Five Western 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. Rob Mahoney already tackled five X-factors in the Eastern Conference. Next up: five more difference-makers who will go to work in the Western Conference.
Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
The stars were aligning this summer for Jackson, a 23-year-old reserve guard, to find himself on this list, and that was before Russell Westbrook underwent a second knee surgery. Now? The third-year man finds himself tasked with helping keep the Thunder — who lost valuable sixth man Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves in free agency — afloat for the first two months of the season.
The 2011 first-round pick has answered the call before, averaging 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists during the 2013 playoffs, after he was thrust into a starter’s role following Westbrook’s initial injury. While he’s lacking when it comes to deep range on his jumper, Jackson is explosive and opportunistic off the dribble, and he walks the line between “confident” and “over-confident” quite nicely for a young point guard. He’s a fine defender who will win his individual match-up as often as not, and that’s about the best the Thunder can hope for as they deal with the unexpected loss of their uber-durable, All-Star starter. It’s important to note that this should be a tale of two seasons within a season for Jackson, who will need to do some serious heavy lifting when Westbrook is out, and then shift back to a sixth man-type role once Oklahoma City is back to full strength. That could require an adjustment period for both player and coaching staff, as Jackson just isn’t the knockdown jump shooter that Martin was in 2012-13 or James Harden was in 2011-12.
The beefed up luxury tax system has fully sunk its teeth into the Thunder, who are no longer as deep as they have been in recent years. It’s a bit of a shame, considering the type of powerhouse this squad could have been with a Mikhail Prokhorov or James Dolan-like appetite for spending, but Oklahoma City should still be able to navigate its way to the Northwest Division title and a top-three playoff seeding. To get there, Jackson doesn’t need to function at a Martin/Harden level, but he does need to evolve into a reliable No. 4 option that can help keep the pressure on opposing second-unit defenses.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers earned a solid “A” for their 2013 offseason from The Point Forward, and seeing their roster in person during the preseason prompts a simple reaction: This team is freaking stacked. It’s one thing to gaze upon the depth chart while cruising around the Internet, and it’s quite another to see the talent assembled together in the lay-up line. Yes, they really did add Darren Collison as their back-up point guard. And, yes, their wing corps includes Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, Willie Green and 2013 first-round pick Reggie Bullock.
L.A. might not run off 17 consecutive wins like they did last year, but this team, led by Chris Paul, The Point Forward’s No. 3 player of 2014, is sure to enjoy its fair share of highlight-laden blowouts. The potential Achilles Heel is Jordan, who, as noted back in August, sits at or near the top of the “players to blame if their contending teams fall flat” list. No one understands Jordan’s importance to the Clippers’ fate better than new coach Doc Rivers, who has been executing a full court press of positive praise for his 25-year-old center throughout training camp. “You can be a star and a winner by doing it on [defense],” Rivers told the Los Angeles Times almost as soon as training camp opened. “[Jordan] was pretty much that today.”
It’s easy to see where Rivers is coming from. L.A. was eliminated from the playoffs by the Spurs and Grizzlies in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and both teams are back in the championship contention mix with their dominant interiors intact. Toss in Houston with Dwight Howard, and it’s possible that the Clippers’ path to the Finals could include three consecutive playoff series match-ups against teams with All-Star centers. Behind the Jordan/Blake Griffin starting combination, the Clippers’ reserves don’t offer much in the way of bulk: Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens were fine cheap additions, but they’re not going to win a dogfight in the paint come May. With a clear sense for the competition and an equally clear lack of alternate options, Rivers has turned his attention to molding Jordan into the best player he can be.
The skying dunks, vicious blocked shots and free-throw struggles are likely to define Jordan’s game for years to come; however, a step forward in possession-to-possession consistency on the defensive end would put the Clippers in position to take full advantage of their many strengths. He’s not going to transform into Kevin Garnett overnight, and there’s still a decent chance that Clippers fans will spend next June wishing the rumored Jordan-for-Garnett swap had gone through, but real improvement from Jordan would make the Clippers a much more serious threat at the top of the loaded West.
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
There are many good reasons to predict doom for this year’s Lakers: last season’s two best defenders (Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace) are gone, Kobe Bryant’s return date is still a question mark, coach Mike D’Antoni is already talking extensively about managing Steve Nash’s minutes, and a trio of unreliability (Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry) will be tasked with filling in the gaps on the wing.
Envisioning a run at a playoff spot for L.A. under these circumstances starts with a resurgent campaign from Gasol. Knee and foot injuries limited Gasol to a career-low 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds last season, and he also dealt with serious fit issues alongside Howard. New season, new Gasol, right? That’s what the Lakers are hoping, as the 33-year-old Spaniard enters a contract year hoping to rediscover the form that made him a four-time All-Star. Howard’s departure should bring Gasol back to the block on both sides of the ball, a good sign given his age and the health issues that cropped up last season. His touches and shots should also enjoy a nice uptick, as he’s no longer fighting for the scraps that were left after Bryant and Howard ate first and second last season. His vision and touch haven’t gone anywhere: provided that his legs cooperate, he can still score for himself and others, and his understanding of the team concept should be of great use to his new, and less proven, teammates. One major issue: D’Antoni will need to decide how best to use Gasol with new center Chris Kaman, as the twin towers approach is going to run into all sorts of match-up issues if used extensively, but separating their minutes will require bringing lesser talents on the floor.
It’s best not to think of Gasol as the X-factor who could push the Lakers over the top, but as the player who is most critical in keeping them from totally bottoming out. A second straight season of nagging injuries and limited play would be catastrophic for the Lakers, whose best-case scenario is simply avoiding their first trip to the lottery since 2005.
Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers
Blazers GM Neil Olshey called Nicolas Batum his team’s X-factor, Blazers coach Terry Stotts called Batum his team’s X-factor, and Batum called himself the team’s X-factor. Everyone is in agreement, it seems, and everyone is right. The stakes are straightforward: a strong individual season from the French forward should put Portland in a position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011; an average or worse campaign will be prohibitive to the team’s postseason hopes.
Even though he is still just 24, Batum is entering his sixth season, coming off of a 2012-13 campaign in which he put up career-highs across the board. He’s also enjoying the gleam of a EuroBasket triumph, as he played a key role in helping France capture its first international gold medal in basketball.
Despite those appearances, this isn’t a totally rosy picture. The biggest issue is his inconsistency, a flaw that flares up on both ends and one that was exacerbated down the stretch of the 2012-13 season because of a wrist injury. Things have reached the point where everyone, maybe even Batum himself, is simply waiting for the light to click on and stay on. Stotts has expanded Batum’s role, given him the green light to shot, and harped on him to keep his head in the game on a play-to-play basis defensively. Spurs guard Tony Parker took a similar hands-on approach during EuroBasket, going to Batum before the gold medal game to challenge him to step up following a no-show in a hard-fought semifinal against archrival Spain. That approach worked, as Batum scored a team-high 17 points to defeat Lithuania.
The biggest source of frustration, it seems, is Batum’s occasional willingness to stand and watch. A long, coordinated wing who can cause trouble for defenses with his cuts and curls, Batum is also good perimeter shooter, and the three-point line can often be intoxicating. Unlocking his best work, and his team’s most successful offense, will require a healthy mix of off-the-ball movement to go with the spot-up shooting. Before catching the injury bug, Batum occasionally looked like a fringe All-Star candidate, thanks in large part to his new-found distribution capabilities. More reps as a play-maker should help him iron out some of the silly mistakes that dogged him last season, and he will again be a focal point in a motion-based, three-happy Blazers offense that has a chance to be a top-10 attack this season. Playing the third wheel is one of the more difficult lots in NBA life, and Batum is clearly that, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard earning the team’s top billing. Consistency is a tough thing to master in a supporting role, but Portland should do just fine if Batum can find a way to squash the lingering doubts about his engagement and focus.
Eric Gordon, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are attempting a daring leap out of the West’s No. 13 seed with aspirations of fighting for a playoff spot, and such a move could require a 15+ win improvement over their 27-55 record last season. That’s a very tall order, and they’ll need to leapfrog some talented teams to get there. The biggest question: How can they reasonably expect to make such strides without a return to form for Gordon?
A consensus has built throughout the early days of the preseason that Anthony Davis has a very good chance to be one of the league’s most improved players and breakout stars this year. Everything else about the Pelicans’ summer is up for debate. Some liked the win-now move to trade two picks for Jrue Holiday; others questioned whether Holiday’s ceiling was worth that price. Some liked the bold acquisition of Tyreke Evans; others thought it was an overpay. Even if we assume the most optimistic growth timelines and ideal fits for the Davis/Holiday/Evans trio, it’s hard to picture that being enough to get New Orleans over the several humps it will take to get into the playoff discussion.
That’s where Gordon comes in. His 22.3 points and 4.4 assists per game during the 2011-12 jump off the page like a lighthouse beacon: this is the path to salvation, if only the knee injuries that ruined his last two seasons somehow dissipate. As we’ve learned over and over again, recurring knee problems tend to keep recurring. Gordon is striking an upbeat tone, telling the Times-Picayune in September that he has received full medical clearance and he’s never felt better physically since he was traded to New Orleans in 2011.
Now, it’s “prove it” time. Can he be the potent, dynamic scoring option that will make teams pay for over-committing to Davis. Can he team with Holiday to make up one of the best young backcourts in the league? Can he do it for 82 games, a necessity given that New Orleans is younger and less experienced than all of its competition for the final playoff spots? Gordon’s play this year has implications beyond 2014. He is on the books through 2015-16 at more than $14 million per year, and New Orleans simply can’t expect to properly build around Davis if that deal turns into an albatross that crimps their options.