Basketball is a team sport, but the NBA is defined by individuals—the superstar players and incandescent personalities who can exercise outsized influence on the way things unfold on and off the court, and author the most compelling stories in a league rich with intrigue. With the 2018-19 regular season winding down, let’s take a look at the five players whose stories most piqued my interest this season, starting—where else?—in Hollywood ...
LeBron James, Lakers
We’ve seen LeBron fail before. Any Baylessesque observer can recite the chapter and verse of 3-6. But with a couple of notable exceptions—chiefly the one-foot-out-the-door float through Round 2 against Boston in 2010, and the short-circuiting in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas—James’s seasons have died with dignity, with teams he’d carried beyond their collective talents. This year, the story is different.
LeBron has never in his career taken an L like the one he’s holding now. For the first time since his rookie season, his team will finish with more losses than wins. For the first time in 14 years, he will watch the postseason rather than participate in it. For the first time in a very, very long time, LeBron James is wholly irrelevant to the question of who will win the NBA championship.
That’s nuts on a variety of levels, from the way it underlines how long he’s been a central force in the NBA to how it highlights the sheer scope of the disaster that is the Lakers’ 2018-19 season. James’s absence may well hang over the playoffs; I wonder whether viewership numbers will dip with the league’s biggest star excised from the action, as they reportedly have for nationally televised games since James changed time zones. Either way, it feels like we’ve reached an inflection point in the story of his career.
This is not to say that James is washed, or even lightly rinsed. He’s averaging 27.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 8.2 assists per game—numbers only four other players in NBA history have produced—while posting well-above-average effective field goal and true shooting percentages and ranking in the top 10 in the league in advanced stats like value over replacement player, box plus-minus, player impact estimate, and real plus-minus. He’s still phenomenal. But this season pierced the veil of his invincibility.
LeBron got hurt—like, for-real hurt, for the first time as a pro; James was put on ice for 17 games because of a strained groin, and he has missed an additional four for other maintenance issues. And with the season slipping through his fingers in part because of those injuries, the league’s preeminent power broker—or his agent, which might be a to-may-to, to-mah-to type of deal—couldn’t strong-arm the solution. Which then created even bigger problems, leaving the Lakers a shell of the team they’d hoped to be, and leaving a new, sizable crack in James’s armor.
Maybe, by this time next year, this will all look like a minor speed bump, with a healthy James piloting a better-conceived and constructed roster toward title contention. The way this season unfolded, though, opens the door to the possibility that it won’t. Watching how LeBron’s arc has bent since arriving in L.A. has been fascinating. Watching how he, the Lakers, and the league will respond to it promises to be even more so.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
It bears mentioning that Irving is having an unbelievable statistical season. Dude’s averaging 23.8 points, 7.1 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game on 49/40/87 shooting splits, good for a true shooting percentage of .592. The list of other players to hit those numbers over a full season is six iconic names long: Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and James Harden. That’s the kind of season Kyrie’s having.
Irving has been Boston’s single biggest offensive bellwether: The Celtics average 7.2 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court than off it, scoring like the Nuggets in his minutes and the Grizzlies when he sits. He has also been one of the NBA’s most lethal late-game weapons: Only Harden, Kemba Walker, and Kawhi Leonard have scored more points in the final five minutes of games in which the score is within five points. This might be the best Irving has been, all around, during the regular season; he will likely be rewarded with an All-NBA selection.
And yet, somehow, that all seems beside the point. As much as Irving would love for us to focus primarily, if not solely, on what he does between the lines, it’s what he does after he steps off the court that garners the most attention—and that has set the table for a potentially earth-shaking summer.
For all the inconsistency that has marked this disappointing Celtics season, we’ve been able to set our watches by Irving’s commitment to speaking his truth, no matter what sort of whirlwind he and his team might reap as a result. Kyrie has waxed poetic about frustrations with his young teammates and Boston’s defensive strategy; about his advanced understanding of the burden of leadership and increased appreciation for what LeBron went through in Cleveland; about the degree to which he owes anybody anything with respect to his decision about whether to enter free agency in July; about how the media destroys teams; and about how he “didn’t really come into this game to be cameras in my face, be famous, be a celebrity,” just a few short weeks after the movie he’d starred in based on his soda-selling septuagenarian comedy character had hit HBO. And that’s all been in just the past 2.5 months. Meanwhile, the team Irving purports to lead continues to flounder, going 7-10 with a negative point differential since the All-Star break, and facing the possibility of entering a first-round series against the Pacers without home-court advantage.
I have no idea what Kyrie’s going to do this summer—whether the results of Boston’s postseason will be a factor, whether he really is down for creating an instant superteam in New York with Kevin Durant under James Dolan’s roof, or whether his ongoing search for “more knowledge about life, the world, and [him]self” will lead him down another path entirely. All I know is that one of the most gifted offensive creators of his generation has evolved into a nearly inscrutable figure on the eve of a decision that could shake the competitive balance of the league, and that I’m fascinated by the possibilities of what he might do next. I’ll just have to trust that the “angels, guiding spirits, and synchronicities all around” us will reveal the rest in due time.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors
Last spring, we were wondering whether the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Siakam could be Toronto’s defensive answer for LeBron in the playoffs. (Despite Siakam’s best efforts, the short answer was no. The longer answer was, “Hell no.”) Now, we’re wondering whether Siakam’s two-way game might be the key to the Raptors finally breaking out of the Eastern Conference and having a real shot at a championship. What a difference a year makes.
The about-to-turn-25-year-old has sprinted from “nice rotation piece” to “near-All-Star” faster than he goes coast-to-coast on the break. Slotted into Toronto’s starting lineup before his third pro campaign by new head coach Nick Nurse, Siakam has impressed all season long, becoming the favorite to win Most Improved Player by virtue of across-the-board growth with each passing month. Two seasons ago, Siakam was a starter-in-name-only who subsisted on broken plays and hustle. Now, he leads the second-best team in the East in minutes, and ranks in the 75th percentile or higher among all NBA players in points scored per possession in isolation, on spot-up shots, in transition, on plays from the post, and as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll (albeit on a low volume of plays), according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting—all while still guarding every position like his minutes depend on it.
Siakam is posting career-best field goal, 3-point, and free throw shooting percentages despite occupying a larger offensive role than ever, one that just seems to keep growing. In his first 10 games of the season, Siakam finished 16.2 percent of Toronto’s offensive plays with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover; in his most recent 10, his usage rate is up to 25.4 percent, nearly the same as Klay Thompson’s full-season mark. And while being surrounded with talent on a loaded Raptors team has certainly helped his development, Siakam is more than a creation of his context; he’s averaging about 22 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per 36 minutes of floor time when playing without stars Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry this season.
In a season marked by Leonard’s “load management” that has also seen Lowry miss time with thigh, back, and ankle injuries, Siakam has been Toronto’s most consistent performer; the more the Raptors give him to do, the more he does. The franchise’s moment of truth will come in July, when Leonard will decide where he wants to play basketball next season, but Siakam’s will come sooner. If he does in the spring what he’s done through the fall and winter, Siakam will have shown enough to suggest that if Kawhi pulls up stakes, the Raptors might already have a credible Plan B.
Anthony Davis, Pelicans
If you’re a 26-year-old who thinks he’s the best in the world at what he does, yet still feels failed by his franchise and overlooked by the public, and who claims to think more about building a lasting legacy than amassing the largest possible fortune, then maybe being vilified doesn’t seem quite as bad as being forgotten. After the debacle of his midseason trade request ended with a whimper and without a new uniform, though, Davis has managed to make himself both.
Now Davis plays, or doesn’t, and no one in New Orleans seems to care all that much, as they wait with something less than bated breath for the tweet announcing his departure, and the promised Instagram farewell to follow. Meanwhile, a team that should be demonstrably worse without an All-NBA dreadnought in the middle doesn’t really look that way, and Jrue Holiday has stepped in as the people’s champ that AD never quite seemed to be. Now one of the sport’s most singularly talented and awe-inspiring performers is more marginalized than he’s ever been—the steep price a CEO pays for failing to close the deal.
So: what now? Davis’s clearest declaration of intent came nearly two months ago, when he said that in a league in which “people’s careers are short,” he wants “to make sure [he takes] advantage” of the prime years during which he’s able to play at an elite level. But having just essentially thrown one of those years away in pursuit of a spotlight and supporting cast commensurate with his talents, where is a realistic landing spot that will solve that problem?
Is the goal still to land in Los Angeles, in a Klutch Sports collaboration with a LeBron who will be turning 35 early next season and nothing much else of note? Even if the Pelicans elected to negotiate in good faith this time around, how interested would they even be in the Lakers’ offer, considering that nearly every Lakers trade asset has recently suffered a season-ending injury? If AD’s buddy Kyrie decides not to stick around in Boston, will Celtics boss Danny Ainge really put his best stuff on the table to deal for Davis in a gamble that he won’t make the same decision come the summer of 2020? What other potential destinations would put Davis in a brighter spotlight, allow him to contend through his prime years, and set him up to craft the kind of legacy he apparently seeks?
Davis wants more; this much, we know. After putting up a brick in his first shot at it, he’ll line up another this summer. We’ll see what, if anything, he’s learned from that failure, and how he intends to put himself back in position to get where he’s looking to go.
James Harden, Rockets
I’m not sure whether Harden has music running through his head while he’s playing, or which songs by which artists might be on the playlist. (Some Nipsey Hussle, maybe? I know he likes Nipsey Hussle.) Whenever I watch Harden go to work, though, I hear Spiritualized.
More than any other player in the league, and maybe any other player ever, Harden floats in space. He creates that space with the threat of a lethal off-the-bounce game that generates 19.7 drives to the basket per game and 14 points per game off those drives, both of which lead the league. He erases it when it suits him, taking advantage of off-balance defenders’ ill-timed reaches by seeking the contact that, for the fifth straight season, has sent him to the free throw line more than any other player.
He finds and weaponizes space with nigh-on-unguardable stepback and side-step moves, which he deploys at an unheard-of volume. Harden has taken 503 stepback 3-pointers this season, nearly three times as many as the 177 with which he led the NBA last season. The Golden State Warriors’ offense produces 1.16 points per possession, tops in the league according to Cleaning the Glass; Harden hits his stepbacks at a 39.4 percent clip, producing 1.18 points per attempt. In the hands of this craftsman, this shot, by itself, is just about the best offense going. (“Getting strong today,” Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce sings. “A giant step each day.”)
He uses space to torture defenders in isolation—in space, no one can hear you scream—to a degree the sport’s never seen. Harden has finished a play after going one-on-one with a defender a staggering 1,189 times this season, according to Synergy; the second most frequent isolation attacker, Russell Westbrook, has done so 319 times. (No other team has iso’d more than 800 times.) Harden has scored 1,293 points in isolation this season—nearly as many as the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-place players combined. And despite operating at this obscene volume, Harden’s still scoring 1.09 points per iso possession, tied for first among players with at least 100 such plays under his belt. He is, for all intents and purposes, playing a completely different game than his competitors.
“He might be approaching some sort of limit,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently said of his superstar’s 3-point bombing and isolation play, according to Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever said that.”
Two years ago, nobody predicted that someone would push the boundaries of individual offensive production this far, and yet here Harden is, alone in the distance. Maybe there’s no such thing as a limit when you can float like him.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks: It seemed like there was no way that the Real Madrid darling could live up to the hype of being the greatest young prospect in European hoops history … and then he averaged about 20-6-4 in October, got better from there, and just stayed that way. The Slovenian point forward has quickly become the kind of on-court difference-maker that emboldens an organization to take massive swings for the fences in the hope of constructing a roster equal to his talent. With a compulsively watchable style and a skip-pass-and-stepbacks game ideally optimized for offensive success in The Age of Harden, Doncic isn’t just the face of the Dallas franchise, he could soon become one of the faces of the league. There’s just one downside to instant international stardom, though: We’ll be keeping an awful close watch on what Luka’s got in store for an encore in Year 2.
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors: The three-time All-Star has come back from the quad injury that cost him most of last season to have arguably the best individual season in the history of his new franchise. Or, at least, that would be the case if he hadn’t missed more than a quarter of the campaign as part of a long-term “load management” strategy aimed at keeping his body healthy. In the meantime, there has been virtually no public drama surrounding Leonard’s decision this summer, when he can opt out of his current contract and enter free agency, which feels jarring when juxtaposed with all the rending of garments over KD and Kyrie’s situations. The campaign for Leonard’s new signature sneaker line was based on the idea that he doesn’t need to seek our attention, because his play will demand it. Maybe a postseason in which he’s actually playing every game will prove that true, and maybe even shed some light on what he might actually want. (We probably shouldn’t hold our breath on that last one.)
De’Aaron Fox, Kings: No player from the 2017 draft class made a bigger jump from Year 1 to Year 2 than Fox. His major improvements as a 3-point shooter, pick-and-roll playmaker, finisher, and leader cemented him as a legitimate culture-changer for a franchise that, more than nearly any other in the NBA, needed a cornerstone on which to build. The 21-year-old leads a pedal-to-the-metal offense with panache and aplomb, serving as the style avatar and hummingbird heartbeat of a team that quickly emerged as one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises. After his rookie season, there was some question about whether Fox had the offensive polish to matter in the pros. At the end of his sophomore run, the only questions left seem to be how many All-Star teams he will make, and whether he can reach another level beyond that.
Lou Williams, Clippers: I loved the way Danny Chau framed the odd but unmistakable influence that Lou Will has on the Clippers: “Teams invariably gravitate toward their best player, but what exactly does that mean when your best player is one of the greatest reserves to ever live?” In this case, it means that a whole team has taken on the best characteristics of a backup gunner, a player unconcerned with stuff like who starts and who gets the most credit, so long as he gets to keep hooping. There’s no guile in what Williams brings to the basketball court—he is going to pick-and-roll you to death, get wherever he wants on the court, distribute when there’s a play to be made, and fire away himself when there isn’t. Perhaps because of the cheerful honesty in his game—well, that and the bucket-getting that produces 20.3 points in 26.7 minutes per game off the bench—Williams has become one of the sport’s more beloved figures. Now 14 years and six teams deep, Williams is digging where he’s at and what he’s doing, and he’s not alone; the undersized guard who entered the league straight out of high school at age 19 has become not only an institution, but one with a near-universal approval rating. Unless, of course, you have to try to stop him late in a tight game.