Jeremy Lin and 10 NBA Stars Who Will Be Under the Microscope All Season

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2012

Jeremy Lin and 10 NBA Stars Who Will Be Under the Microscope All Season

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    The 2012-13 NBA season won't be short on star-driven storylines, based on the first few weeks of the season.

    Of any one player, the spotlight may be shining most brightly on Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, who signed a three-year, $25 million contract during the summer of 2012.

    Lin's supporters believe that his "Linsanity" phase back in February was no fluke, but detractors would say the small sample size didn't justify the large contract he earned.

    Luckily for Lin, he's got plenty of company under the microscope this season, including one recent addition to his very own team.

    (Note: Players sorted by alphabetical order.)  

Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony hinted during the preseason that he'd stop gunning for 25-30 points per game, but Amar'e Stoudemire's injury seems to have abruptly changed that plan.

    While his averages to date might not suggest it, Anthony's efficiency has been on the rise in 2012-13. He's been taking (and missing) more three-pointers than the New York Knicks would like, but he's also been readily passing the ball, already accruing a number of "hockey" assists.

    If Anthony develops more of a team-first, shoot-second mindset instead of his current scorer-centric mentality, he's got the talent to be a not-so-poor-man's LeBron James for the Knicks.

    There's also the question of what happens when Stoudemire comes back from his injury, as Anthony's been starting in his stead at the 4. Does Knicks coach Mike Woodson have the gall to turn a player earning $100 million into a sixth man?

    Anthony's development as an all-around player, along with his potential impending clash with Stoudemire, makes him a player to watch all 2012-13 season.

Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers

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    In the case of Andrew Bynum, "under the microscope" takes on a bit of a literal meaning.

    The Philadelphia 76ers' new potential franchise cornerstone hasn't yet played a game for the team due to a bone bruise in his right knee, and he has no definitive timetable to return.

    Given the troubles that Bynum's had with his knees in the past, all Sixers fans have reason to legitimately worry about whether this latest injury could develop into something more chronic. To date, that's not been reported to be the case.

    When healthy, Bynum has the talent and potential to be the most dominant center in the Eastern Conference, now that Dwight Howard has been shipped out to the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Given how lackluster the Sixers have looked without Bynum, his recovery from this bone bruise and his insertion in the Sixers' lineup will be one of the more interesting storylines to monitor in the Eastern Conference.

Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

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    The Oct. 31 extension deadline has come and gone, and while a slew of his 2009 draft classmates locked up last-minute deals with their respective teams, Tyreke Evans and the Sacramento Kings walked home empty-handed.

    The Kings can extend a qualifying offer to Evans in the summer of 2013, making him a restricted free agent and giving them the right to match any contract offer he receives from another team.

    If Evans develops his consistency in 2012-13 and returns to his rookie-year form, the Kings will likely regret not locking him up for a possible discount while they could.

    Evans became one of only four rookies in NBA history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game (along with Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan), but regressed each of his next two seasons, struggling to fit into a natural position.

    Now, he likely faces a make-or-break season with the Kings in 2012-13, making him one of the most tantalizing players to watch this season.

    It's not every day that the 2009 No. 4 overall pick and the 2010 Rookie of the Year becomes available in free agency, as Evans could in the summer of 2013.

Jeff Green, Boston Celtics

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    "Jeff Green isn't a star!", you say.

    He may not be playing like one yet, but the four-year, $36 million contract Green signed with the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2012 suggests the team expects him to play a large part in their future.

    Green is a tweener that has always struggled defensively against larger 4's, and he's fresh off of season-ending heart surgery in 2011-12. Despite both of these things, the Celtics handed Green nearly $10 million per year, to the cackling delight of the NBA blogosphere.

    I'll admit, my perception of Green will be forever skewed, as a Georgetown alumni who was front-and-center for the Hoyas' 2007 Final Four run that he led.

    I remember his disappearing act against Ohio State (only five shot attempts total), but can just as easily remember last-second heroism against Notre Dame and Vanderbilt that season.

    If Green doesn't demonstrate significant improvement this season, his critics will surely start the chirping about how the Celtics ripped themselves off.

    If he does, however, he could be the C's long-term answer behind Paul Pierce.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    The 2012-13 season is now Blake Griffin's fourth since entering the NBA, if you count the rookie season he lost due to a stress fracture in his left knee.

    He returned healthy in the 2010-11 season, winning the Rookie of the Year award and becoming the first rookie to be voted to the All-Star game by coaches since Tim Duncan in 1998, according to NBA.com.

    Now, in Year 4, with two All-Star appearances already under his belt, Griffin needs to take another step forward to prove he's not going to waste his athletic potential.

    Through four games in 2012-13, Griffin is only averaging 16.3 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting, far below his career averages of 21.6 PPG and 52.3 percent shooting. On Tuesday, ESPN.com revealed that Griffin has been playing with a burst bursa sac in his right elbow and a neck strain, which could explain a lot.

    Griffin needs to improve his jump-shooting in 2012-13 and also make strides on the defensive end to truly earn the hype he's generated this early in his career. This season will be a telling one for Griffin, one way or the other.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    James Harden headed into the 2012-13 season as a marked man, with the Oklahoma City Thunder's Oct. 31 deadline to sign him to an extension quickly approaching with no resolution in sight.

    Then, the Thunder shocked the basketball world and traded Harden to the Houston Rockets after it became clear the two sides were not going to reach an agreement on the extension terms.

    Harden responded with a virtuoso performance, finishing his first game as a Rocket with 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals, then followed with a 45-point outing in his next game.

    Eventually, Harden's stats are due to fall somewhat out of the video-game realm in which they're currently residing, but a season of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per night from Harden might be close to his floor at this point.

    The Rockets quickly signed Harden to a five-year, $80 million maximum contract after the Thunder traded him, drawing consternation from some fans who questioned the wisdom of giving max money to a career reserve.

    If Harden continues the level of play he's demonstrated in the early going of the 2012-13 season, his critics are going to regret ever thinking along those lines.

Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers

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    It's impossible to separate Dwight Howard and Steve Nash for the likes of this slideshow, given their status as the Los Angeles Lakers' two newest prized acquisitions.

    It's not every day a team gets to add a two-time league MVP and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but the Lakers accomplished both in the summer of 2012. They somehow convinced the Phoenix Suns to trade Nash for a handful of draft picks, then essentially swapped Andrew Bynum for Howard in a four-team blockbuster.

    Suffice it to say, an 0-3 record after the first three games of the season wasn't exactly the start most Lakers' fans had in mind.

    Nash, in particularly, has gotten his Lakers career off to a disastrous start. After a relatively ineffective seven-point, four-assist performance against the Dallas Mavericks on opening night, Nash suffered a small fracture in his left fibula the next night against the Portland Trail Blazers and will miss at least a week of games as a result.

    Howard has presumably managed to come back healthy from his offseason back surgery, as the Lakers don't seem to have placed any minute limitations on him. If the Lakers truly believe they're 2013 championship contenders, though, they'll need Howard to get back to his former DPOY self sooner rather than later.

    Add in Kobe Bryant and one of the nation's largest media markets, and you've got a recipe for a team that's going to be under the spotlight all season, like it or not. Say hello to your new Miami Heat.  

LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    The 2012-13 season, at least in the eyes of ESPN's Bill Simmons, is about one thing and one thing only: Seeing how LeBron James responds to his first championship ring.

    James led the Miami Heat over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals and earned the Finals MVP award, then followed it up with an Olympic gold medal over the summer.

    In essence, he's 27 years old, in his physical prime, and looks more ready than ever to take over the basketball world for good. (Sorry, Kobe.)

    Already, in the first five games of the 2012-13 season, James has finished with two near triple-doubles (20 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds against the Denver Nuggets; 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists against the Brooklyn Nets).

    Small sample size here, but through five games, he's shooting a career-high 55.1 percent from the floor on nearly 16 shots per game, and he's knocked down over 57 percent of his three-point field goal attempts.

    If James maintains that startling efficiency all season, the rest of the NBA doesn't stand a chance of preventing Miami from repeating as NBA champions.

    Either way, the NBA world will have all eyes on James this season to see how he responds to being a defending NBA champion for the first time in his 10-year career.

Jeremy Lin, Houston Rockets

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    If you read the intro slide, you know why Jeremy Lin's under the microscope in 2012-13, but here's a quick refresher: Linsanity in New York led to a three-year, $25 million contract offer from the Houston Rockets, which the Knicks decided against matching.

    The 20-game run Lin went on during the 2011-12 season, where he went from end-of-the-bench fodder to outdueling Kobe Bryant in the span of two weeks, was unlike almost anything in NBA history.

    However, Lin had never entered a season as a starter before 2012-13. Lin's critics had the right to wonder whether he could maintain his incredible level of play over the course of a full 82-game season, as he's yet to have the opportunity to do so until this point.

    Realistically, the days of Lin scoring 20 points and dishing 10 assists per game aren't going to come as frequently as they did under Mike D'Antoni's notoriously fast offense up in New York.

    That doesn't mean he won't be a solid investment—through four games, he's averaging a more than respectable 13 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals per game—especially considering the addition of James Harden should only alleviate some of the pressure from Lin.

    It's too early to make a definitive call on whether Lin's contract was a wise move for Houston, but rest assured, that won't stop opinions from flying this season. Lin's going to be one of the most watched players in the NBA in 2012-13 for that reason.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    If anyone will feel the impact of the James Harden trade in 2012-13, it's going to be Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard who seems to incite rage in some NBA fans like no other player.

    Since the beginning of Westbrook's union with Kevin Durant, the youngest three-time scoring champion in NBA history, critics would argue that Westbrook was forcing too much of his own offense at the expense of Durant.

    They'd often have a legitimate point.

    Westbrook has continually improved over the years in terms of becoming a legitimate NBA point guard instead of a scoring guard who sometimes passes, too. Through four games in 2012-13, he's averaging nearly 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game.

    He's also only shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from downtown, despite taking nearly four attempts from three-point range per game.

    With Harden gone, both Westbrook and Durant will be expected to step up into a larger role this season, which only means more ammunition for Westbrook's detractors.

    How he responds to that inevitable criticism could be a determining factor in whether the Thunder get a chance to avenge their 2012 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat.