‘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.
O.J. MAYO, SG, Dallas Mavericks
Last season: 26.8 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 14.76 PER
Mark Cuban and the Mavericks are welcoming some newcomers to Big D this season. While Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand will all be featured on a changed Mavs squad, it’s O.J. Mayo that I expect to be the guy who can make the true difference. After almost two full seasons (120 of 137 games) of coming off the bench for the Grizzlies, Mayo will get a chance to start in Dallas. He went as far to say earlier today that his time in Memphis was a “failure.” Think he has a chip on his shoulder? Until very recently (Championship Tyson Chandler), the Big “D” in Dallas certainly didn’t stand for “defense.” Mayo is considered one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, so his contributions on that end will improve at least the Mavs shooting guard slot. From an offensive perspective, it’s easy to forget that Mayo averaged 18.5 and 17.5 points per game in his first two seasons. He should give be able to give Dirk a boost as a third or even second option.
JEREMY LIN, PG, Houston Rockets
Last season: 26.9 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 6.2 APG, 19.97 PER
Linsanity makes his way back to a very unfamiliar Houston Rockets roster for the 2012-13 season. With a lineup very absent of veterans, one of the biggest questions for the Rockets this year will be if Jeremy Lin can repeat what he did last year for the New York Knicks, especially coming back from a major injury? With a potential starting lineup of Lin, Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson and Omer Asik, Lin will need to be a carbon copy of what he was in NY for this team to win any amount of games. Martin, a career 18.4 ppg scorer, will be option number one, but Lin will need to be option number two. With some fresh-starting bigs this season, Lin will need to be an even better distributor this time around.
RUDY GAY, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 37.3 MPG, 19.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 17.85 PER
Rudy Gay is certainly paid like a team’s best player, but with more focus on Marc Gasol (and even Zach Randolph) these days, are we sure he’s even that anymore? Look, I love Rudy Gay and his skill set. When he was rumored to be in talks with Toronto, I was excited that I might get to see him play more than a few times. Now there is nothing wrong with 19.0 ppg, but for Memphis to get over the playoff hump, Gay may have to assert himself even more on both ends of the floor. I may be setting the bar extremely high, as Rudy is already a fine defensive player, but when I see a guy with physical attributes like that, I selfishly demand more. This team has several “stars,” but I want to see Rudy Gay strive to make an All-Star team in the West and become that superstar the Grizzlies need.
ERIC GORDON, SG, New Orleans Hornets
Last season: 34.4 MPG, 20.6 PPG, 3.4 APG, 19.23 PER
Yes, Anthony Davis is an obvious X-Factor for these young Hornets. He will be a defensive monster and likely coast to the Rookie of the Year honor. However, with Davis still lacking some offensive polish, Eric Gordon will be the MAN again to provide the biggest chunk of the points for the Hornets. Having only played in 9 games last season for New Orleans, he’ll also have to work his way back into the chemistry of the team, which has definitely added some new parts in Davis, Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez and Austin Rivers. Gordon certainly has those intentions and was quoted recently as saying, “I definitely want to be an All-Star this year and play a lot of games, because that’s the only thing that’s been holding me back. It’s all about being a leader and helping the team win games.” I’d count on Eric Gordon having a BIG year.
KAWHI LEONARD, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 24.0 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 16.66 PER
In a season or two, it’ll be all about the youth movement in San Antonio. Duncan will likely be retiring, Ginobili and Parker will be aging veterans and a new core will have to be formed. That’s why the continued improvement of Kawhi Leonard is extremely important to this franchise. In terms of this season, Leonard’s second, he will see his share of minutes and will be counted on for his efficiency once again. The valuable thing about Leonard is that he doesn’t need to score to be effective. Although I would expect his point average to get up near double digits this season, he’s a terrific defender and when he does score, he does it very effectively (.493%). The Spurs shouldn’t need a ton of “extra,” as they’re successful every season, but an even more dynamic Kawhi Leonard may be enough to deal with the other powers in the West.