Hobbled NBA Stars with the Most to Prove in 2013-14 Season
When NBA stars are forced to miss extended periods of time or battle through immeasurable amounts of pain, we long for the day that they will return to health.
Watching a perennial All-Star occupy a courtside seat or play at a level that we're not used to is difficult. Diehard fanatics probably even experience sympathy pains.
The Association is built around the success and hype its stars generate. Tickets cost a fortune, but human-highlight reels are worth the cost of admission.
Injuries ruin everything, though.
Stars aren't always able to recapture their previous swagger and dominance following extended stints on the sidelines. They have to prove they can still ball at the highest level, and it doesn't always work out that way.
Honorable Mention: Greg Oden, Miami Heat
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Games Missed: N/A
Greg Oden was never a star, but he was supposed to be, hence his appearance here.
Having not played in the NBA since December of 2009, few expect him to break out upon joining the Miami Heat. Far removed from the days where optimism trumped reality, finally living up to the hype that comes with being selected first overall, or simply before Kevin Durant, appears less than unlikely.
Still, it's no longer Oden's job to prove that he's a future superstar. He's in South Beach to prove he belongs in the NBA at all.
What are essentially degenerative knees have limited him to just 88 career games (playoffs included) thus far. In Miami, he won't be asked to log extensive minutes or shoulder much of the load. The Heat just want him to exist, to play.
Proving he is healthy enough to play is a battle Oden's been fighting for more than a half-decade, and a losing one at that.
Honorable Mention: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.4 blocks on 57.8 percent shooting
Games Missed: 6
Hindered by back and shoulder issues, Dwight Howard managed to miss just six games, playing through what was presumably excruciating pain. He also reminded us that was exactly what he was doing—more than once.
Howard must show that he's still the dominant presence he was prior to the tail end of the 2011-12 lockout-shortened campaign.
Individual numbers weren't an issue last season, as he still produced enough to be named to the All-Star Game. But he also struggled to score on a consistent basis, nearly hit a new career low at the charity stripe (49.2 percent) and couldn't help Kobe Bryant lead the Los Angeles Lakers to more than 45 wins and a seventh-seeded postseason berth.
Once the Lakers got to the playoffs, Howard was "the man." No Kobe, just him. And he led the Lakers to a four-game slaughter against the San Antonio Spurs. To make matters worse, he was ejected in what was his final game of the season and as a member of the Lakers.
Because he apparently didn't create enough drama, Superman inevitably spurned Los Angeles in favor of the Houston Rockets. Now he has to show he can recapture his form alongside another ball-dominating shooting guard in James Harden.
All while proving he left the Lakers to join a legitimate contender.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks on 52.1 percent shooting
Games Missed: 13
Every fall, bump, bruise and sneeze Dwyane Wade takes is dissected and made out to be something more than it actually is. Proof: He missed 13 games, and I've included him here.
But there was nothing settling about his postseason performance in which he averaged a career low in points (15.9) and minutes (35.5) per game.
Neither his nor Chris Bosh's struggles prevented LeBron James from willing the Heat to a second straight championship, yet it wasn't easy. The 31-year-old with questionable knees wasn't as reliable as he used to be, and dreaded words such as "glorified" and "role" and "player" were strung together in succession.
Wade has been counted out before only to bounce back after some rest, relaxation and capri pants shopping. I hardly need to tell you that's not always going to fly.
Attacking the rim with reckless abandon like he's no longer on the wrong side of 30 is something Wade should consider ceasing, or at least cutting back on. Honing his jump shot to preserve the amount of energy he expends scoring while also keeping himself out of harm's way is encouraged.
The last thing the Heat need as LeBron prepares to make his next decision in 2014 is a vanishing Wade. And by now, I'm sure Wade himself would like us to shut up and kiss his championship rings.
Rest assured, there will be no hardware-smooching silence unless Wade figures out how to (again?) balance age with fragility.
Eric Gordon, New Orleans Pelicans
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 1.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks on 40.2 percent shooting
Games Missed: 40
Eric Gordon has yet to prove he is worth the $58 million the New Orleans Pelicans (then Hornets) gave him.
The centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade, Gordon has appeared in only 51 games over the last two seasons, meaning he's spent nearly two-thirds of his tenure in New Orleans on the bench. Not exactly money well spent.
It wasn't until the Pelicans traded for Tyreke Evans that Gordon truly committed to his not-so-new team. Potential rifts and murky knee injuries abound since 2011, leaving Gordon the subject of trade rumors. His contract now being as steep as it is, New Orleans will have a tough time finding any suitors, let alone ones willing to give up ample value in exchange.
For Gordon to really escape the shadow that has been cast over him, he must 1) stay healthy, 2) find his niche alongside Evans and Jrue Holiday and 3) play at a similarly high level to that of the 2010-11 campaign.
An inability to start making good on his contract could not only spell the end of his time in New Orleans, but it could permanently halt his growth as a player.
Amar'e Stoudemire, New York Knicks
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.7 blocks on 57.7 percent shooting
Games Missed: 53
Determining Amar'e Stoudemire to still be a star requires a fast-and-loose interpretation of the word "star."
I've got no qualms about being fast or loose here. If the Washington Wizards can hand Martell Webster $20-plus million with a straight face, I can deem STAT a star.
Stoudemire has had something to prove since finishing out his first season with the New York Knicks. After missing just four games during the 2010-11 crusade, he's gone on to miss 48.6 percent of the last two years combined (absent for 72-of-148 possible regular-season games).
Entering the fourth season of a five-year, close-to-$100-million deal, STAT's knees have revealed themselves to be flimsier than a house made of (insert favorite flavor here) pudding.
At this point, it's rather unlikely he ever lives up to the terms of his contract. Which is a shame, really. He's one of the hardest working players in the league.
Circumstances beyond his control in mind, STAT has to show he can effectively operate and remain healthy under a minutes cap, likely while coming off the bench.
On the rare occasion he was able to play last season, he showed he could still score at an All-Star level. The Knicks need more of that. A lot more.
Appearing in more than half of the season's games would be nice too. How he fares next year will say a lot about the direction his career—and the team in general—is headed in. A healthy STAT could also prove to be the difference between a happy and unhappy Carmelo Anthony leading into free agency.
No pressure, though.
Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 5.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.2 blocks on 28.6 percent shooting
Games Missed: 77
Times have changed for the Indiana Pacers.
One year after leading the team in scoring, Danny Granger's left knee forced him to watch from the bench as Paul George carried the Pacers within one victory of an Eastern Conference crown and NBA Finals berth. Now he must prove he's not going to muck it all up.
Indiana is now George's city, free and clear. Granger had a nice run, but in his absence, he ceded control of the franchise to one of the brightest young stars in the game.
No longer the No. 1 offensive option or face of the organization, Granger will be more of a complementary piece than anything next season. Whether he starts or not is irrelevant; he'll exist only to further Indiana's cause, not spearhead it.
Such a relegation could prove difficult to accept or, more likely, Granger could simply struggle and disrupt some of the chemistry the team built while he was gone. Not to say he most definitely will, but it's a possibility.
Championship contention now the standard, Granger must show he's more than an expiring contract that stands to throw off Indy's dynamic.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks on 44.1 percent shooting
Games Missed: 33
A knee injury limited the ninth-best (or something like that) floor general in the Association to just 49 games last season. With him in the lineup, the Washington Wizards went 24-25, a record that, when extrapolated, would have been worthy of a playoff berth in the utterly confusing Eastern Conference.
So we're clear, the Wizards are excited about investing $80 million in an erratic jump shooter who almost allowed his team to play .500 basketball.
This really isn't a question of whether or not he deserved the max extension. The Wizards couldn't go anywhere else with that money, even though it probably thoroughly confused a now-$8 million-per-year Brandon Jennings.
Freakishly athletic and faster than a speeding Justin Bieber, Wall could be worth every last cent of his extension; or he could be overrated. Next season will act as his tell all.
Either he builds upon his efficiency and/or carries the Wiz to where they haven't been in a half-decade—the playoffs—or he fails on one or both counts. Putting all of his detractors to shame is the obvious preference and makes life a lot easier for the point man.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks on 35.2 percent shooting
Games Missed: 64
When healthy, Kevin Love scored and rebounded at a high clip, but he didn't shoot at one, converting on a career-low 35.2 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Fighting a series of losing battles with his hand definitely contributed to his struggles from the floor—or at least that's what we hope.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are betting big on this coming season. They brought back Corey Brewer, are going to wind up giving Nikola Pekovic enough money to support Lamar Odom's candy-eating habits and were content with overpaying both Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger.
Even after losing Andrei Kirilenko to the Brooklyn Nets, Minny is still a potential playoff team—if healthy.
Which is a big "if." Ricky Rubio returned from a torn ACL last season, but those types of injuries can be fickle. Then there's Love, who became the missing piece.
Should he not return to form, or if the Timberwolves fail to make the playoffs if he does, he's going to shoulder a lot of the blame. Maybe even all of it. And David Kahn will be left snickering maniacally to himself somewhere.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.2 blocks on 48.4 percent shooting
Games Missed: 44
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett find themselves suiting up for the Nets while the still-rehabbing Rajon Rondo has finally become the face of the Boston Celtics. Rondo has flirted with becoming the team's end-all, be-all in the past, but the transition was never actually made.
Imagining Rondo in complete control of a young, rebuilding franchise is a slightly harrowing concept. Seven years into his career, he's hardly the poster boy for maturity or level-headedness—unless he's playing on national television.
I still figure Rondo to be traded. At 27, his best days are now. By the time Boston is ready to contend again, he'll be around 30, thinking about the good old days when the Celtics were winning and he was free to use referees as target practice.
Before the Celtics can really think about trading Rondo, he has to show he's still worth any risk following ACL surgery. More important than continuing to drop dimes and remain healthy is his capacity to lead.
Teams won't relinquish ample value for a veteran point guard with a chip on his shoulder. One way or another, next season will be the year we find out if Pierce and Garnett were acting as his safety nets or shackles that were actually holding him back.
Andrew Bynum, Cleveland Cavaliers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Games Missed: 82
Andrew Bynum's fresh start with the Philadelphia 76ers didn't go according to plan. Perhaps his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers will.
One year after securing his first All-Star selection, Bynum flopped. Multiple knee injuries kept him on the sidelines the entire season, where he watched as a potential Eastern Conference force played itself into the lottery.
In Cleveland, Bynum won't be expected to carry the franchise. The Cavs merely want to see if he has anything left in those Amar'e Stoudemire-esque knees of his. Talk of regaining his star status will come later, if at all.
To be sure, Bynum isn't only playing for the sake of proving he can still do so; he's playing to salvage his career and reputation.
Initially deemed the next max superstar, we know he can play. Healthy and engaged, he's one of the most dominant centers in the NBA. Remaining both healthy and engaged, however, has been his problem.
Philly didn't believe in him enough to bring him back, and the Lakers didn't trust him to usher in the post-Kobe Bryant era. Now the Cavs are entrusting him with, well, not much.
Less than 25 percent of the near $25 million he is owed over the next two years is guaranteed, a rather low figure taking into account how great he was once thought to be. Confidence in him is at an all-time low, and Bynum must show us all he's worthy of actual expectations once again.
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Games Missed: 82
Then reality will set in.
Rose is no longer the Chicago Bulls' golden child. Right or wrong, there's something to be said about that. Sitting all last season, even after he was cleared to play and seen dunking before games, allowed criticism to breach what was otherwise considered impenetrable armor.
Still, Rose sat, an onlooker of the very team and city he said he'd die for.
That extra time he took is not without its conditions, though. All of Chicago will now look for him to take the Bulls—who won 45 games without him; same as the Lakers—to the next step.
If he doesn't, well, that's going to be a problem.
"We got more than enough to win with," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told TNT's Rachel Nichols while Robinson was throwing up into a trash can against the Nets. "We just gotta get the job done."
For the first time in more than a year, Rose will have to show he can get the job done like he used to.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.3 blocks on 46.3 percent shooting
Games Missed: 4
Kobe Bryant is something else.
Only the Black Mamba could tear his Achilles then proceed to hit two much-needed free throws. Knowing all he's capable of even in injury, it seems implausible to believe he won't come back feisty as ever.
But while it sometimes seems like it, the NBA isn't an independent society that exists outside of reality.
Kobe is almost 35 and fresh off suffering a career-threatening injury. Everything he's done for the last 17 years defies logic, but it would be naive of us to not question whether this time will be the same.
Chances are, Kobe will be ready for opening night. I've got no inside information, only the almost-two decades worth of evidence the Mamba has provided us with.
History says he'll be fine soon after, and he'll come back to lead the Lakers in scoring.
Natural regression to the mean implies something different. Time is inescapable, and one could argue Kobe has been operating on borrowed amounts of it. Working his way back isn't going to be easy, and I'd guess there will be moments when he first returns that are difficult to watch.
How he, his body and unrelenting will to play at a high level respond to such hardships will help define what's left of his career.
And what's left of his career won't be known, even by him, until he steps foot on that court and makes it his mission in life to show us all he still has to give. Again.