NBA Season Preview 2019-20: Which Players Face Most Pressure?

Russell WestbrookThe pressure is always on in the NBA. Coaches, fans, media members and teammates are constantly monitoring players around the league to see whether they are doing their job as well as they should be.

However, some players are especially under the microscope this season. Whether fairly or unfairly, the stakes are high for these players. If they don’t perform to expectations, they will catch a lot of blame.

Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

Since his MVP campaign in 2016-17, Westbrook has steadily declined in production and impact. His rebound and assist numbers have remained high, but his scoring volume and efficiency have both decreased dramatically. His three-point and free-throw shooting have dropped off a cliff.

Now, Westbrook is moving to a Houston team with a veteran roster, led by James Harden, that expects to contend for a championship. The problem is that he and Harden aren’t the most natural offensive fit, at least on paper. Both guys are primary ball-handlers who are not known for being willing or capable off-ball threats on offense.

The pressure will be on both players to adjust to the other superstar, but it is the 30-year-old Westbrook who will likely shoulder more of the blame if things don’t work out in Houston.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Is Middleton worth five years and $178 million on the Bucks’ payroll? That’s something that many NBA fans and pundits are eager to see in 2019-20.

Milwaukee is a very small media market and has never been a popular free agent destination. Essentially every great player in franchise history has joined the team via the NBA draft or a trade.

To keep last year’s 60-win team together and show franchise cornerstone Giannis Antetokounmpo that it cares about contending, the franchise really had no choice but to bring back Middleton on a big deal. Middleton was an All-Star last year, but he hasn’t shown that he’s anything close to a superstar. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’d say $178 million is a bit much for him.

The 28-year-old forward will need to step up in 2019-20, especially since Milwaukee couldn’t retain key contributors Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic in the offseason.

Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers’ trade to acquire George was one of the largest-scale moves in NBA history. Los Angeles had to give up Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and basically every draft pick they have for the next several years to acquire PG-13.

It actually might be worth it. George and Kawhi Leonard is a terrifying superstar duo that could legitimately lead to multiple NBA titles.

On the other end of the spectrum, if George has trouble fitting in Los Angeles or his shoulder injury becomes a big deal, the team has very few young prospects and has lost nearly all of its draft capital to rebuild. To be fair, PG-13 and Kawhi have a couple years to figure things out before they can both potentially opt out of their deals in 2021. The rejoicing in Clippers country could turn into major regret quickly if George doesn’t play like the superstar he is capable of being.

The entire Los Angeles Lakers roster

This is a bit of a cop-out, but there certainly is pressure is on every member of the Lakers roster.  Los Angeles is banking on this season being a very successful one in the highly competitive Western Conference. The squad gave up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks in the offseason to acquire Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James.

Davis is an amazing player, but he has the opportunity to opt out of his contract next summer and enter unrestricted free agency. If the Lakers struggle to mesh and end up losing in the first or second round of the playoffs, Davis certainly could sign elsewhere. In that case, the Lakers would be in a very difficult spot after essentially trading away their entire future.

Therefore, there is a lot of pressure on the roster to live up to expectations. Davis and LeBron have never played with teammates as talented as each other. Kyle Kuzma has been hyped as a potential star, but he needs to prove that he is a reliable spot-up shooter and defender. Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee are all on the downsides of their careers, but they need to show that they still have enough in the tank to be productive members of the Lakers’ rotation.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For his career, Simmons has converted a measly 95 out of 335 field-goal attempts (28.4 percent) from 10 feet or further. Those numbers include a 0-of-18 shooting mark from three-point range. His shooting ability (or lack thereof) is the biggest weakness we have seen from any star player in NBA history.

During the offseason, videos surfaced of Simmons showing an improved and more confident shooting stroke during pick-up games.

However, we have yet to see the 23-year-old Sixers star display shooting competence in meaningful action. Philadelphia is a legitimate NBA title contender, but the team is going to have trouble getting a championship if Simmons is a completely non-threatening scorer outside of the paint again.

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

The Porzingis-Luka Doncic pairing in Dallas has potential to be amazing. From what I’ve seen online, there seems to be a lot of hype around the Mavericks as a potential playoff team in the West because of those two.

I’m not sure I see that. The 7’3” Porzingis will be returning from a torn ACL and hasn’t played an NBA game in more than 19 months. Even before then, he was a very skilled, but flawed, player. His lack of strength made him a poor rebounder as a big man and his shot selection and playmaking needed work. The Mavericks agreed to a five-year, $158 million contract with Porzingis in the offseason despite these factors.

I’m not sure it’s fair to put pressure on Porzingis to be a star player right away. With that contract and all the hype surrounding him and Doncic as the next superstar duo, it seems like that is what people are expecting.