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The NBA's X-Factors

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Which teams could be this year’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies and what players can get them there?

The NBA's X-Factors

Coming into last season, nobody really expected much out of the Memphis Grizzlies.  They came into last season off of a surprising 40-42 campaign the year before.  Despite the improvement, ESPN's experts predicted that they would finish 11th in the Western Conference.  They noted that they were headed in the right direction and might surprise us if they remained healthy.  SI's Ian Thomsen predicted that they would finish 12th and said that they couldn't be expected to make a leap until they improved their roster.

The Grizzlies finished 46-36 and ended up making the playoffs as the eighth seed, where they went on to upset number one seed San Antonio Spurs in the first round.  They lost a hard-fought seven-game series to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the semis, but Memphis did indeed take that step that was supposed to be out of their reach.  They even accomplished this after losing Rudy Gay midway through the season.  The biggest reason for their success was the strong play of their x-factor: Zach Randolph.

An "X-factor," by definition, is a player that makes his team unbeatable...when he plays well. 

Randolph was that man for Memphis last year.  If he doesn't play at that level last year, Memphis doesn't sustain its progression and they keep middling around as a borderline playoff team.  There are several teams that could surprise us this year just like the Grizzlies did last year.  Here are three non-playoff teams from each conference with potential, including the X-factor that will be the difference.  We'll start in the Eastern Conference, where the bottom tier of Playoff teams seems to shift every season.

Milwaukee Bucks, X-Factor: Brandon Jennings

The Bucks are only two years removed from a playoff berth, but they took a step back last season.  Injuries to Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings played a role in the regression, but both are back healthy along with new additions Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Stephen Jackson.  Unlike Bogut, who is incredibly consistent, Jennings is the wild card for this team.

After his huge 55-point outburst as a rookie, the expectations skyrocketed for Jennings.  He finished out the remainder of his rookie campaign strong, but didn't make a huge jump in his sophomore season.  He did miss 19 games, but his 3FG percentage dropped from 37 to 32, his APG dropped from 5.7 to 4.8, and his scoring barely bumped up from 15.5 to 16.2. 

This season, we've already seen the good and bad for Jennings.  In their opening night loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, where Milwaukee led by as many as 14 in the third quarter, Jennings was highly inefficient.  He scored 22 points on 21 shots and took some terrible shots in crunch time.  But last night against the Timberwolves, Jennings was much more restrained and let the offense come to him.  He scored 24 points on 14 shots, was 9-10 on free throws, and also dished out seven assists.  The Bucks could be a dangerous team, and it mainly hinges on Brandon Jennings' production and evolution as a floor general.

Detroit Pistons, X-Factor: Greg Monroe

The Pistons are a team in flux right now.  The contracts of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, which combined make up over $19 million in salary, almost have them stuck in the mud.  They let go of the aging Richard Hamilton, but they resigned Tayshaun Prince.  There is still some hope in Detroit though, and it rests in the giant arms of second-year big man Greg Monroe.

Monroe has forward skills in a center's body.  He can get his teammates involved with his great passing.  He can stretch the floor with his shooting range.  He can go down low and score.  All he needs is more playing time.  He only started 40 games in his rookie year and averaged just 27 minutes per game.  He started Detroit's first game of the year, but got into foul trouble and was limited to just 22 minutes.  Monroe has the type of game that can elevate his teammates, but the main thing with him is staying on the floor so all of that potential can be realized.

Toronto Raptors, X-Factor: Ed Davis

The Raptors have a very interesting roster.  They've got guys like DeMar Derozan, Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Jose Calderon that will produce as starters.  Jerryd Bayless and Leandro Barbosa can come off the bench for instant offense.  While Johnson is a nice post player, Toronto will need more interior presence, especially with Bargnani's tendency to hang by the perimeter and not rebound.  That's where second-year player Ed Davis could have a huge impact.

Davis, the silky smooth forward out of North Carolina, played solid ball as a rookie for Toronto last year.  His Per 36 numbers showed that Davis has true double-double potential, but he came in to the league a bit thin.  It appears as if he's put on some weight heading into this season, and it showed on opening night.  Davis was terrific in 18 minutes off the bench for Toronto.  He went a perfect 7-7 from the field for 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds (four offensive), picked up two assists and blocked two shots.  This was against a very weak Cleveland Cavaliers team, but that production has to excite Raptors fans.  If Davis continues to improve and can give Toronto a consistent, reliable post presence off the bench, this team could surprise people.

New York Knicks, X-Factor: Landry Fields

This is going against the grain of the post, but Fields is one of the most obvious choices for an x-factor on a Knicks team that is looking to go from just a playoff team to a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.  We all know of Fields' struggles once the Carmelo Anthony trade went down.  We saw him disappear during the first round of the Playoffs against the Boston Celtics.  The real question is: how does Fields respond to those late-season struggles and can he grow?

Fields' strengths have always been his rebounding for the position.  Fields led all guards last year in rebounding per 40 minutes with 9.8 per game.  His ability to end possessions and scrap for offensive boards is invaluable.  But when Carmelo arrived, Fields' rebounding declined along with his scoring.  I think that the longer Fields plays with Anthony, the more he will be able to find his niche within the offense (which will start with hitting open threes).  But Fields has to remain aggressive on the boards.  There's no reason he can't still average between six and seven rebounds a night as opposed to the two he grabbed on opening day.  He'll have a few weeks to work out the kinks now that Iman Shumpert is on the shelf, but if Fields can regain his rebounding prowess and scoring touch, the Knicks are a much different team. 

Now we look at the Western Conference, where the traditional superpowers are aging.  These young teams could very easily supplant some of the older squads.

Los Angeles Clippers, X-Factor: DeAndre Jordan

This is an obvious pick after the Chris Paul trade, but based on last year's 32-50 finish, the Clippers would be making a huge jump.  They have all of the premier pieces.  Paul and Blake Griffin form a great pair.  Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler are two more quality starters.  Mo Williams, Reggie Evans, Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes are all nice pieces off the bench.  But Jordan can be a huge difference-maker for this Clippers team looking for its first postseason berth since 05-06. 

Jordan isn't going to have to score on this team, nor should he look to.  All he has to do is finish Paul's lobs and take advantage of the attention that Griffin will get opposite him.  But where Jordan can have his biggest impact is on defense.  Last season, Jordan finished in the top ten in blocks with 1.8 per game.  With his eight blocks in LA's opener, he showed that he can protect the basket with great proficiency.  The Clippers can score, but if Jordan can become a dominant interior defender, he'll not only justify the big off-season contract, but he'll make the Clippers serious contenders.

Golden State Warriors, X-Factor: Andris Biedrins

The Warriors aren't that far removed from the postseason.  They made the playoffs as the eight seed back in 06-07 and upset the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.  Biedrins was a huge contributor on that team with his efficiency on offense, his rebounding, and defensive effort.  His play stayed steady for the next two seasons, even averaging a double-double in 08-09, but he's dropped off mysteriously the last two years.  Biedrins averaged just five points and slightly over seven rebounds a game in frustrating, injury-shortened seasons.  It got so bad the Warriors were willing to amnesty him to make room for Tyson Chandler, but that signing fell through once the Knicks got involved.

But Biedrins looked better in Golden State's first two games this season.  He's was more active, got more involved on offense early, and rebounded more competently.  Biedrins has enough size and athleticism to be a difference-maker for Golden State inside, and at just 25-years-old he should be entering his prime years.  He's got guys like Kwame Brown (who played very well against the Chicago Bulls on Monday) and the recently signed Kyrylo Fesenko waiting behind him, so Biedrins will have to stay motivated to keep his minutes.  With the pieces Golden State already has in place, a resurgent Biedrins could propel them to the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves, X-Factor: Ricky Rubio

The Timberwolves have been a punchline for quite some time.  But that might be changing real soon.  They have their franchise player in Kevin Love.  They have a dynamic scorer in Michael Beasley.  They have talented role players like J.J. Barea, Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson and Darko Milicic.  The only thing that's really missing is a floor general, something they've been lacking since Sam Cassell.

Enter Ricky Rubio.  The hyped rookie has finally come over from Spain and not a moment too soon.  Take a look at what he did in Minnesota's competitive loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night:

Those are some unbelievable passes.  Rubio already has a veteran's feel for the game on offense.  He's a wizard with the ball in his hand, and a distributor like that can do wonders for his teammates' shooting percentages by setting them up in positions to score.  Minnesota has plenty of guards, so they will likely have to move someone (probably Luke Ridnour) in order to get Rubio the playing time he needs to take the reins of this offense.  Rubio's got a chance to be special.  There is a ton of talent on this Timberwolves squad, and with the expected decline of some of the traditional powers in the West, there's no reason to think they couldn't sneak in as an eighth seed.

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