Nobody in recent NBA history, or maybe NBA history period -- hell, maybe in sports history -- felt the burden to perform the way LeBron James felt in 2010. And again in 2011. So what you're about to read needs to be put in proper perspective.
Nobody will have that degree of thermal heat on their necks in the 2012-13 NBA season. To paraphrase the LeBron of 2010, this will be "not one, not two, not three" but at least four notches below what he faced after leaving Cleveland for Miami. Still, there will be pressure for a handful to produce or deal with a degree of backlash, either from the public, their organizations or their wallets.
It happens every year, some more than others. Certain players enter that season with something to prove. Either their legacy is on the line or their reputation. They've got to respond favorably and decisively. What they do -- or don't do -- during the season will dictate what happens next.
Here's our list of a dozen players who are under the gun this season, and why:
Derrick Rose, Bulls. Life isn't fair, and that's why the 2011 MVP will serve a probationary period before a restless and demanding home crowd this season. Rose suffered a tough injury, took a year off to heal and that was far too long for the loudest Bulls fans, who questioned his pain threshold, among other things. With the Bulls needing Rose to be an All-Star in order to make Miami sweat next spring, he won't have much of a grace period. The burden, then, is on Rose to prove the decision to take 17 months off was the right thing to do.
JaVale McGee, Nuggets. Being goofy and getting cameos on "Shaqtin' a Fool" was sort of funny at first. After signing for $44 million and then blowing open 10-footers, it became annoying. For the Nuggets' sake, this better be the year McGee shows a functional offensive move and tones down the mental mistakes, because coach Brian Shaw will give him more chances than George Karl. McGee is a hyper seven-footer with tremendous physical gifts and almost no idea how to use them properly. With Kosta Koufos no longer around to eat up playing time at center, McGee has the green light to get 30 minutes or more. He averaged 18 minutes under Karl, delivered 9 points and 4.8 rebounds and was a human turnover last post-season when the Nuggets were bounced by Golden State. There should be no excuses now.
David Lee, Warriors. It's not often a power forward who averaged a double-double and made the All-Star team has something to prove. And yet Lee, who's more of a halfcourt player, must show he can run with the New World Warriors, who looked rather fluid without him last spring when he injured his hip. With Lee on the bench, the Warriors eliminated the Nuggets and spooked the Spurs with an up-tempo pace and solid outside shooting. Lee was suddenly considered expendable. Well, the remaining three years and $44 million on his deal put an end to trade speculation; nobody wanted to absorb that contract. With newcomer Andre Iguodala and a healthy Andrew Bogut around -- along with an emphasis on tighter defense -- Lee might feel squeezed in the pecking order.
Derrick Williams, Wolves. What, the Wolves are having issues with a former lottery pick? You're shocked, right? Williams was considered NBA-ready coming out of college as the No. 2 pick, and that wasn't the case. He's a 6' 8" tweener who lacks the power to play near the rim and the mid-range shooting touch for the wing. With Kevin Love being the fixture at power forward, Williams has little choice. In a perfect Wolves world he'll emerge as a dependable scorer at small forward and average more than the 12 points he offered last season.
Evan Turner, Sixers. The Sixers expected more than 10.1 points and 42 percent shooting from a former No. 2 overall pick. Instead, they've had to settle for the occasional flash while waiting for a star to emerge. Will that ever happen? Turner frustrated former coach Doug Collins and the Sixers will wait until next summer before deciding to offer a contract extension. With the team in tank mode, and Jrue Holiday gone, Turner has every reason to be this team's No. 1 option and supply big numbers this season, mainly at small forward.
Brandon Jennings, Pistons. Jennings recently expressed relief after leaving the Bucks, saying how much fun it'll be to play alongside a solid pair of bigs in Detroit. "He has to pass to them first," countered Bucks center Larry Sanders. Jennings was a scoring point guard in Milwaukee and it didn't endear him to Sanders and critics who laughed at his 36-percent shooting. Jennings said he was forced to shoot to give the Bucks a chance every night. Well, that won't be a problem in Detroit, where he has Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond around to finish plays. It's up to Jennings to start plays by finding the open man and curb his tendency to launch silly jumpers.
Jeremy Lin, Rockets. There were times last season when the Rockets were better with Patrick Beverley at point guard and even James Harden handling the ball. To be fair, Lin wasn't always healthy and Beverley was a quicker alternative. But now the Rockets are depending on Lin to mesh with Dwight Howard and find Harden. Nobody expects Linsanity again, but if he hooks up with those two on a consistent basis, there's no reason Lin shouldn't average at least 10 assists a game.
Jan Vesely, Wizards. Do we need to see any more to classify Vesely a bust? Maybe not. Surprisingly, he hasn't worn out his welcome yet in Washington. One more season like 2012-13, though, he could be done. Foul prone and a horrible free throw shooter (30.8 percent), Vesely would be in the D-League or Europe if the Wizards weren't trying to justify taking him in the 2011 NBA Draft with the sixth overall pick. If the light bulb does flick on, he's 6' 11" and athletic and those players are hard to find. He's on the clock, though. It's produce or else.
Thomas Robinson, Blazers. It's not entirely his fault that he finds himself on his third team after being taken as the No. 5 pick in 2012. Robinson was a victim of circumstance when he left the Kings (ownership turmoil) and then the Rockets (cap-clearer for Dwight Howard). Now with a sense of security in Portland, Robinson can at least quiet the somewhat-unfair whispers about him being a bust, although he'll have to do it as the backup to LaMarcus Aldridge.
Manu Ginobili, Spurs. He's coming off a putrid post-season that saw him shoot 40 percent, average 11 points and disappear in many crucial moments, especially in the NBA Finals. The Spurs rewarded him anyway with a two-year, $14 million extension that was mainly a thanks-for-the-memories gift. He's 36 with a body that often betrays him and Kawhi Leonard appears ready to replace him as the third member of the Big Three, but if the Spurs are to return to the Finals, Ginobili needs a comeback season.
Michael Beasley, Heat. Evidently, even weird cats have nine lives, and that's why Beasley is still in the league and on his second tour with the Heat. The basketball life has been a rocky one for the former No. 2 pick who couldn't cut it on desperate, talent-starved teams like Minnesota and Phoenix. He has a short leash and a small contract in Miami, meaning the Heat can cut him loose if he disrupts chemistry, although that'd be hard to do on a secure, veteran team. All Miami wants is for Beasley to hit the open jumper and give LeBron a breather every now and then. Is that asking too much from someone with skills?
Blake Griffin, Clippers. He recently and very boldly announced, "Lob City is done," a subtle jab at the style of play that got the Clippers lots of YouTube hits but not many playoff wins. It was also like jabbing himself in the eye, since Griffin was a big part of the pass-and-dunk system. The only way to write the obituary is to replace Lob City with another weapon, like a mid-range jumper. Griffin worked on his shooting furiously over the summer, although you wonder if he can overcome the hitch in his technique. Griffin can't become a complete player unless he starts hitting those shots. In the playoffs, when the pace of play is slower and the court shrinks, he'll need a trusty 15-footer to help the Clippers advance beyond the second round, for a change.