As we get closer to the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, many teams have been busy resigning their star players, acquiring promising free agents, and figuring out other ways in which to compete in a seemingly two-horse race. After last season, where the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers dominated headlines for the majority of the year, there are a lot of teams, and a lot of players, with something to prove.
For some players, 2015-16 was a disappointment because of a regression in on-court performance and a decrease in productivity. For others, their on-court performance did not live up to their locker room hype. Some players on this list, however, enjoyed wonderfully productive years but are in need of equally successful years this season due to their off-season decisions. While reading the players named on this list, some will surprise you, but it is important to keep in mind all of the massive NBA headlines of the past several months. Free agency and an increasing salary cap combined to create a flurry of off-season activity, which left many GMs and fans with their jaws on the floor.
It is common for expectations to rise after an off year or if a player decides to play with another team. It is also expected that when an individual talks a good game in the locker room, they should be able to back it up with their play. Each player on this list experienced some sort of event that prompted observers to reexamine their situation. In other words, next season each of these NBA players need to put up, or shut up.
15. Bismack Biyombo
Bismack Biyombo had a breaking out party for the Toronto Raptors in last year’s playoffs. After big man Jonas Valanciunas went down with injury during the Raptor’s playoff run, Biyombo stepped into the spotlight and showed the world that he was a force to be reckoned with. This performance put Biyombo on the radar of many GMs as he was set to become a free agent after the season was over. With the NBA salary increase, Biyombo was expected to ask for upwards of $18 million per year, a price which the Raptors could not afford. Eventually, Biyombo decided to sign with the Orlando Magic for a reported $17 million per year. For a player who has only been in the league for five years and holds a career average of 4.6 points per game, that is a lot of money. With a raise as big as this one, Biyombo needs to prove that he’s worth the investment.
14. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis, maybe best known for his uni-brow, is a very talented basketball player. Davis averages over 20 points per game, has been selected as an all-star three separate times, is an Olympic gold-medalist, and a FIBA gold medalist. However, he has yet to help the New Orleans Pelicans make any sort of noise in the NBA playoffs. The Pelicans did qualify for the postseason in 2015 as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but were swept in four games by the Golden State Warriors. Davis was the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft and recently signed a contract with New Orleans worth $145 million over five years. That is a lucrative amount of money, especially considering that the Pelicans have yet to win a playoff game in the Anthony Davis era. Yes he is one of the elite players in the NBA, and yes he did have a very strong series against the Warriors in 2015, but the fact remains that he has not led the Pelicans in winning even one playoff game. A player this talented (and this paid) needs to put up and get his team to the playoffs, or simply shut up.
13. Joakim Noah
After signing with the New York Knicks this offseason, Joakim Noah is looking for a fresh take on his career. Noah blossomed in his first several years in the league with the Chicago Bulls, helping the Bulls reach the postseason in all seven seasons he played in Chicago. However, the last few years have been mired by injuries and Noah lost his starting job last season, and started in only two games during the 2015-2016 season. For such a dynamic player, it seems as though Noah has been the victim of several unfortunate injuries that have slowed him down. However, in signing with the Knicks, Noah has effectively given himself a new lease on his career, although it won’t be easy, considering he is playing in arguably the biggest basketball market in the world. With a lot to prove, Noah is going to be playing in front of some of the most knowledgeable (and some of the most unforgiving) sports fans in the world. Thus, it is imperative for Noah to either put up the next few years, or shut up.
12. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes was about the third or fourth option coming off of the Golden State Warrior’s bench for the last several seasons. To be fair to Barnes, the Warriors have been – and are – a very deep squad with many different tools on their bench. However, this offseason, Barnes decided to sign with the Dallas Mavericks who paid him the league max at $94 million over four years. In other words, Barnes is now receiving $23.5 million dollar a year as a utility player. Of course, it is highly likely that Barnes will get more playing time in Dallas and will probably be relied on in more games for the Mavericks than he was with the Warriors. Barnes did start in all 82 games for the Warriors in 2014-2015 but was a fourth option behind the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. So while it is probable that we have never seen Barnes’ maximum potential, he has a lot to prove after signing for as much money as he did.
11. Al Horford
Al Horford was a solid player for the Atlanta Hawks and will likely be a similarly great player with his new team the Boston Celtics. The four-time all-star is one of the better centers in the league and is a very tough player to guard in the post. However, Horford is the league’s fifth highest paid player, currently earning a salary of $26.5 million per year with the Celtics. He is paid more money than to following superstars: Carmello Anthony, Damian Lillard, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Anthony Davis, among others. That is an extremely high salary for a player whose career average in points is 14.3 per game. Of course, there are intangibles to Horford’s game beyond his point totals, but the fact remains that he is the fifth highest paid player in the NBA! Horford was never able to help Atlanta reach the NBA finals, even when they were the Eastern Conference 1st seed in 2015, taking them as far as the Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Maybe moving to Boston will propel Horford to reaching higher numbers, or at least numbers that closer resemble the other top-earners in the league.
10. D’Angelo Russell
Remember that whole Los Angeles Laker’s locker room controversy this past season involving D’Angelo Russell? It was pretty big news and was a glimpse into the issues that the lowly Lakers were experiencing during the 2015-2016 season. Russell decided that he was going to film his teammate Nick Young discussing very personal issues involving his fiancée (Iggy Azalea) and put it on the Internet. Not surprisingly, this move did not sit well with teammates who thereafter seemed to isolate Russell due to a lack of trust. It is true that last year was Russell’s first NBA season, in which he averaged over 13 points per game as a nineteen year old, so it is not totally justified to pinpoint his play as to the reason he needs to shut up. Rather, it is his off-court actions that have led to him being scrutinized so heavily (also the fact that he plays in perhaps the biggest basketball market in the United States). Moving forward, Russell must continue to improve his game, putting up solid numbers on the court, while learning how to shut up off the court.
9. Dwyane Wade
Don’t think that the inclusion of Dwyane Wade on this list in any way suggests that the future Hall of Famer is being criticized for his play or that he is in need of a comeback season, or anything like that. Also please don’t pick up the pitchforks and call for this writer’s head for including Wade on the list. The only reason why he is on this list is the fact that he wasn’t able to lead the Miami Heat to another NBA Finals appearance after the departure of LeBron James. The first year after James left Miami, Wade and the Heat failed to qualify for the postseason (just the second time in Wade’s career) and fared only marginally better this past year where they lost in the second round to the Toronto Raptors. Wade remains an elite player in the NBA but is entering the twilight years of his career at age 34 and has but a few years to make another run at a championship. Perhaps signing with the Chicago Bulls this offseason will provide the opportunity for Wade to form a formidable duo with Jimmy Butler and become a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.
8. James Harden
James Harden and the Houston Rockets recently reached a deal worth a reported $118 million over four years. In other words, Harden will be making nearly $30 million per year playing in Houston for the next several seasons. Harden is by far one of the most explosive and talented offensive players in the NBA, averaging an astounding 29 points per game during the 2015-2016 season. However, he is often criticized for his nonchalant defense and his lack of effort to defend his own end of the court. Additionally, during his time as a Rocket, Harden has only once made it out of the first round of the playoffs. This past season, the Rockets barely qualified for the postseason by finishing as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, eventually losing to the Golden State Warriors. This is a far-cry from their 2nd place finish in the Western Conference in 2014-2015. Despite being one of the most offensively-gifted players in the NBA, Harden must prove (when it counts) that he is worth $30 million per year.
7. Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard was one of the elite centers in the NBA during his time with the Orlando Magic but has since seen his game fall off slightly during separate tenures for the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The last several years has seen a significant regression in Howard’s productivity and a failure to combine with Houston’s James Harden to succeed as a dominant duo. Deciding that he needed a change of scenery, Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks this offseason for a reported $71.5 million over three years. It may seem questionable to pay a player who has regressed to averaging 13 points per game – down from over 20 points a game four years ago – so much money. Although many would argue that the Hawks are overpaying Howard, at 30 years old he still has a lot of basketball left in the tank and the Hawks are hoping that he can regain his confidence by playing in front of his hometown crowd (Howard was born in Atlanta).
6. Derrick Rose
The saga of Derrick Rose gained another chapter this offseason as he was traded to the New York Knicks from his longtime team the Chicago Bulls. Before this change of scenery, Rose’s career was jeopardized several times because of injury and it has been persistently questioned if he could ever recapture the glory from earlier in his career. Several years ago, Rose was one of the most elite and dominant players in the league. But now it seems that every time he drives to the hoop, fans grimace in anticipation that he might re-injure himself on the way down. In 2010-2011, Rose averaged over 25 points per game, but has seen those numbers dramatically regress to only 16.4 per game in 2015-2016. 16 points per game in the NBA is nothing to criticize, but for a player being paid over $20 million and who has such high expectations, Rose should be better than that. Perhaps a fresh start in New York will revitalize Rose who, if healthy, can certainly produce offensively. In any case, this may be one of the last years where fans extend Rose the benefit of the doubt to whether or not he can regain his title as NBA superstar.
5. Terence Ross
Terence Ross has talent coming out of the wazoo. Unfortunately for him, and for Toronto Raptors fans, Ross’ talent is often the product of inconsistent hot streaks. The Raptor’s brass seemingly took notice of this back and forth play as Ross went from starting 61 games in 2014-2015, to only starting in 7 games this past season. In the last two seasons Ross has averaged under 10 points a game, while averaging around 24 minutes a game. To be fair to Ross, the Raptor’s offense is largely isolationist and centered around guards DeMar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry. Ross’ career is also quite young – he is only 24 and has only played in the league for four seasons – but the time for growing pains should be over. One of the most electric young players (when he’s on) and one who has some of the biggest potential still to give, Ross could use a little more to his game than the occasional 3-pointer and highlight reel dunk. Terence Ross needs to put up, or shut up, especially for a team looking to improve on their Eastern Conference Final appearance from last year.
4. Lance Stephenson
With about six years of NBA experience under his belt, Lance Stephenson has slowly progressed into what can only be called a frustrating talent. Perhaps the biggest testament to Stephenson’s “frustration” is the fact that he has played for four teams in just six seasons. Apparently, the GMs who Stephenson has played for aren’t the biggest fans of his play. It is possible that his on-court performance is not the reason for Stephenson being traded a handful of times, as his sometimes unprofessional demeanor (remember when he blew air into LeBron Jame’s ear) tests the patience of his coaches. We are well into the 2016 off-season and fast approaching the 2016-2017 NBA season and the free agent Stephenson has yet to be signed. Stephenson has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his young career, to be sure, but has yet to find consistency within his game. Wherever he decides to play next, Stephenson has a lot to prove and must put up, or shut up (or at least quit blowing in opponent’s ears).
3. Anthony Bennett
The former 1st overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Anthony Bennett has definitely not lived up to the hype surrounding him when he entered the league as a Cleveland Cavalier several years ago. In what can only be described as a disappointing start to his career, Bennett struggled fitting into the Cavaliers’ system and was subsequently traded (along with former teammate and Canadian Andrew Wiggins) to the Minnesota Timberwolves. After being waived by the Timberwolves, Bennet was signed by his hometown team the Toronto Raptors. Unfortunately, Bennet’s homecoming was disappointing as he only appeared in 19 games for the Raptors and scored a total of just 28 points. It is true that being a first overall pick can be intimidating (especially when you are the first ever Canadian to be drafted first overall), but with three teams questioning Bennet’s talents in three years, it seems that this year with the Brooklyn Nets might be his last to prove that he has what it takes to play in the NBA.
2. Mike Conley
Mike Conley? What is Mike Conley doing on this list? Ah, that’s right… because he just signed the richest contract by total value in the history of the NBA, worth a reported $153 million spread out over 5 years. If Conley wasn’t a well-known player before this year, he certainly is a household name now. The concerning part for him is that he is now known as the player making the most money; not LeBron James, not Steph Curry, not Russell Westbrook, not Paul George, and not Kyrie Irving. Conley is now making more money than the best players in the world with a career-average of 13.6 points per game. With all the money that the Memphis Grizzlies just gave him, Conley better boost that point per game stat if he expects to survive criticism. The downside in signing a massive contract such as this one is the immediately high expectations of the player which, if not met, are an easy target for ridicule. The spotlight has been thrust onto Conley and, with every move being intensely scrutinized by the basketball world, Conley desperately needs to put up, or shut up.
1. Kevin Durant
Who are we kidding? Even if we are fans of Kevin Durant, we can’t help but judge his decision to play for the Golden State Warriors. Yes, the ever-expanding NBA salary cap gives room for star players to essentially choose where they want to play. Yes, Durant is not the first player – nor will he be the last – to have his choice of team questioned by the media and the fans (i.e. LeBron James). But in a league where loyalty has become a premium most players seem to lack, Durant’s decision to play for the Warriors sets a precedent moving forward that does not bode well for teams that have star players set to become free agents. The reason why Kevin Durant sits at the top of this list is neither due to his play nor what he says in the locker room, for that matter. KD is the player most in need of a stellar season simply because of the criticism and negative energy surrounding his move to Golden State. He has been called names, has had his integrity challenged, and has even been called out by fellow NBA players for trying to take the easy road to win a championship. Next season, it is crucial that KD perform well in order to silence his critics, and perhaps the only way to do that would be to help Steph Curry and the Warriors win another championship.
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