The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us. An offseason that brought about so much change has also brought about a level of excitement not seen in years. The title is truly up for grabs.
The shakeup of the league will turn up the heat on a few notable stars. Reputations and legacies will be on the line. These six players in particular will be feeling the most pressure once the ball goes up on Opening Night.
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LeBron James, Lakers
James’ first season in Los Angeles went off the rails quickly. Former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka surrounded James with a team of has-beens and unproven youngsters. Shooting was nearly nonexistent. For the first time in his career, James missed a significant amount of time due to injury.
It’s certainly not over yet, but the clock is ticking on James’ career. He has a lot to prove. Can he still play at an MVP level in his 17th NBA season? Or has the wear and tear of so many minutes and deep playoff runs finally caught up with him? Last season, James got a pass — but that won’t be the case this time around. James now has a running mate that can match his talent in Anthony Davis.
The Lakers are expected to compete for their 17th championship. That won’t happen in a loaded Western Conference unless James returns to form.
James’ ill-conceived comments on the unrest in Hong Kong only heighten the pressure and add fuel to the fire for those that root against him.
Anthony Davis, Lakers
Welcome to the spotlight, AD.
This is what Davis wanted. He longed to be in the Hollywood spotlight. He single-handedly wrecked the Pelicans’ season when he demanded a trade shortly before the 2019 deadline. And, after a few months of waiting, he got his wish. He has a lot to prove.
The duo of James and Davis is arguably the most feared in the game, but there are questions that need to be answered. Davis has never truly been on a contender. He certainly is now. He’s never played in a major market. There’s no bigger market than LA. He’s never played alongside someone as talented as him. He now has his counterpart in James.
Davis has an opportunity to prove all the doubters wrong. He got what he wanted when Pelicans general manager David Griffin traded him to LA. There’s no hiding now. We’ll see if Davis thrives or withers under the pressure.
Russell Westbrook, Rockets
Westbrook’s flaws are well documented. Three straight first-round exits. An inability to develop anything close to an efficient outside game. A lone wolf hell-bent on winning on his terms.
He has the ultimate opportunity sitting in front of him. He can shut down any concerns about his playing style working next to old Thunder buddy James Harden. They’re the two most ball-dominant guards of their era. Who’s going to take a backseat? Will Westbrook be able to play off the ball while Harden plays hero ball?
If the Rockets get off to a slow start, the rumors will start flying. General manager Daryl Morey has proven he’s not afraid of shaking things up. Westbrook must alter his game if it’s going to work in Houston.
If he does, Houston will win a lot of games. But if he’s unable to change, Houston is in for a bumpy ride.
Kyrie Irving, Nets
“We want to end our careers together,” Irving said about his relationship with Kevin Durant at Brooklyn’s media day. “We want to do this as a team, and what better place to do it than Brooklyn with all these guys that had worked their tails off to be where they are now, to even be in a position here in Brooklyn.”
Irving and Durant changed the landscape of the league when they decided to join forces over the summer. They chose a different path, passing on the Knicks in favor of the Nets. They could add significant chapters to their legacies.
But this year, Irving will have to do it on his own. With Durant out for the season as he recovers from a torn Achilles, Irving is tasked with leading a young roster back to the playoffs for the second consecutive year. All eyes will be on him as he attempts to repair his image after a disastrous year in Boston.
He was unable to be the leader the Celtics hoped he could be. He alienated teammates with odd comments. Has he learned from his mistakes?
The Nets boast a talented young core, and Irving will once again be expected to be the adult in the room. We’ll see if he’s able to show some maturity this time around.
Stephen Curry, Warriors
Curry has the keys to the franchise with Durant gone and Klay Thompson injured, and he’s expected to give us peak Curry.
It’s not like Curry has struggled in recent years. He’s averaged over 25 points per game and shot better than 41 percent from 3-point range in each of the past three seasons. But the addition of Durant overshadowed Curry’s individual greatness. Critics could make the argument — not matter how wrong it is — that Durant carried the Warriors to three straight NBA Finals appearances.
Curry can remind us that he’s still a top-five player in the league. He must, actually, or the Warriors are in trouble.
He needs to carry Golden State until Thompson is healthy enough to return to the court. Can Curry, along with Draymond Green and new addition of D’Angelo Russell, keep the Warriors in the hunt until March? Will Curry’s body be able to take the pounding he’s about to receive on a nightly basis?
Paul George, Clippers
Kawhi Leonard is untouchable. Coming off an incredible playoff run that culminated in a ring, Leonard is now widely viewed as the best player in the game. He arrived in Los Angeles to save the Clippers. There isn’t much pressure on him. George, on the other hand, has something to prove.
Leonard needed a running mate. He found one in George, who was all too willing to return home. But his injury history is concerning. Offseason shoulder surgery has hampered his ability to prepare for the upcoming season. Reports point to a return to the court in November.
If the Clippers struggle early in his return to the court, it won’t be Leonard that — excuse the pun — shoulders the blame. That blame will fall on George. He was the additional piece, not the prize that Leonard was.
Expectations for the Clippers are sky high. George must prove he can remain healthy and perform at a high level if they want to contend for a championship.