Players under pressure in 2009-10
Gilbert Arenas has retreated from media commitments to focus on playing
Jermaine O'Neal has struggled in recent years with injuries, lackluster play
Mavs hope Shawn Marion brings additional firepower on both ends of court
Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas has closed shop on his entertainment business. He wants people to focus on his basketball, not his antics.
"I don't feel like speaking anymore," Arenas said at the start of training camp. "I just want to go out there and play."
Well, don't worry, Gil. People will be paying plenty of attention to your basketball this year, when you headline a list of players on the hot seat.
Some of these players have found their situation warming up because of increased expectations, others because of recent struggles. Arenas is there for both.
The 27-year-old Arenas, a three-time All-Star who once was one of the league's most explosive scorers (and equally prolific bloggers), has missed nearly all of the last two seasons after three knee surgeries. His vow to stop being the source of laughs and pranks comes at a time when Washington's $111 million man is trying to reestablish himself amid optimism about the Wizards, who are expected to improve dramatically from a 19-win season after acquiring Randy Foye and Mike Miller and hiring coach Flip Saunders in the offseason. Arenas will be counted on to guide that turnaround, even as he knocks off the rust from missing 149 games the last two years.
That's life on the hot seat, something these other players will experience this season as well.
Jermaine O'Neal, Miami: The five-time All-Star has seemed lost since leaving Indiana. O'Neal's constant run of injuries hurt his production and dependability. He averaged no more than 13.6 points in the last two seasons with Toronto and Miami, and this could be the year it catches up to him. The seven-year, $126 million contract O'Neal signed in Indiana expires this season, and right now his expiring salary looks more attractive than his contributions on the court. O'Neal has plenty to prove to interested suitors next summer: that he can stay healthy and, while perhaps no longer a double-double force at age 31, can still be effective. Doing either would be a significant step for the hobbled center.
Ron Artest, L.A. Lakers: Artest jumped on the hot seat the moment he signed with Los Angeles, not because he bore the expectations of lifting a team to the championship level, but because pressure was heaped on him to not tear a defending champ apart. He already blew up title hopes in Indiana when he started the infamous Palace at Auburn Hills brawl and, along with teammate Stephen Jackson, drew a lengthy suspension. And while Artest has relatively mellowed from those days, he still got booted from two games against the Lakers in last spring's conference semifinals and remains a polarizing figure.
The Lakers took a big risk in letting Trevor Ariza walk and signing Artest for approximately the same amount of money. Perhaps it will prove to be a bargain to add his defense and offensive skills. But you never know what you're going to get from Artest, and when you tinker with a champion by bringing in a player who has been unpredictable throughout his career, everyone is going to feel the heat.
Shaquille O'Neal, Cleveland: When healthy and motivated, O'Neal remains a dominant force around the basket who can still guard the league's top centers. He will eventually end his career as one of the NBA's greatest champions, and in the latter stages of his career teams have looked upon him as a finishing piece to push them over the top to win a title.
But O'Neal wasn't able to make that difference over the last two years in Phoenix, where the Suns acquired him specifically to match up against the top centers in the Western Conference. Now Cleveland has acquired Shaq for the exact same reasons -- to give them a matchup with Orlando's Dwight Howard, who tore the Cavaliers apart in the conference finals. Their championship hopes largely revolve around O'Neal, which puts the big guy in a boom-or-bust situation.
Allen Iverson, Memphis: This will be an important transition year for Iverson. The 10-time All-Star isn't the player we've seen for the last decade, as the loss of speed and athleticism in his aging body have prevented him from producing the way he is accustomed. Which is fine, so long as Iverson accepts these changes and is willing to adjust accordingly, which nobody is sure he is ready to do. Iverson could have several more years remaining in his career if he buys into a role as a sixth man. But if he continues to reject that concept -- as he did in Detroit last year -- then he may have a tough time finding a home.
Memphis is a good place to show that change is possible. The Grizzlies need someone who can mentor their young, developing stars and an adept passer who can put them in positions to score. Iverson has never been very interested in setting up other players to score or playing a reduced role. But if he can change that perception of his game, then the 34-year-old could experience a career rebirth.
Monta Ellis, Golden State: Ellis' career has been ripe with negativity since he signed his six-year, $66 million contract last year. He reportedly is still upset over the suspension that cost him $3 million for injuring his ankle in a moped accident -- which violated conditions of his contract -- and entered training camp with more signs of discontent. The drama has caught so much attention that little focus has been placed on whether Ellis has completely healed from his accident. He wasn't as quick or explosive when he returned last season as the ankle continued to hamper him. But if an offseason of rest has helped him get back to his typical form, Ellis could return to his position as a rising star.
Greg Oden, Portland: Oden took a hefty load of criticism while battling inconsistency in his rookie season. But many of those hits overlooked one key fact: No player in the history of the league has started his career following microfracture surgery. It's tough enough for any rookie to learn the pro game, let alone when his usual mobility and explosiveness are compromised.
So if you're being fair to Oden, you'll look at last season as a wash. But the excuses have to stop this year. This is Oden's time to show whether he is capable of living up to the lofty expectations. He needs to shelve the moping attitude, set aside his frustrations and play relaxed and confidently. The preseason returns suggest he is ready to do those things. But if he doesn't, Oden will be fair game for the critics.
Shawn Marion, Dallas: The Mavericks have considered themselves as a tinker or two away from returning to Western Conference elite status, and they bet $40 million over five years that Marion was the guy to do it. It's not an unsafe bet, as Marion has been a steady performer throughout his career. He is an instant upgrade in defense and rebounding, and adds some firepower.
The question with Marion is whether he is the type of player who will push a team over the top the way the Mavericks view him. His teams in Phoenix were exceptional in the regular season, but never pushed through in the playoffs. Miami didn't seem to be much better with Marion than it was after trading him midway through last season, and Toronto was only slightly more competitive after acquiring him. So Marion must show that he can be a difference-maker on a successful team to justify the elaborate moves Dallas orchestrated to get him.
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