Kobe Challenges for All 30 NBA Teams
Retired basketball legend and walking "Type A" personality example Kobe Bryant recently took to social media to issue seemingly random challenges to several NBA players and celebrities. These included challenges to Isaiah Thomas to make First Team All-NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo to earn NBA MVP honors and rapper Kendrick Lamar to revolutionize the music program at a local high school. They involved competition. They involved bold communication. They involved the assumption that others care what Kobe thinks of them.
All in all, it was classic Kobe.
So we here at Bleacher Report decided to pick up where the Mamba left off and issue challenges for the best player on each of the 30 NBA teams. Why stop at only a few guys? What about Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert, Jimmy Butler and the dozens of other stars who make up the NBA universe? What about them?
We split the task among the six writers with the most Mamba blood: Michael Curtis, Maurice Peebles, Brad Rowland, Dave Schilling, Seerat Sohi and Josh Tolentino. Nobody tells a Mamba what to do, so each writer has fashioned the challenges in their own way: by poking fun; by diving into stats; by "speaking" directly to the challenged player; by keeping it brief.
See below to find out which challenges the league's stars should embrace this upcoming season. And always remember, guys: Kobe's watching.
Maurice Peebles is a Deputy Editor at B/R. Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for B/R Mag. Michael Curtis (@mikeacurtis2), Brad Rowland (@BTRowland), Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) and Josh Tolentino (@JCTSports) are B/R contributors.
Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder
Challenge: Make the Eastern Conference All-Star Team
In some ways, it would take a significant jump for the guard to get serious All-Star consideration. But it almost makes sense from a trajectory standpoint.
Dennis Schroder averaged 17.9 points and 6.3 assists in 79 regular season games a season ago. Those numbers jumped to 24.7 points and 7.7 assists in the small sample of a playoff series against John Wall and the Wizards. Given that Schroder is, quite easily, the No. 1 offensive option for the rebuilding Hawks, it feels safe to assume he will have a higher usage rate this season, which could allow for another spike in raw production.
The defensive end, which usually seems to matter less in these considerations, was a challenge for Schroder in his first full season as a starter. In the playoffs, though, he elevated his effort and showed significant flashes of what he could be, if everything comes together. Banking on that over 82 games is aggressive, but landing somewhere in the middle could do the trick.
Oh, and did we mention that the Eastern Conference might be down this season? That can only help Schroder’s case.
— Brad Rowland
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving
Challenge: End LeBron James’ NBA Finals Streak
The Boston Celtics are the Taylor Swift of the NBA. They’re constantly in the headlines, constantly praised for doing things “the right way” and are held up as an example of who others should aspire to be. But for the Celtics—much like with Swift—in the end it doesn’t even matter (R.I.P. Chester). What are we all talking about here? A team with a ton of new faces and no depth ousting perhaps the greatest team in NBA history? A music video about a beef from two years ago everyone already forgot about? C’mon, Celtics. C’mon, Taylor.
Forced analogies aside, there is one thing the C’s can do to make a long-term impact on the league. Kyrie Irving, I challenge you to end LeBron James’ NBA Finals streak. As you’re well aware, your frenemy King James has been in each of the last seven NBA Finals. It’s on you to ensure his streak doesn’t make it to eight. Kyrie, nobody cares if Boston earns the No. 1 seed and nobody will think more of you should Bron run through your new squad like he ran through replacement hairlines while filming Trainwreck. Meet him in the east finals. Beat him in the east finals. There’s no other path to success.
— Maurice Peebles
Brooklyn Nets: Jeremy Lin
Challenge: Bring Back Linsanity
Jeremy, your challenge is simple. I challenge you to bring back Linsanity.
Remember Linsanity? Of course you do. It’s why you’re relevant. You need to bring that feeling back to the city of New York, more specifically to the borough of Brooklyn. D’Angelo Russell will enter this season thinking he’s the best player on the court, but anyone who actually watches NBA games and not just Twitter recognizes that you’re a far more complete player than D’Angelo. You’re a better three-point shooter than people think, you’re a better defender than people think, and your hair game is a marketer’s dream. Now is the time for Linsanity’s return.
Remember back when you dropped 38 in Kobe’s eyeball and made him exit MSG with an L? Remember getting 28 and 14 on 20 shots and sending Dirk back to Dallas? Let D-Lo get all the attention but none of the field goal attempts. Embrace your inner Mamba. Everybody needs to go a little Linsane sometimes.
— Maurice Peebles
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Challenge: Make an All-NBA Team
Last season didn’t go particularly well for the Charlotte Hornets. A great deal of that could be attributed to massive injury issues, but if you’re looking for a bright spot amid an ugly campaign, it’s Kemba Walker
The former UConn guard averaged a career-high 23.2 points per game while posting career bests in field-goal percentage (44.4 percent) and three-point percentage (39.9 percent). In short, Walker was tremendous and that production earned him his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game in February.
With that goal accomplished, Walker now should aim to make one of the league’s three All-NBA teams. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Chris Paul are treacherous, and players like Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry make this challenge even harder.
But Walker is fully capable, with a bit of luck. A simple replication of his performance in 2016-2017 would go a long way toward inclusion, especially if that coincides with the predicted uptick from the Hornets in the wins column. Throw in the fact that Thomas is hurt, Lowry and DeRozan could split votes and Paul now plays alongside Harden?
Maybe it isn’t so daunting after all.
— Brad Rowland
Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine
Challenge: Win the Most Improved Player Award
The Bulls may very well be the laughingstock of the NBA this season. But newly acquired high-flying guard Zach LaVine has plenty to prove after tearing the ACL in his left knee in a February 3 game against Detroit.
LaVine, 22, missed the rest of the 2016-17 season but was on pace for his best year with the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging a career-best 18.9 points in 47 starts. While healthy, LaVine also had a huge uptick in production from playing 28 minutes per game in 2015-16 to 37.2 minutes last season.
Since the Bulls are in a major rebuilding phase this year, they can allow LaVine as much time as he needs to recover. When he does return, LaVine could add a consistent spacing element to the offense that Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg hasn’t been able to rely on during his two-year tenure. LaVine made 38.7 percent of his 6.6 three-point attempts per game last season. No one expects Chicago to win many games this season, however, there is an opportunity for LaVine to show he can take over and run a team. He has a chance to put up 20-plus points a night and prove Chicago won’t be a doormat for opposing teams.
— Josh Tolentino
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
Challenge: Participate in the Slam Dunk Contest
The Slam Dunk Contest has picked up in recent seasons, but for several years, many fans didn’t care for the once-glorious competition because of the lack of stars participating. Much blame can be pointed toward LeBron James and his refusal to participate, which made that decision acceptable for many of the league’s other stars. The fact the King has never participated in the Slam Dunk Contest is one of the NBA's biggest disappointments. LeBron will go down as one of the greatest players ever, but his legacy will be missing something because he never put it all on the line on All-Star Saturday.
It isn’t too late for LeBron. The 13-time All-Star turns 33 this December, but he continues to wow crowds with jaw-dropping slams. He actually had a career-high 145 dunks in 2016-17. In other words, LeBron’s still got bunnies.
According to the G.O.A.T, though, LeBron still has some catching up to do in other areas.
"Would I rank LeBron over Kobe? In terms of best of all time? No," Michael Jordan said earlier this month while fielding questions at Flight School, his annual summer camp. "There's something about five that beats three. ... Kobe won five championships. LeBron won three."
— Josh Tolentino
Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr.
Challenge: Win Rookie of the Year
Dennis Smith Jr. already won the rookie survey, inching out ahead of Lonzo Ball, and he was one of the most impressive—and entertaining—performers at summer league. He was the ninth pick in the draft, and he probably would have been taken higher if not for rumblings of his attitude issues plaguing an N.C. State team embroiled in controversy. Truth be told, Smith could end up being the most talented point guard on the 2017 draft board. It’s just a matter of channeling that brash, world-bending defiance into an explosive on-court attack. If he can do that, the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls won’t be the only teams to regret passing on him.
Smith is incredibly fast, and as for his rumored 48-inch vertical, let’s just say that even if it is slightly embellished, he’s still a highlight reel perpetually waiting to happen. The Mavericks were one of the slowest teams in the league last year, and their offense was abysmal at best.
Smith could be just the bolt of electricity they need to make a playoff run, throwing pick-and-roll lobs to Nerlens Noel, finding Dirk Nowitzki above the break for triples and allowing Harrison Barnes that wee bit of separation he needs to punish defenses.
— Seerat Sohi
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Challenge: Make All-NBA Second Team
Nikola Jokic has swiftly taken the reins of the Nuggets in just two seasons. While they work out their point guard situation, he holds the keys to their offense. Jokic’s playmaking ability is what makes him special. Picture this: a 6’10” center who can lead a fast break, throw no look passes with ease, score in the post and stretch the floor out to the three-point line.
Entering his third season, the center from Serbia is quickly becoming one of the league’s best big men and he’s only 22 years old. Last season, Jokic averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists. If he posts a line of 20-12-7 for the upcoming campaign, we can anticipate Jokic’s first All-Star selection, but that’s not the task.
Jokic, we challenge you to make the All-NBA Second Team, too.
— Michael Curtis
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
Challenge: Make the NBA All-Defensive Team
Andre Drummond is incredible on the glass and led the league in several categories last season, including total rebounds (1,115), offensive rebounds (345), offensive rebound percentage (15.1), defensive rebound percentage (36.2) and total rebound percentage (25.2), per Basketball Reference. But his failure to commit to improving his defense has been a big reason the Pistons continue to struggle. Drummond ranked 27th among NBA centers in defensive real plus-minus (1.55) in 2016-17. Look further and it gets worse: Drummond averaged a career low in blocks last year with just 1.1 swats per game.
This lackluster defensive performance comes after Drummond signed a five-year, $127 million maximum extension last summer. If the Pistons want to make the next step and compete for a playoff spot in the East, Drummond will need to be a more vocal leader, especially on the defensive end. Approaching his sixth season in the league, Drummond is the only player on the Pistons roster with an All-Star selection. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has always been high on Drummond, but this offseason, he criticized his center and urged him to be more like Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan, a two-time NBA All-Defensive Team member.
Drummond is drifting between good and great. The 7-foot, 280-pound Detroit center can become elite if he takes on this challenge.
— Josh Tolentino
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant
Challenge: Average a Triple-Double
Perhaps there’s a reason Kobe Bryant didn’t bother challenging Kevin Durant. After all, KD had a spectacular season, won his first NBA championship and claimed Finals MVP honors. I suppose you could challenge him to repeat, to win another regular season MVP or to lead the league in scoring. Let’s shoot for the moon, though. Isn’t the point of the Mamba Challenge to test yourself? Well, that and drive social media engagement, but we don’t need to get into that.
KD, as Kobe Bryant’s legally recognized proxy, I hereby challenge you to check your ex-teammate, Russell Westbrook, and average a triple-double this season. Last year, you averaged 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists. You’ve never averaged more than five assists a game in your entire NBA career, so you’ve got some work to do. If that doesn’t pan out, maybe you can get a billion-dollar valuation for Rubrik, the cloud computing start-up you just invested in.
— Dave Schilling
Houston Rockets: James Harden
Challenge: Get Revenge by Going to the Finals
After being on the precipice of the regular-season MVP award for two of the past three years, only to end up coming in second place both times, Harden undoubtedly has to be itching for recognition. But those days should be over, as a result both of the structural differences in Houston’s composition, thanks to Chris Paul’s arrival, and because, at this point in his career, he should set his sights toward new, loftier goals.
What we know about Harden is that he’s certainly MVP-worthy. We also know that he’s reportedly hard to get along with, and that he’s about as famous for his defense-less highlight reels as he is for running one of the most high-powered offenses in the NBA. The final moments of the Rockets’ 2016-17 NBA season featured them on the wrong end of a 39-point playoff elimination smackdown by their division rival, the San Antonio Spurs, in which Harden was mystifyingly ineffective. All the while, the drubbing reignited doubts about Mike D’Antoni’s ability to translate his high-octane offense into playoff success.
Harden’s primary motivation this season should be to jell with Chris Paul, and get the All-Star point guard to his first Western Conference Finals appearance, and then the NBA Finals. The transitional chemistry period, and the inevitable who’s-the-man narrative, will likely plummet Harden’s MVP case, but you know what’s better than winning MVP? Getting spurned, and then schooling everyone who was picked ahead of you when you face them in the playoffs.
Take a note from your Houston counterpart, Harden: After David Robinson won the 1995 MVP Award, Hakeem Olajuwon embarrassed him in the Western Conference Finals, en route to a Rockets championship. There are a slew of MVP seasons that’ll slip through the cracks of history before The Dream’s quest for revenge is forgotten.
— Seerat Sohi
Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner
Challenge: Make the All-Star Team
With Paul George’s departure to Oklahoma City, Myles Turner is the new face of the Pacers. The third-year center needs to improve a few areas of his game, but he poses a threat in several ways.
Turner’s 2.1 blocks per game ranked third in the league last season behind only Anthony Davis (2.2) and Rudy Gobert (2.6). Still, his defensive game could use some work, especially against the NBA’s top bigs. Karl-Anthony Towns torched the Pacers frontcourt for a total of 70 points in two games against Indiana. Hassan Whiteside averaged 24.7 points in three games against the Pacers, while DeMarcus Cousins dropped 51 in two contests.
At 6-foot-11 and 243 pounds, Turner isn’t the biggest center in the league. He’ll need to bulk up if he wants to increase his middle-of-the-pack rebounding numbers. He averaged just 7.3 rebounds, ranking him 23rd among NBA centers.
On offense, Turner is a sleeping giant. He proved he can cash in from the three-point line by shooting 34.8 percent from deep. But Turner needs more opportunities; he averaged only 1.4 three-point attempts last season. He won’t need to defer to any other stars on the team this year. If Pacers coach Nate McMillan runs more plays through him, he can turn into a dangerous pick-and-pop shooter.
After Turner had identical abysmal performances in Games 2 and 3 of the first-round sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers (six points and five rebounds), George called him out and said he needs to take his game to the next level. He’ll have the chance to do just that this season as the new No. 1 guy in Indiana.
— Josh Tolentino
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin
Challenge: Stay Healthy
My Mamba Challenge is a simple one: Don’t punch any trainers. As a matter of fact, don’t punch anything. If you get the itch to throw hands, chew some gum or run a mile instead. Don’t punch trainers, other players, chairs, strangers or even punching bags. The risk is not worth it. You need to stay healthy this season. The Clippers traded Chris Paul, plus they signed Danilo Gallinari, who, as you might have heard, broke his thumb punching someone. Sure, Gallo’s hand is almost healed, but is the trust between him and Clipper Nation ever going to heal? Overall, it’s just a bad move to punch things.
You haven’t played more than 67 games in a season since 2013-2014. That was so long ago, Kobe Bryant was still in the league! Yes, I know he only retired a year ago, but still. You get my point here. Get healthy. If not for the NBA, for your cameo in Space Jam 2.
— Dave Schilling
Los Angeles Lakers: Julius Randle
Challenge: Shoot Over 30 Percent from Three
Lonzo Ball is not the best player on the Lakers. He hasn’t even played a single regular-season game, so divorce yourself of the notion that he is, in any way, the unquestioned leader of this team. From a seniority and a production standpoint, the best player on this team is Julius Randle.
Counting his injury-shortened rookie season, this will be his fourth year with Los Angeles. While he’s never been the first scoring option on the Lakers, nor will he be this season, he’s the guy who has seen the most. He gave the “thank you” speech in their last home game of the 2016-2017 season. Sorry to all of you Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fans.
Besides his continued struggles finishing with his right hand, the biggest lingering deficiency in Randle’s offensive game is the three-pointer. This is a shooter’s league, and at the 4-spot, you’re going to need the kind of floor-spacing Randle does not deliver right now. He’s a career 27.3 percent shooter from behind the arc, which is just not gonna get it done.
The player he most resembles, due to his undersized nature and feisty play around the basket, is Draymond Green. To become an All-Star and an NBA champion, Green had to learn to shoot from distance. This Mamba Challenge is not just asking Randle to test the limits of his ability; it’s asking him to grow from a good player to a great one. For a Lakers team in search of an identity, his maturation can’t come soon enough.
— Dave Schilling
Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside
Challenge: Lead the NBA in Blocks and Rebounds
Hassan Whiteside has only 217 games of NBA experience, which seems inconceivable for a 28-year-old player with his skill set. On cue, Whiteside has been surrounded by improved talent on the Miami roster, as the Heat brought nearly the entire band back in free agency while simultaneously adding Kelly Olynyk (on a high-priced contract) and Bam Adebayo (through the draft) to increase depth. Normally, that might be a sign that Whiteside could play fewer minutes, but he has never been a player with a massive on-court workload and, if anything, the additions could free him up offensively.
In 2015-2016, Whiteside led the NBA in blocked shots per game at 3.7. The 7-footer was sometimes criticized for chasing blocks on that end of the floor, but his wingspan and aptitude for swatting attempts are well documented. In 2016-2017, Whiteside led the NBA in rebounds per game at 14.1, including a third-best total rebounding rate of 24 percent, per Basketball Reference.
It may not be likely or reasonable to fully challenge Whiteside to lead in both categories but, with his recent track record, it is anything but impossible. There will be serious contention from players like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert in both categories, but if Whiteside flips some of his energy into being a dominant rebound and rim protector, this Kobe Challenge won’t be a problem.
— Brad Rowland
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Challenge: Make the All-Star Team
Memphis, I challenge you to get on with it and lock JaMychal Green up already. Just kidding—although, not really.
Mike Conley, I challenge you to make the All-Star team.
Just as Conley has made an annual tradition of bubbling out of the All-Star Game reserves, basketball Twitter is now well-versed in its outrage over his snubbing. Conley’s the consummate floor general, the point guard of lore who keeps mental notes of who isn’t being fed the ball enough, can shoot from deep and plays rugged defense. He’s less flashy than, say, Damian Lillard, who made the 2015 game ahead of Conley as an injury replacement.
You could understand his absence last year. Conley was plagued by injuries, and the field was incredibly deep. I mean, the 2017 MVP was a reserve. The next guard up was Klay Thompson, though, and if Conley can stay healthy and keep Memphis in the playoff race—the former is absolutely necessary for the latter to be a possibility—he might squeeze into the game. Chances are, if he’s even remotely got a case, a few voters will give him the nod—a lifetime achievement award of sorts, if you will.
— Seerat Sohi
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Challenge: Win Most Valuable Player
Sometimes you shouldn't try to outdo the Mamba. We’ll stick with Kobe’s original challenge to Antetokounmpo.
The ultra-athletic Antetokounmpo is redefining the league with his style of play and 7-foot wingspan. He’s coming off the best season of his career, winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. He averaged career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), blocks (1.9) and minutes (35.6) per game. He became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Antetokounmpo also joined Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and James as the only players to ever lead their teams in the five major statistical categories.
Antetokounmpo was the Bucks' first All-Star since the 2003-04 season, when Michael Redd represented Milwaukee. Tabbed by many Vegas sportsbooks to finish top-five in MVP voting this season, Antetokounmpo finished tied for seventh in MVP voting last year, as the Bucks finished 42-40 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Raptors.
Antetokounmpo begins a four-year, $100 million contract extension this season, and if there's any player in the league worth every penny, it's him. The Bucks are expected to compete for a top-four spot in the East this season, and Antetokounmpo should be the mastermind behind Milwaukee’s success.
— Josh Tolentino
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler
Challenge: End the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 13-Year Playoff Drought
The Minnesota Timberwolves will look completely different next season. The youthful club acquired an All-Star in Jimmy Butler, a new point guard in Jeff Teague and a couple of other pieces such as Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson. Not to mention the fact that young studs Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are still primary components. If the Timberwolves are going to have any success in a loaded Western Conference, sacrifices will be needed.
As one of the league’s top two-way players, Butler has a heavy load for his new team. The Chicago Bulls traded him on draft night, reuniting him with former coach Tom Thibodeau, which should reignite the defensive spark in his game. Butler brings his veteran experience to an energetic franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2004.
Butler averaged 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Bulls last season. There should be one spot open in the Western Conference playoff picture with their division rival, Utah Jazz, set for a decline in the standings after the departure of Gordon Hayward.
Butler, we challenge you to lead the Timberwolves back to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
— Michael Curtis
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
Challenge: Demand a Trade
Anthony Davis, I challenge you to demand a trade. Seriously. Not DeMarcus. Yes, you, Davis—although I suppose it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for DMC, either.
I’m sick of watching this experiment go nowhere. The Pelicans have been mired in dysfunction and ownership drama since Davis’ arrival. Aside from drafting Davis with the No. 1 pick, the list of moves that have gone right for them is short. Even when they wrangled Cousins from the Sacramento Kings for a package headlined by Buddy Hield and a first-round pick—a steal, to be sure—the move seemed to speak more to the Kings’ dysfunction than the Pelicans’ savvy. They merely possessed the guy Vivek Ranadive insists is the next Steph Curry.
Right now, the Pelicans are locked into a core of Jrue Holiday, Cousins and Davis—an enticing proposition, if not for the fact that they desperately needed help on the perimeter, even before Solomon Hill went down with a hamstring injury that projects to take him out of action for six to eight months. The Pelicans are more than $20 million over the cap, and they have no tradeable assets worth mentioning.
LeBron James spent seven years playing for the organization he was drafted to before he went somewhere that surrounded him with the talent and infrastructure necessary to win a championship. The real sting for Davis isn’t the years he is currently losing, however. It’s how much of his future could be lost if he continues to play for a franchise with a medical staff shared with the New Orleans Saints. You can read about the Pelicans injury and medical staff woes in-depth here, and for all their talk of improving, they’re still sharing the same staff. It certainly can’t bode well that the Pelicans are opting to retain a doctor the Saints fired for misdiagnosing a broken leg.
— Seerat Sohi
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony
Challenge: Leave New York in a Hoodie
Carmelo, it goes without saying that your first challenge is to not only bring the spirit of Hoodie Melo to the court next year, but to literally bring a hoodie to the court next year. David Stern’s dress code apparently no longer exists, so who’s to say you can’t rock a Jordan Brand hoodie under your Knicks jersey next season? Who’s gonna say something—Adam Silver? He may look like a vampire, but he can’t hurt you. Your hood gives you power, and no man has the right to take away your power. Risk it all this time. And if there are still any issues, maybe it’s time to bring back Durag Melo. Or you could always just go with the struggle wave cap like Kobe did. THERE ARE OPTIONS.
As for the game of basketball, I challenge you to force your way onto a Western Conference contender. The Knicks are Kristaps Porzingis’ team and everybody knows it. And that’s fine, because they’re owned by a guy who’d rather sing lead in front of a few dozen people than attentively manage his billion-dollar investment during the NBA draft. They’re going nowhere. Get your ass on the Rockets. Or the Trail Blazers. Hell, even the Clippers. You’re a future Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest USA Basketball player ever—why are you about to accept playing second banana in front of 15,000 tourists every night? That’s not a Mamba Mentality. Many New Yorkers only dream of getting the hell out of New York. You can actually make that a reality.
— Maurice Peebles
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
Challenge: Lead the Thunder Back to the NBA Finals
One of the NBA’s most hated players transformed into one of its most liked last season as Russell Westbrook accomplished a feat that hasn’t been seen since the 1961-62 season. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s superstar point guard averaged a mind-boggling 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game as he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double. Also, if you’re not impressed by his talent on the court, his wardrobe selection should leave you intrigued.
Westbrook’s relentless edge and passion for the game mirror that of the one and only Kobe Bryant. Last season, we were able to witness him at his maximum offensive potential. Westbrook has always been special, but to put up the ridiculous numbers with such consistency was unexpected. Still, he’s always been the type of player who competes at a high level and leaves it all on the floor, win or lose.
However, a lot has changed since last season. Westbrook is now a father. The Thunder have acquired Paul George so he doesn’t have to shoulder the load alone anymore. We think he’s seen enough of the individual accolades. Westbrook, we challenge you to lead the Thunder back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.
— Michael Curtis
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
Challenge: Make an All-Defensive Team
The Magic are one of the few teams in the league that do not, at least currently, boast a consensus best player. Evan Fournier is the team’s leading scorer, Elfrid Payton is the central facilitator and Aaron Gordon is Orlando’s most complete and tantalizing talent.
But if anything, Gordon isn’t close to the defensive player that he could, or even should be. His 6’9” frame and athletic burst are impressive, and Gordon appears capable of changing the game as a multi-position defender who, in theory, could also protect the rim.
With that as the backdrop, he graded as a neutral (or even negative) defensive force in his first season as a full-time starter. Some of that could be traced to operating 63 percent of the time (per Basketball Reference) at the small forward spot, though given the shape of the modern NBA, Gordon is almost certainly a power forward. For the upcoming season, all indications are that he will be playing his more natural position and that, along with a more stable roster, could provide Gordon with the structure he needs to deploy his skills.
It would be stunning if any current member of the Orlando Magic made the All-Star team in 2017-2018, but Gordon making the leap defensively doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
— Brad Rowland
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Challenge: Make First Team All-NBA
Confession time: I’m a Sixers fan. But don’t worry, I never let my long documented history of pathetic and unapologetic homerism for this team and The Process get in the way of facts. And, whether the larger NBA audience realizes it yet or not, fact is that Joel Embiid is the best center walking the earth today.
I could list advanced stats about how the 76ers were the best defensive team in the league when Embiid was playing or include quotes from impressed opposing players or try to build a case to withstand the barrage of “but he only played 31 games!” comments I’m sure to receive, but it’s pointless. Instead, I’m challenging Joel Embiid to help me out here by being named First Team All-NBA in 2018. The losers and haters and Process deniers will all surely laugh at this, but I watched all 31 of those games. I seent ‘em. Dude’s the best center there is right now. He just needs to play a few national TV games to show y’all.
— Maurice Peebles
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
Challenge: Make the Playoffs
I challenge you to reconsider your haircut! Not sure I’m feeling that fade anymore, man. With Lonzo Ball coming into the league looking like Toad from Super Mario Bros, it might be time to ease off the clippers and go natural.
In lieu of such a drastic personal brand switch, I issue you a secondary challenge: Make the playoffs. If you can snatch the eighth seed with Dragan Bender and the ghost of Tyson Chandler, you should get a special trophy. Without question, this is your team.
— Dave Schilling
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
Challenge: Become an All-Star Starter
Find a more underrated point guard than the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard. He has been underappreciated since entering the NBA. In a league dominated by point guards such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Isaiah Thomas and more, Lillard has had a rather difficult time getting recognition from the media. For the second consecutive year, he was snubbed from the Western Conference All-Star roster.
Lillard is aware of the tough love shown by the media and even addressed it in his first hip-hop album, The Letter O.
The 26-year-old Weber State grad is primarily known for his diverse offensive game. He’s a confident shooter who can sink shots from anywhere on the floor. Lillard can navigate the toughest of defenses to score around the basket, and his clutch gene is one of the best in the league.
Rip City, however, has embraced Lillard as if he were one of its own. Last season, Lillard averaged 27.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. His points-per-game average has increased every season since he was drafted in 2012.
Lillard, your time is now.
— Michael Curtis
Sacramento Kings: George Hill
Challenge: Improve the Kings Offense
I gotta say, I had a hard time deciding the best player on the Sacramento Kings. It couldn’t be De’Aaron Fox, since he’s a rookie. Skal Labissiere is a big with a lot of potential, but he averaged 8.8 points a game last year. Is it Willie Cauley-Stein? Not if he’s averaging under a block a game. We can rule out Buddy Hield. So who is it? Well, let’s just pick the guy with the biggest salary. George Hill! Congratulations. Your Mamba Challenge is to find something fun to do in Sacramento after 11 p.m. Maybe a delightful riverboat cruise? A late dinner in Old Town? Skipping rocks in a pond? Whittling?
As for your on-the-court challenge, let’s see if you can improve the Kings’ offensive flow. Last year, Sacramento ranked 20th in the league in offense, per NBA.com. I challenge you to get the Kings’ plethora of bigs touches, to encourage them to participate in the offense more and to shock them with a cattle prod every time they give up an offensive rebound. The Kings ranked a dismal 26th in offensive rebound percentage last year. How they managed that with three seven-footers, plus half a season of 6’11” Boogie Cousins is a true unsolved mystery. But fear not, you’ve got reinforcements on the way: Zach Randolph, at a jarred and pickled 36-years-old, plus Vince Carter, the literal oldest player in the NBA!
Old Town Sacramento is right.
— Dave Schilling
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Challenge: Be Like Mike
Kawhi Leonard, I challenge you to become the first player since Michael Jordan to win the MVP award and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Leonard turned 27 this summer. He is teetering ever closer to that moment most players’ athletic primes intersect optimally with their experience level. He should be chomping at the bit to reclaim the mantle, and since the Spurs didn’t retain Jonathon Simmons or Dewayne Dedmon, the onus is going to fall even harder on Leonard to defend the perimeter, help down low, impede fast-break attacks and run on the other end. If he carries the same Spurs team, only a year older and without whatever is left of Tony Parker until January, to 60 wins, Leonard should have one of the best arguments for MVP in the league.
It has become en vogue for fans and analysts alike to refer to Leonard as the “best two-way player in the league,” an awkward phrase likely borne out of respect for LeBron James as much as it is for Leonard’s dynamism. With an MVP—essentially the Offensive Player of the Year award, let’s be honest—and DPOY, he could own that mantle and destroy it at the same time. I would be hard-pressed to call Leonard anything but the No. 1 player in the world if he achieved this feat.
Ancillary challenge: Kawhi, I challenge you to make the longest MVP and DPOY speeches of all time, respectively. I challenge you to enunciate. And when the buzzer sounds to mark the beginning of the season, I challenge you to keep smiling just as much as you have been this summer.
— Seerat Sohi
Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan
Challenge: Get a Three-Point Shot
The Raptors are currently running in the NBA hamster wheel of good-but-not-good-enough, which is fun for casual fans but hard on those who want nothing more than to see that scoundrel LeBron James get his comeuppance in a playoff series. The thing is—it’s never gonna happen. At least, not until DeMar DeRozan finds a three-point shot.
Maybe he can steal one from Kyle Lowry or put one on layaway and hope he can get it before the playoffs start, but without DeRozan coming into possession of some range, the Raptors will never get over the hump. So I’m challenging him to hit an average percentage from deep in 2018, roughly 35 percent. That shouldn’t be too hard.
*Looks at DeRozan’s stats*
My GOD—26 percent, bro? Twenty-six percent? Joel Embiid shot 36 percent from beyond the arc, and he’s a 7’2” center who didn’t start playing basketball until like three years ago. You’re from Los Angeles, the new basketball mecca. You’ve got some of the best “feetwork” of any player in the league. You’ve got an awesome NBA name with FOUR capital letters. I don’t care if you have to learn black magic or lure Kyle Korver into a dark alley and hold him up for his three ball at gunpoint—your challenge is to figure out how to shoot from where smart people shoot from.
— Maurice Peebles
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert
Challenge: Win Defensive Player of the Year
“There’s no nightlife in Utah,” says Matt Barnes, but there is Rudy Gobert, the defensive anchor for the Jazz. The 7’1” center protects the paint like no other, which he showed by leading the league in blocks per game last season (2.6). He was also selected for his first All-Defensive First Team and received an All-NBA Second Team nod. With Gordon Hayward over in Boston, Gobert will have more opportunities on the offensive end, but he should not forget about his bread and butter.
He averaged 14.0 points and 12.8 rebounds per game last season, with a scorching field-goal percentage of 66.1 percent. With each passing season, he’s inched closer to the award he's seemed destined for since entering the NBA. Last year, he finished second behind Draymond Green in DPOY voting, but this year, the award should be his for the taking.
Gobert, we challenge you to become the 2017-18 Defensive Player of the Year.
— Michael Curtis
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal
Challenge: Join John Wall on the All-Star Team
Since Kobe already singled out one member of the Wizards—challenging John Wall to make All-Defensive First Team—we will go in a different direction in this space, instead focusing on Bradley Beal. The 24-year-old shooting guard is coming off (easily) the best season of his career, but Beal has never reached the heights of recognition that his backcourt mate commands and that is part of what the challenge entails.
Beal should make the Eastern Conference All-Star team. With relatively normal growth based on his age and the conference being down as a whole, Beal’s production of 23.1 points per game on 60.4 percent true shooting in 2016-2017 should be more than enough. Washington brought its core back with huge deals for Wall and Otto Porter and, in turn, there isn’t much real intrigue in the new additions.
To that end, the growth from the Wizards must be largely internal and, in coupling with Wall’s challenge-inspired defensive jump, Beal can make his own leap. If Wall focuses more on defense, the offensive load (and usage rate) could tilt in Beal’s direction. As one of the game’s best multidimensional shooters, Beal’s ceiling as an offensive force is high enough to command All-Star attention by February.
— Brad Rowland