The 30 people who will define the 2018-19 NBA season

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots as Utah Jazz's Joe Ingles, bottom, falls and Ricky Rubio (3) defends in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Salt Lake City on October 2, 2018. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The 2018-19 NBA season is hitting its stride. With more talent in the league than we’ve seen in years, and fresh blood poised to reach contender status, it’s already shaping up to be one of the most exciting campaigns in years — and the names on this list are the biggest reasons why.

So without further ado, here are the 30 people who will define the 2018-19 NBA season:

30. Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets

The 21 year-old Denver Nuggets guard and Kitchener, Ont. native is on his way to becoming one of the league’s most electrifying scorers. With a 48-point performance to his name already this season, he might already be.

The Nuggets are off to a 9-2 start to the season and are just a half-game back from the Golden State Warriors for first-place in the Western Conference thanks to their leading scorer and shot-taker.

Could Nikola Jokic be in jeopardy of losing his title of “Nuggets best and most important player?” Probably not, but if Murray can find consistency with his shooting, Denver’s status as a threat in the West only grows and, like Murray’s star turn, ahead of schedule.

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29. Blake Griffin, F, Detroit Pistons

Heading into this season, few players faced a make-or-break campaign like Griffin.

It wasn’t long ago when the 29-year-old forward was one of the NBA’s marquee stars. But injuries have impacted his one-time best-in-class bounce, and last season’s trade to the Detroit Pistons saw his scoring and rebounding drop in a 25-game sample size.

Griffin isn’t the same player he was when he was starring for the Clippers, but early returns in his first full season in Detroit have been incredibly promising. He says this past off-season was the first in years he wasn’t busy rehabbing an injury, and was able to focus on improving his game. It’s showing, averaging a career-high 27.3 points per game so far this season, and thriving as a do-it-all playmaker under Dwane Casey.

The Pistons will need Griffin to keep it up if they hope to return to the playoffs for just the second time in 10 seasons.

28. Gordon Hayward, F, Boston Celtics

When Gordon Hayward signed with Boston last season, he joined fellow newcomer Kyrie Irving as centrepieces on the new-look Celtics with the championship — or at least NBA Finals — aspirations in clear view. And then came an enduring image that remains hard to shake: Hayward, collapsed on the TD Garden floor, clutching the ankle he had fractured just minutes into the NBA’s first regular season game in 2017.

While he was sidelined, the Celtics saw fellow wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — the former especially — flash some star potential, helping to carry the Hayward and Irving-less Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. Now, after a calendar year of rehab, Hayward is back but it looks like it’ll be quite some time before he begins to resemble the all-star player Boston inked last summer.

The versatility he could provide on both ends of the floor help project Boston as one of the East’s biggest contenders and provides coach Brad Stevens with a wealth of dangerous lineup options. The big question, however, is when he’ll be able to reliably contribute to the cause.

T-27. Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade

Two iconic stars of their generation are embarking on a farewell tour this season. Wade has said this will be his last year, while the 40-year-old Nowitzki isn’t far behind. The pair reached superstar status around the same time and have been faces of the NBA for over a decade. They’ve battled in NBA Finals and have etched their names in the league’s history books. Nowitzki will retire in the top eight in all-time scoring, while Wade is considered one of the top five players to ever play his position. They’re first-ballot Hall of Famers and although their best days are behind them, the NBA won’t feel the same without either.

25. R.J. Barrett, F, Duke Blue Devils

Every year, a handful of teams are forced to essentially throw in the towel and focus on the future with a close eye on that year’s top incoming prospect. This season, that player is none other than Barrett. The Mississauga, Ont. phenom has been starring for Canada’s junior national team and is set to tear up the NCAA in his first — and likely only — season at Duke, with a 33-point debut earlier this week doing nothing to dissuade scouts. His game is already more polished than most 18-year-olds and projects to translate to the NBA with ease. Needless to say, teams like the Hawks, Suns and Knicks will be monitoring the Canadian closely.

24. Luka Doncic, G/F, Dallas Mavericks

Meet the NBA’s next rising star. Doncic, the Slovenian rookie guard, enters his first season with a resume like few (as in: possibly none) before him. At 19 years of age, he’s already been named EuroLeague MVP, EuroBasket Finals MVP, and helped lead his country to a FIBA world title. It prompted Dallas to swing a trade with Atlanta on draft night for rookie point guard Trae Young.

With a shallow learning curve compared to most rookies, it took all of two weeks before Doncic put the NBA on notice with his all-around game as he becomes the natural heir to Dirk Nowitzki as the Mavericks next superstar.

Eleven games into his career, the 19-year-old is averaging 20 points, 6.5 rebounds, and four assists per game in 34 minutes while shooting 40 per cent from deep. That isn’t normal. Neither is Doncic.

23. DeMarcus Cousins, C, Golden State Warriors

Cousins shocked the basketball world when he signed with the defending champion Warriors on a bargain-basement one-year, $5 million deal. When healthy he’s the best centre in the NBA (if only because Anthony Davis has played the bulk of his minutes at the four), but, of course, Cousins is far from healthy after suffering an Achilles tear earlier this year. It could keep the bruising big man off the court until the New Year. No matter, the Warriors will be just fine without him. When he returns, however, he’ll turn the NBA’s most terrifying offence into basketball’s version of The Shining. Cousins has added a reliable three-point shot and playmaking ability to his skill-set in recent years, two attributes that will ease his eventual transition. And apart from chasing his first championship Cousins stands to be particularly motivated playing for his next contract and the chance to prove the teams that shied away from him this summer wrong.

22. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors

It’s a bit absurd for a player of Thompson’s calibre to not be higher on a list like this, but that only illustrates how deep the Warriors are with superstar talent. Thompson is a free agent after this season, but maintains he wants to stay in the Bay where he’s carved out a nice role for himself as the NBA’s premier X-factor and a threat to go off for 50 points any given night, like he has already once this season.

21. Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers

All eyes are on LeBron James during his first season in Los Angeles — and for good reason — but with James taking a long-term approach to his newest team expect the spotlight to spread to the Lakers stable of young up-and-comers as we begin to determine who will be a part of the team when they become a bonafide contender.

Front and centre among that group is Lonzo Ball, who stands to learn the most from playing and practising alongside the King. After entering the league with more hype than New Coke, headline-grabbing seasons by fellow rookies Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum, an injury that held him to 52 games, and a forgettable Lakers campaign, led Ball to fall relatively under the radar last season. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Ball is one of just four rookies to have ever notched at least 10 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds per game, joining Simmons, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

How rapidly Ball’s game develops playing with James will go a long way to determining how soon the Lakers can find their ceiling, and it’ll be fun to watch his progress along the way.

20. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

A darkhorse MVP candidate last season, Lillard looked like the superstar in the most frustrating position heading into the season. He’s one of the league’s top point guards — along with Kyrie Irving maybe the top-scoring point guard – but has actually never made an all-star team (despite being named first team All-NBA last season) in a loaded Western Conference.

After a disappointing first-round exit in the 2018 playoffs, the Trail Blazers entered this season at a potential crossroads and the NBA’s youngest team could look to break up the Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt if more playoff failures follow. That would either leave Lillard as a centrepiece again looking for a sidekick, or as one of the best trade pieces around.

For now, however, things are good in Portland as the team posts an early 9-3 record behind Lillard’s clutch shot-making and 26.6 points per game.

19. Daryl Morey, GM, Houston Rockets

Houston’s James Harden-Chris Paul backcourt is the principle reason why the Rockets are a threat in the West. But after a summer of subtle, yet noticeable change, Houston has looked like a shell of itself early this season.

Morey had a busy summer re-signing Clint Capela and trying to replace key missing pieces like Trevor Ariza. His additions to the roster have high expectations filling those shoes, but newcomers like James Ennis, Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight have yet to prove they can be the difference-makers Houston needs. And then there’s Carmelo Anthony, Morey’s biggest acquisition, whose mid-range game seems to run counter to the Rockets’ three-point heavy offence. Has the GM done enough to keep up with the improving West? Can he swing a mid-season trade for another superstar (whose names rhymes with Kimmy Cutler)? Or will this be a wasted season for the Rockets?

18. Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers

The Pacers hit an unexpected home run when they landed Oladipo in the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City in 2017, and last year’s breakout all-star hasn’t slowed down so far this season as Indiana look to shake up the balance of power in the East.

17. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz

The Jazz ended last season on a tear and Gobert was the chief reason why. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year turns Utah into the league’s most vaunted defence when he’s on the floor. Problem is, he has been injury prone and without him anchoring the paint, Utah goes from a legitimate contender to put a scare into Golden State — perhaps their most problematic matchup — to a non-threat in the West’s playoff picture.

16. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics

How soon will it be until Tatum is the Celtics’ best player? The second-year forward was one of the NBA’s biggest eye-openers last season, especially in the post-season where he showed off his vast offensive arsenal and seemed comfortable on the biggest stage. He’s been relying on his jump shot a bit too much to start the ’18-19 campaign, but as the 20 year-old continues to develop, it’s only a matter of time until Tatum entrenches himself as one of the top players in the East.

How soon that happens will go a long way in dictating whether or not Boston can take a stranglehold of the conference and become contenders to not only reach the Finals, but win it all.

15. DeMar DeRozan, SG, San Antonio Spurs

On the one hand, DeRozan found himself in an idealic situation in San Antonio — even if he’d preferred to have not been dealt at all this past summer. He went from the Raptors to the Spurs, arguably the most respected organization in pro sports, where he’s already thriving playing under an all-time great in Gregg Popovich.

On the other hand, few players could enter a situation with more pressure, and DeRozan will have his work cut out for him as he tries to lead a depleted Spurs franchise back to the post-season. Manu Ginobili has retired, Kawhi Leonard is in Toronto and Tony Parker is in Charlotte. It’s a new era in San Antonio, and DeRozan is the Spurs’ new face of the franchise. He’s used to playing the part, but now has the added weight of maintaining history on a Spurs team that will need him to be better than ever to stay in the playoff hunt.

14. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

Is the future already here for Jokic and the Nuggets? The team came one win away from reaching the post-season last year and are poised to continue to move forward as a future contender in the West. And the 23-year-old centre holds the key to it all.

Jokic is the anti-superstar superstar. He blends old school and new school like no other, with a bounce-less game that keeps him low to the ground and some of the most unique and thrilling passing instincts around. He’s hit a rough scoring patch over Denver’s last few games but impacts the offence in so many other ways and his seriously improved defence has helped fuel the Nuggets’ hot start. If he continues to develop at his current pace, he could reach all-star and even all-NBA status as soon as this season.

13. Jimmy Butler, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves (…for now)

The Jimmy Show was must-watch entertainment. From demanding a trade, to his dramatic return to practice with Minnesota, and now appearing in and out of the Timberwolves lineup seemingly at his own whim, it’s been a roller coaster ride that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. While his future with the Timberwolves is up in the air, you can’t deny his impact when on the floor. Without Butler in the fold, Minnesota becomes easily forgotten in the West. With him? They are a bonafide playoff team with a young core poised to improve. So how will this story end? Stay tuned.

12. Rich Paul, agent, Klutch Sports

The agency headed by LeBron James’ agent holds a ton of power in the NBA.

With a client list that also includes John Wall, Anthony Davis and draft prospect Darius Bazley — who in an unprecedented move will forego college to enter the G League — Klutch will be at the forefront of many potentially major moves. Wall’s future in Washington is up in the air and he could be an intriguing trade piece should the Wizards blow it up, while Davis will be one of the league’s most coveted players if his situation in New Orleans doesn’t improve — and Paul will be instrumental in steering their respective futures while also helping to add talent around his marquee client in Los Angeles.

11. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Ben Simmons may have a higher ceiling – he will have to learn to shoot a basketball before he reaches it — but for now Embiid is Philadelphia’s best and most important player. He’s off to a torrid start this season, averaging 28 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks thus far for the 7-5 Sixers. There are many questions that need to be answered before we can take Philly seriously as a contender in the East, though. But the play of Embiid is certainly not one of them.

10. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

Early injuries have limited Westbrook’s action so far this season, but the Thunder’s one-man tour de force remains one of the NBA’s best. The Thunder have the NBAs highest payroll and with that come high expectations, but there are legitimate questions about how far a Westbrook-led team can go in the loaded West. Does Oklahoma City have the depth of talent to support their star point guard, or is their ceiling limited while relying on Westbrook to almost literally do it all?

9. Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors

Lowry wasn’t happy with how the DeMar DeRozan trade went down. This much is all but crystal clear. He signed a mammoth three-year extension last summer with the intention of continuing a pursuit of the Finals alongside his best bud, only to see the East’s top backcourt disbanded less than a year later. But for all the change in Toronto this summer, it’s how the 31-year-old will respond on the court that could ultimately hold the key for whether or not the Raptors’ reach their lofty goals.

So far? His response has been louder than a Marshall stack cranked to eleven.

There seems to be a realization on Lowry’s part that he’s on the best roster to help give him the opportunity to chase an NBA title, and he’s appeared ultra-motivated as a result.

He’s already coming off one of his strongest seasons in years in 2017-18, and on top of his high-level defence and proven ability to get to the rim, Lowry’s quietly developed into one of the NBA’s top three-point shooters as well, leading the NBA in pull-up three’s made last season while cracking 40 per cent from deep for the second straight year.

This season he’s thrived as a playmaker, leading the NBA in assists by a mammoth margin, and the Raptors’ to a league-best 11-1 record.

Lowry’s contract, which sees him earn over $30 million per year until 2020 could have proven to be an immovable asset if things don’t work out as expected this season. He could have been a problem for the Raptors going forward. Instead, he’s playing like an MVP candidate and integral part of the solution to a franchise looking to reach its first NBA Finals in team history.

8. Kyrie Irving, PG, Boston Celtics

The Celtics entered the season as the team to beat in the East. So far they haven’t played like it. As head coach Brad Stevens looks to find his best lineup combinations and keep a roster deep with starting-calibre talent happy, Bostons hopes this season ultimately lie with the performance of Irving. After an injury sidelined him at the end of last season, he returned to action this year looking rusty, shooting poorly, and averaging just 14 points per game through the Celtics’ first six games.

Since then, he’s found his rhythm again, shooting 56 per cent from the field and averaging 30 points per game over his last five contests. Irving is a major game-changer and Boston will need him at his best to get back to the East finals — or beyond — this season.

7. Adam Silver, commissioner, NBA

Overseeing changes to the NBA’s upcoming draft age rules. Establishing mental health support for players. Approving changes to the all-star game format and televising the player selection process. Being proactive in creating partnerships with betting companies. Pushing the envelope in terms of the way the game is consumed — you can now pay to just watch the fourth quarters of games, and a virtual reality experience for fans during NBA games is around the corner — and encouraging the league’s players to use their public platform to speak out against hate are just a few of the areas in which Adam Silver is playing a major role in helping the NBA to remain the most cutting-edge and progressive sports league.

He’s also playing a big role in helping to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement in the WNBA as their players work to close the pay gap between the leagues.

6. Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans

He just might be the NBA’s top talent, but it’s looking like a familiar story for Davis in New Orleans, where he’s consistently dominating opponents and putting up gaudy numbers night after night, but wasting his prime surrounded by an ill-fitting, so-so roster. It looked like the Pelicans were taking a turn after a breakout playoff campaign last season, but a 5-6 start to the season — 1-6 in their last seven — leaves us asking how it will be until Davis demands a trade?

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks

It’s scary to think of how good Antetokounmpo will become one day. Because now, at age 23, he’s already an elite wrecking ball who has improved significantly each year. This season he’s averaging 25.6 points while grabbing an absurd 13 rebounds per game despite playing the fewest minutes since his sophomore campaign.

Thriving under new coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have been one of the NBA’s most impressive teams this season, with wins already over both the Raptors and Warriors, and no signs of slowing down any time soon.

4. Kawhi Leonard, F, Toronto Raptors

Masai Ujiri took a major swing for the fences when he dealt Raptors fan favourite DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs superstar. Early as the season may be, the move seems to have already paid off.

With Leonard in the fold, the Raptors ceiling has almost immediately vaulted to heights the franchise has never experienced, and through a dozen games they’re looking like the team to beat in the East, if not the league.

His impact has been as expected. Which is to say: massive. The 27-year-old former Finals MVP affects the game on both ends in so many ways and gives the Raptors a fighting chance no matter the opponent. Leading by example, he’ll make Toronto’s young players better, and once he gets more acclimated with his teammates and Nick Nurse’s systems, Leonard will take his game to another level as the season continues.

Leonard is already setting or matching career highs in points, rebounds, assists and three-point percentage as is. There seems to be a moment or two in each game where he leaves our collective jaws on the floor.

Heading into the season, there were questions of whether or not he was healthy, and if he’d be able to regain form after missing all but nine games last season with a quad injury. The team has been cautious, sitting him in back-to-backs, but when he’s played he’s put those questions to bed.

More questions, specifically about Leonard’s future in Toronto, still remain. For now, the focus finally seems to be square on this season and the Raptors’ chance to make history behind Leonard.

3. Kevin Durant, F, Golden State Warriors

Durant took the Warriors from “virtually unbeatable” to “flat-out unbeatable” and has two championships in two years to prove it.

His improvement on the defensive end and status as one of the top pure scorers in NBA history keeps Golden State on track to go three-for-three with Durant on the roster. What’s more, his impending free agency and rumours that he’ll look to sign elsewhere could put a sense of urgency into this Warriors season — which could be an important ingredient in their play down the stretch as they look to retain their competitive edge despite dominating the league for the last half-decade.

2. LeBron James, F, Los Angeles Lakers

Nobody said it would be easy, and so far it’s been far from it for LeBron James in Los Angeles.

The Lakers youth don’t appear ready to compete for anything significant and are struggling to adjust to James on the floor. Meanwhile, on a team that has started the season under .500, LeBron seems to be far from his highest gear as he continues to preach the big picture after signing a four-year deal with Los Angeles in the off-season.

James hasn’t hesitated to push for changes to the roster or coaching staff around him in the past, and won’t be shy to do the same if things don’t turn around in L.A. Unfamiliar as it seems, for now the best player in the game is a sleeping giant. We’ll see how long that lasts.

1. Steph Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

The (very) early season MVP, Curry looks as good as ever as the NBA is powerless to stop him.

As unselfish and unassuming a superstar as there is, Curry had no problem welcoming Durant to the Warriors two years ago and taking a relative step back as Golden State’s unreal depth led the superstars to seemingly take turns owning games.

After averaging a league-best 30 points per game in 2015-16, Curry’s numbers dipped considerably once he teamed with Durant. But now he’s dominating games just like that MVP season, leading the NBA with 29.5 points per game and shooting a stunning 49 per cent from beyond the arc and a career-best 51 per cent from the floor.

Obviously nobody forgot about Curry. But we may have begun to undervalue how unmatchably fun it is to watch him work, his impact on the game, and his status as arguably the most influential player of his generation.

The NBA is drastically different today than when Curry first entered the league, and he’s the reason why. His unselfishness and all-galaxy abilities are also behind the Warriors’ dynastic status.

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