Each NBA team’s most important player
Houston Rockets — Chris Paul, PG
James Harden already knows Houston’s personnel and head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense as well as the back of his beard, which leaves the majority of the adjusting in this relationship to be done by the newcomer Paul. CP3’s methodical, walk-the-ball-up style is in direct incongruence with the up-tempo principles that D’Antoni preaches (and to an extent, Harden’s own ball-dominating tendencies), so a middle ground will definitely need to be reached. Still, with his defensive activity, his subtle strokes of pick-and-roll genius, and yes, his leadership, Paul should provide a hard-hitting yin to Harden’s yang as the Rockets vie for the title of best non-Warriors team in the West.
Indiana Pacers — Myles Turner, PF/C
With Paul George peacing out of Indiana, the springy 21-year-old suddenly has the opportunity to be the biggest Turner on this side of Desiigner. While he could still use some improvement when it comes to rebounding and overall consistency, Turner otherwise has an ideal skillset for a young centerpiece to build a team around. Step 1: manufacture an elite defense using Turner’s shot-blocking and mobility. Step 2: construct a top-tier offense centered on his versatile scoring arsenal. Step 3: profit. OK, maybe it won’t be quite that easy, but it should still be a pleasure to watch Turner raise Hickory Hell in 2017-18.
Los Angeles Clippers — Blake Griffin, PF/C
“The Blake Griffin Show” is not only my favorite new primetime television series of the fall, it’s also the new reality for the Clippers in the aftermath of Chris Paul going ciao. The usual health disclaimers are inescapable with Griffin, whose availability could be the difference between 47 wins and the playoffs or 37 wins and the lottery. But for all you beleaguered point-forward enthusiasts, have I got a new god for you. Should I be institutionalized for believing Griffin has a chance to go LeBron Lite this season with a stat line somewhere in the range of 22-8-7? Probably. But what stands in the ex-top pick’s way in his debut season as Lob City’s sole breadwinner is neither talent nor circumstance: it’s his own body. Are you the gambling type, Clipper fans?
Los Angeles Lakers — Lonzo Ball, PG
It’s time to find out what Big Ballers are really made of. The eldest Ball bro may seem more like a reality star than a professional hooper and his signature shoe may be priced like it’s made of diamonds and caviar. But look beyond the funky jumpshot and the constant negative LaVar covfefe, and you will find a truly special talent. May his passing be so contagious that Adam Silver has to call in the CDC. May the conventions of the sport be turned further on their heads with each full-court outlet pass from his angelic triple-B fingertips. And may the Showtime Lakers bend at the knee and make way for a superior new brand of basketball: The ZoTime Lakers. Tell the haters to stay in their lanes.
Memphis Grizzlies — Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
It’s a point guard-driven league, and by golly, if the Grizzlies are paying Conley over $30 million a year, he darn well better be driving. Fortunately, that the dynamic southpaw did in 2016-17, doing whatever the exact opposite of the big contract blues is by putting forth a career-best year in production. Memphis seems to be going nowhere fast, especially with the untimely (or depending on your perspective, overdue) demise of Grit-N-Grind. But at least we’ll still have Conley getting us lost in the sauce with his two-way exploits.
Miami Heat — Hassan Whiteside, C
Goran Dragic’s nightly 0-to-100 act is enticing, as is the glow of that beachfront property on Waiters Island. But Whiteside’s areas of expertise remain the most irreplaceable on the Heat as he continues to prove his worth as their highest-paid player. The 2K rating has been up for awhile now, the block parties remain the most lit, and the midrange jumpers off glass are a quality wrinkle to what many once believed was a strictly one-dimensional offensive game. Now the focus for Young Whiteside should be on how to effectively match up against stretch-fives a la Kevin Love and Al Horford while still asserting his birthright over the painted area. Open up my eager eyes.
Milwaukee Bucks — Giannis Antetokounmpo, PG/SG/SF
My large, basketball-playing son is here to turn every day into Freaky Friday, bless his heart. Few superlatives could articulate the season Antetokounmpo put together in 2016-17. Embodying the spirit of Oprah Winfrey herself, he pointed at each of his major statistical categories and shouted, “YOU’RE GETTING A CAREER-HIGH! AND YOU’RE GETTING A CAREER-HIGH!” When the dust settled, Antetokounmpo finished with 22.9/8.8/5.4/1.6/1.9 and dragged a Bucks team that missed an entire season combined between Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker to the 6-seed. He’s a monstrosity no matter what end of the floor he’s on, and if he ever starts hitting his jumper with any consistency (which we’re already seeing glimpses of), not to be overly dramatic or anything, but we’re probably all dead. O Giannis, my Giannis.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Karl-Anthony Towns
There’s a reason why our young three-named emperor recently topped the 2017-18 NBA GM survey of which player they would most like to start a team with. True, he may still be a net liability as a defender. But 25.1 points per game on 54.2 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three is special for any player, much less a 21-year-old pupper. Towns is equal parts physical and finesse, and while the buckets of St. Jimmy Butler and the all-around vigor of the newly-extended Andrew Wiggins will be key for the Wolves, what will truly bring the Western Conference to its knees is when KAT gets its tongue.
New Orleans Pelicans — Anthony Davis, PF/C
I’ve run out of clever eyebrow-related puns, so let’s just look at Davis for what he really is: the biggest walking mismatch in the league today. His trusty 18-footer makes him a tougher cover than a Giannis Antetokounmpo, his 6-foot-11 frame and his 8-foot wingspan make him a more unique hell than any shorter player, and graceful strides make him harder to guard going to the hoop than a Karl-Anthony Towns or a DeAndre Jordan. Now that Davis has hopefully gotten over his growing pains with fellow All-NBA big and ex-Kentucky Wildcat DeMarcus Cousins, the 30-point-per-game mark, the Defensive Player of the Year Award, who knows, maybe even Most Valuable Player honors are all hypothetically within the reach of his octopus-like grasp.
New York Knicks — Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C
Au revoir to the Melodrama at long merciful last. With Carmelo Anthony finally making like an egg and beating it, ’tis a new day for the Knickerbockers. And who better to lead them into their next chapter than Mr. Three Six Latvia? Sure, Porzingis will have some help from a Suicide Squad of sorts: Tim Hardaway’s overpaid son, rookie guard Frank last-name-pronunciation-unknown, and of course Woke Michael Beasley. But the people are finally getting what they want: a 7-foot-3 fairy-tale creature finally getting his moment as the focal point of an offense. All rise for the honorable Porzingod.