Each NBA team’s most important player
Oklahoma City Thunder — Russell Westbrook, PG
I don’t know about you, but I’m still out of breath from the rampage that was the Brodie’s 2016-17 season. His breakup with Kevin Durant left Westbrook free to release his earthly tether and spread his wings to live a war-hungry life among the dragons. Now, an MVP award, a scoring title, and basically every triple-double in NBA history later, Westbrook’s short-lived but nevertheless unforgettable solo career is over, and a new superteam has arisen before him. The equally stunning acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony pose as many chemistry concerns as they do title upside, and now the onus is on Westbrook to be the gracious host who welcomes them into his house.
Orlando Magic — Aaron Gordon, PF
The poster child for the #NotMySmallForward movement that I just started literally five seconds ago, Gordon has nowhere to go but up this season. The talented 22-year-old endured a bitter 2016-17 campaign that saw him forced out of position in Orlando’s sardine-like frontcourt and left with an egg on his face after his dud of Dunk Contest follow-up act in what was an overall discouraging year for his growth as a player. But Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green have since gone bye-bye (albeit with rookie big man Jonathan Isaac saying hello), leaving Gordon to (hopefully) see more minutes in his natural habitat as a multi-position defensive padlock and energetic north-south presence from the power forward spot. Don’t blow this for us, Frank Vogel. Not again.
Philadelphia 76ers — Joel Embiid, C
“Live by the Process, die by the Process” -Matthew 26:52. With Philly committing a full five-year, $148 million max extension (albeit with some injury protections) to Embiid after just 31 career games, they are not just taking a leap but an entire skydive-out-of-a-C-182-aircraft of faith. The Cameroonian is well-worth the dice roll though — when he’s on the court, Embiid is a conqueror of galaxies who dominates every aspect of the game from paint to paint and often extends his reign of terror to the three-point line as well. To put it simply, Embiid’s health will be the singular defining factor for the Sixers’ trajectory as a team these next several years. No pressure, bro.
Phoenix Suns — Devin Booker, SG
Fact: Devin Booker scored 70 points in a game last season. Also fact: Michael Jordan’s single-game career-high was a mere 69. I don’t know about you, but I personally require no further convincing that Booker is the greatest basketball player of all-time. In all honesty though, it’s absurd how many different ways the Kentucky product can score the ball, and he’s still not even old enough to get into the club yet. Booker will stunt on you running the high screen or coming off it, and while the crux of his development needs to come on the defensive end, Phoenix has found their meal ticket for the next decade-plus.
Portland Trail Blazers — Damian Lillard, PG
Fresh off the hottest album drop in the history of either hip or hop, what exactly can we expect from Dame D.O.L.L.A. as we enter into a new season? Well, he went 27-5-6 last year and missed out on every major accolade before getting swept in the first round, so he probably has an entire bag of potato chips on his shoulder at this point. But Angry Lillard remains best Lillard, and thus, here’s looking forward to another year of him firing cannonballs from the three-point arc and delivering an assortment of inside-out dribbles to leave your knee ligaments in the abyss. From (number) zero to hero indeed.
Sacramento Kings — Buddy Hield, SG
No, this is not Vivek Ranadive’s burner account. But as the Kings search for a new savior in their first full season post-Boogie Cousins, the smart money is on His Majesty Prince Buddy ascending to the throne. Hield is thoroughly marvelous at scoring and attacking off the dribble, and the 15.1 points per game he scored as a rookie after being traded to Sacramento provided a momentary glimpse into his offensive upside. And as we enter into the new NBA season, I’d like to propose a toast to the best basketball-playing Buddy since Air Bud himself.
San Antonio Spurs — Kawhi Leonard, SF
Not since the 2001 Sixers have we seen a team rely so heavily on a head of cornrows. With everybody on the Spurs aging and LaMarcus Aldridge getting some major style points for his Houdini act, Leonard in all of his stoicism may be the only thing preventing San Antonio from descending into a state of uncharacteristic chaos. There remains no better player alive if you need a stop on one end and a score on the other end, and as he looks for his third straight 60-plus-win season as the lead singer of the Spurs, expect Leonard’s stone-faced and iron-fisted rule to be front and center in the West once again.
Toronto Raptors — DeMar DeRozan, SG
“I’m just like DeRozan, if I shoot it, it goes in.” While that lyric might not be entirely statistically accurate (DeRozan’s career FG percentage is 44.6, so odds are if he shoots it, it probably won’t go in), his importance to the Raptors is no less. Though he took Toronto the bank over the summer, Kyle Lowry will turn 32 this season. Thus, the burden could increasingly lie on DeRozan to do most of the heavy lifting on offense.
After finishing fifth in the league last year with a personal-best 27.3 points per game, he is clearly fit for the job. But efficiency will always be an issue for No. 10, and it’s probably time to give up on the dream of him ever developing a reliable three-point jumper. So at the end of the day, if Toronto has any further growth to make with this current core, it will almost certainly have to come from DeRozan’s end of the equation.
Utah Jazz — Rudy Gobert, C
Raise thy hand if thou art ready for Rudy Gobert to go St. Anger on the National Basketball Association. Gordon Hayward is no more, but fear not Jazz fans, for The Stifle Tower remains to defend your honor, both literally and figuratively. There’s still a lot to like in Utah this year with Gobert set to catch lobs from fellow Euro stud Ricky Rubio as he and the rest of the team sop up the shot attempts that Hayward leaves behind. Meanwhile, the defense he anchors could potentially prove even more suffocating with the arrivals of rock-solid one-on-one stoppers like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko. Yep, this season especially, this Rudy should be anything but regular-sized.
Washington Wizards — John Wall, PG
With the vivid image of Wall catching the Holy Spirit and sinking a game-winning three in front of his home crowd in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semis still crisp in the minds of many, he enters 2017-18 with a lot more work ahead. It will be tough for Optimus Dime to build on a season where he flirted with a 23-11 line while playing in 77+ games for the fourth straight year and finishing top-ten in the NBA in usage. But he is embarking on the fabled age-27 season and will be running it back in a feeble conference with virtually his entire supporting cast still intact. All in all, it’s just another brick in the Wall.