By Rob Mahoney
Players will forever drive the NBA, and with the season just around the corner, now is a better time than ever to pay tribute to the style, substance and pure entertainment that they have in store for us. Here are but 20 players -- from superstars to rookies to unheralded rotation players -- worth keeping an eye on in 2012-13:
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Bobcats: Kidd-Gilchrist already occupies a unique space in the league despite the fact that his career has yet to truly begin. His status as the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft clashes with a style that’s hardly befitting a franchise savior. His skill set is clearly in need of refinement, even as his instincts are advanced beyond his years. Kidd-Gilchrist is the rookie who hardly plays like one, and the valued building block who won’t soon anchor his team’s offense or defense. It’s a fascinating mix, and one that should dictate the first act of the former Kentucky star's NBA run.
Andre Iguodala, Denver Nuggets: Exciting though it may be to see a team redefine its play through the acquisition of a talented player, it’s far more captivating to find a good team made better by remaining squarely within itself. Iguodala won’t much alter the identity or culture of the Nuggets after being acquired in the Dwight Howard trade, but his skill set and energy will act as a perfect extension of all that coach George Karl has already built in Denver.
If that weren’t enough, Iguodala’s move comes with the best kind of basketball drama: We know these Nuggets will be incredibly fun and quite competitive, but have yet to pinpoint their precise potential. The arrival of a player as versatile as Iguodala has the potential to right a lot of wrongs, so much so that consideration of Denver as a fledgling contender isn’t at all misguided. He’s simply that good, and these Nuggets simply that deep. Their union will undoubtedly bring out the best in all involved, and may yet shake up the natural order of the Western Conference.
Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers: Howard never backed out of the immediate sight of NBA fans and was certainly never out of mind during an offseason predicated on his eventual movement. Yet the basketball world at large seems to have somehow forgotten just how great Howard is in virtually every facet of the game, as if his off-court petulance somehow made him any less dominant or efficient than he actually is. Howard has a few obvious weaknesses in his game, to be sure, but in between those gaps is a wide swath of elite play capable of sustaining a contending team.
There’s admittedly a lot that we still don’t know about Howard’s back and rehabilitation, but the other changes in the star center’s circumstances bode quite well for his debut season as a Laker. The talent level in Los Angeles is simply unlike anything Howard has ever seen before. He’ll have unique and beneficial relationships with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol, and we can all look forward to seeing how those individual connections manifest themselves within the Lakers’ two-way play. This will be a fascinating ecosystem to watch all year long, and no piece is as pivotal to its operations as Howard.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs: Ginobili, 35, has entered the unfortunate arc of his career where retirement is an entirely conceivable notion, if not altogether imminent. That’s awful news for a Spurs franchise that has benefited from Ginobili’s spectacular play for a solid decade and unfortunate at the least for basketball fans who have come to appreciate Manu’s cunning. It’s a joy to watch Ginobili manipulate opponents with his use of timing and space, and the league will be worse off the day that he decides to call it quits.
But until that day comes, we’re privileged to appreciate seasons like this one. Ginobili is still playing exceptional basketball and again locked into a crucial role for a contending team. Not much has changed aside from the hands of a ticking clock, and for that we’re all quite lucky.
Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets: With coach Monty Williams convinced that No. 10 pick Austin Rivers will develop into his point guard of the future, one might think that Vasquez’s days of rotational import in New Orleans had already come and gone. It’s actually quite the contrary; somehow the rambunctious second-year guard has become the closest thing the Hornets have to a safety net, and he will likely have every opportunity to rein in his game and build on his successes from late last season.
It can be dangerous to extrapolate based on April returns, but Vasquez showed just enough game to warrant some legitimate anticipation. He’s still a bit wild and hardly the most straightforward talent. His clearest value comes from creativity rather than skill, and his further development would still make for a pleasant surprise rather than fulfilled expectation. But it's worth keeping an eye on the curiosities of his game, if only because players with resourceful games typically find ways to stick around.
Brandon Roy, Minnesota Timberwolves: The entire realm of sport leans on the power of uncertainty; what might be is often far more important than what is, and who might win far more compelling than whomever does. Yet rarely are open possibilities as wide as those associated with Roy, who could wind up saving his NBA career or doing serious damage to his body in his latest comeback attempt.
It’s with joy and terror that we’ll gaze out at Roy this season, and we’ll undoubtedly draw a collective gasp with every hard collision or awkward fall. Here’s hoping that Roy knows what he’s doing, and that a chance to see him on the hardwood again doesn’t end as so many fear it might.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls: Big men don’t move like Noah. They don’t hedge as hard on defense or recover as quickly. They don’t cover the entire lane in the blink of an eye, or switch so seamlessly between defensive positions. They don’t bear an entire defense’s burdens with such light feet or infectious energy, and they aren’t powered by a motor so unceasing and relentless.
Noah is the medium for one of the league’s most oppressive defensive systems, and for that reason alone he is eminently watchable. But factor in the trials that come in playing another regular season largely without Derrick Rose, and it should prove difficult to even miss a single belabored game from Noah and the Bulls. The circumstances of Chicago’s season will demand more of Noah than ever before, and yet he remains uniquely equipped to tackle every challenge.
James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder: Harden’s contract situation is still technically up in the air, but let’s dispense with that particular storyline; it’s incredibly likely that Oklahoma City retains the Sixth Man Award winner, whether via extension or restricted free agency. There’s simply not much drama there, as Harden is too good a player and the Thunder’s front office too savvy an operation for this to end in a separation.
But regardless of the contract subplot, Harden’s season will be one to monitor. The Thunder’s third star expertly balanced high-level production with offensive restraint last season, but that equilibrium will only prove more and more difficult to maintain as Harden takes greater advantage of his considerable skill. The opportunity is certainly there for Harden to take on even more offensive responsibility, but what would that development mean for one of the game’s most efficient offensive players?
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves: It took all of a few weeks for the wide-eyed Rubio to establish himself as a team-changing talent in the greatest basketball league on the planet. No matter how high the bar had been set after years of waiting and YouTube-highlight proliferation, Rubio stepped into the league and into his own as the spiritual leader of last season’s Timberwolves. He immediately made a huge impact with his flash and passing, but it was his smiling leadership and defensive impact that bore an even greater potential.
And so begins year two of the Rubio Experience, which, once he returns from knee surgery, should bring quick and frequent reminders of all that we missed in the young point guard’s absence. Get your popcorn ready, but be prepared to pore through the nuances of Rubio’s game with a fine-toothed analytical comb.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: There’s something particularly captivating about players like Hayward who thrive in most any situation. Whether a specific Jazz lineup needs shooting, cutting, defense, ball handling or passing, Hayward has it covered. He complements pass-first and score-first point guards alike and somehow makes the work of both players that much easier. He spaces the floor for Utah’s big men and benefits from the defensive attention they draw. He plays in perfect harmony with any personnel and isn’t in any way a liability.
That’s an incredible feat to pull off for a player with two years of experience, particularly one with so much room left to grow. Hayward’s game has already created an incredibly broad foundation, and from there his athleticism and instincts afford him the raw materials from which to build upward.
LeBron James, Miami Heat: All too often, those who follow the NBA wind up manufacturing reasons to see players in a different light. A trade, an offseason regimen or a personal trial is made to be a breaking point in a player’s journey -- a tide-turning (and quite convenient) moment that’s typically paired with an assumed enlightenment. Such benchmarks make it far easier to identify perceived causes of change, particularly when the real impetus for a player’s development can prove far more complex.
James is in no need of such a device. As if the league’s best player (and most recent champion) weren’t surrounded by enough intrigue already, James and the Heat showed a lot of growth over the course of last year’s playoffs. Credit James, credit coach Erik Spoelstra’s positional shakeup or even credit the injuries to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All that matters -- and all we know for sure -- is that a reoriented Heat team clicked over a single postseason like it hadn’t in the other parts of its two years together and opened up a new world of potential in the process.
But his inclusion here is not about his highlight-reel potential. After years of bouncing between the NBA and a handful of other pro leagues around the globe, Green finally put together a statement campaign as a member of the New Jersey Nets last season. Career highs in field-goal percentage and three-point percentage elevated the play of a tried-and-true chucker, and based on all of the evidence available, Green finally seems ready to contribute to a competitive team in a meaningful way.
And, boy, does Indiana need the help.
The Pacers’ starting five may lack elite talent, but strong balance and chemistry nonetheless made it one of the more effective lineups in the NBA last season. Indiana's problems came whenever coach Frank Vogel was forced to go to his bench. With the exception of George Hill, the Pacers' subs did considerable damage to their team’s margin. Tyler Hansbrough, Leandro Barbosa, Dahntay Jones and Lou Amundson aren’t bad players, but something in their mix forced Indiana’s starters to fight an uphill battle far too often.
Green could change that a bit, if only because he brings an entirely different dimension. He’s untested on a roster this competitive, but a change of scenery shouldn’t much alter Green’s scoring instincts and shooting stroke.
Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers: Bledsoe may seem a bit buried in the Clippers’ depth chart, but he has made a convincing case for more playing time. Play him at point or on the wing, but just play the man; Bledsoe was one of Los Angeles' top players during its playoff run last season, and his position-less success warrants an extended look.
It’s fair to wonder whether Bledsoe is truly best served by having control of his team’s offense as a reserve point guard, if only because he’s so terrific off the ball. His backcourt pairing with Chris Paul couldn’t have been more natural; Bledsoe’s cutting reads added a refreshing element to the Clippers’ occasionally stale offense, and Paul rewards that kind of movement by making a perfect feed at just the right time.
But it’s Bledsoe’s defensive play that makes him an even more appealing prospect, especially when considering the wing alternatives. The 22-year-old guard has done an outstanding job of checking all kinds of perimeter opponents. He could open up some fascinating cross-matching possibilities should coach Vinny Del Negro look to use him more consistently.
Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors: Bargnani elevated his offensive game and benefited from coach Dwane Casey’s explicit defensive instruction last season -- and then promptly fell into a cycle of injury and recovery. What started out with so much promise concluded with Bargnani's sitting on the bench as his teammates crossed the season’s finish line.
So let’s take it again from the top. A reboot could give the former No. 1 pick another chance to tap into whatever magic informed his play early last season, and it should be interesting to see what point guard Kyle Lowry’s arrival means for Bargnani on both ends of the court. The coach and the system are now in place, and the Raptors’ culture shift is coming along nicely. But the Raptors need Bargnani to perform like a star, and after last season they are well within their right to expect it.
Monta Ellis, Milwaukee Bucks: Ellis understandably has become a frequent punch line among new-school analysts. In a sense, Ellis epitomizes the league’s overvaluing of shot creation on a much larger scale, often at the expense of scoring efficiency. There are stats upon stats suggesting that Ellis’ value may not be what it seems, and there are certainly stretches in which his shot hunting does real harm to his team’s offensive efforts.
But put me among those who don't count out Ellis, particularly as he begins his first full season under coach Scott Skiles. The Bucks’ offense -- and his placement alongside Brandon Jennings -- may not seem ideal, but Ellis nonetheless had some strong moments while learning on the fly late last season. He still has plenty of work to do in terms of his decision-making off the dribble, but we’ve seen too many flares of brilliance from Ellis over the last seven years to discount his contributions entirely. He’s a quality scorer (if also an overly ambitious one), a fairly safe ball-handler and a productive passer. All he needs is the slightest push in the right direction, and Skiles just so happens to relish pushing his best players from their comfort zones.
Also keep an eye on ...
Royce White, Houston Rockets: A very public struggle with anxiety makes White’s case tremendously noteworthy, but the rookie forward's incredible playmaking ability layers a complicated situation with quality incentive.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets: If Davis’ arrival in the NBA marks the beginning of a new order, then this first chapter is sure to be a doozy.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: Cousins is ready for a true breakout year -- not because of some grand epiphany, but because he’s too productive and too talented to be kept under wraps any longer. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: The 2012 Rookie of the Year is already one of the league's best offensive players, but he could vault up the charts if his defense comes along.