big Three?
Irving has to re-establish himself as the alpha on this team by still ensuring that we get to see the best Tatum and Horford. His only other option with the Celtics will be to take a lesser role to make way for the younger generation. Given how his tenure with LeBron and the Cavaliers ended, he sure as hell does not want to be second to fiddle to anybody. And why should he? He’s been described by many in the Celtic’s organization as reminiscent of Kevin Garnett. KG was second to nobody. If Kyrie Irving does have the same fire that fueled the future Hall-Of-Famer, he will definitely not take a promotion while he is still in his prime. Let’s also remember that this a contract year for him. There are strong rumors in NBA circles to suggest that he sees himself out of Massachusetts in a year’s time. All of this adds to a recipe where his full season and every move with come under relentless scrutiny.
When Kyrie Irving forced a trade to the Celtics, everyone assumed that he would be the new cornerstone of the franchise. Though, the events since his arrival has made many question if his move to Boston was just a placeholder before he made a move elsewhere.
Daryl Morey: He might be the only superstar executive not named Pat Riley (he looks like he could play a lead role in The GodFather, the man frightens me). He is the Founder and CEO of the NBA’s Nerd Association and it the preeminent name when it comes saying, “Bitch, please. I know what I am doing.” And last season, his plans would have come to fruition had Chris Paul’s hamstring not given up on him during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Now, there is much intrigue as to whether or not this season’s Rockets can get back to the same level.
Morey let both Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute leave on a free as he feels that 3-and-D wings are expendable who can be easily replaced. That, and he wanted to invest more into Chris Paul and Clint Capela who are core players to the identity of Houston. This could be decision that could bite him in the back even though Ariza is now seen as a buy-out candidate who could return to the Toyota Center. Their new additions – no matter their offensive prowess’s – may not be able make up for defensive tenacity that their departed wings can offer. It’s heartbreaking to see the one team that truly challenged Golden State since Kevin Durant joined them has taken a step back.
Chris Paul is slowly but surely coming towards the end of his title window. It can extended if D’Antoni employs the same regiment that Jerry Sloan used to prolong John Stockton’s career. James Harden is at the peak of his powers though he too will approach 30 in a year. Morey had taken the long-term approach in building a contender since he took over the job over decade ago. It has been a long a tenuous process. If there was ever a time for him to break character to make some hasty and desperate moves, it should have been this summer.
This is not the final roster for the Rockets. Morey will certainly tinker and continue to make moves till the First of March when the buyout market will come to a close. And who knows, Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis can make up for the loss of Ariza and Mbah a Moute. It is entirely possible for Houston to take a step forward. While it may seem unlikely, Morey is the right man for that job. Though, the odds of them losing ground to the Warriors seem very likely. This offseason would standout more than others as it may have been the make or break summer that could have ultimately delivered Houston their first title in over two decade. The success or failures of Morey’s decisions will play a huge role in determining whether or not Golden State will three-peat as champions. If that is not pressure, I don’t know what is.
Markelle Fultz: Fultz was the consensus top pick of the 2017 draft class after a collegiate season with Huskies were he showed superstar potential averaging 23.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG, on 48% from the field and over 41% from beyond the arc. Despite his phenomenal year in college, he received as much media attention as the superstars of the league for reasons nobody could have predicted twelve months ago. He struggled with a shoulder injury or what is a change in his shooting form that resulted in the injury. And how did a drop of confidence affect the above? It is really hard to place a timeline of sequential events and basic reasoning to explain what happened in his rookie reason. Regardless, recovering from all that while coming under scrutiny was going to be a mammoth task.
There is not a defined blueprint/plan-of-action that Fultz and the 76ers could use to get him back on track. He was a star when he was drafted. Establishing that status again is tricky given that is it really hard to predict what young players are coming to become in the NBA, especially for a player who has only played 17 total games in his rookie season. He could very well become a star player who can average over 20 points a game as the core part of a contending team. Fultz could deliver on the promise and potential that made him the number one draft pick in 2017. On the flip side, it is entirely possible that he can fail to get his act together and secure his name as one of the greatest busts of all time. What’s also realistic is that he could fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
His career trajectory will depend on the coming season. That alone would be enough pressure as careers are not always defined by the performances in a players second season. Though, the 76ers organization and the narrative surrounding the process hinges of Fultz’s abilities. He could turn into a multi-dimensional scorer who could provide much needed scoring from the three-point line to a team that has the talent to soon compete for a title. His crafty moves of his first step and ability to create shots off of transition may be the x-factor the Philly’s ability to topple the Celtics status as the perceived top dog in the East. It is easy to forget that he resembles James Harden in his sole season with the Washington Huskies. Injecting Fultz’s best self into the a team that has two future MVPs in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and a host of solid role-players will certainly make the 76ers an overpowering force in the NBA. On the other hand, Fultz could flop and the Sixers are unable to overcome the Celtics or any other title contending team in the future.
We are the precipice of rekindling an Eastern Conference rivalry that dominated the last 70’s and 80’s. Both teams have the pieces of form dynasties. Fultz could be the one variable to put the 76ers on top.
Billy Donovan: To be fair to Donovan, he has to deal whole lot since he decided to coach in the pro league. In his first season with the Thunder, his team was 3 fourth quarters away from beating the Warriors and making the NBA finals. Kevin Duran bolted for the Bay Area. Russel Westbrook was signed to an absurd amount of money. He had to try and mesh Paul George and Carmelo Anthony with unmalleable MVP point guard. And now, Anthony is now a member of the Rockets. Throughout the whirlwind that has been the past three Thunder seasons, we are yet to see if Billy Donovan is a quality NBA coach. This has been the first summer where there has been minimal commotion with his roster. Eight of the nine players who logged over 1000 minutes with the Thunder last season are returning for another go around. Anthony was the sole player to not comeback and that is likely to be a good thing. He simply did not fit with Westbrook and George was a massive defensive liability.
Continuity, could be a blessing and a curse. While it does allow for the returning players to further ingratiate themselves into Donovan’s philosophy, it does also raise the expectations for a team that was highly disappointing last season. They only increased their win total by one game from 47 to 48. George and Anthony were able to get Thunder one more win than their previous season without them. And again, they crashed out in the first round of the playoffs. There are still reasons to be optimistic with the Thunder. Andre Roberson will be returning from a season ending knee injury. In his 39 games before his season ended, he was definitely one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and in the conversation for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. A Lineup featuring Westbrook, Roberson, George, Placeholder Power Forward, and Steven Adams can be a lockdown defensive team. Nevertheless, if things do not go according to plan, Sam Presti may decide to move in another direction. Westbrook turns 30 during the first few weeks of the season and George will turn 29 in next May. There are both still in their primes though their contending window may not be as long as they perceive it to be.
Zach LaVine: The former lottery pick of the 2014 draft LaVine has only has two major accolades that validate his status as a household NBA name: back-to-back Slam Dunk Challenge wins in 2015 and 2016 (the second of which was one of greatest all-time contests between him and Aaron Gordon). He is one of the most athletic players to grace the NBA and this is most exemplified by his 46 inch vertical. Before ending his 2016-17 season by tearing his ACL, he was on his way to his best statistical season ever. He started off by averaging 20 point per game though he slowly dropped off but still averaged a respectable 18.9 PPG for the season. His potential to still be a decent starter in the league was part of the reason for why he was traded to Chicago in the deal that reunited Jimmy Butler with Tom Thibodeau. He missed over half of his first season with the Bulls though he still averaged 17 PPG on 38% from the field. The idea of a one-dimensional scorer who can’t defend or play make is not valued by most in the league. And yet, the Bulls have him a four year deal where he’s going to be paid $19.5 million a year. Like Jabari Parker, there is no reason to believe that a fully healthy LaVine is still worth the contracts they were handed this offseason. While he shot nearly 40% from beyond the arc in his last two seasons with the Timberwolves, which may be the only plus side to his superficial offensive game. He needs to work on his defensive awareness, positioning and ability to sustain the effort and concentration of a player who is going to get heavy minutes.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Barring a healthy Kawhi Leonard, Giannis is the best player in the East. Period. While King James does not wear a literal crown when he graces the basketball court, everybody accepts that he is the reigning monarch of the NBA who is the protagonist of this iteration of basketball. Everyone hails NBA royalty, but we are also eager for a challenger to usurp the throne. The Greek Freak may just be that man. Giannis put up MVP numbers last season and would have been a genuine challenger for that mantle had he not been on a 44 win team in the league weaker conference. Here are his stats from the 2017-18 regular: 26.9 PPG, 10 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.4 BPG, with 27.3 PER. These are unparalleled numbers for someone who is only 24 years old. Anthony Davis may have already reached an individual peak and has a track record of injuries. Giannis on the other hand could take his game to the next level as he continue to improve his jump shooting. He is as good as a candidate as anybody to topple LeBron and call himself the best player in the league for a year to come.
The biggest factor that I believe that gets to decide who the league’s MVP will be is narrative. That is the reason that Russell Westbrook won his two seasons ago. It is not because of the fact that he averaged a triple double during the regular season. He did that last season and nobody batted an eye. There were serious concerns that the Thunder were not going to make the playoffs when Kevin Durant left them for the Warriors. He dragged that team to the postseason and put up some unprecedented numbers to take them here. James Harden was once regarded as one of the most selfish players in the league – at a time when he was averaging over 7 assists per game. The fact that he was able to turn that around and perfectly ingratiate himself into Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system and became a generational facilitator. His ability to turn his image around and the fact that he had twice finished as a runner-up is a sizeable factor as to why he received the coveted award last year.
Giannis will be the face on a much improved Bucks team. He will playing under his most experienced coach ever in Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud – a Modern NBA Coach – will finally instill a quality offense that gels with the way that the league is trending. Spacing the floor and an emphasis on ball movement will go a long way into helping the Bucks win many more game. That, and the fact that Jason Kidd’s incomprehensible defensive gimmicks will no longer be a part of the way the Bucks play. It will be shocking if the Bucks don’t make a substantial improvement. They key to them making a challenge in post-LeBron Eastern Conference will be an improved version of Giannis. We need to be able to see the three’s drop. He shot a measly 30.7% from beyond the arc last year which was his best since his rookie season. His efficiency and total shoot attempts from deep has to get better. The Greek Freak is a juggernaut in transition though his ability to run a half-court offense is below the park. Everyone has raved about his defensive potential though we to see him in that conversation for being one of the best two-way players in the league.
He is still a very raw player but Giannis has shown in brief spells that he has the requisite tools to do all that. And this is exactly where the pressure will come. He is yet to win playoff series and it is a hurdle that he needs to leap in the coming season. The previous excuses of him still being in the developmental stage or the fact that he has a sub-par coach is dwindling. Giannis possess everything a player would need to become the next big thing that everyone would extol about.