The NBA offseason has triggered a lot of excitement heading into the 2019-20 season, but it has also produced a lot of high expectations.
Here are six players under immense pressure to have big seasons.
6. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum had a captivating rookie season but then had a quiet sophomore season, mostly due to the ongoing drama surrounding Irving’s free agency and the team’s second-round playoff exit. This season there are no distractions. The Celtics are retooling their offense, and Tatum is a focal point of any success they aspire to have.
He has shown off the potential to be an elite two-way player. Tatum can get inside off the dribble, hit outside jump shots, get physical inside, and is a lockdown defender. Now he has to put it all together.
Sure, the Eastern Conference is top-heavy, but the Celtics have the talent to be in the mix to surprise some folks, but without a big season from the third-year forward, they won’t stand a chance, and Brad Stevens’ job will be in jeopardy.
5. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets appear unlikely to have Kevin Durant on the floor this season which means they will rely on Irving to carry the load. But can the Nets bank on it being a drama-free first year with the point guard?
Last season Irving supposedly had beef with some younger players on the Celtics and the team, as a whole, came up short of expectations. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the elite players in the sport given his handles, playmaking ability, and stellar shooting. At the same time, Irving’s ability to lead and not be a distraction has been an issue in years past — most notably last season.
For at least this season, the Nets aren’t much different than last season’s Celtics. They have a young core that’s going to lean on an elite point guard for offense. Could similar situations arise off the floor or with Irving’s image? Will he thrive as the sole source of offense and lead a young Nets team to the playoffs and perhaps to the second round?
The Nets moved on from D’Angelo Russell by bringing in Irving to essentially get Durant to sign with them. Irving now gets the chance to show the world just how great he can be in a place where he supposedly wanted to play.
Can he right the stigma surrounding his career?
4. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Middleton has improved in every one of his seven seasons in the NBA, and he recently cashed in on a $177.5 million deal. Did the Bucks overpay to keep Middleton? Can he further improve his game? He has to.
While they kept Middleton and Brook Lopez, the Bucks lost an integral part of their core this offseason in Malcolm Brogdon. The second-round-gem-turned-starter is a steady playmaker and scorer who creates for others, is an efficient shooter, and a lockdown defender. While Middleton has similar skill sets, the Bucks need him to come into his own as an elite scorer.
Sure, they have one of the three best players in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the crafty Eric Bledsoe, but the Bucks need a secondary go-to scorer to emerge. Middleton stretches the floor and has improved his shooting off the dribble; now he has to become a better isolation scorer and force the issue at the rim more.
The player Middleton is today doesn’t warrant the contract he received, but if he grows into an elite scorer, he can play into the contract and help get the Bucks to the NBA Finals.
3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and they need to finally break through in the 2019-20 season; it starts and ends with Simmons.
Simmons has been the same player for two years: athletic, a nifty passer, and a superb defender. Now he has to become an aggressive scorer. He has shown an ability to get inside and play with aggression offensively, but he does so with inconsistency. For example, he averaged just 11.6 points per game in the 76ers’ second-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors and attempted 10 or fewer shots in five of seven games in the series.
Simmons has the talent to be a star, but he’s not such a player at this stage of his career. The pieces are in place for Philly to contend for the NBA Finals with Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and others in the fold.
It’s time for the 2016 number one draft pick to live up to his potential by means of becoming a dominant scorer — regardless of whether he garners a consistent jump shot.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden and Russell Westbrook are the most talented backcourt and one of the best duos in the NBA, from a talent standpoint. Whether they can loft the Rockets to the NBA Finals is reliant on Harden sharing the spotlight.
Harden is the best scorer in the NBA. Heck, he averaged 36.1 points per game last season. Simultaneously, he has built a tendency to hold onto the ball for an excessive amount of time in halfcourt sets in the postseason, leading to forced shots and/or others getting out of rhythm. After a discouraging second-round exit on their home court, questions continue to arise as to whether Harden can lead a team to the NBA Finals.
Harden and Dwight Howard didn’t live up to expectations, and Harden and Chris Paul’s supposed beef led to the Rockets trading Paul and picks for Westbrook. If he continues to be predictable in the playoffs and doesn’t get on the same page with Westbrook, Harden and the Rockets could be in store for another mid-round playoff exit.
It could also put Harden en route to becoming one of the best players to never win a ring.
1. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Porzingis hasn’t played in an NBA game since February 6, 2018, and he signed a five-year, $158 million max deal with the Mavericks this offseason. The pressure is on for the Zinger to produce from the get-go.
Despite tearing his ACL with the New York Knicks, the Mavericks decided to trade for the big man after he requested a trade from the Big Apple before the NBA trade deadline. Prior to his injury, Porzingis averaged an impressive 22.7 points per game as the Knicks’ number one scorer. With the Mavericks, he’ll serve as the number two scorer behind Luka Doncic. With the bulk of defenses likely fortifying their efforts towards shutting down Doncic, Porzingis should be able to wreak havoc by playing to his strengths (stretching the floor, finishing relentlessly inside, and denying shots).
At the same time, he’s a skinny, 7-foot-3 big man who’s coming off a brutal ACL tear; there’s zero guarantee that he’s the same player. The Mavericks took a leap of faith by acquiring and signing Porzingis to a max deal, and they need him to play like a superstar. That means he needs to play at a high level on both ends of the floor by means of a well-rounded offensive skill set, especially considering the depth in the Western Conference.
Were the Mavericks deranged for giving a player who hasn’t played in nearly two years and wasn’t a superstar beforehand a max contract?
Porzingis’ 2019-20 play will serve as the answer to that question.