We’re more than halfway through the 2013-2014 NBA season, as the All-Star rosters are set. We’ve seen high draft picks not pan out, players playing with high criticism, and even some signs of players digressing in their careers. As the ’13-14 season continues, here is a list of the players with the most to prove after the All-Star break.
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15. Rajon Rondo
He no longer has the Big Three with him, so Rondo still needs to prove that he can be elite without them. Playing for a team that chose to rebuild makes him one of a kind as he is sticking it out alone with his new coach and teammates. Since returning from an ACL injury, it seems to be taking him a bit longer to get back into basketball form. Being the competitor he is, Rondo hates to lose and will forever be playing with a chip on his shoulder until he proves he can win on his own. In his mind, he doesn’t need Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or even Ray Allen as he’s said before that he’s content and wouldn’t mind spending the rest of his career in Boston. For now, he needs to use what’s left of this season to prove that he’s getting his legs back and ready for a contract year next season.
14. Luol Deng
After rejecting a three-year, $30 million extension from the Bulls, Chicago gave up on Deng and traded him away to a mess in Cleveland. He may have earned himself the honor as the player with the most to prove the second half of the season. Rejecting Chicago’s extension put pressure on his own self to perform the rest of this season on a losing team. The Bulls didn’t seem to blink and had no problem with him rejecting their offer by immediately trading him for a problematic Andrew Bynum and future draft picks. He’s been pretty consistent throughout his career, but really just added a ton of pressure on his own self to finish the season strong in a losing environment.
13. Lance Stephenson
It couldn’t have come at a better time for him to be having a career year, as he is playing for a contract. Stephenson arguably should have been an All-Star, posting four triple-doubles this season while shooting 50 percent from the field. With the rise of Stephenson and Paul George, it makes it easy for Indiana to think about trading or cutting ties with Danny Granger very soon. Stephenson plays with high energy, truly giving it his all this season. He needs to keep up his play in the second half throughout the season and into the playoffs in order for him to earn a big contract. If so, he would earn money this offseason that he’s never seen before.
12. Andrei Kirilenko
Another Brooklyn Net and NBA veteran, Kirilenko left the Minnesota Timberwolves last summer to sign for much less money with the Brooklyn Nets. He reportedly opted out of his final year of his contract, leaving $10.3 million in Minnesota this summer to earn himself $3.2 million this year with Brooklyn. Like Deron Williams, Kirilenko also started his career in Utah where he played the best basketball of his career. Minutes have been tough for him to find this year as he’s coming off the bench and playing for the oldest team in the NBA. As he is playing the worst basketball of his career, Kirilenko needs to get healthy and turn his season around for the Nets to have a successful season. If his team fails to make the playoffs, he may be heavily criticized for taking less money only to play for a losing team.
11. Carmelo Anthony
He’s another interesting player who remains anonymous about his future. You can guess all you want if he will opt out or not in his contract’s final year that would pay him $23 million next season. But if he is serious about winning a championship, his time in New York has proven that he isn’t the type of player that can win by himself. Raymond Felton isn’t good enough, nor are Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. At this point in his career, he may need to team up and form a powerhouse somewhere like the Miami Heat did in order to win a championship. Being one of the most talented scorers in the NBA today, Anthony will always get criticized if the Knicks don’t win. He needs to prove he can do more than just score for his team. Sadly, the first step of proving himself may begin by just helping the Knicks reach the playoffs this season.
10. Pau Gasol
The Lakers locked up Kobe Bryant to a two-year maximum contract recently, meaning this season is likely the end of the Pau Gasol era as a Laker. He isn’t denying that he refuses to take a pay cut to re-sign with the Lakers as they likely won’t be able to afford him due to the extension given to Bryant. Gasol is now playing in his contract year, so he needs to use the remaining time left as a Laker to score a max contract for next season. Traded or not at the deadline, he needs to prove that he can stay healthy and still produce at an All-Star level at his age. If so, Gasol will land a contract this offseason from a team that can use his services right away.
9. Jimmer Fredette
The days of “Jimmermania” are long gone and he may have some trouble finding a team next season. Sure, he can score the ball off the bench, but his limited opportunity in Sacramento is hurting his stock each night. He needs to prove he can help a team win games somehow if he wants to earn more minutes at this level. He needs to work on his ballhandling, speed and passing if he truly sees himself as a point guard in this league. As the Kings declined to pick up his player option at the beginning of this season, he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. With the remaining time that he has left in Sacramento, he needs to make the most of it by selling himself to another NBA team for next season.
8. Otto Porter Jr.
Another disappointment for a top three pick. In the time that Porter Jr. has been healthy, he hasn’t proven that he’s worthy of being the third overall pick this year. Through just 22 games played this year, Porter Jr. is averaging 1.7 points and 1.5 rebounds in roughly nine minutes per contest. After being such a high draft pick, you might have expected him to start ahead of Trevor Ariza, but he doesn’t seem close to being an NBA starter anytime soon. He needs to provide something for Washington coming off the bench as the Wizards are serious contenders for a playoff spot in the East this season. If not, perhaps a trip to the D-League may help him develop his game sooner.
7. Tyreke Evans
I’m sure he thought a sign and trade this offseason to the New Orleans Pelicans would be a better fit for him, but his play as a Pelican is starting to look a bit dodgy. Coming from a loaded guard team in Sacramento, Evans was expected to contribute right away to a rebuilding New Orleans team. But instead, Evans finds himself in the rotation behind Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu. Coach Monty Williams doesn’t even seem sold on letting Evans run the point guard position, letting Brian Roberts start over him with the injury of Jrue Holiday. As Evans proved his ability to play point guard in the past, he seems to be a bit of a tweener without a natural position at this point. His scoring and minutes per game are down as he is shooting a career worst 40.3 percent. The statistics don’t lie; Evans needs to turn his season around because his play each night is showing us that his talent is slowly fading away.
6. Anthony Bennett
Another Cleveland Cavalier, but let’s not call him the biggest NBA bust yet. This year’s No. 1 overall pick needs to work on every part of his game. As Kyrie Irving lived up to the hype while being Cleveland’s first overall pick in 2011, Bennett has been a disaster thus far, the complete opposite of what a No. 1 pick should be. Through 36 games, Bennett is averaging 3.0 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11 minutes per game. He’s shooting a horrific 28.1 percent from the field, and just 63.2 percent from the free throw strike. On Jan. 28 when the New Orleans Pelicans came to town, Bennett played his best game of his short career, scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds. That night, the Internet mocked him in exaggeration of his scoring accomplishment. Poor Bennett, but at least Roy Hibbert had his back.
5. Kyrie Irving
After a rough start to begin the season, the former No. 1 overall pick still has a ton to prove to people the remainder of this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers went 21-45 his rookie season, then 24-58 in his second year. Through 48 games this season, things aren’t looking any better for the Cleveland faithful as Irving has his squad at 16-32, likely headed to another NBA lottery. Plenty of rumors have been flying around that he wants out of Cleveland, but the chances of that are slim as the Cavaliers can still match any contract offer that gets thrown his way after the 2015 season. Despite being named an All-Star for a second consecutive season, Irving needs to start winning with what he has around him. He needs to start proving he is worthy of being a leader and an elite point guard being a No. 1 pick.
4. Blake Griffin
The high-flying piece that completes “Lob City” needs to eventually take his team to the next level. Forget his Rookie of the Year award and numerous All-Star appearances. The revival of the Los Angeles Clippers started when Griffin arrived, and for a third year now, he’s got Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard in the NBA today on his side to help him reach his full potential. Scoring wise, he’s playing the best basketball of his career, even shooting a career-best 70 percent from the free throw stripe. He’s taken a lot of criticism in the past once the postseason rolls around for not helping the Clippers advance. As the second half of the season is here, Griffin needs to keep his play up, and perhaps become a difference maker on the defensive end beyond just scoring in order for “Lob City” to remain an elite team out West.
3. Josh Smith
For years, he wanted out of Atlanta. His wish came true as he signed with the Detroit Pistons this offseason for four years at $54 million. But before the start of this season, he told reporters that he felt Detroit could be an elite NBA team this season. As of now, Smith isn’t putting his money where his mouth is as the Pistons are struggling, fighting for the eighth seed in the lowly Eastern Conference. If the playoffs started today, the Charlotte Bobcats would be in before Detroit. You can be sure that a lot of that blame would be on Smith as he is now the new face of their franchise. He needs to start playing like an elite player first before ever calling his team an elite NBA team. Things aren’t looking too smooth for J-Smoove as he desperately needs to get his new team winning.
2. Deron Williams
The Brooklyn Nets started the season a mess, but head coach Jason Kidd seems to have shut the critics a bit as the team had just completed a season-best 10-3 in the month of January. For the Nets to have a successful season it will begin in the hands of Williams, their veteran point guard who signed a five-year, $100 million extension in the summer of 2012. Williams certainly has the veteran pieces around him to make Brooklyn a title contender, but the team–including himself–needs to stay healthy. Nagging injuries throughout this season for him may certainly be one of the reasons for his inconsistent play, but he won’t get much veteran help anytime soon. As of now, Williams is playing one of his worst seasons since his rookie year. He needs to pick up his play in the second half of this season if he wants to keep the Nets in playoff contention.
1. Dwight Howard
He didn’t just free himself from Kobe Bryant this past summer, but Howard left a historic Los Angeles Lakers franchise for much less money. No disrespect to Bryant, but one of his reasons for not re-signing with the 16-time NBA champions was because he felt he had a better chance at winning with a young and upcoming star, James Harden. So far, Howard’s individual statistics this season look almost identical to how he performed last year with Los Angeles. Being the most anticipated free agent last summer, Superman needs to turn up his play a notch and save Houston. He needs to bring them an NBA championship soon. And if the Rockets fail to make a deep playoff run this season, Howard should expect more criticism. He only has four years to prove that he made the right choice by choosing $30 million less than what the Lakers had offered to keep him.
Which players have the most to prove?
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