NBA X-Factors: Central Division

‘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.

Apr 28, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls injured point guard Derrick Rose (1) is helped off the court by medical staff during the fourth quarter in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. The Bulls won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE

  • DERRICK ROSE, PG, Chicago Bulls
    Last season: 35.3 MPG, 21.8 PPG, 7.9 APG, 23.10 PER
    I get it, listing Derrick Rose as the Bulls’ X-Factor is weak and certainly not my attempt to be labelled a rocket scientist anytime soon. We can claim we believe in the Bulls even without him (record-wise, this checks out to a certain degree), but let’s be honest, they go as far as he takes them. Trying to pin down an exact time at which Rose will make his season debut is anyone’s guess, and trust me there are scattered reports. I’ve heard some say Christmas, some mid-March, others say he’ll miss the entire season and some (though the name escapes me) are saying he’ll be ready for opening night. Take your pick. The bottom line is that Derrick Rose is one of the most important players in the Eastern Conference and league, let alone his own team. So while it seems simple to state this, I’m of the opinion that his team doesn’t even make the playoffs if his return is closer to that mid-March date. Is D-Rose an X-Factor? It’s arguably that he is THE X-Factor. The rocket scientists concur.
  • Jan 6, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao (17) prior to the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center. Cleveland defeated Minnesota 98-87. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

    ANDERSON VAREJAO, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
    Last season: 31.4 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 18.93 PER (25 games)
    Kyrie Irving is the Cavs best player, hands down, it’s not even disputable. However, “best” and “important” can sometimes carry different weightings. Anderson Varejao represents the Cavs entire defensive identity. His energy and relentless hustle encapsulate what this young team should try to be on the defensive end. Varejao’s 2011-12 season was over in early February, during which he acculated 14 double-doubles in 25 games. With some extremely young players (Thompson, Samuels, Zeller, Leuer) behind him in the depth chart, the Cavs NEED Varejao to stay on the floor and be that embodiment of defense if they want to contend for a playoff spot in the East. Varejao’s offensive numbers will look even better this season as well, playing a full schedule with Irving running the show.

  • Mar. 16, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Detroit Pistons guard (3) Rodney Stuckey controls the ball against Phoenix Suns guard (31) Sebastian Telfair at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Pistons 109-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

    RODNEY STUCKEY, SG, Detroit Pistons
    Last season: 29.9 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 17.62 PER
    When I tell you that the Detroit Pistons backcourt is thin, I’m talking LeAnn Rimes thin. The days of Billups/Hamilton are long gone and now they have Stuckey and Brandon Knight, a second year player, representing the guard situation. Listed on their depth chart right now in the backup roles are the undersized Will Bynum at point guard and rookie Kim English at shooting guard. Scary would be an understatement. Stuckey is the key to this mess. While Greg Monroe will take over as the number one option on offense, Stuckey (with his 5 years of NBA service and slight production drop last season) is the default leader in the backcourt. Even though Brandon Knight improved over the course of his rookie season and will now assume a bigger role in the offense, I think Stuckey has a near obligation to bring his numbers up and better match up with the other premier shooting guards in the league. If not, the Pistons go from bad to worse.

  • May 8, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers shooting guard George Hill (3) dribbles the ball against Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson (14) during game five in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeated Orlando 105-87. Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE

    GEORGE HILL, PG, Indiana Pacers
    Last season: 25.5 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 2.9 APG, 15.77 PER
    Sometimes it simply comes down to the weakest starter being the most important piece of the puzzle. While he’ll replace Darren Collison and split some minutes with newly acquired D.J. Augustin, George Hill is expected to take over starting point guard duties in Indiana. Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, David West and the improving Paul George comprise one of the strongest starting combinations in the league. George Hill is the only question mark, and that could be considered reaching. Historically, Hill has never been a big assist guy (2.5 per game over 24.8 MPG in his career), but that may change this year, given that he will be responsible for being the primary playmaker and the guy with the responsibility to get the ball to the first four scoring options mentioned above. If Hill averages another 25-30 minutes per game, expect his assist number to shoot up. With his added ability to score when necessary and even defend a bit, expect Hill to help push the Pacers deeper into the playoffs.

  • April 13, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings (3) during first quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

    BRANDON JENNINGS, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
    Last season: 35.3 MPG, 19.1 PPG, 5.5 APG, 18.46 PER
    This is the year that Jennings needs to take the next step, and I’m not talking about scoring. At 19.1 PPG, he’s proven he can score. I wrote earlier that I didn’t think Jennings was an elite point guard, because of his lack of assists and his spotty shot selection, and I completely stand by that. Perhaps a more crucial attribute that Jennings needs to strengthen for his team to succeed is his leadership. He needs to be the catalyst to bring this team together. Between himself and his star backcourt teammate Monta Ellis, scoring the basketball is easy. The Bucks have solid role players but really no real star talent elsewhere on the roster. Jennings needs to facilitate, distribute the basketball and reassess his shot selection. That is what’s going to help this team climb into the playoff picture in the East, not dropping 35 points on 13 for 31 shooting. If he grows, the team grows.

mhallihan