Under Pressure: Top 10 Players Who Will Carry Extra Baggage

LeBron James and Zach Randolph will carry extra baggage down the stretch: expectations. - Chris Trotman

Playoff races are hanging in the balance. Expectations are high. Who is feeling the pressure to take their team to the promised land?

In Germany 1949, Cpl. Edward Bennett and his company were advancing through an open field in the middle of the night when they were fired upon from a dark house. With his men pinned down and taking casualties by the minute, Bennett crawled along the edge of the field to a nearby wooded area, all the while taking fire. He made his way to the back of the house where he killed a guard with his knife. Courageously pressing forward, he stormed the house alone and found seven more German combatants firing on his men. He killed them all. Fearless and brave, Bennett dismantled the small enemy contingent in close quarters and was later awarded for this amazing act of heroism. Why did he do it? He was the only one who could.

With nearly seven weeks of NBA regular season basketball left to play, key players around the league will start to feel the pressures of their roles bearing down on them. The season is dragging on; teammates are getting tired. When circumstances are going well, the team has a devastating setback. From media scrutiny to an injured teammate, these stars must drive their team among all the expectations to the greatness they so desire. Each team has its pressures, but these are the top 10 players who will feel the full weight of their world in the end months of the season and into the playoffs.

#10 – Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

Known as a loose cannon, Westbrook will have to reign in his sporadic production to see his team achieve their ultimate goals of winning an NBA finals. As expected with the subtraction of James Harden in the off-season, he is currently on pace to obliterate his career highs in FGA and 3PTA, without seeing a significant increase in offensive production. Even with Durant as the true leader and hero of this team, Thunder fans must still worry whether Westbrook’s late game shot selection and turnover tendencies will hold this team back from attaining the ultimate prize.

#9 – Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

What are Golden State’s expectations this year? I imagine they would enjoy making the playoffs since they have been in a steady position to do so for much of the year. However, as the end days approach, the Warriors are slowly creeping to the back of the pack with the Lakers starting to peak. Curry, the young leader of a young team, will be called upon night in and night out to produce at high levels. Klay Thompson has been struggling and Andrew Bogut is a walking Band-Aid. Will the March Madness, Davidson-leading, Curry return? Or will Warriors fans have yet another monumental catastrophe to add to their franchise’s record?

#8 – Paul Pierce, SF, Boston Celtics

Two words: wasted season. Two more words: Boston media. This could have been a nice transition deadline for the Boston Celtics, instead their two stars made it known they did not want to be traded, despite the injury to Rajon Rondo. Danny Ainge and the Celtics’ front office could have flipped either Kevin Garnett or Pierce to a fringe contender for a handful of role players, maybe a potential star, to add to a team seriously lacking depth. I understand the loyalty, I really do, but what is this team going to do in the playoffs? Currently positioned to play the Indiana Pacers, they present minimal threat in a seven-game series to their uber-athletic roster, despite getting the best of them in the regular season. It will be on The Truth to bring out some relative meaning, outside of sentiment, to why they stayed in Boston.

#7 – Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs

The more I think about this selection, the more I say to myself, "Eh, they’ll be alright," but Tony Parker will sure be missed. He will forever be remembered in my book as "the Small Fundamental," simply for his consistency and playmaking. He drove this team and now he’s out. If the Spurs are to maintain their positioning and get home court advantage throughout the playoffs, it will be because of the increase in production from Manu Ginobili, particularly in transition and distribution. Honestly, the Spurs will be fine, but Ginobili’s pressure comes in the form of potential injury and exhaustion as he will be asked to log larger minutes against stiffer competition. He currently averages a mere 23.3 MPG.

#6 – James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

The Rockets are still a rebuilding team, but they are one dangerous construction site. With the acquisition of a proper power forward and backup point guard, this team could be vying for a top-4 seed as soon as next year. However, this year cannot end with a disappointing playoff absence. Harden is now THE man. Many basketball voices consider him a top-10 player in the league, but can he carry a team like one? Sure, he lacks support and depth but it’s time now to make a statement as a perennial star, the next Clyde Drexler.

#5 – LeBron James, ATH, Miami Heat

No matter how his team is doing, James will always have some form of hype and hoopla placed on his back. It must be hard when anything less than another ring and Finals MVP would be a huge disappointment. He is the only current NBA player, besides Kobe on a great day, who can pull the ultimate Cpl. Edward Bennett move and kill them all. Fortunately for the King though, he has Dwyane Wade to shoulder some pressure and their current, ridiculous win-streak has alleviated pressures for the time being, landing him at #5.

#4 – Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies

When the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay in mid-January, they sent a message to the team: we believe in Zach Randolph. Zach has never heard that message in his life. IN HIS LIFE! Now, with an entire NBA organization looking to him to supply the star power, Z-Bo must respond or suffer the scrutiny and self-loathing of being the guy who asked for the spotlight, but could not deliver. Currently sitting on a career low in PPG (in a full season) since 2003, Randolph will need to find his touch over the remainder of the season if he hopes to be the player he was in 2011. Memphis has great role players, solid leadership and more depth than critics often give credit, but this team will only go as far as Zach "First Name 20, Last Name 10" Randolph takes them.

#3 – Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks

How are we going to remember Carmelo Anthony? If his career ended today, what would history eventually say about him? Unfortunately for Melo, his greatest legacy is one of selfishness instead of success. I'd be willing to say he is one of the more selfish players of this generation, if not league history. What else could he be known for? A great scorer? Sure, but certainly not a champion or good, on-the-court teammate. Through his career, his teams have gone a combined 16-36, placing him atop the list of worst playoff records, right above Mookie Blaylock and Eduardo Najera. After refusing to sign a contract extension and requesting a trade from the Nuggets in 2011, he has found little playoff success on the main stage of Broadway. However, this year, the Knicks have Conference Finals expectations and to get there the Knicks have to AT LEAST make it out of the first round, something Anthony has only done once in his career. Melo has had some unbelieveable scoring performances in the playoffs, but where does he always end up? Home, with his keister firmly planted on the couch. He can reshape his legacy with big playoff series victory, especially as the national media is catching wind of his previous teams' mediocrity. However, presently matched up with the Atlanta Hawks, an epic letdown would not be too far-fetched.

#2 – Dwight Howard, C, Los Angeles Lakers

If Carmelo Anthony is considered one of the most selfish players in league history, he has company in fellow contemporary, Dwight Howard. The man cannot quit looking in the mirror. Not only has he consistently denied his role as a contributor to Kobe Bryant, but he has made his disputes known. More commonly known in my house as the "Me Monster," Howard must find a peace if the Lakers are to make the playoffs. The former Defensive POY could turn the Lakers team into a defensive juggernaut if he only focused on congesting the lane and contesting every shot. His offensive "touches" should be a non-factor because that’s not his strongest ability. You can rest assured, Kobe is going to play harder every night than anyone on the court, but Dwight Howard is the key to the puzzle. With the eyes of Hollywood upon him and all those celebrities sitting at arms-length, all fully knowledgeable of his disdain, can he put himself behind him and be the player the Lakers need him to be?

#1 – Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls

That’s right. The player with the most pressure heading into the final days of the NBA season is one who has not set foot on a court all year. It is hard to remember what it was like to have MVP Rose bursting through the lane, finding a mid-range jumper and molding the Bulls into a younger, more brutal San Antonio Spurs. He is the difference-maker of the Eastern Conference, if for no reason other than reducing Nate Robinson's minutes. He could restore a balance. Now I’m fully aware of the limitations he could face if he returned from injury too soon, but half of what he had a year ago makes them the favorite for another match-up with the Heat. Currently tied for fourth with a mediocre Nets team, the Bulls are one consistent point guard away from posing a huge threat to the Miami Heat. The media wants to know. The team wants to know. The league wants to know. Is he healthy enough, and motivated enough, to come back and be the hero that defeats the champs? He could be the one.

Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors; Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets

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