Five Eastern Conference X-factors
By Ben Golliver
On Thursday, we examined the key players and circumstances that will help shape the Western Conference. Now it's on to the Eastern Conference, where these X-factors will be critical in charting the course for five top teams.
Miami Heat's X-Factor: Dwyane Wade
The enduring image from the 2012 playoffs was the Heat's All-Star duo of LeBron James and Wade bopping around like little kids on the sideline during the final minutes of their series-clinching Game 5 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. It was a clear expression of joy, a release of two years' worth of pent-up pressure for two guys who saw their master plan come to fruition. That celebration, and the confetti and trophy hugging that followed, erased what had been another unforgettable scene during the Eastern Conference semifinals: Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra snapping at each other during a tough stretch against the Indiana Pacers.
In hindsight, that exchange appeared to be venting from Wade, whose troublesome left knee had to be drained during that Pacers series and eventually required minor offseason surgery that forced him to miss the 2012 London Olympics. He has since been deemed fully healthy and has taken the court in multiple preseason games.
After a terrible Game 3 against the Pacers in which he scored just only points on 2-for-13 shooting, Wade bounced back, scoring no fewer than 17 points in each of the 15 games it took Miami to win the title. That stretch was highlighted by a 41-point outburst to close out the Pacers; 23 points in a Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals; and back-to-back 25-point performances in two wins over the Thunder in the Finals. Through that stretch, Wade was exactly what Miami needed: a credible second fiddle to alleviate enough scoring pressure from James so that he could handle a huge minutes load, all the banging that went with playing in the post and countless double teams sent his way. Wade's shooting came and went against the Celtics and the Thunder, but it was there enough to get the job done.
Wade, 30, missed 17 games last season, more than a quarter of the lockout-shortened schedule. With the pressure off Miami thanks to its 2012 title and with Ray Allen on board as a key addition to the backcourt, Spoelstra enters the season with the ability to limit Wade's workload more than he has in past seasons. Wade's scoring production has declined for three straight seasons, in large part to accommodate James' arrival, and his playing time dropped last season to a career-low 33.2 minutes per game. Those trends should continue this season. Don't get that twisted: Wade is still in or close to his prime. But keeping him fresh and healthy for May and June is all that matters here.
Boston Celtics' X-Factor: Jeff Green
Celtics president Danny Ainge had a busy offseason, accumulating all sorts of new players who could qualify for the X-factor designation. Super sub Jason Terry is a prime candidate, as he plugs nicely into the void left by Allen's departure and even offers a little bit more shot-creation, too. Courtney Lee, plucked from the Houston Rockets in a sign-and-trade, is an athletic "3 and D" who will be helpful in spreading the floor on offense and matching up against bigger scoring guards on defense. The answer here, though, seems to be Green, who missed the 2011-12 season after undergoing heart surgery.
There are expectations for Green that don't exist for Terry and Lee, in large part because he's set to make a reported $36 million over the next four years, a staggering sum for a player whose career was affected so severely by a serious medical issue. It's not hard to see the Celtics' wheels turning on that deal, though. James averaged 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals and shot 52.7 percent from the field against Boston in last season's conference finals. That series swung on James' remarkable Game 6 performance in Boston, a magical night in which he scored 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting and added 15 rebounds and five assists to keep the Heat's season alive and set up their decisive victory in Game 7. James' worst night in the series was 29 points, six rebounds and three assists. The Celtics were one win away from a Finals trip; James personally stood in their way to block that path.
Depth was an issue up and down last year's Celtics roster, but it was most noticeable in that series, when Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Mickael Pietrus did what they could to hang with James. It wasn't enough. Pierce's numbers were down across the board against the Heat compared to his regular-season stats; he badly needed help.
The jury is still out on Green, who was acquired in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder in February 2011. He's a tweener forward without a defined position, but he has the right combination of size (6-foot-8 and 235 pounds), athleticism and skill level to make James work harder than most. He's not likely to approach his career averages of 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds with the Celtics, and his early career days of shooting 13 times a game are definitely in the past. But the 2012 East finals were a dogfight from start to finish, and it's conceivable that Green's presence could have pushed Boston to a fourth victory, given Chris Bosh's absence for much of the series and the immense load that James was forced to carry. With any luck, we'll get to see whether Green is a difference maker against James and the Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.
Indiana Pacers' X-Factor: Paul George
You have to feel a bit for the Pacers as they enter the 2012-13 season. Last season, Indiana surprisingly emerged to finish with the NBA's fifth-best record and push the Heat to six games in the conference semifinals. As a team on the rise, without much recent playoff success, Indiana enjoyed that sweet spot where performance far outpaced expectations. Those days ended immediately after the loss to Miami, as the Pacers faced major "stay or go" decisions on key players like Roy Hibbert, George Hill and Darren Collison.
Indiana did well to bring back most of the gang for another go-round, even if it took a four-year max offer to Hibbert and a pretty penny ($40 million over five years, to be exact) to keep Hill. D.J. Augustin replaced Collison, and reserves Ian Mahinmi and Gerald Green joined the fold. In all, the Pacers maintained momentum. What was lacking, clearly, was a truly splashy move that would vault them up a tier in the East pecking order.
The Pacers now must hope that improvement comes from within. George, a wing player who has excellent length and athletic tools, is clearly the Pacer with the most untapped potential. At 22, George has the body, the ball skills and the opportunity for playing time necessary to blossom into a nightmare cover for opponents. Last season, George averaged 12.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in 29.7 minutes. One would think coach Frank Vogel would only want to increase George's playing time and touches.
George's emergence is a process that could take as long as a half-decade to play out. Indeed, Indiana's long-term plan could well revolve around the trio of George, Hibbert and Hill, once forwards David West and Danny Granger hit free agency in 2013 and 2014, respectively. That's a nice group to have together through their 20s. Of those three players, though, it's George alone who has the potential to lead the Pacers to consistent postseason success. Might as well get that going immediately.
Brooklyn Nets' X-Factor: Gerald Wallace
The Sports Illustrated cover went to Deron Williams and the barbershop talk usually centers on Joe Johnson and his massive contract, but talented two-way forward Wallace is the overlooked piece to this new Nets puzzle. Wallace is a bundle of energy, excelling at guarding both forward positions, forcing turnovers and pushing the pace in transition. Eager to put together a winner and have something to show for trading a lottery pick to the Portland Trail Blazers last March to get Wallace in his walk year, the Nets gave him a four-year, $40 million contract in the offseason, an above-market deal for a hard-nosed player who is longer in the tooth than his age, 30, would seem to indicate.
The fretting over that contract can wait for another year or two. For now, Wallace will be worth the money, allowing coach Avery Johnson to use him at either forward position, whether matchups call for big lineups or small. Wallace has struggled a bit with his shot in recent years, and the Nets should be well served in bumping him down a notch or two in the shot-distribution pecking order to accommodate Joe Johnson and center Brook Lopez. Williams will be key in helping Wallace handle that adjustment; Wallace's off-ball activity should regularly produce points as team defenses turn their attention elsewhere.
A knock on Wallace is that he's never won a playoff series during his 11-year career. He has a decent chance to remove that blemish with these Nets, especially over the next year or two. The key thing for him to keep in mind: He's only getting less important to the team's plans as he gets older. The clock is ticking. This is the season to leave a mark. Brooklyn is the place to do it, too. Wallace's all-out style has earned him the nickname "Crash" and endeared him to home crowds everywhere he's played. With any luck, the big stage of the new Barclays Center will help bring out the best in him.
New York Knicks' X-Factor: Raymond Felton
Few NBA players with Felton's marginal talent ever face the type of pressure and expectations that await him this season. In a forgettable 2011-12, his one and only season with the Trail Blazers, Felton ranked 49th among point guards with a Player Efficiency Rating of 13.46. You read that correctly: In a starting role on a veteran team that had entered the season with playoff aspirations, Felton performed to the level of a below-average backup.
In the months since, Felton has readily admitted the contributing factors: He began the season out of shape, never jelled with former coach Nate McMillan and just couldn't find any range on his outside shot. When things went south, he looked to eject, mentioning as early as February how much he yearned for the Knicks' old up-tempo style compared to the slow-down ball control favored by McMillan.
Felton, who was traded by the Knicks as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal in February 2011, couldn't be more excited for his Big Apple return. He's dropped more than 20 pounds, he's pledged to restore his good name after last season and he finds himself on a roster that needs a point guard who can really share the rock and help keep egos in check. There's a huge problem, though: Felton is not Jeremy Lin, New York City's favorite son. Not only that, but the timing of Felton's acquisition from the Blazers via a sign-and-trade in July predated Lin's departure to the Houston Rockets by just a few days. The two roster decisions were linked: After signing Jason Kidd as a veteran backup, the Knicks chose to bring in Felton on a four-year, $14.8 million deal rather than match the Houston Rockets' three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet to Lin. It doesn't take an accountant to see the value play the Knicks made with these decisions and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce who will take the fall if Lin continues to play well. Felton is squarely in the city's crosshairs.