The Top 10 NBA Players Under The Most Pressure Next Year, Part I

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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