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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Each NBA team’s most important player

Kawhi Leonard

The mother of all NBA seasons is almost here. So as you finalize your League Pass subscriptions, complete your fantasy drafts, and prepare the guacamole for your watch parties, take some time to ponder the true meaning of the season — specifically, the benevolent stars who make such a joyous holiday possible with their prodigious athletic talents.

Here I present, each NBA team’s most important player heading into 2017-18:

Atlanta Hawks — Dennis Schroder, PG

“All my friends are dead,” said Schroder in his best Lil Uzi Vert voice as he gazed upon his roster following the respective exits of his last remaining All-Star teammates in Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard this summer. Yes, the Hawks are now as thin as a toothpick, and the incentive for them to “Do Badly for Bagley” or “Make The Fans Puka for Luka” will be enormous. But someone has to lead this JV squad, and their resident German is as good of an option as any. Perhaps we will see Dennis the Menace gun for 20 and 10. Maybe he develops some nice pick-and-roll chemistry with new additions Dewayne Dedmon and rookie John Collins. Perhaps he finally bleaches his entire head blonde. Anything to give this team a modicum of watchability this season.

Boston Celtics — Kyrie Irving

After selling an arm, a leg, and a hip for him this summer, the Celtics will hope that Irving’s performance in his first season with them does not fall flat. The outside noise in Uncle Drew’s ear will be deafening — mockery of his decision to ditch LeBron James and go off in search of his own empire, jeers at the perceived stagnation of his playmaking skills, pervasive meme treatments of his unorthodox views on astronomy. But Irving is here for one reason and one reason only: to ball out. And that’s what he’s gonna do. Just remember kids, there’s no such thing as distractions when you’re very much woke. [mic drop]

Brooklyn Nets — D’Angelo Russell, PG/SG

If the Nets were a Harry Potter novel, Russell would definitely be the Golden Snitch. Banished from the Magic Kingdom in Los Angeles, the former No. 2 overall pick now finds himself in a situation where he could easily go 20-5-5 this season. Playing next to Jeremy Lin gives Russell the dynamic offensive threat and extra penetrator/creator that he has lacked in the backcourt to this point of his career, and there’s little doubt that D-Lo will be serving as Kenny Atkinson’s go-to scorer as well. His halfcourt skills are divine, his court vision is superb, and his opportunity is now limitless. [points to solid water in veins]

Charlotte Hornets — Kemba Walker, PG

Nicolas Batum is down for the count, so that leaves Walker as the Charlotte Tune Squad’s only true playmaker for now. Fear not though, for this 6-foot-1 slayer of giants is certainly up for the task.

Walker was in peak form last season with 23.2 points a game on 44.4 percent shooting and 39.9 percent from deep (all career-bests). Whether he’s bullying your ankles or stepping back and splashing from outer space, Kardiac Kemba is the Hornets’ cash cow (which is somewhat ironic given that his four-year, $48 million deal marks one of the best bargains in the league today), and he is definitely here to stay.

Chicago Bulls — Zach LaVine, PG/SG

Congrats to LaVine for narrowly beating out the lesser Lopez brother, Michael Porter Jr., and Fred Hoiberg’s polo shirt. A cornerstone of the franchise-resetting Jimmy Butler trade, the two-time Dunk Contest champ is all Bulls fans really have to be excited about in a clear rebuilding year. Even so, LaVine is coming off an ACL tear and might be out a few more months. So the worst-case scenario is that the Bulls are a flaming tire fire, and the best-case scenario is that the Bulls are a flaming tire fire interspersed with some LaVine rim-rockers towards the latter part of the year. Make Chicago basketball fun again.

Cleveland Cavaliers — LeBron James, SF/PF

14 years and over 50,000 minutes later, and The King’s Court remains in session. That troublemaking court jester Kyrie Irving is now exiled, his best knight Dwyane Wade has returned to his side to put the shine back in his crown, and his new cast of noblemen (Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, and more) are pleasing. The reviled Golden State empire is a mighty rival indeed. But King James, now aged 32 but with all his physical faculties still intact, will rise from his throne once more and lay down his scepter in preparation for battle. And I fear for all who are forced to stand in his midst.

Dallas Mavericks — Dennis Smith Jr., PG

The Mavs are near-unanimously seen as a non-playoff team in the demonic West, and that likely won’t change no matter how many 20-point games Harrison Barnes drops or how many heartwarming moments our beloved Dirk Nowitzki graces us with. As such, the name of the game for them will be player development and the excitement factor. Enter DSJ and that batty athleticism. The NC State product is one of the rare rookies (ultra-rare when you consider head coach Rick Carlisle’s track record) with the opportunity to start and make an impact right away. Smith Jr. will touch the moon and walk amongst the comets this season, and we will all be better people because of it.

Denver Nuggets — Nikola Jokic, C

Jokic exists in the space where basketball and romanticism intersect. Every post-up is a dance recital, every delivery to a cutter is a precise work of art, and every fast break is a case study in musical theory. Now paired with a like-minded frontcourt partner in Paul Millsap, the Serbian big man has a strong chance to build on his 2016-17 averages (16.7/9.8/4.9) and become the suave slaughterer he was always meant to be. Don’t rain on my parade with cries about his defense, for this is a celebration: a celebration of the man who is making slow and unathletic fashionable again, Mr. Nikola “Big Honey” Jokic.

Detroit Pistons — Andre Drummond, C

Drummond probably came along a dozen or so years too early for his own good. The reality is that a big man stiff who has zero range, possesses limited ability to either protect the basket or switch onto opposing ball-handlers, and shoots like Sheldon Cooper from the free throw line has minimal value in the modern NBA game. But here’s the good news: Drummond is still just 24 years old and his rebound-gorging, rim-assaulting ways at least give him a decent floor as a starting center. With another year of maturity, he will look to become less of an enigma and more of the basketball bully he was born to be.

Golden State Warriors — Draymond Green, PF/C

[jumps into vat of liquid introgen due to the smoldering heat of the take] Truth be told though, this might not even be that bold of an opinion, as Green is legitimately indispensable to everything the Dubs do. Lose one of Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, and they still have one transcendent bucket-getter who can punch you right out of the scoreboard. Lose one of Curry or Klay Thompson, and they are still capable of raining human suffering on you from long-range. Lose one of Thompson or Durant, and they can still lean on the 3-and-D attributes of the other. But lose Green? Their best distributor, best screen-and-roll player, best team defender, and emotional leader all wrapped up in one? Not great, Bob. Yes, Green is the most vital part of what’s arguably the greatest team in hardwood history, and you gotta get a kick out of that.

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