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For 10 NBA Superstars, 10 Season-Defining Narratives Taking Shape

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterDecember 1, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA  - MARCH 13: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers defends the ball against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliersduring the game on March 13, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)a
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Guys such as Wilson Chandler, Tim Frazier, George Hill, Otto Porter and Julius Randle have made far bigger impressions on their teams than most people expected.

Kudos to them. Next from off the grid to make differences could be Justin Anderson, JaMychal Green, Gary Harris, Terrence Jones and Josh Richardson.

Yet if you need to wear a name tag for a casual NBA fan to recognize you, you're not going to create some dramatic shift in the greater state of the league. That's left to the top stars, how much they have the ball and how well they live up to—or exceed—their hype.

As we approach the quarter pole of the regular season, let's take a look at 10 superstars, what they've done and what they will do.

   

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

PHILADELPHIA,PA - NOVEMBER 25: Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls goes up for the layup against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on November 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

General preseason projection: There's only one ball, and Butler now has to share it with ball-dominant alphas Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. This doesn't bode well for Butler's growth.

Season to date: If Butler didn't prove it already by out-willing Derrick Rose, we've seen in the past month that Butler isn't satisfied with just two All-Star Game selections and isn't going to cower in the presence of Wade's and Rondo's rings. After already being the NBA's 2015 Most Improved Player by raising his scoring average from 13.1 points to 20.0 in the exact same 38.7 minutes per game, Butler was consistent last season while learning leadership lessons. Now he is surging again, averaging nearly 26 points a night. Plus, he's organizing team-bonding moments, including at the Denver Escape Room.

What's next: It is now safe to put Butler in that special category of never-satisfied, relentless workers—the sort around whom you want to build a franchise. He can be trusted, and clubs that had a chance to trade for him before the Bulls decided not to move Butler in a full rebuild should have deep regret. Still, he needs to offer more proof that his three-point shot is for real (31.2 percent to 42.6 percent this season), and Fred Hoiberg needs to show that he can ensure Rondo's usage rate stays relatively low.

   

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

WASHINGTON, DC -  NOVEMBER 28: DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings handles the ball against the Washington Wizards on November 28, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

General preseason projection: A summer spent with Team USA in Rio could be the turning point Boogie needs to mature. His immense talent won't truly matter until his composure kicks in.

Season to date: Big individual numbers, including technical fouls (six), and a losing team. Rinse. Repeat. Although Cousins has been supportive of coach Dave Joerger, the defensive emphasis that Cousins and Joerger promoted hasn't registered: The Kings are the league's fifth-worst in defensive efficiency. The lack of focus that plagues Cousins has remained a team characteristic, while Rudy Gay (trying to earn his way out of town even earlier than his player option next summer) in many ways has been the most valuable King so far.

What's next: Cousins' 37.0 usage rate is second only to Russell Westbrook's 40.0. It's hard to preach patience when for so long Cousins' inconsistent temperament and the Kings' inconsistent management have made the two sides an ill fit. Now that Sacramento has celebrated opening a new arena with its big star, there's more reason to trade Cousins for a windfall of assets, including the future picks the Kings lack. Cousins' contract expires after next season, so this is the sweet spot for Kings vice president Vlade Divac to move him, except Divac hasn't proved adept at that critical aspect of his job.

    

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 26, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Noah Graham/Getty Images

General preseason projection: The numbers will dip with Kevin Durant in the fold. Goodbye, MVP favoritism. Hello, statistical regression.

Season to date: As usual, he's given us a handful of those amazing highlight moments. It'd surprise a lot of people to know that Curry's 26.6 points per game this season is a solid increase from the 23.8 with which he won the 2014-15 NBA MVP. But because Durant (27.1 PPG) is averaging more than Curry thus far (and Curry's numbers are down from the 30.1 he notched last season), the preseason projection holds.

What's next: The Warriors have found a bit of a stride lately and will just keep getting better and better. That's because they are insanely talented! No matter how much Cavaliers, Clippers and Spurs fans want to enjoy their early moments, it's the Warriors' title to lose. Unless something changes, Curry likely will stick with his plan to ease back some in the regular season and save himself for the playoffs. Unlike Durant, who has dropped into a new world, Curry has nothing to prove now.

    

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 29: Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots over Timofey Mozgov #20 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Julius Randle #30 during the first half of a game at the Smoothie King Center on November 29, 2016 in New Orleans, Lo
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

General preseason projection: The Brow regressed last season, and without any support from an injury-plagued roster, this will be another lost season for one of the NBA's most promising talents.

Season to date: More assertive as a leader, more physically capable of shrugging off bumps and bruises, Davis has re-established himself as one of the best players in basketball. Despite using far fewer possessions, Davis' player impact estimate (overall contributions) is only slightly behind the heralded Westbrook's, 21.9-21.1. Too bad the Pelicans still aren't any good.

What's next: Do not rule out the possibility that Davis gets even more comfortable with his stronger body and with the idea of passing up his mediocre teammates, all the while convincing a lot of people he is the best player in basketball. He's that good. And the 23-year-old has that much room to grow.

    

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors drives to the basket against Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a game on November 26, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Noah Graham/Getty Images

General preseason projection: Durant took the easy way out, jumping ship to the team that ousted him in the playoffs and positioning himself to do less than he had to in Oklahoma City. Even if he wins a title, it won't mean what it would have meant with the Thunder.

Season to date: Durant has been amazingly efficient on his new team (63.3 effective field-goal percentage compared to 53.3 for his career) while scoring nearly as much as last season in OKC (28.2 PPG last season, 27.1 PPG this season). In addition, his defense has been impossible to miss as the Warriors have sprinted to a 16-2 start.

What's next: Not everyone agreed with that preseason projection, mind you. Both Bleacher Report colleague Howard Beck and I picked Durant to be the 2016-17 NBA MVP, and that is absolutely within reach, especially with Curry and LeBron James expected to ease up when the playoffs near. The circumstances of Durant's arrival will recede into the background the more he plays at this dominant level with this dominant team.

    

James Harden, Houston Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 12:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets passes the ball during a game against the San Antonio Spurs on November 12, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

General preseason projection: Harden will be unleashed like we've never seen, thanks to roster upgrades and Mike D'Antoni's mad-science offensive experimentations. But Harden likely can't get the Rockets playing respectable enough defense to become a top team.

Season to date: In a world of basketball flash, Harden's tremendous game control has been its own show. Harden's underrated love for passing led D'Antoni to project the four-time All-Star would average an NBA-record 15 assists per game. Through Wednesday, Harden sits at an NBA-high 11.9 assists per game—plus 28.7 points and 7.3 rebounds. At 11-7, the Rockets have been solid—with their best victory coming thanks to a fourth-quarter defensive stand in San Antonio on Nov. 9 despite being on their last leg of a nine-day trip.

What's next: For all the attention Westbrook has gotten for his one-man show, Harden is the better bet to sustain it over the rest of the season. He's fundamentally a much better jump-shooter, so he's likely to have far fewer off nights. And Westbrook's dependence on athletic bursts makes him the greater health risk, even if that explosion has gotten him on far more highlight reels so far this season.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

WASHINGTON, DC -  NOVEMBER 11: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball during the game against the Washington Wizards on November 11, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

General preseason projection: After bringing The Land a championship, LeBron can and will cruise-control his way through the regular season. The media will chill, and the pressure will be off. LeBron can do no wrong.

Season to date: It's not just perception. James has not done much wrong besides his 3.9 turnovers per game. He has delivered the right blend of assertiveness and that aforementioned cruise control to leave himself feeling fine with no doubt the 13-3 Cavs are the class of the East. James has probably tried harder than some expected (averaging 35.9 minutes per game), but he's done it his way: improving from 6.8 assists per game last season to a career-high 9.3 this season.

What's next: A back-to-back set against the visiting Clippers on Thursday and at the Bulls on Friday will be an immediate chance to see how much James wants to make more statements. There's still plenty of opportunity for a driven Kyrie Irving to take over more of this team, and it'll be difficult for James to be NBA MVP if Irving (24.5 points per game to James' 23.5 now) is by far the team's leading scorer. Also, if James' early efforts produce a massive lead in the Eastern Conference standings, James will sit out for rest.

   

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

WASHINGTON, DC -  NOVEMBER 26:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots the ball against the Washington Wizards on November 26, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

General preseason projection: With Tim Duncan gone, the Spurs are officially Leonard's team. He's clearly one of the game's best two-way players, but his leadership skills are a huge question mark.

Season to date: Hmm, maybe this will be Gregg Popovich's team for as long as he stays without Duncan. Leonard's fine play has been overshadowed by Popovich's orchestration of San Antonio's 15-4 start (and his occasional grandstanding against Donald Trump). Still, Leonard's 31.5 usage rate is eighth in the NBA—and up from 25.8 last season—and his scoring is up from 21.2 PPG to 24.4 this season.

What's next: With Leonard's work ethic and quiet desire to be the best, we don't yet know what his ceiling is. One area to monitor is Leonard's vaunted defense. If he lets up at that end, as most stars wind up doing with more responsibility on offense, it will be reflected in the Spurs' record. San Antonio just doesn't have the high-end talent to thrive on defense without all that Leonard does back there.

    

Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies is fouled by Chris Paul #3 of the LA Clippers with Blake Griffin #32 after a rebound during the final seconds of the game at Staples Center on November 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, Calif
Harry How/Getty Images

General preseason projection: This could be the season we finally see a regression from CP3. Most undersized guards fall off after 30, and Paul is 31—with a younger superstar alongside in Blake Griffin.

Season to date: Griffin is again scoring more than Paul, but Paul has been so typically excellent that it has been hard to celebrate Griffin's great work. The Clippers are 14-5 and trying harder than championship contenders usually do early on—a credit to how much Paul still burns to win. Steals are not always a great gauge of defensive play, but the fact that Paul at this point in his career is at 2.8 steals per game (next-best in the NBA: 2.1) is nearly miraculous.

What's next: If the Clippers are to be at their best for the playoffs, it might well be in Paul's best interests to take it easier. He's already playing with a pad protecting the top of his right shoulder, the one he separated in 2014. But Paul's tenacity is a huge part of why the Clippers defense has been so great thus far, and it's becoming apparent that Paul's drive is the Clippers' identity—no matter how great Griffin is. Maybe the Clippers need the No. 1 seed in the West to feel confident in their ability to beat the Warriors in the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 14:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes to the basket against the Detroit Pistons on November 14, 2016 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

General preseason projection: Introducing the presumed NBA MVP, as the bent-on-destruction only remaining star in OKC…if the voters are ready to move past the idea that MVPs play for 50-win teams.

Season to date: The havoc expected from Westbrook has been absolutely wreaked, both statistically and in his uncompromising attacks through the paint. As Warriors coach Steve Kerr put it: "It's his basketball now. It is. It's his." With that basketball, Westbrook has been winning (OKC is 12-8) and averaging a monster triple-double: 30.9 points, 11.3 assists, 10.5 rebounds. He's doing it by not wasting any time when he's on the court. Believe it or not, Westbrook is averaging fewer minutes this season than James, 35.9-35.4. 

What's next: We knew Westbrook wouldn't compromise any of his intensity in starting a season without Durant, but we don't know if Westbrook can maintain this intensity over the course of a full season. For example: Westbrook averaged 7.8 rebounds last season, so how much will those extra efforts to go get balls this season sap a right knee that has undergone three surgeries? Even if Westbrook stays healthy, expect the Thunder to encourage Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to be more aggressive through the winter months. You know Westbrook won't want to ease up one bit.

Advanced statistics courtesy Basketball Reference and NBA.com.    

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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