Westbrook and Durant, Paul George, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, etc.; what do these guys need to do for this season to be considered a "success"? What happens if they fall short?
There are plenty of perks to being a stud in the NBA by the time your 25th birthday rolls around. The money's great, the expectations are relatively low, hopes are high and whatever mistakes you make can be chalked up to "youthful exuberance" and "inexperience."
But everything changes once you've had a sip of the good stuff—and once you've given folks a taste of your own capabilities. All-Star selections and All-NBA nods are used against you when your team falls flat. The smallest of stumbles are magnified and expounded upon during scathing discussions of "Will he or won't he?" More money and more success entails more pressure to perform at an even higher level and to deliver more memorable results.
No wonder Icarus never made it all the way to the sun. The dude couldn't handle the heat!
(And not just the sort comes from Miami.)
That heat will be all too familiar to these 20-something superstars in 2013-14. The honeymoon is over; now's the time for them to step up.
And to take their teammates with them.
Durant's the scoring machine with a game that's more well-rounded than his reputation would suggest; he averaged 7.9 rebounds and a career-high 4.6 assists per game last season, all while joining the 50-40-90 Club and nearly fending off Carmelo Anthony for his fourth straight scoring title.
Westbrook, on the other hand, is a power forward trapped in a combo guard's body, with the skill set of a wing and the responsibilities of a floor general.
Still with me? Good.
But since the fates of their respective legacies are so closely intertwined with the same team, it makes more sense to stick them together in this way.
In truth, the grace period ended for these guys after the 2012 NBA Finals. They enter the 2013-14 season more "alone" than they've ever been, now that the role of sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder has been vacated once again, this time by Kevin Martin.
Even so, the duo of a Durant and Westbrook, when healthy, should be enough to propel OKC out of the Western Conference, especially if Serge Ibaka hasn't yet conked his head on his own ceiling. Getting bounced in the second round was certainly excusable for the Thunder, given Westbrook's on account of injury.
But if OKC's two superstars stay out of harm's way and the team still can't claw its way past a stacked field of competitors in the West this coming spring, you can bet there will be legions of folks left to wonder whether KD and Westy are truly compatible, whether the Thunder can win a title with those two and whether Sam Presti should A) consider dangling one of his darlings (i.e. Westbrook or Ibaka) for more help, or B) be fired for the offenses of stubbornly hanging onto Kendrick Perkins and giving up James Harden for pennies on the dollar.
Speaking of James Harden...
Aaah, who am I kidding? He's a lovable All-Star with the most boffo beard in the business.
And if the Houston Rockets fail to launch, the vast majority of the blame figures to fall on the meaty shoulders of Dwight Howard because, well, he's Dwight Howard. His mere existence is an invitation for criticism.
In other words, it'll take a massive failure on Harden's part for him to be the scapegoat in Space City.
The media dynamic between Harden and Howard may well follow the blueprint already laid out by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with the Los Angeles Clippers.
That being, Paul gets off scot-free because he's seen as the friendly, team-first winner who has his head and his heart in the right place, while Griffin catches most of the flak for being the big, goofy guy who seems more concerned with hogging highlights and spotlights than he does with growing his game.
To his credit, Griffin appears to be well-aware of his need to perform like a bona fide superstar this season, and not just act like one because he can jump out of the gym and play in the All-Star Game on the regular. As he told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com this past August:
"[Paul] has a huge role on this team. He's been the guy who has closed out a lot of games late for us.
"But in my mind, this is the year I need to step into that role and really help him shoulder that load. I'll be right there with him at the end of games, being the guy that he can always count on."
Indeed, Griffin will have to be a more reliable option in crunch time—which is to say, he'll have to shoot more accurately and more confidently from the free-throw line. According to 82games.com, Griffin's free-throw percentage, free-throw attempts per 48 minutes and percentage of drawn fouls all dropped considerably in the clutch.
Of course, some of the responsibility for Blake's situational backslide falls on Paul. You'd have a tough time prying the ball from his hands in the final five minutes of a game with the two teams separated by no more than five points. According to NBA.com, CP3's usage rate under those circumstances (39.9 percent) was the sixth-highest in the league among those peers of his who played in at least 10 such situations.
But if Blake doesn't get the ball in crunch time and the Clippers fail to crack the Western Conference Finals, you can bet it won't be Paul who hears most about the disappointment in the local papers and across the blogosphere.
In all honesty, it was tempting to split Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio apart for the purposes of this exercise. After all, the pressures they face this season are, in many ways, entirely different.
On the one hand, Love has to prove that he's still the best power forward on the planet after a season "lost" to a hand injury. Moreover, he has to show that he's still good enough to justify all the bluster about demanding better results and potentially ditching the Minnesota Timberwolves if his expectations aren't met.
On the other hand, Rubio is the one on whose shoulders—and reconstructed knee—Minny's hopes for keeping Kevin around most heavily weigh. All eyes will be on Ricky's rickety jump shot (.359 from the field, .317 from three in the NBA) and his health, in addition to his already-stunning abilities as a passer, when the T-Wolves take the floor this season.
If Rubio can boost his team into the playoffs by way of All-Star-caliber play at the point, he'll be considered a savior in Minnesota, assuming that'll be enough to convince Kevin to stay over the long haul.
But the expectations are largely the same for Love. There will be none of his name lost among the locals if he doesn't perform up to par and the T-Wolves extend their postseason drought to a solid decade. I suppose that's what happens when you spill your guts to Adrian Wojnarowski.
Ultimately, Love and Rubio will be judged by the same measure: whether or not the T-Wolves are still playing once mid-April comes and goes. Otherwise, both figure to see the trajectories of their respective careers change course to some degree, be it of their own volition or not.
If things work out for Kevin Love, he could find himself featured in more ad campaigns for Pepsi alongside Kyrie Irving, with or without the requisite "old man" makeup.
Not that Irving doesn't have concerns of his own to address this season. The additions of Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and rookie Anthony Bennett, along with Mike Brown's return to the sidelines, have raised expectations considerably for the Cleveland Cavaliers. No longer will another campaign replete with reprehensible defense, "youthful" mistakes and mind-numbing losses be tolerated or explained away as the byproduct of "growing pains."
The Cavs clearly have their sights set on their first post-LeBron James playoff berth. Questions abound about this team, particularly those pertaining to the health of its players, from Bynum's knees and Anderson Varejao's lungs to Bennett's shoulder and Dion Waiters' wrist and knee.
Oh, and Irving's everything, because his body is (apparently) made of papier-mâché. The kid's already missed 38 games in three seasons due to setbacks involving his hand, his ankle, his knee, his foot, his finger and his face.
As it happens, a fully healthy season from Uncle Drew may be all Cleveland needs to sneak into the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, a fully healthy season may be the last thing Irving can give the Cavs, unless they keep him in a hyperbaric chamber.
Which may well move Kyrie one step closer to being tagged as "injury-prone," All-Star theatrics or no.
As far as point guards go, nobody's under more pressure to perform this season than Derrick Rose. In fact, you could probably fill one of those comically long, Santa Claus-style rolls of paper with the list of things at stake for Rose in 2013-14.
He'll always be a role model for kids growing up on the South Side of Chicago, if only because he's one of the lucky few to have made it out and achieved success thereafter. To that end, Rose's status is secure.
Within the boundaries of basketball, though, Rose has plenty to prove. Is he the best player at his position? Was his MVP triumph in 2010-11 a fluke, the product of voter fatigue and general distaste at the time for LeBron James? Is he still the savior of the Chicago Bulls?
Nobody knows the answers to those questions because nobody's seen him play in a year-and-a-half. However good Derrick may feel now, there's no telling to what degree he'll look this season like the player he was prior to blowing out his knee. If he's anything close his former self, Rose's Bulls should be in prime position to contend in the East and give the Miami Heat a run for their money come playoff time.
But if Rose plays in a way that suggests uncertainty and/or regression on his part, there will soon enough be whispers wondering if he'll ever be the same guy again and if the Bulls might need to reconsider the construction of their roster.
Rose's Bulls will get a run for their money from Paul George's Indiana Pacers this season.
The defending Central Division champions should be much improved in 2013-14, even after coming agonizingly close to cracking the NBA Finals. The return of Danny Granger and the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland should do wonders for Indy's depth and ability to rack up points at an elite clip.
That's all well and good, but the Pacers will only go as far as George takes them. He established himself as Indy's most talented and most versatile player on both ends of the floor last year, when he averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists while earning his first trip to the All-Star Game.
Those same talents were on even brighter display during the 2013 playoffs. George essentially outplayed Josh Smith and Carmelo Anthony during the first two rounds before going at LeBron James about as well as anyone has in years.
Was Paul's spectacular postseason a sign of bigger and better things to come? Or will healthy seasons from Granger and Roy Hibbert force George back into a secondary role?
His superstardom and the Pacers' championship hopes hang in the balance, especially now that he'll be getting paid like an elite. No pressure...
As far as coming-out parties from this past spring are concerned, Stephen Curry's takes the cake. His hot shooting almost single-handedly landed the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
A first-round "upset" of the third-seed Denver Nuggets was, in itself, enough to catapult Curry's career. If not for the exhaustion and ankle re-aggravation incurred during Golden State's double-overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their second-round series, Curry could've kept Cinderella's carriage rolling for even longer than he did.
|Through Game 1 vs. SAS||7||42.5||27.1||9.6||2.1||.479||.439|
|After Game 1 vs. SAS||5||39.9||18.2||6.0||1.0||.363||.325|
Instead, his ankle swelled up (presumably to the size of a pumpkin), and the Dubs ducked out of the postseason, albeit with their heads held high.
That recurrence of Curry's ankle issues raises the same old questions about his health and longevity. Can he withstand the rigors of an 82-game regular season? Will his existing problems give rise to new ones in different parts of his body? Will he be able to stand up long enough to lift the reloaded Warriors to the next level?
Forget that he played 78 games during the 2012-13 regular season. Forget that he featured in all but four seconds of that double-overtime defeat to San Antonio. Until he's stayed healthy and dominated over the full course of a campaign to the extent that he did during the first seven games of these past playoffs—and earns the usual slate of accolades for doing so—he and the Warriors will remain merely members of the pack in the crowded Western Conference.
Which other young superstars have a lot riding on the 2013-14 season? Let me know on Twitter!