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Miami Heat's Goran Dragic (7) disputes a ruling by officials during the second half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors, Friday, May 13, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
From The Courts

NBA players entering make-or-break seasons

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

NBA players usually get a pretty good chance to prove their worth, especially when they’ve previously been a highly-touted prospect or produced at a high level in the league. It’s not like NFL kickers, who can get cut after one or two bad games.

Several current players have seen their potential derailed by injuries, stalled development or unfavorable situations. 2016-17 will be a season for them to change their reputation around the league and define their career, for better or worse.

Let’s focus on seven players who could especially use a quality campaign this season.

Goran Dragic, Miami Heat

Just over two seasons ago, Dragic was an All-NBA performer. He made the Third Team in 2013-14 after leading the surprising Suns to 48 wins in a super strong year for the Western Conference. The Dragon posted numbers of 20.3 points and 5.9 assists with an elite true-shooting percentage of 60.4.

That squad’s most-used starting lineup was Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. And it won 48 games. Just let that sink in.

Dragic is still only 30, which makes his significant decline since that season rather puzzling. The three point-guard experiment in Phoenix failed, and Goran has had his share of injuries, but the veteran floor general has become a squarely average starting point guard since arriving in Miami.

He and Dwyane Wade never seemed to be a natural fit, as neither is a dangerous spot-up shooter and both like playing the ball. On defense, Dragic struggled against quick, attacking point guards, which happens to be most point guards these days.

Now, without Wade (and Joe Johnson and Luol Deng), Dragic has the keys to the offense. He’ll share the floor with relatively inexperienced guards and the volatile Hassan Whiteside a lot of the time, and who knows how much Chris Bosh will play? Can Dragic be the steadying, star presence that he was in 2013-14? Or will he remain inconsistent and continue to fade into the background?

Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

Rose really came on offensively at the end of his 2015-16 season after a poor start. He had more field-goal attempts than points before the All-Star break, but after the break he averaged 17.4 points and 4.6 assists per game on a below-average-but-not-terrible 52.1 true-shooting percentage. His recovery from an eye surgery that took place last summer was the main culprit for his slow start.

The New York Knicks traded for Rose this summer thinking it could get more of Rose’s late-season production to take some of the offensive burden off of Carmelo Anthony. If Rose stays on the floor, is totally 100 percent health-wise, improves his jump shot and defensive intensity some and accepts that Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis are the stars of the team, New York could have an excellent acquisition on its hands.

However, if one or more of those things doesn’t happen, a perpetually optimistic New York Knicks fanbase could quickly turn sour on Rose. In fact, some Knicks fans have already soured on the move because of the rape allegations that have come against him. While Rose may not miss any regular-season games because of this troubling situation, his reputation continues to plummet, and another sub-par year on the court would cost him even more as he enters free agency in 2017.

Ben McLemore, Sacramento Kings

Those Ray Allen comparisons for McLemore look pretty not great so far three years into his career. The 23-year-old McLemore still looks the part of an extremely athletic, sweet-shooting 2 guard with solid size, but his production has yet to match the quality of his highlight reel.

A few times each game, the Kings guard will pull off a move that reminds you of his potential. Occasionally, he’ll put together full games that make you wish he could just find some more consistency.

This will be a year where McLemore ultimately defines his NBA future. If he goes a full college tenure worth of professional basketball without significantly improving his skill level, teams will shy away from signing the upcoming restricted free agent to a big offer sheet next summer.

McLemore’s top priorities for 2016-17 should be developing his ball-handling, becoming a consistently pesky defender and working on his floater (23.8 percent between three and nine feet from the rim last season) and mid-range jumper (29.7 from 16 feet to the three-point line in 2015-16).

Then again, maybe the biggest problem here is with the Kings’ toxic organization, not McLemore. That’s always a possibility.

Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

Do traditional back-to-the-basket centers still have a place in today’s NBA? Yes, but if they don’t stretch the floor or defend well, it gets a little bit trickier.

Monroe is a terrible fit with the Bucks’ roster, and it appears his days are definitely numbered in Milwaukee after the team took a significant step back following a promising 2014-15 campaign.

Wherever Monroe ends up, though, he’ll have to do more than produce counting stats for his team to prove his worth. Production has never been the problem — Monroe WILL give you 15 and 9 every season — but he’ll have to start doing the little things that win games.

Can Monroe sprint back on defense to deter a fast-break bucket? Will he stay trim enough to be a factor in pick-and-roll defense? Can he make quicker decisions after getting the ball in the post to keep the defense on its toes?

Monroe, like McLemore and some other players on the list, has some money riding on his 2016-17 performance. He has a player option next summer and will likely opt out of the contract, but a poor campaign in 2017 may actually make opting in the better option for his bank account.

Monta Ellis, Indiana Pacers

I liked Ellis’ fit in Indiana when he signed there last summer. I thought his slashing would work well next to George Hill’s spot-up shooting and Paul George’s all-around game.

Ellis’ season didn’t go according to plan. He provided much less scoring punch (13.8 points per game on 50.4 percent true shooting) than expected, though his defense was surprisingly not terrible and he impressed as a distributor.

Overall, though, Ellis was a disappointment. He took too many long mid-range jumpers and didn’t get to the rim as much as we’ve come to expect from him. He wasn’t the capable No. 2 scorer that George needed to boost the team’s offensive efficiency.

With new point guard Jeff Teague arriving, Ellis actually fits worse in the starting lineup than he did before. Teague is a decent spot-up shooter, but likes the ball in his hands considerably more than Hill did and will use more possessions. Ellis will have to pick his spots differently without cramping the styles of Teague and George.

Is the 30-year-old combo guard ready to change his game for the better? Or will his impact continue to stagnate?

Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets

Faried is an energy big who contributes very little of that energy on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, he’ll contribute the occasional rejection of a little guy:

But when it comes to actually producing on that end, he just doesn’t cut it. Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal had this to say about Faried’s defensive impact last season:

He can’t protect the rim whatsoever and gave up 57 percent shooting on 5.3 attempts per game. Worse still, his work against spot-up shooters, since the 1.06 points per possession he allows (29.9 percentile) and the distraction stretch 4s inflict cause him even when they’re not shooting makes him borderline unplayable against this ever-growing contingent.

When it comes to everything else, Faried has consistently shown improvement over the second half of the season only to regress the following season. Take a look at his pre- and post-All-Star break numbers in the past three seasons:

Pre-ASB: 15.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes on 53.4 percent shooting

Post-ASB: 20.0 points and 12.0 rebounds per 36 minutes on 53.8 percent shooting

It’s getting tiring waiting for Faried to suddenly add a skill to his offensive repertoire besides the energy and athleticism that he’s always had. Does he have an extra gear in store for 2016-17 on either end of the floor?

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

Okafor is one of a rare breed: a second-year player already entering a make-or-break season.

The 6’11” center had a polarizing rookie campaign. Those more interested in counting stats were impressed by his 17.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game. His field-goal percentage was a solid 50.8 and jumped to 58.0 in his final 12 games.

The advanced stats tell a very different story. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus labeled him the worst center in the league by a long shot and Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus-Minus said he was 4.1 points per 100 possessions worse than a league-average player.

If Okafor’s career trends how many think it might, he’ll turn a more extreme version of Greg Monroe — very, very talented offensively on the low block but a total dumpster fire on the other end.

Then there’s the knee surgery Okafor went through in March, his off-field troubles and the major frontcourt logjam in Philly. There’s a huge variety of ways his season could go.

NBA players entering make-or-break seasons

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