5 NBA Stars Transitioning to Superstardom?

I don’t use the word superstardom too loosely. In today’s NBA, the relevant superstars are: LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. There’s a plethora of great basketball players, a ton of stars, All-Stars, Olympians, and rising stars. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had successful runs, and Wade is still hanging by a moment. Kobe Bryant just retired. Derrick Rose aims to bounce back in a big way. Russell Westbrook is phenomenal and he’s ever so close, hell, even if you disagree I believe him to be a superstar too. Russ was up there in MVP voting when Kevin Durant was injured, he’s arguably the biggest threat to a triple-double, he’s been to The Finals, and is All-NBA and All-Defense.

There’s some pretty close calls on this 5-man list of impact players with room to grow. Remember, we’re talking about making the jump to a superstar level. In no way is this criticism to these star players, but it is shedding transparency on both their talents and the potential that is still untapped. For the record, I need to see more out of Kyrie Irving, more stats, consistent health, but I absolutely appreciate his 2016 Finals performance. That was superstar-like. Alright, let’s get to it die-hard fans.

Mar 11, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) points against the Portland Trail Blazers during the fourth quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden

Houston’s star shooting guard handles the ball pretty much on every possession. He does put up a lot of shots, some considered ill-advised, and his defense gets criticized. What I do want to talk about is how durable Harden has been, never really misses any games, takes good care of his body in that regard, and is always near the top in minutes played. Not only has he been an All-Star and an All-NBA Team caliber player, he’s also finished in the top-3 for MVP voting a couple of times. This season he finished 2nd. Clearly, we’re talking about one of the best scorers in the league that gets to the free throw line more than anybody else has since he was traded to the Rockets.

Harden evolved from OKC’s 6th Man of the Year to nearly playing 40 minutes per night in command of his own team. He’s the bearded face of the Rockets, surrounded by a bunch of tweener-position players that can contribute on both ends of the floor. Harden might not be the lock-down defender that All-Defensive Team players are voted for, but neither is Steph Curry nor Ricky Rubio and all three of these guys have ranked in the top 5 in steals at some point. Why did it take so long for people to call out Curry’s defense? That’s simple, because he was winning and those good times cover up the flaws. We’re a year removed from Harden leading the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals, and that came after a comeback effort against the Clippers when they were down 3-1.

Can you name one knock-down shooter that Harden can drive and kick it out to? His teammates are all defense-oriented, lengthy guys that contribute on the glass and run the floor to finish on the break. I get that they can each hit an occasional tray, there’s just no perimeter threat and defenses have been able to collapse in the paint. Yet, Harden still puts up the points to get into the postseason, and he still finds his way into the lane for a bucket or some free throws. This is another example of a great scorer with flaws, but also without a lot of help. The next step in his process is leadership, taking stretches in the game to mix up where he gets the ball, not only to score but to make it a point to find the open teammate. He is capable of posting up and kicking it out, every play doesn’t have to make him work so hard or be a struggle going 1 on 5 from the top of the key. At some point, to avoid being in that Carmelo Anthony category, Harden is going to have to win playoff games.

kawhi leonard

Kawhi Leonard

This is a former Finals MVP and reigning Defensive Player of the Year that has emerged in a great situation for a class franchise. Leonard has continued to develop and his expand his offense since coming into the league, to the point of leading the Spurs in scoring. The defense and his ability to do a little bit of everything as a point-forward makes him one of the most valuable players in basketball. I think that we’re going to see him develop as a leader, being more vocal, and more of a go-to guy as well. He’s a smart player in an equal opportunity offense, so you have to love how he plays within the flow of running plays and all that. To be honest, I really did expect more out of him in the postseason that was ended by the Thunder, but I do realize that to be another lesson for him to learn so that he can elevate his game to an even higher level in the future.

This is an all-around talent that can and will do everything on the court. What remains to be seen is whether he is a great player on a competitive team, or if he can keep making his way higher and higher as a face of the Spurs and the NBA. The way I look at it, LaMarcus Aldridge is the man you want to stop to beat the Spurs in a playoff series. Talk about all the tools, though, he has the makings and the projection of an all-time great. This is a silent assassin and he’s already an elite player.

Nov 8, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) dunks against Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Toronto 91-84. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Paul George

PG13 came back strong after the gruesome injury in the Olympics and I’m glad all is well with him. Before the injury I thought he was a top 15-20 player, which was debatable at the time, but now I don’t see how he’s not in the top-10. A great two-way All-Star player, the face of the Pacers, an alpha dog. That is something that he has in common with Harden, and what I believe Leonard to be currently lacking and that’s OK since he has gradually grabbed the torch and will build upon his career-best season. Back to George here, Indiana made the smart play to not trade him and to retool around him instead. A few years ago when the Pacers were contenders in the Eastern Conference, George was the young and rising star on a veteran team. Now, he’s the star veteran surrounded by a better back court to help handle the ball and put the ball in the basket, in Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis.

George was clearly the best player in that Toronto series, where he cam up short at the hands of a better all-around team at the time. Since his return, I’ve seen George take more of an alpha dog approach in terms of leadership and being the playmaker. This might be a little bit eye-opening to some of you, but I’m that one guy that would take PG13 over Kevin Durant. I wasn’t born yesterday, KD did win an MVP and several scoring titles, he’s a fantastic player with his own set of strengths. KD is another All-Star, Olympian like George, you all know his story. Aside from one game in the OKC series against the Warriors, I’m now accustomed to expecting Durant to struggle or fade away from the 4th quarter moment, as great as he is. George is the guy that takes ownership while Durant not only deferred to Russell Westbrook, but gets outplayed by him consistently and in most 4th quarters. George posted averages of 23 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. Durant posted better stats with 28-8-5, but George isn’t far off and his maturation process is slightly ahead of Harden, Leonard, and Butler. I think he’s closer than anyone on this list as far as transitioning from star to superstar next season.

Feb 8, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) dunks the ball during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Amway Center. The Chicago Bulls defeated the Orlando Magic 98-97. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler

Started from the bottom now he’s here. Butler is a player that I watched as a die-hard Bulls fan, and that I predicted to be a future star when he was only getting 6 whatever minutes per game as a rookie. His hustle was just evident to me, as a fan that watches nearly every Bulls game year in and year out. In his extremely limited minutes, when he hadn’t yet earned these major minutes, a raw Butler was a half-step too late defending explosive wings like George, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James. He showcased some great promised within the offense with the moves that you see him doing now as an All-Star and Olympian. Butler would set off-ball screens, cut backdoor, and make some smooth offensive moves at a time when his shooting wasn’t up to par. The signs were there for those that were watching closely. For those that were invested in the Bulls and their rookie, and not only glued to stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

Butler hit the weight room hard, put up shots in the offseason, and improved his 1 on 1 skills. He watched the game film, paid attention to some minor tweaks that he could do, and that made a huge difference with his defense. Instead of being close enough to contest shots earlier in his career, now he beats the offensive player to the stop and goes for the ball. Even when a good player scores a basket on him, maybe they have a step on him or whatever, Butler is usually recovering to the point of getting a hand up in his face. I spoke less on Kawhi’s defense because it’s a well-known strength with him winning the award as an active defender inside and out. I just wanted to point out the leaps that Butler has made and actually outline the steps. I would take Buter’s offensive skill set and alpha-like, takeover capability over Leonard’s. Both are great two-way players and what’s scary is that there is room for more growth, and here’s how their numbers compare: Butler averaged 21-5-5, 1.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks. Leonard averaged 21-7-2, 1.8 steals and 1 block. I think these are a shade behind KD and PG13. Butler wants his own team and now has it after the Derrick Rose trade. Chicago is all his now but now its on the star if they miss the postseason. Harden, George, and Damian Lillard found a way in.

damian lillard

Damian Lillard

The man lost his other 4 starters, was an All-Star snub, and guided Portland into the postseason, and then won a series. Lillard was on a mission, he believes in his game even if the public doesn’t, and they played the Warriors tough in the postseason. This dude dropped 25-7-4 this season and he’s developed into a crunch time finisher. Dame shot 38% from downtown and 89% from the stripe. He’s drilled game-winners, carried the team in 4th quarters, this is a classic example of an overlooked player with a chip on his shoulder and I like that about him. He might still be raw in some areas, but man, this is a very fundamental player that is as smooth as a guard can come. To compare another smooth ball-handler, Kyrie Irving put up 19-5-3, similar from the line, but shot worse from deep at 32%. Irving never led the Cavaliers into the postseason, and Lillard just took his team there after the rest of his starters were no longer around.

This guy should be on your radar to watch as he develops into a leader, the face of a franchise, and he’s one of the most exciting players in the league already. People always talk about having that killer mentality like Kobe Bryant had, wanting to take that big shot, and to a lesser degree, this is one of those players with that DNA. He’s got a better perimeter shot than just about every point guard out there, with the exception of the reigning MVP. Check out the stats, watch some highlights, Lillard is a top-5 point guard.

The guy can also flow off the court, here are some notable lines from his music, courtesy of a Bleacher Report Article:

  • Never had LeBron’s stats but ready when it’s combat.
  • I’m like, “TMZ, wanna follow me?” Cause I never wear a mask, I don’t celebrate Halloween. Rarely on the scene, but I’m heavily on your screen. That’s the baby droppin’ dimes or commercials for Lillard threes.
  • My story, they can’t relate. The furthest away from fake. It was written long ago. I ain’t makin’ it by mistake.