Though NBA training camp is still more than a month away, some of our favorite stars are already under the microscope more than ever. Last year's lockout-shortened season resulted in disappointing outings for some, while others broke out.
Sure enough, now that a full basketball season is on the horizon and nobody has any more excuses, training camp is going to bring a lot of pressure to a small handful of players.
Take Dwight Howard (pictured), for example. He turned his request to be traded into a long, drawn-out soap opera that featured him having season-ending back surgery (which also, arguably, could have been a way for him to stop playing for a coach he did not like) before he finally kicked and screamed his way off the Orlando Magic and onto the Los Angeles Lakers.
Given how much many teams gave up in order for this trade to happen, not to mention that Howard is now the big man on Lakers campus alongside Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, he needs to have a good season to improve his reputation as well as up his value as he enters free agency next summer.
While Howard does have a lot of pressure on him, the question still remains: Does he face the most pressure as the start date of the new season quickly approaches?
After being drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009, Rubio chose to remain in Spain for two years before finally making his NBA debut last year.
The 21-year-old Spanish sensation proved to be a valuable spark for a Minnesota team that desperately needed one, as his fine passing skills and tenacious defense proved to be just what the doctor ordered for a team looking to get back in contention.
For a while, it looked as though the Timberwolves would make a run for a playoff spot.
Unfortunately, his season ended when he tore knee ligaments in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. At the time, he was averaging 10.6 points and 8.2 assists to go with an astounding 2.2 steals per game. Sure enough, despite his injury, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting.
Minnesota's playoff hopes died once Rubio went down, and therefore all eyes are going to be on him once training camp starts. He's probably not going to be back in the lineup until December, but just the same.
This young man is the key to Minnesota's success, and given how much new talent (e.g. Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, etc.) GM David Kahn brought in for Rubio to work with, he had better be at 100 percent and ready to play hard.
While the lockout resulted in some players having disappointing seasons, it did just the opposite for Bynum.
The former first-round pick averaged career bests in all major categories last year to the tune of 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Even more amazingly, he didn't miss one game due to injury for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.
However, just when it looked as though Bynum was finally becoming the dominant center the Lakers wanted him to be, he was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers in the four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles. In the blink of an eye, the pressure shifted to Bynum for two reasons.
First of all, he needs to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. As good as he was last year, Bynum's knees have been troublesome the past few seasons, and he has some well-documented attitude issues, some of which surfaced during last year's breakout campaign.
More importantly, Bynum joins a Sixers team that saw star player Andre Iguodala get traded to the Denver Nuggets and 2012 first-round pick Moe Harkless sent to the Orlando Magic as part of the same Howard trade.
As a result, the team-oriented 76ers that showed great potential last season has a brand new look and needs a star to take over in crunch time.
Bynum certainly does have star potential, but his breakout season may turn out to be a blessing and a curse for him.
On one hand, he's upped his value tremendously as he enters his final season before free agency. On the other hand, he now has to work 10 times as hard as the rest of his teammates to show that he can be a team player and that his days of being a cocky head case are behind him.
Though he may have behaved like a petulant child all of last season and thus turned himself into a bigger villain than LeBron James, the fact remains that Dwight Howard is still the most dominant center in the NBA.
He has incredible size to go with a great basketball IQ, and when he's healthy and playing at 100 percent, opposing teams always think twice about driving hard to the basket that he guards with authority.
Entering the 2012-2013 campaign, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year can smile, as he finally got his wish and was traded away from the Orlando Magic and is now part of a revamped Los Angeles Lakers team. However, as great as Howard makes the Lakers on paper, he is going to have to step it up once training camp starts.
You see, back when Howard's trade demand saga was going on last March, he stated that he wanted to be "the guy" wherever he played. He's going to have to share the spotlight in Los Angeles, as he is in a starting lineup that features future Hall of Famers in Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.
That said, once training camp opens, Howard needs to check his ego at the door and prove to both fans and critics that he can be a team player.
He's never had to really share the wealth before, so this could be tough for him. Hopefully, he can adjust quickly and actually help the Lakers contend for a title rather than turn his time with the team into the sequel of his Orlando soap opera.
Though Anthony averaged 22.6 points per game last year, his season was still disappointing given all of the hype that surrounded his New York Knicks.
From injuries to a general lack of team play to an ongoing feud with former coach Mike D'Antoni (that may or may not have led to his midseason resignation), the former Syracuse Orange stalwart did little to inspire hope that he could lead New York out of the doldrums and into consistent title contention.
Yet, once D'Antoni resigned and Mike Woodson took over, Anthony started to play a lot better.
He fit in with the iso-system perfectly, and even though teammates Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin went down with injuries towards the end of the season, Anthony carried the Knicks to multiple big wins, most notably a 100-99 overtime victory against the Chicago Bulls in which he scored 43 points.
Anthony and the Knicks ultimately did make the playoffs, but they lost to the eventual champion Miami Heat in the first round. Shortly after the NBA Finals were over, he said that he too would soon join LeBron James among the elite players to win a title, saying, "My time is coming," as reported by ESPNNewYork.com.
While Anthony will surely have another spectacular season for the Knicks, he put a huge target on his and his teammates' backs in saying that.
As a result, once training camp starts, he's going to have to put his money where his mouth is and prove to fans and critics alike that he is capable of leading a team to a championship. How he handles the pressure remains to be seen.
For the past five seasons, NBA fans have identified the Boston Celtics as the team with the original Big Three: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. However, after five years together and an NBA championship in 2008, this trio no longer exists, as Allen became a free agent and joined the Miami Heat, who defeated Boston in the Eastern Conference finals last season.
That said, it's time for Rajon Rondo to step up and fill the void that Allen left. He isn't a strong shooter and has been known to clash with head coach Doc Rivers, but he is just too talented to not step up and be the leader we all know he can be.
Seeing as how his Celtics were just a game away from making the NBA Finals last year, he's going to have a lot of pressure on him, as the demanding Boston fans will accept nothing less than a championship.
After he scored 22 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and dished out 14 assists in that Game 7 against the eventual NBA champions, something tells me he'll handle the extra time under the microscope just fine.