The 2010-11 NBA season kicks off on Tuesday night, and when it's all said and done, there will be many faces that determine the way the season plays out. Every team has a number of people that they are heavily counting on in order to have a successful season.
If we really wanted to stretch things, we could make a legitimate argument that every single player, coach, general manager, scout and front-office executive will play a major role in the trajectory of this season.
But if we're being honest, there are only a few people who can really shift the balance of power in the NBA. Sure, it matters if Steve Blake can fit into the Lakers' Triangle offense, but it doesn't really matter either, you know? This is a league where stars and personalities mean more than any other professional sports league. This is the only league where three superstars can legally come together and immediately form a team that many feel is the most talented to ever take the court. Only a few people really matter.
Does this mean there are only 25 people that will affect the course of the NBA season? Of course not. There are many stars, key role players and coaches left off this list that will have a say when it's all said and done. But these are the 25 people with the most potential to completely change our conversation one year from now. They are not the 25 best people in the league, nor are they even the 25 most well-known. But when it comes to the 2010-11 season, these are the 25 people who bear watching.
25. Mikhail Prokhorov: We're now four and a half months into Prokhorov's tenure as an NBA owner, and other than a well-placed billboard, a revealing 60 Minutes interview and a few minor free agent signings, he really hasn't done much of anything. It's early, of course, but this guy was supposed to be Mark Cuban to the extreme. Where did that guy go?
It should come back, eventually. But when? The Nets seem to always be in the mix for top stars, but they haven't landed anyone yet. Many of the top free agents, including LeBron James, were intrigued by Prokhorov, but elected to go elsewhere. Now, the Nets are chasing Carmelo Anthony, offering a king's ransom for him (Devin Harris, Derrick Favors) before the season started. And yet, Anthony seems more interested in playing for the Knicks, even though the Nets have more to trade and some intriguing young talent.
It makes you wonder: is Prokhorov a selling point yet? Is he really willing to make any impulsive decision, or is he more of a long-range planner than anyone thinks? Can he be the league's most unique owner, or is he really more like everyone else? If the answer to any of those questions fits our initial stereotypes of him, Prokhorov is going to do something big to change the complexion of the league this year. If not -- well, it's worth keeping an eye on him anyway.
24-21 Serge Ibaka, Tiago Splitter, Al Jefferson and Greg Oden: Fact: if you want to beat the Lakers in the playoffs, you need size. The Thunder, Spurs, Jazz and Blazers are four of the top contenders in the Western Conference, and their hopes rest on big men that must step up to get their teams over the top. They each have their demons that they must overcome, and if they don't, their teams have no chance to contend for a title.
For Ibaka, that demon is youth. He was very solid in limited minutes last year, showing athleticism and rebounding ability that he shouldn't possess at this point. One scout even thinks he's better than Amare Stoudemire, sort of.
If Ibaka could find a jump shot, he could be better than Amar'e Stoudemire. He does everything else that Amar'e doesn't do. Stoudemire has that gift for timing, and he has made himself into a shooter. But Stoudemire doesn't chase rebounds or defend like this guy does. In terms of having that explosiveness and ability to finish like Stoudemire, I see that already.
That's pretty high praise for a guy who just turned 21 last month. But that's the thing: he's 21. Unless Jeff Green magically grows three inches or Cole Aldrich plays like a 10-year veteran right away, it's Ibaka who will be tasked with being the Thunder's top big man in the playoffs. If he can get it done, Oklahoma City becomes a legitimate threat.
Splitter has much less NBA experience than Ibaka, but he is no stranger to big moments. He was the MVP of the Spanish League last year, and he's played many big games for his native Brazil. San Antonio ultimately exited the playoffs because the Suns pick-and-rolled Tim Duncan to death. Splitter has the capability of defending that play, and he can also defend low-post threats. If he can do it consistently, San Antonio cannot be counted out.
Jefferson is not the interior defender Splitter is, nor is he as dynamic as Ibaka. But he's also one of the most skilled low-post scorers in basketball when healthy, and he's been rescued from the wasteland that is Minneapolis. It remains to be seen how Jefferson will fit in with Jerry Sloan, a no-nonsense coach that won't allow Jefferson to take plays off. But if Jefferson can be rejuvenated, he gives Utah a low-post threat that the Lakers may not be able to defend. Who else in the West has a guy like that?
You know about Oden's injury issues, so there's no need to rehash them. Needless to say, the Blazers need him healthy, and that hasn't happened yet in his NBA career. It may not happen this year, as Oden is hurt to start the season. But if he can be healthy in the playoffs, it gives the Blazers the defensive balance they need to take the next step. They have enough offense, and Marcus Camby is a fine stand-in, but Oden is a game-changer.
20. Gilbert Arenas: I know you think Arenas is too irrelevant at this point to change the NBA, but as long as he stays healthy (a big if, I know), Arenas will be heard from in some way, shape or form this season. Either he comes to his senses and emerges as a dynamic scorer and complimentary player alongside John Wall for the new-look Wizards, or he becomes the biggest trade dilemma in NBA history. Nobody will be a bigger test to the old adage that anyone can be traded in this league. With contenders chasing the Heat and Lakers, a dynamic scorer like Arenas, even one with his contract, baggage and injury history, suddenly becomes interesting. Those are two extreme possibilities, but don't forget: We're talking about Gilbert Arenas. The man is as much of a contradiction as any athlete in any sport.
19. Amare Stoudemire: After a decade of sorrow, Gotham needs a basketball hero. That hero should have been LeBron James, but he chose South Beach instead.
Into the void steps Amare Stoudemire. Call him a fraud superstar if you want. Call him a product of Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni. Call him injury-prone, moody, self-absorbed. But understand this fact: Stoudemire wants the love, attention and scrutiny that comes with playing in America's biggest city. He wants the chance to prove to everyone that he is his own star. Surrounded by the coach that first empowered him, an intriguing mix of shooters and a city that will love him, Stoudemire has a chance to do what he did in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals all the time: Shut the haters up, re-energize a great fanbase and cement whatever legacy he hopes to cement.
Is Stoudemire a champion? Probably not. Is he the guy you want to build your team around? Probably not. But if Stoudemire can get the Knicks off to a fast start, suddenly, New York will look like basketball's mecca again. Don't think for a second that Anthony, Chris Paul and Tony Parker won't be paying attention.
18. Yao Ming: Speaking of size in the West, nobody provides more of it than Yao Ming. But as long as he's stuck on a 24-minute limit due to his brittle feet, the league won't see the Yao Ming who lifted the Rockets back to respectability the last few years. How long will this restriction last? Will Yao be heard from in a major role at some point this season? If the answer to both of those questions yes, the West will have another contender.
17. DeMarcus Cousins: Andrew Sharp covered Cousins extensively yesterday, but I'll add this: Cousins determines the fate of the next edition of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Kings are incredibly talented, but in many ways, they are a question mark, like their fiery big man. Do the pieces all fit? Is Cousins' attitude going to get in the way of his skills? My best answer to both is "yes" and "no," but that's because I'm high on Cousins and the Kings. There's a good chance this doesn't work. But if Cousins continues to dominate while channeling that desire into good rather than Rasheed Wallace-like evil, he will be the catalyst of the West's newest Team of the Future:
16-15. John Wall and Blake Griffin: Over the past 30 years, the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards have combined for two playoff series wins and zero 50-win seasons. They are, without a doubt, the two most inept franchises in the modern NBA. Now, they are home to the two most dynamic rookies in the league, two guys that were unquestionably the top pick in their draft classes. Both players have displayed jaw-dropping athleticism during the preseason, and along with Cousins, they will stage an epic three-player race for the Rookie of the Year.
That is, unless their franchise's bad luck claims them. Can Griffin overcome a knee injury, Donald Sterling and Baron Davis and bring new karma to LA's second franchise? Can Wall make us all forget about GunGate and all of Arenas' others issues right away? We'll find out starting this season. No matter what, it's rare for two hopeless franchises to receive this kind of hope for their future. Let's treasure that.
14-12. Brandon Jennings, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose: The NBA has become a point guard's league. Saying this is akin to saying the sky is blue, but it's still worth pointing out. Last year, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo made the leap to stardom. This year, these are the three best candidates to make the jump.
The obvious candidate is Rose. Some probably think Rose made that jump last year, but his advanced statistics were much less remarkable than his game. Thanks to an over-reliance on mid-range jumpers and an aversion to forcing contact when driving to the basket, Rose true shooting percentage (which gives added weight to threes and free throws) has hovered below the league average in both of his NBA seasons. But Rose now has better teammates and a coach that is not completely overmatched. If Rose really puts it together this year, the Bulls may challenge the NBA's elite.
But lest we forget, Rose was supplanted in key moments at the FIBA World Championships by Westbrook. Westbrook provided a ton of highlight moments last season alongside Kevin Durant, but he was also very inconsistent. His passing remains a work in progress, and when his jumper isn't falling, he can hurt his own team. But with Durant desperately needing a sidekick to help carry the offensive load, Westbrook is an obvious candidate. He's grown so much in his first two years in the league; who's to say he can't become the Robin to Durant's Batman this season?
And then there's Jennings. If Rose is Nike and Westbrook is Adidas, Jennings is AND-1. (Okay, maybe Under Armour, a company that sponsors Jennings, is more appropriate). Point being, Jennings is different. Whereas Rose and Westbrook are politically correct, Jennings isn't afraid to speak his mind. Like the time he claimed he was left off Team USA because of his shoe affiliation.
"But if you want to get technical about it and you really want to look at it, half of the guys there are Nike guys. I'm not saying it's a Nike thing, but Nike is kind of running a lot of things right now. To have a guy like myself on the USA team that's flashy and really outgoing, you don't want Under Armour to get all that [publicity].
"I'm just telling you how it is."
The weird thing about Jennings is that his game during his rookie year was more about substance than style. Save for his 55-point game against the Warriors early in the season and a couple big playoff performances, Jennings was mostly a game manager. But all that can change this year. The Bucks are a darkhorse, but it will take a big jump from Jennings to make it happen. If he can do it, the NBA's underground team may go mainstream.
11. Kevin Garnett: Last season, the Celtics got all the way to a Game 7 in the NBA Finals ... and that was with Garnett still feeling the effects of his 2009 knee injury. Now, Garnett is back, and he came out like a vengeance this preseason. Three seasons ago, Garnett was the single most important force in the league. He didn't win MVP, but the Celtics as we know it never would have become the Celtics if not for Garnett's inspired play. If Garnett is back to even 85 percent of himself, the Celtics are going to be a factor in the title chase. Just imagine Chris Bosh going up against this guy in the Eastern Conference Finals.
10. Erik Spoelstra: Ho hum, just your run-of-the-mill 40-year-old former video coordinator now tasked with getting the most out of arguably the most talented group of stars ever assembled in the modern era.
9. Pau Gasol: Ken Drews of the fantastic Disciples of Clyde podcast (which should be required listening if it isn't already) had an interesting theory on Gasol a recent show. He said that, for all the talk about LeBron this and Kobe that, Gasol is, in a way, the most valuable player in the league. Not in the classic "MVP" way, but rather, because there isn't a single team in the league that can properly match up with him. Until someone can find a way to solve that riddle, the NBA title will always go through LA. Gasol silenced all remaining doubters last year by carrying the Lakers in a Game 7 win marred by Bryant's erratic shooting. This year, can anyone knock him off?
8. Dwyane Wade: Pat Riley had a genius idea when he pulled a reverse coup on Stan Van Gundy and took over the 2006 Heat. He decided to put Dwyane Wade on the ball more often, running a zillion pick and rolls with him and hoping his brilliance got him to the free-throw line enough to win. It got the Heat a title, so obviously, it worked. Later, Spoelstra, Riley's successor, continued to keep Wade primarily on the ball, mostly because he had no choice.
But now LeBron James is in town, and the Wade point guard experiment must end. No matter how good Wade is, he is still not the playmaker LeBron has been. Wade therefore needs to learn something he hasn't experienced in a long time: functioning offensively without the ball in his hands. According to Synergy Sports, only 23.7 percent of Wade's plays last season came in off-ball situations within the flow of the offense (cuts, spot-up shots, shots off screens and dribble hand-offs). That number will take a massive jump this year. Can Wade make it work?
7. Kobe Bryant: He's one year older, one year more banged up and one year closer to the end. And yet, even with Miami's superteam in place, it's hard to bet against Kobe Bryant.
6-5. Dell Demps and Masai Ujiri: These are the two GMs tasked with trading Chis Paul and Carmelo Anthony ... and they just so happen to be front-office rookies. Unless something crazy happens, it's a matter of when, not if, both players will have to go. After a summer where superstars took the power away from management and left their teams empty-handed to pursue their desires, you can bet that Anthony and Paul will continue to put pressure on these two men to get out.
But Demps and Ujiri also saw what happened to Cleveland and Toronto this summer when Bosh and LeBron left. Both may be inexperienced, but they will not be bull rushed into making a trade that doesn't help their team's future. That said, they are inexperienced. If they cannot find a way to balance their obligations to their teams with the reality of the situation, they could be on the receiving end of the latest lopsided blockbuster.
4. Derek Fisher: No, Fisher isn't on this list because the Lakers once again need him to turn back the clock in the playoffs. He's on thls list because he's the president of the NBA Players Association, and he will play a key role in preventing what would be a devastating lockout in 2011.
It would have been easy to put commissioner David Stern or NBAPA Executive Director Billy Hunter up here to symbolize the CBA talks. But truthfully, there's nothing either is doing that's much different from how both handled things in 1999. Stern is pulling his typical hard bargain, issuing veiled threats that he might actually contract some teams (a power he doesn't even possess). Hunter is, as usual, firing back publicly, but working with Stern behind the scenes privately. We've seen this story before.
The key difference, though, is represented by Fisher. The biggest thing that cost the NBA in 1999 wasn't the actual lockout. Well, nevermind, it was. But one major problem was the way the players, "led" by the brooding, out-of-touch Patrick Ewing, showed that they were too rich and spoiled to relate to the average fan. They lacked media savvy, and Stern knew it. His classic hard bargaining tactics worked, and the players suffered.
This time, I get the sense that the players are smarter about how to handle this. The big stars are getting involved, saying they're willing to take sacrifices if it means the main salary structure is preserved. The difference is personified by Fisher, a graceful media presence who will gain the sympathy of the average fan. If Fisher can continue to be that, and if the rest of the players follow his lead, the owners' hardball tactics won't work. Then again, maybe that means we won't have a 2011-12 season.
3. Kevin Durant: Last season, Durant became the league's most entertaining player, leading a young Thunder team to 50 wins while managing to cover up all of their holes (and they had many -- outside shooting, interior defense, post scoring, offensive efficiency ... I could go on). Then, he signed a contract extension in silence, dominated in leading Team USA to gold in Turkey and became the golden boy of the league. Enjoy being the hunted, KD, because that's what you will be this year.
2. LeBron James: We all know why LeBron matters this year, so let's just enjoy this Nike commercial instead.
So why isn't he No. 1? And if not him, who?
1. Dwight Howard: Not the guy you expected, huh? With all the attention on Miami and Los Angeles, Howard and his Magic have slipped under the radar. A disappointing Eastern Conference Finals loss will do that to you.
But here's the thing: there remains no player in the NBA more capable of completely dominating both ends of the floor. We saw a taste of that in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, when Howard destroyed Cleveland's interior defense and single-handily kept LeBron on the perimeter, where he wasn't able to make the kind of impact he usually does. But since that series, Howard has run into teams with big men equipped to stop him ... and he's failed. First, it was Pau Gasol shutting him down in the 2009 NBA Finals. Then, it was Kendrick Perkins and company making him look silly in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.
Because of those failures, it's tempting to write off Howard and assume he'll run into those same problems again. But that was before Howard quietly underwent a mental makeover. First, he ditched the smiling act, vowing at the very least to get mean. Then, he sought out Hakeem Olajuwon to completely rebuild his post game, starting with the jump shot and building from there. Time will tell whether all this worked or not, but Howard clearly realized his career is at a crossroads. Orlando returns pretty much the same team that surrounded him last year, so barring a major trade, their best chance at getting over the hump is for their best player to fully realize his potential.
Can he do it? The answer to this question will determine the trajectory of the entire league. Miami has no answer for Howard, even with their star-studded roster. The Lakers have size to match Howard, but for a team that depends on forcing interior mismatches, a resurgent Howard becomes an issue. The Celtics don't have Perkins, Howard's nemesis, for most of the season. Howard is fully capable of leading the Magic past all of the elite teams in this league. He just needs to become less methodical with his post moves, all while continuing to lord over the paint defensively. All this is possible, and if so, he will steal every major designation from his more highly-touted peers. He will be the real MVP. He will be the Pau Gasol-type MVP that every team must find an answer for. He will be the defensive player of the year. He will be the league's best big man. After a summer where so many others stole the spotlight, it would be something if Howard finds a way to overshadow them all during the season.
If he can't do it this year, Orlando's title window pretty much ends, and the Heat will own the East for the next five years. If he can? Suddenly, it's Miami, and not everyone else, that must play catch-up in the near future.