Between the infamous Decision and the moment that he won his first NBA title in 2012, no player in the league was as heavily criticized and picked apart as LeBron James. James’ critics, of which there were many (many of them wrong-headed) seemed to revel in the King’s supposed failures. Two years on—and two titles later—LeBron James is no longer such an easy target. James has his championships, and he has nothing left to prove. However, the following five players, for various reasons, enter the 2014-2015 season with pressure heaped upon them. The media and basketball fans everywhere will be watching and waiting.
Lance Stephenson spent the first two years of career making a name for himself in all the wrong ways—he was more famous for his controversial antics off the court than his performance on it. But last season, Stephenson had a breakout year, averaging 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists for a Pacers team that started the season like a house on fire, then went out with a whimper. All the while Stephenson was arguably the Pacers’ most consistent performer and easily their most dangerous off-the-dribble threat.
Amidst his solid performances, however, Stephenson continued to reinforce his reputation as a hothead and an all-around weirdo (blowing in LeBron’s ear was an all-time weird NBA moment). There were rumours that Stephenson’s locker room antics were partly responsible for the Pacers’ post-All Star break slide. When the offseason came around, Larry Bird and the team’s front office refused to give more than a five-year, $44-million offer to the unrestricted free agent. They simply didn’t trust him.
Stephenson held out for something more lucrative, but it turned out that there wasn’t a huge market for the unpredictable shooting guard. He finally signed a three-year, $27-million deal with the Charlotte Hornets and he should, in theory, be the perfect running mate for Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and company. No one doubts Stephenson’s basketball abilities, but the jury is certainly still out on his ability to display the kind of maturity level that’s required to lead an NBA team.
If Stephenson wants a big, long-term contract in the next few years, now is the time to put his clownish antics behind him and let his basketball do the talking.
Carmelo Anthony spent the summer being wined and dined by the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets. Both teams had the rosters in place to offer Melo a chance at winning his first NBA title, but neither team could offer the seven-time All-Star the five-year, $129-million deal that his incumbent team, the New York Knicks, were able to front. After flirting with the idea of leaving MSG, Melo finally put pen-to-paper with the Knicks in mid-July. Money talks, as they say.
Last season the Knicks, as a team, were a disaster. They finished with a record of 37-and-45, failing to make the post-season just one year after winning 50 games and snagging the two-seed in the Eastern Conference. But from an individual perspective Anthony had a very good season. He averaged 27 points per game and eight rebounds. In late January Anthony had 62 points in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets), breaking Bernard King’s record for most points in a single game by a Knicks player. It was the lone highlight in a season of lowlights for the Knicks.
Despite Anthony’s talents—and no one doubts those—many experts feel like the Knicks would have been better off parting ways with their All-Star forward. With their current roster, it’s highly unlikely that the Knicks will win a championship in the next few years and they’ll be in a dogfight just to make the post-season this year. They might have been wise to clean the slate salary-wise and start over. Melo, of course, will have noted the criticism and will be well aware of the pressure to hoist a sub-par team on his shoulders and into the post-season. No fan base is as passionate and as, well, overbearing as Knicks Nation.
Anthony remains the only player in the top-five of the storied 2003 NBA draft not to have won a title (yep, that’s right, Darko won one in 2004). And he doesn’t have a whole lot of time left to put that right.
It’s easy to forget now, but just three years ago Derrick Rose was the most exciting and explosive player in the NBA not-named LeBron James. The Chicago Bulls point-guard burst onto the scene in 2008, winning Rookie of the Year, and he won the MVP just three years later after leading his team to the best record in the league. But everything changed on a garbage-time drive to the basket in the playoffs two seasons ago. After tearing his ACL against the 76ers it’s been a long, frustrating road back to the hard court for Rose.
Rose did made a brief comeback last season, but it was cut short by a meniscus tear; and truth-be-told he didn’t look great in the dozen or so games he featured in. The same goes for his return this summer, when he made a somewhat-surprising return to represent Team USA in the 2014 FIBA World Cup—the quick first step remains, but Rose looks like a shadow of himself around the basket.
All that being said, the fact that Rose is back playing basketball again is a great thing in itself—his game will hopefully come back once he shakes off the rust. The Bulls will be expecting that rust to come off sooner rather than later, however—they’ve put together a team that should contend for the title, adding Pau Gasol to play alongside Joakim Noah in the frontcourt. But as talented and as well coached as they are, the Bulls’ championship aspirations are dependent upon Rose regaining the form that saw him win the MVP in 2011. The pressure for Chicago’s native son to perform has never been higher.
It seems like just yesterday when James Harden was one of the golden boys of the NBA. Playing a sixth man role in Oklahoma City, Harden, alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, was part of the most exciting young trio in basketball. When Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets two seasons ago—a move that is still panned by most experts—he became the focal point of a thrilling run-and-gun Rockets team that sneaked into the playoffs and gave his old side a run for their money in the post-season.
But the James Harden honeymoon period seems to have ended.
Like most superstars, Harden has had his game picked apart in recent months—the positives have been downplayed and the negatives have been magnified. Last season Harden had top billing on a Rockets team that wasn’t just expected to entertain, but to challenge for an NBA title. The Rockets were upset in the first round of the playoffs and some of Harden’s flaws were exposed. Harden is an exceptional offensive player—a great shooter, passer and off-the-dribble threat—but he’s a lousy defender. Embarrassingly bad, in fact. With Harden on the perimeter, the Rockets couldn’t stop anyone.
The Rockets fans who watched Harden in FIBA action this summer would’ve been infuriated and encouraged in equal measure—Harden actually looked okay on defence. Now granted, he was defending a lot of players below the NBA standard, but the effort was there and that can be half the battle when it comes to Harden on defence.
In the offseason, the Rockets signed Trevor Ariza, a very component perimeter defender who will take some pressure off Harden, but they also lost Chandler Parsons, meaning that Harden will need to bear an even bigger burden on offence.
When Parsons left for Dallas, Harden dismissively told the press that the Rockets were on Dwight Howard’s and his side, as if Parsons had never really meant much to the team. Harden’s right in a sense, the Rockets are his team—but they’re his team alone. Forget Howard, the pressure will fall squarely on The Beard this season.
Kevin Love is a superstar. Love has played five seasons in the NBA, made three All-Star teams, and last season he averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game. Few big men in the league possess his unique skillset—the ability to crash the boards and score with his back to the basket, as well as stretch the floor all the way out to the three-point line. Love, on his day, might just be the toughest player in the league to defend.
But five seasons into his NBA career, Love finds himself at a crossroads—many people aren’t convinced by the former UCLA Bruin.
When news broke that the Cavaliers were willing to trade their first overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for their disgruntled star, a very public process of picking apart Kevin Love’s game began in earnest. Love puts up empty stats. Love doesn’t challenge shots because he wants to pad his rebounding numbers. Love’s a bad teammate. Love’s a bad defender. Love couldn’t lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs. Those are just some of the criticisms that were aimed at Love this summer, some fair and some unfair.
In many ways Love has found himself in the perfect situation in Cleveland. In Minnesota he was expected to do everything—he was the face of the franchise—but in Cleveland he joins a team with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Love will be part of a Big 3, and the load will be shared—not to mention, he’ll see plenty of open looks with the talent around him. That said, now that Love is in a position to win, the expectations have never been higher. If the Cavs underperform, and Love underperforms individually, those that have criticized Love’s game will feel vindicated.
In Minnesota, Love had a multitude of very reasonable excuses for never having made the playoffs—bad coaching, bad supporting cast, injuries, bad front office etc. But the time for excuses are over. It’s now time to win.