In any sport, there are a number of players, coaches and personalities that decide the outcome and narrative of a season. This is especially true in the NBA, where fans follow the personalities more than they follow the teams.
Predicting which people end up swinging the trajectory of a season isn't easy. Who had Tyson Chandler as the X-factor for a champion when the season began? Who had Danny Ainge breaking up the Ubuntu Celtics? Who had Derrick Rose winning the MVP, except Derrick Rose? Still, we're going to give it a shot. If you thought being wrong would stop us, you obviously don't know us.
Here are the 25 people we expect to be the most involved in deciding how this shortened NBA season plays out.
Three young players poised to burst onto the scene.
25. Ricky Rubio
24. Kyrie Irving
23. John Wall
These are three young point guards poised to become stars this season, but all have different obstacles to overcome. For Rubio, it's the weight of expectations, as well as his own issues as a scoring threat. His passing is great, but he has to prove he can hit a jump shot and finish himself at the rim to keep the defense honest. For Irving, it's the weight of carrying a downtrodden franchise on his shoulders, even though the talent around him is subpar. Finally, Wall must find a way to capitalize on his summer-league breakout and bring his inconsistent Wizards teammates with him. It would be easy for Wall to leave his straggling mates behind, but he must find a way to balance being himself and enhancing all of their games.
COACHES WITH A LOT TO PROVE
Three coaches with unique sets of challenges during a shortened season.
22. Doc Rivers
21. Erik Spoelstra
20. Scott Brooks
These are the three coaches (out of four, and we'll get to the fourth later) who have the most difficult jobs this season. Rivers, having been handed a five-year extension after rumors that he would leave the coaching field entirely, has to coax one more year out of an aging core with less depth and less mercy from the schedule than ever before. Brooks has to find a way to develop a more complex offense so he isn't leaving his two superstars out to dry when tough, physical defenders arrive in the playoffs. Spoelstra? Let's just say nobody in South Beach is going to be happy if Miami Thrice comes up short yet again.
BROOKLYN NETS INTERLUDE
The New Jersey Nets' situation deserves its own section.
19. Billy King
18. Deron Williams
Deron Williams is going to be a free agent after this season. He's repeated his stance on what he might do next summer a hundred times: give me a winning roster, and I'll stay. So far, his general manager, Billy King, hasn't delivered. The Nets were in the chase for LeBron James; they lost. The Nets were in the chase for Carmelo Anthony; they lost. They got Williams, but took the enormous risk of acquiring him without any guarantee he would stay long term. Now, they're in the chase for Dwight Howard, and their top remaining trade asset is out for 4-6 weeks with an injury.
The clock is ticking on the Nets to do something. If King can pull it off, Williams stays and a powerhouse is born. If not? You can bet it'll be Williams that leaves.
Five supporting players who will swing the fates of title contenders
17. Tim Duncan
16. Rudy Gay
15. Tyson Chandler
14. Lamar Odom
13. Russell Westbrook
The title hopes of five contenders rest on these supporting players. In order:
- Duncan needs to find the fountain of youth, somehow. After a regular-season where the Spurs rested him to save his legs for the playoffs, Duncan didn't deliver, getting manhandled inside by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. What happens this year? Did the extended time off allow Duncan to refuel, or will the condensed schedule be the end of him? San Antonio has no chance of winning another title if Duncan has nothing left.
- Gay has to build on the potential he showed at the beginning of last year, when he finally started playing like a complete player instead of someone who just jacked shots. Then, he got hurt and the Grizzlies went on a late-season run without him. Can Gay get back to what he was before the injury? Can he lift the Grizzlies to even greater heights while fitting in to the culture that developed with him sidelined?
- Chandler left a title team to try to bring some defense to a Knicks team that didn't have it last year. Is his presence alone enough to make the Knicks passable on that end, or will all the other defensive liabilities still be an issue. If the answer is the former, watch out for New York.
- On the other hand, the Mavericks will need Odom to add a new dimension to their offense, or at least enough of one to make up for the defensive impact of Chandler. It's been so long since Odom has been anywhere but the Triangle offense. How will he fit in with Dirk Nowitzki and company?
- Which Westbrook will we be getting this year? The one that emerged as a star during the regular season, or the one who looked off his teammates and forced shots in the playoffs? The Thunder strongly believe it's the former, but if it's the latter, there may be some trouble in paradise.
One owner who made a lot of noise, and one owner who will be the subject of lots of noise.
12. Mark Cuban
11. Donald Sterling
Not only is Cuban the owner of the defending NBA champion, but he also has publicly said that commissioner David Stern was right to veto the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. One day later, Cuban's Mavericks benefited by acquiring Odom for a trade exception. Speaking of owners inexplicably benefiting from Stern's heavy-handedness, Sterling was the beneficiary of Stern's veto, securing Paul for himself. That means that Stern went out of his way to help Donald Sterling. This point will be repeated by writers (correctly) 50,000 times this year.
THE GOLDEN BOYS
The faces of the league, back for an encore performance
10. Blake Griffin
9. Derrick Rose
8. Kevin Durant
7. Dirk Nowitzki
Will Griffin develop his offensive game to go along with the many easy baskets he'll score courtesy of Chris Paul? Can Rose and the Bulls take the next step in the playoffs? Can Durant develop his post game and become a better off-ball scorer after the Mavericks and Grizzlies took a lot of his scoring opportunities away in the playoffs? Will Nowitzki add a scissor-kick fadeaway to his arsenal? All major questions for the four men who will be held up by the casual fan as all that's right with the league
The madness with the Lakers always deserves its own category
6. Mike Brown
5. Kobe Bryant
Yeah, this one's going to be fun.
THE PAWNS AND THE KING
The two big names that tried to find new destinations and the man who did far too much to control the eventual fate of one of them.
4. Chris Paul
3. Dwight Howard
2. David Stern
There have been millions of pixels generated already about the No. 4 man on this list, and there will be millions of pixels generated by the No. 3 man on this list when this season is all said and done. There have been billions and billions of pixels generated by the No. 2 man on this list for billions and billions of reasons. Let's just leave it at that and let the pixels come from elsewhere.
THE OBVIOUS ANSWER
Really, it's all about this guy.
1. LeBron James
A five-month lockout, a three-week trade saga for one superstar that ended in stunning fashion and the eventual conclusion of a trade saga for another superstar has caused us to forget how last season ended. Remember when LeBron James came up small in the NBA Finals? Remember when all your friends came up with incredibly lame jokes about James and the fourth quarter? Now is James' chance to respond with his play on the court.
This is the pivot point of James' career, even moreso than his move to Miami. There are no more forces out there to blame. We can no longer blame James' postseason failures on his poor supporting casts. The only way James can silence his critics is for his team to win the 2012 NBA title. Either way, his legacy will be forever altered by what happens this season. When it's all said and done, that storyline will once again dominate the NBA headlines.