Culture of Hoops

NBA Season Preview: Top 10 X Factors


Atlantic: Celtics | Nets | Knicks | 76ers | Raptors |Division Preview
Central: Bulls | Cavaliers | Pistons | Pacers | Bucks | Division Preview
Southeast: Hawks | Hornets | Heat | Magic | Wizards | Division Preview

Pacific: Warriors | Clippers | Lakers | Suns | Kings | Division Preview
Northwest: Nuggets | Timberwolves | Thunder | Trail Blazers | Jazz | Division Preview
Southwest: Mavericks | Rockets | Grizzlies | Pelicans | Spurs | Division Preview

Top 10 by Position: PG | SG | SF | PF | C
Top 10 Lists: Sixth Men | Sophomores | X-Factors | Rookies | Games to Watch | Comeback | Contenders | Breakouts

Articles: Assessing the Cavaliers Trio | Important Season for James Harden | Return of Paul George? | Trading Rajon Rondo | Are the Nuggets This Season’s Suns? | NBA’s Best Starting Five | NBA’s Worst Starting Five | Now or Never for Durant and Thunder After Injury

Fantasy Basketball: Top 10 PGs | Top 10 SGs | Top 10 SFs | Top 10 PFs | Top 10 Cs | Sleepers, Studs, and Sinkholes | Analyzing the Schedule | BMF Mock Draft | Cavs and Cav-Nots | Like A Bosh | Rajon Injury Impact

Media Day: Clippers | Hawks | Kings | Knicks | Magic | Mavericks | Nets

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Predictions are really, really hard to make. I was responsible for writing last year’s top 10 X factors lists, and avoided looking like a complete idiot, but definitely wish I could take a few of those back. This season is going to be a doozy as well, although many of the important narratives are similar.

10. Health

Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Paul George (out for season), Dwyane Wade, Jru Holiday, Eric Bledsoe, Russell Westbrook and many other franchise changing players have injury concerns coming into the season, and every fan base is total denial about the issues of “their” guy. For example, Chicago Bulls fans believe in the hype despite legitimate reasons to be concerned about Rose’s health and current level of play (he did not perform well during the FIBA World Cup). Temper your expectations for injured stars (*cough* Kyrie Irving *cough*).

Hopefully, this season will be relatively healthy so we can see the most fun outcome for basketball aficionados.

9. Vince Carter

Half-man, Half-amazing is now One Reliable Swingman. As he lost the athleticism that made him a perennial All-Star, Carter adjusted his game to play solid defense, hit open jumpers, and turn back the time machine once a month because, sometimes, people need a reminder of what can do.

The Memphis Grizzlies have long been in need of a consistent three-point shooter, as well as someone who can create their own shot. The 2013 Western Conference Finals feels like they happened a century ago, and the front office’s impatience threatens to unravel the team’s cohesion. In the best case scenario, Carter is the missing piece the Grizzlies need to the next step into the NBA Finals.

8. Head coach of the New York Knicks, Derek Fisher

Phil Jackson‘s other protege, and first choice for the job, Steve Kerr could be listed here as well. Outside of running the Triangle Offense, no one knows what to expect from Fisher as a head coach. The New York Knicks could surprise a lot of people this season. The X’s and O’s are important but the Knicks blew a chance to make the playoffs last year even though they had the talent on the court.

The legendary Triangle should alleviate some of the continuity issues on offense. Fisher always prioritized defense as a player and this should be reflected as part of his coaching philosophy. He also has the advantage of seeking knowledge from the Zen Master, an advantage in any situation. I’m sure there’s a scenario in the multiverse where the Knicks miss the playoffs, but we don’t live in that reality.

7. DeAndre Jordan

Here’s an excerpt of what I had to say about Jordan last year.

… he still does not average ten points or ten rebounds, and his free throw percentage last year was 38.6 percent. That is not a typo. In fact, I was sure it was a typo when I was looking it up. It’s not. How the hell could you justify playing him in the fourth quarter? Right now, you can’t, which is why he only averaged 24.5 minutes per game despite being one of the most athletic guys in the league. New head coach Doc Rivers will need to find a way to squeeze more production out of a guy with this much potential.

Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers successfully played Jordan late in games without hurting the team. Jordan’s per 36 numbers actually went down, but his presence on the floor was a big reason why the Clippers enjoyed their most successful season in franchise history. The best season in franchise history doesn’t mean much for this team; they need to exceed expectations immediately.

Jordan’s contract expires at the end of the 2014-15 season, and there’s no guarantee that he will return because he can sign for a max deal as an unrestricted free agent.  Success is defined by advancing in the playoffs, and the wrong matchup in the Western Conference could put any title contender out of the playoffs in the first round. The West is a cruel mistress.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have shown their worth. There are no more excuses for the six-year veteran. Jordan will show he can take the Clippers over the top or he will be gone.

6. Rajon Rondo

I already covered the Boston Celtics odd handling of Rondo, but here’s a snippet in case you missed it.

Rondo is the lone ranger without a commitment despite being underpaid once he signed a 5 year, $55 million deal so that he and the Big Three could stick together as long as possible after winning the 2008 NBA Finals. That hasn’t stopped Wyc Grousbeck, principal owner of the Celtics, from questioning how “coachable” Rondo is, or made the organization feel some responsibility to squash the rumors that Rondo made up a false injury so he could avoid playing the start of the season.

Rondo is going to be traded this season. The Celtics have already made contingency plans through the draft. If a contender trades for Rondo, all hell could break loose. The situation bares watching, but I couldn’t put Rondo higher than number six because the Celtics are just as likely to trade Rondo to Houston Rockets as they are to send him to the Sacramento Kings.

5. Will the Cleveland Cavaliers gel in time for the playoffs?

If this is any indication, it’s starting pretty well so far.

That sort of outlet pass is what pundits were salivating over when the trade rumors began. LeBron James‘ first years with the Miami Heat were a fast break blitzkrieg that few teams were capable of slowing down. This year’s Cavaliers could be even more deadly because of better point guard play. Chemistry issues dogged Cleveland, but no one is going to question the leadership of James. The ship has its captain and everything else should fall in order, right? It should be that simple although things rarely go as planned.

4. Lance Stephenson

No matter how you feel about his antics, you can’t deny that Stephenson has game. He had a valid case to be considered an All-Star and was the Indiana Pacers’ second best player during the team’s second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Thanks to overblown concerns about his attitude, Stephenson was low-balled in free agency, and ended up signing a 3 year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. Good for Charlotte.

They now have an elite perimeter defender with a great feel for rebounding, and an ability to get his own shot for nearly half the suggested retail price. Besides, he’s not going to act out with Michael Jordan sitting a stone’s throw away from the court. This signing could push the Hornets to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in this iteration of the team’s history. Stephenson will fill most of the dire needs the Hornets had last season. It’s a good time to be a Hornets fan.

3. Chandler Parsons

Sexy man extraordinaire Chandler Parsons on the scene.

Besides his dashing good looks and eccentric fashion sense, Parsons replaces Vince Carter on the roster as a younger, more productive swingman for the Dallas Mavericks. His defense leaves something to be desired, but he’s no worse than serviceable at every other skill on the floor. The Mavericks believe in his upside as evidenced by the lucrative 3 year, $45 million contract signed by Parsons this summer.

Dirk Nowitzki only has a few years left in the tank, and the Mavericks have pushed all of their chips to the middle of the table. Tyson Chandler was re-acquired in a trade with the Knicks to anchor the defense, and reestablish his role as a leader in the Mavs’ locker room. Parsons is supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle, and should excel with Nowitzki, a star who actually doesn’t mind passing him the ball.

2. Luol Deng

Deng’s value in free agency this summer fluctuated wildly depending on who you asked. Critics would point out that the Chicago Bulls did not need Deng after Butler started to develop, and the he did not help the Cavaliers’ chemistry issues once he was traded to the team. Others will fairly point out that the Chicago Bulls did not want to keep Deng anyway, and it took LeBron James returning to Cleveland to quell the flames of discontent in the Cavaliers’ locker room. The numbers say that Deng was having the best statistical season of his career, and then the numbers dipped once he was traded. The Miami Heat believe in the positive spin of those numbers and signed him to a 2 year, $20 million deal.

One of the best players of all-time leaving a franchise is devastating no matter what, but there is not a small forward in today’s game more suitable to fill the hole than Deng, considering what the Heat need: someone who can guard the opponent’s best perimeter player (to avoid additional wear and tear on Wade), high basketball IQ, and a reliable offensive option when called upon. The only other player who fit the bill in free agency was Lance Stephenson, but that was never going to happen because of, you know, basketball reasons.

If Deng provides his normal production, the Heat could advance to their fifth consecutive Finals appearance. Yes, it is possible.

1. What is the Thunder’s crunch time lineup?

We are entering seventh year of the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook era. This is basically a make or break year for the core of the team, and it might not be the fault of the superstars.

Serge Ibaka has been a force of nature on defense, and vastly improved his jumper over the years – he is what he is and that’s a very good player. Reggie Jackson is a decent back up guard, but he’s inconsistent and too small to play with Westbrook for many matchups. After Ibaka and Jackson, what do the Thunder have? Seriously think about this: The San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Thunder from the playoffs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, a game in which now head coach Derek Fisher played 33 minutes. The problem is that the Thunder don’t have a lineup to use when things get hairy. This forces a lot of pressure on Durant and Westbrook to be exceptional at all times in order to compensate for the lack of talent.

Last season, I listed Jeremy Lamb as an X factor because he was expected to step up in a big way. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Someone else has to become a role player capable of stepping up in big moments. I don’t have a candidate based on the Thunder’s offseason acquisitions. The front office has decided to let the players and coaches figure it out which is probably a bad idea. Durant’s contract is up after the 2015-16 season. If this season ends for the Thunder short of the Finals, Durant will desire some sort of change before entering the last season of his contract. Firing Scott Brooks and hoping the next guy fixes what ails the team in one season is a poor prospect, but that’s where we are now.

Oklahoma City fans, enjoy Durant while he’s there. This ride won’t last much longer unless some unforeseen changes take place.

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