NBA Superstars with Most to Prove in 2017-18 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2017

NBA Superstars with Most to Prove in 2017-18 Season

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    The second you get comfortable as an NBA superstar, you're in trouble.

    Up-and-coming talents are always waiting to pounce, to test themselves against an established name. Opposing teams harbor vendettas. Fans and the media love schadenfreude.

    Everyone rises to fall.

    So for the guys on this list—accomplished stars, champions and icons—there's always more to prove.

    They'll get that chance in a 2017-18 season that'll challenge them like never before.

DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nobody's ever going to mistake the New Orleans Pelicans for a model franchise.

    Effectively run in tandem with an NFL team, saddled with what seems like a suboptimal approach to training and defined in recent years by the shortsighted effort to build an immediate winner around youthful stud Anthony Davis, the Pels are far from perfect.

    But they ain't the Sacramento Kings!

    DeMarcus Cousins deserves part of the blame for the way his career went in Sacramento. But nobody really knows how much.

    Because the childish outbursts, loafing trots back on defense and locker-room scenes so many viewed as flaws attributable to Cousins happened in the whirlwind of dysfunction that was the Kings' organization.

    How do you separate the actions of the individual from the influences of the surrounding environment?

    There are some compelling Ivy League studies that state you can't.

    In New Orleans, Cousins has a chance to let his talent shine through. To prove his personality was never the problem. To legitimize his individual numbers with team success.

    If he can't, he'll become the common denominator in two disappointing teams. And apportioning blame for Sacramento's messy half-decade run will get a little easier.

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers...For Now

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    Two roads diverged in a Cleveland wood

    And sorry I could not lead and win rings

    And get my buckets, long I stood

    And looked down one as far as I could

    To where it led away from Kings.

    —A poem, by Kyrie Irving

        

    The 25-year-old point guard will have something to prove no matter where he plays in 2017-18.

    Stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Irving will have to reconcile with teammates and the organization at large. He'll have to show he can put his head down, endure another year of a situation he professes to dislike and chase a title as a second fiddle. And he'll have to do it all with a sort of "no hard feelings, right guys?" demeanor—one that's hard to imagine will hold up against even the slightest tension.

    Leaving would present an even bigger challenge. If he winds up with what he wants, the unquestioned leadership of his own team, Irving must prove both doubters and statistics wrong. Everything we know about him—from his days leading the Cavs before LeBron James showed up (78-152 record) to his time on the floor without LBJ in recent years—suggests he's not capable of being the top option on a winning team.

    Is he even as suited for the role as Damian Lillard? Or, looking further back, Gilbert Arenas?

    Is he just an empty scorer who doesn't make others better and contributes nothing on defense?

    Whatever happens, Irving is in for a massive, career-defining season.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    You name it, Blake Griffin has to prove it.

    He must prove he's healthy.

    Griffin has missed significant time in each of the past three seasons, sitting out 15 games in 2014-15, 47 in 2015-16 and 21 last year. For a player who also missed his entire first season because of injury, and one who's undergone surgery on his knee, hand and toe in the last two years, the benefit of the doubt is gone on this front.

    He's an injury risk until he demonstrates otherwise.

    He must prove he's the type of talent his contract indicates.

    The Clippers went 31-16 without Griffin in 2015-16 and 9-6 in his time off the year before. Last season's absence was muddled with a simultaneous injury to Chris Paul, but it's fair to say the Los Angeles Clippers haven't exactly fallen apart without Griffin—now due $173 million over five years—in the lineup.

    He must prove he's always had more to give.

    L.A. always struggled under the perception that Paul and Griffin's skills were somewhat duplicative. Every year, there'd be talk of staggering their minutes, just to let each player's facilitation game prop up scoring units on their own.

    Now, Griffin has to prop up everything.

    Can he be the hub? Can he do more as a scorer while effectively playing the role of primary distributor? Is there more in his game than we know?

    With his athleticism declining, there'd better be.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers' biggest offseason move was to ditch the contract of Allen Crabbe, which means this team is in for another go-round with roughly the same roster it's had during the last two seasons—with the notable exception of Jusuf Nurkic and his stunning 20-game breakout last year.

    So if the Blazers are going to show us they're better than the 85-79 mark they've amassed since LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum split, it'll be up to Lillard.

    If he doesn't like the Kyrie Irving comparison—which, in this case, is really an acknowledgement of his shortcomings as an alpha—Lillard has to defend, produce wins and push his team to the top of the West's third tier.

    (Golden State is on its own level; Houston, San Antonio and OKC occupy the next one down.)

    It's notable that Lillard's response to criticism was to cite his post-rookie track record of uninterrupted seasons at or above .500 and playoff berths.

    Impressive, sure. But not enough to get Lillard into the upper echelon at his position. Can he force his way into the MVP race and drag a so-so Portland team toward 50 wins?

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo's job is simple.

    All he has to do is prove the league belongs to him.

    If it feels too early to start thinking in terms of ownership like this, keep in mind Antetokounmpo was the first player in nearly 60 years to average at least 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists at age 22 or younger. And only Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko matched his 2016-17 totals of 150 blocks and 130 steals before their 23rd birthdays.

    Historically significant numbers aside, Antetokounmpo looks and moves like no one we've ever seen. For Milwaukee's 6'11", positionless, unfathomably talented wunderkind, the incredible is now an expectation.

    LeBron James will not be unassailable forever. Kevin Durant is six years older than the Greek Freak. Anthony Davis lacks the five-position skill conglomeration already present but somehow still developing in Antetokounmpo's game.

    Taking over the NBA is not a far-fetched possibility. It's not a "maybe, but only if..."

    It's an eventuality. As near to certainty as we ever get in the unpredictable world of professional sports.

    Already a top-10 talent, Antetokounmpo has done nothing but improve every season. Heading into his age-23 campaign, he's got to prove he's just getting started.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Do it again.

    Prove those 30 clutch wins and the league's second-highest scoring average in close-and-late situations weren't flukes.

    Demonstrate a 5'9" point guard can dominate high-leverage moments.

    Show everyone how much you can do to a defense that now must account for a second star, Gordon Hayward, on the possessions that matter most.

    Isaiah Thomas enjoyed a transcendent 2016-17 that flouted norms on isolation ball, size mattering and the repeatability of small-sample excellence. Now, he must show his breakout season was something other than the result of a perfect storm.

    Maybe he can do it. Maybe he'll be even better with Hayward around. And maybe the poor track record of aging, undersize guards won't affect him (even after a hip injury ended his postseason early).

    It's up to Thomas.

    If he runs it back, the Boston Celtics will be in business as legitimate contenders.

Chris Paul and James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    This is a combo deal.

    Both James Harden and Chris Paul have to show us that ball dominance isn't a required element of their games.

    And for anyone noting how these two might split time and lead the Houston Rockets offense alone for long stretches, allowing one or the other to sit and rest...OK, fine.

    But what's the division of labor going to look like at the end of close games, when both are sure to be on the floor? Who runs the offense? Who initiates the pick-and-roll?

    And who's standing still on the wing?

    The smart money is on two great players figuring out how to make this work. But Harden has been in charge since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Paul is the game's best pure point guard. Both have value beyond their on-ball games, but both are also best in that role.

    How they handle the adjustment will determine whether the Rockets establish themselves as the league's clear No. 2 behind the Golden State Warriors.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Russell Westbrook wants to win, but it's fair to wonder if he knows how.

    This isn't exclusively a condemnation of his "Now I do what I want" MVP season—even if last year marked the absolute pinnacle of high-usage, one-man basketball—because he's basically always been like this.

    He used to take turns with Kevin Durant, not work with him in a system. KD's success in a structured attack with the Golden State Warriors (and his want to even try something like that in the first place) proves whose preferences were in control during their time together.

    So with Paul George on board and more shooters dotting the perimeter than last season, will Russ change in a meaningful way?

    It'll be almost impossible for him to take another league-high 1,941 shots, and a usage rate that matches his stratospheric 41.7 percent figure from last year is out of the question. But Westbrook can't just return to the way he played with Durant—not if he wants to make the most of this formidable short-term collection of talent in Oklahoma City.

    He has to do better.

    Because we know what a full-blown Russ takeover looks like now. We saw it last season.

    And it got the Thunder bounced in the first round.

        

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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