NBA: Each Team's Top Two X Factors in the Southwest Division

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIJuly 28, 2012

NBA: Each Team's Top Two X Factors in the Southwest Division

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    An "X Factor" for an NBA team is any one thing or person that can change the fate of the franchise positively or negatively just based off their performance.

    For instance, the biggest X Factor for the Miami Heat is LeBron James. The team's chances for success, night in and night out, are heavily dependent on how King James performs. The same can be said about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers or Chris Paul with the Clippers.

    These X Factors don't necessarily have to be stars. It can also be a rookie who can alter the outlook of their franchise by having an immediate impact or a young rising star who can play a big role for the team as he continues to develop. DeMarcus Cousins will be an X Factor for the Kings, as will rookie teammate Thomas Robinson.

    Today, I'm breaking down the top-two X Factors for the five teams in the Southwest division. More specifically, I'm listing two players each for the Grizzlies, Hornets, Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs who hold the keys to their respective team's fortunes this season.

    New Orleans, Dallas and Houston have been among the most active this offseason through the draft and free agency. The Hornets made a big splash by winning the lottery and selecting Kentucky big man Anthony Davis and pairing him with fellow rookie Austin Rivers. They also swung deals for forward Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez.

    After missing out on the opportunity to unite Deron Williams and Dwight Howard in Dallas, the Mavericks called an audible and brought in guys like O.J, Mayo, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. The Rockets have been wheeling and dealing in an effort to swing a deal for Howard. They traded Chase Budinger and Kyle Lowry for draft picks and used the amnesty clause on Luis Scola.

    All of this maneuvering has made the Southwest division very intriguing this season and how the division shakes out will be determined by how these 10 X Factors perform.

Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs

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    For 15 years, the fate of the San Antonio Spurs has rested in the large hands of one of the greatest power forwards to ever grace the hardwood.

    While other young stars have come along to make life easier on Tim Duncan, he is still the pulse of this franchise. While skeptics wondered whether the Spurs were too old to compete with the young guns of the Western Conference, San Antonio thumbed their nose at them by grinding their way to the top seed.

    The critics got the last laugh after the much younger Oklahoma City Thunder sent the Spurs packing in the Western Conference Finals, but that came after San Antonio rattled off a 20-game win streak.

    This season, how far the Spurs go will depend on how much "The Big Fundamental" has left in the tank. Duncan signed a three-year deal this summer, taking less money so that the team could keep the core in tact.

    At 36, this is probably the last contract Duncan will ever sign. Even with a decade and a half of service in the league, Duncan still put up respectable numbers, averaging 15.4 points and nine rebounds a game last season.

    The Spurs will need Duncan to, at the very least, replicate last season's numbers if they are going to make it back to the playoffs. Duncan is the team's best defender in the post and, on offense, he must continue to make opposing defenses miserable with his textbook outside jumper.

    The days may be numbered for the future Hall of Famer but he's still a vital part of this team and the Spurs will only go as far as their legendary big man can carry them.

Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs

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    Tony Parker spent the 2011-12 season staking his claim to the title of the league's best point guard. He averaged 18.3 points and 7.7 assists a game in the regular season and then stepped it up in with playoffs with averages of 20.5 points and 8.7 assists.

    Even as he was putting the team on his back, Parker and the Spurs fell victim to the Thunder and San Antonio was eliminated in six games.

    That wouldn't be the worst part of Parker's summer as it turned out.

    Parker would get caught in the crossfire of a bar brawl in which champagne bottles were thrown around between rapper Drake and R&B crooner Chris Brown. In the scuffle, Parker was injured and would need surgery to remove a shard a glass from his eye.

    Miraculously, Parker's eye recovered in time for him to participate for the French team in the London Olympics. That bit of good news also means that Parker will be ready to make another run at a championship and continue his campaign for the point guard throne.

    Few point guards in the league have Parker's combination of speed, vision and scoring ability. With Tim Duncan aging, the team will inevitably transition into becoming Tony Parker's team. That transition could happen this season if Duncan shows any signs of regression.

    The Spurs need Parker to set the tempo and wear defenses out by forcing them to run until their tongues scrape the floor. Even at 30, he's lightning-quick when he gets on a break and he's capable of carrying the scoring load if Duncan or Manu Ginobili are off.

    With the Spurs' consistent success and Parker's talents, it's not unfathomable to think Parker can make a run at the MVP next season. What he brings to the table for San Antonio in terms of setting up the offense is every bit as important as what Duncan provides on the interior.

    If Parker continues his dominance running the point, the Spurs will be back on top of the West. If not, the Spurs don't have another point guard with his unique set of skills that can pick up the slack and impact the way teams defend San Antonio.

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks failed in their attempts to bring in free agent point guard Deron Williams and the best player on the trading block, Dwight Howard. They also sat back and watched veterans such as Jason Kidd and Jason Terry depart for New York and Boston, respectively.

    That leaves Dirk Nowitzki as the only reliable option on a Dallas Mavericks team that won it all just a year ago. The Mavericks supplied Dirk with some intriguing options in former Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo and aging forward Elton Brand but neither draw the attention that D-Will or D12 would have.

    Nowitzki has scored at least 20 points per game every season since the turn of the century. He's deadly from long range or in the post and is a factor on the boards. Now, more than ever, Nowitzki will be counted on to keep the Mavericks relevant while they break in a new supporting cast for the former MVP.

    If Nowitzki can continue to maintain the production he's had for the better part of the last 14 years, the Mavericks will still be in the thick of things. If, at 34, Nowitzki starts to show his age, the team doesn't have a Plan B that they can go to like they did in free agency after missing on Williams and Howard.

    The Mavericks are a team of "ifs". If Mayo can develop into a viable second option, it will make life easier for Nowitzki. If Brand and Chris Kaman can stay healthy (two HUGE ifs), it will lighten the load on the rebounding front for Nowitzki and he can attack defenses from the perimeter.

    Dallas has made a huge transition in the span of a year. They went from a championship collection of hungry veterans to a mixed bag of veterans and promising youngsters that could fall out of the playoff hunt if Nowitzki can't keep them afloat.

O.J. Mayo, SG, Dallas Mavericks

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    The signing of O.J. Mayo by the Dallas Mavericks was one of the most intriguing moves of this summer's free agency period.

    For starters, Mayo has proven that he can put up numbers when he's given the minutes. In his first two NBA seasons, when he was a starter for the Grizzlies, Mayo averaged 18 points per game and shot better than 43 percent from the field in both seasons. He also shot a little over 38 percent from behind the arc.

    In the past two seasons, when Mayo was reduced to a sixth man role in favor of the more defensive-minded Tony Allen, Mayo averaged just under 12 points per game. His field goal percentage dropped to just over 40 percent and he shot around 36 percent from the three-point line.

    He gets a second chance in Dallas and he's only 24 (he'll be 25 in November), which means he can still get better. Mayo also doesn't have to worry about being replaced for a better defender, because his backup is Vince Carter.

    Mayo will be counted on to be the team's second scoring option. Even with guys like Carter, Shawn Marion and Elton Brand on the roster, Mayo possess the most potential of the group. If he performs more like the player he was in his first two seasons, then the Mavericks found themselves a steal by taking advantage of a division rival cutting the cord too early.

    If Mayo falters in his second opportunity at stardom, the team will struggle to find someone who can alleviate the pressure off Dirk Nowitzki. Brand isn't the dominant force in the paint he once was and guys like Carter and Marion are shells of the athletic machines they once were.

    Mayo has the athleticism and talent to be a star in this league. He just needed a chance to show what he can do. This season, the Mavericks need him to take that next step.

    Did they take advantage of Memphis' mistake or did the Grizzlies know something that the Mavericks didn't?

Jeremy Lin, PG, Houston Rockets

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    Jeremy Lin will sell merchandise, put butts in seats and be the NBA ambassador for Asian basketball fans that former Rocket Yao Ming was during his heyday.

    However, what will he bring to the Rockets on the court?

    Lin's breakout with the New York Knicks was one of the biggest stories of last season, launching a feel-good triumph of a journeyman underdog and the coining of the phrase "Linsanity".

     After bouncing around the league his first year and half in the NBA, Lin found a home in former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's numbers-friendly offensive system. D'Antoni was inevitably fired and that, combined with a knee injury, caused some of the air to come out of Lin's tires.

    The Knicks decided this summer to let the man who helped turn their season around walk away, fearing that matching the three-year, $25.1 million offer the Rockets made would cost them dearly with the luxury tax.

    That gives extra motivation to a kid who spent the better part of 25 starts proving his doubters wrong.

    The question now is, which Jeremy Lin did Houston get?

    Did they get the playmaker that set the Garden on fire for the better part of the first two months of the year or was Lin a product of a point guard friendly system?

    Lin won't have the luxuries of a great supporting cast in Houston like he did in New York. Kevin Martin, for all his scoring capabilities, is not Carmelo Anthony. Royce White and Terrence Jones have potential, but neither are Amare Stoudemire. As for Omer Asik, I think we can all agree he could never be Tyson Chandler.

    The pressure of carrying a team now falls on the shoulders of a soon-to-be 24-year-old kid with all of 64 games under his belt. If the team moves Martin, Lin's supporting cast will be made up of mostly rookies. This will be the ultimate test to see who Jeremy Lin really is.

    The Rockets need Lin to be the star he almost was with the Knicks, not only for marketing purposes, but to keep them from the NBA's basement.

Donatas Motiejunas, PF, Houston Rockets

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    If you want to be technical, the second biggest X Factor on the Rockets is shooting guard Kevin Martin. However, Martin is in the last year of his deal and, with the way GM Daryl Morey has been moving veterans this summer, who knows how long Martin will be on the roster?

    Meanwhile, in all the ink spent on Houston's pursuit of Dwight Howard, one key piece of information may have been swept under the rug.

    The Rockets may have stumbled upon "The Next Big Thing." The 21-year-old Lithuanian big man Donatas Motiejunas is set to make his NBA debut this season after spending a year across the pond. He was one of biggest surprises of the summer league, averaging 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.

    With Luis Scola now in Phoenix, Motiejunas would appear to have the inside track on claiming Scola's old job as Houston's starting power forward. He was the 20th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves before being sent to Houston in the Jonny Flynn trade.

    Motiejunas showed off his shooting range in Vegas, nailing both of his three-point attempts in a 25-point outing against Toronto. He capped off his Summer League escapades with a 20-point, 12-rebound performance against Portland.

    While Summer League numbers should always be taken with a grain of salt, it will be interesting to see if Donatas can continue to put up those same numbers in games that actually count. If he can, he will be the big man that Houston has desperately been seeking since Yao Ming retired.

    He's a 7-footer with good lower body strength who the Rockets hope will be more of a Lithuanian Pau Gasol and less of a Lithuanian Darko Milicic.

Rudy Gay, SF, Memphis Grizzlies

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    A year ago, the Memphis Grizzlies were an exciting eighth seed that pulled off an impressive upset of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round en route to one of the most surprising playoff runs in recent memory. They did all of that with young star Rudy Gay on the sidelines.

    This past season, Gay managed to stay healthy but it was the Grizzlies who would fail to make it out of the postseason's opening salvo. With fellow young stud O.J. Mayo gone, the pressure is on Gay to be a franchise cornerstone and live up to the $84 million deal he signed in 2010.

    Gay is scheduled to make $16.4 million this season and the team will need him to do better than the 19 points and 6.4 rebounds per game he averaged last season to justify that lofty price tag. Memphis was quick to shoot down rumors that their young small forward was on the block and, now that he's here to stay, it's time for Gay to step up.

    Power forward Zach Randolph will assume a large part of the load as the team's best player and most reliable inside force, but he's coming off a season where he made just eight starts after injuring his knee. Gay is going to need to take some of that pressure off the 31-year-old forward.

    If Gay can be more like the player he was in 2007-08 when he averaged 20.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, the Grizzlies could make another lengthy playoff run and live up to the expectations many had for them following their magical 2011 season.

    If Gay continues to underwhelm, the Grizzlies may find the $53.6 million due to the former UConn star over the next three seasons to be a bit too hefty to keep on the payroll. This will be Gay's seventh season. With Mayo out of town, it's one less shooter to take away his touches. It's time he helps lead the Grizzlies into the West's upper echelon.

Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Zach Randolph is a double-double machine whose career resuscitation after floundering with the Clippers and Knicks is a large part of Memphis' resurgence.

    Yes, he's a bit too in love with the three-point line for a guy who shoots just 27 percent from behind the arc for his career. Yes, if you pass the ball to Randolph in the paint, you're not getting it back. Yes, he makes some maddening mental errors and takes some bad shots.

    He's also a premier power forward who can eat opposing forwards up on the glass and his inside game is top notch when he stops believing he's the second coming of Karl Malone. Randolph carried the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs, averaging 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds during an unlikely playoff run.

    Randolph lead Memphis from an eighth seed to giving Oklahoma City everything it could handle in the second round before losing in seven games. The Grizzlies will need a repeat of that 2010-11 performance to be a factor again in the playoffs after a disappointing first round exit this past season.

    The problem is Randolph is 31 with 11 seasons under his belt and coming off a season that saw him miss most of the year with a partial MCL tear. Randolph came back in time for the playoffs last year but it was clear he wasn't the same guy he was the year before.

    Will that have a lingering effect into this upcoming season? Is this the year Randolph starts to decline after breathing life back into his career in Memphis?

    If Randolph stays healthy, he and Marc Gasol are a formidable duo on the inside as two guys who like to bang bodies in the paint. The West is filled with a lot of finesse teams on the interior and not many want to mix it up with a couple of scrappers like Randolph and Gasol.

    If the knee injury leads to Randolph becoming Elton Brand 2.0, however, it will deal a huge blow to a young Grizzlies team. Gasol can handle some of the offensive load in the paint, but he's not the talented scorer that Randolph is. Rudy Gay could step it up and be a star for this team (since he's being paid like one) but that's not exactly a lock either.

    The team needs Randolph in the lineup getting physical with opponents and tossing them around like rag dolls. They need the Zach Randolph that was a beast on the boards and put the Grizzlies on his back and not the guy who hobbled around in the playoffs this past season.

    How far Memphis goes depends on which Zach Randolph shows up. It's a sentence we've uttered about Z-Bo for most of his career.

Eric Gordon, SG, New Orleans Hornets

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    The word "if" has prefaced every sentence involving Eric Gordon for so long that it might as well become his new first name.

    If Eric Gordon can stay healthy, which is something he's failed to do his entire career, he can make things interesting for a revamped Hornets team. When he's on the court, Gordon is a gifted scorer who has the fearlessness to embrace contact when driving to the hoop as well as the sweet touch to be a factor from long range.

    The problem is Gordon is never healthy. Since coming over in the Chris Paul trade, Gordon has played all of nine games for New Orleans. He spent the offseason fantasizing about playing in Phoenix before New Orleans matched the Suns' four-year, $58 million offer.

    Initially upset, Gordon has now welcomed the idea of being the face of the new Hornets franchise.

    Indeed, this is a completely retooled Hornets team. The biggest addition was heralded big man Anthony Davis but he has since been joined by fellow rookie Austin Rivers and new arrivals Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez.

    Notable veteran members of last year's team such as Chris Kaman, Emeka Okafor, Jarrett Jack and Trevor Ariza are all gone. Instead, New Orleans has been rebuilt with the hopes of building around a Davis-Gordon-Rivers triumvirate.

    The team will be relying heavily on Gordon to carry this team. For all of Davis' promise, he's still a very raw 19-year-old who isn't ready to carry an NBA franchise. Gordon needs to stay healthy and prove himself to be one of the game's best shooting guards.

    He has a solid supporting cast around him but all of these new elements need time to develop and become a cohesive unit. With a healthy Gordon and some lucky breaks, New Orleans could be in the mix for the playoffs.

    If Gordon's body continues to fail him, the former Hoosier will join guys like Grant Hill and Gilbert Arenas among the ranks of talented players who never lived up to their big contracts due to injuries.

    This is a brand new Hornets team from the ownership to the overall approach of the team. That approach starts with a healthy Gordon though. Davis is the future face of this franchise but Gordon is the face of the present. This season, he needs to remove that "if" that prefaces every sentence with his name on it.

Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Hornets

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    The best case scenario for Anthony Davis is that he uses the time spent playing with and against the greatest basketball players in the world in the Summer Olympics to his benefit and becomes a hybrid of Tim Duncan on the offensive end and Marcus Camby on the defensive end.

    It's far-fetched, but what are we supposed to expect from a highly-touted prospect that has been praised as a potential franchise-changer?

    The worst case scenario is Davis becomes more like Greg Oden or Hasheem Thabeet and goes down as one of the biggest busts in NBA history.

    There's plenty of in-between when considering Duncan as Davis' ceiling and Oden as his basement. We know Davis can block shots and be a factor on the boards. His offensive game is decent but it's going to need time to develop before he becomes someone New Orleans can count on in the paint.

    While Davis has been in London, the Hornets have worked to make life easier for the former Wildcat when he returns to the States. With the acquisition of Robin Lopez, the Hornets now have a true center and Davis no longer has to worry about his rail-thin frame going up against the game's best pivot men.

    The team also has Jason Smith and Ryan Anderson to spell Davis when the time comes. Still, Davis is the No. 1 overall pick and the future face of the franchise. Expectations are going to be high for the young big man, especially after fans see what he can do in the Olympics.

    If Davis makes an immediate impact and becomes close to the player many hope he'll be early on, the sky is the limit for him and the Hornets. They already have franchise cornerstone Eric Gordon signed long-term and the Jarrett Jack trade opened up playing time for fellow rookie Austin Rivers.

    The Hornets won 56 games a few years ago with a young shot-blocking big man in Tyson Chandler and a do-it-all guard in Chris Paul. The hope is that Davis becomes a better version of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and that Gordon can fill some of the void left by CP3.

    Davis is the epitome of the term "X Factor." Nobody is really certain what to expect in his rookie season. Will he take the league by storm like he did in his only season in the college ranks or will he need time to develop before he lives up to his potential? It's hard to say.

    All Hornets fans can do is hope that playing with guys who have been in his position for many years will instill a competitive drive for greatness that will turn Davis into one of the league's biggest stars.