Just like every other team he’s ever been on, the Hawks can be as good as Dwight Howard wants them to be. Mediocre effort has unsurprisingly resulted in a mediocre record.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
Boston Celtics: SG Avery Bradley
One of the best on-ball defenders in the entire league, Bradley has an all-around game that has developed to the point Brad Stevens is starting to run plays to get him open. With increased success comes increased responsibility – and since Bradley is already carrying the team’s defense and helping whomever Isaiah Thomas is guarding, how he handles the workload will be vital to the Celtics’ progress as a legitimate title contender.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
Brooklyn Nets: SG Sean Kilpatrick
No draft picks, no playoffs, no notable free agents – the only light at the end of the tunnel for the Nets is their one young, dynamic scorer, who will be asked to carry the offense in the years to come.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsBrad Penner
Charlotte Hornets: PG Kemba Walker
Having the best year of his career (again), Walker is only getting better over time. The problem is, despite how well the Hornets are playing together, he doesn’t have much offense-creating help come playoff time – thus, the Hornets’ ceiling is as high as Kemba can take them.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
Chicago Bulls: PG Rajon Rondo
Every single starting and key rotation player on the roster has a positive individual net rating except … yup … Rondo (minus-9). Rondo starts alongside two stars who also struggle with making long jumpers consistently, so, unless he can produce all-star level defensive efficiency and play-making ability he will be a liability who will keep the Bulls from making an extended playoff run. There’s no other way to spin it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: SG J.R. Smith
It’s the same tune for every team that J.R. Smith is on, will be on and has been on throughout his career – when J.R. Smith is the good J.R. Smith, it’s the highest of highs. When J.R. Smith is the bad J.R. Smith, you better have a parachute on and be ready to jump out of this downward-spiraling plane at the snap of a finger. Of all things, surprisingly, it is J.R. Smith’s defense that is the most essential skill to the Cavaliers’ success – as noted by LeBron James, coach Tyronn Lue, and every advanced analytical statistic available. What a bizzaro world we live in.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
Dallas Mavericks: SG Justin Anderson
The Mavericks aren’t going anywhere any time soon, so by the time they are even remotely in consideration as contenders Anderson needs to be fully blossomed and no longer Dallas’ “best young prospect.”
Denver Nuggets: C Nikola Jokic
Denver’s best player is now ... coming off-the-bench? No-one really knows what’s going on with coach Mike Malone’s rotations, but one thing is certain: Nikola Jokic needs a seat at the table moving forward. He is the last of a dying breed, the traditional NBA big man, and is good enough to be the go-to option on a playoff-contending team. For now, however, the Nuggets seem content to continue wasting the prime development years of their best prospect’s career.
Detroit Pistons: SF Tobias Harris
Harris has been … dare I say … an all-star this season? Probably not, but he’s been the go-to perimeter scoring option for a good Pistons team – and if he continues to stretch the floor, his success is two-fold as it will open up the paint for the franchise’s superstar, Andre Drummond, and prevent opponents from cheating off the 3-point line to collapse on him in the post, as we saw consistently before Harris’ outside threat development.
Golden State Warriors: PF Draymond Green
The most important player on the best team in the NBA, the do-it-all power forward is the oil that lubricates the basketball machine known as the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors can get away with poor shooting/scoring nights from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant – it’s the beauty of having the three best shooters on Planet Earth on one roster – but Green and his dirty-work accomplishments are nothing short of irreplaceable.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY SportsCary Edmondson
Houston Rockets: PF Ryan Anderson
It’s almost like when you replace Dwight Howard with a floor-stretching four it opens up the paint for James Harden to do great things, nearly average a triple-double and be a serious contender for MVP. For as great as Harden has been, though, it’s Ryno’s elite 3-point shooting ability and complimentary rebounding on the defensive side that has ignited the inferno that is Harden’s offense.
Indiana Pacers: C Myles Turner
Paul George is the Superstar, but Turner is the future. The 20-year-old center can do it all, and he’s only getting better. If you think he had a good rookie campaign (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), he’s averaging 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds this season and he has established himself as the Pacers’ Robin to the team’s Batman (George). If the Pacers want to go from being good to great, they’ll need Turner to reach George’s elite status in the near future – and he is more than capable of doing it.
Los Angeles Clippers: C DeAndre Jordan
For all the hype Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get, and deservedly so, Jordan is arguably the most important player on the roster. Still, as long as he must be taken off the floor in the fourth quarter because he can’t make free throws he’s not the MVP of the team – he’s the X-factor. There is not a player in the NBA with more “ifs” surrounding his game -- “if” DeAndre could just make this free throws … “if” DeAndre were able to play during the 4th quarter … “if” DeAndre could develop an 8-foot jump shot … who knows how good the Clippers could be.
Los Angeles Lakers: PF Larry Nance Jr.
Might just be the best and most promising prospect on the entire Lakers roster. No, that’s not a typo.
Memphis Grizzlies: SF Chandler Parsons
The Grizzlies are doing this thing again where they somehow … some way win games with a roster that most D-League teams would think they could beat. It’s a testament to the front office, the coaching staff and the “grit-and-grind” mentality the fans share with the players. However, as we saw in the playoffs last season with a completely devastated and depleted roster, heart only takes you so far in the league – at some point, talent has to perform. The Grizzlies have it in the form of Mike Conley Jr., Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph – but the most important player on the roster is Parsons, who the franchise invested all their remaining resources in after paying Conley. When he returns from his chronic knee injuries, can he be the all-star caliber player he once was? If so, the Grizzlies might just finally have what it takes to hang around with the Western Conference’s elite teams.
Miami Heat: SG Tyler Johnson
He can score, we all know that – but he just got paid superstar money and is eating up a massive chunk of the franchise’s salary cap. If the Heat are going to be anything close to relevant moving forward, Tyler Johnson … yes, Tyler Johnson … is going to have to fill the void left behind by the great Dwyane Wade. Johnson is so good at getting buckets that if he’s able to translate that success to the defensive end, something that seems impossible at the current moment, the Heat will be on to something. That “if” may be insurmountable, however.
Milwaukee Bucks: SF Jabari Parker
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a perennial superstar … the things “The Greek Freak” does on the basketball court are unprecedented. However, the game of basketball requires the presence of five players on the court simultaneously, and for as great as Antetokounmpo is he can’t do it all. His wingman, Parker, has been as vital to his success and growth. If Parker is able to shoulder the load on offense when the ball isn’t in Antetokounmpo’s hands, it will free up The Greek Freak to do Greek Freak things with his absurd athleticism, length and ability. Parker is good enough to be a team’s go-to option, but on this Bucks team his role as a supplemental scorer is more vital than anything.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY SportsAnthony Gruppuso
Minnesota Timberwolves: PG Kris Dunn
With Ricky Rubio seemingly uncapable of ever figuring out his jump shot, at some point Tom Thibodeau is going to make the move and get his young, dynamic point guard into the mix full-time. As soon as he does, the franchise’s vision of developing a legitimate, home-grown NBA contender will rely on the rapid development and integration of Dunn so that he can seamlessly run the offense for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.
Brad RempelBrad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
New Orleans Pelicans: PF Anthony Davis
Only because there’s no one else on this team worthy or good enough of ever being considered an X-factor in the NBA.
New York Knicks: SG Justin Holiday
On a team filled with big names, it is Holiday who is rapidly becoming the Knicks’ major acquisition of the summer. He may not just be a major acquisition, he may be the best bang-for-the-buck player in the entire league, occupying only 0.9 percent of the team’s entire salary cap. He provides valuable scoring off a thin Knicks bench, intense defense and all the intangibles that supplement the scoring from Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick Rose.
Oklahoma City Thunder: C Steven Adams
As much as he may think differently, Russell Westbrook, as great as he is, can’t play every second of every game and score every point himself. Though he does have a legit runningmate in Victor Oladipo, it is Adams who needs to become the consigliere alpha on this Thunder team. He is an absolute behemoth of a human being who can single-handedly clean the glass, influence shots and get his shooters open with roadblock screens.
Orlando Magic: PF Aaron Gordon
He needs to learn how to shoot 3s consistently and he needs to learn fast – otherwise, this franchise is headed for another decade of mediocrity.
Philadelphia 76ers: PF Dario Saric
We know how good Joel Embiid is, but when this team finally gets healthy and fields all of its stars at once this 6-foot-10 forward will be the one to determine just how far it can go. Though opponents will dedicate the majority of their attention to Embiid and Ben Simmons, the floor-stretching Saric will be essential to keeping opposing big men out of the paint, requiring them to defend him on the perimeter and thus create space for Embiid to operate and open up lanes for Simmons. Simply put: Simmons and Embiid can’t be the perennial superstars we expect them to be unless they get some help … and that help comes in the form of the sharp-shooting, talented rookie Croatian.
Getty ImagesMitchell Leff
Phoenix Suns: SG Devin Booker
It’s no coincidence the Suns are struggling while Booker is having trouble consistently making his jump shot. His 3-point percentage is down to 31.4, and his individual PER (12.2) has dipped below the league average of 15. With the Suns' record correllating to the performance of their brightest star, Booker isn't just the future of the franchise, he is the current. Booker needs to figure it out, and he needs to figure it out fast.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Portland Trail Blazers: SG Evan Turner
When you are paid $17.5 million per season to be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that made the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, you better produce at a star level. Needless to say, this has not happened and the Blazers will be locked into mediocrity for the next four years for their poor talent assessment.
Sacramento Kings: C DeMarcus Cousins
The NBA equivalent of a Monopoly ‘Chance’ card – you never know if you’re going to be sent straight to GO to collect $200, to jail or somewhere in between. Every time he steps the floor, it’s a different adventure of productivity and hair-pulling frustration.
San Antonio Spurs: SF Jonathon Simmons
Simmons, a.k.a. Kawhi Leonard Jr., will be the foundation of the Spurs franchise (alongside Kyle Anderson) once the last men standing from the previous and current dynasty (Parker, Ginobil) retire. Simmons appears to be a clone of Leonard in almost every single facet – from gameplay to physique to skill set to attitude to athleticism, all the way to their upbringings. Leonard will always be in the spotlight, but it is Simmons who will be the cornerstone opposite Leonard as the Spurs move on to their new era.
Toronto Raptors: Jonas Valanciunas
We already know Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan are all-stars, but if the Raptors want any chance of beating the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoffs it is Valancuinas who will need to step up and be the dominant interior force that everyone expected (and still expects) him to be. If there’s one spot to exploit the world champs, it’s their lack of a true big man to protect the interior. If Valancuinas lives up to his potential, yes, the Raptors could absolutely complete what would be the biggest upset in recent NBA playoff history. However, that “If” is going on five-plus years now … at what point does “if” become “unfortunately”?
Utah Jazz: SG Rodney Hood
For a couple of reasons: 1) Hood is Utah’s most-talented scorer. No, not Gordon Hayward. No, not Joe Johnson – Rodney Hood; 2) Hood can’t stay healthy. But it’s not just his offensive creativity that is essential to the Jazz. Hood has blossomed into a formidable two-way player essential to a team trying to take the step from playoff hopeful to title contender. First, though, he must stay on the floor.
Washington Wizards: SG Bradley Beal
For the sole purpose that if the Wizards want any chance of retaining John Wall’s services after his contract expires, Beal had better perform at the all-star level we all expected him to be at by now and squash his rumored beef with his backcourt runningmate.