By Danny Thompson, Full Court Press Radio
With every team in the NBA record being 0-0 currently, there is always that one player that can make or break the fortunes of your favorite team. If they step up and become better than expected, then their team will be taken to another level. But if their play falls off or they don’t live up to the hype, then their team falls off a cliff and the team becomes a disappointment. So let’s take a look at my thoughts on who is the X-Factor for your favorite team in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks – Dwight Howard – C
Howard was Atlanta’s major free agent signing this summer. He has the task of replacing Al Horford and returning to his hometown. If anyone can live up to it, it’s Howard. His last 2 stops haven’t been the best places for his talent and his reputation isn’t the best either. But what we do know is that, when healthy and motivated Howard is maybe the best defensive center in the league. He may not have the same spring in his knees as he had during his Orlando days, but he’s still a threat. He will allow Paul Millsap to have more freedom at the Power Forward spot and the pick and roll game with Dennis Schroder could be dangerous. If Howard lives up to his expectations there won’t be a drop off in Atlanta, but he doesn’t it’s going to be a long year in the A.
Boston Celtics – Marcus Smart – PG
Smart was drafted the 6th Overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and after years of not being considered in trades, it’s time for him to finally live up to the hype. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his short career, but hasn’t been a consistent starter in Boston. Smart’s biggest strength is his on-ball defensive. If he can get on the court with All-NBA Defensive stud Avery Bradley, the Celtics could have the best set of defensive guards in the East. But with Isaiah Thomas becoming an All-Star last year it made it tough for Smart to get back into the starting lineup. But Celtics fans know that Thomas is better suited for coming off the bench and lighting teams up. If Smart can improve his shooting (Last season he shot 34.8% from the floor and 25% from 3), Boston could catapult themselves into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brooklyn Nets – Bojan Bogdanovic – SG
Bojan’s play at the end of last season was one of the bright spots that the Nets had in a uneventful season. In the 2nd half of the season, he increased his scoring by almost 6 points per game and hit over 40% from the 3 point line. On a team that is currently the worst in the league, Bogdanovic will have the green light to shoot as much as needed as teams double down on Brook Lopez. If he can improve the rest of his game and get closer to 20 points per game (He finished at 11.2 per game with a 15.1 average after the All-Star Break), the Nets might have a shot at getting out the East’s bottom
Charlotte Hornets – Roy Hibbert – C
Charlotte lost Al Jefferson to Indiana and one thing that Steve Clifford wants out of his big men is to be a defensive presence. Enter Roy Hibbert, after a season of looking lost and losing games in Los Angeles, has a chance to restart his career with a playoff team in Charlotte. People forget that he’s a 2 time All-Star and he was the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year in the 2013-14 season with the Indiana Pacers. Also on the Hornets staff is Patrick Ewing, who is fellow Georgetown Alum who will be in charge of bringing Roy back to life. If Hibbert returns to form, Charlotte could have the best defensive team in the East. The Hornets already have Michael Kidd-Ghilchrist and Nicolas Batum on the wings, so if he provides the post presence then good luck scoring on the Hornets.
Chicago Bulls – Bobby Portis – PF
Last season, Chicago had Joakim Noah and Paul Gasol starting at the Power Forward and Center spots. After the departure of both in the off-season and the Taj Gibson trade countdown in full effect, the 2nd year man from Arkansas should have enough space to show why he was the best value pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Portis averaged 7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in only 17.8 minutes per game last season. Bulls fans have been asking when will they #FreeBobbyPortis, now they chants can finally be answered. If Portis can get consistent minutes in a rotation that has Nikola Mirotic and veteran Robin Lopez in the front court, he could average close to the 14 points and 11.9 rebounds that his Per 36 minutes numbers that he had last season.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Tristian Thompson – C
Look LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin can’t be X-Factors here, so lets go with Thompson at this spot. Thompson proved during the championship run last year how valuable he is. His value is not scoring points because that’s not his role, but his rebounding ablity is what makes him standout. The Cavaliers were 9-1 in the playoffs when he grabbed 10 or more rebounds in a game. He’s already one of the NBA’s best at offensive rebounding, so that skill leads to so many second chance points. If Thompson forgets how to rebound and do the little things, then Cleveland will have a hard time repeating in the East.
Detroit Pistons – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – SG
It’s time for Caldwell-Pope to bring it. Piston fans have been split down the middle on what to think about the 4th year guard out of Georgia. While he’s shown flashes of being a very good starting shooting guard in the Motor City, but the inconstancy from him in his career have driven Pistons fans to a breaking point. While his numbers improved in each of his 3 previous seasons, Caldwell-Pope hasn’t made the impact that is needed for Detroit to become an elite team in the East. His 3 point accuracy declined last season, by almost 4 percentage points from the previous season (34.5 in 13-14 to 30.9 in 14-15) and that is one of his strengths. If Caldwell-Pope can improve his shooting percentages, become a consistent 3 point threat and still play at a high level on defense, then Detroit could make a deep playoff run.
Indiana Pacers – Jeff Teague – PG
For each of the last 2 years Hawks fans had the question of who was going to be the starting Point Guard going forward. After going back and forth between Dennis Schroder and Teague, Teague was traded to the Indiana Pacers right before the NBA Draft. Teague has 3 things going for him:
- He’s back in his hometown
- It’s a contract year
- Teague is playing for a brand new head coach and former Point Guard (Nate McMillan)
With those things being said, Teague has every reason to have a big season in Indy. He holds the key to the Pacers success in the 2016-2017 season. If Teague can go back to the 2013-2014 numbers and production then the Pacers have every right to be apart of the East’s elite, if not Pacer fans will be screaming to have George Hill back.
Miami Heat – Dion Waiters – SG
Waiters hasn’t lived up to expectations when he was drafted with the 4rd overall pick in 2012 NBA Draft. After scoring 15.9 points per game in his 2nd season, Waiters scoring has dropped each season since then and now has turned into a 6th man instead of a top level shooting guard. For Miami, this low risk signing this summer, can be a real home run if Waiters can go back to his 2nd season numbers and production. Remember he’s only 22 years old and still has time to grow. He just needs to take better quality shots and improve on his career 41.1% shooting from the floor.
Milwaukee Bucks – Michael Carter-Williams – PG
Michael Carter-Williams entered the NBA and had one of the best games any rookie in his debut has ever had in the league’s history. He capped that season with winning the Rookie of The Year award. Then came the trade to Milwaukee during the middle of his sophomore season. Even since then, his career has been going downhill ever since. At this point head coach Jason Kidd is using Giannis Antekoupto as his point guard, because he’s lost faith in Carter-Williams. If Carter-Williams can regain his confidence in himself and his coach, he can be the real reason why the Bucks are playing meaningful games in April.
New York Knicks – Brandon Jennings – PG
2 years ago, Brandon Jennings was having an All-Star caliber season in Detroit and the Pistons were one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Then he tore his Achilles and missed the rest of the season. After that, the Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson, gave him a big-time contract extension and then Jennings was traded to Orlando during the middle of last season.
After struggling to find his way in Orlando, Jennings ended up signing with the Knicks this summer. With Derrick Rose’s injury history, this is the perfect spot for Jennings to shine. If he can provide scoring off the bench and play solid basketball when Rose isn’t on the floor, he could be in for a big payday next summer. Remember most Achilles injuries take around 12-18 months before a player returns to normal.
Orlando Magic – Aaron Gordon – SF/PF
After dunking over the NBA Mascot of the Year Stuff at the NBA All-Star game in February, Gordon became a household name. But for Magic fans, they knew that they had something special in Gordon all along. He was the teams best player in the 2nd half of last season once he was given consistent minutes. He averaged 12.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game after the break.
Now after all those positives, the team went out and acquired Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo in the offseason making Gordon move to Small Forward. If he can get the position adjustment down and become more consistent and accurate shooting the basketball, Gordon will live up to all of his potential and the Magic will finally have a shot to get back to the playoffs.
Philadelphia 76ers – Jerryd Bayless – PG
Jerryd Bayless has been a solid backup guard for most of his career. He’s always been reliable for getting points and providing good play as a combo guard. Now he has signed with the 76ers this summer and has every chance to be the starting point guard on opening night. He had a very good season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks scoring 10.4 points per game and hitting a career high 43.7% from the 3 point line. Good news for 76ers fans is that the teams other primary ball handler is Ben Simmons and his passing ability will allow more open looks for Bayless in the upcoming season. As long as he can knock down the open shot and improve on his assist numbers, (a career 2.9 per game) there should be no reason why Bayless can’t be the teams starting point guard all season long.
Toronto Raptors – DeMarre Carroll – SF
The reason why DeMarre Carroll was signed in Toronto was because he would be the primary defender on players such as LeBron James, Paul George and other big time scorers in the NBA playoffs. Well in his 1st year in Toronto that wasn’t the case. Carroll missed most of the season due to injury and for the 2nd straight year, he wasn’t healthy as his team went against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Remember he spent the season before in Atlanta) Now DeMarre is finally healthy and when he is “The Junkyard Dog” is one of the best defender in the league. He’s a very solid 3 point shooter (a career 37% from deep) and if he can regain his form when he was apart of Atlanta’s 60 win team two years ago, then the Raptors are the biggest threat to Cleveland and the NBA Finals.
Washington Wizards – Markieff Morris – PF
Morris didn’t have the best 2014-2015 season. His brother was traded to Detroit, he wanted to traded because he didn’t trust the organization anymore, there was the incident in Las Vegas and the infamous sideline shove during a timeout with Archie Goodwin. Finally at the trade deadline, Morris was traded to Washington for a 1st Round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. After the trade Morris shot almost 47% from the floor and became more comfortable in his new surroundings. This year he should get back to the 15 points and 6 rebounds a game that he averaged in his last season in Phoenix. If he can improve to a least 17 points and 8 rebounds, Washington with John Wall, Marcin Gortat and the healthy Bradley Beal should be back in the playoffs this April.
Danny Thompson is the Creator and Host of NBA Full Court Press Radio and Lead Columnist for FULL COURT PRESS RADIO.
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Reprinted with permission.