9 Players Who Will Be Under the Microscope During 2014-15 Season
You know how it goes. Every year in the NBA, certain players are judged more harshly and monitored more closely than others.
The 2014-15 season presents a fresh set of players stepping into sticky situations. Some have changed teams, some have to prove they've "still got it" and others simply need to change the perception of themselves around the league, even if that perception may not be fair to begin with.
From former NBA champions to guys with no playoff experience whatsoever, this is a diverse list of players who all share one common goal: to perform under the bright lights of the microscope.
Let's just hope these guys have stronger backbones than amoebas and paramecia.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
The mercurial and volatile Rajon Rondo will be entering his ninth season, and it may very well be the most important one of his career.
You see, Rondo is up for free agency next summer, and he will be hoping to play his first full year since 2011-12.
Rondo tore his ACL halfway through the 2012-13 campaign and returned midway through the 2013-14 season. While the rim wasn't exactly kind to him (he shot 40.3 percent in 30 games), Rajon did show flashes of the playoff machine we have come to know and love over the years.
Rondo averaged 11.7 points, 9.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds, recording one triple-double and coming awfully close to adding to that total on a few other occasions. Little by little, the quickness and explosiveness returned, and his renowned court vision was, of course, still there.
That being said, if Rondo wants to get paid the money he feels he is worth at the end of next year, he has to stay healthy and show no ill effects from the knee injury he suffered nearly two years ago. That means upping that field-goal percentage.
While the Boston Celtics may not be going anywhere in 2014-15, all eyes will be on Rondo.
Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets
Remember when there was a discussion regarding who was the better point guard between Chris Paul and Deron Williams? Those days are long gone, and now the conversation is whether or not Williams is even a top-10 floor general anymore.
Heading into the third year of a massive five-year, $99 million contract, Williams hasn't exactly lived up to expectations with the Brooklyn Nets.
After going through a 2013-14 campaign littered with nagging ankle injuries, D-Will put forth a subpar performance in the postseason, shooting only 39.5 percent from the floor and averaging a meager .061 win shares per 48 minutes. He even put up a doughnut in Game 2 of the Nets' second-round series against the Miami Heat.
Now, clearly, Williams should get a bit of a pass because his ankles were certainly bothering him, so much so that he underwent surgery on both of them shortly after Brooklyn was bounced from the playoffs, per Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York.
The question is, though, will Deron ever be the same again?
It's not like this is the first time he has experienced ankle trouble, as Mazzeo cites that Williams has been hampered by such issues since the 2012 Olympics.
If Williams isn't able to put together a healthy 2014-15 season, Brooklyn will find itself praying that he exercises his early termination option in 2016-17 (fat chance, as he will make over $22 million that year).
Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets
Let's flash back to February, when Lance Stephenson was left off the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. There was outrage from fans, media and Stephenson himself, and deservedly so. After all, the swingman was an integral part of an Indiana Pacers team that was ripping through the league, laying waste to anything in its path.
Six months later, it seems that the hot-tempered 23-year-old from Brooklyn has more detractors than supporters.
Many blamed Stephenson for the Pacers' catastrophic collapse in the second half of the season, citing his questionable (at best) on-court antics and potentially selfish locker-room presence, per Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.
Lance went from being a player expected to command $12-14 million a year on the open market to turning down a five-year, $44 million offer from Indiana, according to Chris Broussard of ESPN, and accepting a three-year, $27 million deal from the Charlotte Hornets, per another Broussard report.
Stephenson will likely put up solid numbers with the Hornets, but that's not the problem. The issue is whether or not he can finally mature and stop doing things like blowing in superstars' ears.
If Stephenson doesn't get his act together now, he may find himself out of the league in a few years regardless of how much talent he has.
It's time to put up or shut up.
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
You knew this one was coming.
Put this into perspective: Derrick Rose has not played a full season in four years. That's right. Four years.
Once considered one of the most dynamic, explosive players in the league, Rose has unfortunately been reduced to the butt of inappropriate jokes regarding his inability to remain healthy.
Rose tore his ACL during the 2012 playoffs and missed the entire 2012-13 campaign because of it. He then tried coming back last season, but he tore his meniscus 10 games into the year.
Now, Rose faces an even steeper uphill climb.
This could very well be it for the Bulls point guard. If he gets injured yet again, his career could very well be over at the young age of 26.
Rose, who is playing for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, seems confident that all will be well.
"This is only the beginning of a long journey," said Rose via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "But my confidence level is through the roof."
His summer teammates have taken notice of how solid he has looked so far, as well.
I'll hold back the rest of the usual platitudes (because we've all heard them more than enough times) and instead leave a plea for Derrick Rose's body: Please stay healthy.
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Kevin Love got what he wanted. A trade to a contender. Now, it's time for the star forward entering his seventh season to finally make a playoff run.
During his six years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Love failed to qualify for the postseason.
That can certainly be attributed to a shaky supporting cast and a deep Western Conference, but Love's issues on the defensive end haven't helped his argument. After all, Kevin Garnett consistently made the playoffs with weak teammates during his Minnesota days.
That's not to say that Love should be held to the same standard as Garnett, but merely that he cannot escape all of the blame for never playing in May.
Now, Love will almost certainly do that. While the deal that would send the UCLA product to the Cleveland Cavaliers isn't official yet (per Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein of ESPN), it would take an awful lot for it to fall apart, so let's just assume that Love is a Cavalier.
The rebounding machine and three-point marksman will team up with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, forming the NBA's latest big three.
Does Cleveland have enough to win a title in its first year? Probably not, as there will certainly be issues defensively and the San Antonio Spurs still own the league, but anything short of a Finals appearance would be considered a rather significant disappointment in Cleveland.
This is Love's chance to finally show his stuff on the big stage. He averaged a career-high 26.1 points per game last season, but you know that isn't going to mean anything in the eyes of critics if Love can't help lead the Cavs through the Eastern Conference.
Is it fair? Not necessarily, but with a teammate like James, you can see why potential criticism would arise should Love not help his ballclub live up to its lofty expectations.
One thing is for sure: It should be an incredibly entertaining situation to monitor.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
From a less-than-stellar playoff performance to a rocky offseason in the media, the past few months have not been kind to James Harden.
Harden drew headlines in July when he downplayed the importance of the departed Chandler Parsons and the rest of the Houston Rockets role players.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," said Harden via Joaquin Henson of the Philippines Star. “The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season."
The statement is somewhat ironic considering the Rockets were knocked out of the first round of the 2014 postseason despite having such "cornerstones" on the roster.
Harden put forth a subpar performance during that first-round series, shooting only 37.6 percent and posting an ugly effective field-goal percentage of 43.6. It marked the second-straight season that Harden struggled in the playoffs, and both of those seasons came in Houston.
To make matters worse, Harden's lack of defense has become somewhat of a running joke among NBA fans, with countless videos on YouTube highlighting (low-lighting?) his absent-mindedness on that end of the floor.
Harden is certainly a very good player and without a doubt one of the top shooting guards in the game, but he needs to check his attitude at the door and become a more efficient scorer in the playoffs. Taking nine three-pointers per postseason contest and only making 29.6 of them isn't going to cut it.
An improvement defensively wouldn't hurt, either.
Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
If Stephenson was the explosive that detonated to cause the Pacers' collapse, then Roy Hibbert was the primary recipient of the damage.
A year after capturing the hearts of NBA fans everywhere with a scintillating playoff performance against the Miami Heat, Hibbert wilted under the postseason lights in 2014, averaging just 9.3 points per game and shooting 44.9 percent from the field.
Hibbert also endured a stretch at the end of the season where he missed 25 of 28 shots over a span of four games. Also, he shot a slight 43.9 percent over the full 82-game campaign, so this didn't just start happening in the playoffs, either.
No one knows for sure what caused Hibbert's cataclysmic slump over the second half of 2013-14. What we do know is that Hibbert needs to right the ship immediately if he wants to salvage a respectable career as a big man.
A fresh start might help, as Hibbert will enter the 2014-15 season having had about five months to clear his mind and heal his body to prepare for a new year. That being said, the losses of Stephenson and Paul George puts all the more pressure on the 7'2" center to perform.
On the other side of the coin, though, there are no championship expectations in Indiana, so perhaps that will allow Hibbert to play more freely.
Let's just hope the 27-year-old rectifies whatever issue(s) he has had. It would be a shame to see what looked like such a promising career essentially go to waste.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Two-and-a-half years ago, we never would have thought Kobe Bryant would find his name on this list, but one ruptured Achilles, a fat new contract and a broken tibia later, here we are.
Bryant has been under intense scrutiny ever since he inked a two-year, $48.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers back in November, per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN LA, just seven months after tearing his Achilles.
Why didn't he take a paycut? Why would he handicap what the Lakers could do in terms of finding supporting talent for him? Will he ever even play another full season?
Those were all questions that were asked after Bryant agreed to that contract, and while they may have a bit of validity, frankly, what kind of contract the future Hall-of-Famer decides to sign really isn't any of our business.
Still, people are going to incessantly repeat "$48 million" if Kobe isn't able to recover from his most recent injury (the broken tibia), so the five-time champion is absolutely under the microscope heading into the 2014-15 campaign.
But you know what? That's exactly how Bryant likes it, and if anyone can prove virtually the entire planet wrong, it's Kobe Bryant.
I don't care who your favorite team is. You should be rooting for Kobe to make a comeback this season. Not because Bryant needs it, but because basketball does.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Wait, what? $118 million for Chris Bosh?!
That's what most of us were thinking when Bosh accepted a five-year deal worth that much, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, to remain with the Heat.
That certainly seems like a large sum of money for someone who averaged a rather modest 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season.
However, what a lot of us have to understand is that with LeBron no longer in tow, Miami is paying this dough for the Bosh we saw with the Toronto Raptors; not the one we have seen during his first four years in South Beach.
Remember: The year before joining James and Dwyane Wade, Bosh posted 24 points and 10.8 boards a night.
Is Bosh still capable of those numbers at the age of 30? Probably not, but now that he is the focal point of Erik Spoelstra's offense, you have to think that he can approach those types of stats, or at least tally more than 16.2 points a contest.
Bosh, who almost signed with the Houston Rockets after LeBron bolted for Cleveland, has a very positive attitude heading into this season. Here's what the big man told ESPN:
Looking at the guys we're bringing in, we have a chance to be very good. I know we don't have the best player in the world; that's an obvious thing. But teamwise, if we come together we can do a bunch of special things. We're still going to be competitive. It gives us an opportunity to play with a chip on our shoulder. It has revitalized my attitude towards basketball a little bit. And I'm really excited.
It should be fun to watch.