The 2022-23 NBA season is set to begin Tuesday, October 18. This league might be the most player-driven of any professional sports league, as the guys on the court make the biggest difference when it comes to winning. Not every player has the same impact on the game, which is why we’ll spotlight those who have a heightened one. Here are the 25 players who will shape the outcome of this season.
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
Harden has done a lot to show he’s committed to bringing a title to Philly. He took a pay cut to help the 76ers beef up the roster. He’s showed up to camp motivated and more fit. He looks like he could have a MVP-level season. If Harden can show up during the postseason, there may be a parade in Philadelphia this summer.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic is the two-time reigning MVP, but the hopes of the Nuggets fall on these two players. Denver has tied up significant long-term money in this core and it’s time to see the group in action for a full season. If Murray and Porter Jr. stay healthy, the Nuggets are title contenders. With those high expectations, will these two players rise to the challenge?
Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves
When the Timberwolves gave up the farm for Gobert, many saw it as an overpay. Minnesota isn’t getting free agents, so this was the only way to land another All-Star. Gobert has been a dominant force in the regular season but fades in the playoffs. Big men like him are not the norm in the NBA now. How he fits with Towns will determine whether the Timberwolves made the right move for this season and the future.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
This feels like a massive year for Davis, who hasn’t quite played up to his bubble levels. The power forward has also been unable to stay healthy, which is cause for concern. The Lakers believe Davis is their future star once LeBron James retires, but they need to see it happen again. If the big man gets back to his bubble days, the Lakers are going to be title contenders this season.
Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat
Lowry’s opening season in Miami was fine statistically. The Heat did get the top seed in the East and if not for Lowry’s injury, could’ve potentially played in the Finals. The veteran point guard got publicly called out by Pat Riley in exit interviews, so look for him to come into this year motivated to show he is the missing piece for this franchise. If Lowry gets going, the Heat are going to be a major threat.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Brown was involved in Kevin Durant rumors during the offseason, which may have shaken his confidence. He, along with the rest of the Celtics, also have to deal with the Ime Udoka scandal hanging over the team for the season. Boston is trying to get back to the Finals, and Brown being a more consistent player is key to that. Can he shake off the summer drama and deliver a career year?
Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
There is a lot of drama involving Poole and Draymond Green heading into the season. Can the rising guard shake that off and continue to improve? Poole is in line for a big extension this offseason and the Warriors need him to keep getting better in their quest to repeat as champions. If Poole can move past the practice scuffle and put up big numbers, he and the team should get what they both want.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans made a nice run to the postseason last year, with Williamson seemingly being the missing piece to make this team a title contender. If he’s healthy and produces like he’s expected to, New Orleans could make a big leap ahead of schedule. If he remains in and out of the lineup, the team likely stays near the middle of a loaded Western conference.
Dejounte Murray, Atlanta Hawks
Murray got the move he wanted, pairing him with Trae Young to create an explosive backcourt. There will be an adjustment period, and it’ll likely be on Murray to sacrifice a bit more. If he can shore up Atlanta’s defense from the point guard spot, that’ll be an even bigger contribution than any offensive numbers. The Hawks have invested a lot in this pairing, so it’ll be on Murray and Young to make the fit work.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
Bane broke out last season, averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 43.6% from deep. The young guard is the ideal backcourt mate for Ja Morant as the Grizzlies attempt to replicate a 56-win season and a No. 2 seed in the West. The problem now is everyone knows this team is coming. Bane won’t be overlooked again this year, so he’ll have to adjust to more defensive attention and quicker closeouts. Can he adapt his game or will his production stagnate?
Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are attempting to thread a fine needle here with Damian Lillard entering the latter stages of his career. Portland is trying everything it can to remain competitive, and this frontcourt pairing will determine how successful that plan is. Grant is a solid combo forward who does a lot of little things well, while Nurkic can dominate on the boards. How they fit together will determine if the Blazers top out as a playoff team or something much bigger.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Last season ended poorly for Ayton and the Suns, with the center seemingly fighting with his coach in the shocking Game 7 loss. Ayton had a rough summer, being thrown into Kevin Durant trade rumors before ultimately seeing Phoenix match his offer sheet he signed with the Pacers. There’s still some tension there based on Ayton’s quotes in preseason but the big man could use that as motivation. If the Suns want to get back to the Finals, Ayton is the key piece.
Ben Simmons, Brooklyn Nets
Simmons has endured a lot of ridicule over the last few seasons. He sat out all of last year but ultimately did get his wish when the 76ers traded him to Brooklyn. The Nets hope he can be the distributor and defender they need, although Simmons seems to be operating in his own world. Can he rehabilitate his image on a team with championship expectations and fragile egos? This could either go really well or really poorly, with seemingly no middle ground. Buckle up.
Christian Wood, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks acquired Wood in the offseason, hoping he could be the versatile frontcourt piece they’d been missing for some time. Wood is a solid player, although he did have temperament issues in Houston last year. Will playing with Luka Doncic unlock his full potential or will coming off the bench eventually cause tempers to flare in the locker room? Dallas needs everything from its role players with only one star in hand, so Wood’s contributions are key to this team making the Finals.
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Barnes was considered a reach when the Raptors took him fourth overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. He’s now the reigning Rookie of the Year and was reportedly untouchable in Kevin Durant trade talks. The Raptors believe Barnes is a superstar in the making, and they believe they have the core to make another championship run. If Barnes takes a leap forward, the Raptors are going to be playoff threats. If he plateaus, it’ll be tough to let go of what could’ve been assuming the Durant conversations were real in Toronto.
De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis
Keegan Murray is getting headlines and the Kings made some nice peripheral moves in the offseason but this machine is built on the Fox-Sabonis pairing. This should be an elite offensive duo with little defensive upside. The Kings need to be competitive and it’ll be up to these two players to get that done. Sacramento gave up a coveted young player in Tyrese Haliburton for Sabonis, so this pairing is the make-or-break moment for a lot of people in that organization.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Middleton missed the end of last season with an injury and is going to sit out the beginning of the 2022-23 season with a different issue. As important as Giannis Antetokounmpo is to this team, Middleton is often the deciding factor in wins and losses. If the Bucks hope to compete for another championship, he has to come back as the All-Star he is.
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mitchell is out of Utah but goes to a nice situation in Cleveland. This is a young team on the rise and Mitchell suddenly is the most proven player of the bunch. He’s going to be expected to lead this group, something he might not have done much in Utah. The playoff failures of years past are going to be tough to forget but this is an exciting new chapter for the guard who should remain an All-Star with his new team.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
LaVine signed a long-term max extension with Chicago and had a procedure to clean up the knee pain which bothered him at the end of last season. He’s entering his prime as the player most likely to take a step forward on this team, which going to need improvement from within to reach new heights. This is LaVine’s team now more than ever, and he’ll have to deliver significant playoff results to justify his big deal.
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Ball suffered an ankle sprain in preseason, which is bad news for him ahead of such a crucial campaign. It’s Year 3 for the point guard, and this is about the time where the fun and games really stop. The Hornets believe they have a superstar, but Ball has been largely non-existent on the defensive end and tends to be careless with the basketball at times. If he doesn’t clean up those areas, he’s not going to be taking that next step towards stardom. This is a massive season for him and the Hornets, who are hoping to get out of the play-in tournament after being stuck there for two seasons.
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
We didn’t forget about Leonard, who has the potential to be the most dominant force in the NBA. He’s back after missing all of last year with an ACL injury and should be ready to go. The Clippers have championship expectations, something they’ve failed to live up to since Leonard and Paul George teamed up in LA. This team is loaded and is among the contenders to win it all. If Leonard returns to 100%, he can absolutely lead this group to a ring. If he continues to be in and out of the lineup and falls flat in the playoffs, it might be time to reset this entire roster.