So often, and rightfully so, the focus of NBA conversations centers on the stars. The Cavs will only go as far as LeBron James takes them. Same for the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. But often what ends up separating teams, at all levels of the league, are the players and dynamics that go less recognized.
The sixth man who provides the spark.
The emerging youngster expanding his role.
The chemistry of a revamped roster.
Here is a division-by-division look at the biggest X-factor for each NBA team heading into the season ...
- The Spurs' gift at finding diamonds in the rough
Every year a player emerges on the Spurs' roster who was a nobody before and suddenly creates a "Hey, this guy's pretty good!" buzz. Danny Green, Gary Neal and even Jonathan Simmons last season ... there's always someone who emerges. This year, the talk is of Livio Jean-Charles and Davis Bertans, but it could be Dejounte Murray or Bryn Forbes.
The Spurs' development system is keen, and they tend to be able to recognize players that will excel specifically in their system. They are the kinds of players that can take the Spurs from a No. 4 seed to a No. 2 seed with their contributions. -- Matt Moore
- Harrison Barnes' ability to handle bigger role
Who else? There isn't a bigger unknown quantity going into the season for Dallas than Barnes. You can't predict or assume a fall-off from Dirk Nowitzki and the guards and centers are all players we largely know by now. But Barnes could be anything. He could be a revelation and grow into a larger role, shining. He could struggle considerably as a bigger part of an offense, and already the Mavericks are working to damper expectations like it's a debate.
If Barnes thrives, he's a do-it-all Swiss Army Knife, who can post, hit threes, create shots off the ball and get out in transition. If he shrinks, he's going to be Jeff Green with a championship ring, and that's going to go badly in Dallas. -- Matt Moore
- JaMychal Green's continued ascension
Health is the easy one here, but I'm going to buck the trend and say Green, who shined last season and emerged as a legitimate stretch-four option, to the point where he began to start over Zach Randolph -- a trend that is set to continue. It's a new system, so he may not fit as well, and trying to excel with expectations is a tougher game, but Green is set to be a key part of the squad going forward for his utility on both ends.
Being able to guard stretch fours (which Randolph cannot do at this point) and switch onto guards (which again, Randolph struggles with) plus being a low-usage offensive weapon makes him very useful. Could last season be a blip, or is Green really set to be a contributor on a stacked starting unit? This is a huge -- and under-the-radar -- key to Memphis' season. -- Matt Moore
- Trevor Ariza's resurgence
He fell off a cliff last season, struggling to shoot and even defend at a high level. He was sluggish and looked lost at times, which we've never seen from Ariza. With the move to Mike D'Antoni's offense, defense becomes premium from those players who are adept at it. Plus, Ariza will likely spend more time at four than he has in prior seasons, and Houston will count on his versatility. Ariza could fill a Shawn Marion-type role, and those players do very well. Ariza doesn't have Wilson Chandler's scoring ability, but he's a player who could really thrive.
But if he checks out or struggles again for whatever reason, Houston could be in big trouble. The Rockets need Ariza functioning at a high level. -- Matt Moore
- E'Twaun Moore
Moore was one of the best value signings in free agency and has started off red hot in preseason for New Orleans. He's a two-way player, able to shoot and create his own shot -- he quietly developed that part of his game last season -- while defending at a high level. The Pelicans' roster overall, after the departures of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, seems very bare in terms of capable NBA talent. But Moore is a guy who could really emerge on this team. He's in a good position, is better than what's known, and could make a major leap. The Pelicans certainly hope that happens. -- Matt Moore
- Zaza Pachulia picking up for Bogut
The journeyman center was nearly an All-Star last season, thanks to a spirited campaign in his native Georgia -- the country -- as well as the unexpected musical support of Wyclef Jean.
Now he's the one non-All-Star in this lineup and, while he's not Andrew Bogut's peer as a defender or passer and, while he's better at the latter than is generally perceived, the Warriors may miss Bogut's unique ball-moving role in their motion offense. Pachulia is better than Bogut as an offensive rebounder (4.5 per 36 minutes compared to 3.0), so the Warriors may get more of something they really don't need -- extra possessions. Call it crash and splash. Plus, if anyone still thinks the Warriors warrant a finesse label, Pachulia's pugnacious presence should take care of any such insinuations. -- Ethan Skolnick
- Marreese Speights' bench scoring
The Clippers ranked fifth in the NBA in bench scoring last season, but roughly two-thirds of that came from their backcourt of Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. They've lacked an offensively productive frontcourt reserve throughout the Doc Rivers era -- even as Spencer Hawes, Glen Davis and Lamar Odom have cycled through -- and that's why Mo Buckets should matter.
He won't wow anyone on the defensive side, where previous top backup big Cole Aldrich did such stout work. But Speights has always had scoring instincts, and now he has stretched his range; after just 79 3-point attempts in his first seven seasons, he took 62 in the 2015-16 regular season and 43 more in the playoffs, making 40 percent of the attempts in total. He's also an excellent free-throw shooter (83.1 percent in three seasons with the Warriors), which will come in handy as a relief option when Rivers sees hackers getting all handsy with DeAndre Jordan. -- Ethan Skolnick
- Marquese Chriss' expedited growth
Timelines again accelerated for young European imports, after Kristaps Porzingis took Manhattan just out of his teens. So it didn't seem crazy that Dragan Bender -- drafted fourth overall and not even 19 until November -- could soar quickly with the Suns.
Turns out that Phoenix's other rookie may be more ready to steal early minutes at a forward spot, even as he's just four months older than Bender, even though he didn't play organized basketball until he was 14, and even after playing just one season at Washington. As a defensive rebounder and positional defender, he's as raw as anything sliced at your sushi spot, but his otherworldly athleticism -- ideal for finishing, switching, swatting -- may make him playable in limited minutes as he grows into the rest of his game, which includes a shooting touch past 20 feet.
Does this seem too soon? Perhaps. But this season is really about seeing snapshots of the future, and it will be fun to see how much Chriss flashes. -- Ethan Skolnick
- Julius Randle finding his role
He has now played 82 games, even if it took him two seasons to get there -- one in 2014-15 and 81 in 2015-16, when he averaged a double-double. This offseason, he spoke of getting into better shape so he can play with more energy, even to push the ball from the backcourt to the break. He's already a solid defensive rebounder, and he has more passing prowess than his assist average suggests.
So there's some skill there, enough that he'll probably maintain something close to his 28.2-minute average even with rookie Brandon Ingram and veteran Luol Deng aboard, and Larry Nance Jr. still around.
What is he, though? A foundational complement to Ingram at the other forward -- and some occasional center? Or a stopgap, until the Lakers finally find a truly premium free agent? Whether he sticks as a long-term front-court starter may depend on whether he sticks more jumpers; that part of his repertoire was unreliable even when entirely uncontested. -- Ethan Skolnick
- Willie Cauley-Stein
Before entering the NBA, the rare Kentucky three-and-done prospect changed his middle name to "Trill." Rajon Rondo wouldn't honor the moniker, calling Cauley-Stein "Rook" instead. Rondo was just passing through, however, while Cauley-Stein is hanging around, and above, the rim. He's devoted to defense, so he'll be exempt from Dave Joerger's attempted attitude adjustment on that end, and he projects as the Kings' primary disrupter, with his ability to storm out from the paint to the perimeter.
On offense, he kept things contained, with 90 percent of his shots inside 10 feet. Peja Stojakovic has helped him with his jumper this summer, and a little more range would help the Kings' spacing when DeMarcus Cousins still chooses to work inside rather than drifting to the arc.
If "Trill" is still on trial, that's not a reflection on him so much as the Kings' draft record since Cousins arrived in 2010: Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore have fallen far short of stardom. For the Kings, though, a star role player will suffice. -- Ethan Skolnick
- Jusuf Nurkic taking the next step
The Nuggets have a ton of young talent filled with potential and no player on their roster is more intriguing than Nurkic. The third-year big man was a revelation as a rookie, but offseason knee surgery caused him to take a step back as a sophomore. He was out of shape and overall seemed uninspired in the 32 games he played last season, yet Nurkic seems poised to get back on track this season.
He looks noticeably slimmer and has been playing well so far in the preseason. At seven feet, Nurkic is a behemoth of a man who, despite his size, is quite agile and mobile. He is a solid rim protector and low-post defender and scorer. If Nurkic becomes a more disciplined overall player this season, he gives the Nuggets a burgeoning elite big man, an essential player to have in the loaded West. -- Ananth Pandian
- Evan Turner's versatility
Portland spent money in the offseason to retain a few of its core players while also adding free agents Turner and Festus Ezeli, but the former is perhaps the one player that can make the biggest impact this season. Becoming a more well-rounded player under the tutelage of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Turner left Boston to sign a four-year deal with the Blazers. He is one of the better wing defenders Portland has and his ball handling will help Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum play off the ball, making the duo more lethal as scorers. -- Ananth Pandian
- Andrew Wiggins becoming an All-Star
The Timberwolves are stacked with young talent, but while Karl-Anthony Towns will surely emerge as the team's de facto star, Wiggins will need to take the next step to really make them a potential contender in the future. Wiggins is a dynamic and versatile scorer and his defense will likely become more honed under the guidance of Tom Thibodeau. However, if Wiggins can morph into an All-Star player, the hype surrounding the Timberwolves will be more than justified. -- Ananth Pandian
- Steven Adams backing up his playoff performance
Russell Westbrook is now the head honcho in Oklahoma City and the Thunder will go as far as he can lead them. However, Adams is the team's X-factor. Adams had a sort of coming-out party in last season's playoffs, emerging as an excellent low-post defender and rim protector.
He is physical and agile, which frustrates opponents to no end, and he's also a strong rebounder. With Serge Ibaka gone, Adams must anchor the Thunder's defense and continue to build on his postseason performance. If he does that, the Thunder should do just fine despite the departure of Kevin Durant. -- Ananth Pandian
- Rudy Gobert
While the Jazz have a bevy of talent, their success this season largely depends on Rudy Gobert. A candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert is one of the best rim protectors in the game and is the anchor of Utah's excellent defense. He has been coming into his own over the past two seasons but injuries have prevented him from really showcasing his full potential. If Gobert can remain healthy, then the Jazz's chance of being perhaps top four or five in the West is almost guaranteed. -- Ananth Pandian
- Terrence Ross' consistency
This isn't the first preseason where the Raptors have sung the praises of Terrence Ross. Throughout his four-year career, the swingman has teased Toronto with his talent, always seeming primed for a breakout when he puts everything together. He can swing a game with his 3-point shooting, but he has never become the slasher or stopper that his athleticism suggests he can be.
Should Ross improve his ball-handling and attack the basket more, he will become a much more dangerous offensive player. He also needs to be a more attentive defender. The Raptors could really use a multidimensional swingman like that off the bench.
If Ross' work in the summer does not translate during the regular season, then it will be time to stop talking about his upside. Norman Powell will be happy to take his minutes, too. -- James Herbert
- Jaylen Brown's upside
You can understand why Boston took Brown with the No. 3 pick in the draft. He's not all that polished on offense yet, but his athleticism is special and he fits what the Celtics are trying to do defensively. Once he gets used to the NBA, just imagine him playing next to Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder -- few teams can match that sort of defensive aptitude and versatility.
Brown is already calling Crowder a "big bro," and he counts Jimmy Butler as a mentor. Like those two, he'll likely start his career as a specialist and then try to expand his game. He's an X-factor, though, because he might actually be able to crack the rotation right away.
Boston coach Brad Stevens has a reputation as someone who puts his players in the position to be successful. In the preseason, Stevens has already used Brown as a small-ball power forward, taking advantage of the fact that he'll almost always have an edge in speed and is unafraid to battle bigger players. If Brown can make an impact in his first year, then there's no deeper team in the East. -- James Herbert
- Jeremy Lin's 3-point shooting
Lin has never been known as a prolific 3-point shooter, but his No. 1 priority this past summer was his jump shot. While his form has changed significantly since Linsanity, he still made only 34.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s and 33.6 percent of his 3s overall with the Hornets last season.
In his first preseason game in Brooklyn, Lin fired away, going 5 for 8 from deep in 17 minutes. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson praised him afterward, saying he has talked to Lin about having confidence in his shot and letting it fly when open.
On Sunday, Lin spoke about his spot-up shooting during an interview as part of The New Yorker Festival. He said that he expected it to be so much of a weapon that he anticipated opposing teams deciding to run him off the 3-point line instead of begging him to take those shots. This is not going to make or break Brooklyn's season, but it would make Lin a more complete player and help a starting lineup that could otherwise struggle with spacing. -- James Herbert
- Joakim Noah's health
About a month ago, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that the organization decided to let Noah go in free agency because he "wasn't going to be a frontline guy anymore." Noah later called the remark "a little bit of a low blow," and now it's up to him to prove Reindsorf wrong.
No one doubts Noah's competitiveness or work ethic. Teammates swear by him, and he's the type of leader that can define a team's culture. New York bet big on him with a four-year, $72 million deal, hoping that he will rebound from an injury-riddled 2015-16 season.
The problem: Last season was supposed to be Noah's big bounceback. He did everything he could to get over his knee issues ... and then he got benched and suffered a freak, season-ending shoulder injury.
If Noah is healthy, he can anchor the Knicks' defense, facilitate their offense and help Kristaps Porzingis grow. The season hasn't even started, though, and he's already dealing with another injury: Noah strained his left hamstring during a practice. -- James Herbert
- Sergio Rodriguez: a different player?
The last time Rodriguez was in the NBA, he was a reserve for the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks in 2009-10, averaging 6.6 points and 3.2 assists with a 55.4 true shooting percentage. For the past five seasons with Real Madrid, he was arguably the best point guard in the Euroleague, and it looks like the Sixers got a bargain when they brought him back to the United States on a one-year, $8 million contract.
Rodriguez's passing and 3-point shooting are important to a Philadelphia team that is short on playmakers, particularly now that rookie point forward Ben Simmons is out with a foot injury. It's possible Rodriguez will start at point guard all season and play a bigger role than he ever did in his first stint in the NBA.
It's also possible to imagine Rodriguez struggling to get into the paint the same way he did in Spain. He'll need to be creative if he's going to make up for the fact that he's not as quick or strong as most starting point guards. -- James Herbert
- Kay Felder's development
Even though Matthew Dellavedova didn't play much in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers will miss him. Dellavedova was Kyrie Irving's primary backup, and he was dependable as both a defender and a floor spacer. (Yes, his shot looks funky, but he made 41 percent of his 3-pointers the past two seasons.) Now that he is in Milwaukee, Cleveland does not have a proven reserve point guard, which means Felder has an incredible opportunity.
Felder, 21, is a 5-foot-9 rookie who can jump out of the gym and play physical defense. If he establishes himself as a part of the Cavs' second unit, then the only real hole on their roster will be rim protection. If he doesn't, Cleveland will need to look at other options. -- James Herbert
- Nikola Mirotic's two-way play
Here's something you've heard before: The Bulls have a spacing problem. With Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler in the starting lineup, they're going to need their shooters to be reliable. That has historically been an issue for Mirotic, a stretch four who shot 31.6 percent in his first season in the NBA and 39 percent last season.
The bad news: Mirotic went 2 for 14, including 0 for 8 from 3-point range, in his first two preseason games, then, in his streaky style, bounced back with an efficient 18-point performance Saturday. For Chicago to outperform expectations, Mirotic needs to not only limit his cold streaks, but also have the best defensive year of his career. -- James Herbert
- Jabari Parker's jump shot
Milwaukee took Parker No. 2 in the 2014 draft for a reason. He is an athletic and powerful offensive player, the kind of guy who can throw down a mean dunk in traffic or create his own shot out of the post. In two years in the NBA, though, he has only taken 51 3-pointers, missing 38 of them. You can't be a stretch four if you don't stretch the floor.
The Bucks didn't even want Parker to shoot 3s last season, but in order for them to make up for the Khris Middleton injury -- and for the good of his career -- they should encourage him to broaden his game this season. If Parker is going to become an All-Star, then he needs to be a threat from all over the court. -- James Herbert
- Myles Turner's positional defense
You can question many of the Pacers' front-office decisions over the past couple of years, but they absolutely nailed the No. 11 pick in last year's draft. While Turner was largely seen as a project, he contributed in Indiana from Day 1. This is a mobile 7-footer who blocks shots and has range on his jump shot. Every team wants someone like him.
Turner, though, did his damage as a reserve with low expectations. Now he has been built up as Paul George's co-star, and the Pacers let Ian Mahinmi walk in free agency. They are counting on the 20-year-old Turner protecting the paint without fouling and improving his pick-and-roll defense. If he doesn't get significantly better in his second year, it will (unfairly) be seen as a disappointment. -- James Herbert
- Boban Marjanovic
Here's my favorite stat from last season: Only Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant had a higher PER than the massive Marjanovic, who averaged 9.4 minutes for the Spurs. The Pistons' front office, led by president and coach Stan Van Gundy, saw enough in that limited time to invest $21 million in him over three years.
"He's truly a very, very difficult to near-impossible guy to defend down low," Van Gundy said before a recent preseason game. "In a league that's big, he's bigger. And he's got great skills. Great hands, can shoot the ball. Offensively, he's really a force. Can pass. So just a really, really skilled guy."
Van Gundy acknowledged that part of the reason the Pistons signed the 7-foot-3 Marjanovic was the fact that they'll likely lose Aron Baynes in free agency next summer. It's possible that he will once again spend most of the season as the backup to the backup, playing only occasionally.
Marjanovic is a unique weapon, though, and few teams employ anybody who can compete with him physically. If he is capable of playing more minutes with the same efficiency, Detroit's bench just got a lot stronger. -- James Herbert
- Justise Winslow becoming a real weapon
This is an easy one, but it's unavoidable. The Heat likely make the playoffs only if Winslow makes a leap this season. He has to be great on both ends, taking a Kawhi-like jump to being a real weapon. He's going to play multiple positions and a lot of minutes.
Winslow is capable of being very much like Leonard: an efficient scorer who can post, come off screens and hit from deep. He shot just 28 percent from 3-point range last season but there's nothing with his shot that you think won't improve with time. He's the poster child of what you want from a modern combo forward. Winslow could be the difference in Miami silencing all the critics and falling into disarray. No pressure for a 20-year-old. -- Matt Moore
- Chemistry after the departures of Horford and Teague
The Hawks in their old variation had incredible chemistry. It was just amazing, with Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha. But two of those guys are gone, and their replacements (Dwight Howard and Dennis SchrÃ¶der) are not known for their willingness and ability to operate in a free-flowing system.
SchrÃ¶der is dogged, but he's also young and struggles with running an offense. Howard, on the other end, has rarely expressed his ability to pass effectively. The Hawks have been great because of their motion. What happens if it turns into more one-on-one play? On the other hand, if the system lifts those guys up, with their individual athleticism and abilities, could it unlock something just as good or better than the previous version?
The Hawks have been great with what they had, but they have new guys now. They need to come together to be greater than the sum of their parts because that's what has brought them so much success through the years. -- Matt Moore
- Frank Kaminsky
OK, I don't think I'll ever get over the Hornets A) not taking the four-pick offer from Boston for their draft pick that they used on Kaminsky a year ago, or B) not taking Justise Winslow if you're going to keep it. I have not been impressed with Kaminsky to any real level, but I'm trying to be hopeful for him here. He's 23 years old, Cody Zeller is a year older and Andre Drummond is a few months younger.
Kaminsky did show some scoring ability and wasn't a total nightmare defensively. If he steps up, it fills a big need for the Hornets. Providing scoring from range and down low while just having that raw size gives the Hornets an option and means they don't have to keep offensively limited Roy Hibbert on the floor all the time. This is a rough X-factor, but with the starters so clearly good and the bench so clearly full of question marks, this becomes the kind of player who could tip their season one way or the other. They need him to play like the value of the pick they used on him. -- Matt Moore
- The Marcin Gortat trade
You don't give Ian Mahinimi that much money if you're planning on using him as a backup. Gortat is still valuable, a veteran, and quite honestly, still better than Mahinmi overall. But with his grousing about the kiddos, overall bluntness, the value of his contract and age, he's just too likely to get moved. If they get good return on him, it could provide the depth augmentation that helps flip the Wizards into the playoffs.
On the other hand, if they just let this situation fester, and don't make a move, it could help poison the locker room, which with their tenuous chemistry, they can't really afford. This is a big storyline to watch. -- Matt Moore
- Aaron Gordon at the 3
Not sure what Frank Vogel is thinking here, but that's his plan, to try and use Gordon as a Paul George-type player. Even on his best day, he's not that kind of shooter, and on his best days, he's still more of a power forward. But there are no minutes down there for Gordon with how they've stocked the roster at the big spots. So Gordon is going to play small forward, which eliminates his size disadvantage but also neutralizes his advantages. This adjustment is a big swing for their season. -- Matt Moore