With the dark days of August upon us, NBA players and scribes go into hibernation until training camps kick off in September. The Olympics are over and most of the player movement already happened, so it’s a mellow month for most NBA heads. Instead of resting on our laurels, we’d like to preface the 2012-2013 season with a list of players who will experience the highest levels of pressure heading into the new NBA year.
They’ll experience pressure to succeed with a new team; pressure to play well enough for a big contract; pressure to not just win, but to win it all – or go bust trying. Pressure is a part of any professional athlete’s season. But for these 10 (actually 11) players, the pressure will be amped up even more as they wait for the last month of the offseason to conclude. Then, they can get back onto the hardwood where their future destinies will be revealed.
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10. RAJON RONDO
The Boston Celtics point guard extraordinaire’s postseason should leave Boston Celtics fans convinced they have one of the top five point guards in the league. His 44-point, 10-assist, 8-rebound and 3-steal explosion in the Game 2 Eastern Conference Finals loss to the eventual NBA champions was one of those rare times when you can get away with using “epic” as an adjective to describe an athletic performance without wincing at the hyperbole. His magical Game 2 withstanding, he was incredible throughout the Eastern Conference Finals and a big part of why an aging Celtics team was able to withstand a 6-game series against Atlanta and a surprising 7-game series against Philadelphia to even reach the Eastern Finals.
Months earlier, all the rumors about Rondo’s availability (even after Chris Paul was dealt to L.A. last fall) were ridiculous; except, Danny Ainge has shown a cold, calculated obliviousness to fans’ emotions when making personnel decisions (he probably would have dealt Bird when he was struggling dinged up in ’92). If Rondo falters out of the gate this season, and the 3-year deal KG signed this offseason seems to have been for naught, you can be sure Ainge will put Rondo on GMs’ radar and give him to the first team that offers something in the ballpark of his actual value.
But how do you value a player like Rondo? He’s a once-in-a-generation guard with skills unseen anywhere else across the NBA landscape. He’s so untraditional, you can’t calculate what he brings to the court because it changes so drastically from game to game. Yes, he passes up too many jumpers and he’s been known to disregard an open lane to the basket in favor of a dish to a teammate open on the wing (something Jason Terry is going to love). But he’s an alien, in the best sense of the word: he possesses outlandishly large hands, plus speed and vision that can only be taught and harnessed at Professor Xavier’s Westchester mansion. He’s successfully hid (he didn’t dunk the ball once last year) his jumping ability with Machiavellian cunning. He’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle, so trading or even appreciating him requires as much nuance as a post modern art critic.
This is the first year where the Celtics are securely Rajon Rondo’s team. KG and Paul Pierce are important pieces for the Celtics to be successful, but they’ll live or die by Rondo’s ability to control the flow of the game and get easy points in transition. If he’s engaged, they’re very hard to beat. But if he’s sulking – and the emotional EKG-esque spikes and valleys in Rondo’s psyche are a common complaint against him – the team could be in trouble. And no one will get more of the blame than Rondo. He started off his tenure in Boston as the Big Three’s little brother. Now it’s the little brother’s time to carry the (remaining) Big Two.
9. KEVIN DURANT
Perhaps unfairly, a lot of people think Kevin Durant is the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. This is the common byproduct of any playoff loss: the team’s best player gets the blame. If the Thunder had won the title, Durant would have won the Finals MVP award and people could no longer call him a modern George Gervin (actually, he’s already a better defender and passer than Gervin and the Iceman never made the NBA Finals in his 16-year ABA-NBA career, but still, their body types and the ease with which they score make the comparisons inevitable). No, Kevin Durant was not the reason the Thunder lost in June (Harden‘s disappearance and LeBron‘s post play are better answers). But entering his sixth season, and at the still-ripe age of 23 (he’ll turn 24 at the end of September), Durant is just now starting to enter his prime, and he’s in a glorious place for that prime.
Oklahoma City has another year with their Westbrook, Durant, Harden and Ibaka lineup, but next summer Harden, Ibaka or both will be gone. If they’re going to win a title, they’d better do so this year. With the Lakers’ moves this offseason, San Antonio’s continued consistency (not to mention three more years of Timmy), a still dangerous Dallas team, the Clippers’ re-tooling with Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford, Oklahoma City doesn’t have time to wait around for another opportunity like last year. It’ll be on Durant and his teammates to meet the blossoming challenges in the West, and because of Durant’s place as their best player on their young team (sorry Russ), he’ll be the one to take the praise or the blame. While it’s true he still has at least another 10 years playing at a high level, we don’t know if he’ll be in such a perfect team situation to win it all.
If the Thunder fail to win a title this year, it will be a disappointment. That’s never been the case for a franchise this young. Durant isn’t even 24 yet, but he has three straight scoring titles and he’s USA Basketball’s all-time leading scorer. It’s now time for that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy. If it doesn’t happen this year, it might not ever happen; such is the fickle fate of the superstar-laden rosters of the post-CBA contemporary NBA.
8. CHRIS PAUL/BLAKE GRIFFIN
The Los Angeles Clippers made the second round of the playoffs last year. It took a miracle comeback against a solid Memphis team in the opening game to get there (remember, they came back from 24 down in the fourth quarter). Then they were swept by an elderly – yet talented and well-coached – Spurs team that had won 14 games in a row to that point. It was a bright opening to the one-dimensional “Lob City”.
Now, the season after they made that first step, they’ve failed to find a GM to replace Neil Olshey (who headed north, to Portland). But GM/Coach/Twitter joke fodder, Vinny Del Negro, helped Director of Player Personnel (and possible new GM) Gary Sacks, acquire Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford to augment the already formidable partnership between franchise player Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul.
With a year playing together behind them, the Clippers’ dynamic duo are expected to play even better going into 2013 with the Pacific Division getting much tougher after the Lakers’ moves. But there are a number of possibilities and concerns for the poor Clippers fans (and the bandwagon fans, the lifers detest) that could derail the good vibes of Paul and Griffin’s first season together.
Chris Paul has never played in a conference finals game, and before last year Blake Griffin hadn’t even suited up in May before, but now with the additions of Odom/Hill/Crawford, they’ll be expected to win, and win more than last year. A second round sweep isn’t going to cut it this year. If Blake’s janky knee doesn’t hold up, and Chris Paul is expected to expend 48 minutes of effort on his beat-up body (he also has a knee that’s decidedly lacking in cartilage), then there’s the possibility Paul might flee the Donald Sterling-owned (and hence, bad juju) franchise.
It’s up to Blake and Paul to make this year another stride in the right direction. If not, the Clippers, plus Blake and Paul individually, will have failed. Last year was a cupcake party compared to the expectations even a slice of playoff success breeds. They better win, and they better win now, or else next year might be back to square one.