by Todd Spher

We’re too hard on the kid.

Just for fun, let’s run through the unofficial Andrew Bynum Expectation List for the upcoming season:

• To return successfully from a more-serious-than-first-thought knee injury.
• To play at the level he did in the first 35 games of last year, which was called a “breakout” despite being neatly disguised as the only two good months Bynum’s played in three years.
• To bring a detectable level of intestinal fortitude to a soft frontline that was exposed in the Finals.
• To slide comfortably back onto a team that won the West without him.
• To co-exist with new teammates.
• To continue to improve.
• To show more maturity, to…well, you get the idea.

That’s what sits in front of the 21-year-old Bynum as of today. Expectations. He dangled the carrot, and now we want more. It’s the nature of the biz; we place expectations on damn near every player we see, wrapping it around their necks like a finely knitted scarf, demanding they live up to their placing on the lofty pedestal on which they prematurely occupy. It’s human nature. It’s the nature of fandom. It’s the unavoidable perk of being an ‘outsider’ (read: basically all but the 12 who suit up 82 nights a year).

This season brings with it an inordinate amount of players who have expectations hovering above them. Everyone from Mo Williams to Goran Dragic; a large portion of players of varying talents have things expected of them that, chances are, they’re not likely to produce.

Working in funny ways, expectations range from stupid to unattainable to attainable, to simply none at all. Players get them from their employers, fans, even families. This inescapable reality can linger, define and torment. Hauled from a variety of sources–draft pick order, who you were picked ahead of, how many digits appear in your salary, a likeness, a predecessor, prior accomplishment–expectations do not discriminate against anyone.

The brilliance of LeBron James is that he, the poster-child for hype, has managed to exceed all preconceived ideas of his career. Gilbert Arenas will eternally be motivated by the fact that no one had expectations of him when he was coming up. Kwame Brown is haunted by the expectations heaped upon him due to his absurdly high draft selection. Ditto for Darko Milicic.

History will tell you that the guys who overcame are the ones who shut the hype out; ignored the outside world. Play your game, satisfy your own expectations, work hard, earn your millions, go home. Those who don’t are met with mounting pressure, their critics’ tongue just that much sharper, that hole just a little deeper, and subsequently, poor play. Make or break? You bet.

Perhaps I’m a little cynical; I find some expectations to be entertaining. Take Mo Williams, for example. He’s expected to speed up Cleveland’s tempo, despite playing for Mike Brown, the anti-D’Antoninian. He’s expected to improve his new team, despite being a shoot-first point guard who’s only put up good numbers on bad teams (Hi to Dana Barros, if you’re reading this). He’s the umpteenth second-option-behind-LeBron, yet one could argue his credentials are no better than Larry Hughes’ were in 2005, when he had just completed a 22, 6 and 5 season for a Wiz team that actually advanced past the first round. Don’t get me wrong, LBJ deserves very good players around him, but is Mo Williams really going to get it done? I’m not saying it can’t happen, just wondering why there’s a consensus of expectation that it will happen.

And say that he does, an interesting point is raised: Does the fulfillment of these expectations actually leave us, well, fulfilled? Take the Seven Seconds or Less Suns of the Nash Era–had they won a title, as the general hoop junkie hoped and expected, would that have made the journey of watching the most offensively potent team of this generation any better? Doubtful. Or look at Darko Milicic. Say in a bizarro universe, he puts up 20-10 and leads Memphis to the playoffs this year (…stop laughing), he wouldn’t suddenly be validated or the subject of stand-and-applaud treatment. He’d still be the notable blemish on an incredible ’03 draft crop.

So the value of expectations is seriously questionable. Expectations are appearing to be done just to pass the time away; skewed by excitement, anticipation, hope, and even delirium. We cling to them for years, hoping one day our predictions turn real, confirming that we were indeed correct. Why can’t we just let them play?

Now that Jose Calderon is a full-time starter in Toronto, you’d swear by the chit-chat that he was going to sit a Stockton circa ’90 line in our laps this year. Gerald Wallace had the best defensive year (statistically) in 2006 of any non-big since MJ, became an offensive revelation in 2007, and was two concussions from death in 2008. expectations would presume Larry Brown will cultivate Wallace’s talents and make him an All-Star. In reality, not necessarily.

Andrew Bogut was picked numero uno in 2005, ahead of Paul-n-Williams, yet his steady year-by-year improvement (not uncommon for a center) has taken a backseat to the expectations that come with the rarified air the guys taken after him are breathing. Boris Diaw was the best player in the 2006 Western Conference Finals–check the tape–in a series that featured two MVP’s and multiple All-Stars. Yet a healthy Amaré Stoudemire and significant offensive sacrifice (Diaw lured more guards on switches than humanly possible) saw his role drastically change. Yet he is oft-criticized for his play, with total disregard for the situation change.

But there are two sides to it, however. No one expected Anthony Parker’s breakout two years ago. You’d be lying if you called Nash as a two-time MVP when he was sitting behind K.J. and Kidd from the best seat in the house back in ’97. Ben Wallace always wore a hard-hat, but to expect him to go from undrafted to (perhaps) the best defensive player of this decade was not rational thinking. Fans and media dubbed Iverson a ‘thug’ from day one, yet he will now be inducted into the Bird Memorial Pain Threshold Hall of Fame.

The most pleasant surprises are the ones from left field; hype need not apply. And there will always be that balance–for every over-hyped underachiever there will be that polar opposite, the one who slips through the cracks and ends up making it.

And while expectations will never be fair, it has its place in the game. In this day and age it’s inevitable, with constant 24/7 coverage and ultra-analyzing, players will arrive and be instantly burdened with a script of how their future should be. How they handle it is another story entirely.