The NBA season is a mere month away and the questions are already flying: will the union of Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors yield a championship (Probably)? Will Chris Bosh ever be able to play basketball again (Hopefully)? Will Russell Westbrook pull the stars from the heavens themselves to smite Kevin Durant (It's a very real possibility)? This coming NBA season looks to be particularly exciting, engaging, and dramatic, with much intrigue lurking in the regular season, and a possible rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in Finals hanging over all our heads, like a looming sword of hoops Damocles.
As always, the central focus of the NBA season (and literally every other sports season) is the players, the glorious, ultra-athletic and talented harbingers of buckets that we shell out our hard earned cash to see. Every year, certain players rise to All-Stardom and a new tax bracket, whilst others fall from grace, their usually jacked up box scores looking painfully sparse. Right now, anything anybody says is pure speculation, but the guesswork is the one of the only fun things we have as we wait for the season to finally kick off. So, without further ado, this list will try to determine which players will improve this season and which will regress. If you're a fantasy basketball enthusiast, this list may help or destroy your season, depending on how everything shakes out. If the latter happens, sorry about that.
15 15. Improve - James Harden
This one may be slightly difficult to buy into, because James Harden's already the best shooting guard in the league and a perennial MVP contender, so how much better can he really get? Well, Dwight Howard left Houston this summer for the greener grass of Atlanta, so Harden's officially the team's only alpha dog. More importantly, however, his new head coach is offensive guru, Mike D'Antoni, the mastermind behind the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense that made the Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash such a tremendous success in the mid-to-late 2000s. So, with a basketball mind like Mikey D. stalking the sidelines and Harden's usage rate set to somehow climb even higher, it's not impossible to imagine that the Rockets megastar could reach even loftier heights than he's already seen, maybe even finally winning that elusive MVP award.
14 14. Regress - Kevin Durant
Important note: Kevin Durant is at the BOTTOM of the regress list. BOTTOM! In no way, shape, or form is KD going to stop being KD. As long as he's alive and kicking, he's going to be an unstoppable basketball force. He's one of the most elite scorers in NBA history and a member of the ultra-exclusive 50-40-90 Club, proving his chops as a dead-eye shooter. However, he's joining a Golden State Warriors team already crowded with amazing shooters and offensive talents, not to mention two time MVP Stephen Curry, undeniably the greatest shooter in the history of the sport. The Slim Reaper's going to get his share of touches, and Steph will most likely give some of his up for the four time scoring champion, but Steph's position as Golden State's alpha dog means the team will ALWAYS look to run the offense through him. KD will be fine in Golden State, as he's still a top three player in the league, but it's hard to see him maintaining the scoring numbers he frequently put up in OKC.
13 13. Improve - Russell Westbrook
Imagine what Russell Westbrook could do this season. Pissed off at the departure of megastar teammate, and best friend, Kevin Durant, Westbrook's going to take the reigns of the Oklahoma City Thunder's offense and drive it down Fury Road. Every minute he's on the floor will be beautiful chaos, orchestrated by him and him alone. The ball will go through him on every play. Russy never had any trouble racking up points and triple-doubles with Durant on the team, but now that he's the teams go-to ball handler and scorer, it's not crazy to imagine him gunning for Oscar Robertson's triple-double record (Okay, maybe it is a little). OKC may struggle without Durant and Serge Ibaka, but with Russy going full Super Saiyan every night, the team will always pose an intimidating challenge. Also, it's worth noting that Westbrook is Vegas' odds-on favorite to win the MVP award, so the idea of him reaching new levels of basketball dominance aren't completely unfounded.
12 12. Regress - Jamal Crawford
This one feels cheap and fairly procedural, as every year pundits claim Jamal Crawford's finally going to decline, and every year, he manages to prove them wrong by being a masterful spark plug off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers, a perennially top five offense. Plus, he's coming off his THIRD Sixth Man of the Year award. However, the reasons behind predicting his fall from grace aren't insane. Crawford is thirty-six years old, entering his eighteenth season in the league, and his shooting numbers have been declining for several years now. His points averages remain high, but he's becoming a less and less dependable shooter, and his defense remains painfully detrimental to the team. Given his age, busted shooting touch, and sieve-like defense, it wouldn't be surprising if he lost some minutes to coach's son Austin Rivers.
11 11. Improve - Goran Dragic
Remember the 2013-2014 season, when Goran Dragic shocked the world by being one of the best guards in the NBA? He won Most Improved Player and made All-NBA Third Team, essentially making him a top-six guard in the league. He was so good, he forced Miami Heat general manager Pat Riley to offer the Phoenix Suns a Godfather offer to obtain him via trade. Unfortunately, in South Beach, he's never been able to reach those lofty heights again. Much of this was because Dragic flourishes in a fast paced offense, but back court partner Dwyane Wade preferred to play a slower style and as the team's alpha dog, Flash dictated the offense. However, with D-Wade off to Chicago, Dragic will take the reigns as the team's primary ball handler, so the Dragon can run as fast as he wants, and he'll pick up some of Wade's many touches in the process. The Heat may not be as good as they were last season, especially if Chris Bosh isn't allowed to play, but Dragic's numbers are set to see a marked increase.
10 10. Regress - Dwyane Wade
On one hand, Dwyane Wade seems to be timeless. Whenever he looks to be slowing down, he storms right back into the picture. On the other hand, Dwyane Wade has A LOT of miles on him. His knees are rickety and every season runs the risk of seeing one of the best shooting guards of all time break down. However, age and chronic injury aren't Wade's only issues. This offseason, he left the Miami Heat to join his hometown Chicago Bulls, and there's a very noticeable wrinkle in his move: the Bulls best player and alpha dog, Jimmy Butler, plays the same position as Wade. Now, Butler is a swingman, meaning he can play small forward if need be, but his natural and best position is shooting guard. It seems like a strange strategy for a team so desperate to win, and prone to conflict, to bring in a prized free agent that could clash with their best player. As good as Dwyane Wade can still be, it would be risky to prioritize him over a younger All-Star with better defense and a better shooting touch. It seems inevitable that Flash could see his box score suffer in the shuffle.
9 9. Improve - Myles Turner
Remember a few years ago, when the Indiana Pacers were LeBron James' biggest rivals in the East? That lasted roughly twenty whole minutes. Now, every member of that team's starting five, besides Paul George, is gone, coach Frank Vogel is on the Orlando Magic sidelines now, and the team has switched from defense-first to a "fast" paced system. Former Texas Longhorn standout Myles Turner is one of the new-look Pacers brightest up-and-comers. A versatile defender with a developing three-point stroke, Turner showed out in his rookie season, when he received decent minutes, and he looks to continue that momentum this season. He averaged 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game on 22.8 minutes per game last season, so an uptick in playing time good see him ascend to possible All-Star heights. His versatility will allow him to play the faster style the Pacers want to implement, but if they stay slow, which seems very possible, considering their new head coach, Nate McMillan, is one of the slowest in NBA history, Turner will excel, as well. He's damn good. Don't be afraid to jump on the Myles Turner Extravaganza Bandwagon!
8 8. Regress - Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo was at the center of one of the most confusing trades to take place this past offseason (More on that later). Long story short, he's a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder now, slated to play Robin to Russell Westbrook's next level, Flashpoint Batman. While playing alongside Russy gives Dipo a better teammate than he's ever had, it also means he has to adapt to a very new situation. On the Orlando Magic, he was the leader of a very young team and the ball, for better or worse, ran through him. He's a disappointing shooter and an inconsistent defender, but playing with a monster like Westbrook should hide some of his flaws. However, he's definitely not going to demand the usage rate he had in Orlando. It may take a while for him to get used to his new, off-ball role and his box scores will likely diminish as a result.
7 7. Improve - D'Angelo Russell
D'Angelo Russell had a weird rookie season, didn't he? First, his selection by the Los Angeles Lakers was met with derision by fans and pundits who would have preferred to see the franchise take center, and more refined player, Jahlil Okafor. Then, he practically had to fight for shots during the Kobe Bryant retirement tour, and was eventually benched by notorious hard-ass and bad coach, Byron Scott. Lets not even mention that ridiculous business with Nick Young. However, through everything, D-Lo still flashed the potential that led the Lakers to selecting him second overall. His court vision, ball handling, and dead-on shot making skills could bring him to stardom in the near future. Now that Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott are gone, replaced by much younger and mellower head coach Luke Walton, Russell will become the defacto alpha dog on a very young team and his usage rate will increase exponentially to match his new role.
6 6. Regress - Marc Gasol
In a better, less ruthless world, Marc Gasol wouldn't be on this list. In a better world, he'd still be the defensive titan standing in the middle for a successful Memphis Grizzlies team. Unfortunately, this is not a better world and Marc Gasol has the odds stacked against him if he hopes to get back to his former All-Star status. First, and most importantly, Gasol missed the the second half of last season with broken right foot. Foot injuries on big men are always cause for concern (Bill Walton suffered from chronic foot injuries) and Gasol's already significant injury history doesn't allow for much optimism. Second, the Memphis Grizzlies are stuck in a vortex. They're committed to the "Grit and Grind" style of play that has given them success over the years, despite the fact that each season sees it become more and more outdated. Gasol, and by extension, the entire Grizzlies team, are fighting an uphill battle to remain relevant.
5 5. Improve - Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns has a case for being higher on this list: of all the sophomores on this list (four), he has the highest chance of achieving megastar status. However, he's not higher because his rookie season was so good, no level of increased quality is going to surprise fans. As a rookie, Towns averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.7 steals with a .543%/.341%/.811% shooting split. At 20 years old, he already looked like a legitimate All-Star candidate and flashed Tim Duncan-esque potential as a scorer and defender. This season, he returns to a Minnesota Timberwolves team packed with young talent, including Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and fellow future All-Star Andrew Wiggins, and he'll look to take up an even bigger role on the team. No one should be surprised if he ascends to All-Star status or competes for the Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He's that good.
4 4. Regress - Tony Parker
Tony Parker is standing on the precipice of a new era of San Antonio basketball and no one's certain of how much longer he'll be a major player on the Spurs. Unfortunately, all signs point to not much longer. The six time All-Star has been increasingly hampered by injuries the past few seasons, causing a steady decline in his minutes per game, and the rest of his box scores have suffered as well. He's still an efficient shooter, shooting almost 50% last season, but he's having less and less of an impact on the team. Without a steady presence at the point, the Spurs won't be able to maximize the tandem of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Greg Popovich won't take away Parker's starting role out of respect for the former Finals MVP, but he'll continue to pull back his minutes as Parker slides into his twilight years. Also, it's worth mentioning that the Spurs drafted Parker's eventual replace, Dejounte Murray, earlier this summer.
3 3. Improve - Kristaps Porzingis
Kristaps Porzingis. The Zinger. Godzingis. 36 Latvia. The man of many nicknames, Kristaps was last year's International Man of Mystery: a 7'3" enigma who was either going to be an absolute monster or the biggest European bust since Darko Milicic. Fortunately for Knicks fans the world over, the Latvian Legend seems to be positive end of the quality scale. He's been compared to Pau Gasol, with the caveat that he's already better at defense than Pau has ever been. Last year, he became the first rookie to ever record 1000+ points, 500+ rebounds, 75+ three pointers, and +100 blocks, all while only averaging 28.4 minutes per game. Going into his sophomore season, he seems primed to take up a larger role, cementing himself as Carmelo Anthony's sidekick as he works towards one day replacing Melo. Even with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah going the club, Kristaps' unique skill set and versatility guarantee him a premiere spot in the Knicks lineup.
2 2. Regress - The Orlando Magic Front Court
This feels like cheating, but the logjam in the Orlando Magic front court is painfully perplexing, to say the least. Going into this past offseason, the Magic had two young, talented front court players in Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic ready to take up the power forward and center positions, respectively. However, after a questionable draft day trade, the Magic obtained Serge Ibaka, and then drafted UNLV's Stephen Zimmerman later in the night. Then, later in the summer, they signed Bismack Biyombo to a max-offer sheet. So, the team now has five young, promising front court players and they're going to struggle finding adequate playing time for all of them. Whose minutes do you stagger? Obviously, Zimmerman is a project, but Vucevic is the team captain, Ibaka is a multi-time blocks leader, Aaron Gordon has Blake Griffin-esque potential, and they paid beaucoup bucks for Biyombo. There simply isn't an answer to this puzzle that doesn't see some of these men lose important playing time. Hopefully, head coach Frank Vogel, genius that he is, can figure something out, but it isn't going to be pretty.
1 1. Improve - Giannis Antetokounmpo
The time has finally arrived for Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man with one of the hardest to spell names in American sports, to grab onto his full potential and shower the league with holy flames of basketball fury (Maybe hyperbolic, but probably not). When the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Giannis in 2013, he was considered a huge project: a lanky, but somehow still growing, hyper quick, ultra athletic teenager who was green as hell. Now, fast forward to 2016, and Giannis is no longer a project, he's a superstar-in-waiting, with a hundred million dollar contract. He's a basketball unicorn. At 6'11", he's the Bucks' starting point guard, using his considerable versatility to rack up triple-doubles. He's a hellacious defender, using his giant frame to harass anyone who stands in front of him. He's a bad three-point shooter (at the moment), but he makes up for it by being able to blow by anyone and reach the rim at will. He can do almost anything and everything on the basketball court and this year will hopefully be his official coming out party.
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