‘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.
ANDREW BOGUT, C, Golden State Warriors
Last season: 30.3 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 14.92 PER (12 games)
It seems everyone has the Warriors on the top of their sleeper list for the upcoming season. I agree, for the most part, that they will fulfill their share of sneaking up on teams this season. But one key element in making that happen is a healthy, productive 7’0 center named Andrew Bogut. Bogut, traded to Golden State last season, never actually suited up for the Warriors due to injury, so we really don’t know what to expect of him early on. It will take time to get his game legs back and gel with his new teammates. The optimal situation would have Bogut averaging a double double with close to 2 blocks per game and being a reliable defensive anchor on a team that will surely attempt to outscore opponents every game (despite Mark Jackson’s “defense first” philosophy). After the Warriors experienced the collapse of Andris Beidrins and the growing pains of Ekpe Udoh at a high volume of minutes at center last season, they will gladly welcome an established veteran in Bogut. The hard part? He has to get on and stay on, the basketball court.
BLAKE GRIFFIN, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 36.2 MPG, 20.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 23.50 PER
Griffin claims to be 100% and ready to go for the season. He was an elite power forward last year and even though it’s only year two, he’s one of the more consistent producers in the league on a nightly basis. So why then, is Griffin the “X-Factor” on what certainly seems like a loaded Clippers squad this season? Simply, he can be EVEN better. What we see every night from Griffin isn’t even his ceiling yet. Despite the dunks and double doubles, Griffin’s growth (particularly his leadership) is what will put this Clippers team into “serious contenders” talk. His aggressive and explosive nature already give him an advantage on other 4′s, but fine-tuning things like free throw shooting, shot selection and the inept timing of some of those out of control, predictable spin moves will bring Griffin even closer to his peak. I definitely agree that the Clippers have some very nice pieces in place (although Billups, Odom and Crawford aren’t getting younger), it’s Griffin’s shoulders that will steer the direction of this franchise.
DWIGHT HOWARD, C, Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 38.3 MPG, 20.6 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 24.29 PER
I refuse to go there. “There” being the entire summer of #Dwightmare. He’s a part of this team now and he’s THE part that will make or break the championship hopes of the Lakers. Kobe and Pau will be fine once again, Nash will be a breath of fresh air, Metta World Peace will be… well… Metta World Peace. Without Dwight, the Lakers are not a contender, it really is that simple. For the Lakers interior, he will be the hard-nosed, defensive ying to Pau Gasol’s smooth operating, jump shot taking yang. This very moment is the time for Dwight to get serious for a title run. The Lakers aren’t necessarily a deep team, so he’ll be counted on for huge minutes at “defender of the year”-like quality. Losing will not be acceptable this season, just ask Mike Brown. Reports right now are saying that he will be ready for the start of the season, so that’s already a good start.
GORAN DRAGIC, PG, Phoenix Suns
Last season: 26.5 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 5.3 APG, 18.03 PER
I’m sure the Suns are of the mindset that Kendall Marshall is their future at the point guard position. However, we’re talking about this season and about a Goran Dragic that worked his way back to Phoenix from Houston, following the Steve Nash departure. By refusing to share time with Kyle Lowry (who also departed) in Houston, Dragic forced the hand and now has big pressure on him in Phoenix as the expected starter for a team that’s not expected to be very good. He’s running the show and it’s time to perform. I’m not quite as down on the Suns as some are (I’m expecting 30-35 wins), but a lot depends on Dragic’s ability to run this team. He’s definitely shown flashes in a starting role, but can he maintain for a full season? The question will be answered quickly, as it’s put up or shut up time for Dragic.
TYREKE EVANS, SF, Sacramento Kings
Last season: 34.3 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 16.48 PER
Based on projections from his rookie season, shouldn’t this guy be a superstar by now? That’s a very complicated question when it comes to Tyreke Evans. With all the potential in the world, it seems he has a bit of an identity crisis. He’s often in between positions (is he a point guard, shooting guard, small forward?) and confused about what role to play (scorer or playmaker?). With so many young pieces on this team, Evans is practically a veteran now. As the depth chart stands now, it looks like Evans will slide into the small forward spot, even though his height will suggest otherwise on certain matchup. A gifted scorer, Evans has often been heavily criticized about his shot selection and “me-first” attitude. Although their record didn’t reflect it, the Kings were one of those dangerous young teams last season. To go from dangerous to respectable (especially in the West), Evans will have to implement a better team-first approach, while working on his efficiency. Lord knows, he has the physical gifts… just ask him.