1 Player on Every NBA Team Under the Most Pressure This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

1 Player on Every NBA Team Under the Most Pressure This Season

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    Some NBA players will get to play through the 2017-18 regular season without a care in the world or while facing no more pressure than usual. Others won't.

    They don't get to enjoy relative anonymity or a sense of normalcy. They'll be on the hot seat, under the microscope, getting extra crispy in the oven, roasting in the sun or whatever you want to call it.

    These upticks in attention and scrutiny are owed to any number of factors. Stars change teams. They join a new echelon of superheroes. Players get thrust into different roles. They have to make good on lucrative new contracts and extensions.

    Rookies enter the league to tons of fanfare. Incumbent prospects are charged with making a leap. Possible cornerstones are trying to find their identity.

    For whatever reason, the performances of these players will be dissected and analyzed more than anyone else on their team.

Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder

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    Extra pressure is always attached to the first season of extensions, and Dennis Schroder is playing out the inaugural part of a four-year, $70 million deal ($62 million guaranteed). But the point guard's prove-it burden stretches beyond that convention.

    Some of this additional heat is self-manufactured. Schroder was arrested on misdemeanor battery charges at the end of September and will be subject to disciplinary action from the Atlanta Hawks once the legal procedure follows its course. 

    "He has to earn everybody's trust, everybody's respect," head coach Mike Budenholzer said, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham. "That's what comes with leadership, or that's how you become a leader. But it's part of his growth, it's part of the process. We are disappointed that anyone would be in that position."

    Strike his legal troubles from the record, and Schroder remains the pick. His inclusion is incidental. The Hawks are in the preliminary stages of a rebuild, and he's the face for it.

    All of his safety nets are now gone. Kent Bazemore, DeAndre' Bembry, Malcolm Delaney and Taurean Prince will pitch in with ball-handling duties, but Schroder is the Hawks' primary source of initiation. He doesn't have Paul Millsap or even Tim Hardaway Jr. to offset his usage.

    That figures to be a problem. Schroder found ways to pilot suboptimal-to-average units when being paired with either Hardaway or Millsap, but the Hawks scored with league-worst efficiency during his solo runs, according to NBA Wowy.

    Though Atlanta's five-out lineups will help alleviate aspects of the anemia, Schroder's featured gig was already complicated by inadequate finishing around the rim and so-so pick-and-roll reads. Taking away his swimmies only shines a brighter light on his progression as a starting point guard.

Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving

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    Kyrie Irving wanted to escape LeBron James' shadow with the Cleveland Cavaliers (we think). Whether he succeeded by joining the Boston Celtics is debatable. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are the lower-key stars, but they are stars, and Irving isn't the best player on the team when the roster's at full strength.

    Except, the Celtics aren't close to full strength. Not anymore. Hayward, their actual best player, suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia midway through the first quarter of their opening-night loss to the Cavaliers. His season, in all likelihood, is over.

    Boston will now lean on Irving more than it planned to before. Team president Danny Ainge forked over Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-rounder and a second-round pick to acquire him, but he was never supposed to be an immediate lifeline. 

    Landing him meant more to the bigger picture. The Celtics turned over almost two-thirds of last year's roster after winning 53 games and securing the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. Their first and foremost concern is defining the championship field two, three or four years down the road, when windows for the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are shrinking or have closed altogether. Competing now is a convenient bonus.

    Losing Hayward charges a 25-year-old Irving with the care of both blueprints. This isn't spending a few minutes here and there without LeBron James. This will be him, seizing the reins of an offense and team, without resistance or conditions.

    Career-high volume seems inevitable. In the 570 minutes he logged without James for 2016-17, Irving posted a usage rate of 41.7—identical to Russell Westbrook's own record-shattering mark. That won't hold for an entire season, but Irving should close 2017-18 in the 30s, even as he shares ball-handling responsibilities with Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and, perhaps, Jaylen Brown.

    Use last year as a baseline, and this doesn't come as good news. The Cavaliers scored like a bottom-five offense when Irving operated independent of the four-time MVP while getting outscored by eight points per 100 possessions.

    Misleading hubhub is speckled throughout those returns. No Irving-led lineup without James totaled more than 46 minutes. Since 2014-15, when the King first returned, not one of Cleveland's Irving-chiefed combinations saw more than 78 minutes. He deserves the opportunity to show these numbers are nothing more than circumstantial noise—and he's about to get it.

Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell

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    Is Magic Johnson's salary-dumping sweetener another team's lead guard of the future? The Brooklyn Nets sure hope so.

    D'Angelo Russell received unflattering reviews from the Los Angeles Lakers team president upon being dealt eastward. Johnson wasted little time denigrating his leadership, a dirty-laundry grievance that didn't solely appear motivated by an infatuation with Lonzo Ball.

    Playing within head coach Kenny Atkinson's self-governing motion offense could help Russell invalidate previous gripes. He'll have, if you can believe it, a greener light, and even the most limited passers see their assist totals spike amid so many off-ball options.

    But everyone, including Johnson, knows Russell can show out on offense. Just four players over the past 15 years have averaged at least 18 points and five assists per 36 minutes while shooting 35 percent or better from deep through their first two seasons: Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and...Russell.

    Concerns lie everywhere else—defense, his effort, his willingness and capacity to spearhead stability on and off the court.

    "It'll be clear to the fan base, it'll be clear to everybody," Nets general manager Sean Marks told the New York Post's Brian Lewis. "D'Angelo specifically, is he competing? The questions that were out there about does he really give that 100 percent effort on the defensive end."

    Even something simple like passing more frequently out of the pick-and-roll matters. More than 94 percent of Russell's touches as the ball-handler last season ended in a shot or, based off his 20.2 percent turnover rate, squandered possession. That cannot happen again. Not with Jeremy Lin done for the season.

    Brooklyn will give him the leeway to learn—to grow through trial and error. But he's not working on an infinite leash. Atkinson didn't have anyone clear 30 minutes per game last year and will reshape the rotation if Russell doesn't check the engagement boxes. He'll need to earn every opportunity the Nets are prepared to give him.

Charlotte Hornets: Dwight Howard

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    Dwight Howard's career has taken quite the downward turn.

    He forced his way off the Orlando Magic after months of equivocating and one epically awkward, Diet Pepsi-sponsored Stan Van Gundy media availability. He underperformed with the Lakers, then spurned them in free agency to join the Houston Rockets.

    After overstaying his welcome there, he opted out of his contract and jumped ship to his hometown Hawks, who shipped him to the Charlotte Hornets one season into a three-year, $70.5 million deal.

    And, well, here we are: The Dwight Howard Reboot, Part Eleventy.

    Virtually every stop on Howard's unplanned tour de NBA has included promise of a rebirth both on and off the court. Most recently, Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins penned a profile that shone the 31-year-old in a relatable light—not as clown or villain, but as someone who's used the past few years to find himself as a player and person.

    Charlotte is his last chance as meaningful redemption. He's reuniting with head coach Steve Clifford, who spent time with him in Orlando and Los Angeles. He should know, by now, his optimal role in today's league consists of protecting the rim, crashing the glass, running the floor and devastating defenses as the pick-and-roll diver.

    Occasional post-ups are fine, but Howard is on the wrong side of his athletic peak. He doesn't have the eruptive force to overpower every opponent in half-court sets. The Hornets have veered away from post touches following Al Jefferson's departure; they finished 27th in back-to-the-basket frequency last year. They'll know Howard is with the program if they don't need to incorporate an additional three to five low-percentage possessions into their repertoire.

    Then again, the Hornets probably won't give Howard that chance to manipulate their approach. If he's not willing to screen-and-roll and defend his butt off without burning through a predetermined number of interior touches, they'll turn to someone who is: Cody Zeller.

Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn

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    The Chicago Bulls will not be good this season. And they aren't under any pressure to be good. They're built to lose—to maximize the one-year tanking window before lottery reformation takes effect in 2019. 

    Individual expectations are difficult to peg in this kind of situation. No one on the roster is over the age of 29. More than half the troops are under 25. Youth and general inexperience seldom know urgency.

    Kris Dunn, who's still recovering from an index finger injury, stands out for a number of reasons—most of which have nothing to do with him.

    Zach LaVine is the real headliner from the Jimmy Butler trade, but he hasn't yet been cleared for contact as he recovers from an ACL injury, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. Lauri Markkanen, last June's seventh-overall pick, is higher up the long-term food chain, but he's a 20-year-old rookie. Demanding anything special from him, on a team assembled to lose, is unfair.

    So we default to Dunn. He is, for now, the most important piece from that impressively bad Butler deal. The Bulls, in fact, can only begin to justify their return if they view him as a genuine top-five prospect. But that stance falls apart if he plays like he did as a rookie.

    Nothing about Dunn stood out during his lone go-round with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was active on defense but turned the ball over a ton when tasked with running pick-and-rolls, flashed zero outside range and didn't finish well around the basket. He canned under 29 percent of his three-pointers and shot 46.2 percent inside five feet of the hoop—eighth-lowest clip among 273 players to get 90 or more looks from that range.

    Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg will tinker and fiddle with the rotation a great deal but tabbed Jerian Grant to be the starting point guard before Dunn's injury. If the 23-year-old sophomore doesn't disrupt enough half-court possessions on defense or take enough baby steps in any one offensive area to eventually challenge for that spot, Chicago will need to lower his career bar.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love

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    LeBron James carries the world on his shoulders every year. This doesn't qualify as pressure 15 seasons into his career; it's just another day at the office.

    Besides, the stakes aren't that high for him. Kyrie Irving's departure doesn't mandate an enhanced sense of obligation. Reasonable people won't fault James for not reaching an eighth straight NBA Finals, falling to the best-ever Warriors or missing out on a fifth MVP award. He won Cleveland a title. He's good.

    Kevin Love finds himself under the microscope more than James. He's the Cavaliers' second-best player following Irving's exit, at least until Isaiah Thomas makes his season debut. Everything he does—or doesn't do—will be picked apart and magnified.

    What happens on offense doesn't technically matter. The Cavaliers might fancy him a bigger part of their pecking order, but his involvement will fluctuate, just as it has in each of the past three seasons. This inconsistency comes with the territory, and he knows it. James is the alpha option, while Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade will chew through more possessions between them than what was left behind by Irving.

    Defense will be more the volatile barometer for Love's success. The Cavaliers have not only moved him to center; they're asking him to man the middle in lineups that feature both Rose and Wade—a recipe for turnstile sets.

    Cleveland pumped in 110.9 points per 100 possessions with Love at the 5 last year but vomited up almost as many at the other end (110.7), according to NBA Wowy. Love can do some nice things on defense. He works hard on closeouts and has finished as a plus-stopper against pick-and-roll ball-handlers since 2014-15, per NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles—contributions made easier, if possible at all, by having a rim protector behind him.

    Love won't have that backup with Tristan Thompson watching from the bench. He'll often be the last line of defense between scorers and the basket, a role for which he's never been suited.

    Struggle to get enough stops, and the Cavaliers will be left in a tough spot down the stretch of close games: weighing whether to play Love and Thompson together or bench the former in favor of his backup.

Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr.

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    Dennis Smith Jr.'s legend continues to grow—an objectively bizarre thing to write about a 19-year-old who, at this writing, has one career regular-season appearance under his belt.

    Over 25 percent of fellow newbies surveyed by NBA.com's John Schuhmann picked Smith to win Rookie of the Year. Bleacher Report's own Jonathan Wasserman did the same. Dime Magazine's headline-writing gurus have billed him as the Dallas Mavericks' most exciting rookie since Jason Kidd. Team owner Mark Cuban has said "there is no ceiling" on Smith's career arc, per the Dallas' News' Eddie Sefko.

    No pressure, right?

    Lonzo Ball is the only first-year floor general being held to a similar standard. De'Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina, both selected before Smith, don't come close to touching his onset acclaim. And Dallas' new kid on the block deserves this fanfare.

    Head coach Rick Carlisle appears content to hand him control of the offense. Smith didn't wilt in the preseason after an eye-opening summer league. He averaged 18.1 points and 6.8 assists per 36 minutes while putting down 45.5 percent of his triples. He is now the youngest player to have a point-assist double-double in his career debut, per ESPN Stats & Info. With the Mavericks rebuilding, he'll get the reps necessary to build upon a Rookie of the Year case forged prior to his official debut.

    Until he doesn't.

    For all the pomp and promise and superstar comparisons, Smith is walking a slippery slope. Dallas might be rebuilding, and he might be starting. But Dirk Nowitzki exists, Harrison Barnes will cost him touches, and Carlisle will invariably turn to J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Yogi Ferrell or a healthy Seth Curry over Smith at some point.

    Saddling him with Rookie of the Year expectations isn't necessarily unfair, but it infers a certain immediacy atypical of most first-year players. Anyone in Smith's situation would be feeling the heat—especially when they're now the face for a rebuild in its infancy.

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

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    Nikola Jokic has some pretty big shoes to fill in 2017-18—his own, apparently.

    Look at where the 6'10" superstructure placed across various offseason player rankings:

    Jokic rates as a top-25 star in almost every instance. His average rank across these seven sites is 22. He must be held to the same standard as other superstars after receiving this much dap.

    No single stat or achievement legitimizes his case on its own, but leading the Denver Nuggets to their first playoff berth since 2013 is a good place to start. They have given him the perfect frontcourt partner in Paul Millsap, an ideal off-ball complement in Gary Harris and the freedom to control the ebbs and flows of the offense.

    Hell, Jokic's rise has molded the Nuggets' disregard for a conventional point guard. They waived Jameer Nelson, last year's most used floor general, to make room for Richard Jefferson. Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray are their only official point guards, with Harris and Will Barton lending assistance where applicable.

    This lackluster well of options would look worse than unappealing almost anywhere else. The Nuggets can float it with Jokic. They posted the league's best offense after moving him into the starting lineup for good, and a pushover defense didn't prevent them from notching a top-five net rating with him in the game during that time.

    But they're also banking an awful lot on a half-seasonish sample serving as the sustainable breaking ground for their future.

Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond

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    Andre Drummond shouldn't still be toting the burden of proof. Yes, he's only 24. But he's also entering his sixth season and taking home one of the NBA's 25 largest salaries—cornerstone money that has become a roadblock for the Detroit Pistons.

    "It is really hard to find a non-superstar on a two- or three-year deal for whom a team might exchange a big expiring contract," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "Like, a lot of teams wouldn't touch Andre Drummond's contract, even if they only had to send dead money to get him."

    Times are tough for non-shooting big men in general. Pace-and-space offenses that run out wings at the 4 and 5 threaten to steer them toward extinction.

    Drummond is supposed to be above the revolution—that rim-running, shot-swatting behemoth who, not unlike DeAndre Jordan, transcends the Association's small-ball obsession. But his performance last season did nothing—zilch, zero, nada—to advance that agenda.

    Detroit's defense improved by more than nine points per 100 possessions when he left the court. His pick-and-roll coverage was erratic at best, and the same can be said about his rotations around the rim. Out of 125 players to challenge 200 or more attempts at the rim, he ranked 101st in points allowed per shot.

    Things don't get any better when looking at his offensive display. He shot under 42 percent on post-ups, which accounted for more than one-quarter of his possessions. He still doesn't establish himself deep enough when working from the block and cannot refrain from hoisting junky hook shots. The Pistons need to completely purge his back-to-the-basket burnouts from their arsenal if he doesn't pass more than 8.6 percent of the time.

    Something, somewhere, has to give. Drummond doesn't have to remedy every single one of his warts this year, but the Pistons cannot get by with him underperforming in so many different areas. They're paying him to be their best player, and he, at the bare minimum, needs to prove he's not one of their least valuable.

Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant

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    Pretty much every member of the Warriors is free from serious pressure. They have a title to defend and must make due with the target tattooed across their backs, but the entire roster bears that weight.

    Andre Iguodala would be the tongue-in-cheek pick. Expert hot-takers can peddle a (probable) playing-time dip as a show of preference in Patrick McCaw rather than an attempt to keep Iguodala fresh for the playoffs.

    Stephen Curry is the revisionist-theory selection. Drama majors can cook up imagined slights. Warriors owner Joe Lacob considered asking Curry to take a pay cut. Kevin Durant (kind of) trashed Under Armour. Curry now has two league MVPs and two championships, but no Finals MVPs. Maybe he wants to prove he's still Golden State's most important player.

    On and on the reaching goes until we get to Durant.

    His case is simple: People view him as the best player on the best team. Those talents must always face the music. He also had a weird offseason that, above all else, exposed his covert social media hobby.

    Mostly, though, Durant hasn't quieted the majority of boobirds rattled by his decision to join the Warriors in 2016. He doesn't owe anything to anyone. He earned the right to switch digs. But universal absolution will only be within reach after multiple titles—if it's ever within grasp at all.

    Either way, while his decade-long resume speaks for itself, Durant has more work to do.

Houston Rockets: Chris Paul

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    Chris Paul's transition to the Rockets will not be seamless. It may not curb the team's win total, but the synergy between him and James Harden and head coach Mike D'Antoni's libertarian offense will not be flawless.

    Career-long habits are tough to break. Paul has basically played the same way for his entire career, bearing full responsibility for the fate and flow of his team's offense. D'Antoni's system is a stark deviation from these roots, as The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks outlined: 

    "Paul is a micromanager in a system where everyone has the freedom to make their own decisions. There’s no such thing as a red light when you play for Mike D’Antoni. The only rule is shoot if you are open. The Rockets played at the third-fastest pace in the NBA last season. The Clippers, in contrast, played at the 17th. Lob City only seemed like a high-flying offense. They ran selectively. If Paul didn’t like what they were getting in transition, he would pull the ball out and call a play. He held the ball for most of the game and directed everyone else on the court."

    This departure from the familiar clearly impacted Paul during the Rockets' opening-night win over the Warriors. He dished out 11 assists but shot 2-of-9 from the field, including 0-of-4 from deep. He looked uncomfortable trying to position himself without the ball, hesitant when it came to making quick decisions off the catch and reverted to cagey calculation in the time he spent captaining the offense.

    Free agency is Paul's safeguard against this marriage going sideways. But he turns 33 in May and has already missed time this season with a left knee injury. Teams won't mortgage the future to pay him max money, and cap space won't be as accessible with suitors reeling from 2016's spending spree. 

    Shifting the focus to July gets too far ahead of the game. The Rockets have the skeleton of a superpower. But Paul kicked the can on free agency to join Houston. He needs this to work. He needs the Rockets to be a superpower. He needs to get comfortable in his new skin.

Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo

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    Myles Turner can just as easily go here. He should be the face of the Indiana Pacers' rebuild with Paul George living it up on the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    Two things, though: The Pacers aren't commencing a full-scale rebuild, and Turner's role is predicated on those around him.

    Other players who have the ball in their hands more often will be responsible for getting him touches, and the absence of an established All-Star should give way to a fluid chain of command. Different guys will go off on different nights. Turner finds himself in a win-win situation as a result: Play his way into franchise-anchor status, and he'll have done so by the graces of his irrepressible star power. Show only marginal improvement and flashes of first-option faculties, and Indiana's mediocrity-by-committee backpacks the blame.

    Victor Oladipo is the more fitting selection. He's the unchallenged centerpiece of the George trade (sorry, Domantas Sabonis) and playing through the first season of a four-year, $84 million agreement he's not currently worth in the modified cap climate.

    Stops in Orlando and Oklahoma City ended on unflattering, perhaps unfair, terms. The Magic gradually displaced him from the ball to accommodate Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier, and the Thunder never gave him the opportunity to be more than a Russell Westbrook complement.

    Indiana will gift him more offensive liberties, even as nights with six to seven players launching 10-plus shots become commonplace. What he does with this freedom will determine whether the Pacers made a mistake by not starting over. Turner is young and, for now, cheap enough for them to pivot into something else.

    At 25, with a $21 million salary through 2020-21, Oladipo is only one of those things.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin

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    Blake Griffin is this year's 2016-17 Russell Westbrook. The Los Angeles Clippers lost a top-10 player, Chris Paul, to the Rockets, just as the Thunder did with Kevin Durant, and now turn to their remaining cornerstone to cushion the blow.

    Griffin is in a better spot than the reigning MVP was last year. The Clippers capitalized on Paul's departure via trade, and he has another All-Star talent, in DeAndre Jordan, by his side. But the crux of their undertakings are identical.

    Los Angeles, like Oklahoma City before it, is trying to stave off a rebuilding period. That doesn't happen without Griffin, like Westbrook before him, outstripping the clingy-sidekick label he involuntarily earned during his six-year run next to a superior player.

    The jury is still out on whether Griffin can anchor a playoff squad, and contrary to Westbrook's case, it won't be returning anytime soon.

    Sure, the Clippers scored like a top-three offense and outpaced opponents by 0.9 points per 100 possessions in the 554 minutes he played without Paul last season. But that might—might—get you 43 wins in this year's Western Conference. 

    Equally important: Clippers were a minus-7.8 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16 with Griffin as the leading star. And they weren't much better in 2014-15 (minus-5.4). These sample sizes vary, and the Clippers were a plus-4.7 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14 with Griffin as the lone wolf for 916 minutes—the most he's ever spent on his own. But survival is not a given.

    Treading water for an entire season is different from small-dose endurance. Griffin is better than he was in 2013-14, but he's missed 83 games over the past three years—more than a full season—and the Clippers don't have the perimeter defenders to fence in explosive offenses. Most of all: The West is as brutal as ever. A single top-25 star with a handful of question marks (and Jordan) around him doesn't guarantee a spot at the big kids' table.

Los Angeles Lakers (Tie): Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram

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    Dear everyone who takes issue with this mild indecision, 

    Please change out of your cranky pants and direct all complaints to Magic Johnson.

    "[Ingram's] been practicing so hard all summer long," he said, per Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. "I told him, 'If you don't average 20 points a game, I'm going to be disappointed.'"

    "I'm going to put a little pressure on you right now," Johnson said to Ball at the rookie's introductory presser, per the Associated Press' Greg Beacham (via NBA.com). "You look to your right, there's some jerseys hanging on that wall. We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day, all right? Good."

    Um, a little pressure? Try way too much pressure.

    Obviously the Lakers need to make their pitch to LeBron James from afar (see: George, Paul), and entombing his virgin-margarita drinkers in superstar obligations and Hall of Fame predictions is a clever way for Johnson to mask what's clearly a rebuilding situation.

    But, like, whoa.

    What happens if Ingram, 20, doesn't lead the Lakers in scoring while shooting 40 percent from long range, averaging more assists than Kevin Durant and beating out Kawhi Leonard for an All-Defensive First Team spot? And what happens if Ball, 19, doesn't both win Rookie of the Year and MVP while averaging a triple-double?

    Not to be the Anti-Fun Patrol or anything, but maybe the Lakers should give these post-teens a minute before ascribing them big-picture workloads that belie their experience.

    Very truly yours,

    Not LaVar Ball.

Memphis Grizzlies: Chandler Parsons

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    Titanic pressure is ingrained into every max contract. Even more gets tacked on when a player appears in 34 games during the first year of that deal before suffering a third straight season-ending knee surgery.

    Chandler Parsons' situation is, somehow, more dire than his misfortune suggests.

    Fans booed him during the Memphis Grizzlies' season-opener against the New Orleans Pelicans, which is weird, and telltale, because the two teams were playing in Memphis.

    "It's tasteless," Parsons said afterward, per the Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins. "I'll just go into every game with the mentality that it's a road game, if that's how it's going to be."

    Reminder: Booing players is stupid. Especially when they rep your team. Infinitely so when a missed free throw is one of the triggers. Parsons didn't swindle the Grizzlies out of $94 million. They gave him that four-year pact. Making him the butt of punchlines is your right. Noting how his contract hamstrings Memphis' flexibility is fine. Penalizing him beyond that for knee injuries outside his control is petulant and dumb.

    Parsons feels the weight of his deal and the expectations implanted into it without the clattery bitterness. Believe that. The Grizzlies don't have enviable upside on the roster (Dillon Brooks' demonstrative career debut notwithstanding). They won't chisel out real cap space, barring an overhaul, until 2019 at the earliest.

    They waived first-round prospect Wade Baldwin and 22-year-old rookie Rade Zagorac to make room for Mario Chalmers.

    Having Mike Conley and Marc Gasol is nice. JaMychal Green, too. But the Grizzlies need Parsons to work out, in some capacity, to fend off relative irrelevance. 

Miami Heat: Justise Winslow

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    Justise Winslow did not participate in the Miami Heat's memorable 31-10 tear to end 2016-17. He was relegated to bystander duty, recovering from a torn labrum, as his teammates made the leap from prospective tanker to postseason postulant.

    To be fair, Winslow's absence didn't totally coincide with the uprising. He made just 18 appearances before being shelved for good following the team's 34th game of the season. The Heat's resurgence began shortly thereafter, but they went 5-10 during a 15-tilt stretch between mid-November and mid-December.

    Basically, this would be a fancy way of saying Winslow's leave did not abet Miami's resurrection. But he does have to make sure he's not the root of regression.

    Winslow finds himself in this awkward gray area. The Heat need him. Rodney McGruder is sidelined with a stress fracture in his lower left leg, and every squad can use a bullish perimeter defender with the size, at 6'7", to pester some power forwards.

    Yet, at the same time, Winslow is a clumsy offensive fit. He's shooting miles south of 30 percent from distance for his career and is a below-average finisher on cuts, mainly due to subpar ball protection off the catch. He is a quality passer, and head coach Erik Spoelstra has tried using him as a pick-and-roll initiator. But defenders have no qualms about going under screens Miami sets for him. 

    Short of morphing into a lethal outside marksman, Winslow needs to establish himself as an efficient finisher. He is shooting under 55 percent inside three feet of the hoop and has yet to tally a 40 percent clip on drives.

    Year 3 is—cliche incoming—make or break for Winslow. The Heat will cannonball into the luxury tax over the next two seasons without any major roster reconfiguration, and Winslow will be extension-eligible this summer. He has this year to secure a spot in Miami's future plans—if team president Pat Riley even gives him that long.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Meet Nikola Jokic's pressure bump...on AGH (Alien Growth Hormone).

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is no longer the happy-to-be-here superstar. That honeymoon phase ended with the 2016-17 campaign, after which he received the NBA's Most Improved Player award, the consummate rite of passage into superstardom (since 2013 anyway).

    Another All-Star cameo alone won't be good enough. Headlining a mid-end playoff team won't do the trick either. The conversation has changed.

    "The Greek Freak, I think, is a force," Kevin Durant said in a YouTube video (h/t SB Nation's Tim Cato). "I've never seen anything like him," Durant said. "His ceiling is probably ... He could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to."

    Anything less than, say, a top-five MVP finish would be a mild disappointment with Antetokounmpo's hype reaching best-ever levels. He talked about chasing the Maurice Podoloff trophy over the offseason. Kobe Bryant then challenged him to win it.

    Antetokounmpo doesn't get to turn back now. Last season, when he became the fifth player to lead his team in all five major stat categories, set the stage for these demands. So, too, has Gordon Hayward's injury. The East is looking for an up-and-comer to tussle with the Cavaliers, and the Celtics' diminished chances have left what many will see as a Milwaukee Bucks-sized hole in the conference hierarchy.

    Welcome to the superstar club, Giannis.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins

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    Andrew Wiggins can buy a lot of things after signing a five-year, $146.5 million extension—except, of course, time.

    Urgency is always attached to nine-figure investments—particularly when more $100 million players are coming off rookie-scale deals. Wiggins needs to start making good on this leap of faith now. His extension doesn't kick in until next season, but the Timberwolves are paying him based on a skill level he hasn't yet reached.

    Minnesota's season-opening loss to the San Antonio Spurs offered a nice taste of the Andrew Wiggins experience. He scored 26 points on a tidy 9-of-14 shooting (4-of-6 from three), but his defense wasn't good, and head coach Tom Thibodeau didn't give him much run in the fourth quarter.

    Working beside so many playmakers—Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns—will do wonders for Wiggins' efficiency. He'll get higher-quality looks without having to put the ball on the floor as much. He already seems to have traded in some of his icky long twos for more point-blank floaters coming around screens, weak-side cuts and spot-up treys.

    Frustrating face-ups and pull-up 18-footers that yield diddly squat value will always be part of his game. Alpha scorers have an innate attraction to the operose. But Wiggins will be a good-to-great offensive weapon on this Timberwolves team. (He'll be positively sublime if they can trust him to run pick-and-rolls.)

    Defensive stands will determine whether he's worth max money. Minnesota is still waiting on him to parlay his famed physical tools into engaged execution. Wiggins' athleticism serves him well in one-on-one situations, but he gets overwhelmed by the slightest bit of nuance. He rarely closes out like he means it; looks wholly unaware and disinterested in off-ball actions; doesn't switch with gusto; and remains paralyzed during instances in which he should be rotating on to rim attacks.

    Slotting the Timberwolves into the West's No. 5 seed and near the 50-win benchmark is the sexy-blogger thing to do. But, even with Butler and Towns, they won't sniff the most favorable projections without a defensive leap from Wiggins.

New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After hours of intensive deliberation, it was decided "Every One of the Pelicans' Role Players" didn't qualify as a reasonable selection.

    New Orleans needs every non-Big Three member to play above his head, but we're not in the business of punishing Ian Clark and Darius Miller and E'Twaun Moore for shoddy roster construction. And as the rule goes for identifying players under immense pressure: When in doubt, gravitate toward the contract-year superstar.

    Hello, DeMarcus Cousins.

    While the 27-year-old big man doesn't owe the Pelicans anything, he's gone the first seven years of his career without a playoff appearance. Critics will come out in droves if he whiffs on the postseason for an eighth time. Not even the "But...but...but I played for the Sacramento Kings" disclaimer will save him.

    Teams will come calling, because duh, but the NBA is overrun with towers and short on suitors with max cap space. Anything that helps Cousins increases his curb appeal beyond New Orleans is a necessity. Co-headlining a playoff squad with Anthony Davis in the wild West enhances reputation. It also lends credit to Cousins' belief that he and Davis will fire up a new movement.

    "I think we can surprise a lot of people," he said, per The Times-Picayune‘s William Guillory. "I think we can set a new trend in the league; it’s exciting. It kind of takes us back to the old style of basketball that a lot of us are accustomed to."

    Bringing back, uh, dual-big ball wont be easy. The Pelicans defended with league-best efficiency when he and Davis shared the court last season, but pocket-sized frontcourts can terrorize them off the dribble, and the offense lacks a supporting scorer beyond Jrue Holiday (and Jordan Crawford!). Cousins and Davis have their work cut out for them, and Cousins is the only one of the two with reputation points on the line.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Tim Hardaway Jr. almost snares this spot because of the demands incumbent of four-year, $71 million deals. But then you realize the New York Knicks front office houses the only faction of people who might, possibly, maybe, potentially, be expecting him to live up to this contract.

    Kristaps Porzingis has more on his plate regardless of where you stand on Hardaway. Something's gone wrong if he doesn't. Unlike Myles Turner in Indiana, Porzingis should be the clear-cut No. 1 option on the heels of a marquee name's departure.

    Granted, Porzingis plays for the Knicks. We can't be sure of anything. His usage declined as a sophomore, and he'll have to jostle for touches with Hardaway, Michael Beasley and Enes Kanter this year. 

    But New York's makeup only adds to his strain. People will be looking for a leap from him no matter how much the Knicks feature him in the post instead of on the perimeter or use him at power forward rather than center. Carmelo Anthony's exit is supposed to represent a new beginning, with Porzingis as the superstar building block.

    "As far as individual goals, I want to make the All-Star Game," he told The Players' Tribune. "I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. And I also feel like I could be the most improved player of the year."

    Porzingis gets it. No one should be picking him to win Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard exist, and New York will be lucky to finish 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions. But these lofty ambitions prove Porzingis understands the heaviness of his situation.

    The Knicks need a superstar, and he's officially on the hook for showing them he's it.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Carmelo Anthony

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    Carmelo Anthony is not tasked with repairing his reputation now that he's with the Thunder.

    He's charged with reinventing it.

    Suiting up next to two superstars in their prime is foreign territory for Anthony. One Western Conference general manager told Bleacher Report's Ken Berger that Oklahoma City is "the most talented team, top to bottom, that he's ever been a part of." This rings true in so many ways.

    Neither the Knicks nor Nuggets ever gave him one teammate on the same plane as Paul George or Russell Westbrook, let alone two. (Relax, orange-and-blue truthers. Kristaps Porzingis is a tad young.) But with great partners in crime comes wholesale adjustments.

    Both Anthony and Westbrook wrapped last season in the top three of isolation possessions used per game. George finished 11th. Concessions have to made all around, and George is the most off-ball friendly of the trio. But Anthony, as the old head, should be surrendering more than he's taking.

    He has the chops to make a catch-and-shoot role work if committed to it. Among 158 players who used at least 150 spot-up possessions last year, he ranked 10th in points scored per touch. His efficiency and volume should climb alongside two more stars who excel at drawing in a lion's share of defensive attention.

    Will Anthony embrace this type of utility? Can he ditch one-on-one sets for standstill looks? Jab steps for shots off curls? And will he play enough defense at power forward for Oklahoma City to unleash its "Death Lineup" that deploys Patrick Patterson at the 5 with George, Westbrook and Roberson on the outside?

    Thunder head coach Billy Donovan can try finagling some goodwill by yanking Anthony early in games so he gets a run in bench-heavy units. But that doesn't solve everything. Anthony must buy into a new, if lesser, role for Oklahoma City's Big Three experiment to go down as a success.

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon

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    Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press

    Aaron Gordon should finally be spending most of his time at power forward this season.

    Now what?

    Orlando remains in search of an appropriate cornerstone. Gordon is the closest thing to a viable option on the roster. Elfrid Payton's annual post-February onrush doesn't make the grade. Evan Fournier would be a great No. 3 on a good team. Jonathan Isaac is a 20-year-old rookie. Nikola Vucevic entered the NBA about 10 years too late.

    That brings the Magic back to Gordon, who they've misused for the better part of three years. Giving him full-time run at the 4, with some spot minutes at the 5, will be a boon for his development. He doesn't belong among the league's wings. He'll face some at power forward, but the defensive assignments won't be as tiresome.

    More importantly, Gordon won't be obligated to handle the ball as much. He has some off-the-dribble burst, but he's not a good shooter or exceptional passer. He doesn't finish well on the move; he shot under 42 percent on driving layups in 2016-17. He hit more than 68 percent of these looks in 2015-16, when Orlando's roster wasn't as clunky, but that clip came on next to volume. 

    Gordon is best suited as a screen-setting rim-runner, lob-catcher and transition dunker. The Magic have to sell him on this niche. He clearly pines to do more. Twenty-somethings usually do.

    Watch him play, and you can tell he fancies himself a wing. He wants to pop out of screens. He wants to go one-on-one. Pull-up jumpers are his temptress, and they shouldn't be. This season—a contract year—has to be the one during which Gordon finds his offensive identity. He's not helping himself by trying to operate outside his means, and the Magic won't do themselves any favors if they give him carte blanche.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

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    Rolling with Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons is perfectly fine. First-overall picks bathe in public scrutiny. The Philadelphia 76ers are viewed as playoff contenders in part because of them. They will feel the heat.

    Joel Embiid has them beat.

    Philly lavished the seven-footer with a five-year, $146.5 million extension 31 games into his career. It doesn't matter how much protection is baked into the deal. It doesn't matter how good he has looked when healthy.

    It doesn't matter that he's the first rookie to ever clear 20 points, one block and one made three per game.

    It doesn't matter that the 28-win Sixers posted a better net rating (plus-3.2) than the 53-win Celtics with him in the fold.

    It doesn't matter that he opened 2017-18 with an 18-point, 13-rebound, three-assist, one-block statement. Or that he plays like mad scientists crossed the basketball DNA of 23-year-old Shaquille O'Neal with 23-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon, and then added a three-point gene.

    Embiid has played in fewer than 40 games. He has never logged 30 minutes in a single contest. And he's going to be one of the NBA's 25 to 35 highest paid players in 2018-19.

    The pressure for him to stay healthy, earn his keep and chaperone the Sixers into fully processed times is real.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    This space was originally jam-packed with painstaking details and numbers: stuff about how the Phoenix Suns must give Devin Booker the requisite spacing to improve as a pick-and-roll decision-maker; his lackadaisical defensive stances/footwork; his role in leading the offense without Eric Bledsoe; and his being extension-eligible next July.

    Then the Suns were walloped by the Portland Trail Blazers, 124-76, in their season-opener. Something a little less technical now feels more appropriate:

    Phoenix needs Booker to rescue its watchability.

    One sad, sorry excuse for a game doesn't project an entire season. But we already knew the Suns weren't trying to rack up wins. They'll get better because they can't get worse, but they still won't be good. 

    Plus, who says they'll actually get better? Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley will each amble in and out of trade rumors. Flipping them will amplify the Suns' dependence on the inexperience of Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson and $50 million man T.J. Warren.

    Booker has to be the duct between Phoenix's tank and appreciable progress—a reason you watch, and an example of why all the losing will soon be worth it.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

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    Twenty appearances with the Blazers in 2016-17 is all Jusuf Nurkic needed to induce breakout talk.

    Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal penned this on Nurkic's time in Portland while picking him to win Most Improved Player honors:

    "Gone were the days in which he'd lollygag up and down the floor; he actually looked engaged on both ends and didn't hesitate to serve as an interior protector. Additionally, he displayed a willingness to distribute the rock with his touches—maybe a byproduct of increased run and the extra touches that inherently come along with it?—and flashed passing chops that had remained dormant in the Mile High City.

    "He now enters a soon-to-be breakout campaign as the entrenched starting center, a player capable of lifting the Blazers ahead of the pack contending for back-end playoff spots in the Western Conference. He'll get to prove this growth was sustainable and that he's ready to become not just a starter, but an upper-tier starter at his position. The role, impact and numbers will all be there, ready and waiting for award season."

    This optimism is not unwarranted. Nurkic averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks on 50.8 percent shooting after being traded from the Nuggets. His vision out of the post propped up lights-out efficiency from surrounding shooters, and the Blazers outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup—akin to a top-two net rating.

    Begging for an encore across all of 2017-18 is bold under the most ideal circumstances. But Nurkic is coming back from a fractured fibula in his right leg. He didn't shoot particularly well in the preseason (41.3 percent)—though he did post Portland's second-best point differential per 100 possessions—and opened the schedule with a shaky 2-of-7 clip versus the Suns.

    Most players would face tempered expectations after Nurkic's injury. But he's in a contract year, and the Blazers don't have money, trade assets or in-house experience to plug the middle without him long term. He's the best, and maybe last, shot Portland's nucleus has at sticking together beyond this season.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    Name every prospect on the Kings with an All-Star ceiling. Go ahead. I'll wait.

    Skal Labissiere? Few want him to be the answer more than yours truly. He showcased more handles, post moves and defensive switchability than anticipated as a rookie, but selecting him is a reach. He needs to deter more shots around the basket, hone a consistent jumper and crush reps as a featured scorer before going this far.

    Willie Cauley-Stein? Tyson Chandler is blushing.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic? Universally translatable role player is a better bet.

    Buddy Hield? Now Vivek Ranadive is blushing.

    De'Aaron is the pick. Not just a pick. The pick. At 6'4", he's wicked fast and deceptively strong—the Jrue Holiday-John Wall hybrid the NBA didn't know it needed but now shouldn't have to live without.

    Top-five picks aren't strangers to the pressure-cooker, but the Kings need Fox to work out. They aren't the Sixers. Or even the Suns. They're not teeming with multiple star prospects. Nor have they hinted that they'll properly tank away 2017-18 to guarantee themselves another top-five selection.

    For now, they have Fox, and him alone.

San Antonio Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Is there a more topsy-turvy relationship between a potential All-Star and his team than the LaMarcus Aldridge-San Antonio alliance? 

    Recapping the most recent events is an acid trip. Aldridge basically went missing during the final three games of the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs tried moving him ahead of the draft. He admitted to head coach Gregg Popovich he wasn't too happy with his role.

    And then the Spurs gave him a three-year, $72.3 million extension (partial guarantee of $7 million in final season). And now Popovich is, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright, accepting "98.75 percent" of the blame for Aldridge being bummed out.

    What gives?

    Honestly, don't bother reading between the lines. It won't help. San Antonio and Aldridge may still be together out of convenience, but they're together all the same. And they need each other.

    Leonard's quad injury leaves the Spurs without their offensive life jacket. Aldridge has to take up the mantle, as he did in their season-opening win over the Timberwolves, while soaking up more time at center. But one game doesn't prove anything. The offense plumbed league-worst depths in the 430 minutes Aldridge played without Leonard last year.

    San Antonio also has to figure out whether using Aldridge at the 5 protects him and them against rival Death Lineups. Can he hang with the Rockets when they use P.J. Tucker at center? Or when the Thunder turn to Patrick Patterson? How about when the Warriors roll out Draymond Green as their 5?

    Kissing and making up in time to start the regular season is great. But the work is just beginning for Aldridge. The Spurs are assuming he'll be an asset to a championship contender into his mid-30s. The onus to make this work is on him just as much as them.

Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan

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    DeMar DeRozan is taking the Cory Joseph trade to heart.

    "I really want to lead the team in assists," he told The Athletic's Eric Koreen. Then, when pressed about whether he was joking, he said: "I'm serious."

    Kyle Lowry must be thrilled.

    DeRozan is most likely biting off more than he can chew. Lowry led the Toronto Raptors with seven assists per game in 2016-17. He won't cede that many touches to DeRozan unless head coach Dwane Casey goes coo-coo for spot-up missiles. But DeRozan's head is in the right place.

    Toronto doesn't have an abundance of point guard depth after sending Joseph to the Pacers. Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright will get run, but they have fewer than 100 appearances between them.

    Casey has no choice other than to slot DeRozan as a makeshift point guard for certain stretches. And the notion isn't absurd. DeRozan has refined his decision-making out of the pick-and-roll over the past couple years. He finished in the 85th percentile of efficiency as the ball-handler last season and the 95th percentile in 2015-16.

    Commit to passing more on those touches, and DeRozan's assist numbers will soar. The Raptors can only hope their general performance follows suit. They scored like a bottom-10 offense when DeRozan played without Joseph and Lowry in 2016-17. They were even worse in those same situations the season before that, according to NBA Wowy.

    Using DeRozan as a stopgap during Lowry's breathers makes sense. But, to this point, it's also made the Raptors worse. They've never needed him to be more than a blitzing scorer than they do now.

Utah Jazz: Rodney Hood

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    The Utah Jazz need shot creators and shot makers. 

    Looking at total points scored and generated off assists, they lost more than 43 percent of their offense to Gordon Hayward's and George Hill's departures. Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson and Donovan Mitchell will all help fill in the gaps, but Hood is supposed to be the primary benefactor.

    Knee and hamstring injuries limited him to 59 appearances last year, during which time he barely resembled the breakout stud from 2015-16. His usage rate dipped, his assist rate plummeted, and a larger share of his shots came from no-man's land, between 16 feet and the three-point line.

    This season, as he plays for his next contract, is Hood's redemption crusade. And yet, the Jazz won't just default to featuring him.

    Utah is deep and pass-happy, and head coach Quin Snyder isn't afraid to empty his bench at the expense of rotation mainstays. 

    Oh, and Mitchell is coming—not just for playing time in general, but for minutes that currently belong to Burks and Hood. The latter will have to take smarter shots, make expert reads in the pick-and-roll and defend his butt off to fill the high(ish)-usage vacancy Hayward left behind.

Washington Wizards: John Wall

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    So John Wall said some stuff and tweeted some things over the offseason.

    Let's start with what he told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears about recruiting Paul George (before he ended up in Oklahoma City):

    "Look at our team. We are one piece away. We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward. Our 3-man [Otto Porter Jr.] did great for us. You can't take nothing away from what he did. But [George] is a guy that can guard LeBron and go back at LeBron. It's a piece that you're going to need to win. If you don't have a guy who can do that, you don't have a chance."

    Er, awkward much? But no matter. The Washington Wizards matched Porter's four-year, $106 million offer sheet from the Nets. Wall was probably excited about George's availability and misspoke or something.

    Or maybe not.

    In a since-edited Instagram post, Wall mocked the league's superteams with the caption (h/t For The Win's Steven Ruiz): "Aye [Bradley Beal] I wonder who else gonna team up next to try and win a ship this year but who cares cause we all we got bro … DC or Nothin !! #WizGang" 

    Porter could definitely be the pick here. It feels like Wall has gone out of his way to remind us his "3-man" isn't a star. We could play the "Porter must live up to Wall's expectations" card. But we won't, because Wall is having one helluva few months.

    On top of the inadvertent or oddly deliberate shade he's thrown Porter's way, he mocked three-star formations after recruiting George, signed a four-year, $170 million extension and declared himself the league's best two-way point guard. And with the Celtics' title chances now kaput, it sure feels like the NBA's best two-way point guard should lead a two-star cast to the East's No. 2 seed while purchasing prime real estate on the MVP ballot.


    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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