One Critical Key for Every NBA Team to Thrive in 2012-13 Season
As good as some NBA teams may look on paper, nothing is ever decided until the leather hits the hardwood.
Even with a Hall-of-Fame roster like the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat appear to have, nothing is guaranteed in the world of sports.
Be it injuries, team chemistry, outside-the-court distractions or just the rigors of a grueling season, for a team to win an NBA championship, a lot of factors have to go their way.
Even for the teams who are likely years away from championship contention, expectations are laid out that can only be achieved with a little bit of luck and a tremendous amount of hard work.
For every NBA team to achieve even some sort of success, these are the critical keys each must meet in the 2012-2013 season.
Critical Key: Kemba Walker's Emergence as a Leader
2011-2012 Record: 7-59
The Bobcats will be better than last season, this much is clear.
How much better will largely depend on their new starter at point guard, Kemba Walker.
New coach Mike Dunlap is pushing Walker to be a leader on a young Bobcats squad that won just seven games last season. Only 22 years of age, Walker may be young, but is actually three years older than Charlotte's newest lottery pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Putting up nice averages of 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game primarily as a backup, Walker's downfall was his poor shooting.
Only shooting a paltry 36.6 percent from the field last season, Walker must prove he can be a more efficient scorer if he truly wants to become a leader this year.
Critical Key: Bradley Beal Becoming a Reliable Second Option
2011-2012 Record: 20-46
Beyond John Wall last season, the Wizards were a whirling mess of inconsistency.
Besides Wall, 20 different players suited up for Washington last season, with 11 cracking the starting lineup at some point or another.
The second leading scorer was Jordan Crawford, who shot a less than impressive 40 percent from the field and only 29 percent on three pointers.
The teams third and fifth leading scorers, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, were both traded off during the season, leaving Wall to carry even more of a load.
With the addition of Beal, the Wiz may finally have a reliable second scorer and staple in their starting lineup. Beal and Wall should work well together, as they have different game styles that will help take the pressure off one another.
Beal was the best possible pick for the Wizards, and should begin to show why almost immediately.
Critical Key: Developing the Young Talent
2011-2012 Record: 21-45
The Cavs are setting themselves up nicely for a bright future.
With four top-17 draft picks the past two years and a possible six picks in the 2013 NBA draft, Cleveland has a plethora of young talent and picks that they can choose to keep or package in a trade.
Kyrie Irving is already a stud, Tristan Thompson showed great potential and rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller will help to fill huge holes from last season.
Cleveland dabbled in the Andrew Bynum trade talks for awhile, but ultimately pulled out, likely due to Bynum's reluctance to sign a long-term deal when traded.
It looks as if the Cavs will keep their young talent base intact for now, and should enjoy watching it grow and develop this season and beyond.
New Orleans Hornets
Critical Key: Austin Rivers' Play at Point Guard
2011-2012 Record: 21-45
Anthony Davis will be fine.
The real concern in New Orleans should be about their other rookie, former Duke shooting guard Austin Rivers.
Thought to be a bit on the small side for an NBA shooting guard, Rivers is now being asked to play quarterback for the Hornets this season and in the future.
A couple stats say he might struggle in this role.
The first is 71. This is the total number of assists Rivers recorded in his one season at Duke in 34 games, or 2.1 per game.
Not exactly Chris Paul-like numbers.
The second is 79. This would be the total number of turnovers Rivers had, or 2.3 per game. No starting point guard in the NBA last season had more turnovers than assists.
Teammates like Davis and Eric Gordon should help those assist numbers go up, but Rivers has a long way to go to even be an above-average point guard in the league.
Critical Key: Defense, Defense, Defense
2011-2012 Record: 22-44
One of the more dangerous teams in basketball on the offensive side of the ball, the Kings boast the NBA's sixth-best offense at 98.8 points per game.
This is all well and good, but sadly means little when you allow over 104 points in those same games.
Sacramento has zero rim protectors on the team, and their leader in steals is actually center DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins, Marcus Thornton, Tyreke Evans and rookie Thomas Robinson are all fantastic scorers, but none can be relied upon as a one-on-one defender.
Giving up over 1000 more total points than the Chicago Bulls last season, Sacramento has to find a way to slow down opponents, or all their offensive prowess will be for naught.
Critical Key: Finding the Brook Lopez of 2009
2011-2012 Record: 22-44
Yeah, yeah, the Nets have a fancy new arena and spiffy new uniforms, but what about Brook Lopez's rebounding?
Lopez burst onto the NBA scene in 2008, and in just his second pro season in 2009-2010, put up stat averages of 18.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
What's happened since is a mystery to many, as Lopez's rebounding numbers have gone from 8.7 to 5.9 to 3.6 the past three years.
Naturally, Lopez received a maximum contract of four years and $60 million this offseason. The Nets tried desperately to get Dwight Howard to replace him, but eventually settled for Lopez, overpaying drastically.
If Lopez can return to his 2009-2010 form, the Nets can be a top-three team in the Eastern Conference. If his rebound numbers continue to decline, the Nets may have made a $60 million mistake.
Golden State Warriors
Critical Key: Keeping Andrew Bogut on the Court
2011-2012 Record: 23-43
It's easy to forget just how effective Bogut can be on the basketball court.
The former No. 1 overall pick in 2005, Bogut has played in all 82 games exactly one time in his seven-year career.
Playing just 12 games for the Milwaukee Bucks last season, the Warriors rolled the dice on a trade that sent Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for the hobbled big man.
As of October 3, Bogut was cleared for layup drills and light jumping while recovering from an ankle injury according to his ESPN player page.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes are all fine players, but none have the impact on both sides of the ball that Bogut possesses.
Golden State needs a healthy Bogut to make the playoffs this season.
Critical Key: Protecting the Paint
2011-2012 Record: 23-43
Thanks to Dwane Casey, the Raptors are now one of the better defensive teams in the NBA.
If they struggle in one area on defense, however, it's protecting the rim. Last season, the Raptors were just tied for 17th in the league in blocked shots, despite ranking ninth in points allowed per game.
Among the team's big men, only Amir Johnson averaged more than one block per game. Andrea Bargnani may be the team's leading scorer, but the next time an opposing player fears going up against him will be the first.
Enter Jonas Valanciunas, who, at 6'11", blocked 3.2 shots per game while playing in the 2011 U-19 World Championships.
The added offense of Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross will be nice, but it may be the defense of Valanciunas that makes the biggest difference for the Raps this season.
Critical Key: Making Brandon Knight into a True Point
2011-2012 Record: 25-41
With Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Rodney Stuckey and Knight, the future of the Pistons is bright.
In a point guard-driven league, however, Detroit's offense may be grounded if they can't find someone to get the ball to their talented bigs.
Knight is the most likely candidate, although he's more of a combo guard at this point. The now second-year man out of Kentucky tied for the team lead last season with a measly 3.8 assists per game.
As a team, the Pistons were 28th in the NBA in assists per game and 27th in points per game.
Any scoring from Knight should be a bonus at this point, as Detroit will do their best if Knight focuses on getting others involved first and his own shooting second.
Critical Key: Rubio and Roy's Recovery
2011-2012 Record: 26-40
The Timberwolves were looking like a playoff team last season until rookie Ricky Rubio (say that three times fast) tore his ACL.
Now on the recovery trail, Rubio is expected back in game action as early as December. His passing is already among the league's best, even if his shooting (35.7 percent) isn't quite up to par.
Brandon Roy is another crucial element to the T'Wolves attack, coming out of retirement after numerous knee surgeries. A career 19.0 point per game scorer, Roy has reportedly looked good so far and has suffered no setbacks.
Kevin Love may be enough to keep Minnesota afloat early, but the Wolves will need Rubio and Roy healthy for the long run to have a shot at the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers
Critical Key: Finding a Reliable Center
2011-2012 Record: 28-38
Meyers Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. Together, the three of these players make up all the talent Portland possesses at power forward and center combined.
While Aldridge and Hickson have already been named starters, it's Leonard that Portland should work to develop most this season.
A one-year starter at Illinois, Leonard is an extremely athletic 7'1". He can already block shots and rebound, and has an ever-growing offensive game.
With the center woes the Blazers have had lately, Leonard will be viewed as a savior if he can develop into the kind of player his potential tells us he can be.
If Leonard and fellow rookie Damian Lillard turn out to be the real deal, Portland will be in the playoffs as early as next season.
Critical Key: Keeping Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis Happy With One Basketball
2011-2012 Record: 31-35
36. That's the number of shot attempts that Jennings and Ellis averaged last season with the Bucks.
For reference, that 36 was out of an average of 85.6 shots per game attempted as a team, or 42 percent of the team's total shots.
That means the other ten members of Milwaukee's team averaged less than nine shot attempts per game while Ellis and Jennings were at exactly double that number with an average of 18 apiece.
In other words, the Bucks backcourt likes to shoot.
This is all fine and dandy, except if one has to accept taking less so that the other can more comfortably play their game.
The victim in this should be Jennings; as a point guard, he should be collecting more than his career number of 5.4 assists per game.
If both can keep their high number of shots without hurting the other's game, the Bucks will be a tough team to stop offensively.
Critical Key: Michael Beasley Finally Living Up to Draft Hype
2011-2012 Record: 33-33
Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose? Such was the dilemma the Chicago Bulls faced heading into the 2008 NBA draft.
While Beasley was the better fit for their roster at the time, I believe it's safe to say they made the right choice in selecting Rose.
Not to say Beasley has been a complete bust, but the former Kansas State star has largely disappointed in his four pro seasons, and didn't even receive a qualifying offer from the Minnesota Timberwolves this past summer.
Part of a large Suns roster overhaul, Phoenix will need Beasley's scoring and athleticism to compete in a loaded Western Conference.
Critical Key: Jeremy Lin Proving He's Worth the Money
2011-2012 Record: 34-32
Lin went from New York darling to overpaid bum in what seemed like a matter of weeks.
Such is the life of a professional athlete.
The fact is, we don't know how good of a point guard Lin is yet. His overall skill set screams that of an average player, yet the magic we witnessed in those few February weeks was simply unexplainable.
For those doubting Lin, now is his chance to prove the haters wrong. Instead of looking up and seeing Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony running alongside him, Lin will have Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones and Omer Asik.
This drop-off in talent will test Lin's ability, and may ask him to do more scoring than he's used to as well.
Lin must prove he's worth the money and have a big season for Houston to make any noise at all in the West.
Critical Key: Evan Turner Turning Into a Star
2011-2012 Record: 35-31
After winning a playoff series for the first time since 2002-2003, the 76ers naturally traded away their best overall player.
OK, so they got Andrew Bynum in return, but losing Andre Iguodala hurts. The Sixers need someone to step up and take his place and provide a reliable second scoring option to Bynum.
The most likely candidate? Turner, who is now entering his third pro season.
This should be a crucial year for the former Ohio State star, as he enjoyed his breakout season in his third college year as a junior with the Buckeyes.
Turner, like Iggy, can play either wing position and help out a number of different ways on the court.
Expect Turner's minutes, and production, to rise.
New York Knicks
Critical Key: Point Guard Play
2011-2012 Record: 36-30
Say what you want about Jeremy Lin, but the Knicks played their best basketball last season when a true point guard was running the team.
Now that Lin is gone, can new signee's Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd carry the load?
Felton will be the likely starter and performed well in New York in his first go-around, putting up career highs of 17.1 points, 9.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game. With Portland last year, his numbers dipped to 11.4 points, 6.5 assists and 1.3 steals per contest.
Kidd should help out too, assuming he stays away from the clubs.
Critical Key: O.J. Mayo Becoming a Star
2011-2012 Record: 36-30
Perhaps the best value signing of the 2012 free agency period, Mayo landed in Dallas on a two-year, $8 million deal.
As a sixth man with the Memphis Grizzlies last season, Mayo chipped in 12.6 points per game in just under 27 minutes a contest.
Dirk Nowitzki is now 34 years of age, and lost buddies Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to free agency. Deron Williams gave Dallas a polite "no thanks" and draft night pick Tyler Zeller was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for three lower picks.
Dallas needs a second star now more than ever.
A fill-it-up scorer, Mayo needs to develop into a solid second scoring option in Dallas for the Mavericks to stop their fall in the Western Conference.
Critical Key: Mo Williams Channeling His Inner Chris Paul
2011-2012 Record: 36-30
During his days in Cleveland, Williams was the starting point guard, and even made an All-Star team.
He also had some help in the passing game by some guy who moved to Florida.
It remains to be seen if Williams is capable of playing like a true point and not just a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body.
The Jazz are extremely thin at the point and have even been trying second-year man Alec Burks at the position, despite him being a natural two-guard.
On a team loaded with frontcourt talent, the Jazz need Williams to focus on his distributing for them to make the playoffs again.
Critical Key: Every Other Team Contracting Swine Flu
2011-2012 Record: 37-29
Orlando is not going to be a good team in 2012-2013.
Despite having some talent on the roster, there's just no intimidation factor in Orlando anymore. Glen Davis may be an intimidating force at the Hometown Buffet, but not in an NBA starting lineup.
The best thing the Magic can do is to rid themselves of veterans and bad contracts, and get back what draft picks and young talent they possibly can.
Hedo Turkoglu isn't a face you can put on the cover of a media guide anymore. A giant J.J. Redick banner outside the arena won't draw a huge walk up crowd.
Orlando isn't going to thrive this season no matter how you look at it, but they can set themselves up for a successful future.
Critical Key: Ty Lawson's Continued Rise to Stardom
2011-2012 Record: 38-28
The Nuggets have been a team without a true star since trading Carmelo Anthony, but all that may be about to change.
Lawson, the former UNC star, put up 16.4 points, 6.6 assists and a 19.4 PER last season while starting all 61 games he played in for the Nuggets.
This season should only be better, as Denver added another weapon for Lawson to pass to in Andre Iguodala.
The Nuggets are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA to watch with their high pace of play and talented young team. Lawson may not be a star yet, but he's certainly on his way.
Critical Key: Rebound, Rebound, Rebound
2011-2012 Record: 39-27
Give the Celtics credit; they realized their greatest weakness in 2011-2012 and used their two first-round picks to fix it.
A horrid rebounding team last season, Boston was actually last in the league with 7.7 offensive rebounds per game.
Enter Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two big men from power college basketball programs who should help Boston clean the glass. Sullinger was a double-double machine at Ohio State and enjoyed a nice Summer League with the Celtics.
With Kevin Garnett nearing his last legs, Sullinger and Melo will have to help Boston rebound from their awful showing on the glass last season.
Los Angeles Clippers
Critical Key: Making Free Throws
2011-2012 Record: 40-26
The Clippers did a lot of things right last year and as a result, made it to the Western Conference Semifinals.
One area of difficulty for them came at the free-throw line, where they struggled mightily.
Ranked 29th out of 30 NBA teams, LA shot a putrid 68 percent from the charity stripe, highlighted by DeAndre Jordan's 33 percent conversion rate.
It may only get worse for the Clips as they lost three of their best free-throw shooters (Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Nick Young) this offseason.
If the Clippers can stop losing points at the line, they could also make a leap in the Western Conference standings.
Critical Key: Strong Guard Play
2011-2012 Record: 40-26
Atlanta made one of the best moves this offseason, simply by trading one of their best players away.
Dumping Joe Johnson's hazardous contract on the Brooklyn Nets was a stroke of genius by general manager Danny Ferry, the same man who ruined the Cavs with the big deals of Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones.
With Josh Smith and Al Horford still under contract, the Hawks should figure to have strong play from their forwards and center.
The real question mark resides in the backcourt, where Johnson left an 18.8 point per game scoring hole that needs to be filled.
Newcomers John Jenkins and Anthony Morrow are pure shooters, and free agent signee Lou Williams should bring some good energy off the bench.
Will all this be enough to replace Johnson? Probably not, but at least now the Hawks can afford to improve their roster if needed.
Los Angeles Lakers
Critical Key: Dwight Howard's Back
2011-2012 Record: 41-25
Howard may raise questions about his fashion sense, but his talent on the court is undeniable.
Still not fully recovered from back surgery in April, Howard has been a go at practices involving contact and could very well be ready for the start of the regular season.
This is crucial for the Lakers. Without Howard, LA would likely be forced to move Pau Gasol back to center where he played whenever Andre Bynum was hurt or suspended. That would also likely mean a move to the starting lineup for Antawn Jamison and as a result, a shallower bench.
A big man with a bad back is bad news.
Hopefully for the Lakers, Howard will continue his recovery and not suffer any setbacks.
Critical Key: Zach Randolph Returning to Form
2011-2012 Record: 41-25
The Grizzlies have their core players all locked up to multi-year deals, but they may not rise or fall as much as when they depend on Randolph.
Missing 38 games last season with injury, Randolph had his lowest scoring average since his rookie year, and Memphis was knocked out in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
A star against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 postseason, the Grizzlies need a healthy and productive Randolph for them to play at their best.
If he can return to the form he displayed in 2011, expect Memphis to reach 50 wins and home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Critical Key: Believing They're the Best in the East
2011-2012 Record: 42-24
The Pacers may not have been the best team in the conference last season, but they nearly knocked out the team that was.
At one time up two games to one on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Pacers came crashing back to earth and were instead eliminated in six games.
Besides the playoff experience, the Pacers should have gained a tremendous amount of confidence that they can use going further.
Indiana shouldn't just hope to be a third or fourth seed in the East, they should expect to be the best.
Critical Key: Health
2011-2012 Record: 46-20
For the defending champions, there's not a whole lot of work that needs to be done.
One concern for them moving forward could be health.
Not exactly the youngest of teams, Miami saw Dwyane Wade miss 17 games last season with multiple injuries. Chris Bosh also missed extended time in the playoffs with an abdominal strain that saw Miami struggle mightily against the Indiana Pacers.
New free agent pickup Ray Allen missed 20 games with the Boston Celtics last season with bone spurs in his ankle that greatly affected his play in the playoffs.
Miami from a talent standpoint may have everything they need, they just have to make sure it stays on the court.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Critical Key: The Play of Kendrick Perkins
2011-2012 Record: 47-19
When thinking of the Thunder's plethora of talented players, Perkins isn't exactly the first name that comes to mind.
Acquired via trade for Jeff Green in 2011, Perkins was supposed to be the defensive anchor the young Thunder needed. He brought with him toughness, rebounding and a championship ring from Boston.
At least, that was the plan.
Perkins has been a shade above dreadful for OKC, and his struggles would be publicized more if not for the team's success.
In the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Perkins chipped in a meager 4.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game on 43 percent shooting. He was often outplayed by backup Nick Collison throughout the playoffs, and may soon be in danger of an amnesty cut if he can't return to his Celtics form.
Critical Key: Playing .500 Basketball Without Derrick Rose
2011-2012 Record: 50-16
One of the best teams in the NBA the past few seasons, the Chicago Bulls will likely have different goals for 2012-2013.
With star point guard Derrick Rose out with an ACL tear until possibly March, Chicago will need others to step up if they want to even make the playoffs.
While it's unrealistic to expect Chicago to be at the top of the standings without their best player, they should instead set a goal of playing at or around .500 basketball.
If they can hang around .500, which should be good for a late playoff seed by itself, until Rose gets back, that would be a nice accomplishment.
Adding Rose to an even mediocre team could elevate them to a lengthy playoff run, and hopefully a top seed in the East the year after.
San Antonio Spurs
Critical Key: Role Players Stepping Up
2011-2012 Record: 50-16
As the Spurs continue their transition from past to future, they can no longer count on Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to carry the team themselves.
San Antonio does have some capable bodies. Kawhi Leonard is already a good defender who can do a little bit of everything on the offensive end. DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Patrick Mills and Gary Neal all averaged over nine points per game and should continue to grow and develop with the team.
This is still a championship-caliber team, but the Spurs won't even make it out of the first round unless their young role players step up.
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