It's the dawn of the NBA Seasonm and optimism is running rapid in most cities.
Preseason predictions have been made, fantasy rosters have been selected, and the quest to crown the 2009 champion will begin tonight.
For a few select individuals, however, there's more at stake then just wins, losses, and the chance at some groupie love. For the three men profiled below, a big part of their NBA legacies lie in the balance this season. They've all reached a crossroad in their respective careers, and although each situation is very unique, all three have an incredible amount to gain during the upcoming season.
On the other hand, they also have a lot to lose.
Flash back to 2004.
Larry Brown had just piloted an underdog Pistons squad over over a loaded-up Lakers team in the NBA finals. He had just been handed the keys to the 2004 Olympic Team. He was one of the first couple of names you heard whenever the conversation of "Best basketball coaches on the planet" came up.
Well, things have changed a little bit for Larry Brown since then.
The 2004 Olympics were a disaster. A bronze medal did little to calm the criticisms of Brown, who often publicly berated both his players and the selection committee who assembled the team.
He also burned his bridges in Detroit, opting for his "dream job" in New York City serving as bench boss for the Knicks. 23 wins and 59 losses later, that dream job had turned into a nightmare that even Freddy Kreuger would be proud of.
Brown was bought out by the Knicks that summer, disappearing from the bright lights of the NBA until this past April.
That was when Brown's good friend Michael Jordan lured him out of retirement and convinced him to become the head coach in Charlotte, hoping that Brown could lead the Bobcats to their first playoff appearance in team history.
One of Brown's greatest strengths has always been the rebuilding phase, as his resume includes stints in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Indiana, and Philly. In all those places, he took a down on their luck franchise and led them back to the playoffs.
That challenge may prove to be a little more difficult in Charlotte. Brown inherits a flawed roster with more question marks surrounding it than reasons for optimism. Sean May has been awful since returning from a knee injury that kept him out of action all of last year, Adam Morrison has yet to prove that he can contribute ANYTHING at this level, and the drafting of D.J Augustin—a move that Brown pushed for—has created a point-guard controversy with Raymond Felton that could become a distraction sooner rather than later.
After finishing 0-8 in the preseason, the rumblings have already begun in Charlotte.
This could be Brown's last chance at re-establishing himself amongst the NBA's upper echelon of coaches. His impressive track record has taken a backseat over the past few years to his off the court distractions and public feuds with players. If Brown's tenure in Charlotte ends in embarrassing fashion like his last couple of coaching stops, he runs the risk of being remembered as a punchline rather than one of the more successful coaches in recent memory.
Among the best centers on the planet only a few seasons ago, Jermaine O'Neal has seen his stock take a Vincent Chase-esque plummet in recent seasons. Battling injuries and the challenges of playing with a toiling Pacers squad has taken JO's production from an all-world level to a much more pedestrian range.
Granted a trade to Toronto this past summer, O'Neal will attempt to get his career back on track in Canada's biggest city. The Dinos are relying on O'Neal to help Chris Bosh with the heavy lifting in the frontcourt, and make it past the first round of the playoffs in the process.
Considering the price Toronto paid to acquire O'Neal, and the over 40 million dollars owed to him during the next two seasons, don't expect much patience from Raptors faithful.
The biggest challenge facing O'Neal this season will be staying on the court. He hasn't topped the 70-games-played mark since the 2003-04 season when he finished third in MVP voting. Since then, O'Neal's health and stats have declined steadily, while his status as a superstar has been downgraded to that of a forgotten man.
All signs coming out of Toronto and O'Neal's camp have him in stellar physical condition, but talking a good game and playing 82 of them in a season are two very different things.
Ron Artest's presence on this list should come as no surprise. We're talking about a man who has faced intense scrutiny for virtually his entire career. I'm not going to re-hash Artest's many off-the-court exploits, mainly because I don't have the energy for another 2,500 words.
Nevertheless, Artest will be given a very unique opportunity this season with the Houston Rockets. He has the chance to completely re-write his story in the NBA. The bad news for Artest is that it may take nothing short of an NBA championship to change his public persona. The good news is that Artest will have that opportunity playing in Houston.
One thing we know about basketball is that winning takes precedent over any possible character flaws or off-the-court problems you may have been involved with. Ask Allen Iverson. Ask Stephen Jackson, Dennis Rodman, or Rasheed Wallace. Jason Kidd, even. Nothing washes away those unflattering memories faster than winning.
Does lifting the NBA title above his head this Spring guarantee Artest an image overhaul? Not necessarily.
But for someone who has made far more headlines recently with his off-court behavior than his on the court play, it would be a pretty good start. If history tells us anything, it's that we don't mind when our athletes are a little bit insane.
As long as they win.