Championship Pressure Meter for the Biggest NBA Stars

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2013

Championship Pressure Meter for the Biggest NBA Stars

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    Pressure is an entity that has inspired so many great artists in our time. 

    As Billy Joel once crooned, "But even you can not avoid...pressure!" Freddie Mercury and David Bowie shared their thoughts on the subject as well, singing about it pushing down on them, among other things. 

    Well, NBA players are artists in their own rights, and they certainly can't avoid the inescapable clutches of pressure. Especially these top 10 stars, as determined by my last set of player rankings during the offseason. 

    Each star is under a different amount of scrutiny during the 2013-14 season. Great things are expected from all of them, but we'll inevitably hold some more accountable than others after a failure. 

    That's why I'm debuting the pressure meter for every one of them.

    On the meter, zero percent means that they're under as much pressure as Al Jefferson when hunting after a championship, while 100 percent means that they're in a situation similar to the one LeBron James has faced in every elimination game of his Miami Heat career. 

    So, let's go through the stars, starting with the man under the least pressure and finishing with the one who is constantly fighting against that intangible entity. 

10. Kobe Bryant

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    The only pressure on Kobe Bryant comes from Kobe Bryant. 

    This star is an established champion, the likes of which we haven't seen in quite some time. He and Derek Fisher are the only active players who can fill up an entire hand with rings. And remember who earned those rings for D-Fish? 

    At this point in Kobe's career, everything he does is gravy.

    He's already a lock for the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible. Many people—though not all—consider the Black Mamba one of the 10 greatest players to ever lace up their sneakers on an NBA court. He's won almost every type of award possible. 

    And additionally, the Los Angeles Lakers aren't expected to be very good this season, especially with Kobe coming off a ruptured Achilles. Unless you're Metta World Peace, thinking of the Lakers as a championship contender in 2013-14 is foolish. 

    Again, only Kobe's insane desire to win at all costs puts any pressure on him.

    Pressure Meter: 5 percent

9. Tony Parker

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    Speaking of established champions...

    Tony Parker is another one of those superstars who really doesn't have to deal with much pressure in 2013-14. The San Antonio Spurs still have high expectations, but two factors are helping ease the burden on the French point guard's shoulders. 

    First, Parker has been successful before. He's an NBA Finals MVP with multiple titles on his resume. No one would disparage his career if he and the Spurs failed to emerge from a ridiculously stacked Western Conference. 

    Secondly, the San Antonio system inherently shares the credit. And if it does that, it also has to divvy up the blame. 

    Think back to the 2013 NBA Finals. When the Spurs were in position to beat the Miami Heat, Parker was the leading MVP candidate, but we were still discussing Danny Green as a player who needed to at least be in the conversation. 

    San Antonio relies on role players. Gregg Popovich heavily uses his Big Three (which might have to include Kawhi Leonard instead of Manu Ginobili this year). No one player is bigger than the team, and that minimizes the pressure for the point guard. 

    Pressure Meter: 10 percent

8. James Harden

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    James Harden got to play the 2012-13 season without any pressure at all. 

    Everything he did was fun, and the Houston Rockets overachieved. They weren't expected to truly scare anyone during the postseason, and yet they challenged the Oklahoma City Thunder after Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus. 

    But still, nothing was really expected from the bearded shooting guard. 

    That changes in 2013-14. This is the first time we take a big jump up on the pressure meter because the expectations in Houston are now sky-high. 

    After signing Dwight Howard, the Rockets aren't messing around. They're poised to assert themselves among the Western Conference elite, and anything shy of a top-four seed would be viewed as a failure. 

    So, why isn't Harden under even more pressure? 

    The former Arizona State standout is still only 24 years old. He's only just developing into a superstar, and he has one year in a lead role under his belt. We still have quite a while before he'll be viewed as a postseason flopper (although he's well on his way to earning the "flopper" title in a more literal sense of the word). 

    There's one player in Houston whose meter is getting cranked up a little bit more. 

    Pressure Meter: 40 percent 

7. Russell Westbrook

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    Russell Westbrook is one of the league's premier superstars. He's an almost unquestioned top-10 player. He's made deep postseason runs. 

    And yet, he's still a sidekick. 

    At no point in Westbrook's career has he ever been asked to consistently function as the No. 1 guy. He's taken on that role with some frequency, but that usually comes when he desires to do so, and it often happens in concurrence with head-scratching by the Oklahoma City Thunder's fans. 

    The Thunder are under a lot of pressure to win a title in 2013-14, but that burden falls on the shoulders of a certain small forward more than it does the point guard's. 

    If Westbrook falters during the postseason, he'll be blamed for the failure. We've seen that happen before when the dynamic floor general makes a boneheaded decision or starts falling into his shot-happy ways. 

    But being blamed after playing poorly is different from experiencing pressure before the season even begins. 

    My rule is that no two players on the same team can hit 50 percent on the pressure meter. Westbrook is just as close as it comes to breaking that rule. 

    Pressure Meter: 49 percent

6. Dwight Howard

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    Dwight Howard is in a strange situation. 

    His popularity has waned faster than the moon on its monthly journey. Once one of the more popular players in the NBA thanks to his goofy personality and omnipresent ear-to-ear grin, Howard's last few years have forced his stock into a free-fall. 

    Howard burned bridges in Orlando, then he did the same in Los Angeles. 

    Now it's time for another fresh start, this time with the Houston Rockets. And, just as was the case when he joined the Lakers, Howard is part of a team expected to compete at a very high level from Day 1. 

    The Rockets will go as far as Howard takes them. While James Harden has emerged as the better player, he's still the inexperienced young gun. He hasn't been burdened with carrying a team quite as long as D12 has. 

    Howard is under pressure to do two things: win an NBA championship and turn around the public perception of him. Scary as it is, the second may be even tougher than the first. 

    Pressure Meter: 50 percent

5. Chris Paul

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    Chris Paul has generated an unfortunate reputation over the years. 

    For some inexplicable reason, CP3 is sometimes viewed as a postseason choker, just because he's been the best player on teams that have flopped out of the playoffs. That analysis completely overlooks the lack of support he's received and his incredible numbers. 

    Was Paul really supposed to carry the Los Angeles Clippers more than he did this last season once Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan completely disappeared? Could he have done more than average 22.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game on 53.3 percent shooting from the field with a league-high 29.2 PER? 

    I don't think so. 

    Paul has been a playoff stud, but he's been dealt an unfortunate hand time after time. You won't win many poker games when you're dealt a bad hand, even if you're great at bluffing. 

    This year, though, no such excuses exist for the league's premier point guard. The Clippers are completely stacked after the additions of J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Doc Rivers. 

    It's now or never for his public perception.

    Pressure Meter: 60 percent

4. Derrick Rose

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    "Welcome back, Derrick. We're thrilled to have you. Now you better go win us an NBA championship." 

    Derrick Rose could have saved himself this much of a burden by playing during the 2013 playoffs, especially when his Chicago Bulls advanced past the first round and squared off with the Miami Heat. But he instead remained in a suit, rehabbing that injured ACL. 

    Now he's actually set to return, and the Bulls immediately become one of the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference. 

    Jimmy Butler is vastly improved. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are back. Joakim Noah should continue to get even better while serving as the defensive anchor of this squad. 

    With Rose running the show, the pieces are all in place for a championship run. And because Rose waited so long to make that happen, the pressure has only been amped up. 

    He'll be forgiven for a failure by Bulls fans, but that doesn't mean he's not the focus of a lot of attention in 2013-14. From opening night—when he gets to travel to South Beach and take on the Miami Heat—until the final game of the season, a lot will be expected from the former MVP. 

    Pressure Meter: 65 percent

3. LeBron James

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    There's no such thing as a pressure-free season for LeBron James. 

    As the best player in basketball, he's simply held to a higher standard. Anything less than an MVP, NBA title and Finals MVP is viewed as a failed season. Amazingly enough, he's met those goals during each of the past two seasons. 

    Now the 2013-14 season ushers in an intriguing possibility: the coveted three-peat. 

    LeBron has the luxury of falling back on his two titles should he come up short, but at the same time, he's chasing history. And when you're legitimately on track to challenge Michael Jordan in the ranks of the all-time greats, you have to keep meeting the goals, no matter how high they might be. 

    It's a little unfair that LeBron can't be pushed down in these rankings with the other players who have won championships. Of the 10 featured studs in this article, only he, Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker have held up the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Kobe and Parker were the first two players to appear, as their victories lessened the pressure. 

    That's life for the MVP. 

    Pressure Meter: 66.7 percent

2. Kevin Durant

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    I really can't say it any better than B/R's Grant Hughes did at the start of his article concerning Kevin Durant's level of pressure: 

    People hope Kevin Durant will someday win an NBA title, but they don't really demand it. And as long as LeBron James is the league's undisputed king, that isn't going to change.

    For the six seasons Durant has been in the league, he's managed to skate by without having to face the burdensome expectations that James shoulders on a yearly basis. Until he won his first ring, James started every campaign with questions about when he'd finally get over the top. And once he finally got there, the pressure lingered.

    This is the year that the pressure cooker gets turned up a few notches. A title still won't be demanded from Durant, but it's going to be disappointing if he isn't able to at least come close. 

    The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar has been fairly well established as the No. 2 player in basketball for quite some time now. He's achieved all sorts of individual success, but he has yet to parlay that into a title. 

    Durant is still only 24 years old and presumably hasn't even hit his prime (yikes, that's a scary thought for the rest of his league), but he's also been in the league for six full seasons at this point. That's about the same time that the pressure was really accelerated for LeBron James, and we should see a similar timetable unfold for this particular small forward. 

    Pressure Meter: 70 percent

1. Carmelo Anthony

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    No player in the NBA will feel the pressure more than Carmelo Anthony. 

    He's one of the handful of truly elite NBA players, and he's the longest tenured one in that bunch who hasn't experienced the ultimate success. While Kevin Durant has spent six years unsuccessfully trying to win a title, 'Melo now has a full decade under his belt. 

    And yet, that's not the only factor. There are two more prominent parts of the decision to put him in the No. 1 spot. 

    First, Anthony plays under the spotlight of New York City. He's the constant subject of media attention, and he plays for a team with a significantly bigger market than the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    When Anthony succeeds, it gets noticed. But when he fails...

    Secondly, there's his contract. 

    'Melo has the ability to use an early termination option after the 2013-14 campaign and become a free agent. Trying to figure out whether or not he'll use it is pure speculation, and I won't touch that here. But the fact that the clause exists means that the New York Knicks are even more desperate for success so that their marquee player will stay. 

    The scoring champion helped his team get out of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 1999-00. Now it's time for him to carry them even further. 

    And make no mistake about it. He really is doing some significant carrying here. 

    Pressure Meter: 75 percent