10 NBA Players Who Will Have to Prove Their Worth During the 2012-13 Season
That is, if expectations are at all troublesome to live up to.
Many an NBA player have wilted under the weight of expectations stemming from lucrative new contracts. Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah wasn't the first to admit as much when he spoke to The Chicago Tribune last season, and certainly won't be the last.
Certainly not after this summer's free agent frenzy, which featured more than a few players cashing in with plenty still to prove. The new dollar signs attached to them only figure to magnify the attention paid to them and the pressure to follow therein.
Not that any professional basketball player is likely to complain about getting paid millions upon millions to hoop it up for a living, though cash can be cold comfort when one fails to measure up to one's pretty-penny paycheck in the eyes of a team, a fan base and a city.
Whatever problems money poses, these 10 newly-signed (or re-signed) stars will have to overcome them as they attempt to show that they deserve the money handed to them this offseason.
Few will doubt Eric Gordon's talent and potential. The former NBA Draft lottery pick out of Indiana ranks among the most gifted scoring guards in the league, with the limitless range on his shot and the athleticism and strength in attacking the basket to produce 20 points per game with relative ease.
But EJ (as he's known to some) has struggled through injuries throughout his still-young career. He missed 50 games over his first three years with the Los Angeles Clippers and another 57 in one year with the New Orleans Hornets, the latter on account of issues with his knee.
That didn't stop the Phoenix Suns from extending him a max offer sheet worth $58.4 million over four years, nor did it discourage the Hornets from matching.
Even though Gordon went out of his way to profess his love for Phoenix.
Now that he's back in the Big Easy, Gordon will be called upon to play like the All-Star he can (and should) be, on a young and exciting Hornets that features Most Improved Player Ryan Anderson and the rookie tandem of Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers.
And (fingers crossed!) avoid the training table in the process.
Like Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez missed most of the 2011-12 season (61 games, to be exact) on account of injuries.
Lopez's, though, were particularly worrisome. After going three years without any problems whatsoever, the Brooklyn Nets big man came down with a broken foot—an ailment that's been known to derail the careers of prominent seven-footers, like Bill Walton and Yao Ming.
Not that Lopez was at all the perfect player even when healthy. He's never been a particularly proficient rebounder for his size and position, and his rebounding rate has only declined since he first set foot in The Association.
Still, at 24, Lopez remains a talented kid who can fill it up on the offensive end. The Nets will need him to stay healthy and hold down the fort in the middle if they're to live up to lofty expectations in the wake of a transformational offseason for the once-wayward franchise.
And, in turn, if he's to make GM Billy King look anything but stupid for bringing him back for four years and $61 million.
At least Billy King has an excuse for the deal he gave to Lopez—the big fella had other suitors as a restricted free agent.
The same defense doesn't apply to Gerald Wallace, who inked a four-year, $40 million contract to stay with the Nets.
Not exactly the wisest decision of King's career. After all, "Crash" has long been the type of player whose game is largely predicated on athleticism and, at the age of 30, those abilities are likely to diminish precipitously from here on out.
To be sure, keeping Wallace was a smart move, if not the only move to make. The Nets will need his rebounding prowess to cover for Brook Lopez's deficiencies up front, and his defense at small forward could prove crucial opposite the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Luol Deng and Danny Granger, among others.
And, frankly, letting Wallace go would've only compounded the original(ly foolish) decision by Brooklyn's front office to acquire him at the trade deadline, in exchange for a draft pick that the Portland Trail Blazers turned into Rookie of the Year hopeful Damian Lillard.
But, with so few (if any) suitors coming after Wallace in free agency, why did the Nets sign him to such an expensive deal? Couldn't they have kept him around at a more financially flexible number?
Of course, if Wallace plays well in the coming seasons, nobody will much care how well he's being compensated.
Size is always at a premium in the NBA, especially when said size comes with some skill and an All-Star appearance attached.
That being said, Roy Hibbert will have to do much more than just walk and chew gum at the same time to make good on his four-year, $58.4 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. His rebound rate was rather low for a 7'2", 280-pound behemoth—16.6 percent, good for 20th-best in the league—and he was regularly pushed around by shorter defenders in the playoffs this past spring.
The Pacers did the right thing by matching Portland's offer to Hibbert, but shouldn't settle for simply hanging onto their man in the middle. It's incumbent upon Hibbert, who turns 26 in December, to continue to improve and show that he can be a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come.
Roy Hibbert's not the only Pacer under the gun after signing a lucrative contract this summer. The same goes for George Hill, on whom the pressure might be even greater.
Granted, Hill's five-year, $40 million contract pales in comparison to Hibbert's monster deal. The difference for Hill, though, is that Indy went out of its way to make him the team's starting point guard for the foreseeable future. They traded Darren Collison, who spent part of last season as the starter, to the Dallas Mavericks in a deal for Ian Mahinmi, and brought in D.J. Augustin to be the backup.
The onus, then, is on Hill to reward the Pacers' faith in him with a breakout season. They'll likely need him to improve upon his 9.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists if they're to take the next step in a crowded Eastern Conference.
It was only a matter of time before the Blazers overpaid someone this summer. They were in on Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez, but lost out on both when their respective teams matched the offer sheets Portland put out.
Few should've been surprised, then, when the Blazers ended the Minnesota Timberwolves' hopes of landing Nicolas Batum with a four-year, $44.6 million pact of their own.
The number itself is somewhat worrisome, considering Batum's temperament and his heretofore inconsistent production.
Then again, the 6'8" Frenchman won't turn 24 until mid-December and has demonstrated a level of athleticism and basketball acumen to suggest that he'll be a star on both ends of the floor before long.
For what the Blazers are paying him, Batum will have to be just that...and not just some punk-headed kid with a penchant for low blows.
On the bright side, Portland bade farewell this summer to Raymond Felton, whose single season with the Blazers was nothing short of disastrous. He showed up woefully out of shape and played so poorly during the season that he lost his gig as the starting point guard to Jamal Crawford, who's ill-suited to the position and was enduring a career-crushing year of his own.
Now, Felton returns to the New York Knicks, with whom he enjoyed arguably the finest 54-game stretch of his entire career during the first half of the 2010-11 season, on a four-year, $14.9 million deal. The Knicks hummed with him at the helm before he was sent off to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade.
Aside from constant questions about his conditioning, Felton will have to handle the pressure of being, essentially, the guy chosen to fill Jeremy Lin's shoes.
It's doubtful that "Feltonsanity" will catch on the way "Linsanity" did in the Big Apple last season, but if Ray can channel his play of old and lead the Knicks to postseason success, then fans at Madison Square Garden will be chanting his name before long.
Speaking of Jeremy Lin, he and his traveling media circus will be joining forces with the Houston Rockets this season after a hotly-debated summer courtship.
Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith will surely be watching and shouting about his every step, deciding how Lin's play from night to night reflects on the Rockets for signing him to a three-year $25.1 million contract and the Knicks for refusing to match it.
Basketball fans around the world will be waiting with bated breath to see if Lin is truly a star in the making, if his miraculous 26-game stint in New York was a fluke, or if he'll simply settle in as a steady starting point guard.
Interestingly enough, Lin won't likely feel the pressure in Houston for some time. The Rockets are heading into a rebuilding year, and Lin's salary won't become a cap-choking expense until 2014, when it's set to balloon to nearly $15 million.
But with the All-Star Game coming to Houston in 2013, all eyes will be on Linsanity to see if he'll perform well enough to merit partaking in the host city's festivities.
Lin was essentially brought in to replace Goran Dragic, who also finds himself flush with cash from an old-turned-new employer after a partial-season stint as an above-average starting point guard.
Dragic's return to the Phoenix Suns on a four-year, $30 million pact was preceded by an impressive performance in relief of Kyle Lowry with the Rockets last season. The slippery Slovenian averaged 18 points, 8.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 28 games as a starter in Houston, thereby grabbing the attention of cap-flexible teams in search of an up-and-coming floor general.
That Dragic certainly is. After a two-year Rumspringa in Houston, Dragic finds himself back in the Valley of the Sun, this time as Steve Nash's replacement rather than his backup. He'll be asked to quarterback a Suns squad that's attempting to retool around other teams' castoffs.
The job isn't quite as cushy as it sounds, though, assuming it sounds cushy at all. He'll be pushed at the point by incoming rookie Kendall Marshall, who's widely regarded as the best pure passer in the class of 2012. Dragic figures to get the nod to start, but Marshall will be laying in wait if he should slip up along the way.
The time is nigh for JaVale McGee to assert himself as one of the NBA's most dynamic young bigs. No longer can he be afforded the leeway to simply goof off and fill blooper reels as he once did with the Washington Wizards.
Certainly not after the Denver Nuggets decided to line his pockets with a four-year, $44 million contract this summer.
The Nuggets obviously liked what they saw from McGee after acquiring him at the 2012 trade deadline, enough to shell out beaucoup bucks to keep him. He was a boon to Denver's front line, as his size, length and energy proved bothersome to the twin-towered Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
With a full training camp under George Karl's tutelage, McGee will be expected to hold down the starting spot at center for the Nuggets and to flourish into a shot-swatting, double-double machine as a result.
If not, McGee may well wind up as the next player on a hefty deal to be dangled as trade bait by Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri.
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