5 NBA Players with the Most to Prove During 2014-15 Season
Everybody in the NBA has something to prove.
If you're a bona fide superstar, you're out to show that you belong among the best in basketball, preferably by carrying your club to a championship. If you're a rookie or the backup-to-the-backup at the end of the bench, you're trying to justify your occupation of one of the 450 jobs available in the world's best hoops league.
And if you're anyone in between, well, you've probably got some cause to seek validation in the Association.
That's the nature of any enterprise as profitable and as competitive as the NBA. LeBron James' words about northeast Ohio ("...nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.") could just as easily describe the mindset required to succeed in the league.
These five guys won't be fighting for their livelihoods, per se; their contracts guarantee they're already set for life financially. But the obstacles they figure to face during the 2014-15 season, both on and off the court, assure that they'll be under even more pressure than usual to not only survive, but also sail through with flying colors.
I'm going to pull a trick out of the old Bill Simmons playbook here and start this off with a blind comparison of two players, both All-Star point guards, through their first three NBA seasons.
Player 1 is Penny Hardaway. Player 2 is Derrick Rose. Both were once-in-a-generation-type talents: physically gifted floor generals who achieved superstardom shortly after entering the NBA, with Rose becoming the league's youngest-ever MVP at the tender age of 22. Both also came out of the University of Memphis, and though Hardaway wasn't taken No. 1 overall like Derrick Rose was, he did join the Orlando Magic by way of a trade that sent Chris Webber, the top pick in the 1993 NBA draft, to the Golden State Warriors.
Unfortunately, the similarities don't end there. Hardaway and Rose were both first bitten by the injury bug in Year 4 and subsequently suffered ACL tears. Hardaway was never quite the same after that.
The rest of Rose's story has yet to be written, though the season-ending meniscus injury he endured early on in 2013-14 wasn't a good sign, to say the least. This time around, though, he will have an opportunity to take his body for a test run well before the next NBA campaign gets underway—during USA Basketball's preparations for the upcoming FIBA World Cup.
"As long as it goes well, obviously from a talent standpoint," Tom Thibodeau, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and an assistant for Team USA, told The Chicago Sun-Times' Seth Gruen. "But there’s rust that he has to shake off."
Rose has plenty of reason to get himself up to speed in a hurry. Aside from trying to do right by his country, he has the weight of his hometown to carry once the calendar turns to fall. The East is wide open now that LeBron James is back in Cleveland, and if Rose is healthy and effective, Chicago will be the favorite to make the Finals.
But first, Rose will have to show that he can recapture some semblance of his old self, that he's closer to being a superstar again than he is to being the next Penny.
Kobe Bryant has plenty of injury issues of his own to deal with this coming season. But he's nearly a decade older than Derrick Rose, with five more championships and scores more individual accolades than Rose. If he retired today, Bryant would go down as one of the 10 greatest basketball players of all time.
What, then, could Bryant possibly have to prove?
Well, nothing...except that he deserves to be the highest-paid player in the league!
Bryant will be just that in 2014-15. His $23.5 million salary will edge out Amar'e Stoudemire's $23.4 million take from the New York Knicks, per Basketball Insiders.
Not bad for two guys with rickety knees.
Last season, Bryant was on a mission to show he could beat the expected timetable for recovery from his torn Achilles by leaps and bounds. He accomplished that much, but was back on the shelf after six games on account of a fracture in his left tibial plateau.
Now, with his 36th birthday right around the bend, he'll be trying to silence his doubters again. Beyond justifying his exorbitant salary, Bryant will be tasked with carrying a threadbare Los Angeles Lakers squad back from the depths of their most recent 27-55 campaign.
His sidekicks? Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Nick Young and Carlos Boozer. Gone is Pau Gasol, who took less money to play in Chicago. If Bryant's lucky, he'll have a healthy Steve Nash by his side.
With a cast of characters like that—and with a head coach still to be named—the Lakers won't have to languish under any lofty external expectations.
Kobe's, though, will be another story. He's never been one to settle for mediocrity. Don't think he'll start now.
It's been four long, wildly successful years since Chris Bosh was last the go-to guy on an NBA team. That season, his Toronto Raptors won 40 games and failed to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
With LeBron James rejoining the Cavs, Bosh will now (presumably) be the No. 1 option for the Miami Heat. At least, his new five-year, $118 million deal would suggest as much.
Bosh will certainly have a better supporting cast this time around than he did when he last suited up for the Raptors. Back in 2009-10, Toronto surrounded Bosh with the likes of Andrea Bargnani, an aging Hedo Turkoglu, Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon. Miami, on the other hand, will feature Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and the over-the-hill duo of Dwyane Wade and Danny Granger alongside Bosh.
More importantly, Bosh himself is a much better player than he was as a Raptor. He's a bona fide threat from three-point range now and knows full well what it takes to win in the NBA.
Bosh's task, then, will be to demonstrate just how far he's come in the last four years by taking on a burden similar to the one he carried in Toronto, with a 30-year-old body and a superior set of skills.
Can Bosh get back to averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds a night, as he did during his final five seasons with the Raptors? Can he be the backbone of a really good team? Or is he better off following someone else's lead?
"I think sometimes you miss it," Bosh told ESPN's Tom Haberstroh of being an alpha dog. "You wonder if you can still do it and step up to the challenge. I haven't had to be that guy. I played with the best player in the world. I didn't have to be the alpha. But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what's necessary. But that's what makes it exciting."
If Bosh doesn't pan out as a No. 1 in Miami, though, he can still rest his laurels on the two titles he won with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Chris Paul doesn't have that luxury. He'll be heading into his 10th NBA season without so much as a conference finals appearance to his name.
That's hardly the sort of resume you'd expect from a player who's long been regarded as the best point guard around. Paul's had more than his fair share of bad luck, to be sure, but a legacy can only be so sturdy when it's built on a mountain of excuses.
As great as Paul is on the whole, he still struggles to come through in crunch time far more often than a player of his caliber should. His fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 5 of the Los Angeles Clippers' second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder served to remind of as much.
Time's a-wasting for Paul to prove he can get the job done as "The Man" on a championship-caliber club. He'll be 30 next May. Given his size and injury history, he might not have many more years as an elite pro left in him—certainly not with young guns like Stephen Curry, John Wall and Damian Lillard rising up the ranks at his position.
Heck, Paul might not even be the best player on his own team now that Blake Griffin has emerged as a bona fide MVP threat.
Paul, though, won't likely be without an alibi should he come up short again. The fight over ownership of the team between Donald Sterling and his wife Shelly could drag on into the 2014-15 season and take the Clippers down accordingly.
None of which, in truth, would absolve Paul of his perceived trespasses once the accomplishments of his otherwise stellar career have been tallied.
A year ago, Paul George seemed to have it all figured out. He was one of the hottest commodities going in the NBA, a 20-something superstar-in-the-making who'd just gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fast forward to the present, and George isn't sitting quite so pretty. His Indiana Pacers made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals, sure, but not before a disconcerting second-half slide, during which George's on-court performance tailed off considerably. He did what he could to keep the Pacers afloat against the Miami Heat, including a 37-point explosion in Game 5, but he couldn't push his sagging team over the hump and into the NBA Finals.
George's responsibilities in Indy have only expanded since that inevitable end. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted, Lance Stephenson's departure to Charlotte leaves George with one fewer teammate who can actually make things happen on the offensive end:
Losing Stephenson puts far more offensive pressure on George than he's ever faced before. There's plenty to dislike about the way Stephenson impacted the Pacers last year, but it's impossible to get around his value as a facilitating combo guard.
George, then, will probably be asked to serve as the Pacers' top creator, unless George Hill suddenly springs back to life. It's a task to which any true superstar must rise at some point, and George might get there over time.
At the moment, though, George has plenty of work to do to shore up his handles. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he turned the ball over on 18.4 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler—not a good number by any means.
But if George can put it all together and keep the Pacers in the hunt in the East, he'd further solidify himself as one of the best players in basketball, under the age of 25 and otherwise.
Who else has a lot to prove this season? Tweet me your picks!