9 Players with the Most to Prove Heading into 2014-15 Season
Perhaps no profession better embodies the old adage “what have you done for me lately?” than professional sports, where impossible feats are quickly forgotten and titles taken for granted.
The lead-up to each NBA season is no different, as fans bide their summer dog days attempting to pinpoint next year’s narrative threads. For good or ill, such speculation is bound to include who—from teams to players to coaches—has the most to prove heading into November.
Today, we’ll examine nine players who, fairly or unfairly, fall squarely into this narrative camp. Some are tried and true champions undertaking new challenges, others in the vanguard of the NBA’s youth movement, while still others remain in search of some elusive goal, be it a title or something altogether intangible.
The league’s global popularity might mean no one is completely immune to the searing spotlight. These guys, by contrast, could use some SPF 5,000.
Gordon Hayward, SF, Utah Jazz
Sometimes, landing that first big contract is all about being in the right place at the right time. Just ask the Utah Jazz’s Gordon Hayward.
Coming off something of a down year, the 24-year-old Hayward might’ve easily met a fate similar to that which has since befallen fellow free agents Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe: a long, uncomfortable silence.
Instead, on July 9 the Charlotte Hornets stepped up and offered the former Butler University standout a four-year, $63 million deal. Days later, the Jazz matched, making Hayward Utah’s highest-paid player, not to mention the team’s de-facto face of the franchise.
Hayward has the size, skills and smarts to be an elite-level small forward in the NBA. If he can’t at least approximate that potential, though, the Jazz could be looking at a move that sets their already wayward franchise back even further.
Lance Stephenson, SG, Charlotte Hornets
Let’s make one thing clear: Lance Stephenson didn’t exactly do himself any favors by turning his supposed rivalry with LeBron James into an Eastern Conference Finals sideshow this past spring.
Over four years of steady statistical improvement and—more importantly—relatively antics-free behavior, Stephenson looked to be every part the rising star team president Larry Bird believed he could be when the Indiana Pacers drafted the Brooklyn, New York, native with the No. 40 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
To be sure, he could very well reach that zenith. It’ll just be with a different team.
On July 16, after negotiations with the Pacers hit an impasse, Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal with Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets. From a basketball perspective, the fit couldn’t be more perfect; Stephenson’s defense will fit comfortably with Steve Clifford’s scheme, while his offensive skill set gives Charlotte the secondary playmaker it so desperately needs.
Of all the players on this list, Stephenson stands perhaps the best chance of making his contract look like a bargain three years from now. Assuming, of course, that the Lance Stephenson Circus gets boxed up for good.
Eric Bledsoe, G, Phoenix Suns
You would think authoring a breakout year in just your fourth season in the league would be a blessing for any free agent. For Eric Bledsoe, it’s proven to be a curse.
More than any other player on our list, Bledsoe may have most misjudged his market value. Just how far apart are he and the Phoenix Suns? A whopping $36 million, according to ESPN’s Chris Broussard.
The truth, as the old cliche goes, is probably somewhere in the middle. But with Bledsoe’s options fast drying up, the only recourse could be to accept Phoenix’s original qualifying offer of $3.7 million. That would make the 2014-15 season even more crucial for Bledsoe, re-slotted as he’d be into a 2015 free-agent class that already stands to include Rajon Rondo and Suns teammate Goran Dragic.
Here's SB Nation's Tom Ziller on the strange game of chicken afoot in the Arizona desert:
The Suns could set a deadline upon which the offer expires if they want to get resolution, but there's really little reason to do that at this point. Another few weeks of stalemate aren't going to exacerbate bad feelings. There's no real rush to make a decision from either side. The die is cast and Bledsoe's bid for a max is failed. The Suns can afford to wait for Bledsoe to admit that, and Bledsoe can afford to wait until literally every avenue is exhausted. For Bledsoe, this situation is both a no-lose and a no-win. It just is.
There’s still plenty of time for a deal to be struck, of course. But the longer and more awkwardly things drag on, the more Bledsoe risks finding himself jumping straight from the summer frying pan into next season’s media fire.
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
But after being cut by Team USA ahead of the upcoming FIBA World Cup, Wall, who was originally left off the team’s initial roster back in January, is sure to be seeing red by the time training camp rolls around.
That the league has arguably never been deeper at point guard only adds to the intrigue. Indeed, being cut is one thing. But being cut in deference to three of your generational peers? That cuts a bit deeper.
No one would be surprised if, four or five years from now, we’re talking about Wall as the best in the business. Doing so, though, will require the flashy floor general to build on his past two breakout seasons, improving his overall productivity and efficiency while helping take the Wizards to ever-higher postseason heights.
Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
From a sampling of youngsters either fresh off or poised for breakout seasons to one of last season’s most weirdly head-scratching falls from grace.
By now, just about everyone’s had his or her turn playing psychologist over Indiana’s late-season collapse. But with Stephenson’s departure and Paul George’s heartbreaking injury casting even more of a pox on the Pacers’ house, Roy Hibbert promises to be one of next year’s most compelling subjects.
Indiana can in no way expect to make the playoffs with an offense centered around Hibbert—that much is clear. What the 7’2” center can do, however, is at least start the process of resurrecting his reputation.
Even while he struggled offensively, Hibbert remained a defensive force. Or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. But for a player with that many skills and that soft a low-post touch, there should be nothing holding Hibbert back from reasserting himself as an upper-echelon NBA center—at both ends of the floor.
Chandler Parsons, SF, Dallas Mavericks
If Gordon Hayward’s upcoming campaign is a referendum on Utah’s big-money gamble, Parsons’ is one steeped in pure revenge. Why? Let’s let Parsons do the talking, shall we? Per Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears:
Honestly, I was offended by the whole process. The Houston Rockets] publicly said that they were going out looking for a third star when I thought they had one right in front of them. I guess that's just how they viewed me as a player. I don't think I've scratched the surface of where I can be as a player and I think I'm ready for that role.
From someone who just put his name to a three-year, $46 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks, “offended” might be putting it a bit too harshly. Still, it certainly sounds like Parsons is bent on proving everyone—from doubting fans to Houston management—that he’s worth every penny.
Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat
LeBron James might’ve left the Miami Heat as the team’s unquestioned alpha dog. Four years ago, though, James arrived in South Beach as the seeming Robin to Dwyane Wade’s Dark Knight.
All told, Miami did a masterful job of rebounding on the fly following James’ decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Between Bosh, Luol Deng and a cast of faces both familiar and fresh alike, Miami’s prospects, while doubtless depleted, seem destined for a postseason mettle testing.
But it’s Wade who has by far the biggest burden on his shoulders. At 32 years old, Wade’s reckless style of play has finally begun to take its toll, despite Miami’s best efforts to place the 12-year veteran on a regimented rest plan last season.
It’ll be fascinating to see whether Wade approaches this season as one big 82-game vendetta—damning the physical torpedoes all the while—or if he paces himself even more carefully in hopes of squeezing out a handful more years and, possibly, another chance at a championship somewhere down the road.
Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
With five championships and countless ancillary accolades to his name, Kobe Bryant would seem to have nothing left to prove.
Until you remember Bryant recently signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, with a pair of serious injuries not so far in the rearview mirror, the 35-year-old legend is being asked to man the helm of a team loaded with youth and inexperience and with its near-future prospects fully up in the air.
Might the Lakers have been able to land a pair of superstars this past summer—James and Carmelo Anthony, for instance—had Bryant only taken a late-career pay cut? It’s impossible to say. But if L.A. winds up back in the lottery and the Mamba’s production takes a predictable hit, you can bet there will be at least some fan fallout.
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls
No one has spent more time simmering in the media cauldron’s speculative broth than the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose, who’s missed the better part of the past two seasons recovering from a pair of knee injuries.
The good news: Rose has drawn nothing but rave reviews in emerging as the starting point guard for Team USA ahead of this month's FIBA showcase in Spain, per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago.
The bad news: Only a strong regular-season showing will serve to deflect the flak from Rose’s more determined detractors.
After adding Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Doug McDermott to a team that won 48 games en route to nabbing the East’s No. 4 seed last season, the Chicago Bulls stand to improve even without a healthy Rose in the fray.
That he’s managed to display the same explosiveness that helped earn him the league’s MVP award back in 2011 will only intensify those expectations.