‘NBA X-Factors’ is a six-part series that highlights each team’s most integral player for the upcoming season. Even though the success of each team goes far beyond an individual player, one guy can often shape how a team functions. Whether it be factors such as team chemistry, nightly expectations, injuries, how the offense flows, the way the defense is anchored or even the franchise’s identity as a whole, often it can be linked to the performance of one player. It may be a new addition to the team via free agency, the draft or a trade. It may be a key player returning from a major injury. It may be a young player whom the team is still counting on for a breakout season or a savvy veteran still trying hard to cast aside the doubters. These focal points can come in any form. I’ll dive into each of the six divisions and break down one player on each team that I feel is most critical to their opportunity for success this upcoming season.
AL HORFORD, C, Atlanta Hawks
Last season: 31.6 MPG, 12.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 19.02 PER
When he’s on the floor, Al Horford is one of the more efficient, well-rounded centers in the Eastern Conference and has made a couple of All-Star appearances as proof. However, reader Wesley Morton once pointed out that ”it’s unfair to compare him to centers.” Really? Should we compare him to point guards then? Regardless of that nonsense, Horford is considered an above-average center and will continue to perform consistently as long as he plays in the majority of the Hawks games. Given the roster was completely turned upside down in the offseason, it’s hard to pinpoint any of the new guys (could make a small case for Lou Williams) to be X-Factors. With Horford’s presence, the team at least has a chance as a postseason run, without him, they are in the lottery. We’ve been down the Zaza path before, it’s bleek.
MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST, SF, Charlotte Bobcats
Last season (at Kentucky, 40 games): 31.1 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG
Surely the Bobcats won’t break NBA history once again and duplicate their .106 winning percentage from last season. I like that they did add some veterans in Haywood, Gordon and Sessions to blend with the insanely young roster of a year ago. That should make them better, albeit only slightly. With those three ultimately being of the role player variety, the true improvement of this team, now and long term, rests on the shoulders of their #2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Expectations will be high, but given MKG’s versatile skill set and relentless hustle, he should keep the Bobcats in a few more games this year and will certainly make them more bearable to watch, perhaps even exciting. Time will tell if this is Michael Jordan’s smartest decision yet, though it looks like it before the season tips off.
RAY ALLEN, SG, Miami Heat
Last season: 34.0 MPG, 14.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 14.83 PER
We all know exactly what the NBA Champion Miami Heat are… juggernauts. The team hardly needing fixing and is basically unchanged from last year, other than adding a couple of former teammates (on the cheap) named Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, you might have heard of them. Of course LeBron, Wade and Bosh are the focal points and will get theirs. Allen is the true X-Factor and with him, the Heat addressed one of the areas that they’re generally slammed for, their outside shooting. Who knows how far back the broken Mike Miller comes back and if he’ll be able to contribute at all? Even though Ray is well past his peek, the open looks he’ll get with the playmaking and command drawn by the “Big Three” (man I hate using that) makes them even more dangerous, if that’s even possible.
AARON AFFLALO, SG, Orlando Magic
Last season: 33.6 MPG, 15.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 14.76 PER
With the way the Magic’s roster has changed over the past couple of months, you could literally pick an “X-Factor” out of a hat. This franchise will be in trouble this year. Big Baby Davis needs to come into camp in shape, Jameer needs to play steady, Reddick needs to step forward and of course, you never know what to expect from Hedo. That’s why I think the real star of this team needs to be Aaron Afflalo. Already a terrific defender, Afflalo’s offense has gotten progressively better in each of his first five seasons, with his point totals looking like this: 3.7, 4.9, 8.8, 12.6 and 15.2. Based on that trend, he should make another leap this year. He did get a pretty generous contact in Denver, but he has a chance to prove that he’s worth even more this year as the potential face of the new-look Magic franchise and launch himself into the conversation of the premier guards in the East. He’ll certainly get to know them up close and personally when he’s in their face every night.
EMEKA OKAFOR, C, Washington Wizards
Last season: 28.9 MPG, 9.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 15.13 PER (27 games)
True story: I lost $500 on this game last season when the Washington Wizards decided to put up one of the most prolific shooting barrages the NBA has ever seen while visiting Portland. I watched, I almost cried, I could barely breathe. My point is, that was the ’11-12 Wizards, a careless, zero expectations crew that could string together a ridiculously lucky offensive performance every few weeks. This season, they NEED defense. I’ve encountered people of the opinion that the Wiz are a potential sleeper and have a shot at snagging a bottom playoff seed. To do that, they need a full, consistent season from Emeka Okafor. Yes, Nene absolutely has to play the same way, as well as the young fellas that make up the bench in Booker, Seraphin and Vesely. But Okafor must revisit the Charlotte Bobcats version of himself and get back near that double double player he once was. Although if Wiz are terrible again, no one will be shocked.