Five Eastern Conference X-factors
On Friday and Saturday, The Point Forward will examine the key players and circumstances that will help shape the 2013-14 season. First up, the Eastern Conference, where these five X-factors will be critical in charting the course for their teams.
Jason Terry, Brooklyn Nets
Terry is regarded as something of an afterthought in Brooklyn’s move to acquire Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. He was the salary filler that made the finances work, and Boston’s desire to shed his mid-level contract (which is worth $11.5 million over the next two years) undoubtedly played a role in its decision to agree to the nine-player deal. But he could well wind up as an important piece for the Nets — not unlike guard C.J. Watson, who did well in a similar role last season before signing with the Pacers this summer.
Watson, who was able to fill minutes reliably at either backcourt position, stretched the Nets’ resources with his flexibility. Terry, by way of his slick pull-up jumper, safe ball handling and spot-up jump shooting, can do the same. The 36-year-old will take his turn controlling an offensive possession as needed, but he can just as easily defer to the likes of Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Garnett. He’ll be the man forgotten in the corner as opponents load up on the Nets’ stars, and with those opportunities comes the responsibility to deliver. Terry has never shied away from that, though he is coming off an unremarkable season that was supposed to have gone very differently.
Terry’s one-year stay in Boston wasn’t a disaster by any means, but his production and shooting percentages didn’t meet expectations. The Celtics intended to upgrade their offense by signing Terry to complement Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo. Instead, Boston scored slightly more efficiently when Terry was out of the game. The move to Brooklyn offers a chance to wipe that slate clean and join an offense that ranked ninth in points per possession last season before adding more weapons during the summer. Others will do the heavy lifting, but I’d wager that on many crucial occasions this season, Terry will have the responsibility to capitalize.
Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers
Rarely will you find a more concrete example of the X-factor set. Indiana sans Granger is an established entity. The Pacers played elite defense and decent offense with Granger sidelined for all but five games last season, culminating in a seven-game push in the conference finals. From there, Granger’s return is essentially a swing play, with the potential to either put Indiana over the top or complicate a rotation that clicked into place last season. The Pacers surely could have used Granger’s volume scoring to balance their lineups better last year, but his reintroduction adds an element of uncertainty to an otherwise stable team.
Ultimately, Granger should be a significant asset once he’s able to establish a rhythm and get back up to game speed — a floor spacer superior to Lance Stephenson, a shot creator to help both the starters and reserves, and an aggressive defender to round out a stout system. Concerns over the Pacers’ hierarchy strike me as a bit overblown; neither Paul George nor Granger is above sharing for the good of a contender.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Lowry is an up-and-down player with an unreliable approach — inconsistency stacked on inconsistency. At his best, he’s a fringe All-Star capable of bullying his way to the rim and raising hell on opposing point guards. In lesser form, he loses patience playing defense and attempts some baffling shots. He swings between those extremes rather easily and fairly often, the full experience of which leaves Lowry with the X-factor designation.
No coach has been able to coax Lowry into good, consistent habits yet. Still, he’s talented and physical enough to help the Raptors plenty, particularly if he can strike the right balance of driving without dominating the ball too much and ensuring that Toronto’s better lineups work effectively despite some skill-set redundancy. The core unit of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas fared much better than expected last season after Gay’s midseason arrival, in part because Lowry was able to walk the line. If he can do the same over a full season this year, the Raptors should contend for a playoff spot. If not, they’ll wind up in the lottery for the sixth consecutive season and face a tough decision on the future of the 27-year-old Lowry, a free agent next summer.
Gerald Henderson, Charlotte Bobcats
The X-factor concept doesn’t easily lend itself to players on lottery teams because they typically play toward a very different set of goals. Henderson is an exception. Charlotte faces something of a developmental crux this season, as none of its three core perimeter players — Henderson, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — shoots three-pointers at anything close to a league-average level. Such a combination is untenable in today’s NBA. Without that deep-shooting threat, the Bobcats lack the means to punish opponents for crowding the paint or over-helping against penetration. Any attempt at floor balance is compromised because there’s really no penalty for allowing any of the three to make clean catches beyond the arc.
If anything is to become of this perimeter mix, at least one of the three will need to become a consistent catch-and-shoot threat from three-point range. Henderson, despite being the oldest of the three at 25, is easily the most realistic candidate. He converted just 21.6 percent of his 102 three-point attempts in his first three seasons — miserable accuracy from a clearly reluctant shooter. But with Charlotte’s desperation for floor-stretching wings evident, Henderson shifted his approach in 2012-13. He attempted 100 threes alone last season, making a far-better 33 percent. (The league average was 35.9 percent) Better yet: He hit 43.6 percent of his spot-up threes, according to Synergy Sports.
Those numbers form the basis of real optimism for what is essentially an unexplored area of Henderson’s game. He’s not a chucker with a long history of woeful percentages, but a wing who never seemed all that comfortable attempting shots beyond 18 feet or so. If Charlotte can continue to encourage Henderson to take those shots and prioritize his shooting development, his arrangement with Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist at least has a chance to develop into something worthwhile. If not, then a decision will need to be made soon about their respective futures — with Henderson perhaps the first to go.
Metta World Peace, New York Knicks
The 33-year-old forward shoots more than he should and too often deviates from the offense with wild freelancing, but World Peace fills a void for the Knicks all the same. New York guard Iman Shumpert and center Tyson Chandler are terrific matchup defenders. World Peace should wind up as the bridge between them — mobile enough to guard the wings who are too big for Shumpert and strong enough to battle with the versatile big men whom Chandler has no business guarding. No other Knick can match the specific defensive range of World Peace, who should take on the weird, tweener assignments that the defensively ill-equipped Carmelo Anthony would take otherwise.
World Peace’s presence might also offer the simplest means of pulling Anthony back into the power forward slot, an arrangement that worked tremendously well for the Knicks in recent seasons. With World Peace, New York now has a defender who can handle the more difficult of either forward assignment, freeing Anthony from a tough cover while still keeping the Knicks’ offense well spaced. That’s more or less an optimal arrangement under the circumstances, though it could be a challenge to find minutes for that kind of orientation now that Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani will both be rotation regulars.