Make it or break it.
Or, maybe to stick with a basketball analogy, shoot or pass.
Every team will feel some pressure when training camps open next week, but this year is deep with teams at genuine crossroads, teams feeling the pressure that if this season does not go hoped a major shakeup is coming. (This will be part of an upcoming preseason series here at NBC Sports beginning next week.)
Here are the seven teams under the most pressure this season.
Every team with a superstar is under “win or he could leave” pressure but Giannis Antetokounmpo turned the volume up to 11 this summer when he said, “If there is a better situation for me to win the Larry O’Brien I have to take that better situation.” The Bucks will put the largest contract offer in NBA history in front of Antetokounmpo next summer, and his words on multiple occasions this offseason felt like a shot across the bow of the Bucks organization — win or the money will not be enough.
The timing of Antetokounmpo’s comments was odd considering the Bucks did everything he wanted this summer — they re-signed Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, keeping the core of a 58-win team from last season together, and after firing Mike Budenholzer the Bucks hired rookie coach Adrian Griffin because he was the guy Antetokounmpo wanted. He’s got his team, but if the Bucks stumble and get bounced in the first round of the playoffs again, Milwaukee could pay the price. That’s real pressure.
Daryl Morey went all-in to get his guy, James Harden, to Philadelphia. Now the former MVP is going all-in to get out of town. Harden has asked for a trade, Morey couldn’t find one that worked for the team, and it sets up what could be an ugly showdown at training camp, which is less than ideal for a title contender like the 76ers.
However, the real pressure comes from the threat of Joel Embiid saying he has had enough and asking out — he turns 30 this season, he knows his window isn’t going to be open much longer, and he wants to win. As evidence, here is what Embiid said this offseason: “I just want to win a championship. Whatever it takes. I don’t know where that’s gonna be, whether it’s in Philly or anywhere else, I just want to have a chance to accomplish that.” Other teams are circling like vultures because if things go sideways in Philly again this season, the reigning MVP could ask for a trade. That’s real pressure to figure out the Harden mess and win a bunch of games.
This will be year five of the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George experiment in Los Angeles and all they have to show for it is one conference Finals appearance. Steve Ballmer may have more money than anyone but nine people on the planet, but that doesn’t mean he wants to keep throwing good money after bad. The Clippers have everything they need around their stars: An elite coach in Tyronn Lue, solid role player depth and versatility (although that faded last season), however none of that matters if Leonard and George can’t stay healthy enough to be on the court. The Clippers’ numbers are good when both stars are playing, that just has not happened enough.
Hanging over all of this is the Clippers moving to a new arena next season — Ballmer wants to open his building with a team that can compete at the highest levels. There’s real pressure about what that roster might look like, especially in a year when Leonard and George are eligible for extensions.
Dallas should be entertaining to watch this season — Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving both play beautiful basketball, and Dallas has upgraded the defense around them with guys like Grant Williams (how much it’s upgraded remains to be seen). It all could fit together and work. The pressure comes because this has to work — Dallas has backed itself into a financial corner, and if things go sideways, it will be hard to put a winner around Doncic, who could grow restless. Antetokounmpo and Embiid are already being watched by other teams as potential trade targets in the next year, Dallas has the real pressure of keeping Doncic off that list. The additional pressure: Right now Irving is being a good teammate and not a distraction, but history suggests that could change (and how does that impact Doncic and his restlessness.
LeBron James enters his 21st NBA season, will turn 39 in December, and can become a free agent after this season — that is all the pressure the Lakers need. Los Angeles extended Anthony Davis this summer and put a quality group of defenders and shooters around their stars — Austin Rreaves, Gabe Vincent, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, Christian Wood — but it only works if Davis is healthy and playing at a DPOY level and LeBron is on the court looking like an All-NBA player. The pressure for the Lakers is the clock is ticking.
New Orleans has an impressive roster on paper, with an All-NBA level player in Zion Williamson plus Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and a host of interesting role players. However, it only works if those stars — Zion in particular, who has played 29 games in the past two seasons — are healthy and on the court. If New Orleans has another season where someone seems to be sticking needles in a voodoo doll causing injuries, another season where this roster doesn’t get a chance to see what it can do, a reset might come to the Big Easy. The pressure is on to show what this roster is capable of, or changes will sweep through the organization.
Minnesota overpaid in a trade for Rudy Gobert in an effort to zig while the league zagged — everyone was leaning into small ball, but the Timberwolves were going big. They even made a smart trade at the deadline to get Mike Conley at the point (a much better fit to organize the offense and get bigs the ball than D’Angelo Russell). Except two things happened last season: 1) Karl-Anthony Towns missed extended time with an injury, so we didn’t see the two bigs lineup enough (and it was rough when we did see it); 2) Anthony Edwards started to emerge as a superstar and the guy the franchise really should build around. That leaves a lot for coach Chris Finch to organize this season, the team needs to pivot to a build around Edwards, but that will mean changes — and maybe a Towns trade. If Minnesota is going to win with this roster, it happens now or big changes are coming next summer.