At the centre of every good (and bad and ugly) basketball story, you’ll find people. Here are the 30 newsmakers and game-breakers who will define the 2017-18 NBA season — ranked in order of importance.

A couple of seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers, riding on the shoulders of their star point guard, seemed poised to become a perennial Western Conference threat. Lillard led Portland to more than 50 wins in 2013-14 (his second season), and the team has made the playoffs each year since. As a scorer, Dame is in elite company among point guards — only Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook have registered more points since Lillard’s rookie season. What’s more, in the past 30 years, only two other players have, like Lillard, scored at least 8,000 points and notched at least 2,000 assists in their first five seasons: Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Yet Lillard still seems to fly under the radar in any debate about the best in today’s NBA. With a slightly retooled roster around him that features a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and a pair of talented rookie big men in Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins, this may be the year Lillard gets his due.

After missing his entire first season with a broken bone in his right foot, the 2016 first-overall pick is ready to make his NBA debut. Listed at six-foot-10 and 240 pounds (and reportedly still growing), Simmons has the size, strength and athleticism to disrupt both ends of the court as a forward. Yet his natural position is at lead guard, where his stunning court vision and funky, flashy passes are sure to be a regular fixture on highlight reels. The Sixers plan to use the 21-year-old Australian at the point this season, alongside 2017 top pick, Markelle Fultz. If Simmons can live up to the hype that surrounded him when he was first drafted, it will accelerate “the Process” and give the NBA another global star capable of tapping into the growing international market.

We already know what Cousins is capable of on the court, but the questions surrounding the Pelicans big man have almost always come off it — or, at least between whistles. With Cousins’s contract expiring at the end of the season, the Pelicans are on the clock and will have to decide whether to invest in him long-term or cut the cord and hope for a decent return via trade. Cousins and co-star Anthony Davis developed chemistry by season’s end, and the Pelicans will try to exploit mismatches by going big as the rest of the NBA goes small. If it works out, they could be the surprise of the season. If it doesn’t, expect to see Cousins on the trading block once more.

The sweet-shooting Thompson enters the 2017-18 season as the league’s best and most important X-factor. He’s a threat to erupt for 60 points in a given game, while still being content to curl off screens and keep opposing defences honest as they’re forced to pick their poison against Golden State’s multi-headed offensive monster. If the Warriors are going to repeat, you better believe Thompson, who’s also one of the NBA’s best defenders at his position, will be an integral reason for that success.

No Knick stands to benefit more from Carmelo Anthony’s departure — and the 18.8 shots per game it frees up — than Porzingis. Just 22 years old, the Latvian is the stuff of modern NBA front-office dreams: a big body who can protect the rim on one end and comfortably stretch the floor on the other. It’s been a putrid few years for hoop fans in the NBA’s biggest market, but if Porzingis — now the undisputed face of the new-look Knicks — continues to improve he’ll have a real shot at becoming the hoops hero New York has longed for since the days of Patrick Ewing.

Now the face of the Knicks, Porzingis is everything execs hope for in a franchise cornerstone: a big body who can protect the rim on one end and comfortably stretch the floor on the other.

The pseudo-rebuilding Dallas Mavericks won’t be notable for anything they accomplish as a team in 2017-18. But in what could be Nowtizki’s final season, each road game will be a potential farewell to an all-time legend and one of the league’s more underappreciated superstars. The 39-year-old hasn’t said he’s hanging them up; he’s reserving judgement until he sees how his body feels after the grind of his 20th NBA season. But even the threat of Nowitzki’s retirement should have fans around the league following closely, particularly the box scores — if Dirk plays all 82 games and averages a little over 14 points per, he’ll pass Wilt Chamberlain and become the league’s fifth-highest scorer of all-time.

The Nuggets narrowly missed the playoffs last season and enter 2017-18 vastly improved after picking up four-time all-star Paul Millsap in free agency. All eyes in Colorado will remain on Jokic, though. The 22-year-old centre was the catalyst behind the NBA’s second-most potent offence last season and established himself as the flashiest-passing big man in the league today. He makes Nuggets games appointment viewing.

The Raptors’ challenge this season is to change without making real change. Returning the same core from a season ago, the team has emphasized the need to catch up to modern-day NBA offences built around ball movement and three-point shooting. Their success will hinge largely on DeRozan. Much has been made of the need for the three-time all-star to improve his three-point shot — and for good reason — but the Raptors’ go-to scorer will also have to ply his trade without having the ball in his hands as much as he’s used to. Still, you can’t paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra, and DeRozan will have to balance adapting to a changing system against the strengths that made him the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer last season. Like many established stars on this list, DeRozan is being asked to evolve. More than any other player, how he responds to that challenge will dictate his team’s success — determining whether or not the Raptors can compete with the likes of Cleveland and Boston.

Paul helms Klutch Sports Group, an agency whose client list is headlined by LeBron James and includes John Wall and rookie sensation Ben Simmons. With James potentially hitting the open market at season’s end, no behind-the-scenes broker holds more power right now than Paul. He and James are long-time friends. Earlier this year, Forbes referred to Klutch as a “brainchild” of the two men, and this summer the NBA investigated whether James has an ownership stake in the agency. Eyebrows were also raised when the Los Angeles Lakers signed Klutch client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the off-season. Conspiracy theorists have floated the notion that the move a goodwill gesture meant to increase L.A.’s chances of landing James in free agency.

Embiid has the potential to be a generational superstar; he’s a complete physical freak powerful enough to make other seven-footers look like Cabbage Patch Kids yet quick and smooth as a guard when he wants to be. In his best moments, he looks like the evolution of Hakeem Olajuwon, which is enough to make him the most intriguing prospect in the NBA. But then reality sets in: Embiid has played just 31 games in the three years since he was drafted, and they all came last season. He’ll miss more time to begin 2017-18, a season where it feels like we’ll learn once and for all if Embiid can turn the Sixers into playoff contenders or is more likely to go down as one of the biggest “What Ifs?” we’ve ever seen.

Embiid's size and skill are revelatory, but he's struggled with injuries in the three years since he was drafted. Missing more time to begin 2017-18, can he stay healthy long enough to reach his near-limitless potential?

Tanking is an NBA tradition as tried-and-true as they come. And hoo-boy, there are good reasons to throw in the towel early for some of the league’s bottom-dwellers. The 2018 draft class promises to be as, well, promising as 2017’s star-studded crop. It’s headlined by five names you’ll be studying closely if you’re a fan of any of the NBA’s worst teams: Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton, Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba and Luka Doncic. If his performance at EuroBasket this summer is any indication, Doncic is the standout. The 19-year-old guard helped Slovenia to a gold medal, earning first-team all-tournament honours among a field of established NBA and EuroLeague players. He’s been playing with professionals for three years already, and it hardly takes much imagination to see how his all-around game will translate to the NBA from Day 1. Doncic is the most-hyped international draft prospect since Ricky Rubio, and arguably the highest-calibre since Yao Ming.

George enters the 2017-18 season as the NBA’s most overqualified second banana. Both he and Russell Westbrook finished top-20 in usage rate last season. While both should see those numbers drop with more weapons around them, George — who’s averaged 23.8 points on more than 18 shots per game over the last two seasons — will have to take the smaller slice of the pie. It will be the first time since his sophomore season that he won’t be his team’s go-to guy, and it’s one of the biggest adjustments any player will have to make in 2017-18. George is also in the final year of his contract. So, if the OKC experiment doesn’t work he could enter free agency or become a lucrative trade piece. Either way George is poised to alter the NBA landscape a second time before the season is done.

Johnson already holds a ton of influence in NBA circles, and in leading the charge on a promising team poised to be free-agent spenders next summer, the legendary point guard has become one of the league’s most important front-office figures. Having taken over as team president midway through last season, the five-time champ and three-time MVP heads into 2017-18 with an exciting young roster that revolves around rookie Lonzo Ball, a dynamic guard Johnson has been helping to mould in his likeness since the draft. The Lakers won’t be good this season, but they’ll be fun to watch. If their roster shows promise like they should, with Johnson at the helm and a large chunk of cap space freeing up at season’s end, expect L.A. to make a big splash (or two) next summer.

Towns’s ceiling is higher than just about any other 25-and-under star in the NBA, and he’s poised to take another mammoth leap forward in Year 3. Fact is, he’ll have to make that jump in order for the Timberwolves to reach their full potential. Yes, they made early waves in the off-season by landing all-star and elite two-way wing Jimmy Butler. And yes, Andrew Wiggins is likely to continue to build on the game he showed off during an impressive 2016-17 campaign. But if Towns, who averaged 25 and 12 and shot nearly 60 per cent on two-pointers as a 21-year-old sophomore, continues to develop his game, he will be flat-out unstoppable, and the Wolves could enjoy the biggest turnaround of any team in the league.

Already considered one of the NBA’s finest tacticians, the Celtics coach will be put to the test in a major way in 2017-18. Stevens’s roster will feature only four players from the team that finished first in the East last season. Sure, the challenge of incorporating the likes of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and rookie Jayson Tatum into his system is a good problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Scoring ability aside, Irving’s skill-set and style of play are decidedly different than his predecessor, Isaiah Thomas, while in Hayward the Celts must incorporate a secondary go-to option they didn’t have in last year’s system. Throw in the seven (seven!) first- and second-year players on the roster and it’s clear Stevens will have his hands full.

With Cousins sharing the load, Davis could stay healthy enough to make the Pelicans truly disruptive in the east — a team built to give the Warriors headaches.

Love him or hate him, Ball is the most talked-about rookie to hit the NBA in years. His MVP-winning performance at the Summer League in Las Vegas confirmed that, at bare minimum, Ball will be a ton of fun to watch. But it’s off the court where he could make the most impact. When Ball didn’t sign an endorsement deal with a major apparel company coming out of UCLA, he made a loud statement that could set a precedent for both incoming and established stars. A rarity in the business of basketball, Ball will have total control over his likeness and has already shown an ability to think outside the box when it comes to finding revenue streams. Whether it’s on the court or in the boardroom, Ball is worth watching.

On pure ability alone, Davis is a top-five player in the NBA, and this season he’ll be playing on the best Pelicans roster since he was drafted. He and Cousins form one of the scariest frontcourts in a generation, while a supporting case featuring Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen and Jrue Holiday helps make New Orleans a threat in the West. Davis is a matchup nightmare for any team, and the Pels’ size make them the team that’s best equipped to beat the Warriors. Injuries have slowed Davis in the past, but he’s poised to remain healthy with Cousins helping to carry the load down low. And something that’s too easy to forget: Davis is just 23.

Which Melo will OKC get? A few seasons ago, Anthony was arguably the best pure scorer in the game, but as he and the Knicks killed each other’s spirits, his skills appeared to wane. Last season, Melo carelessly hoisted nearly 20 shots per game and seemed to openly loathe his teammates whenever they weren’t passing him the ball. He coasted and was altogether disinterested. But don’t expect to see that player in 2017-18. By contrast, the 2016 Olympics saw Anthony play power forward — like he will in OKC — and accept a lesser role that saw him attempt only 10.5 shots per game. Could that player make the Thunder title contenders? Nevermind “Hoodie Melo” — “Olympic Melo” is the only person who can make a Thunder-Warriors matchup a legitimately competitive Western Final.

Thomas has always thrived under pressure, and he couldn’t have landed on a team with more of it than the championship-or-bust Cavaliers. He’s one of the few point guards you can trade Kyrie Irving for and actually get an increase in point production, Thomas should slide into the secondary scoring role alongside LeBron nicely. After averaging more than 20 points in three of his last four seasons, there’s no doubting what Thomas brings to the floor. Yet his recovery from the hip injury that cut his playoff run short looms over the Cavs’ title hopes.

Four seasons into his career, the “Greek Freak” has established himself as one of basketball’s most unique players. At 6-foot-11 with Stretch Armstrong limbs and speed that allows him to cover ground like no other, he’s both a one-man fast-break and a chase-down block waiting to happen. He’s a non-factor as a shooting threat on the perimeter, but his strength and hops make him virtually unguardable anyway, thanks in part to clever utilization. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals last season (read that again) and he will continue to be the centerpiece of a quietly dangerous team that will see the return of Jabari Parker and could pose the biggest threat to the Cavs and Celtics in the East. Antetokounmpo is already firmly among the top 15 players in the NBA, and his natural progression could be as impactful as any of the major moves made this off-season.

Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals last season, and the natural growth of his game could be as impactful as any of the major moves made this off-season.

John Wall will be gunning for MVP this season, and could be a legitimate top-five candidate by the time the playoffs roll around. He’ll have to be if Washington wants to get past the second round this season. The Wizards have talent in their starting lineup, but the bench is perilously thin. Last year Wall played at a historic level in the post-season, becoming the first player to post at least 20 points and seven assists in nine straight games, and the Wiz will need that version of their all-star to join the Raptors and Bucks as teams with a chance to topple the Cavs and Celtics in the East.

Of all the places Paul could have landed this off-season, fewer come with more question marks than Houston. Paul has been the NBA’s top point guard for most of the past 12 years, but he still hasn’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs. He and James Harden now make up the league’s best backcourt, but the fit isn’t exactly obvious — or ideal — and the pressure to make a title run will be higher than ever. Paul has earned a reputation for protecting the ball, finishing in the top five in assist-to-turnover ratio in every season since 2007. But Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offence forces players to push the tempo and it remains to be seen how the traditionally conservative Paul will respond. But there is reason for optimism: Paul shot a career-high 41.1 per cent from three last season and his ability to knock down open shots off Harden drive-and-dishes will go a long way to determining if Houston’s new star duo can be anything more than an assemblage of big-name talent.

The 26-year-old Leonard has emerged as the NBA’s premier two-way threat, but he’ll have his work cut out for him if the Spurs want to repeat their success from last year. While his competition reloaded, San Antonio’s most notable off-season moves were the return of Manu Ginobili, who flirted with retirement, and signing free agent Rudy Gay, who ruptured his Achilles’ tendon last season. Leonard’s injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals provided the biggest “what if?” of the post-season — the Spurs were beating the Warriors and looked in total control until he went down with a sprained ankle. Leonard remains one of just a small handful of superstars capable of carrying a team to the Finals, but missing the entire pre-season while recovering from a quad injury, will he return to full form in time for the ’17-18 campaign?

This season can play out two ways for Irving and the Boston Celtics: There’s the “careful what you wish for” doomsday scenario, in which it becomes clear that Irving, despite his elite scoring ability, benefited heavily from playing alongside the greatest player in the game and isn’t quite capable of leading his own team to title contender status. Then there’s the other scenario in which Irving, a legitimately transcendent offensive player, thrives in his new environment and helps the Celtics remain atop the East despite their off-season roster turnover. The deciding factor may be Irving’s abilities as a playmaker, an element of his game that wasn’t often on display in Cleveland. With scoring weapons around him like Al Horford, rookie Jayson Tatum, and fellow incoming all-star Gordon Hayward, Irving will have to prove he’s more than just a scorer for the Celtics to reach their potential.

For the second time in as many seasons, Harden is being asked to change positions and alter his game. Last year he took over full-time point guard duties in Mike D’Antonio’s system and delivered killer results, leading the league in assists while finishing second in scoring and MVP voting. But it could be back to the drawing board already. With Houston having acquired Chris Paul, Harden will move back to the two and the most ball-dominant player in the league will need to learn to co-exist with another candidate for that title. Whether sharing the backcourt with Paul allows Harden to do even more damage or kills the progress he made last season and constricts his game will ultimately determine whether or not the Rockets are ready to legitimately contend in the West or not.

Harden proved his adaptability in moving to the point last season. With the addition of Chris Paul, he'll be asked to adapt again as two of the league's most ball-dominant players learn to coexist.

Can a two-time MVP in the heart of his prime, a player widely regarded as the greatest shooter of all-time, be underrated? Curry remains the NBA’s most electrifying offensive force, and the catalyst behind the title-favourite Warriors. The addition of Kevin Durant took some of the spotlight and scoring responsibility away from Curry, but Golden State’s pick-your-poison attack is still built around the 29-year-old who almost singlehandedly sparked a revolution in offensive strategies around the NBA. Nobody can emulate what Curry brings to the court. He is poised to lead the league in three-point makes and attempts for the seventh straight season, and to lead his team to the Finals for the fourth straight year.

In his time as commissioner, Silver has shown a willingness to take firm stance when it comes to pressing social issues, like last year when he moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte in response to North Carolina’s controversial bathroom law. He’s stood in support as his players demonstrated against issues like police brutality, but before this season has even begun, he’s having to navigate a divisive discourse about protesting during the U.S. national anthem. Through it all he remains at the helm of a league achieving massive international growth, and he is a caretaker of the sport as well. This summer he implemented changes to help improve the league’s on-court product by limiting the number of back-to-back games and shortening the pre-season. Draft lottery reform is the latest issue on his docket as Silver continues to lead the NBA forward like few other commissioners have.

Westbrook demolished records and tore through the NBA last season, the first in his nine-year career without another all-NBA talent playing alongside him. He set career-highs across the board, finishing first in scoring, third in assists, and 10th in rebounds per game. He carried OKC into the playoffs, where it became apparent that his one-man show wasn’t sustainable. Now that Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — two more high-volume scorers who like the ball in their hands — have joined the Thunder, the league’s reigning MVP will have to play an even greater facilitating role and sacrifice individual glory in exchange for team success.

In the 2017 Finals, Durant’s ability to exploit mismatches and embrace the moment helped lift the Warriors to a title in his first season in Oakland. After missing 22 games to a knee injury last season, Durant enters the 2017-18 season fully healthy and with any questions about how he fits alongside his teammates fully answered. The Warriors were championship contenders before Durant showed up but their 2016 Finals loss proved they were at least beatable. With KD, they appear practically unstoppable heading into their latest title defence. 

James isn’t giving up his spot as the NBA’s alpha dog any time soon. He’s managed to maintain his athleticism and remains the most unstoppable force on the floor any time he’s on it. And despite all of the change around the league this summer, he’s still the biggest roadblock to another Golden State title. The Cavs roster has been re-tooled around him, but an injury to Isaiah Thomas — who may be out until 2018 — means James’s on-court load isn’t getting lighter anytime soon. And off the court, his impending free agency will be the season’s largest story and will put a different kind of pressure on the Cavs to succeed. James has embraced the responsibility that comes with being the face of the league — and arguably the most recognizable athlete on the planet. His voice is growing as he continues to speak out on a number of social issues. He’s an example for other NBA players to follow.

Photo Credits

Getty Images (5); Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images (2); Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images; Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images; Stacy Revere/Getty Images. Design by Drew Lesiuczok.