Predicting the X-Factor for Every NBA Team Entering 2016-17 Season
In an age of relentless and exhaustive NBA coverage (even in the offseason), a little unpredictability goes a long way. Sometimes, it's just more fun to lay out the scenarios that are harder to dissect, the ones that have seemingly equal likelihood of turning out one way as another.
That includes naming potential X-factors.
The perfect nominee has uncertainty priced in—a wide range of possible outcomes based on general inconsistency, a changed role, injury history or a potential step forward in the case of younger players. These are guys who could make impacts on the margins for better or worse, who could be the difference between the playoffs or the lottery, but who (mostly) aren't conventionally thought of as stars since we know what we're getting from the biggest names.
We'll stay away from top talents as much as possible, instead focusing on the unsung but undeniably important wild cards.
X-Factor: Dennis Schroder
The statistical indicators are good.
By plenty of important metrics, Dennis Schroder was better than Jeff Teague last year. ESPN's real plus-minus had Schroder as a marginally positive contributor (plus-0.57), while Teague checked in on the wrong side of zero (minus-0.69). More persuasively, the Hawks posted a plus-7.8 net rating with Schroder on the floor, while that figure with Teague was merely plus-1.5, according to NBA.com.
Schroder saw lots of time against backups, and those net-rating figures obscure the fact that Hawks point guards spent time on the floor together, propping up or dragging down each others' stats in ways that are much harder to measure.
Nonetheless, the Hawks believe Schroder's time is now. If they had wanted steadiness, they would have just kept Teague. They instead traded him and handed the offense to their 22-year-old spark plug.
Transitioning from his role as a 20-minute adrenaline injection will be tough—Schroeder's game is all bursts and hard charges, brilliant surges and messy wrecks. He'll have to improve his long-range shooting (32.2 percent in 2015-16), gamble less often on defense and take care of the ball. The trick will be doing those things while retaining the aggression that made him valuable as a backup.
With Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver almost certain to suffer age-related declines and Dwight Howard's offensive value depending so heavily on setups from others, Schroder could have more control over Atlanta's fate this year than anyone.
X-Factor: Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart is a special sort of X-factor, as the Boston Celtics aren't depending on him to be the difference between success and failure. With Al Horford on board, great depth and excellent coaching, the Celtics' floor is probably the fourth seed in the East.
But that assured top-end status is exactly what makes Smart so vital. He could be the guy who decides whether Boston meekly bows out against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a conference final...or gives the defending champs a real run.
Evan Turner is gone, which leaves a hole in the facilitating sixth-man department. Smart shouldn't have a problem filling it, but what the Celtics really need from him is shooting that defenses will respect. Emmanuel Mudiay was the only player in the league to take more shots at a less efficient clip than Smart last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And remember how we all pilloried Kobe Bryant for chucking with such obscene inaccuracy? Bryant's effective field-goal percentage still topped Smart's rate of 40.5 percent.
In a perfect world, Smart will improve his shooting enough to prop up the second unit and finish games with the first. And in that world, with decent offense keeping Smart's D and competitive fire on the court when it matters, Boston has a real chance to reach the Finals.
Higher stakes, bigger X-factor.
X-Factor: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
I mean, what's the point?
The idea of an X-factor presupposes there are stakes. It implies there's actual meaning attached. But for the Brooklyn Nets, who owe a 2017 first-round pick swap to the Celtics, there's just no difference between wins and losses this season.
Tanking won't help, and with absolutely no hope of a postseason berth, can we really say anyone on the roster matters?
By default, it's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson then.
He's young, and he missed a big enough chunk of his rookie year to preserve enthusiasm about his potential. Hollis-Jefferson didn't look like a viable offensive player in 29 games last season, but the defensive chops were obvious.
So if he starts, stays healthy and looks like a possible rotation fixture, the 21-year-old forward could provide some hope. That's as good as it gets for Brooklyn here.
X-Factor: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The Charlotte Hornets need someone to offset the backward steps they're likely to take elsewhere.
Kemba Walker is coming off a career season in which he shot the ball more efficiently than ever. Without Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee, Walker will be asked to do more. In addition to added volume generally diminishing efficiency, it's just objectively hard to trust in a one-year accuracy spike like the one Walker enjoyed last time around.
Moreover, Charlotte will be without second-unit scoring hub Al Jefferson.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played just seven games a year ago because of shoulder injuries, but his return could make up for everything else the Hornets stand to lose. An elite defender with infectious hustle, MKG posted a plus-3.1 net rating in 2014-15—a truly remarkable feat on a bad Hornets team that finished with a minus-3.4 overall.
If he supplies everything he did in his last semi-full year (Kidd-Gilchrist still only played 55 games in that 2014-15 season) while sustaining the flashes of improved scoring he showed in 2015-16, the Hornets might actually be better than the 48-win outfit that secured a No. 6 seed in the East a year ago.
Alternatively, if MKG's shot is still busted and his health remains unreliable, Charlotte could be in danger of missing the postseason altogether.
X-Factor: Rajon Rondo
For this to work within the no-star rules laid out earlier, you've got to accept Rajon Rondo's non-star status—which, unless you're trapped in 2008 or really dig raw assist totals, shouldn't be too hard.
It's been years since Rondo was more solution than problem, and he's the guy most capable of plunging this shoddily built Chicago Bulls team into disaster. Dwyane Wade is a pro, and Jimmy Butler has gotten along with ball-dominant guards in the past. If it were just those two trying to work together, there'd be reason for qualified hope.
Rondo is a special ingredient, though. Because he needs the ball, because his game and psychology require that he control the offense; because his volatile personality, defensive indifference (since roughly 2013) and assist-hunting make him a hugely impactful (and/or negative) force, the Bulls effectively signed their fate over when they added him to the roster.
Now, it's possible Rondo will enjoy a renaissance as he tries to prove he's still a useful NBA point guard. Maybe he'll make us forget the time the Dallas Mavericks sent him home in the middle of a playoff series, or the mostly dysfunctional year in Sacramento.
But he's also the one guy on Chicago's roster whom you could realistically envision being waived in January by a Bulls team desperate for better chemistry. It's all on the table.
X-Factor: Kay Felder
The Cleveland Cavaliers treated Kay Felder a little differently from the start, paying $2.4 million for the No. 54 pick just to get him, then signing him to a three-year deal with $1 million in guaranteed money—uncommon for a second-rounder.
Now, with Matthew Dellavedova gone and Mo Williams considering retirement, Felder is suddenly looking like the backup point guard for the reigning NBA champions. Maybe the unusual treatment and the sudden dearth of point guard depth aren't related, but isn't it more likely the Cavs knew they'd be relying on a young option and acted aggressively to get the one they wanted?
Preserving Kyrie Irving will be critical after a deep playoff run, and the rest of the Cavs' top options figure to see nights off as well. That means Felder's role will almost certainly be a big one if Cleveland doesn't seek out a veteran stopgap or trust Jordan McRae to run the offense.
Ideally, Felder's larger role will prepare him to contribute in the playoffs, which is all that matters for a Cavs team eyeing a second title.
X-Factor: Harrison Barnes
If you spend $94 million on a free agent, you probably hope he stays clear of the X-factor discussion—or at least as we've framed it. You want him to be a certain difference-maker, a clear positive. You want him to be a star. Yet here we are highlighting Harrison Barnes, the Dallas Mavericks' biggest free-agent investment in years.
"Whether I'm ready or not, I guess we'll find out starting with the first game," Barnes said, per Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "But I'm willing to put in the work. And that's the biggest thing I've learned from coach [Rick] Carlisle."
That's Barnes saying the right thing, which he always does.
It's the doing that matters, though. And depending on what he does in a much bigger role, he'll either hasten or postpone the end of this particular era of Mavs basketball. Can he do more than shoot open threes from the corner? Will he suddenly reveal the feel and playmaking instincts that were invisible in his first four NBA seasons?
Will he ever make a move without mentally planning it out beforehand?
If the "yes" answers outnumber the "noes," Dallas could push for a playoff spot and give Dirk Nowitzki another chance to enjoy success. But if Barnes is the player he's been all along, the Mavs will struggle to win 40 games.
X-Factor: Emmanuel Mudiay
The Denver Nuggets are one giant collection of X-factors.
Lacking a star and equipped with players who are young, fighting back from injury or both, the spectrum of possibilities for 2016-17 is as wide as anyone's in the league. Point guard Emmanuel Mudiay stands out as an especially important pivot point, though.
He survived one of the worst first halves imaginable and recovered to shoot the ball at a respectable rate in his final 28 games after the All-Star break. During that stretch, he hit 36.4 percent of his threes and 39.3 percent of his shots overall—a significant improvement from his pre-break rates of 27.2 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
With size, athleticism and a trial-filled first season in the rearview, Mudiay could emerge as a net-neutral force in his age-20 campaign. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but a break-even 20-year-old is a big deal. If that's what he gives the Nuggets, everyone benefits.
Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Jamal Murray, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari will all be better with a capable point guard commanding a modicum of defensive respect. And if those members of the Nuggets core have room to flourish, the playoffs aren't out of the question.
Mudiay doesn't need to be great, but he can't be mostly disastrous like he was last year.
X-Factor: Stanley Johnson
You can see the potential whenever Stanley Johnson outmuscles some overmatched wing, outraces a point guard to a loose ball or makes the right read when defenders suck in to stop Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson on the pick-and-roll. They're there: The talent and physical tools to make Johnson a multi-position, two-way contributor.
Unfortunately, Johnson seems to know that.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy laid out the challenge to Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:
He’s as good a competitor as you’ll find in this league, as young as he is. What goes along with that is a stubbornness, to some degree. At times, I’ll be honest—working with him can be a little bit frustrating because of that. He thinks he knows the way to do it.
But also what goes along with that is a guy who just doesn’t give in easily in games, either. He’s just not going to give in. He’s a tough guy. I’d rather have it the way he is than a guy who let’s say is 100 percent compliant but doesn’t get out there and really fight like he does on the court.
Will Johnson accept a little more guidance in his second season? Will he improve his shot selection and drag that ugly field-goal percentage up from 37.5 percent? Will he marry competitive fire with necessary discretion?
A Pistons team hoping to push for a top-four seed in the East sure hopes so.
Golden State Warriors
X-Factor: Andre Iguodala
The Warriors have too many stars controlling the team's fate, which makes it impossible to argue some up-and-comer or fringe rotation talent will make any real difference. I mean, am I really supposed to make a case for James Michael McAdoo as an X-factor on a team with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green?
The pick is Andre Iguodala—not because he's somehow trivial or something less than a star-quality talent, but because his role on the 2016-17 version of the Warriors has only become more important.
When the Dubs were searching for answers in the 2015 Finals and the 2016 Western Conference Finals, they inserted Iguodala into the first unit for his defense and preternatural court sense. In a much larger sense, he'll be the fixer once again.
Much like Green, Iguodala doesn't need to score to contribute. At times, it appears as though he'd prefer to keep the ball moving. With yet another perpetually hot hand to feed in Durant, Iguodala's pass-first mentality and overall intelligence will be critical.
If the great criticism—the looming "there's only one basketball" caveat—of the Warriors is that they've got too many skilled scorers to keep happy...well, Iguodala's unselfish, on-the-margins game is the cure.
X-Factor: Clint Capela
Rim protection is always important, but with the Houston Rockets doing everything in their power to sacrifice defense for offense, Clint Capela's role as netminder is critical.
Last year, Capela's time on the court actually coincided with a lower defensive rating than Dwight Howard's, according to NBA.com. There's plenty of noise in that stat, but at least it's a positive starting point. For the Rockets to survive heavy minutes with Ryan Anderson, James Harden and Eric Gordon on the court together, Capela will have to validate that stat over a larger sample.
Among centers who defended at least as many shots at the rim as Capela last year, the Rockets' new anchor ranked 25th in league field-goal percentage allowed, per Nylon Calculus' rim protection metrics. There's more to good interior defense than contesting shots, but Capela must force misses more regularly if Houston's defense is going to be something better than "mostly embarrassing."
Capela has the bounce and length to improve, but he faces a challenge made doubly hard by head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense-first reputation.
Houston is going to score. Capela is the key to getting stops.
X-Factor: Myles Turner
The Indiana Pacers are laden with known commodities: Paul George is the star, Monta Ellis scores inefficiently, Al Jefferson does lumbering post work, Jeff Teague is pleasantly mediocre at pretty much everything and Thaddeus Young is easily the most Thaddeus Young-like player in the league.
We know who these guys are, and that predictability is why Myles Turner stands out. It's also why he matters so much.
Indy will ask the 20-year-old sophomore to protect the rim and stretch the floor, which, normally, is the kind of thing you can only ask of a select few NBA unicorns. Serge Ibaka has done it, and so has Draymond Green in undersized lineups. Mostly, though, you get one or the other—interior D or outside shooting—from a big man, and that's if you're lucky.
The potential is there, as Jonathan Tjarks explained for The Ringer:
His ceiling is a hybrid of Roy Hibbert in his prime and LaMarcus Aldridge, a player who combines the size and shot-blocking ability of a traditional 5 with the agility and scoring prowess of a stretch 4. That version of Turner makes the Pacers a contender, but that version could still be several years away, if he ever gets there.
OK, so the only thing riding on Turner realizing his considerable potential is contention. And it has to happen fast, because Indiana's core players are otherwise in or nearing the end of their primes.
Los Angeles Clippers
X-Factor: Doc Rivers
You've got to get creative with the Los Angeles Clippers, whose stasis over the past few years basically negates the idea of emerging X-factors. This team's fate, as always, is tied to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan—with J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford factoring in on the fringes. With apologies to Austin Rivers and Marreese Speights, it's just not reasonable to argue anyone else can move the needle.
So how about this: our first X-factor coach!
Doc Rivers has to figure out a way to get more from his familiar personnel. If he can't, the Clips are likely doomed to another year of just-missed-it sub-contender status.
Rivers should get bold, convince Griffin to shelve his ego and utilize the All-Star power forward as a second-unit leader. This isn't a new idea: The concept of Griffin running his own show against backups makes sense, as does letting Paul and Jordan work the pick-and-roll with three long-range shooters spacing the floor.
It doesn't have to be as extreme as removing Griffin from the starting unit though, and considering L.A.'s top three players posted a net rating of plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions when sharing the floor last year, you wouldn't want to scrub that bunch entirely.
But fiddling with rotation minutes so Griffin gets to play point forward with the reserves while Jordan and Paul rest should be a priority. Maybe it's only possible for five or 10 minutes per game, but if it keeps the backups from coughing up leads and better balances the roster, it's worth a shot.
Los Angeles Lakers
X-Factor: D'Angelo Russell
Now I wish I hadn't used a coach for the Clippers' X-factor. Luke Walton's patience in his first season as a full-time head coach will be sorely tested with the Los Angeles Lakers (who are not the autopilot 73-win Warriors he led for half a season last year).
But let's gracefully transition to Walton's starting point guard, D'Angelo Russell, whose first step of second-year growth is done: He's out from under Byron Scott.
"I feel like everybody is all in and with (Walton's) demeanor, mentality and the way he carries himself, the way he supports us, the way he is as a coach, I feel like if somebody walked in the gym and didn’t know who he was, they wouldn’t be able to tell that he was the head coach," Russell said in an interview with Drew Ruiz of Slam (via LakersNation.com). "He doesn’t come off like that. He comes off as a player, honestly, and a vet. I just know that’s the successful way to go in this league."
Russell will run the offense, and his confident demeanor makes it hard for him not to occupy a vocal leadership role. If he responds well to Walton's laid-back approach and leverages his unteachable court sense, Russell could guide a better-than-expected Lakers attack.
The stakes are low here. No matter how well Russell plays, L.A. isn't a postseason threat. But if he slides a notch closer to stardom in his second year, the Lakers will be one step closer to regaining the relevance they've lost over the past few seasons.
X-Factor: JaMychal Green
In addition to me always spelling his name wrong, JaMychal Green is notable for being the only member of the Memphis Grizzlies rotation with an intriguing mix of youth, experience and potential.
At 26, the former D-League call-up is still relatively inexperienced. But he got a crash course in big-minutes after Marc Gasol went down last year, and the rangy power forward averaged 11.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 15 games as a starter. With a developing three-point shot, Green could be a perfect counterbalance to the decline we should expect from an aging Zach Randolph.
Gasol, too, is no sure thing. Coming off a broken foot, he might require longer rest and more preservative nights on the bench.
If Green can log heavy minutes in the frontcourt, stretch the floor a bit and inject some athleticism into a rotation that badly needs it, he could make a major difference for a Grizzlies team trying to put together one last run before the Grit 'n Grind era officially expires.
And if he builds on last year's progress, I'll eventually spell his name right at least two out of three times.
X-Factor: Justise Winslow
Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson should both see more time with Dwyane Wade out of the picture, and Chris Bosh's status will do more to swing the Miami Heat's fortunes than anything else. Bosh, though, is disqualified here because he's a no-questions-asked star when healthy, and neither of those young guards has the potential of Miami's true X-factor.
The pick then is 20-year-old Justise Winslow, a blossoming defensive beast who proved he could play power forward in smaller lineups as a rookie. Already a valuable dirty-work weapon, Winslow could make a huge difference for the Heat if he mixes in more conspicuous contributions.
He needs to score efficiently, in other words, and he will get every chance to prove he's ready to build on his game, per a report from the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson: "Winslow said it was 'great to hear' Pat Riley say he’s ready to start at small forward: 'Even before he said that, I kind of had that in my mind. ... I’m expecting a huge leap in my performance.'"
With an effective field-goal percentage of 45.7 percent last year, Winslow can't help but know where he's got to improve. Jackson reports he's working with a shooting coach this summer. If that stroke reaches respectable territory, the Heat will have an excellent two-way contributor.
And maybe a second pillar to build on next to Hassan Whiteside.
X-Factor: Jabari Parker
If you're discouraged by Jabari Parker's seeming lack of progress, you're not looking at his production hard enough. A cursory glance gives the impression that his second year was almost indistinguishable from his abbreviated rookie campaign. Scoring average, shooting percentage, rebound rate—just about everything from 2014-15 looked unchanged in 2015-16.
But split last year into two sections, and you've got something much different: progress. Milwaukee unleashed him after holding him back, and Parker's efficiency rose along with his usage—no easy trick.
Parker scored 18.9 points per game on 49.8 percent shooting in 36.5 minutes per game after the All-Star break last year. He averaged one three-point attempt per game and converted at a 32.1 percent clip. Before the break, he managed just 11.3 points per game, shot worse and attempted just one three-pointer every seven games, hitting none.
It's best to consider that first half part of Parker's rookie year, while also keeping in mind his recovery from that torn ACL. If second-half Parker is the real one, Milwaukee could easily have a 20-point scorer on its hands. And if his improved three-point shooting allows him to stretch the floor, it will only make things easier when non-shooters Giannis Antetokounmpo or Michael Carter-Williams run the offense.
The Bucks look like a fringe playoff team this season, and Parker's performance will be the biggest factor in making them more than that.
X-Factor: Brandon Rush
Offense was less of a problem than defense for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, but let's just assume Tom Thibodeau's barking and scheming will conjure sufficient stopping power. That leaves a glaring weakness in the Timberwolves' scoring attack that must be addressed: three-point shooting.
Minnesota attempted the second-fewest triples per game last year, converting at the fifth-worst rate. Those numbers need to come up (way up) to justify the playoff optimism surrounding the Timberwolves.
Brandon Rush used to do many things well, including defend, run the floor, attack the basket as a cutter and generally wreak havoc in passing lanes with his length. Knee injuries have largely eliminated those strengths, but an important one remains:
He's a career 40.3 percent shooter from deep.
Thanks to a Harrison Barnes injury, Rush filled in as a starting wing and game-closing power forward during 25 games for the Warriors last year. Golden State didn't miss a beat in those contests, and Rush shot an absurd 49.4 percent from long range during 21 minutes per game as a starter.
Rush can fill a similar spot-duty role for the Wolves this year, and it's exciting to imagine him playing small-ball power forward alongside Karl-Anthony Towns in finishing lineups. His shooting will be vital for a triple-starved team regardless of when or where he plays, but Rush's proven sniping could really make a difference when spacing is at a premium in crunch time.
New Orleans Pelicans
X-Factor: Solomon Hill
Langston Galloway would be a good nominee here, as his role will increase substantially with Jrue Holiday set to miss time to care for his wife, Lauren. But it feels crass to involve Holiday in any basketball talk given the more important real-world challenges he and his family face.
That leaves Solomon Hill, an offseason acquisition from the Pacers who's slated to start at small forward. His positioning is sort of an X-factor within an X-factor, though, as Hill's value is far greater at power forward. If the New Orleans Pelicans insist on using him as a wing, his strength, range and ability to defend bigger matchups will be mostly wasted.
So: Don't blow this first step, Pels.
At the 4, Hill could give New Orleans a five-out lineup with Anthony Davis sliding over to center. There's certainly room to question Hill's reliability as a three-point shooter (he hit 11-of-19 from deep in Indy's playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, but made just 32.4 percent of his treys during the regular season), but he'll still be a real off-the-dribble weapon with conventional power forwards guarding him.
New Orleans' best hope for success is leveraging Davis' athleticism and skill at center, and Hill can help them do that.
New York Knicks
X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis
It might not have been fair last year, when Kristaps Porzingis was such a big part (read: only relevant, meaningful part) of the New York Knicks' season, but now that he's been marginalized by a summer of moves tied to Carmelo Anthony's timeline, KP qualifies.
The trick will be developing in an environment seemingly built to stifle him.
Big cash for Joakim Noah means the Knicks are invested in not slotting Porzingis at center for the foreseeable future, and adding needs-the-ball Derrick Rose will only make it harder to find shots for the 21-year-old Latvian. Suddenly, there are obstacles potentially hindering his rise and major questions about his role.
So, as an X-factor whose production is now far less certain, what exactly does Porzingis stand to influence? In what way can he nudge his team? How can he make a difference?
Maybe we're getting a little philosophical, but the biggest impact Porzingis can make is in the hope category. If he survives this—if he continues to grow, improve weaknesses and display a positive attitude in the face of an organizational direction that basically ignores him—he'll preserve the hope that he really can be the eventual foundational piece.
He'll have to wait until this short-term experiment is over, but maybe it'll all be worth it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
X-Factor: Ersan Ilyasova
When you're the only above-average three-point shooter projected to play in a starting lineup, you're automatically an X-factor.
Ersan Ilyasova and his career long-range conversion rate of 37 percent will be absolutely vital to the Oklahoma City Thunder's offensive scheme. If he's not hitting reliably, it'll be hard to find enough breathing room for Russell Westbrook to attack the rim or run pick-and-rolls with Steven Adams.
What about Anthony Morrow?
Well, for as long as he's been in OKC, the Thunder haven't seen fit to prioritize his historically accurate shooting over the losses his defense creates. You'd think this year, known from now on as 1 A.D. (After Durant), would be the time to make that sacrifice.
But until Oklahoma City proves it's willing to trust Morrow, Ilyasova is the only big-minute player with a three-point stroke. And while it may be controversial to say so, you kind of need decent long-distance shooting to field a viable offense in today's NBA.
X-Factor: Aaron Gordon
It's always good to reserve judgment until seeing how controversial offseason decisions play out on the floor, but it's just so difficult to get past the frustration of the Orlando Magic shoving Aaron Gordon out of the power forward spot.
Serge Ibaka was the Magic's big offseason get, and he has to play. Nikola Vucevic is the incumbent center, and though his defense makes him a liability on one end, he scores enough on the other to earn minutes.
That leaves Gordon—the roster's most promising player and someone beautifully suited to playing a vintage Shawn Marion-at-the-4 role—now stuck on the wing. He's talented enough to make a difference in big minutes at small forward, but his three-point shot is a work in progress, and his obscene athleticism gives him less of an advantage if power forwards aren't futilely trying to stay with him on the perimeter and in transition.
To unlock Gordon's potential and raise the ceiling on a season with pretty minimal expectations as it is, Orlando must come to its senses. If he forces the Magic's hand by dominating in whatever time he sees at the 4 early in the year, all the better.
X-Factor: Joel Embiid
If Joel Embiid isn't the most meaningful unknown in the league, I'm not sure who is.
Think about it: He's the quintessential Result of The Process. If he can't ever stay healthy, or if he turns out to be something less than a franchise-defining talent, the Philadelphia 76ers really just have Ben Simmons and a clean cap sheet to show for their years of deliberate tanking.
(Built into that assessment, of course, is an implicit belief that both Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are more like role-fillers than cornerstones.)
But if Embiid shows signs he can become a dominant center in his first season on the court, suddenly the Sixers' future brightens—and their difficult recent past becomes more a worthwhile sacrifice. A promising year from Embiid might only be the difference between the 76ers finishing last or third-to-last in the East, but as a long-term building block, his value is immense.
What stands out in those videos is not Embiid’s ability to make a stepback jumper or twirl in a reverse layup, but the overall athleticism, mobility, fluidity, and coordination contained in man of his size and strength, capable of making the 10′ rim look nerf hoop while also changing direction like a guard. This is a league that has long been dominated by two-way big men, and history typically remembers them on a first-name basis. Embiid has that ability.
Embiid could justify a highly criticized team-building plan, shift the eventual balance of power in the East, make 10 All-Star games and terrorize the league. Or not.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe
Devin Booker is probably the Phoenix Suns' most important player in terms of the big picture, but oft-injured guard Eric Bledsoe is the guy with the widest range of possible impacts this year.
At best, he'll stay healthy and be the unquestioned alpha in Phoenix, leading the team and organizing the rest of the roster into more appropriate roles. Booker won't have to take on so large a share of the offensive burden in his second year, and the Suns' other young pieces (like rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss) can grow without shouldering responsibilities for which they're not ready.
Bledsoe has been healthy every other year for his entire career. Check his game totals, starting with his 2010-11 debut: 81, 40, 76, 43, 81, 31.
If you subscribe to mostly senseless logic patterns like this, he's due for a full campaign. And if the career bests he posted in scoring, assists and PER last year are any indication, it could be a very good one. Then again, guys who keep missing big chunks of seasons don't tend to ditch that trend as time goes on.
A healthy Bledsoe gives the Suns a chance to avoid the West's cellar, while another injury-hit season exposes them to a finish below the Lakers.
Portland Trail Blazers
X-Factor: Festus Ezeli
To an even more severe degree than Bledsoe, Festus Ezeli's career has been defined by injuries.
He missed all of 2013-14, then played just 46 games during each of the past two seasons. Having already undergone a bone marrow aspirate injection in August, which will sideline him six weeks, it's difficult to be optimistic about Ezeli playing a full year.
But it's easy to see how valuable he is to the Blazers.
When on the floor and healthy, Ezeli is a terrific rim protector, an elite offensive rebounder and an intimidating physical specimen. There were times last season with the Warriors (before his body broke down) when Ezeli capably switched out onto a guard on one possession and then erased a shot at the basket on another.
If he's right, the Blazers have a game-changing interior defender and a perfect garbage-point producer on the offensive boards. He might even be a more dangerous lob finisher on the pick-and-roll than Mason Plumlee, who played all 82 games and finished 86 dunks last season. (In only 46 games and far fewer minutes per contest (16.7 to 25.4), Ezeli had 68 slams.)
A totally lost season wouldn't be new for Ezeli, though. If he's sidelined, the Trail Blazers will struggle to defend at anything above a bottom-10 level—which would make it difficult for them to better their 2015-16 win total of 44.
X-Factor: Ben McLemore
Let's pretend for a moment that we didn't spend last year watching Ben McLemore regress across the board. Let's also imagine the Sacramento Kings didn't go out and spend in free agency to add wings Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes because McLemore is no longer part of the team's core rotation.
If we suspend all of what we know, and we assume new head coach Dave Joerger (McLemore's fourth in four years) can work some magic, isn't there a way to see the struggling shooting guard as a meaningful piece of Sacramento's roster?
There have always been hints of potential: McLemore looks the part of a starting shooting guard. He elevates on his jumper, his form is pretty, he has some spring and good size.
So let's just stay optimistic and imagine the difference he might make in yet another wayward season for the league's most wayward franchise.
A career year from McLemore could push that Sacramento win total as high as 38. Hooray, Kings!
San Antonio Spurs
X-Factor: Danny Green
Replacing Tim Duncan with Pau Gasol suggests the San Antonio Spurs are happy sticking with the bigger, slower, more conventional frontcourt lineups they leaned on last year.
For that plan to produce better results, Danny Green needs to hit more than 33.2 percent of his threes.
That shouldn't be difficult—Green made at least 41 percent of his shots from long range in every season since 2011-12 until last year's strange accuracy plunge.
If 2015-16 was just a blip and not an indication of San Antonio's more deliberate style stifling his game (or, perhaps worse, a sign Green has just lost his touch), the Spurs should enjoy better spacing and a more dynamic offense.
San Antonio's stylistic change is real, though. LaMarcus Aldridge fundamentally altered their attack, creating more isolation sets, more post-ups and fewer tic-tac-toe drive-and-kick actions. If Green just can't function in an environment like that, the Spurs could struggle to score consistently.
X-Factor: Norman Powell
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry might struggle to repeat career seasons, Bismack Biyombo is gone, post-injury DeMarre Carroll may never be the same again and the Toronto Raptors were actually a little lucky to win 56 games with a plus-4.3 net rating last year. In other words, there are some reasons to expect regression.
Fortunately, Norman Powell might be good enough to offset it.
After quickly establishing himself as the Toronto Raptors' best perimeter defender and shooting 40.4 percent from distance (that sound you hear is skeptics shouting "outlier" after Powell hit 31.4 percent in college; we'll ignore them), the rookie saw his role grow as the Raps advanced in the playoffs.
If his shooting growth is real, Toronto has an ideal stopper and floor-stretcher to play alongside DeRozan, who does neither of those things. And Powell's rise makes mostly irrelevant the scenario where Terrence Ross never develops any consistency.
Of course, if Powell isn't a developing three-and-D stud, we could see the slippage elsewhere knock five or 10 wins off Toronto's total.
X-Factor: Trey Lyles
Maybe this is a hasty designation, as Utah wasn't a postseason participant last year and hasn't been with its current core. But with a roster this deep and talented, it's difficult to find anyone informed who doubts Utah's playoff destiny.
This is why Trey Lyles, a change-of-pace offensive talent whose shooting and off-the-dribble offense set him apart from defensive stalwarts Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, matters so much. When postseason opponents have full series to adjust and attack weaknesses, there may be times when a Gobert-Favors tandem isn't an option—like, say, against the Warriors in a hypothetical second-round matchup.
The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks explained:
The Jazz still need to figure out whether a Gobert and Favors frontcourt can work in the grind of a seven-game playoff series, when opposing teams can expose the lack of spacing in their half-court offense. Lyles is the answer to that question, and the more chances he’s allowed to demonstrate his considerable talent, the higher their ceiling is as a team.
At 6'10", Lyles' 38.3 percent stroke from deep sets him apart on Utah's roster. And at just 20 years old, he's got nothing but upside.
X-Factor: Andrew Nicholson
You know how the Washington Wizards have been pining for a forward who could shoot the ball and defend a little bit? They may have found one in Andrew Nicholson, according to Matt Moore of CBSSports.com:
Nicholson was one of my free-agent steals before it all got rolling, and Washington got him at a great price. Offensively, Nicholson is just as capable as Patterson—he struggles in isolation coverage, but within a system, he's very good, ranking in the 93rd percentile defensively via Synergy Sports.
Washington finally broke up the Nene-Marcin Gortat pairing, as the former now plays for Houston. Adding Nicholson in free agency gives the frontcourt a new look, even if Ian Mahinmi's presence means conventional two-big lineups may not be gone entirely.
A 36 percent shooter beyond the arc last year after never topping 32 percent, Nicholson must prove his expanded range is legitimate, and he'll have to do it behind Markieff Morris in the rotation. If he offers more space for John Wall to navigate in the pick-and-roll, it'll juice Washington's offense. And if he spends time on the floor with Bradley Beal, the Wizards will have two deep shooters for defenses to respect.
There's a chance Nicholson makes a major difference by providing something Washington hasn't had, which could lead to a deep playoff run in the jumbled East. It's also entirely possible his shooting dries up and he falls out of the rotation.
He's got range in more ways than one.