With the lockout-shortened NBA season, the league will face a sprint to the playoffs as each team will play 66 games in four months.
Having a deep team will take on more importance than ever, so each team will have a player to watch.
Which players will take on added significance for this memorable NBA season? These range from superstars seeking redemption to rookies looking to make an impact.
When the Bulls signed Boozer to a five-year, $80 million contact in the summer of 2010, many lauded Chicago for getting the big man they needed.
However, Boozer’s averages were down in virtually every category per game.
His playoff numbers took a significant dip, and Boozer put up only 12.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 31 minutes per game during the Bulls' run to the Eastern Conference Finals—all career-lows. Boozer was frequently benched in the fourth quarter for Taj Gibson during the playoffs, and he also missed 23 games during the regular season last year.
Despite that, Boozer could be the key to the Bulls' season. They need him to bring 20 and 10 every night, and he also needs to be the Bulls' second option on offense behind Derrick Rose.
Boozer has to perform at an All-Star level for Chicago to challenge Miami.
The pressure that was on LeBron James last year was something he could not live up to. The rally introducing Wade, James and Bosh as the Big Three and their proclamation of six or seven championships were more than a bit presumptuous; between the three of them, they only have one title so far.
James was unable to deliver a second title to Miami, as he suffered a career-low in playoff PPG last season. After a spectacular Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago, Dallas was able to keep him relatively in check. James averaged only 17.8 PPG in the Finals after putting up 25.8 PPG versus the Bulls, and his Game 5 triple-double was the only game he reached double figures in points and rebounds.
Without a title last season, the Heat—and LeBron, specifically—will be even more under the microscope this season. How they handle the pressure could be a key in their postseason success.
Douglas enters the 2011-2012 season as the Knicks' starting point guard until Baron Davis returns from injury.
Douglas averaged 10.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG and APG in 24 minutes off the bench last season. In nine starts he posted 13.9 points and 5.7 assists.
He will get a chance to show he is worthy of holding onto the starting job immediately. With the Knicks opening up against the Celtics, Rajon Rondo will be a great test right out of the box.
With an experienced team and the best foursome in the NBA, the Celtics' health will be the most important thing for them in the shortened season.
Kevin Garnett’s knees, Jeff Green’s heart problems that took him out for the season, Marquis Daniels returning from a spinal cord injury and Paul Pierce potentially missing the season-opener with a heel injury all bear watching.
With their three biggest stars all past 30, the Celtics are the NBA’s oldest team in terms of their core. If they can stay healthy, they might have one last run in them.
With Paul now a member of the Clippers, he becomes one of the franchise’s biggest stars in a city with hundreds of them.
Paul has been lauded his whole career with making those around him better. This might be the most talented team the Clippers have ever had, as Paul will be surrounded by Chauncey Billups, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler. They are poised to have only their third winning season in 28 years as the Los Angeles Clippers.
In all likelihood, this will be Paul’s only season as a Clipper, so the pressure for him to produce and deliver will be intensified. How far this team can advance in the postseason will likely fall on his shoulders, and if he can take them far, that can only help his stock when he enters free agency next summer.
The trade of Lamar Odom to Dallas will put added pressure on Bynum to perform. Bynum hasn’t played more than 65 games since he played in every game in 2006, but he did average 11.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG and two steals last season.
Without Odom, Bynum won’t have to look over his shoulder—he knows he and Pau Gasol are it in the post for the Lakers and new coach Mike Brown. How well they perform could determine the Lakers' fortunes for 2012.
Williams' 15 PPG in 12 games with the Nets last season were his lowest since his rookie season in 2006.
His 12.8 APG were his highest, though.
Coming off offseason wrist surgery and in a contract year, the New York media will shine the spotlight on Williams to see if he can carry the Nets to the playoffs in a quickly improving Eastern Conference.
With Brook Lopez out for the first 6-8 weeks of the season, the pressure on Williams is even greater than it was before his big man went down.
Superman’s contract status has been a topic of discussion for years, and the speculation on if he will be traded during the All-Star break will be the NBA’s biggest water cooler debate with Chris Paul finally being moved.
The Lakers are still the likely destination if Howard decides to leave Orlando. He is arguably coming off his best season, averaging a career-high 22.9 PPG, and his 14.1 RPG in 2011 was only 0.1 below his career-high for rebounds. Howard also put up 2.4 BPG and 1.4 SPG.
After years of misery, the T-Wolves continue to stockpile talent.
Kevin Love became a rebounding machine last season on the way to his first All-Star appearance, and Beasley and Rubio were both highly touted players when they were drafted.
After two fairly good seasons in Miami, the Heat traded Beasley to Minnesota when they signed Chris Bosh and LeBron James last summer. Beasley responded by putting up 19.2 PPG last year. Love, Beasley and Derrick Williams could combine to give Minnesota one of the best frontcourts in the NBA.
The 21-year-old Rubio comes to Minnesota after being a star in Europe since the age of 14, and he is the pure point guard the T-Wolves have been seeking for years. How well can he adapt from Europe to the NBA? He definitely has the talent around him so he will not feel the pressure to score.
Rumors have been swirling around the Warriors trading one of their two star guards, and of the two, Ellis seems more likely to go. How well he plays with the pressure of hearing he might be traded will be interesting.
Ellis’ 24.1 PPG average was the second-best of his career, and his 5.6 APG average was a career-high. The question seems to be if he and Curry can coexist in the same backcourt; they are both on the small side and very similar players.
Teague’s performance in the playoffs against Chicago last season allowed for the Hawks to let Jamal Crawford leave for Portland. After averaging only 5.2 PPG in the regular season, Teague averaged 15.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 3.0 APG in the Hawks' six-game series loss to Chicago.
With Crawford gone and Kirk Heinrich injured, Teague becomes the starter at the point.
The Bobcats' drafting of Kemba Walker in the first round should have sent a message to Augustin that if he doesn’t improve, Walker will be waiting for his chance to take over at point guard in Charlotte.
Augustin had the best season of his three-year career in 2011. He averaged 14.4 PPG, 6.1 APG and shot 90.6 percent from the line. Augustin seemed to play with more confidence when Paul Silas succeeded Larry Brown as head coach.
Despite playing only 11 games in his only season at Duke, the Cavaliers still selected Irving with the top pick in last June’s draft.
Byron Scott has yet to anoint Irving as his starting point guard. Irving backed up Ramon Sessions in the Cavs' two preseason games against Detroit, and he is averaging 16.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 3.0 APG in the preseason.
Irving is the best player to come to Cleveland since the Cavs drafted public enemy No. 1 LeBron James as the top pick in 2003. Whether or not Irving can make the same impact as the King on the Cavaliers franchise remains to be seen.
Beaubouis missed 54 games with a foot injury last season.
With JJ Barea gone to Minnesota, Beaubois should get an opportunity at guard behind the aging legs of Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. Beaubois is a dynamic offensive talent who shot more than 40 percent on threes in 2010.
Lawson enters the season after improving his PPG by more than four last year.
He also enters the season as a starter for the first time in his third NBA season.
With the Nuggets a young and improving team, how well Lawson plays will be a key to their season. They acquired Andre Miller in the offseason, so if Lawson doesn’t perform, George Karl will be able to insert a quality veteran to replace him.
Monroe was one of the most improved players after the All-Star break last season. He averaged 13.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists after the break last year.
West comes to the Pacers after tearing an ACL with the Hornets late last season and missing the final 12 games. He has averaged at least 17.1 PPG and 7.4 RPG for the last six seasons, though.
West also has a career field goal percentage of 49 percent and has made nearly 84 percent of his free throws. He gives the Pacers a legitimate low-post scorer and should help improve their team.
Mayo has had trade rumors swirling around him since last season’s trade deadline.
Mayo’s stats were down in virtually every category in 2011. He lost his starting job, and his minutes per game were down by 12 over his first two seasons.
But Mayo's ability to score makes him a key player for the Griz. If he can come off a down season, Mayo will be a huge help to a team whom many feel is on the rise.
If not, the Grizzlies still might try and move him.
After an incredible rookie season, Jennings' stats declined in virtually every category but PPG. He also missed 19 games last season. The Bucks declined from 46 wins and a playoff appearance in 2010 to 35 wins and out of the playoffs last year.
If Jennings can stay healthy, he might make a case to be among the NBA’s elite at point guard. Scott Skiles has usually gotten the most out of his teams, but staying healthy has plagued the Bucks. John Salmons, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Keyon Dooling were the only Bucks to play more than 70 games last season.
After being last in the league in scoring and shooting percentage last season, the Bucks acquired Stephen Jackson and Shaun Livingston in a draft night trade. That should take a lot of the pressure off Jennings to score and should allow him to distribute more.
Jack steps into the huge role of having to replace Chris Paul as the starting point guard in New Orleans.
Jack has averaged double figures when he has been his team’s primary point guard. He put up 10.8 PPG and 4.5 APG his 13 games in Toronto last season before moving on to the Big Easy.
Even if the Hornets struggle, Jack should still have a good season.
Many are proclaiming the Thunder as the team to beat in the Western Conference this season. After evening the Western Conference finals at one game apiece last season, OKC lost the next three to lose to Dallas four games to one.
Talk about the Thunder usually centers around Kevin Durant and then Russell Westbrook, but if they are going to surpass Dallas, the Lakers or San Antonio, they will need someone else to step up.
Serge Ibaka and James Harden are poised to have big seasons as the Thunder continue to grow as a team.
Ibaka is becoming one of the NBA’s biggest forces on the defensive end. He averaged 10.3 RPG and 2.4 BPG last season, and improved on those in the second half of the season. Ibaka also averaged 9.1 PPG on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 75 percent from the line.
Harden was the Thunder’s primary sixth man last year, but he basically shared starters' minutes with Thabo Sefolosha at the two. Harden's numbers increased significantly after the All-Star break, and he was the Thunder’s third scoring option behind Durant and Westbrook. He is poised for a breakout season, and look for him to earn the starting spot at off-guard at some point.
With Vince Carter’s poor play, Dudley earned the starting off-guard spot toward the end of last season.
In 15 starts, Dudley averaged 16.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.1 steals.
The Suns have missed the playoffs two of the last three seasons, so Phoenix will need breakout seasons from a few players to make a return to the postseason this year.
Felton set career-highs in 2010-11 in points, assists per game, steals, three-point shots made and free-throw shooting percentage.
Felton spilt his time between the Knicks and Nuggets last season, and will play in Portland this year—his fourth team in the last three seasons. With LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Jamal Crawford and an up-and-coming Nicolas Batum on the roster, Felton should have plenty of running-mates to dish to.
The Blazers will attempt to win their first playoff series since 2000 as the balance of power has shifted from west to east.
On on otherwise older team, DeJuan Blair is one of the players the Spurs can build around. He averaged 8.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 21.4 minutes per game last year, and he had to share time with Antonio McDyess during the playoffs last season. With McDyess retiring, Blair will have a chance to show he deserves starter minutes.
Blair will open the 2011-2012 season as the Spurs' starting center. At 6'7" he is greatly undersized for an NBA center, but he will play next to the 6'11" Duncan.
Thornton nearly tripled his scoring average in New Orleans when the Hornets traded him to Sacramento. He put up 21.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 steals in 23 games with the Kings—all starts. Thornton also came off the bench all 46 games in New Orleans.
The only two concerns are Thornton's scoring in New Orleans, which dipped from 14.5 PPG as a rookie in 2010 to 7.8 PPG in 46 games with the Hornets last season, and the fact that the Kings drafted Jimmer Fredette.
DeRozan had a breakout season his second year in the association. He doubled his scoring average and bested his stats in nearly every category over his first year, averaging 19.9 PPG after the All-Star break.
The only disconcerting thing was DeRozan’s abysmal three-point shooting. He shot just 5-of-52 from beyond the arc.
After a breakout NCAA tournament when he nearly led Butler to an improbable championship, Hayward seemed like the perfect fit in Utah’s deliberate offense.
However, Hayward struggled until the last month of the season. He posted seven games in double figures after having only eight double-digit games up until that time. Hayward also averaged 16.4 points and 0.9 steals in 35.9 minutes during the last month of the season.
He will begin the season backing up Raja Bell, but look for Hayward to get most of the run at the two.
Blatche put up 23.6 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 1.3 BPG and 50.7 percent shooting in eight games in April last season. He finished last season averaging 16.8 PPG and 8.4 RPG.
Blatche has improved in virtually every major category in each of his six NBA seasons over the previous one. There is no reason to think this won’t continue in 2011-2012.
Luis Scola and Kevin Martin were a part of the blockbuster three-team trade that originally was going to send Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers, but with David Stern eventually killing the deal, Scola and Martin are staying put in Houston.
How well they play with the knowledge that the Rockets were willing to part with them to get Pau Gasol will be interesting. Dealing with trade rumors are all a part of being a professional athlete.
Martin and Scola were the Rockets' two leading scorers last season. Martin’s 23.5 PPG was the third-highest of his career, and Scola’s 18.3 PPG was the highest of his career. He also averaged 8.2 RPG.
Young was signed to a five-year, $43 million contract extension when the lockout ended Dec. 9.
That's a lot of money for a player who started only one game last season and has seen his average fall in each of his last three seasons.
Playing behind Elton Brand and Andre Igoudala, it remains to be seen how much time Young will get.