It’s no secret that the NBA’s biggest stars—like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant—are the barometers of team success. However, key X-factors within contending teams playing rotations are often the difference makers over the long haul of an 82-game season.
While NBA All-Stars will be expected to play at a high level to keep their respective teams in the playoff picture, unsung heroes will aim to make an impact that is just as meaningful.
J.R Smith (who won Sixth Man of the Year with the New York Knicks), Paul George (who stepped up in Danny Granger’s absence by becoming an All-Star and Most Improved Player with the Indiana Pacers) and Larry Sanders (who evolved into a shot-blocking specialist and defensive force with the Milwaukee Bucks) were all major X-factors for their respective teams a season ago.
Now a new collection of players will try and follow in their footsteps.
Predicting the NBA’s biggest X-factors for the 2013-14 season will rely on targeting players who are either poised for a breakout year, or put in a position to contribute toward a bona fide contender.
A season ago, the Portland Trail Blazers bench finished dead last in points (18.5) and minutes (13.3) per game, according to Hoops Stats. No player in Portland’s second unit averaged more than 6.9 points per game.
The Trail Blazers are a talented team, but having literally zero bench presence put an absurd amount of pressure on the starting five. Now that the front office used the 2013 offseason to build a viable second unit, Portland is a legitimate playoff hopeful.
For the Trail Blazers to make the postseason in the loaded Western Conference, however, their bench full of X-factors has to produce.
Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Robin Lopez—who will likely start and move Meyers Leonard to the bench—are six notable additions. At the very least, those players should be able to take Portland’s bench from worst in the NBA to middle of the pack.
Head coach Terry Stotts finally has a second unit he can trust. If the numerous X-factors off the bench can gel with the starters and embrace their roles, Portland may sneak into the playoff picture in 2014.
A 2013 offseason haul of Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert creates a more dynamic supporting cast around Dirk Nowitzki when compared to Darren Collison/Mike James, O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.
The true X-factor for the Mavs moving forward, though, is their new point guard.
Calderon certainly isn’t amongst the league’s best at his position in terms of defense—the best defensive rating he’s had in his career is 108. However, the Spaniard has proven himself to be one of the league’s most consistent point guards on the offensive end of the floor.
Over the course of eight seasons, Calderon holds career averages of 12.7 points and nine assists to go with 48.3 percent field goal shooting and 39.9 percent three-point shooting. He’s a tremendous distributor who can also knock down the three-ball.
In addition to averaging 8.6 assists between the Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons, Calderon shot a career high 46.1 percent from downtown during the 2012-13 campaign. He shot a scorching-hot 52 percent from long distance after getting traded to Detroit (28 games total).
He’ll be a huge upgrade in Dallas considering that Collison couldn’t keep his starting job over Mike James a season ago. An NBA journeyman, James played just 15 total NBA games in three seasons prior.
If Calderon can knock down outside shots while setting up Nowitzki, Ellis, Shawn Marion and others for easy looks, the Mavericks are a serious threat to snatch a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
As a best-case scenario, Calderon will be a poor man’s Steve Nash.
Given that Deron Williams is the on-court leader and alpha dog of the Brooklyn Nets, it may seem odd to see him predicted as an NBA X-factor.
Nonetheless, D-Will is the engine that makes the Nets run. He’s the true barometer of team success.
Throughout the first month of last season, Williams shot 38.8 percent from the field and 26.9 percent from three-point range. Despite the worst slump of his career, the Nets jumped out to an 11-4 record (seven of those wins came against lottery teams).
In the following month (December), Williams’ struggles continued. He shot 40.8 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from downtown. His assists per game dipped to 6.4, and the Nets finished the month with a 5-11 record (all five wins came against teams that missed the playoffs).
Williams played like his former self for the remainder of the season, and the Nets finished with a 49-33 record (good enough for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference).
Now, with the additions of future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Williams has the supporting cast necessary for a championship run. However, if he doesn’t play like the top-five point guard he’s been in the past, the Nets won’t be able to beat teams like the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
Brooklyn has talent littered throughout its starting lineup, but Williams has to be the X-factor who leads the supporting cast to a specific comfort level.
Without Kevin Garnett for the first time since 2006-07 and Paul Pierce for the first time since 1997-98, Jeff Green will have the added responsibility of becoming a key X-factor for the Boston Celtics and new head coach Brad Stevens.
Adjusting to basketball without Pierce and Garnett will be tough for Celtics fans, but if Green can build off a stellar postseason performance, the transition will be much easier to stomach.
After posting meager averages of 12.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game during the regular season, Green exploded in the six-game series against the New York Knicks. He averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.
If the 27-year-old forward can come close to matching that output over the course of the season, coach Stevens will have a valuable weapon at his disposal.
Green’s production will be infinitely more important now for two major reasons.
First, he’s become one of the most experienced players on the roster following offseason trades, so he needs to step up as a leader. And second, Rajon Rondo will likely miss the start of the season as he recovers from an ACL tear, according to Matt Moore of CBS Sports.
He needs to keep Boston's head above water until Rondo returns.
After winning the 2010 Rookie of the Year award for averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game, Tyreke Evans has regressed statistically in three straight seasons.
He needed a change of scenery in the worst way, and finally got it this summer by joining the New Orleans Pelicans via sign-and-trade.
The former Memphis product has played point guard, shooting guard and small forward throughout his four-year career with mixed results at all three positions. At this point, we’re not entirely sure how the Pelicans coaching staff intends to use him.
One source said that the Pelicans plan to use Evans off the bench in a Manu Ginobili-type role, according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News.
In another article by Deveney, Evans was quoted as saying, “Whatever role I am playing, I am definitely looking forward to it. I am going to go out there and play hard and try to win games.”
Evans clearly has no problem coming off the bench for New Orleans, but he may not have to. Deveney also wrote that head coach Monty Williams hasn’t ruled out the possibility of starting Evans at small forward next season.
Even though the 23-year-old doesn’t translate very well as a small forward, the Pelicans could certainly use him there due to a lack of depth at the position. The only other options New Orleans has at small forward are Al-Farouq Aminu, Darius Miller and Lance Thomas (who have six years of NBA experience combined).
Regardless of how Evans is used within the system, he’ll be a major X-factor for the Pelicans’ playoff aspirations.
It’s appropriate to have Harrison Barnes at No. 6 on this list, because chances are he’ll be the Golden State Warriors sixth man next season.
By signing Andre Iguodala in free agency, the projected starting five in the Bay Area appears to be Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iggy, David Lee and Andrew Bogut. Barnes seems to be just fine with that lineup.
According to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the former North Carolina Tar Heel said, “My role will remain the same—do whatever it takes to win. Whether it is starting, coming off the bench. There are plenty of minutes to be divided up among everybody. I just have to make sure I am ready.”
Despite being just 21 years old, Barnes has the mentality of a seasoned veteran. Unlike numerous other players around the league, his ego isn’t going to get in the way of team success.
Of course, now that Barnes is likely moving to the role of sixth man, he’ll be a huge X-factor in terms of replacing departed pieces.
Jarrett Jack (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Carl Landry (Sacramento Kings) were two integral parts of Golden State’s success a season ago. Barnes won’t have to replace their production by himself (Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights and Jermaine O’Neal will also contribute), but he’s the guy who needs to set the tone in the second unit.
Barnes had a breakout performance in the 2013 postseason, averaging 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. He’ll look to build off that success during 2013-14.
Even though Chris Paul’s arrival has morphed the Los Angeles Clippers from NBA laughingstock to playoff contender, the Clips haven’t won a single playoff game past the first round in two seasons.
A big reason for that is the supporting cast.
DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are two of the most athletic big men in the game, but they’re also raw from a basketball standpoint. Griffin has made great strides to improve his overall game, but Jordan hasn’t.
Last season, Jordan attempted a grand total of 25 shots outside of the painted area. He only made eight of those attempts (32 percent).
In addition to having an offensive repertoire limited to nothing but highlight-reel dunks, Jordan is a completely inept free-throw shooter. After shooting a career-best 52.5 percent from the charity stripe in 2011-12 (still not a number to be proud of), Jordan’s free throw production plummeted to 38.6 percent.
Because the Clippers center is such a poor free-throw shooter, the coaching staff has had no choice but to bench him in crunch time for fear of losing close games.
Additionally, despite Jordan’s imposing frame, his defensive impact has been negligible.
Last season when the big man was on the court, the offensive rating of opponents was 107.7 points per 100 possessions on 51.8 percent shooting, according to Basketball Reference. When he was on the bench that number dropped all the way to 101.3 points per 100 possessions on 46.4 percent shooting.
So there are really two reasons why he doesn’t see court time at the end of the close games.
If the Clippers intend to compete for a championship in the near future, Jordan will have to greatly improve his impact at the free-throw line and the defensive end of the court.
Perhaps new head coach Doc Rivers can speed up the 25-year-old’s development. But good or bad, Jordan will be a gigantic X-factor for Lob City.
The majority of reasonable NBA fans never expected Jeremy Lin to channel his magical run of “Linsanity” again after signing a three-year, $25 million deal with the Houston Rockets last summer.
Lin, however, reportedly thought that he had to live up to that same hype.
According to an article by Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated, quoting a speech Lin gave to a youth conference in Taiwan, the former New York Knick said that he became “obsessed with trying to be Linsanity.”
Lin also admitted to feeling frustration and anxiety after coaches started to lose faith in his abilities to lead the Rockets out of the backcourt.
Honestly speaking, the Harvard product does not have to carry the Rockets at all. With James Harden and Dwight Howard on board, all Lin has to do is play efficient basketball and contribute to the overall product.
Although his first season in Houston was mediocre compared to other starting point guards around the league, Lin played all 82 regular season games and averaged 2.9 turnovers per game (fewer than the 3.6 he averaged in NYC the season before).
He became a cult icon in New York for his meteoric rise to fame, but now he needs to temper his own expectations and simply be a steady X-factor for a championship contender.
Jimmy Butler made tremendous strides during his sophomore year in the NBA, and he’ll be a huge X-factor for Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls moving forward.
“Jimmy Buckets” received more than three times as many minutes per game in his second season with the Bulls compared to his rookie year, and for good reason. Check out his numbers as a rookie compared to those he notched a season ago:
2011-12 (Rookie): 8.5 minutes, 2.6 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, 40.5 percent field goal shooting, 18.2 percent three-point shooting.
2012-13: 26.0 minutes, 8.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.7 percent field goal shooting, 38.1 percent three-point shooting.
It’s obvious that Butler would put up more points, rebounds and assists with more minutes, but he raised eyebrows with the improvements he made shooting the ball. He went from a complete non-factor of an outside shooter to a legitimate three-point threat in a year’s time.
In 12 postseason starts, Butler averaged 13.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 40.5 percent from long range and taking on tough defensive assignments like LeBron James.
Moving forward, the youngster out of Marquette appears to have solidified the Bulls’ starting shooting guard spot, according to an article by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
The return of Derrick Rose will likely overshadow any news coming out of Chicago. However, the coaching staff has big plans for Butler.
Look for him to be a difference maker on both ends of the court with a breakout year.
Very rarely do NBA coaches get dismissed from their job mere weeks after winning Coach of the Year honors. Nevertheless, that was the state of affairs for George Karl when the Denver Nuggets decided to fire him.
Karl said of the decision, “We won 57 games and are in a great place. Continuity, consistency, togetherness all are so much more valuable than what they have on their priority list of playing JaVale McGee or the young players,” according to an article by Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post.
He went on to say, “I’m sorry that 57 wins doesn’t make you happy.”
Of course, to be fair, the Nuggets did suffer a demoralizing first-round playoff loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors (who played all but 30 minutes of the series without David Lee).
Regardless, the decision to fire a successful head coach in favor of giving McGee more minutes is head-scratching. Again, we’re talking about JaVale McGee, the player who essentially founded TNT’s segment “Shaqtin’ a Fool.”
Management is taking a huge risk by embracing McGee over coach Karl. As an X-factor for the Nuggets moving forward, the big man has the power to make the front office look either really smart or really dumb.
He’s an athletic player with loads of potential, but he still needs to embrace the fundamentals.
NBA analysts have said it again and again, but the Oklahoma City Thunder truly tied their hands by executing the James Harden trade.
In place of the bearded one, OKC now has Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. That’s it.
I’m not saying that Lamb and Adams are hopeless NBA busts, but they are complete unknowns in the NBA at this juncture.
Instead of trying to keep Harden at all costs, the Thunder signed Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million deal. He’s led the league in blocks for two consecutive seasons, which is nothing short of phenomenal. However, Oklahoma City needs the shot-blocking specialist to become a more dynamic offensive talent.
The big man from the Congo has improved his jump shot by leaps and bounds, and it’s showing up on the shot chart. According to Vorped.com, Ibaka shot 50.3 percent on 310 mid-range jump shots during the 2012-13 season. He even shot 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, which is better than some NBA guards (looking at you, Corey Brewer).
But even though Ibaka showed the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers with regularity, the added weapon in his repertoire only improved his scoring average by four points per game (13.2 points vs. 9.1 the season before).
OKC needs Ibaka to assert himself more on offense in order to make up for the scoring output Harden took south to Houston.
It certainly didn’t help that Ibaka averaged just 12.8 points per game in the postseason. He needed to pick up the slack and score more points with Russell Westbrook sidelined, but his highest scoring game in the playoffs was 17 points. Obviously that didn’t cut the mustard.
Ibaka will continue to be giant X-factor for OKC’s title aspirations, especially with hindsight of the Harden trade.