7. RICKY RUBIO
The floppy-haired Barca native that transformed the Minnesota Timberwolves into a must-watch League Pass date in the first few months of the 2011-12 NBA season is expected to be even more of a midwest messiah this season. A Kobe collision led to a torn ACL that sidelined Ricky Rubio for the rest of the 2012 season, and the Timberwolves only won five of their last 25 games.
But it’s not just wins that Ricky must produce moving forward; ostensibly it is, but it’s more how those wins appease a specific player. The Timberwolves’ outspoken star at power forward, Kevin Love, made headlines this offseason while playing for Team USA when he said his “patience was not high” regarding Timberwolves’ management (KAHNNN!!). After Timberwolves GM, David Kahn, made a bevy of moves this offseason, bringing in the bone-on-bone knee of former Trail Blazer Brandon Roy and also signing do-everything Jazz antecedent, Andrei “AK 47″ Kirilenko to a 2-year deal (plus a smart $45 million offer sheet for Nicolas Batum that led to Portland overpaying the crotch-knocker), you’d hope for ‘Wolves’ fans that Love was satisfied. Ultimately, that comes down to Ricky.
If Rubio returns to 100 percent following his torn ACL, and if he improves his horribly inefficient shooting while retaining the magical way he’s spread the ball around to his Minnesota teammates, then there’s a solid chance Roy and Kirilenko’s play won’t be as necessary. If Rubio – God forbid – re-injures his knee by returning too soon, or is slow in his convalescence and misses more games, or even if he returns as not nearly the explosive dynamo he was last season, then the Timberwolves will need Roy and Kirilenko to play as well as they ever have (improbable, but not impossible). Failing all that, Kahn would have to bring in another star to appease Love, or he’ll probably forfeit his fifth year option in the summer of 2015, and test free agency to find a winner.
There’s a lot riding on Ricky Rubio and his surgically repaired knee. He’s the fulcrum by which the Minnesota franchise either swings towards the league’s elite or back towards the bottom-dwelling status they’ve toiled in since KG was mercifully shipped to Boston. That’s a lot of pressure for a player born in 1990, and Wolves fans hope his rawboned shoulders can handle it.
6. JAMES HARDEN
It’s tempting to put Serge Ibaka with Harden (like we did with Griffin/CP3), since both will be free agents next summer and both could demand max-level salaries. Ibaka lead the league in blocks last year, and he was a runner-up to Tyson Chandler in the voting for the 2012 Defensive Player Of The Year. But it’s Harden whose fate is most intertwined with the fortunes of Oklahoma City’s beloved Thunder.
Sure, Durant is on this list already, but Harden has more pressure on him because he failed to perform on the biggest stage in last year in the NBA Finals, AND because he’s looking for his first real contract after his rookie deal expires in the summer of 2013. For a player that won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2012, and would be a legitimate starter and star on 95 percent of NBA rosters, Harden has the skills to demand max money. His performance this year in both the regular season, where he and his Thunder teammates will face increased scrutiny after last year’s Finals birth, and in the playoffs, where he played exceptionally well until the Finals last year, means he’s got a lot to think about in his time off before training.
When Harden and his Thunder cohorts return to the court to begin training camp in September, he’ll realize that every time he’s on the court other teams will be looking at him. They’ll want to see whether he could be a legitimate star or star-helper on their own team or if he’ll wilt under the pressure of an increased defensive effort after he and his beard became household names/slogans last season.
Success can breed even more success in the NBA, but it can also lead some players to settle. At only 22 years old, let’s hope (for both the Thunder and Harden’s sake) he’s in the former category. If he comes out flat this season and continues his dreadful play from last year’s abysmal Finals performance, the Thunder might think twice about letting Ibaka walk to sign him next summer. Other teams will also be less likely to offer him the max money his play last season warranted.
If he comes back stronger from his setback in the Finals and wows the league even more, the Thunder will be right back in the Finals and Harden, plus OKC’s GM Sam Presti will have a hard decision on their hands next summer.
It’s a tough decision. Another brilliant season from Harden is the best chance OKC has of getting back to the Finals, but with a different outcome in June. With the Lakers, Clippers, Spurs and even Memphis in contention, coming out of the West will be even harder this year. The Thunder will need Harden even more, and if he excels in that role, then he can reap the financial windfall his best play calls for.
…Check back tomorrow for Part II…
Who do you think has the most pressure on their shoulders heading into next year?
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