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“I Gotta Prove It”: Whose Mettle Will Be Tested Most This NBA Season?

From Jimmy Butler and Melo to DeMar and Giannis, these are the players (and coaches) facing the highest stakes in 2018-19

We heard you like rankings, so to kick off The Ringer’s 2018-19 NBA Preview, we’re devoting the week to evaluating (and slapping a number on) the players, the story lines, and the odds and ends that promise to make the upcoming season one to remember.

During the break between the 11th and 12th rounds of the fight between Adonis “Donnie” Johnson and Pretty Ricky Conlan in 2015’s Creed, Rocky, who is Donnie’s trainer for the fight, threatens to throw in the towel. In addition to his fighter being in a fight Rocky knows he’s not going to win (Conlan is the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world; Donnie has been a professional boxer for all of two months), Donnie has taken such a vicious pounding that his left eye is fat and red and bloodied and swollen all the way shut and looks like it’s ready to burst.

“I should’ve stopped this fight with your father—I’m stopping this one now,” Rocky says, referencing the time he worked as the cornerman for Apollo Creed during an exhibition fight against Ivan Drago in 1985 that ended with Apollo dying in the ring. Donnie, the illegitimate son of Apollo, pleads with him. “Don’t, OK. Let me finish,” he says, and his voice cracks a little bit and his chest is rising and falling from all the heavy breaths he’s taking. “I gotta prove it,” he says. “Prove what?” asks Rocky, and it makes sense he’d ask that because he’s just watched Donnie last 11 rounds with the most dangerous boxer on the planet, proving all that any fighter would ever need to prove. Donnie grits his teeth together a little, uses his one good eye to stare square at Rocky, and then, after a lifetime of dragging around the weights that have been chained to his spirit, he confronts the idea that most terrifies him: “That I’m not a mistake.”

Rocky, who is so pure of heart and intention that he’d never even considered the idea that Donnie might feel that way, is taken aback. Donnie allows the words to sit on his mind for a second, and when he does, you can see the strength starting to drain out of his body. Rocky senses what’s happening, immediately launches into a rah-rah speech, and pumps him back up full of fire and power. The between-rounds break ends with Donnie declaring, “I’m gonna knock that son of a bitch down,” Rocky telling him he loves him, and then the Rocky theme song exploding out into the universe as Donnie hops up off the stool for the final round.

I love that moment and I love that movie and I love that idea: Somebody feeling like they have something to prove is wildly interesting to me, and wildly compelling, and wildly enjoyable. I think that’s a big part of why I’m so excited for this NBA season. Because in years past the general tone and theme for the league might’ve centered on, say, redemption or regret or the opening and closing of championship windows. This season, though, it feels more and more like there are a ton of players and teams and coaches that want to prove it, whatever “it” may be.

Just this week, for example, there was the Jimmy Butler thing where he decided he was going to force his way out of Minnesota. And the teams that he mentioned he was interested in going to—the Clippers, the Nets, and the Knicks— all seem to signify the same thing: that he wants to prove he can be the best player on a team and make that team be very good.

(It’s the absence of LeBron’s Lakers on his list that really seals it.)

(Bonus: Jimmy not wanting to go to the Lakers with LeBron, and Kawhi Leonard reportedly being more interested in the Clippers than the Lakers because the Lakers have LeBron and the Clippers don’t, and Kyrie choosing to leave Cleveland when LeBron was still there, opens the door to an interesting How Much Does He Have to Prove angle for LeBron: Does LeBron actually have to prove that he can draw a major star to play with him? Because that sounds so ridiculous.)

(Another bonus: All of the supporting Lakers and executives are interesting in this equation—Rondo! Lonzo! Jeanie! Magic! Pelinka!—but it’s Brandon Ingram who’s the most intriguing and who seems to have the most to gain from playing on a team with LeBron. Can he prove he’s the team’s second-best player? And if so, what does that look like?)

Carmelo and Houston both are looking to prove they can win the biggest, most elusive games late in the postseason.

(This, of course, extends to Mike D’Antoni, who would be my no. 2 pick in an “If You Could Arrange It So That Any NBA Coach Could Win an NBA Championship, Whom Would You Choose?” draft.)

(Avery Johnson is the first pick, by the way.)

(My beloved Spurs are likely not going to seriously challenge for the title this year, which means I am for the second year in a row forced to root for the Rockets to beat the Warriors, which means I have been on the internet reading all of the different “Will Carmelo Work Out in Houston?” articles and listening to all the different “Will Carmelo Work Out in Houston?” audio and video clips trying to talk myself into the idea. The closest I’ve gotten is the “It’s a matter of comfort” argument that Royce Young made on The Jump a little over a month ago.)

And what about DeMar DeRozan? And what about the Raptors with Kawhi? And what about Gregg Popovich? Those are all huge ones.

“This time around, I think it’s going to be hell for a lot of people.” That’s what DeMar told Chris Haynes a week after the Raptors surprise-traded him to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. That’s not what I heard, though. What I heard was the “OK, my friend. It’s off to the next life for you. I guarantee you, you won’t be lonely” line from Man on Fire. Because listen, if all of the parts were ordinary and it was just a straight-up DeMar-for-Kawhi trade, I could understand that, and I suspect DeMar probably would’ve been a little more receptive to that.

But all of the parts aren’t ordinary, and weren’t ordinary. The Raptors weren’t trading DeMar for a regular Kawhi, they were trading him for a Kawhi who (a) nobody knows whether he’s all the way healthy or not; and (b) given all that we know about him, is almost certainly going to leave Toronto at the end of the season. So the Raptors didn’t say to the Spurs, “We’ll trade you our multiple-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone for your Finals MVP and franchise cornerstone,” they said to the Spurs, “We’ll trade you our multiple-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone for a possibly still-injured, definitely unhappy player who’s going to leave us in a year.” DeMar has a lot to prove.

(Remember in Watchmen when Rorschach was in prison and that one guy tried to stab him when they were in line for food and Rorschach blocked the shank, hit the guy in the face with his tray, then poured boiling grease on his face and shouted to the rest of the prisoners, “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!”? That’s what I’m hoping we get from DeMar. I’m hoping we get Rorschach DeMar.)

(Or, rather, RoRschach DeMar, I suppose.)

The Popovich one is probably the most interesting to me, mostly on account of the idea that this season could possibly shift his general legacy even one single degree closer toward or away from supreme greatness. Because on the one hand, he’s Gregg Popovich, one of the two best coaches in the history of the NBA (if not THE best), and so does he really need to prove anything to anyone?

He’s been in charge in San Antonio for over two decades, and steered the past 21 of his teams to the playoffs, and steered 16 of those teams to the second round of the playoffs, and steered 10 of those teams to the conference finals, and steered six of those teams to the Finals, and steered five of those teams to championships, which puts him tied for the third most championships ever won by an NBA coach. He’s won three Coach of the Year awards. He’s won more regular-season games than all but four other NBA coaches in history (assuming nothing outrageous happens, he’ll pass Pat Riley for fourth and Jerry Sloan for third this season). He’s won more playoff games than all but two other NBA coaches in history (Phil Jackson and Riley). It’s a lot—more than just about everyone else, really.

But on the other hand, this will be the first time in 22 years that he will be in charge of a team that does not have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, or Tony Parker. So does that matter? Does he actually have a lot to prove? Is there even a tiny chance that he’s sitting there like, “Here it is: This is my chance to show everyone what I can do”? That certainly seems like the least Popovich-y thing I can think of, and I would definitely argue against it if someone brought it up. But still. It’s fun to think about. (Unless you think it could adversely affect his legacy, in which case you are a dolt.)

Are things going to work out in Philadelphia? Is this Elton Brand thing going to be great or good or mediocre or bad or terrible? Does Markelle Fultz know how to shoot now? Can Ben Simmons make the leap? Will Joel Embiid grow toward being the team-defining talent that it looks like he can be?

Can Boogie prove that he isn’t a poison pill? Does he even need to? (It feels a lot like Boogie on the Warriors is either going to end with [a] a tweet from Shams Charania in January about how Boogie and Draymond have declared war on each other, or [b] Draymond and Boogie becoming the NBA’s version of the Road Warriors. Either way, someone is getting body-slammed through a table.)

Will Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker prove that they were worth the big contracts they were able to snag? (I have, for several years now, been extremely Pro Zach LaVine, and so I’m hoping that he has the best year of his career.)

Can Luka Doncic prove he’s worth the hype? (Please, God, I’m begging you.) Can the Celtics prove last season wasn’t a fluke? (Yes.) Can Giannis prove that he’s the best player in the East now? (This one’s iffy.) Can Russell Westbrook prove that his atomic energy can be harnessed into a super weapon? (Who knows?) Can Andrew Wiggins prove that he can “keep that same energy”? (No chance.) Can Joe Ingles prove that he’s the cult hero we all so desperately want him to be? (You’re goddamn right.) Can Dwight Howard prove that he can get along with John Wall? (Hahahahahahaha. You might as well go ahead and get those trade papers ready.) Can the Wizards force their way into the conversation of genuine threats in the East? (Sadly, no.) Can Damian Lillard prove that he’s been working out this offseason? (I love Damian Lillard.) Can the Kings/Grizzlies/Mavericks/Suns/Hawks/Magic/Bulls/Nets/Knicks prove that they’re better than the Kings/Grizzlies/Mavericks/Suns/Hawks/Magic/Bulls/Nets/Knicks? (Nope.)

There are more.

There are a million.

Possibly a billion.

Perhaps a trillion.

Or maybe, like, 30.

In any event, a lot of people are looking to prove a lot of things, is what I’m saying.