The 2017-18 NBA season starts next Tuesday, but the hype has been in full force for a good long while now, thanks to an offseason that involved superstars getting swapped, the champs taking on POTUS and Kevin Durant adopting a secret online persona. It almost seems as if real-life games that count will be a disappointment! But we can't wait to see how things play out. With the new season comes high expectations, of course, especially for new faces in new places, players who are expected to take on an increased role with their team, highly-touted rookies and others. Here's a look at 30 players with the most on the line.
In new places
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
One way to put the spotlight entirely on yourself: request a trade from a franchise that just made three consecutive Finals appearances so you no longer have to be on the same team as LeBron James. Two seasons after hitting the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Irving will now try to unseat LeBron and the Cavs from their perch atop the East as the point guard of the Boston Celtics. Fair or not, this entire season will be an evaluation of whether Irving is a superstar capable of being the leading man on a championship contender.
Isaiah Thomas, Cavaliers
A hip injury will sideline Thomas until January, which will give him around three months to find a rhythm with his new Cavaliers teammates before the playoffs. The Cavs added Jae Crowder and got the coveted 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, but Thomas' health and performance on the floor is Cleveland's most important win-now piece in the Irving deal. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Thomas will have plenty on the line for himself, too.
Dwight Howard, Hornets
Howard is a future Hall-of-Famer, but he's also on his fifth team in seven seasons. He didn't endear himself to either Kobe Bryant or James Harden in Los Angeles and Houston. Atlanta Hawks teammates reportedly screamed in jubilation when they heard Howard was traded to Charlotte. On the court, Howard averaged 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds in Atlanta last season. He can still contribute, but at age 31, this appears to be his last chance to prove that he can be a net-positive player on a winning team.
D'Angelo Russell, Nets
Magic Johnson got rid of Russell so he could usher in the Lonzo Ball era, and criticized Russell's leadership abilities on his way out of Los Angeles. Still just 21, Russell will get a fresh start in Brooklyn, where he will be paired alongside Jeremy Lin. Aside from questions about his leadership and maturity, Russell is still a work-in-progress on the court, averaging 15.6 points last season but shooting just 40.5 percent from the field, with a wavering effort level on the defensive end. In Brooklyn, Russell will get a chance to start anew.
Chris Paul, Rockets
The breakup with the Clippers seemed inevitable. Now, Paul is in Houston to try and make the pairing with James Harden work, while helping the Rockets improve on an offense that, per NBA.com, finished second in efficiency behind only the Golden State Warriors last season. Paul forced his way to Houston this offseason. How far the Rockets go in the playoffs will depend on how he adjusts to his new role.
Carmelo Anthony, Thunder
Anthony wasted the prime years of his career with a Knicks team that went nowhere. At age 33, Anthony finally finds himself on a championship contender, but now has to adjust to a new role, playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George. No longer the No. 1 option, and with elite perimeter defenders around him, Anthony will be able to focus on what he does best: scoring. How he adjusts to the reduced touches and a smaller role on offense figures to be a huge factor how quickly the Thunder come together this season.
Paul George, Thunder
On the last year of his contract, George also gets a fresh start in Oklahoma City. It's impossible to replicate what Kevin Durant brings to the floor, but as far as perimeter wings go, George is a pretty elite consolation prize for the Thunder a year after losing their franchise player to the Warriors. George should be a perfect running mate for Westbrook. Thrusted into the spotlight in OKC, George has a chance to cement himself as a top-10 player in the league this season.
Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves
The transition from a role player to leader of the team was a rocky one for Jimmy Butler in Chicago. He called out his head coach Fred Hoiberg and demanded him to coach the team harder, and irritated some teammates in the locker room along the way. Reunited with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, Butler will be expected to take the T-Wolves back to the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Ben Simmons, Sixers
After missing the entire 2016-17 season with a foot injury, Simmons will step in and join a Sixers team with designs on making the playoffs in the East. At 6-foot-10, Simmons has the potential to be a strong defender who can guard multiple positions, which will make him valuable on the court while he figures out his offensive game. A year later, Sixers fans will finally get to see whether they have another potential franchise player on their roster.
Markelle Fultz, Sixers
Simmons' teammate faces the pressure of being the incoming No. 1 overall pick, with an increased spotlight after Celtics general manager Danny Ainge decided to trade out of that top spot, selecting Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 overall pick instead and acquiring an extra future first rounder from Philadelphia in the process. It's a trade that will take years to evaluate, but the assessment will start with how Fultz performs in his rookie season.
Lonzo Ball, Lakers
Even before Ball played a single game in the league, teams were already circling the Lakers on the calendar thanks to all the trash talk provided by his dad LaVar. Aside from all the off-the-court distractions, early impressions from summer league and preseason show that Ball might be worth all the hype. Luke Walton and Magic Johnson are ready to hand the keys of the team over to the youngster from UCLA, and see where he can take them. There will be plenty of losing at Staples Center this season, but for the first time since Kobe Bryant retired, there will be a buzz in the building every time the Lakers take the floor, thanks to their prized rookie.
Norman Powell, Raptors
With the departures of DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker, third-year wing Norman Powell is ready for an increased role in Toronto this season. "It's what I've fought for my first two year," he said. "Especially with the moves that have been made, not just the opportunity for myself but for all the young guys. We're here and we're going to play now and we're going to show what we can do." The Raptors have a top-heavy roster featuring Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka. If Powell makes the leap in year three, the ceiling for this team will lift, too.
Rodney Hood, Jazz
With Gordon Hayward's departure to Boston, Utah is counting on this 24-year-old shooting guard to play a much bigger role in the team's offense this season. Hood has been injury-prone during his first three seasons in the league, playing in just 55 games last season, averaging 12.7 points on 40.8 percent shooting from the field. Hood's health and ability to produce on the floor in an increased role this season is one of the factors that will determine whether the Jazz are a playoff team out West.
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves
In his third season, Wiggins became one of the best individual scorers in the league, averaging 23.6 points. But at age 22, there's still room to grow on both ends of the floor. Defense has always been a staple on any Tom Thibodeau team, and that's an area where Wiggins will need to improve on. Whether he takes that step on the defensive end could determine whether Minnesota is on the outside looking in for a playoff spot once again.
Jamal Murray, Nuggets
Head coach Mike Malone started training camp last month by declaring the starting point guard position an open competition between Jameer Nelson, Emmanuel Mudiay and Murray. Of the three, Murray has the most long-term upside, and is coming off a rookie season where he averaged 9.9 points in 21.5 minutes per game. After surgery on two hernias this offseason, this is Murray's job to lose. If he can make a jump in year two, Denver -- with an intriguing frontcourt combo of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, and an emerging star in Gary Harris -- might figure in the playoff conversation in the West.
Damian Lillard, Blazers
Players reach a point in their careers where they've established themselves individually, but questions remain as to whether they can carry a franchise to greater heights. A year after averaging 27.0 points, Lillard is at those crossroads in Portland. The Lillard-C.J McCollum backcourt is one of the most fun to watch, but there are still long-term questions as to whether the Blazers are capable of joining the elite teams in the West. They were a much more dangerous team after trading for Jusuf Nurkic last season. Now it's up to Lillard to lead this team out of the middle of the pack.
Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
While the Knicks were mired in mediocrity and dysfunction during his first two seasons, KPorzingis was always the ray of hope for the future. Well, after the departures of Phil Jackson and Anthony, the future is now. In year three, Porzingis will be the man in New York, and with that comes the responsibility of increased expectations. Can Porzingis build on his sophomore season when he averaged 18.1 points? Will he increase his rebounding numbers and become more of a presence on the defensive end? Porzingis is about to find out the scrutiny that comes with being the franchise player in the Big Apple.
Big men who may have smaller roles
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors
Valanciunas arrived in Toronto as the antithesis of Andrea Bargnani, and that was a great thing. He was an engaging big man who didn't shy away from physicality. Heading into his sixth season with the Raptors, the questions that surround Valanciunas are emblematic of the value of a traditional big man in today's game. With his inability to switch and defend multiple positions, Valanciunas remains a defensive liability in the fourth quarter, rendering him unplayable at times in closing lineups. Without significant improvement this season, it's hard to see a long-term future for him in Toronto, especially with cheaper options in Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam lurking.
Andre Drummond, Pistons
Drummond is still a double-double machine, but some of the same defensive issues that surround Valanciunas apply here. Throw in a career free throw shooting percentage of 38.1 percent, and it's no wonder Stan Van Gundy has put his starting center on the trade market on the last year to gauge interest from other teams. Whether there's still a significant role for him to play in the Pistons rebuild will defend on how he performs this season.
Joel Embiid, Sixers
The Sixers resembled a competent team when Embiid was on the floor last season. Of course, the biggest challenge in Embiid's career has been staying healthy. When he finally debuted last season, Embiid played in just 31 games -- averaging 20.2 points in 25.4 minutes per game -- before season ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus on his left knee. Embiid has yet to play in preseason but is cautiously optimistic he'll be ready for opening night. The Sixers will go as far as Embiid's health takes him this season.
Jabari Parker, Bucks
For the second time in three seasons, Parker suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Before he went down, Parker put up career highs in points (20.1) and rebounds (6.2) per game. He's not expected to return until the second half of this season, but a healthy and contributing Parker next to Giannis Antetokounmpo changes the trajectory of this Bucks team and gives them two star players to build around.
Ricky Rubio, Jazz
We know that Rubio is a brilliant passer with court vision that is unmatched in this league, but we also never quite figured out exactly what he can be on a playoff contending team. We'll get a chance to see that this season, as Rubio takes over as the point guard in Utah. For a team searching for a new identity on offense after Hayward's exit, the pressure will be on Rubio to make the offense go, and right away.
DeMarcus Cousins, Pelicans
There shouldn't be so many question marks surrounding Cousins, especially given the numbers he has put up throughout his career. But he's yet to make the playoffs, and after a midseason trade out of Sacramento last season, we'll get to see whether a full season paired with Anthony Davis in New Orleans will produce better results. Without a successful season with the Pelicans this season, it will be interesting to see how teams value Cousins next summer when he hits free agency.
Nerlens Noel, Mavericks
After passing on a four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavs at the start of free agency and watching the market dry up, Noel returns on a one-year, $4.1 million deal hoping to rebuild his value for next summer. Already, Rick Carlisle has been non-committal in giving Noel a starting spot to start the season. The 23-year-old forward will have to re-establish himself as a defensive force ahead of hitting the market at the end of the season.
Victor Oladipo, Pacers
After a one-year experiment as Russell Westbrook's running mate, Oladipo is now part of the long-term rebuilding plan in Indiana. Oladipo and Myles Turner project as the franchise cornerstones for a Pacers team looking to recover from losing George this summer. At 25, there's still room to grow for Oladipo, although an increased role with Indiana this season should give us a complete look at whether there's another level he can ascend to.
In a new role
Dennis Schroder, Hawks
Schroder doesn't lack in self confidence, and that will be important this season as Atlanta figures out whether they can rebuild around their 24-year-old point guard. The nucleus of a team that won 60 games three seasons ago is gone, and with Jeff Teague in Minnesota, the Hawks will let Schroder do the heavy lifting on offense this season.
James Harden, Rockets
Even if there's an adjustment period with Paul as his running mate, expect Harden to replicate much of the production that made him the runner-up in MVP voting last season. Still, he will not be the only ball-handler on the team, and that means figuring out how to play a new role while keeping Mike D'Antoni's offense humming.
Rudy Gay, Spurs
While the Thunder and Rockets bolstered their rosters to try and close the gap on the Warriors, San Antonio mostly stood pat, which might be fine. The team still has Kawhi Leonard, and Gregg Popovich never allows himself to be out-coached in any playoff series. Yet, if there is a player who can lift the Spurs, it might be Gay, who can unlock smaller lineups in the floor where he can play alongside Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt. If Gay outperforms expectations this season, the Spurs could once again be the main challenger to the Warriors.
Blake Griffin, Clippers
Just as one era of basketball ended for the Clippers, another might be starting this season, with Griffin squarely in the spotlight after Paul's departure to Houston. Already in the preseason, the Clippers look like they might be a remix version of Lob City. With additional ball-handling opportunities, Griffin is looking to return to being one of the top power forwards in the league.
Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Tyronn Lue has announced he plans on starting Love at center to start the season. Given the roster turnover in Cleveland, many expect Love to get significantly more touches on offense this season. Despite winning a championship in Cleveland, questions remain about Love's fit next to LeBron. The Cavs will be depending on Love more than ever.