Most professional sports teams that face a truckload of pressure heading into a given season are saddled with championship expectations or something close to them. The following list generally adheres to that statement. There’s only one exception.
As this top-five list unfolds, we’ll mention the teams that — while belonging to slots six through 10 — aren’t quite on the verge of a make-or-break moment, the kind of crossroads confrontation that decisively reshapes reputations in a billion-dollar business.
5 – CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
This is the team which does not (and should not) have championship expectations attached to it next season… and yet faces withering pressure as it tries to become one of the big boys yet again.
Why do the Cavs face more pressure than, say, the Chicago Bulls? Everyone knows that the Bulls have run into awful luck with Derrick Rose and his spate of injuries. Chicago has earned a measure of empathy from sports fans and people inside the league.
Cleveland, on the other hand, is seen as a laughingstock, thanks to erratic owner Dan Gilbert; the absurd second go-round with Mike Brown; the signing of Andrew Bynum; and the general inability to parlay repeated draft lottery luck into steady upward advancement. Even before the draft, everyone in the league has put the Cavs on notice: If this franchise can’t leverage yet another top pick into a productive new era, it will deserve all the future scorn and humiliation it might receive.
That’s not championship pressure, but it’s an intense form of pressure just the same.
4 – INDIANA PACERS
Larry Bird has not yet revealed his plans to the world. The NBA community is waiting to see what he has in store for the Eastern Conference’s most disappointing team in 2014.
How this roster is restructured in an attempt to change the locker room’s subculture — a real issue during the season, underscored by Andrew Bynum’s corrosive presence — will point the way toward success or failure for the Pacers. Once Bird puts his cards on the table, it will be time for coach Frank Vogel to ensure that the problems of this past season don’t resurface in the spring of 2015.
Paul George is a player the Pacers can build around, and although George came and went against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, he was not the central reason Indiana fell short. The collapse of the team’s cohesiveness ultimately caught up with the Pacers against a more disciplined and tested opponent. In terms of tangible on-court needs, Roy Hibbert’s disappearing act (defense, rebounding) and a lack of a dependable playmaking point guard (ball movement, turnover avoidance) undercut the Pacers’ efforts more than anything else.
Unless Chicago assembles the pieces of a reconstituted superpower under head coach Tom Thibodeau (one can’t apply a maximum amount of pressure to the Bulls unless they regain the look of a top-tier contender), Indiana will begin the coming season as the Eastern Conference team with the most on the line.
The New York Knicks? No — Derek Fisher will have a first-year grace period.
The Brooklyn Nets? No — everyone realizes this is an old team with little room to maneuver in terms of reshaping its roster. The organization would certainly like to make the East Finals, but that’s just not a realistic (enough) expectation. Therefore, the level of pressure on the Nets to “win at a high level or else” is not as pronounced as what the Pacers currently face.
3 – HOUSTON ROCKETS
The Houston Rockets, according to the great Adrian Wojnarowski, are in the running for Carmelo Anthony. Whether they land him or not, the Rockets already own a lot of high-priced talent. Their collection of players wasn’t good enough to get out of the first round this past spring. If the Rockets can’t at least advance to the second round, head coach Kevin McHale might not get the chance to see Daryl Morey’s vision through to the end.
In terms of identifying what the Rockets need to do in order to become more successful, the answer is simple: James Harden needs to play defense… all the time… with great effort. The great coaches get their most talented performers to buy into the larger plan and sacrifice the way champions always manage to do. If Harden and McHale arrive at an understanding, Houston can springboard all the way to the NBA Finals. If player and coach don’t connect, the Rockets will fizzle, and all their potential will go to waste for yet another season.
2 – LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers haven’t been in Los Angeles or even Southern California (1978) as long as the Denver Nuggets have resided in the Mile High City (1976), but when viewed as a franchise with a continuous history — one that began as the Buffalo Braves in 1970 — the Clippers are the owners of the longest NBA existence without a single trip to the Finals. Moreover, the Clippers haven’t even made the conference finals. The Buffalo Braves came close in 1974, ’75 and ’76. The Los Angeles franchise made a run in 2006 and then pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder this past May before losing in six games. However, no Clipper team has ever become a part of the NBA’s last four.
Given the circus surrounding the organization this past season due to the Donald Sterling mess, the Clippers deserved a pass for failing to go as far as they hoped to. Moreover, it became clear early in the playoffs that head coach Doc Rivers would need more time to get the Clippers to become a defensive force. Los Angeles put a highly entertaining yet conspicuously flawed product on the floor. The 2014 team was just not ready to rise to the proverbial next level.
Jamal Crawford caused more problems than he solved. Darren Collison did not provide the level of stability the franchise needed at the backup point guard spot, especially since Chris Paul is an injury magnet who will need a top-tier backup as his career continues. Glen Davis has regressed since his days with Doc as a member of the Boston Celtics. Like most of the teams the San Antonio Spurs surpassed in the Western Conference, the Clippers just didn’t have enough quality depth to persevere and create enough winning lineup combinations at playoff time.
In 2014-2015, Doc and his staff — presumably under new ownership and the freedom that should provide — know exactly what they need to improve on. With the Spurs, Thunder, and other contenders in the mix, the Clippers should not be expected to make the NBA Finals. However, it’s long past time for CP3 (as an individual) and the Clippers (as an organization) to make their first conference final. The failure to do that will lend credence to two core contentions:
A) Paul is just not in the same class as Rajon Rondo or Russell Westbrook as a point guard;
B) Doc Rivers needed Tom Thibodeau at his side to reach the pinnacle with the Celtics.
Yes, there’s a ton of pressure on the Clippers to do better next season — maybe not two or three playoff rounds, but certainly one. To put a finer point on the matter, the Clippers face more pressure to make the West Finals than Portland, the other team eliminated in the second round of the West playoffs this past season. Portland overachieved to get where it did. The Clippers can’t and shouldn’t be viewed in the same light.
1 – OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will choose between staying in Oklahoma City and seeking a new chapter in their NBA careers. The chances that the two will stay in OKC will rise if the Thunder can finally win a title after being kept at bay by the Dallas Mavericks (2011), Miami Heat (2012), injuries (2013), and the San Antonio Spurs (2014).
The tumult of talk radio and the shouting found on social media have certainly revolved around Westbrook to a considerable extent, but the (faux?) debates about Westbrook’s game, while still intense and spirited, have certainly taken second place to the true reason for the Thunder’s persistent failures to grab the brass ring: Scott Brooks. Other coaches — Vogel and McHale in particular — are certainly facing a “perform or else” situation in 2014-2015, but none will stand in the white-hot spotlight more than Brooks. Anything less than the Finals will be a complete disappointment for the franchise. A loss in the Finals would be nothing to sneeze at, but in the same breath, it would still add to the growing sense that a richly promising era for the franchise — with two of the 10 best players in the NBA on the OKC roster — is leaving money on the table.