NBA Stars Poised to Make Major Statements in 2013-14
Part of what separates NBA stars from your Average Joes and Janes—aside from size, speed, strength, athleticism and an intrinsic desire to post workout videos on the Interwebz—is their appetite for motivation. Even the most harmless of statements, critical or otherwise, can be and often are twisted into the requisite fuel for greatness by the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and any number of their peers atop the league's leaderboard.
But gimmicks needn't be the only things that drive top-notch athletes to be better. In fact, those factors that most often motivate basketball's best (i.e. past failures, job security, proving doubters wrong, wanting to improve) are all too familiar to Average Joes and Janes everywhere.
The biggest difference, then, is that NBA players have the opportunity to parlay those motivational tactics into significant steps taken forward in front of arenas packed with thousands of fans and countless more watching at home. For these seven studs, that's what the 2013-14 season will be all about.
Tyson Chandler's follow-up to his dynamite debut season with the New York Knicks didn't go quite as planned. The Knicks slipped from fifth in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to 17th in 2012-13, and actually gave up slightly more points per 100 possessions with the previous season's Defensive Player of the Year on the floor, per NBA.com.
For Chandler, though, the real driving factor behind his desire to be better this season is the butt-whooping he suffered at the hands of Roy Hibbert in the playoffs this past spring. As Chandler recently relayed to Ian Begley of ESPN New York:
I vowed to myself I would never let that happen again. I would never let my team down and be in that situation again.
I’ve got to look at it like motivation, like I got my ass kicked. So next time I’m not going to let that happen.
To be sure, Chandler can't be faulted too much for averaging just 6.2 points and 6.0 rebounds and getting outplayed during that second-round series against the Indiana Pacers. He'd missed 16 of New York's final 20 regular-season games—and dropped about 15 pounds—on account of a bad case of the flu and an injury to his neck.
Chandler's flu may be gone, but his neck problems will be worth watching. His body's been fraught with injuries over the years and, at 31, is only going to be more prone to them in the years to come.
The Knicks can ill-afford for Chandler's career to careen off a cliff if they're to remain competitive in the ever-improving Eastern Conference, now and into the future. The addition of a more consistent mid-range jumper should expand Chandler's range of effectiveness on the offensive end of the floor, but ultimately, his value in New York will be judged not by how many points he scores, but rather by the impact he has on the defensive end, just as it always has.
Tyson Chandler wasn't the only 30-something All-Star center whose performance fell off last season.
Pau Gasol faced plenty of his own obstacles, many from his own body. Gasol came into the campaign on a pair of sore knees, which tough practices under Mike Brown (prior to his ousting) only exacerbated. Between the tendinosis in his knees and the plantar fasciitis in his foot, Gasol was forced to sit out a career-worst 33 games in 2012-13.
And it's not as though everything was peachy keen when he was on the court, either. Gasol's declining health and misuse under Brown and Mike D'Antoni—both of whom moved Pau further from the basket to better accommodate Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum before him—left the slender Spaniard with personal lows in points (13.7) and field-goal percentage (.466), coupled with a precipitous drop in his rebounding numbers.
Gasol's still not completely healed from an offseason procedure to alleviate the pain in his knees, though his preseason debut (13 points, four rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes) was steady enough to suggest that better times do, indeed, lay ahead.
At least, they're set up to be. Gasol should have a much easier time finding touches in the middle now that he's once again tops in the Los Angeles Lakers' front-court rotation. Throw in Gasol's impending free agency at the age of 33, and the seven-footer should have no trouble finding reasons and opportunities to prove that he can be (and still is) and elite big man, with the skill and the will to be a crucial cog on a championship-caliber club.
Pau Gasol's dealt with his fair share of "disrespect" from his own organization. He's been benched by his head coach and, year after year, dangled on the trade market.
Luol Deng can certainly empathize. The Chicago Bulls refused to talk earnestly about extending Deng's contract this past summer—a slight that's left Lu "privately disappointed," per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
The Bulls have their reasons for letting Deng test the waters in free agency. They have their own salary cap concerns to consider, along with the burgeoning future of fellow swingman Jimmy Butler, among other things.
The improvement of Butler and the highly anticipated return of Derrick Rose figure to overshadow whatever Deng brings to the table in 2013-14. That's all the more reason, though, for Lu to boost his own profile with his on-court performance.
Well, that and the unfortunate way in which Deng's campaign came to a close. He missed the final seven games of Chicago's postseason run on account of a spinal tap gone awry. He's recovered the strength and the mass lost from those weeks spent in a hospital bed, but the bitterness between his camp and the Bulls' training staff may well remain.
In any case, there's no reason to believe that Deng won't be dialed in this season. He's healthy again, with back-to-back All-Star appearances in his hip pocket. Moreover, the Bulls, with whom Deng has spent his entire pro career, are poised to return to contention in the Eastern Conference.
The better Deng, a Tom Thibodeau favorite, plays and the more Chicago wins, the better Lu's prospects of beaucoup bucks and proper respect become.
What more can Kawhi Leonard do to assert himself as one of the NBA's rising stars than he did during the San Antonio Spurs' most recent playoff run?
Plenty, as it turns out. The third-year wing out of San Diego State battled knee pain throughout the 2013 postseason, though you'd never have known just by watching him play. He performed spectacularly well in nearly all facets of the game, albeit in a role that was still rather limited behind those of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. He averaged 13.5 points, 1.8 steals and a whopping 9.0 rebounds while knocking down 54.5 percent of his shots, including 39 percent of his threes.
Oh, and his defense wasn't too shabby, either. He all but put an end to the Golden State Warriors' playoff push with his stellar shutdown of Stephen Curry and matched up with LeBron James about as well as anyone has in years during the finals.
Leonard isn't one to promote himself—or to talk much at all, for that matter—though he has plenty of fans to do the boasting for him. Among them is Gregg Popovich, who told Hoopsworld's Yannis Koutroupis:
I think Kawhi is the new [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobili, [Tim] Duncan kind of guy. He’s going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on. Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to continue to play very well and be at the top of their games at their age. Tony is still young enough to be the star that he is, but he’ll get older too and that’s where Kawhicomes in. He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player we’ve ever had because his mindset is such that he wants to be great and he has all the reasons to be so we have to put him in the position where he can be a great player.
Expect the Spurs to put Leonard in that very position this season, and for everyone involved—Kawhi and the club included—to benefit handsomely from the switch.
While Kawhi Leonard creeps closer to the top of the food chain in San Antonio, Brook Lopez appears to have had his spot on the Brooklyn Nets' hierarchy usurped. After all, someone has to sacrifice his game now that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have arrived in the Nets' starting five, alongside fellow veterans Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
But just because Brook is the youngest of the bunch doesn't mean he should be the one to take a backseat. If anything, his youth, size and skill at the center position portend bigger and better things for the Stanford product. He established himself as arguably the best scoring center in basketball (and, perhaps, Brooklyn's best player) after averaging 19.4 points on 52.1 percent shooting and earning his first All-Star bid last season.
Lopez, though, still has a long way to go as far as rebounding, defense and toughness are concerned. His total rebound rate was the sixth lowest among peers at his position who averaged at least 20 minutes per game across no fewer than 10 contests, per Hoopdata.
That wasn't out-of-character for Lopez, either. He hasn't pulled down more than seven rebounds a night since 2009-10 and has yet to average a double-double, despite his seven-foot, 260-pound frame.
To be sure, the Nets weren't any worse for this wear. They still ranked third in the NBA in rebounding percentage, per NBA.com, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Reggie Evans and, to a lesser extent, Gerald Wallace.
Still, this doesn't mean that Lopez can't, won't and shouldn't do better. Having KG around should help to shore up Brooklyn's back line on defense. Garnett has long been among the league's most impactful defenders, with his long arms to challenge shots and grab rebounds and his quick feet to cover ground.
More importantly, Garnett can teach Lopez how to be tough, how to battle on the boards, how to use his superior size to his advantage. Lopez may not have the foot speed to be a disruptor out to the three-point line, but with Garnett's guidance, he could become the sort of productive, intimidating presence that the Nets need to contend in the East.
It's high time for Ty Lawson to attain the All-Star status for which he's seemed destined the last two years.
The Denver Nuggets certainly need him to. Their disastrous offseason was witness to a seismic shift that rattled not only the sideline and the front office, but also the team's roster. Andre Iguodala's gone and Danilo Gallinari's still recovering from a torn ACL, with newcomers Randy Foye and Nate Robinson expected to pick up a sizable chunk of the scoring slack.
To be sure, the Nuggets have other options at their disposal. Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur are all productive players, as is Andre Miller. JaVale McGee and Evan Fournier, while mistake prone (for very different reasons), comprise an important part of this team's ceiling.
Denver isn't lacking for depth, that's for sure. What it needs is an identity, an engine to drive the team back into the playoffs and smooth the transition between George Karl and Brian Shaw.
Lawson can be—nay, must be—that player for the Nuggets. He's the most talented player in town and, as the starting point guard, will be the one most directly tasked with running the operation from play to play. In a league as long on floor generals as the NBA is today, Lawson will have to take on stars at both ends nearly every night.
With improved conditioning and the support of a coach who understands firsthand the challenges of being a leader at the very same position, Lawson should prove equal to the task, and then some.
Speaking of borderline All-Stars, perhaps no player has danced along that divider as long or to as frustrating an effect as has Rudy Gay. How it is that a 6'9" freak athlete who's averaged 18 points per game over his career has yet to crack an All-NBA team or play in the league's midseason showcase is a mystery for which, apparently, the Memphis Grizzlies weren't keen to wait around for a satisfactory solution.
Instead, Gay will have to reach for the stars as a member of the Toronto Raptors. Sharpened vision, a bulkier build and better health overall bode well for Gay this season. So, too, should an expanded role as Toronto's "small ball" power forward.
Rudy's role with the Raptors seemed to suit him better than did his with the Grizz last season. Gay's scoring and shooting numbers all trended slightly upward after his move up north prior to the trade deadline, despite playing slightly fewer minutes per game with the Raptors.
He'll have every opportunity to keep that roll going in his first full season in Canada. The Raptors are tailor-made to play the sort of fast-paced, up-and-down brand of basketball in which Gay can shine, thanks to his length, leaping ability and speed.
If nothing else, Gay can approach 2013-14 as a showcase for himself. He can opt out of his current contract after the season, and may well find himself on the move before then if the Raptors' season turns south, as it so often does.
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