For many, the return of NBA action on Christmas Day is the best present they could have wished for. The lockout is a distant memory. Fans just want their basketball fix again.
As usual, the NBA regular season opens with no shortage of intriguing storylines. Every team has questions that need to be answered. How will Kobe's divorce and injury impact the Lakers? Can Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts fill the shoes of Lamar Odom? Is Mike Brown in over his head?
No, the Lakers are not the center of the NBA universe. Actually, maybe they are.
I'm just making a point. As good as the Lakers are, look at all the question marks. Everyone of those issues threatens the success of their team.
All 30 NBA squads have similar unknowns facing them. No team, with the exception of maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder, is without serious questions that need answering.
One such question is, "Who is our most important player?" Not the best player, but the most important. They might be a defensive role player or a scoring spark off the bench.
Maybe it is the best player. It's different for every team.
This player will have the biggest impact on his team's success, similar to a linchpin—or a keystone.
Without this player, the team would fall apart.
I've focused this article on the NBA's Eastern Conference. Here are my picks for the players that will have the biggest impact on their respective team.
It seems odd to see Richard Hamilton in the red, white and black colors of the Bulls. At first glance, you might do a double-take. His mask and headband or unmistakable, though.
His offensive skills are equally unmistakable. Hamilton's talents are akin to the great Reggie Miller. He runs around until he gets open, then rains down jumpers. He's even developed a better three-point shot.
Hamilton is not the young spark plug he was when the Detroit Pistons traded for him in 2002. Although he can still score, he's shown some signs of wear and tear.
He also showed some signs of locker room drama last year. Granted, the Pistons' coach was horrible, but Hamilton was still out of line. Despite what he says to the Chicago media, he did have a problem with John Kuester.
Chicago needs Hamilton to give Derrick Rose a hand in the scoring department. The Bulls were beaten in the playoffs because they had no other consistent scoring threat.
The addition of Hamilton is essential to the Bulls advancing in the playoffs. If he plays nice with coaches and accepts his role, he might be the difference between a finals birth and an early playoff exit.
The Indiana Pacers improved enough last year to squeak into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they did not improve enough to make any noise. They were dumped in the first round by Chicago.
Looking to take another step forward, the Pacers signed former All-Star David West.
West will take some of the scoring load off Danny Granger and Darren Collison. He averaged over 18 points and seven rebounds a game with New Orleans last year.
There's no question he makes the Pacers a better team.
But concerns abound. His season was cut short last year after he tore a ligament in his knee. He had surgery and rehab but the question is going to be there: How will he bounce back?
West has played for one team his entire eight-year career. He played with Chris Paul six of those eight years. His scoring average went from 6.2 points a game without Paul to 17.1 with him.
Will West be the same player with the Pacers that he was with the Hornets? That is the million dollar question for Indiana.
The answer will likely make or break their season.
Stephen Jackson has been around the NBA block. He's playing for his eighth team in 11 years.
You could say there's only been one constant in Jackson's career: His ability to put the ball in the basket.
What people don't realize is that he's actually a well-rounded player. He's always been a good defender. He's also an above-average passer and playmaker. His only weaknesses are rebounding and turnovers.
But he has been involved in his share of shenanigans over the years. Maybe that's why he's moved around so much.
The Bucks signed him because they desperately needed scoring. Their defensive game is good, but they were the lowest-scoring team in the NBA last year.
Not surprisingly, they watched the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes last season.
In Brandon Jennings the Bucks have an exciting, young player. Regardless, they were the most snore-worthy team in the NBA last year. If there is one thing Jackson is not, it's snore-worthy.
No question, the Bucks will benefit from his scoring.
Perhaps his energy is what this team needs the most.
Two years ago, the Pistons made two big free-agent signings: Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Today, those deals look absolutely dreadful. Neither player has lived up to their billing.
Detroit is rebuilding and has some exciting young players, but they are not quite ready for prime time. If Gordon or Villanueva can return to form, the Pistons could surprise some people this year.
In my opinion, Gordon has the skill set the Pistons need the most. He could make the biggest impact.
Honestly, he wasn't given the opportunity to showcase his talents under former coach John Kuester.
Lawrence Frank is running the show now. Gordon has a clean slate and will be given the chance to succeed.
The Pistons need him to provide a serious scoring punch off the bench. At his best, he can shoot high percentage from three-point range and create scoring opportunities off the dribble.
A dominant Gordon could be the difference between a playoff birth or the bottom of the Central Division for the Pistons.
The New York Knicks signed Chandler to bring some defensive intensity to their team. That's quite a load to put on one player.
Last year, the Knicks played defense about as much as MTV plays music videos. Which is to say not very often.
The Knicks are placing high expectations on Chandler's effect on the club. Sure, he will immediately bring a defensive presence in the middle. But one player cannot carry an entire club defensively.
It will be up to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire to also lead by example and improve their games defensively.
Coach Mike D'Antoni is known for his offensive mind and his teams usually win because of it. He will also have to adjust how he approaches the game if he hopes the team will buy in.
Regardless, it all starts with Chandler.
The Mavericks signed him for the same reason as the Knicks. It worked out for them. I'm sure the Knicks are hoping for a similar outcome.
The latest news is that Brook Lopez could miss three weeks or three months with a broken bone in his foot. The injury was suffered during the Nets' final exhibition game.
Lopez—whether he plays or not—has a huge impact on the Nets and several other teams. Here's why:
1. He is the Nets' starting center and their second-best player. Without him for an extended period of time, their season would be over before it even started.
2. Lopez was the key piece in the Dwight Howard to New Jersey deal. Without him, the deal is dead.
3. Would this keep Howard in Orlando? If so, they would make the playoffs again. If not, the playoffs would be a long way off.
4. If Howard would seek a trade elsewhere, would the Lakers rumors start again. With Kobe out, Lamar Odom gone and a new coach, the Lakers might be forced to make a desperate move.
The Lopez injury sends ripples throughout the NBA. It likely affects the fortunes of many teams. Especially with the shortened season, the Nets don't stand a chance of going anywhere without him.
They signed Mehmet Okur Friday to fill in while Lopez is out, but his career has been in decline for three years. It's doubtful he can fill Lopez's shoes.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Yes, they have two conference titles and one championship—in four years. For any other team that would be great. For this Celtic team, it's a disappointment.
This should be Rondo's year. Actually, it might have to be.
The Celtics lost newly-acquired Jeff Green for the year, Glen Davis left for Orlando, Shaq retired, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen aren't getting any younger and Paul Pierce is already having problems with his pesky heel.
Despite Rondo's status as one of the best point guards in the league, the Celtics tried to trade him for Chris Paul before training camp. They called out his maturity and questioned his ability to lead.
As everyone knows, that trade fell through. Now Rondo is their point guard again.
Can you say "awkward"?
The window is quickly closing for the Celtics. This could be their last realistic chance at another championship with this core of players.
Rondo factors huge in that. They can't do it without him. If he is able to put the trade controversy behind him—and play at an elite level—the Celtics can beat anyone.
Tracy McGrady isn't going to push the Atlanta Hawks to the level of Boston, Miami, New York or Chicago. He could give them enough offensive spark to at least equal their first-round playoff victory last year, though.
It all depends which T-Mac they get.
With the Pistons last year, it took him half the season to get his legs back. He only played in 65 games in the two seasons prior.
When fatigue was no longer an issue, he was effective. He even played a little point guard for Detroit.
He was also front and center in the team mutiny against John Kuester. Not exactly what you'd expect from a player brand new to the team.
His attitude, work ethic and health are all concerns, but the Hawks will likely be in the playoff picture. This could keep McGrady interested and invested in giving a strong effort every night. He's still got some tricks up his sleeve. He could really provide some offensive punch off the bench.
I could even see him as a surprise Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
If the Hawks falter early on, though, don't expect McGrady to motivate the team with his inspired play.
Those guys are the core and the reason why the Heat will be in the Finals again this year. They are also picked by just about everyone (except John Barry) to win the championship this year.
They might, but they were supposed to win last year, too.
Eddy Curry was signed in the offseason. Initially, I thought it was a horrible move. I said as much in this article.
The more I think about it, though, Curry could really push this team over the top. He won't be relied upon for major minutes, I'm sure. There really are no expectations for him.
Which is a new situation for him.
Playing for Miami—with the players I already mentioned—might prove to be the motivation that Curry always needed.
He's always had the talent. He just lacked the drive.
He's only 29 years old and he's the only legitimate center the Heat have. Curry is in the best possible situation for him to be successful. If it is ever going to happen, now is the time.
If he responds, the Heat will be unstoppable.
This one is very simple. If Dwight Howard remains with Orlando for this season, they will challenge for the Eastern Conference title.
If he leaves, they will not.
That's a pretty big impact, isn't it?
Kemba Walker is a dynamic player. His speed and quickness off the dribble are matched by few, and his leadership was evident at UConn.
He's also got a competitive drive that's been compared to Michael Jordan—the Bobcats' general manager and the man responsible for drafting him.
Walker is undersized and not a true point guard, but he is a playmaker. He won't be in the starting lineup at the beginning of the year and how he and D.J. Augustin co-exist will be a big storyline.
Walker won't be held back for long, though. He is their future.
The Bobcats are not contenders, regardless of how he plays. However, if Walker has a rookie-of-the-year type of performance, their season would likely be viewed as a success.
At the very least, positive energy would replace the negative.
In other words, a great year from Walker could point the franchise in the right direction and get people excited about basketball in Charlotte.
The Toronto Raptors could double as a European All-Star team. Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Leandro Barbosa and Linas Kleiza all call Toronto home.
But it is DeMar DeRozen who will impact the success of the Raptors the most. He is poised for full-fledged NBA stardom.
Last year he broke out—improving his scoring average from 8.6 to 17.2 points per game. He's not a complete player yet, though.
He needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumper and work on shot selection.
This is his third year as a pro. This is the time when a lot of players take the next step forward. His next step is scary good.
The Raptors have some interesting pieces in place. If DeRozen takes the next step—and the European quartet stays healthy—they could be a playoff team.
Like several other teams in the NBA, the Cavaliers are clearly rebuilding. They got that process off to a great start by drafting Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
He is the face of their rebuilding project and the new King of Cleveland.
So far he's been the star of camp, but he's a rookie on a bad team. Let's temper our expectations.
Regardless of how well Irving plays during the regular season, the Cavs will likely be a lottery team again.
Like Kemba Walker, if Irving has a rookie-of-the-year type season, his impact will be great. Not necessarily on wins and losses, though.
His performance will go a long way in helping the city of Cleveland get over their grief, forget about LeBron and learn how to enjoy NBA basketball again.
Once considered washed up due to an Achilles injury with the Clippers two years ago, Elton Brand had a bounce-back year last season.
His contributions helped the young 76ers put together a surprisingly competitive season. They played with Miami for five games in the first round of the playoffs.
The continued development of Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams are key to the team's continued success.
Brand has the potential to push this team to even greater heights, though. I'm not saying they could defeat Miami, but who knows?
Philadelphia's coach, Doug Collins, loves Brand and finally put him in a position to be successful. He also asked him to drop some weight in the offseason.
Which Brand did.
This could result in Brand regaining some of the explosion he's lost the last two seasons. Look for Brand to have an even better year in 2012—and look for the 76ers to make some noise in the East.
The Wizards are a rebuilding team with a couple of nice pieces to the puzzle already in place.
This is John Wall's team. There is no question. He's the superstar and the face of the franchise.
Blatche is limited on defense. This is where Javale McGee comes in. Yes, he is young and raw, but he's shown flashes of dominating defensive skills.
Consistency is the issue.
With another year under his belt, McGee could be on the verge of a breakout season. Like other players on this list, his performance will not push the WIzards to a playoff birth, though. They'll still be at the bottom of the Southeast Division.
His ascension as a dominant defensive force will improve the Wizards dramatically, though, and impact their future success tremendously.