The NBA is as fickle a league as any professional sport. Star players can fade as quickly as they rise and even once one joins the elite they face stratospheric expectations.
No matter how many points a player scores, dimes they drop or rebounds they snag, there is always another obstacle to overcome out on the court.
For a number of players, the 2012-2013 season will be instrumental in defining their basketball legacies. From promising young guards to veteran big men, these seven players are looking at what will likely be the most important year of their careers.
It's never fun to have your back against the wall, but these players will have to come out swinging from next season's tipoff in order to silence critics and live up to their potential.
After a brilliant first season in New York, things quickly went south for Amar'e Stoudemire during his second campaign with the Knicks. Battling a slew of injuries and showing the wear of a decade in the NBA, Stoudemire looked very little like an All-Star, let alone the MVP candidate he was in 2011.
His numbers are solid on paper; he averaged 17.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game on 48.3 percent shooting from the floor, but those are actually some of the lowest in his career across the board.
Obviously Stoudemire was not going to put up the same numbers with Carmelo Anthony as he did when he was the focal point of New York's offense, but what was startling was his lack of aggression and refusal to adjust his game. Stoudemire is one of the league's best scoring big men, but he attempted just under 14 shots per game.
Stoudemire appeared to lack the elite athleticism that was so essential to his game. Never a great defender, rebounder or shot-blocker, Stoudemire hung his hat on his uncommon explosiveness and ability attack the basket and finish with authority at the rim.
He's an above-average jump shooter, but Stoudemire is best when going to work in the post or cutting to the basket. Last season, he drifted out on the perimeter far too often and appeared to put in lackadaisical effort both on defense and on the boards.
He played well when Jeremy Lin was in town as they ran a nice pick-and-roll, but with Lin in Houston he will need to find a way to be effective in Mike Woodson's offense.
Bringing Raymond Felton back may help, the two had good chemistry during Felton's brief previous tenure with New York, but even with a point guard who knows his game, Stoudemire must make more an effort as a two-way player.
Stoudemire was brought in to turn the Knicks into a legitimate contender, but last season he was not that leader on the court that he is capable of being.
With three years and nearly $65 million remaining on his contract, many fans have already called for New York to aggressively shop the All-NBA forward.
While dealing with cumbersome back problems will obviously hamper his game, next season must be at least somewhat of a return to form for Amar'e Stoudemire if the Knicks want to have any shot of making noise in the postseason.
One of the most coveted big men on the market, Roy Hibbert received a max contract offer from the Portland Trail Blazers, but ultimately was re-signed by the Indiana Pacers for the same four-year, $58 million deal, per ESPN.
Hibbert has improved every year he has been in the NBA, but now with the pressure of such a massive deal on his shoulders, Hibbert must prove he can be a dominant center for an entire season and a leader for this talented Pacers basketball team.
Last season, Hibbert averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and two blocks per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field. These are good stats, but Hibbert rarely put forth the kind of output a skilled 7'2" big man should be capable of having on any given night.
His conditioning and basketball IQ have improved, as he spent less time in foul trouble and played a career-high 29.8 minutes per game, but if he could stay on the court for 35 minutes per game it would allow Indiana to exploit their size in the paint even more.
He played well in the postseason, including a 19-point, 18-rebound, five-block masterpiece against the Miami Heat. But once the Heat sped up the game he looked out of sorts and was not much of a factor. Hibbert must prove he can play at any tempo, because the league seems to be trending away from the era of dominant big men.
Hibbert has a nice hook shot and an improved set of post moves so he must call for the ball more; he attempted barely 10 shots per game last season. Even though Indiana has plenty of offense with Danny Granger, David West and Paul George, playing inside-out basketball is the best way to create quality shots.
Roy Hibbert is a good young center, but next season he must take a sizable leap to become the franchise cornerstone the Pacers envisioned him being. Otherwise, they may regret giving him such a lucrative deal that hurts their financial flexibility for the future.
Despite making every effort to claw his way out of New Orleans, the Hornets organization opted to retain Eric "My Heart Belongs in Phoenix" Gordon as their franchise 2-guard, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. Gordon will receive a max contract worth $58 million over four years and now will be charged with leading the franchise he tried to ditch into a new era of basketball alongside lottery picks Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers.
The centerpiece of the team's blockbuster deal that sent Chris Paul to Los Angeles, Gordon struggled to stay healthy and appeared in just nine contests last season. Still, he continued to show star potential, averaging 20.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game as well as 1.4 steals.
Gordon has struggled with injuries in three of his four NBA season, only playing in more than 65 games his rookie season. With New Orleans dealing Jarrett Jack and losing Marco Belinelli, the team will need him to anchor their backcourt and stay on the court for as much time as possible.
Gordon will assume a major leadership role on this very young team as he will be not only their first option on offense, but likely be asked to guard some of the league's best perimeter scorers. Gordon is a solid, physical defender who is capable of reading passing lanes and forcing turnovers.
Without a proven point guard, Gordon will have to work with the ball in his hands and be a playmaker for New Orleans, not just look for his own shot. Gordon has the ability to use his strength to bully his way to the basket but will have to execute in the half court, run the pick-and-roll and make plays for his teammates more frequently than he ever has before.
Gordon will also be asked to mentor Austin Rivers. The 10th overall selection has plenty of talent but needs to be pushed to become a better player on the defensive end and to develop a more team-first mindset.
In addition to his expectations on the court, Gordon must ingratiate himself with the Hornets' fans that undoubtedly took his efforts to leave the franchise as an insult. He was retained to be a franchise guard, but in order to do that he must earn back the support and favor of the New Orleans community.
Gordon is one of the best young 2-guards in the league, but in order to continue growing as a player he must manage to stay healthy and embrace his role on this team.
Even after his trade to Dallas, no one anticipated Lamar Odom, coming off of a Sixth Man of the Year campaign, would have as catastrophic a season as he did. The versatile forward struggled with his conditioning, his shot and never found a niche with the veteran Mavericks.
Eventually, his poor attitude and disappointing performance became such a distraction that the team shut him down prior to the playoffs. Now, Odom must prove that he is still an elite player coming off of what is unquestionably the worst season of his professional career.
He averaged just 6.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in barely 20 minutes of playing time per game. What is even worse are his anemic shooting percentages. He connected on 35.2 percent of his overall shots and a paltry 25.2 percent from distance.
For his career, Odom averages 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from deep.
Odom was traded back to the Clippers, the team that originally drafted him in 1999, and fans are hoping that being back in his beloved Los Angeles will rejuvenate him.
An engaged, in-shape Odom is one of the league's most skilled big men. He is a tremendous passer who can play the point-forward role, a reliable shooter that can stretch a defense and draw forwards out of the paint and a rugged presence on the interior.
With L.A., he will likely be the first big man off the bench, playing behind primarily Blake Griffin, but also potentially DeAndre Jordan or even Caron Butler depending on the matchups. He is capable of playing the 3, 4 and 5 spots if necessary.
At 32 and without a serious injury, Odom is still physically capable of being a valuable contributor on a playoff team, but after a historically woeful season with the Mavs he needs to prove he can be a positive player both on and off the court.
John Wall was expected to take a serious leap his sophomore season, but sharing the court with the same bunch of malcontent, immature players, he plateaued and led his Washington Wizards to a paltry 20-46 record. However, Washington and new coach Randy Wittman appear committed to building a positive culture, shipping out perennial headaches JaVale McGee and Nick Young while bringing in Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, three starting-caliber, high-character veterans.
Last season Wall averaged 16.3 points, 4.5 boards, eight assists and 1.4 steals per game with 42.3 percent shooting while connecting on a mind-boggling 7.1 percent of his attempted threes. His rookie numbers were almost all slightly better, as he averaged 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 1.8 steals and hit 29.6 percent of his threes (which still is far from great).
John Wall is entering his third campaign, the year when many other franchise point guards like Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul became the dominant leaders their teams envisioned them as.
The Wizards drafted Wall the perfect backcourt companion in Bradley Beal, a gifted shooter who is unselfish and can both move without the ball and handle the rock. He has a strong foundation around him, so it is up to John Wall to lead his club to NBA legitimacy.
Wall has always been a phenomenal athlete, but he needs to become more than that next season. In his third year, Rose developed a much better outside shot and improved his half-court facilitating, exactly the two facets that Wall must improve.
He is capable of forcing turnovers but needs to work on his defensive discipline and staying with his man instead of ceding position by always gambling for steals.
Last season he averaged a staggering 3.9 turnovers per game. If he wants to lead Washington to their first winning record in years, he needs to make better decisions with the basketball and not force the issue as much as he did. Too often he drove recklessly into the paint without properly reading the defense.
The excuse of a bad team is no longer valid, as Washington has some nice talent and depth both on the frontline with Nene, Okafor, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin and on the perimeter with Beal, Jordan Crawford and Chris Singleton in addition to Wall himself.
Next season, Wall needs to discard the bad habits he has picked up during his first two years and prove he's the player the Wizards thought he could be when they drafted him first overall in 2010.
It's safe to say that once next season tips off, no player will face the kind of scrutiny Dwight Howard will. Whether he begins the season still in an Orlando Magic jersey, gets his wish to be a Brooklyn Net or is "forced" to play for the Lakers, fans and pundits will be watching the All-Star center's every move.
By constantly changing his mind and allowing information to leak, Howard has created a nightmare situation for Orlando as he vacillates between being willing to stay, refusing to sign any contract extensions and saying he will only play for the Nets. According to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel, Howard currently says he will not sign another contract with the Magic, but honestly it is difficult to make a definitive statement on Howard's future.
Adding to the controversy is Howard's back injury and subsequent rehabilitation that he has been doing in Los Angeles. He missed the end of the regular season and playoffs. For a player whose game is predicated so heavily on athleticism, back problems can be especially limiting. Just ask Amar'e Stoudemire.
Last season Howard averaged 20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 2.1 blocks per game and shot a blistering 57.3 percent from the field. While these are spectacular numbers, it was not enough to keep his Magic team from being a mediocre playoff team, ultimately falling to the Eastern Conference's sixth seed.
Howard is a phenomenal player, but his game is still lacking a lot of skill and polish. He relies on overpowering opponents and outrunning them, but does not have a solid low-post game that he can go to consistently. He struggles when facing double-teams and for a big man is fairly turnover prone (3.2 per game).
He is a horrendous free-throw shooter—49.1 percent last season—and several times last season teams employed a Hack-a-Dwight strategy, most notably when Golden State allowed him to attempt 39 free throws and he missed 18 of them.
Howard must prove three things next season: that he can still get it done on the court after all the media-controversy and whining, that he is healthy and not hampered by his back and that he can play with skill as opposed to merely strength.
Sure it's only Jeremy Lin's third season in the NBA and his second playing major minutes, but as the Houston Rockets' resident star and franchise point guard he will need to prove he was worth his $25 million contract and that Linsanity was no fluke.
Last season as a starter Lin averaged 18.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.7 assists and two steals per game while shooting 34.3 percent from three-point range. Though he wasn't great defensively he made up for it with his ability to break down a defense off the dribble, play in transition and run the pick-and-roll to perfection.
However, once Mike D'Antoni left the team his numbers dropped significantly and he was not the same transcendent player. In addition, questions about his longevity are valid as he missed the end of the season and the playoffs because of a meniscus tear in his knee.
Despite being just 23 and having very little NBA experience, Lin will be asked to carry Houston's offense. The team is one of the youngest in the league, boasting a slew of rookies and project players.
Lin will undoubtedly dominate the ball, taking plenty of shots and also initiating the team's offense on almost every possession. He will need to consistently get into the lane, but also show that he can knock down perimeter shots with regularity and help space the floor.
Lin will not be surrounded by the talent he had in New York, and though he played well with the Knicks' role players, defenses will be keying on him and looking to stop him at all costs.
On top of that, Houston does not have very good options behind him. Shaun Livingston and Toney Douglas are decent, but Lin should still easily be playing 35 minutes per night.
While Jeremy Lin has plenty of basketball left to play, next season will be huge for his development as a player as he starts the season in the international spotlight.