As it has often been said: "The NBA season is a sprint, not a marathon."
A lot can develop over the course of an 82-game season and with the possibility of a lockout in the summer of 2011, it can become exceedingly difficult for a player to maintain his focus when the ultimate goal for an NBA superstar is success after those 82 games.
So how do players stay motivated enough throughout the season?
Many times, their desire to prove something to themselves or their critics can drive them to sustain their intensity for the duration of the regular season.
Here are 20 of the NBA's best players and what they will be looking to prove about themselves in 2011.
The San Antonio Spurs are the only team in the league that can open a season at 26-4 and yet still be considered "under the radar." Nevertheless, the Spurs are legit contenders right now and their resurgence has a lot to do with the great season Manu Ginobili is having. Along with his 19.5 points and 4.8 assists per game, he has been Mr. Clutch for the Spurs, drawing a timely offensive foul on Carmelo Anthony one game after hitting a game-winning shot against the Bucks.
He seeks to prove that the Spurs are for real and can advance to the Finals as a top seed
The Spurs have had a curious history with holding the best record in the conference. Sometimes they win the title (like in 1999), sometimes they lose in the conference finals (like in 2001) and sometimes they are ousted in the second round (like in 2006). It's hard to say for sure what they will do in the postseason if they clinch the best record in the West. But seeing as how the nucleus of this Spurs team (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili) is undoubtedly aging, he will seek to assure that securing the top seed in the West will not be for naught this year.
Although Garnett was solid last year, you could sense that he was not completely recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him for the playoffs in 2009. However, after a season and postseason of conditioning under his belt, Garnett is back to being that enforcer/defensive stopper he was when Boston took the title in 2008, and that could spell trouble for the other contenders in the East. On the surface, Garnett's numbers (15.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 0.8 bpg) don't blow you away considering his career averages.
But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that would not cite his healthy start to the season as the primary reason for the team's early success.
Garnett needs to prove that neither he nor the Celtics will flame-out by postseason
Having the top seed in the East and championship experience does not necessarily ensure playoff success. Just ask the 2006 Detroit Pistons, which had the top seed in the East and had been to the Finals in back-to-back years, but ran out of gas in the postseason and lost to the Miami Heat. In fact, the No. 1 seed in the East has made it to the finals only twice since 2002.
Garnett needs to assure that he and his teammates can maintain their intensity throughout the season and into the postseason. If KG and the Celtics suffer no major letdowns or injuries, they will be a very difficult out.
Who would have thought that the terms "hot ticket" and "L.A. Clippers" would be used in the same sentence? But the Clippers rookie phenom has transformed the team from "that other team that plays at Staples Center" to one that could be on the rise despite its poor 10-22 record. Griffin is a SportsCenter highlight waiting to happen on the floor, as he averages 21.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game and has looked unstoppable at times this season.
He needs to prove that he is Rookie of the Year
Originally the race for Rookie of the Year appeared to be a two-man race between Griffin and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, who has missed a few games with injury and has not played as well since he returned. However, I expect Wall to play better in the new year and that means that Griffin must continue his stellar play in order to secure the award.
Right now, it appears that Griffin is the odds-on favorite to secure the award, but anything can happen between now and April.
"The Big Fundamental" just keeps getting it done. This season Duncan has managed to lead his team to the best record in the NBA through 30 games while posting career lows in points (13.6 ppg) rebounds (9.6 rpg) and minutes played (28.9 mpg). He has willingly taken a backseat to the younger players on the team in the early going. However, one wonders how effective he will be once the games become more important in March and April.
Duncan seeks to step up his play when the playoffs come around
While it may be a tall order to expect Duncan to rediscover the form he had in his 2003 MVP season, one expects him to step up his game when the team needs him to. Right now, the Spurs are playing at a very high level as a team and have a 26-4 record despite a drop in his numbers.
But the Spurs don't have a lot of size on their team (Tiago Splitter is unproven in the postseason, Matt Bonner is a solid player but not a go-to guy offensively), and in order to get past the Lakers and the Mavericks, the Spurs are going to have to see Duncan become more involved offensively.
Paul Pierce, MVP of the NBA Finals in 2008, came into the 2011 season on a mission: Get back to the finals and correct the mistakes made against the L.A. Lakers that cost the team the title in Game 7 of the series. Pierce has provided 18.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game to the cause and helped lead the Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference. However, with this season serving as quite possibly the final shot at a title for the Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen, there is a definite sense of "title or bust" surrounding Pierce and his teammates, and they have played like it.
Pierce needs to prove that his team can avoid the post-holiday slump
Over the last three years, the Big Three in Boston have posted a record of 94-14 (87 percent) prior to Christmas but have been unable to maintain the momentum throughout the season, going only 107-59 (64 percent) after Christmas. If Pierce and the Celtics hope to maintain their stellar play throughout the season, they have a realistic shot at securing home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and beyond.
Pierce needs to keep the other Eastern Conference contenders in check
So far, the Celtics are having little trouble getting up for games against the other contenders in the East. The Celtics are currently 4-1 against the Heat, Bulls and Magic this season and look to continue asserting their dominance on their three primary conference threats. Pierce and the Celtics would love nothing more than to advance to the playoffs, having lost no more than two games combined against the No. 2-4 seeds in the East.
Some wondered how Steve Nash's numbers would fare after Amare Stoudemire took his talents to Broadway. So far, pretty well. His 17.2 points and 10.7 assists show that the two-time MVP can still make his teammates better. The Suns have improved in the wake of the trade with Orlando that brought in Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mickeal Pietrus.
Nevertheless, the Suns would be hard-pressed to make much noise this year in a stacked Western Conference where the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks will make it difficult to do much damage. Right now, the Suns only hope to begin playing better after their 13-16 start.
Nash needs to prove he can make the new guys better
But while no one is saying that this trade will make the Suns a serious threat in the West this year, it could be intriguing seeing how Nash impacts the games of Carter, Pietrus and Gortat. Although he isn't the high-flyer he was in his days with the Raptors, the Suns fast-paced system seems perfect for Carter, as it will allow him to get out in the open court where he is most effective. Meanwhile, Gortat will automatically be one of the better bigs in the West and could see his stock rise while playing alongside Nash. And Pietrus, a terrific three-point shooter who will get plenty of kickouts through Nash's penetration, could benefit greatly as well.
After suffering a rough first month of the season offensively, Dwyane Wade has regained his title as one of the league's premier shooting guards. He's averaging 23.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
He needs to prove that he can finally have a strong game against the Boston Celtics
Wade deserves all the credit in the world for stepping his game up following the Heat's much publicized players-only meeting after a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. His play (in particular during the teams' December 4-0 road trip) really set the tone for the rest of the month as he took it upon himself to lead the team during its early struggles. But one thing that is still hanging over Wade is that green monster in Boston. In two games against the Celtics this year, Wade averaged 10.5 points and shot just 6-for-28, as the Celtics defense simply smothered him all game long.
He needs to prove that he can be healthy in time for the playoffs
Can Wade stay healthy? It is not as ominipresent a phrase as the ones questioning the health of Lakers center Andrew Bynum, but it is out there. Just this season alone, Wade has suffered a hamstring injury in preseason, a knee injury causing him to miss a game versus Phoenix and a "minor" wrist injury. He also took an awkward fall in a game against the Bobcats, as well as an elbow to the head against the Warriors. How far the Heat go this year will be undoubtedly be tied to how healthy Wade will be at playoff time. His great slashing and strong drives to the basket are ready-made for SportCenter's Top 10 plays, but that makes it all the more difficult to stay injury-free. Wade must pace himself during the regular season so that when the playoffs begin, he will not see his effectiveness hampered with a nagging injury.
Perhaps no story outside LeBron James' decision captured more media attention in the offseason than whether the Denver Nuggets, with free agency looming at the end of the 2010-2011 season, would trade All-Star small forward Carmelo Anthony. Speculation has run rampant over the story. Could he wind up in Chicago? Or New York? Maybe Dallas? The rumors have continued to swirl. One report cited a source claiming Anthony wanted to go to New York and play. He has had a terrific season. Averaging 24 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists, Anthony has taken up the slack in the absence of injured starters Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups.
Anthony has to prove that he can turn whatever team he plays for next year into a contender
It would stand to reason that once the suspense over Anthony's future destination is finally resolved, he should be expected to turn the team into a conference powerhouse. In fact, there are already those who have said that if Anthony joins the Knicks, he and Stoudemire could challenge the Celtics, Heat, Magic and Bulls for conference supremacy. Nevertheless, whether Anthony is traded or leaves Denver after this season, his fresh start next year (and fresh contract) will bring expectations of success from that team's fanbase.
Russell Westbrook is yet another one of the league's great young point guards. He has had a terrific season, averaging a career-best 22.4 points, 8.1 assists and two steals. Before the season began, there was much talk about the prospect of his teammate, All-Star forward Kevin Durant, winning the MVP award. However, Durant struggled in the early going of the season offensively and was sidelined a few games with an ankle injury, which left Westbrook to lead the team offensively. Westbrook carried the load quite well. His play has even inspired some sportswriters to put him in the conversation in the ongoing—but never resolved—debate of who is the league's best point guard?
He needs to prove that the Thunder can make a longer playoff run this time
After a six-game loss to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs last season, many assumed that the Thunder were in position to take the next step and go deep into the playoffs. Durant's great play during the FIBA Championships further fueled the belief that the Thunder's time was now. And while the team has played well (21-11 record so far, good enough for fifth in the West), the team appears to still be a season or two away from serious playoff contention. It needs a bit more experience, better defensive play (the team is only 21st in points allowed) and more rebounding (the team is 16th in rebounding).
But if the Thunder can play solid in the second half of the season and secure the No. 4 seed, Westbrook and Durant could advance to the second round for the first time in their careers. But with Dallas, San Antonio and the Lakers appearing to have the top three seeds on lockdown, the Thunder are in a battle with Utah to secure the No. 4 spot. Westbrook's play will be key for that to happen.
Everybody thought that the Utah Jazz were in for a long season after Boozer left for Chicago, but Deron Williams was having none of it. He came into the season with his typical All-Star caliber numbers (22.6 points, 9.5 assists and 1.3 steals) and helped Paul Milsap fill the void left by Boozer by making him a better player (although Milsap was, perhaps unjustifiably, left off the All-Star ballot). Deron Williams has truly done everything his team has needed from him. And his play during the road trip for the ages in November was nothing short of brilliant.
Williams must prove that his team can make noise in the playoffs
Williams, like other great point guards in the West like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, is faced with the prospect of a shorter-than-desired playoff run because of the conference domination of the two teams from Texas. Williams' teams have been unlucky enough to run into the Lakers in the playoffs every year of the Pau Gasol era, losing each time. Williams' Jazz are only 3-12 against the Purple and Gold over the last three years and despite the Lakers' current struggles, Los Angeles would be favored in a series against the Jazz, with or without home-court advantage. Ideally, Williams' team could secure the No. 3 seed and face perhaps New Orleans or the Thunder in the first round, avoiding the Lakers in the process. But it seems unlikely that the Jazz will finish the season with a better mark than the Mavs, Spurs and Lakers unless the Jazz can summon some of the luck they found on their classic road trip. Williams will have to be the key.
As much as the Lakers have struggled in recent weeks (going 13-9 after an 8-0 start) it's easy to forget just how well Pau Gasol was playing to start the season. His numbers in those first eight games (23.4 points and 11 rebounds, including a triple-double against Portland) had some people crowning him an early MVP candidate. And to be considered the best player on the Lakers while Kobe Bryant is still playing is quite a feat. Nevertheless, Pau's effectiveness began to wane as the excessive minutes caused by Andrew Bynum's absence set in. In his last five games (two of them blowout losses at home to the Bucks and Heat) his numbers (19.6 ppg and 9.6 rpg) are still good, but just not as glowing as they were early in the season.
He needs to prove that he can rediscover the stroke
In recent weeks he has looked more like Pau Gassssed as he doesn't appear to have the same energy he had before. There is some speculation that his recent struggles could be tied to his injured hamstring, although he would probably never admit it publicly. But while Pau and the entire Lakers team have had their struggles in recent weeks, one senses that they may find a way to right the ship soon. And they must or risk losing ground on their opponents in the West. Pau must step up his game for L.A. to make a run at a top-two seed in the conference. Given that their schedule from now until February is one of the league's toughest, he will need to find the solution to his slump soon.
Rajon Rondo may be the only player in the league that can be considered the most dominant player in a game even when he is not connecting from the field offensively. Rondo is the floor general for the best team in the Eastern Conference, and this season he is putting up career highs in every statistical category including points (11.2 ppg) assists (13.8 apg) and rebounds (4.6rpg).
He needs to prove that he can consistently hit perimeter shots
In one of the few losses the Celtics have suffered this season against Dallas, the Mavericks forced him to shoot a three pointer from the perimeter and closely-guarded Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Rondo missed, and the team lost. Even though Rondo has certainly improved his outside shot this season (he's shooting 31 percent from three, which is a career best) he still must prove that he will make defenses pay for the type of defense that the Lakers played in the finals, when they essentially let Rondo shoot. When Rondo is hitting from the field, the Celtics are the league's best team.
Where would the Chicago Bulls be without Derrick Rose? Well, certainly not sitting at No. 3 in the East, that's for sure.
With Carlos Boozer missing the first month of the season with an injury and Joakim Noah currently out with a thumb injury, Rose has been as steady a point guard as there is in the league. He's averaged 24.3 points and 8.4 assists per game. Although numbers don't tell the whole story of his impact, as he has simply willed his team to victories. (His clutch three pointer against the Houston Rockets was especially amazing). Rose and Boozer have formed one of the league's premier tandems and Rose is hoping to win his first playoff series next spring.
He has to prove that he can be less a scorer and more a distributor
If there is any knock on Rose, it is that he shoots too much for a point guard (he averages over 20 shot attempts a game) and needs to be more a play-maker in the offense than a scorer. However, to be fair to Rose, he has been faced with playing the majority of the season without one of the team's big men (Noah or Boozer) and as a result he has had to shoulder more of an offensive burden. The Bulls, while defensively strong (ninth in points allowed and second in opponents field-goal percentage),have struggled offensively at times. If the Bulls want to go far in the playoffs next year, they need to establish a third consistent option beyond Boozer and Rose. Otherwise when the team makes it to the playoffs, teams will take on the "make the other guys beat us" philosophy by limiting Rose and making Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng make shots consistently.
Chris Paul is having a sensational season, even if his team has not won as much recently as it did early on. After starting the season 11-1, the New Orleans Hornets have gone a far more pedestrian 7-12, including bad losses to Minnesota, Detroit and the Clippers. Part of their recent struggles could be attributed to the offensive end, where they are only 26th in the league in scoring. This despite the fact that Chris Paul averages 16.5 points and nearly 10 assists and is one of the game's great creators.
He needs to prove that he can lead his team to a strong finish to the season
Will the real New Orleans Hornets please stand up? Is this team as good as it was during its 11-1 start or are they, at best, a seventh seed that overachieved in the early going but will now come back down to earth? The answer to that question will certainly depend on CP3's play and the team's ability to rediscover the magic it had at the start of the season. Interestingly enough, the Hornets are still one of the league's best defensive teams, ranked third and 10th in opponents points and field goals, respectively.
But unless the team ends on a high note, it faces a tough first-round matchup against one of the Texas titans or the Lakers. Those could lead to a premature exit, and perhaps Chris Paul may leave New Orleans.
Dwight Howard is having a strong season and has solidified his position as the league's best center. After a summer spent practicing his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon, Howard certainly improved his overall offensive game, as his scoring average of 21.4 points is up from last year. He is also averaging 13.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Despite the fact that the Orlando Magic roster was recently bulldozed and he is now playing with a radically-altered supporting cast (which includes Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson), Howard continues to anchor the defense for the Magic, as the team held the Boston Celtics to only 78 points on Christmas Day.
Dwight seeks to prove that he can become an even more dominating presence
As well as Howard has performed thus far this season, there is a general perception that he could be better. Critics of Howard argue that since their are so few "great" centers in the NBA, why aren't his numbers better? He is usually guarded by undersized forwards and centers with nowhere near his physical presence. He has the potential to be a 30 point-18 rebound player.
Dwight seeks to prove that he has his emotions in check
One of the consequences of Otis Smith's much discussed trading away of Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat was losing size and a solid backup center for Howard. With Howard's propensity for getting in foul trouble and arguing with the referees, leading to technicals, he must prove that he can stay on the floor so that Brandon Bass (a 6'8" power forward) doesn't have to play too much at the center position. One would think that Smith would make another trade before the season is out to counter the great size of Chicago, Boston and Miami.
After leading Team USA to gold in the FIBA World Championships in Turkey, Kevin Durant went from being the league's youngest scoring champion to the next great player in the NBA. And with LeBron James joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he was thought to be the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award in 2011. However, Durant struggled mightily with his shot in the first month of the season (as well as an ankle injury) which prevented him from playing like the MVP in the early going. The emergence of teammate Russell Westbrook also took a bit of steam out of Durant's MVP talk as well, although I would say that unless the Thunder can finish with a seed higher than fifth (where the team currently stands), there will be no MVP this year for either of the Thunder's two All-Stars.
He needs to prove that he can regain the form he had in the summer and dominate when it counts
Right now, the Thunder are five-and-a-half games back in the West and can make up some ground in the upcoming weeks to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs. If Durant can play well against some of the powers of the West (the Thunder play the Spurs and Mavericks in the first week of January alone) and lead his team to a top-three seed, it will go a long way toward reigniting the early season MVP talk that has since died down with Dirk and Amar'e's stellar seasons.
He needs to prove he can be an all-around player
Durant currently leads the NBA in scoring at 28.1 points per game, but he still needs to become a better all-around player to take his team to the next level. He still averages more turnovers than assists (3.26 to 3.1). He could rebound more, as he averages a solid-but-not-spectacular 6.6 rebounds, and he still needs to make strides on his one-on-one defense.
You know you're playing well when you can make a city forget both LeBron James' rejection of it and the tumultuous tenure of Isiah Thomas from seven years back, but that's how well Amar'e has played in leading the New York Knicks out of the Eastern Conference basement to contenders for a playoff spot. Stoudemire is relishing his role as "The Man" in New York and is scoring 26.2 points, grabbing 9.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. It has truly been a great year and Spike Lee is back waving his white towel in the front row.
He Needs To Prove He Can Lead the Team to a Solid Playoff Run
The New York Knicks are still a work in progress. Outside of Stoudemire and point guard Raymond Felton, who is having a breakout season of his own, the team lacks depth and defensive ability to advance past the second round of the playoffs against most defensive-minded teams, like Miami and Boston. However, the team could win the fourth seed and secure home-court advantage in the first round, allowing them to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Dirk Nowitzki is having another fabulous season. He is averaging 24.5 points and 7.6 rebounds as well as leading the Dallas Mavericks to an impressive 23-5 (including wins against the Heat, Celtics and Spurs). He is a clear front runner for league MVP.
He needs to prove that he can lead his team to postseason success
Tell me if you've heard this one before. A team from Dallas called the Mavericks has an amazing regular season and is one of the league leaders in wins. They appear poised for a long playoff run and their star player, Dirk Nowitzki, is playing like an MVP. Then suddenly they are ousted in the playoffs within two rounds. Sound familiar? It should, as it is the scenario that played out for the Mavs in 2007 and 2010. This season, Dirk must prove that he can lead his team back to the finals and finish the job he started in 2006.
This season, the Mavs have another chance to win a title, and with Jason Kidd and Caron Butler aging, it appears that this would be the time for the Mavericks to advance to the finals and win. As great as Dirk has been, he still has a stigma for coming up small in the postseason. This is his chance at redemption.
Kobe Bryant is one of the few players in the league that genuinely has nothing to prove. He's a five-time champion, a two-time finals MVP, a (soon-to-be) 13-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champion and a one-time league MVP. If he left the game tomorrow, he would be considered one of the 10 greatest guards ever.
But in typical Kobe fashion, he still feels as though he has a lot to prove, and going into 2011 there are two things he will be looking to prove to his fans and detractors.
He needs to prove that he has declined, but can still dominate
So far this season Kobe has been pretty solid: 25.4 points, 4.6 assists, 5.1 rebounds. But in recent games against the Heat and Bucks, there were signs that Kobe may not be the dominant force he was just last season. He is shooting only 44 percent on the season and has appeared a step slow on defense, which has contributed to the Lakers defensive inconsistency so far this season. Nevertheless, he is still the most dangerous player in the game down the stretch and he will be looking to prove that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated by playoff time.
He needs to prove that he can tie Michael Jordan in titles won
The Jordan versus Kobe debate has raged on for years, but in the last two seasons, with Kobe winning two more championships, the argument has reached a fever pitch. Some say that Kobe will never reach Jordan's accomplishments, statistics or impact on the sport, others say that if he ties MJ for titles won, he will be a step closer to surpassing His Airness. Kobe wants to win a sixth and show that he can equal Jordan in the most important category.
So far, James has made strides to prove his detractors wrong.
After his Miami Heat began the season an underwhelming 9-8, many observers began to question whether he could effectively play with another superstar player like Dwyane Wade. James was criticized for looking tentative and uncertain offensively and defensively and after a summer in which he assured his critics that he would "remember" the attacks on him and his competitive spirit. The early struggles gave more ammunition to those arguing that, stats aside, he is really just overrated.
However, following a players-only meeting, James and his teammates appear to be on the same page and have posted a 14-1 record since. LeBron is back in his MVP form of the last few years and is hoping that his Heat can continue its great play in January. But there are two things that James must prove in 2011.
He needs to prove that he can beat Boston
Even before the season began, it was pretty clear that the Boston was serious about another run at the title and would be the Heat's biggest obstacle. After two convincing wins against the Heat in the season's first month, it became an absolute certainty. James and the Heat play the Celtics two more times in the regular season (Feb. 13 and April 10) and must avoid losing both or risk losing a psychological edge over their biggest threat in the East. The April game is especially important because it's at home and just prior to the playoffs. James and the Heat must make a statement in that game.
He needs to prove that he can lead a team to a title
When the season began, James said that the team was in "championship or bust" mode. However, after the slow start and assorted injuries to Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade, the goal changed to "we need to play better." But now that the Heat are getting healthier and playing better as a team, James' goal of winning a title this year must come back into focus. Strong games versus the Lakers and Cavaliers are great, but if James really wants to silence his critics he must win a title. 2011 will be his first chance to prove he can with his new team.