What would the NBA be without narratives? Over the course of last season and the summer, narratives following multiple NBA stars were created, fulfilled, and destroyed. What comes with that is the opportunity to silence the doubters, and fulfill a legacy. There are a new set of players with a chip on their shoulder due to the circumstances of last season, their careers, or the critics. Here are the five NBA stars with the most to prove this season:
Honorable Mentions: Chris Paul and Devin Booker
I put down the two stars of the Pheonix Suns because they are the leaders of a team looking to get back to the NBA Finals where they were just two seasons ago. The Suns won a franchise-high 64 games last season before losing in the second round of the playoffs to a Luka Doncic-led Mavericks. If that wasn’t bad enough, they lost in nightmarish fashion: a game 7 blowout by 33 points.
That was the last game the Suns played before October 2, where the Suns once again lost to the Adelaide 36ers, a team that plays in the NBL of Australia. Embarrassing is putting it lightly.
Phoenix has all the pieces to win a ring: two All-NBA talents in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, a potential All-Star center in Deandre Ayton, and solid role players with a talented head coach in Monty Williams. There are no more excuses. It’s championship or bust for the Suns, starting with Booker and CP3.
5. Paolo Banchero
The word “pressure” is impossible to avoid when you’re the number one pick in the NBA Draft. The Orlando Magic are not contenders of any sort, but they’re building a solid young core.
Paolo Banchero is now at the helm of a team highlighted by Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Isaac, Franz Wagner, and more. The Duke product draws comparisons to the likes of Julius Randle, Khris Middleton, and Blake Griffin.
Banchero averaged 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in his only two games at the NBA Summer League before being shut down by the Magic to prepare for the regular season. A smart move by the Magic, this avoids any sort of injury risk to their star.
As the first overall pick, the expectation is that you will be the best player in your class, which means Banchero has the pressure of not only taking the reigns of this Magic squad but outperforming 60+ rookies in the process.
4. James Harden
On media day, James Harden said he felt like he had lost “100 pounds” in the offseason, and that he thinks he can return to “MVP form”. Last season, Harden averaged 21.0 points and 10.5 assists in 21 games with the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden was seemingly a sidekick to MVP runner-up Joel Embiid, but what’s ironic is that Harden is just five seasons removed from an MVP of his own.
The 76ers aren’t asking Harden to become their score-first star like the Houston Rockets did, but if The Beard can get his scoring up to the 23-26 range, as well as fix his seemingly recurrent playoff struggles, Philly is going to be a problem.
The 76ers added notable defender P.J. Tucker over the summer to help with their defense. The 76ers were 12th in the NBA in defensive rating (110.2), and Tucker can only help that go up. Combine that with Embiid, Harden, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey, and you have a recipe for a team on the quest for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
3. Julius Randle
If you blindly look at Julius Randle’s narrative in 2021 and 2022, you’d think they were two different players. Randle went from the Knicks’ savior to a New York pariah in just a year, and now he looks to win Knicks fans over again.
When the Knicks signed Randle to a 3-year, $63 million contract in 2019, the words used to describe him at the time were “overpaid” and “overrated”. Those negative words have come back after a poor 2022 campaign.
The biggest factor for Randle this season will be his attitude. He did NOT take the criticism well last season, with incidents like showing a lack of effort, turning the ball over countless times, and giving a thumbs down to the fans during a January game against the Celtics.
The Knicks are expected to finish in the middle of the pack, but they can change that. Jalen Brunson is the best point the Knicks have had in years, and RJ Barrett looks to take a major leap this season. However, it all starts with Randle.
2. Ben Simmons
ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins said it best when he compared Ben Simmons to “that pretty girl who’s single. Everyone wants to know why she’s single. The reason she’s single is that she smokes cigarettes.”
Simmons has talent, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason he was a three-time All-Star from 2019 to 2021. What makes Simmons so gifted is his passing ability and his defensive IQ, earning a spot on the All-Defensive First Team in 2020 and 2021. He’s not a scorer, but when he’s at his best, he can give you a solid 20+ points and 10+ assists with key plays on the other end.
Commitment. That’s the problem. After seemingly disappearing in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, Simmons refused to play for the Philadelphia 76ers the following year and was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, where he continued to sit out through the regular season and then the postseason.
Simmons has appeared in the Nets’ preseason games, and it looks like the Nets are ready to bring out the best in the LSU product alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To me, Simmons is a better fit with those two than James Harden was. He doesn’t need to score at a high level, and he has such great defensive prowess that out of anyone on the Nets, you want him guarding the best player at the end of a game.
You could tell that Simmons was affected by the media in 2021 and 2022, based on the fact he didn’t play and didn’t answer questions about his health, nor did he respond to justifiable criticism.
Simmons can prove critics wrong, it’s just a matter of his confidence and not worrying about what people like me have to say about him.
1. Kevin Durant
In terms of his all-time legacy, Kevin Durant has nothing to prove. The 2014 MVP won two championships and two Finals MVPs as the best player on his team, and he’s been a consistent top-five player in the NBA for years now.
However, it seems that after all of the drama that went down this summer, he has to prove himself once again. The Brooklyn Nets have fallen short of expectations during Durant’s first two seasons with the team, including one season that Durant spent with superstars Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
After Durant initially requested a trade, went on Twitter tangents, and then decided to stay with the Nets all in one summer, the narrative is that Kevin Durant can’t commit to winning without it being “easy” for him. The narrative is that he needs help, and he needs everything to be perfect.
You would have never expected this from the 12-time All-Star almost a decade ago.
By now, everyone knows the story. With the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant was always the “good guy”. Then, he chose to leave for the Golden State Warriors and became the most hated player in the NBA. Then he left for Brooklyn and things eased up a little bit after the NBA gained some parody.
But now, it seems like the criticism, the negativity, and the skepticism is brewing up again for KD. The questions that came up towards the end of his OKC tenure are coming back. Can he really win without taking the “easy” way out? Why won’t he just play basketball and leave all the drama to the side?
The truth is, Kevin Durant just wants to play basketball. He wants everyone to stop talking, and he wants to prove everyone wrong. Whether he does it is yet to be seen.