SI.com periodically panels its NBA experts to ask a pressing question about the league. The start of the NBA season is less than a month away. Among the deluge of storylines entering the upcoming campaign is a host of NBA superstars under immense pressure. With so many stars in position to contend for the 2015-16 title, we asked our NBA staff which player will face the most scrutiny this season.
Which star is under the most pressure this year?
Lee Jenkins: LeBron James
My default answer on this is LeBron, and though that will change at some point, the day hasn’t come quite yet. Last season was set up from the start as a mulligan: new coach, new team, young sidekicks with no playoff experience. Now they’ve had a year together, they’ve been to the Finals, and they’re proven they can play different ways. In theory, they’re better and the East is worse, if that’s possible. LeBron will look back at his Miami days, when he lost in Year 1 but broke through in Year 2, and expect to replicate the formula. He’ll put that pressure on himself.
Phil Taylor: Derrick Rose
Is he still the same scintillating point guard and franchise cornerstone who was the 2011 MVP, or is he an injury-prone oddball who's more concerned with his future free agency than the future of the Bulls? His performance this season will go a long way toward answering those questions. Four years ago, Rose was Stephen Curry without the ring—a humble yet dominant point guard who won the MVP surprisingly early in his career and saw his popularity skyrocket. Since then, he's had one injury after another—a broken orbital bone suffered Monday on the first day of practice is the latest one—and he seems to be almost intentionally eroding all the good will he built up with his early success. The day before the eye socket injury, he said without prompting that he was looking forward to breaking the bank when he becomes a free agent, even though he has two years left on his contract. If that's not enough, he's also facing a civil suit from a former girlfriend who has accused him of sexual assault (Rose has vehemently denied the accusation). The perception of Rose, both as a player and person, has changed drastically, and the pressure is on for him to stay healthy and prove he's the kind of unselfish leader who can take the Bulls deep into the postseason. At the moment, there are real doubts that he can do either one.
Ben Golliver: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant faces more pressure than a deep-water scuba diver this season. There’s the ever-present pressure to win: Durant is now 27, if you can believe it, the same age as LeBron James and Michael Jordan in their first title seasons. There’s the nagging pressure to stay healthy after three foot surgeries in a year, lest his meteoric ascendancy be derailed for a second straight season. There’s the potentially distracting pressure of his first free agency: No player in the last decade, aside from James, has wielded as much power as Durant will possess on July 1, and no player, besides James, has the potential to break as many hearts. There’s the unmistakable pressure that comes with knowing that the Thunder’s future is entirely up to him.
There’s the pressure to connect with new coach Billy Donovan on the fly, and the familiar pressure of coexisting with Russell Westbrook. There’s the pressure to decide between sticking with approaches that worked in the past and adapting strategically to keep up with the likes of Golden State and San Antonio. There’s the day-to-day pressure that comes with playing in the top-heavy Western Conference, where multiple MVP candidates sprouted up while he was out, and the pressure to lead a renovated supporting cast whose new faces are largely lacking in postseason experience. There’s the pressure to convince Dion Waiters to pass. If Durant is bothered or overwhelmed by any of this stuff, he hasn’t shown it … yet.
Rob Mahoney: Kevin Durant
The stakes involved in the Thunder’s season are harrowing. If all goes well, Oklahoma City stands to be one of the best teams in the league. Anything less and the Thunder risk the doomsday scenario of losing Durant, one of the best basketball players on the planet, in free agency next summer. Given that, Durant faces pressure from a variety of angles. He’ll be asked to carry a good (but changed) team in an increasingly competitive conference; to say all the right things in regard to his upcoming free agency while still looking to make the best decision for himself; to make the most of what could conceivably be his last year alongside Russell Westbrook; to make things work under Billy Donovan in his first season as an NBA coach; and to prove that his recent run of injury is fully behind him. Winning it all is tough enough as it is. Doing so while walking a tightrope of expectation is all the more trying.
Matt Dollinger: Carmelo Anthony
Playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden always brings some measure of added pressure, but Carmelo Anthony faces a different kind of pressure at MSG this season: will he get the chance to continue to play in the most famous basketball arena in the world? The Knicks star is entering his sixth season in New York and second under the reign of Phil Jackson. Over those six years, Anthony has led the Knicks to the playoffs just three times and out of the first round only once. Along the way, he's faced countless questions (some fair, some not) concerning his shot selection, his ability to lead a championship-caliber team and his standing as a leader. Those queries have intensified under Jackson, who was brought to New York to revitalize the Knicks franchise and return it to its glory days. Jackson is known for his mind games and his candid chatter with the media, fueling more speculation about whether he wants Anthony as the cornerstore of his team. He handed Melo a max extension in July 2014, but essentially had no choice but to re-sign the one commodity on the payroll. Last week, Anthony told reporters, "I think Phil Jackson still believes in me," with the word "still" sticking out like Kristaps Porzingis in a sea of tourists. The trade rumors are unlikely to go away soon in Anthony's tabloid-loaded home city. If Anthony and the Knicks don't exceed expectations this year, the eight-time All-Star could be on his way out of town.
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