NBA Household Names Facing the Most Pressure in 2018-19

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    There’s no such thing as pressure-free stardom in the NBA. Once the name gets big enough and the success reaches a certain level, simply dealing with the scrutiny, jealousy and professional responsibilities becomes a full-time job.

    Some are in for a tougher 2018-19 than others, though.

    These guys are entering pivotal, career-defining stretches. None are in exactly the same spots in their career-trajectory, but all should be feeling the weight of expectations and unfinished business. We have young talents who’ve proved nothing and established megastars looking to reclaim (temporarily?) lost excellence.

    Weirder still, we threw an executive on the list, proving pressure isn’t just a player’s concern.

    The people on this list all have star power, even if it might not seem so at first. They’re household names (in NBA-focused households, at least), have spent plenty of time dominating the news cycle and have, for stretches of varying length, been regarded among the best at their professions.

    Every one of them has a critical question to answer or a legacy to define next season.

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    Kawhi Leonard faces a multiphase redemption process—one that’ll have to start with him proving his physical health.

    If the quad injury that cost the two-time Defensive Player of the Year all but nine games of the 2017-18 season (and Leonard did not look like himself in any of the contests he played) doesn’t fully heal, then we’re not dealing with a superstar anymore. And while the injury-driven loss of one of the game’s best players would warrant attention, the truth is that we’ll simply stop caring as much about Leonard if he’s no longer a top-five talent.

    If Leonard returns to form, it’ll go a long way toward erasing the mess of last year—when he became the first big-name player to chip away at the monolith of San Antonio Spurs’ culture and functionality. From there, all he’ll have to do is elevate a 59-win Toronto Raptors team to serious contention after several years of LeBron James-related playoff exits. It’s hard to know how much a Leonard-led run to the NBA Finals would alter the Raptors-as-playoff-pushovers angle, but there’s a chance he has the power to reform a pretty firmly set narrative.

    Assuming Leonard’s body cooperates and he leads Toronto to previously undiscovered country, the question of his post-Raptors plans will take on more weight. Might he stick with the Raps and be the bridge to a new era (Leonard’s still only 27, so success could last a while in Toronto if he stays put), or will he still bolt to the Los Angeles Lakers, as so many expect?

    Even if an exit is in his plans, Leonard’s performance this season will determine the significance of his decision. If Leonard isn’t a star anymore, it’ll be harder to care where he lands…and the import of him joining James on a new superteam is a harder sell.

    If Leonard is all the way back, his future plans are obviously far more important to the league’s competitive landscape.

    So, to recap: You have personal and career salvation, the East’s balance of power and the very future of the NBA’s hierarchy riding on how Leonard performs in 2018-19. I’d say there’s some pressure there.

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Like Leonard, Kyrie Irving‘s 2018-19 season will involve a comeback from injury.

    After knee surgery (related to a previous operation) knocked Irving out for the year in March, the Boston Celtics made a deep playoff run anyway. This adds a complicating element unique to Irving’s situation.

    In addition to proving he’s healthy, Irving must perform well enough to justify his spot as Boston’s lead option. That’s because Jayson Tatum’s ahead-of-schedule playoff ascent marked him as the organization’s most promising young talent. Meanwhile, Al Horford‘s unsung contributions on defense and consistent success against elite names—Joel Embiid comes to mind—mean he’s now regarded by many of the NBA’s more attentive, analytically-inclined thinkers as Boston’s best player.

    Does any of that happen if Irving is healthy for the 2018 playoff run? And how much of what we thought we learned about Boston last spring was true all along? Was Irving just in the way of Tatum and Horford?

    So, Irving must re-establish his position as Boston’s alpha/top option/crunch-time leader without marginalizing Tatum and Horford. It’s either that or willingly accept a diminished role, and based on the way Irving felt about playing second fiddle to James with the Cavs, it seems unlikely he’ll accept a demotion.

    Add to that impending free agency in 2019 and whispers that perhaps Irving isn’t long for Boston, and you have the recipe for a fraught, unrelentingly scrutinized season.

    When Irving joined the Celtics a year ago, it felt like the beginning of a long chapter in his career. Now, with so much unsettled, the Boston stint might only be a footnote.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Markelle Fultz was the consensus top pick in the 2017 draft after a collegiate season of clear superstar quality. He probably garnered as much day-to-day media coverage as any established name last season, even if it was for mostly undesirable reasons.

    About that…

    Fultz’s struggles with a shoulder injury/shooting yips/broken confidence defined his rookie year. Recovering from whatever combination of those maladies afflicted him last season feels like a massive task. There’s not exactly a blueprint out there for re-establishing stardom after a full season like this.

    We don’t know what most young players are going to become. What’s different about Fultz is the sheer breadth of possible paths his career could still take.

    Clear star who averages an easy 25 points per game and winds up delivering on his draft-day promise? Completely within the realm of possibility.

    A washout who simply never gets his game together and goes down as one of the great busts of all time? Also realistic…as is everything in between those two extremes on the spectrum.

    Fultz’s career basically hangs in the balance this year. That’d be enough pressure on its own, but the Philadelphia 76ers’ entire organizational fate (complete with further vindication of The Process) depends largely on what Fultz adds to the mix.

    If the Sixers could add a blistering scorer with deep range, impossibly shifty moves off the dribble and devastating transition creation, they’d be poised to compete with and possibly move past the Celtics as the next great dynasty in waiting. It’s easy to forget, but Fultz’s game in college was a pretty good imitation of James Harden‘s. Inject that kind of offensive dimension into a Sixers attack that’s already tough to stop with Ben Simmons, Embiid and loads of shooting…and you’ve got a juggernaut.

    Flip side: Fultz flops again, and the Sixers can’t engage the Celtics or any other up-and-coming title threat on equal terms.

    We’ll see a career defined, a long-term in-conference rivalry framed and a potential dynasty formed…or we won’t. It all depends on what Fultz can do.

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    If Daryl Morey isn’t the league’s pre-eminent superstar executive, I’m not sure who is. If we can roll with the idea that the general manager—patron saint of NBA dorks and perennial “I told you I knew what I was doing” team-builder—is a household name in his own sphere, there’s a mountain of intrigue surrounding his Houston Rockets.

    Morey let Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute leave in free agency, a decision that seemed to cut the legs out from the Rockets’ excellent defense. The thinking goes that Houston’s switch-everything scheme depends on versatile, defensive-minded wings like those two, and that even if you believe the Rockets’ additions will compensate for most of whatever they lost, it’s still disappointing that a club so incredibly close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors took a step back.

    How could Houston allow that when it was right there, especially with Chris Paul‘s title window closing a little more every day and James Harden’s prime moving past its halfway point? If ever there were a time for recklessness and short-term thinking, for the Rockets, it seems like it ought to be now.

    Imagine, though, if Houston matches last year’s level of play with James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony slotting in for Ariza and Mbah a Moute. What if Morey has a midseason plan to exploit the buyout market or otherwise make some sweeping change or key acquisition we don’t see coming? Suppose the Rockets actually take a step forward somehow.

    Maybe that seems unlikely, but when it comes to constructing competitive rosters, Morey probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    If Houston does lose significant ground, its offseason will stand out as an obvious mistake. But if the opposite happens, it’ll reinforce the idea that Morey is always a step ahead.

    Oh, and the success or failure of Morey’s decisions might also determine the 2018-19 NBA champion—which seems important. 

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    It’s not like LeBron James wears a literal crown signifying his divinely mandated position as king of the NBA, but everybody accepts that he’s the league’s reigning monarch until deposed by time or worthy challenger.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the man who upends the royal order. Entering his age-24 season after averaging 26.9 points, 10 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks (making him the only player to ever put up those averages at such a young age), Antetokounmpo profiles as a strong contender to depose James, who is a full decade older.

    Think about it: Giannis The Usurper. It’s got a nice ring to it.

    So much depends on narrative in the NBA, so we’ll have to be careful about how we react to what should be a rising Milwaukee Bucks team in 2018-19. Mike Budenholzer, a real NBA coach, is in charge now. That means the Bucks will play a modern offense, complete with adequate spacing and ball movement that has a purpose. Defensively, they won’t resort to the gimmicks Jason Kidd ingrained.

    Frankly, it’d be shocking if the Bucks didn’t improve substantially. The key will be an improved version of Antetokounmpo driving the team’s leap forward. 

    We need to see Giannis’ threes fall. We need to see him slow down and process the action better in the half court. We need to see him finish the season regarded as one of the two or three best defenders in the league.

    He has the tools to do all of that. That’s where the pressure comes in. Antetokounmpo has everything he needs to reach his potential now. In his sixth season, Antetokounmpo’s previously built-in excuses of youth and shoddy coaching are gone.

    What happens next—with his career, his team and the league’s individual hierarchy—is up to him.

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