Chris Paul and Deron Williams have no more excuses following big NBA offseasons.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and as most fans have begun to realize, it's the superstars who lead their teams to championships year after year.
But while the Big Three in South Beach is in a seemingly perfect situation, there are other stars around the league who must live up to their own hype. For example, Deron Williams and Chris Paul have seen huge changes take place in their respective organizations, and they're in prime position to contend for a title right away.
Nobody's claiming that winning will be easy, but the excuses must be thrown out the window for a handful of players. It's time to step up entering the new year, showing that the superstar status they've been given is warranted up to this point.
LaMarcus Aldridge wants help in Rip City? Now he has it.
The Portland Trail Blazers were in the playoff picture throughout most of the 2012-13 season, which was a surprise to those who had counted them out from the beginning. A large part of that was the immediate success of Damian Lillard, but the most productive player on the team proved once again to be Aldridge.
As it turned out, the team lost its final 13 games, largely due to fatigue and battered bodies. The starters simply played too many minutes to keep it going, and it became clear that the team needed a whole new set of reserves.
During the offseason, GM Neil Olshey utilized the team's cap space by bringing in talent across the board. C.J. McCollum and Mo Williams will help in the backcourt, Dorell Wright will spread the floor and Thomas Robinson will spell Aldridge at the power forward spot.
Even Robin Lopez, the team's newest starting center, will make life easier on Aldridge, as the big man has never been open to playing the 5.
For the 28-year-old, winning doesn’t mean contending for a title in 2014; it means finding some semblance of postseason success. The team hasn't made the playoffs since 2011, and that trend must change for Aldridge to be considered a leader at this stage in his career.
In Kevin Love's defense, he does have one big excuse left to use: Health.
The 25-year-old is coming off of a year that saw his entire team deal with injuries. The Minnesota Timberwolves were dilapidated across the roster, and most notably, Love himself missed all but 18 games.
The truth is, injuries sneak up on teams when you least expect it, and if it happens again to Minnesota, it will be in the same boat during 2013-14. However, if the squad can stay healthy, Love has the best chance he's ever had of making the postseason.
The Wolves are a far better team now than they were when Love was drafted. We've seen him put up video game-like numbers throughout the bulk of his career, but at this point he has an up-and-coming star in Ricky Rubio, a physical force on the block in Nikola Pekovic and a potentially lights-out shooter in Chase Budinger.
Love even has a No. 2 scorer in Kevin Martin, which is something he hasn't been able to say during most of his time in the NBA.
Barring any significant injuries, it's time for Love to shine like the star he is. Winning has always been his concern, and the Wolves have done a solid job of putting pieces around him to make that happen.
Deron Williams has been considered an elite point guard for a long time, but he's yet to prove he can lead a squad to a championship.
Now, with the Brooklyn Nets acquiring stars left and right, the 29-year-old must prove that he's not just the best player on his team, but the kind of leader who can get his organization to the next level.
When Brooklyn acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on draft night, it instantly earned credit for having the most talented starting unit in the NBA. Williams, Pierce and Garnett make up a formidable threesome, but having Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson already on board is the icing on the cake.
To make matters worse for opponents, the talent doesn't disappear when the bench checks in. Jason Terry was also a part of the draft-night trade, Shaun Livingston is a respectable backup and Andrei Kirilenko might have been one of the shrewdest signings of the summer.
If the Los Angeles Lakers proved anything in 2013, it's that winning doesn't come easily just because you have stars. Then again, the Boston Celtics showed it can be done when they won a championship in their first season with Garnett and Ray Allen.
The Nets have a long road ahead of them, as the Miami Heat will prove to be a major speed bump for any and all contenders. But if Williams can play the way he did following the 2013 All-Star Game for an entire season, he'll have his crew ready to compete at an incredibly high level.
Dwight Howard made the conscious decision to leave one of the most prestigious organizations in all of sports because he believes he has a better chance of winning with the Houston Rockets.
People haven't forgotten about the Dwightmare of the past two years, which means if the big man doesn't win right away, he'll hear about it from haters all across the Association.
Now in Houston, Howard not only has stars surrounding him, but young stars. James Harden is 24, Chandler Parsons is also 24 and Jeremy Lin is 25.
Omer Asik is 27, making him and Howard the two oldest pieces of the organization's core unit.
This is a group that is going to compete atop the conference, but the question is whether or not it can take down the West's best in a seven-game series. Defense is going to be a problem all year long—specifically on the perimeter—and chemistry is always a concern when throwing someone new into the mix.
In Howard's defense, he utilized free agency the way it was meant to be utilized. He considered his options, heard the pitches and made the decision he felt was best.
It's the drama surrounding the decision that made people cringe, and now winning is the only way to earn back the respect he once had from fans across the league.
Putting Stephen Curry on this list isn't about his public perception. He hasn't been criticized like some of the game's top stars, and we've never been disappointed in his ability to win, seeing as how we've never expected greatness out of the Golden State Warriors.
His inclusion is more a testament to how good Golden State can be moving forward, and it's a compliment to his game that we believe he can be the one to lead the way.
During the 2013 postseason, casual fans got more than just a taste of what Curry has to offer. The Warriors became arguably the most exciting team to watch in the entire Association, and whatever they did was looked at as incredible success compared to their recent accomplishments.
With the team continuing to acquire stars and develop talent, it should no longer be considered the darlings of the NBA. It's not going to catch people by surprise, and it's going to enter a new category of contender in 2014.
Curry is the star of this team, but he has capable talent all over the floor. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are maturing quickly, David Lee and Andrew Bogut are solid low-post presences and Andre Iguodala will be a defensive nuisance for opposing perimeter players.
Curry is finally in a spot where we can expect great things, and for the sake of fans everywhere, let's hope he can lead this team to success sooner rather than later.
When Chris Paul made his debut with the Los Angeles Clippers, the team instantly became one of the most exciting squads in the NBA. “Lob City” was in full effect from day one, but the more important fact is that L.A. was winning—something that could only be said about the Lakers in years past.
The problem for the Clippers was that every time something went wrong, the blame was given to Vinny Del Negro. The coach was never known as an elite leader, and the topic of how well he controlled the locker room became an excuse that was used from season to season.
Now, there’s no scapegoat to blame on the sidelines, as Doc Rivers is in town and ready to lead this crew to a championship.
Aside from the coach, Paul also has talent on the floor. He played the role of general manager when he was with the then-New Orleans Hornets, and he found a way to get himself to a team that had a legitimate No. 2 star in Blake Griffin.
Additionally, Los Angeles has become one of the deepest teams in the NBA. It’s true that the low-post game needs work on both ends of the floor, but the Clips are deep enough to compete with anybody around the league.
This is a group that will challenge people night in and night out, but the goal is to finally push for a championship. With Paul leading the way, anything can happen; but with the rest of the roster in place, the star has no excuse for another early postseason exit.