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NBA Players With the Most Pressure to Win

Equal parts theater and athletic spectacle, the NBA continues its march toward global dominance with the beginning of the 2020-2021 campaign. Like your favorite HBO character dramas, each NBA season is a timestamped capsule of overlapping and intersecting narratives. While each year is unique in its own right, some scenarios inevitably play out year after year. Teams come out of nowhere to make the playoffs, rookies play well above/under the expectations, rising stars ascend, and marquee names begin to fade. In this article, we will take a look at which NBA leading men have the most to lose this season and how this year’s outcomes may come to influence their legacies for years to come.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The honeymoon is over; everybody’s favorite draft darling is inching toward his final form, becoming arguably the most dominant player in the NBA not named LeBron James. At only 26 years old, Giannis’ journey toward greatness should illustrate to opposing front offices the importance of incremental progress and tamed expectations. Giannis has morphed from a MIP candidate to a 2x MVP and DPOY almost overnight. But for all of his talent and productivity, Giannis’ success has not come without criticism.

Antetokounmpo has drawn the ire of fans and players alike for his abysmal perimeter shooting percentages and his team’s lack of playoff success, with the likes of James Harden and LeBron James being particularly vocal in their critiques of Antetokounmpo. Like Shaq before him, Giannis’ physicality and measurables often dwarf the subtle nuances that make him such an exceptional talent. Giannis may never become an efficient perimeter scorer. Still, nothing in his jacket suggests it’s a result of a “lack of trying,” which, in contrast to Ben Simmons, should encourage Bucks fans. Giannis signed a 5-year, $225M extension, the richest contract in NBA history, which should only serve to heighten the level of scrutiny surrounding the Greek Freak. The addition of Jrue Holiday should bode well for Milwaukee, but larger questions loom regarding Milwaukee talent. Antetokounmpo has an opt-out after his 4th season. Will the combination of Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton be enough to help push Milwaukee past the likes of Boston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia?

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid

After years of “trusting the process,” Philadelphia fans are anxious to see if the combination of Embiid and Simmons have what it takes to reach the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers inherits a unit that has made three straight playoff appearances and looks to be on the cusp of greatness. Questions regarding Ben Simmons shooting, or lack thereof, have taken center stage in recent months and will continue to be fodder for basketball media this upcoming season.

76ers fans are holding on to the idea that Doc will somehow be able to influence Ben’s shooting. Those fans must remember that Doc won a championship with Rajon Rondo, a point guard who received similar criticism early on in his perimeter shooting. Shooting woes aside, Simmons has established himself as one of the league’s best” pound for pound” defenders and is a perpetual mismatch for opposing guards. Magic Johnson was another tall guard whose jump shot was esthetically pleasing; if Ben wants to be considered one of the greats, he will have to find a way to get Philly over the hump.

Questions about Joel Embiid’s health and conditioning have lingered throughout his career; he missed the first two seasons due to a foot injury and has battled nagging back issues in recent years. Injuries aside, Embiid has developed into one of the NBA’s best big men, a player capable of dominating on both sides of the ball. The additions of Danny Green and Seth Curry should add a different dimension to the offense and allow for better spacing for Embiid and Simmons. With a new coach and GM in place and rumors of a possible James Harden trade on the horizon, the time is now for Philly’s dynamic duo.

Paul George

Like the rest of the world, 2020 was chock full of surprises for Paul George. Months after declaring his loyalty to OKC, he requested a trade, which sent him back to his hometown of Los Angeles to play with Kawhi Leonard and the rallying LA Clippers. George had offseason shoulder surgery, and his recovery hampered his overall conditioning throughout the season. In one of the more shocking moments of last season, the Clippers squandered a 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets, losing three straight games, including a pivotal game 7. The man who dubbed himself “Playoff P” was given the moniker “Pandemic P” for his low scoring outputs and inconsistency throughout the playoffs.

The Paul George slander didn’t end in the bubble; he’s exchanged Twitter barbs with Damian Lillard, had some words for his former coach Doc Rivers, there were even rumblings of a rift between LA’s newest stars and their castmates. Add all of these pieces together, and you are looking at a recipe for disaster. Like the 2010 Miami Heat and 2018 Lakers before them, the Clippers didn’t dominate the way many expected in their first year together, COVID-19 virus didn’t do much for team chemistry or continuity. Paul George received a 4-year $191M extension from the Clippers, ensuring that at least one half of the team’s superstar pairing will be with the team past the 2021 season. Montrezl Harrell jumped shipped for the purple and gold, Louis Williams and Pat Beverly are a year older, and all signs are pointing toward Kawhi testing the free agency market. If Paul George wants to keep this unit together, he must revert to his All-Star form.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

After patiently waiting for a year, the Brooklyn Nets will finally have their two superstars on the hardwood at the same time. New HC Steve Nash is working with a full cupboard in Brooklyn, managing arguably one of the deepest teams in the NBA. All eyes will be on the Nets this season; being the number one team in one of the league’s largest markets has its perks, but it doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges. Kyrie continues to find himself on the front pages of the New York papers with his varying commentary on social justice, LeBron, head coaches, and most recently, the media. While I believe many of these headlines are “much to do about nothing,” goading or alienating the NYC papers is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster, particularly for players as highly scrutinized as Durant and Irving.

Gone are the days of Kenny Atkinson and his overachieving Brooklyn squads; all that remain now are championship expectations. Durant seems to have recovered from his Achilles tear, but it’s safe to assume that he will be shaking off rust throughout the season. Achilles injuries can be devastating, often leaving players looking like shells of themselves. Durant looks close to 100%, it’s going to be interesting to see how his body holds up to the rigors of a 72-game season.

James Harden

Harden’s time in Houston seems to be coming to a close. Former HC Mike D’Antoni is now an assistant in Brooklyn; former GM Daryl Morey is now in Philadelphia. Whispers about Harden’s leadership and Houston’s “complicit” culture have grown louder in recent weeks, and the two factions seem headed toward an irreconcilable split. The superstar-front office dynamic is complicated; balancing player happiness and team success is often a slippery slope. Public ridicule aside, there are real questions about how Harden’s game will fit in a different system. Harden is a unique talent and is statistically one of the productive players of his generation; the Rockets should be able to acquire a lofty set of assets for him on the market.

Assuming Harden gets moved to a contender, how do teams incorporate a player so prone to isolation? Harden isn’t known for his defensive intensity. Can Harden be pulled into just any scheme and find success? I believe the answer is yes on both fronts. Harden, like Westbrook, has acquired some unsavory habits over the years during their time as “leading men.” With three years left on his deal, Harden doesn’t have the leverage to force his way to a specific destination. Wherever he lands, it’s going to be interesting to see how he meshes with his new teammates.

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