We are in the dog days of the NBA offseason. Free agency money has essentially dried up, Team USA seems to be headed toward winning another gold medal, most players are enjoying their vacations and, if we’re being honest, many fans are prepping for the upcoming NFL season.
But even with the heat on the NBA front seemingly at a standstill, there are some players who are more than likely relentlessly working because they know deep down that they have something to prove heading into the 2016-17 campaign.
Today, we’ll take a look at some players who have a bit of extra motivation heading into next season. In this case, what’s fueling these each of these players is the critics and doubters of their individual game. Can they silence the skeptics next season?
Russell Westbrook, Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
On the surface it may seem somewhat odd to list Westbrook’s name on a something-to-prove list. After all, Westbrook is a multiple time All-Star selection, an All-NBA caliber talent and a nightly triple-double threat. If he keeps up his current trajectory for another few seasons, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. Westbrook is that good.
But in Westbrook’s case, he enters this season as unquestionably the number one guy in Oklahoma City for the first time of his career. There have been many people around the league who have spent years pontificating on the notion Westbrook needed to tone down his game in order to let departed former MVP Kevin Durant thrive. Now, Westbrook won’t have those mental restraints with Durant headed to Golden State.
The fate of the Thunder is on the shoulders of Westbrook. Win, lose or draw, this is Westbrook’s show after eight seasons of sharing the spotlight. There’s a lot to prove for Westbrook in this case. Can he be an MVP-caliber player? Can he lead a team to the postseason on his back alone? Does he have the leadership qualities needed to keep things running smoothly in the locker room without Durant around?
The answers to all of these questions may undoubtedly be yes, but for the first time in his career Westbrook gets an opportunity to prove that.
Kyle Korver, Guard, Atlanta Hawks
We have stated this many times in this space over the years: Father Time is undefeated. Korver suffered through a wildly inconsistent 2016 campaign after making the All-Star game the previous year. The question everyone wants to know is, was Korver’s decline last season the product of his age (he’s now 35) or was it the product of coming into the season below 100 percent? Korver was hurt during the 2015 playoffs when guard Matthew Dellavedova dove into his ankle while chasing a loose ball. While Korver was able to begin the season in the starting lineup, most believe he wasn’t fully healthy after offseason surgery.
From the looks of the Hawks’ moves this offseason, it appears the franchise believes Korver’s decline in production was just a blip in the radar and not a sign of things to come. The team invested heavily in wing support in the draft and in free agency boosted their backup point guard depth.
So barring any moves heading into training camp, the starting shooting guard position is still Korver’s to lose.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Duo of Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons
At this point, no one can accuse the Grizzlies’ front office of being cheapskates. Whether or not you believe the team’s moves put them in mix for a title is up for discussion, but the team left little doubt that they are willing to invest in being successful on the court. Memphis dug deep into their wallets this summer and made point guard Mike Conley the highest-played player in the league with a massive five-year, $150-plus million deal.
The team was also active externally by signing forward Chandler Parsons to a four-year deal worth nearly $100 million. In these two players, the Grizzlies invested nearly a quarter of a billion dollars over the lifetime of these deals. Now, the economics of the NBA have dramatically changed, but when you factor in that neither Conley nor Parsons have made it to the All-Star game in a combined 14 seasons, it was perfectly normal for people to raise their eyebrows in skepticism at these moves. Now is the time for Conley and Parsons to prove that they were worth it.
Timofey Mozgov, Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Mozgov kicked off free agency 2016 by agreeing to a four-year, $64 deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The contract instantly became one of the hottest early free-agency debate topics since there was disagreement over whether the veteran center was worth the money.
Part of the reason the critics were out in full force was because Mozgov had just spent the better part of the last two months of the 2016 campaign watching the Cleveland Cavaliers win their first NBA championship – from the bench.
From all accounts, Mozgov has continued to be a consummate teammate and a true professional throughout his tenure in the league. With the Lakers, Mozgov will get an opportunity to become a full-time starting center. It has been something he has wanted and it is a role he has produced decent numbers in when given the opportunity in years past.
Harrison Barnes, Forward, Dallas Mavericks
For years, Barnes has been branded with the “potential” label and, in Golden State, the label fit because he was behind guys such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the pecking order. But now armed with a near $100 million contract, Barnes will be expected to deliver big-time production night in and night out in Dallas. It is time for Barnes to shed the potential label and produce at a high level.
With future Hall of Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki playing his last days in the league, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been desperately seeking the next transcendent player who can help Dirk keep Dallas relevant in the Western Conference. On the surface, Barnes has all of the tools to be that guy: Decent athleticism, good height, solid outside shot and a great understanding of the game.
The questions everyone wants to know is how much Barnes can improve his production? Can Barnes develop into being a solid number two guy? Can Barnes ultimately develop into an All-Star? Can Barnes eventually develop into a 20-point-per-game scorer?
These are questions that may not get all answered in 2017, but they are on every Mavericks’ fans mind when evaluating what’s next after Nowitzki. How good can Barnes be?
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