King James! Image courtesy: NBA entertainment.
The new NBA season brings with it a new set of intrigue, drama, ambitions, and storylines. Basketball is first and foremost a team game, but in the NBA, it is the individual stories that truly elevate our sense of connection with the league and bring fans back thirsting for more. We obsess over the legacies of great players, we cringe when they come up short, sob when they’re injured, celebrate when they return, and scream in delight when they finally win a championship.
In a league full of must-watch personalities and stories, there are a few that stand head and shoulders above the rest. This is the league within a league of extraordinary gentlemen. Keep your eyes peeled for the intrigues, twists, and turns that these individuals traverse through for the next six to eight months. This isn’t a ranking of the NBA’s best players (you can find my contribution on this season’s SLAM Top 50 for that!); this is a ranking of the stories you can’t afford to miss.
10. Andrew Wiggins
A week ago, I made an outlandish prediction on the Hoopdarshan NBA Preview podcast that the Minnesota Timberwolves – the NBA’s worst team last season – will climb to eighth seed in the West. It’s the sort of dumb risk that could potentially rob me of all my crumbs of credibility and have a multitude of trolls destroying my online life. Or alternatively, it could make me look like a foreshadowing genius. There were a lot of reasons for my Wolves overrating: Ricky Rubio has returned healthy, Kevin Garnett – in perhaps the last season of his storied career – is shouting advice and blocking your practice shots. Number one pick Karl-Anthony Towns started the season looking like a completed project already. The supporting cast of Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica, and Nikola Pekovic looks half-decent.
But the biggest reason for my projected T-Wolves jump is second-year swingman and reigning rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins. Every season, there seems to be one player that takes the leap from being a ‘prospect’ to a ‘superstar’ (see: George, Paul or Butler, Jimmy). I believe that Wiggins will take that leap this season. Wiggins has the talent to become one of the top wing players in the league and his ability on the defensive end ensures that he always earns ample playing time. As the season progresses, watch for Wiggins to blossom into a better player, realize the limitlessness of his own talents, and unleash hellfire on to the rest of the league. The future is very, very bright.
9. Kevin Love
Who is Kevin Love? Is he the slightly chubby rookie who was deemed tradeable on 2008 Draft Night for OJ Mayo? Is he the same guy who defied critics to become the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2011? Is he the person who wins rebound titles, three-point shootouts, and averages 26 and 12 for a season? Or is he only a numbers-monger, a classic good player on a bad team, high on stats but low on overall impact for a winning team? Is he a top 10 player in the league? Or is he a star who may never lead a team to the playoffs by himself?
Last season was Love’s chance to answer these questions once and for all. He was traded to the Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Wiggins to join LeBron James’ return quest to finally bring a championship to his homeland. Instead, team chemistry (fitting out instead of fitting in) and a playoff injury (thanks for nothing, Kelly Olynyk) suspended the answers a little longer. Love’s first season for the Cavs was forgotten. Now, as he returns healthy and loaded with an extension to his contract, he will once again attempt to answer those questions. Is he overrated? Underrated? Overpaid? Underpaid? A perennial loser? Or a champion?
8. Derrick Rose
The youngest-ever MVP, a force of nature who brought intensity and pound-for-pound toughness to evoke memories of Allen Iverson, a player of passion and fury, and a Chicagoan in every sense of the word. Two and a half years ago, it seemed that Derrick Rose was heading to a legacy of greatness, en route to becoming one of the top players of the decade. And then came the injuries: the ACL tear, the torn meniscus, the hamstrings, and even the recent orbital fracture. Rose seemed cursed, and off the court, his comments and controversies suddenly turned this much-loved young star into a figure of pity and annoyance.
He’s back (again). He’s 27. He’s rusty, but he’s healthy. If you’re a Rose fan, you’ve probably been jilted so often by his almost-comebacks that even you don’t believe them anymore. It doesn’t matter, because it seems that Rose never stopped believing in himself. So he’s back, now as perhaps the second-best player in his own backcourt (after Jimmy Butler), but the one player in the one team with a real opportunity to shake up the LeBron Dynasty in the Eastern Conference. He’s back on the court to aim for his top once again; whether he succeeds or he fails, it’ll definitely be a lot of fun to watch him try.
7. Tim Duncan
What more does the NBA’s greatest power forward ever, the most accomplished player in the league since Michael Jordan, have left to prove? Duncan has won five NBA titles in six Finals appearances over the past 16 years, been a three-time Finals MVP, a two-time MVP, a 15-time All Star, and has won over 70 percent of NBA games in an astonishingly dominant 18-year stretch. Now in his 19th season, as ever in the Spurs’ jersey that has become synonymous with his name, Tim Duncan returns as one of the NBA’s oldest players (39) for perhaps one last shot at the title.
While the keys to San Antonio’s destiny now rest firmly in the hands of Kawhi Leonard and new signing LaMarcus Aldridge, my eyes will be on Duncan as he approaches the end of the road. By the end of the NBA season, Duncan would’ve turned 40. He would’ve played a smaller role for the Spurs than ever before, but he would still be around schooling ignorant young’uns in the post offensively or positioning at an elite level defensively. The future is unclear, but if this is indeed the living legend’s final NBA season, it will be fascinating to see him lay everything on the line for one last hurrah.
6. Anthony Davis
On Grantland (RIP), Zach Lowe called Anthony Davis ‘Mr Limitless’, a perfect moniker for a 22-year-old superstar who is both the present of the league and its future. Davis is booming with talent, and is easily the NBA’s most valuable trade chip right now. He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s uber-talented, and he’s healthy. He finished the previous season with one of the highest PER’s of All Time and he’s still got over a decade of dominance left in him. Last season, he averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and a league-best 2.9 blocks per game. He could only get better.
Watching Davis test his limits will continue to be one of the most intriguing storylines of the season. His future is an empty slate, and he has the potential of filling it up however the need be. Will he become a Duncan prototype or the new-generation Garnett? Will he dominate the post or the perimeter? Will he be the NBA’s leading scorer or the Defensive Player of the Year? Will he be all of the above? The options are limitless.
5. Kobe Bryant
After 19 years in the NBA (longest ‘one team, one player’ tenure), five championships, an MVP award, 17 All Star games, Olympic triumphs, popularity on every corner of the globe, and that one night he scored 81, The Black Mamba is now 37 and transformed into more myth than man. Gone are the days when he challenged to be the league’s finest and carried his team into title contention. Now, Kobe is one of the NBA’s creaky senior citizens, coming off a couple of injury-plagued seasons, and is further plagued by the rebuilt of the team around him.
This was not the way that one of the game’s greatest ever players hoped to ride into the sunset. Will this be Kobe’s last season in the NBA? And if so, what will be the last basketball entry into our box-full of Kobe memories. For better or worse, his thoughts and actions both on and off the court have shaped NBA history over the last two decades and inspired multitudes around the world. Even in a season of potential despair, fans shouldn’t miss their last chance – maybe – of watching Kobe fight against the inevitability of Father Time.
4. Russell Westbrook
Watch him play with the fury of a rabid dog on a mission to destroy every breathing soul in his path. Watch him post 40-point nights back to back to back like it’s a savage stroll in the park. Watch him do that while also setting triple-double records. Watch him average 30-point triple doubles for an entire month. Watch him be the human equivalent of ‘basketball cocaine’, a one-man force of nature that descends upon helpless opponents like a tornado. Watch him run past opposing elite point guards as if they were nothing but scared matadors. Watch him score 50. Watch him challenge for the NBA’s scoring title. Watch him when he plays like an MVP. Watch him scream at the top of his lungs. Watch him for his emotional outbursts. Watch him for his athletic prowess. Watch him dunk, watch him shoot, watch him block, and watch him pass. Watch him make game-winning shots. Watch him challenge for a title.
Just watch him.
3. LeBron James
The story has been told multiple times. Small town boy becomes the top draft pick of his home-state squad, a suffering team in a city with a history of failure but expectations of success. Soon enough, the small town boy becomes the best player in the game and gives that team an outside sniff of that ever-eluding success. But he becomes disenchanted by his near-misses and leaves the small town to team up with better players in a bigger city. He is hated, he is booed, he loses; he is loved, he is adored, he wins. And then, four years after his own success played out as a mirror opposite to the failures of his home team, he returns home.
LeBron James – he of four MVP awards, two championships, five consecutive Finals appearances, and an early spot booked in the pantheon of basketball’s greatest – returned to Cleveland last season to share his talents with the place he calls ‘Home’ and bring a title to the Cavaliers. Branded as one of the greatest even as a teenager, LeBron has lived up to most expectations and answered nearly every question asked of his career – except one: can he bring an NBA title to Cleveland? Once again, reloaded with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on his wings, he will try to achieve his lifelong mission. With his own legacy and the legacy of the Cavaliers on the line, this mission will be one of the stories of the NBA season.
2. Stephen Curry
Last season, many called him lucky, despite the fact that he broke shooting records without breaking a sweat, led his squad to 67 wins on a historically great point differential, defeated every other member of the All NBA team in the playoffs, and won an NBA championship. He sat atop the NBA throne, but many believed that this throne had been given away, not earned.
‘Many’ are wrong. Stephen Curry is one of the finest players in the NBA, and he just happens to be in his absolute prime right now. Single-handedly, Curry’s shooting, dribbling, and passing sprees have the ability to entertain and devastate with equal measure. NBA defences don’t yet have an answer for him, and by the looks of his early season success, no solution seems forthcoming. Curry deserved his MVP award and rapid rise to stardom last season, and going forward, he deserves to be in the conversation of the greatest players of the current era. Every Warriors game should be circled as must-watch TV for the rest of the year. This is a team aiming for 70 wins and another title, led by a player with the ability to score 70 if the night is right. Need I say more?
1. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is one of the NBA’s top players right now with the skillset of becoming one of the greatest ever. He had already confirmed his place next to LeBron as the most devastating force in the league before turning the dial all the way up to 11 in the 2013-14 season. Durant made that year his fourth scoring title (32 ppg) while also amassing 7.4 rpg and a career-best 5.5 assists per game. He shot over 50 percent from the field and largely in the absence of Westbrook and carried the Thunder en route to an MVP award. Last year was supposed to be a continuation of his growing prowess, but a Jones fracture put a pause to the ascent and placed uncertainty over his future.
Now, Durant’s career stands at a tipping point. He’s 27, and has come up short of his ultimate goal due to youth or injury every year. He’s also in his contract year and has been silent about his future in Oklahoma City. He’s playing for a new coach in the toughest Western Conference pile-up in years. Next summer, he’s going to be the NBA’s biggest free agent since 2010 LeBron. And meanwhile, his own teammate could challenge him for an MVP trophy. Early shines this season show that Durant is still a wizard on the court (pun intended) as he returns healthy back into the Thunder lineup. This season will define the path for the rest of his career. And this is why he’s the biggest story of the 2015-16 NBA season.