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Comeback Season: Seven NBA Stars With the Most to Prove in 2019-20

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 8/14/2019 Rohan Nadkarni
CAPTION: PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 18: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers during their game at Moda Center on October 18, 2018 in Portland, Oregon. © (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) CAPTION: PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 18: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers during their game at Moda Center on October 18, 2018 in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve decided the NBA needs a new award to hand out next summer: Best F-You Season. While the Kawhis of the world are living their dreams and wearing t-shirts with funny slogans, a bunch of other NBA stars are in wildly different situations with something to prove to a slew of doubters. LeBron James went from eight straight Finals to out of the playoffs. Stephen Curry went from playing for the overwhelming favorite to a pitied Warriors squad. Russell Westbrook got traded to become his former sixth man’s second banana. And that’s just to name a few!

The bottom line is we are in for an exciting NBA season, not only because of the wide breadth of championship contenders, but also because many of the league’s most talented players will be fighting against either legitimate criticisms of their game or the weight of their past successes. And that means for the first time in a while, guys like LeBron and Steph may have a little bigger chip (with the dip!) on their shoulders to show the league’s shifting balance won’t leave them behind. But which star has the potential to put up the biggest F-You season? That’s what we’re here to figure out today. Here’s an early handicapping of the 2020 F-You race. 

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7. Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Buckets’s game is kind of built on Big F-You Energy. He’s like the Baker Mayfield of the NBA. Butler’s whole persona is centered around proving he is, in fact, a superstar, perhaps as compensation for his humble, completely non-hyped early years in the NBA. And while many other guys around the league have teamed up, Butler has opted for a solo act with the Heat, an organization seemingly a tailor-made fit for his gritty, Mark Wahlberg cosplay. Butler will be fighting against the idea he can’t carry a team next season, and he’ll also be playing to prove he made the right decision to ditch the Sixers (though it’s a little unclear how much either side wanted him to stay.) Butler’s F-You potential isn’t particularly unique or novel, which is why he’s low on this list, but expect him to play with some level of defiance next season. 

6. Kyrie Irving

It’s impossible to know what Kyrie Irving cares about, but his game could have a little F-You to it in 2020. If stories about Irving’s time in Boston start to trickle out early in the season, and with Kevin Durant sidelined, Kyrie may want to go scorched flat-earth to prove how capable he is at carrying a team by himself. Irving will be fighting against a couple narratives next year. There’s the idea that he isn’t a true No. 1 guy, an idea fueled by his years spent with LeBron and the conference finals run the Celtics made without him. Irving will also be fighting the whispers from Boston, ranging from his abilities as a leader to his willingness to sign autographs. If anyone is unlikely to care about this stuff, it’s Kyrie. But the questions about his value are persisting after his tenure in Boston. If Irving really wants to answer those with some aplomb, he’ll have an opportunity on a hungry Brooklyn squad that’s cleared the runway for him to take over in a year without Durant. 

5. Chris Paul

He’s likely to get traded a second time within a year, but his contract is so concerning it’s hard for the Thunder to find a taker. Chris Paul is a great player. One season ago he was hitting huge threes in the conference finals and shimmying in Steph Curry’s face. One summer later, the Rockets are attaching a bunch of first-round picks to move off his contract, and now OKC may be willing to do the same. I’ve never really disliked Paul, and I hope he finds his way back to a contender. In the meantime, he can prove just how much he has left in the tank by lifting up an afterthought Thunder team. The best way for Paul to say F-You to the Rockets and all the people saying his contract makes him untouchable would be to take this OKC team to the playoffs. Show Houston he can do more with less than Russell Westbrook. Make the teams that didn’t trade for him in July regret it. What’s keeping Paul from being higher in the F-You award race is he faces tall odds to pull off those feats, and even great individual success from him wouldn’t necessarily translate into a .500-season for OKC. 

4. Russell Westbrook

Three straight first-round exits. A widely criticized MVP award. Idiots like me saying he doesn’t make sense next to James Harden. Concerns he’ll never properly harness his immense talent. Russell Westbrook is already one of the most intense players in the NBA. But this summer could be a little something of a wake-up call for him. When we last saw Russ, he was being thoroughly outplayed by Damian Lillard in the playoffs. Westbrook’s solo act in OKC went so poorly the franchise opted for a full rebuild instead, and Russ has now been relegated to the role he served for much of his career to wide-ranging reviews—the second star. It feels like Russ is going to have one of those seasons in which every game is a referendum on what he means to the Rockets, and if the experiment is making sense. 

Westbrook should be comfortable in this role—his MVP year was one of the all-time F-You seasons in NBA history. But he’ll have to corral that energy and find a new way to deploy it as Harden’s sidekick. An F-You season from Russ wouldn’t be another MVP. It would be proving he can merge his headstrong style of play into a more team-oriented system. (Not that the Rockets are necessarily team-oriented, but Russ won’t be pounding the ball as much here.) If Westbrook really wants to win this fake award, he can’t acquiesce to Harden completely. Instead, he’ll have to show his own style of play can be conducive to winning even when it’s not all about him. That’s going to be a very fine line to walk for Westbrook, and nearly every night people could be asking if his pairing with Harden makes sense. If Russ can make it work without abandoning his own game completely, he has a chance to shut people up for a long time. 

3. LeBron James

LeBron is a tough one. He really has nothing to prove. If he retired today, he would have a case for the greatest basketball player of all time. He will probably finish his career no worse than the second best human to ever play NBA basketball. That’s insane! And yet...people want to know how long this can last. It’s fair to be curious if last year was the start of LeBron’s decline. James’s first season in LA couldn’t have gone worse. His agent told the commissioner of the NBA he wanted the coach fired. LeBron seemingly was ready to sacrifice any of his teammates and maybe even Taco Tuesday to acquire Anthony Davis. LeBron got hurt, said he was going to go into playoff mode early, and then the Lakers missed the postseason anyway. 

For the first time since his third year in the NBA, James is entering a season with a full summer to rest. But his Finals streak ended in the most unceremonious way possible, and it feels like there’s no fear around the league when it comes to facing LeBron. Can he put together one more MVP caliber season and show last year was a mirage? While James’s legacy is secure, next year will be about showing he’s still very far off from riding into the sunset.

2. Stephen Curry

If Klay Thompson were able to finish the Finals, it’s possible Steph Curry would be the reigning Finals MVP right now. Instead, the Warriors went from the most overwhelming favorite of this century to middle of the pack this summer. Durant left. Thompson is hurt. And Curry remains (along with Draymond Green!) to show this team can still compete for titles. For all of Curry’s greatness, it’s never really felt like he’s earned the same level of respect as some of his contemporaries. Even when there were groups of people committed to arguing Curry was more valuable to the Dubs than Durant, almost all of them stopped short of calling Curry the better player. 

As stupid as it sounds for a two-tim MVP, Curry can flip a lot of the thinking around him this season. He has a chance to rub it in the faces of the people who want to see the Warriors struggle, the people who thought Durant carried them, and the people who still doubt the upper limit of Curry’s talent. I don’t think an MVP season for Steph is out of the question, especially if Golden State somehow manages to finish in the top-half of the West. That will be extremely difficult, but a lot of the infrastructure of this franchise is still in place, and Curry and Draymond are a formidable duo themselves. Remember, it took a literal Box-and-1 to stop Steph in the Finals, and it’s not like the Raptors were running away with the series. 

Curry has a chance to go F-You because he’s still insanely talented and there’s never really been a player with his number of accomplishments whose received so much hand-waving from both fans and some of his peers. With such a precipitous drop in title odds from last season to this upcoming one, Curry, as the biggest constant for Golden State, has a rare opportunity to reclaim his throne as the most destructive force in the NBA. 

1. Anthony Davis

People—like opposing coaches!—hate how he handled his exit from New Orleans. The Pelicans have moved on with much-hyped, very charismatic No. 1 pick. He’s yet to put together anything near resembling a signature playoff performance. For me, Anthony Davis is the guy with the potential to put up the biggest F-You season next year. He’s young, he’s hungry, and he has his fair share of critics after a tumultuous final season with the Pelicans. For all his talent, Davis still has some things to prove. He’s never been on a title contender—what will he do facing real expectations for the first time? How will Davis respond to the attention that comes with playing both for the Lakers and with LeBron? Can Davis carry the team if James needs to rest during the regular season? Are the Lakers even the best team in their home arena?

I think Davis has more questions to answer than any other player on this list. A lot is riding on AD’s first season in L.A. It sounds absurd to even make this comparison, but Dwight Howard landed in with the Lakers with more success than Davis, and yet he flamed out quickly in his new situation. Davis is going from widely beloved to widely scrutinized on a team that expects to compete right away. None of this will be easy, and anything short of a deep playoff run for the Lakers will feel like a failure. And we haven’t even touched on the massive haul L.A. had to give up to acquire Davis in the first place. 

That’s a lot to have to fight against for Davis. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. The potential for glory for AD is super high with the Lakers. If he’s able to successfully combat all the concerns surrounding the start of his Lakers tenure, then he’ll begin to create a legacy befitting his talent. If not, well, Davis could be a free agent next summer. The boom or bust potential is what makes this next season for both Davis and the Lakers incredibly compelling. And a boom from Davis would be a very satisfying F-You to anyone not impressed with his career choices or the current constitution of the Lakers.

Related slideshow: 10 best moves of the 2019 NBA offseason (Provided by Yardbarker) 

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