In the NBA, players are usually defined by whether or not they can perform their best under pressure. If someone wilts when the lights are brightest or fails to live up to a lucrative contract, he is automatically deemed a failure, while if he can rise to the occasion and make a team look brilliant for reeling him in, he is beloved across the league.
Heading into the 2012-2013 season, there are a number of players, both young up-and-comers and experienced veterans, that will be facing heightened expectations once the season tips off in October.
Although not every player faces the same kind of pressure—players like Raymond Felton and Landry Fields will be judged because they are coming off lackluster seasons and joining new ballclubs, while someone like DeAndre Jordan is expected to further develop his game and become more than a one-way player—these six players will be among the most closely monitored and heavily scrutinized in basketball this season.
Without further ado, here are six players that will not seize the moment and will have lackluster campaigns in the face of increased pressure.
2011-2012 stats: 15.4 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.5 BPG, 55.5 FG%.
In his first season as the full-time starting center for the Phoenix Suns, Marcin Gortat had a breakout campaign, averaging a double-double and forming a ferocious pick-and-roll tandem with Steve Nash.
While the amount of Gortat’s success that was attributed exclusively to Nash was somewhat excessive, there is simply no denying that the presence of one of the league’s best passing point guards helped turn a fairly limited offensive player like Gortat into a legitimate scoring threat.
Now, with Nash in Los Angeles and Goran Dragic running the show for the Suns, there will be added pressure for the Polish big man to provide an offensive punch. However, while Dragic is undoubtedly a talent, he is not the playmaker his former Phoenix mentor was, and it will take time for him to build rapport with his new center.
Although the Suns added a pair of solid forwards in Luis Scola and Michael Beasley during the offseason, the loss of Channing Frye indefinitely due to a heart ailment means that Gortat will be seeing very heavy minutes routinely and must continue to lock down the glass and protect the basket.
Frye was not exactly known as a rugged big man, but he contributed on the boards and was good for the occasional block if necessary.
Because of the sheer amount of time he will spend on the court, it would be surprising to see Gortat’s numbers dip significantly next season, but without a pick-and-roll partner like Nash who knows exactly where to get him the ball, it is difficult to see him being so efficient offensively.
Marcin Gortat is still one of the NBA’s better centers, but don’t be surprised if the 28-year-old has a somewhat disappointing 2012-2013 campaign.
2011-2012 stats: 8.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 46 FG%, 25.6 3P%
Landry Fields’ rookie season was a thing of beauty, as the former Stanford standout went from being a second-round afterthought to a starting shooting guard on a playoff-caliber team. However, his play declined once Carmelo Anthony joined New York, and he seemed to be in a funk for the brunt of the 2011-2012 season.
After signing a contract with the Toronto Raptors this past offseason, expectations are high for Fields as he joins a Raptors team that is filled with young talent and has the potential to contend for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the pressures of a hefty new contract and a more featured role could very well be enough to prolong Fields’ stretch of mediocre play well into the 2012-2013 season.
On the Knicks, Fields was a perfect complementary piece; he played stout defense, hit the occasional three-pointer and ran the floor hard. However, in Toronto he will be expected to be not only a starter, but a leader due to his playoff experience, a role that he will not naturally fit in.
Fields is far from the most skilled player in the NBA, and while he should fit in with the Raptors’ fast-paced offense and the defensive schemes of coach Dwane Casey, the team needs to be wary of trying to feature Fields too much and making him play outside of himself.
Despite being just 24 years old, Fields does not have as high of a ceiling as many players his age because he spent four years in college. The contract Toronto gave him, which was criticized by many basketball fans when it was announced, was partly given to him in the anticipation of improvement that may not actually come.
Landry Fields is a solid two-way player, but he has a habit of wilting in crucial moments, notably in the postseason against Boston and Miami, and is primed to struggle in his first year as a Raptor.
2011-2012 stats: 8.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 5.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 43 FG%, 31.9 3P%
One of the more curious personnel decisions of any NBA team this summer was New Orleans’ choice to part ways with former starting point guard Jarrett Jack in order to gain financial flexibility, effectively guaranteeing Greivis Vasquez the job for the 2012-2013 season while proving it intends to try Austin Rivers at the 1 as well.
Vasquez had some nice moments for the Hornets last season, averaging 12 points and seven dimes in 26 starts while playing in all 66 games, but banking on him to be a quality lead guard for an entire season seems incredibly risky.
Vasquez has good court vision, a tight handle and great size for a point guard, but he also has very little professional experience, spending his rookie season on the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench, and is not the proven commodity that Jack is.
His unselfishness is valuable, and he has proven that he can find his way to the rim, but Vasquez is far from a reliable perimeter shooter and needs to improve his stroke considerably both from mid-range and beyond the arc. In addition, New Orleans lacks a true backup to Vasquez, boasting only Rivers and Brian Roberts behind him on the depth chart.
Vasquez still has room to improve and is certainly a quality rotation player, but he is in no way ready to be a starter playing 30-plus minutes per game, even on a rebuilding squad like New Orleans.
Should Rivers fail to make the adjustment to point guard quickly, something that is entirely possible given that he is not a natural passer and prefers to call his own number, that will leave Vasquez as the only legitimate player at the 1 for the foreseeable future.
Greivis Vasquez is a talented playmaker, but given his lack of support next season and the expectations heaped upon starters in a point guard-driven league, expect to see some struggles for the Maryland product.
2011-2012 stats: 11.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 6.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 40.7 FG%, 30.5 3P%
When the Portland Trail Blazers made a draft-day trade for Raymond Felton, Blazer fans thought they were getting the speedy point guard that could vault their team into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, but instead they ended up with an out-of-shape underachiever whose uninspired play partially led to Portland missing the playoffs altogether.
Felton is now faced with the unenviable task of replacing Jeremy Lin in New York, and even though he thrived during his last stint with the Knicks, it is difficult to project him playing nearly as well this time around.
In Mike Woodson’s system, the role of the point guard is fairly minimized, as the team relies largely on half-court, isolation offense based around Carmelo Anthony. Felton, whose main asset is his ability to push the ball in transition, will be forced to play at a far slower pace than he is acclimated to.
Felton is a solid pick-and-roll point guard and can break down a defense and get into the lane, but he is not nearly as effective without the ball in his hands. He spent some time playing off the ball when he was in Denver, but he is much more of a pure point guard than a combo guard.
Knicks fans are starved for postseason success, and merely making the field is no longer good enough. In an Eastern Conference filled with elite point guards, Felton will be asked to contend with the likes of Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Deron Williams, among others, on a nightly basis.
Felton is a talented point guard, but he is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, will play in a system not well suited to his specific skill set and will be depended upon to help New York take a leap from being a low playoff seed to a true contender.
He might not have as poor of a 2012-2013 season as he did in 2011-2012, but don’t expect a brilliant campaign from Raymond Felton.
2011-2012 stats: 7.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, 2.0 BPG, 63.2 FG%
The pressure faced by DeAndre Jordan is different than any of the players listed thus far. Jordan is part of a team that believes it can contend for an NBA championship, but in order to do so, it needs Jordan to become more than just a shot-swatter and a rebounder.
Jordan earned an extremely hefty pay raise during the summer of 2011, but though he is a force defensively, his offensive game has always been lacking considerably. Jordan has no semblance of a post game, cannot create his own offense and is a significantly below average foul-shooter to boot, allowing teams to hack him to prevent an easy score.
Jordan runs the floor extremely hard and can finish well at the rim, but unless he was receiving a lob pass, it seemed like Los Angeles was only using four players on offense last season.
Unfortunately, it just does not seem like Jordan, a superb athlete, will ever be more than another high-flying big man. The Texas A&M product is locked into the Clippers’ starting five, but fans know that unless he can develop into a reliable scoring option, this team will never get over the championship hump.
In the playoffs last season, Jordan was a complete non-factor, averaging 4.5 points, 5.3 boards and 1.6 rejections per game while seeing his minutes drop from 27.2 to 22.6 per game. Against San Antonio, his inability to match the offensive production of the Spurs’ big men was a major reason his team was swept out of the second round.
There is no denying that Jordan is a starting-caliber big man, but given his lack of growth throughout his NBA career, it seems that he will never be capable of becoming the kind of player Los Angeles needs him to be.
2011-2012 stats: 14.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.6 SPG, 44.6 FG%, 32 3P%
The inclusion of Jeremy Lin on this list does not mean he will necessarily have a horrendous year for the Houston Rockets or that he will prove to have been a complete fluke, but that as the focal point of this young and inexperienced Houston team, he will undoubtedly have his share of struggles.
Lin’s rise to prominence was the NBA’s most fascinating storyline in the 2011-2012 season, and although he struggled somewhat down the stretch once Mike Woodson became the team’s head coach, it was clear that the former Harvard star was going to see a sizable salary upgrade in free agency.
Lin ended up joining Houston on a three-year, $25 million deal that will net him $15 million in the final season. The contract, designed to make it impossible for New York to retain its budding superstar, worked, as the Knicks had to let Lin walk as a restricted free agent.
What helped Lin succeed in New York was the fact that he had top-shelf talent around him in Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and even Carmelo Anthony, although the two did not have great chemistry. Defenses could not simply key in on Lin because the Knicks had plenty of offensive weapons that were capable of putting the ball in the basket.
Houston has some intriguing young prospects, but almost no true impact players. As a result, Lin will be asked to be the team’s primary scorer and playmaker, meaning defenses will focus almost exclusively on stopping him, allowing the other Rockets to beat them instead.
The expectations for Lin are at an all-time high, with many Houston fans believing he could be the electrifying franchise point guard that the team desperately needs. However, he is still learning the NBA game, has marginal experience and is now competing in a brutal Western Conference.
Jeremy Lin still has undeniable star potential, but that may not consistently show through next season as he adjusts to being the leader of one of the league’s youngest squads.