NBA PM: Who Are the X-Factors in Finals?
VIDEO OF THE DAY - Trevor Mbakwe
HOOPSWORLD catches up with Trevor Mbakwe at the ASM Sports pro-day.Watch More Video Here
Who Are the X-Factors in the NBA Finals?
The most important players in the NBA Finals are obvious. The seven-game series will likely come down to the Miami HEAT’s new Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh versus the San Antonio Spurs’ old Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. These are the players who will be expected to contribute the most and fill the stat sheet for their respective team.
However, each team also has an X-Factor whose play will have a huge impact on the series. Miami has Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who has emerged as a key contributor for the HEAT since he was signed in January. San Antonio has Kawhi Leonard, who has been one of the Spurs’ best players all season long and remains one of the league’s best kept secrets.
Sure, players like Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen will contribute for Miami while Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal will chip in for San Antonio, but it’s unlikely that these role players will affect the series as much as Andersen and Leonard.
Who would have thought that a player who was initially signed to consecutive 10-day contracts back in January would become one of Miami’s key contributors? Andersen has been an important interior presence for the HEAT and one of the team’s most productive and consistent players outside of the Big Three. He’s 34 years old, but you would never know it from watching him play. He contributes on both ends of the floor, swatting shots or grabbing rebounds on defense and setting screens or scoring at the rim on offense.
During the playoffs, he has averaged 7.1 points while shooting 82.6 percent from the field, along with 4.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Andersen knocked down 16-of-18 shots in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers and he was perfect from the field in all but one game of the series. He has also added some toughness to the HEAT, even if it does get him in trouble sometimes like when he shoved Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough and received a one-game suspension.
However, that suspension showed just how much Miami needs Andersen. Without Birdman in Game 6, the Pacers were able to dominate inside, scoring 44 points in the paint. The HEAT also missed Andersen’s ability to score easy baskets. When James or Wade drive and attract the defense, they often dump the ball off to their big man for a dunk or lay-up. These easy opportunities to score are why Andersen was almost perfect from the field against Indiana. However, with Andersen out, Joel Anthony was the player receiving these passes and he wasn’t able to convert the opportunities into points. He struggled, scoring just two points and going 1-of-5 from the field in Game 6. Miami knew that Andersen had become a key piece for them, but didn’t realize how much they needed him until he was out. It’s no coincidence that the HEAT’s record since Andersen signed is a remarkable 52-7.
One of the most frequently asked questions leading up to the NBA Finals has been: Which player outside of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili is the most important for the Spurs? The answer is clearly Leonard, but the fact that this is even being asked shows just how underrated the 21-year-old small forward is, even after a very productive sophomore season. Leonard is still an unknown to casual basketball fans, but that will certainly change during the Finals, when the second-year player will likely have his coming out party.
Leonard will have the daunting task of guarding James on the NBA’s biggest stage, but if anyone can handle that task it’s Leonard, with his large frame, terrific athleticism and freakish physical attributes such as a 7’3 wingspan and the largest hands ever measured at the NBA draft combine (9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide). Leonard has been the Spurs’ lockdown defender on the perimeter all season and he has led San Antonio in steals during the playoffs, averaging 1.6 per game. He’ll be fine matching up against James on the wing (as fine as any defender can be against James, that is).
Not only is Leonard one of the Spurs’ best defenders, he has also been one of their top offensive weapons during the postseason. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Leonard has averaged 13 points per game, which is actually more than Ginobili’s 11.5 scoring average. Leonard has also done an excellent job protecting the ball, averaging just 1.1 turnovers (less than Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Splitter) despite his increased role on offense. Leonard has also been a force on the glass, averaging eight rebounds per game. Leonard has been filling the stat sheet throughout the playoffs and the Spurs need that to continue in the Finals if they want to take down the reigning champion HEAT.
The Transformation of Adonis Thomas
As soon as Adonis Thomas’ sophomore season at Memphis came to an end, the 20-year-old made his way to the renowned IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, FL. Thomas knew that he had a lot of work to do as he prepared for the 2013 NBA Draft, especially when it came to changing his body.
At Memphis, Thomas often played inside and rarely got to show off his perimeter game, especially after he gained weight while recovering from the ankle surgery that sidelined him during his freshman season. However, Thomas arrived at IMG determined to change his body and transform himself into an NBA-caliber wing, and that’s exactly what he did. The coaches at IMG developed a customized plan for Thomas and sculpted his body while also working on his perimeter skills.
“I’ve lost about 10 pounds and lowered my body-fat percentage by six percent since I started working out down there,” Thomas said. “I’m at 230 lbs. now and I want to get to about 225 lbs. by summer league. I’m really getting my athleticism and explosiveness back in my game.”
He looks completely different and executives raved about his transformation when they first saw him at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. At 6’6, Thomas looks the part of an NBA wing and he has all of the physical tools to flourish in the league including a 7’1 wingspan and 8’3 standing reach. Thomas met with many teams at the combine and felt he impressed the executives and scouts at the event.
“I think it went really well,” Thomas said. “It was a great opportunity for the scouts to come out and see all of the guys, how they look and what they’ve been working on during the summer. They got a chance to see my body and how much it has changed. [The feedback] was great. They asked questions about my family, what type of person I am, why I like the game, why I deserve to be in the NBA, what type of player I’ll be and what I bring to a team.”
Thomas will be busy in the next few weeks because he’ll be working out for a long list of teams. After seeing Thomas at the combine, a lot of teams wanted to schedule an individual workout with him so that they could see him at their facility and evaluate him further.
Before the draft, Thomas will work out for the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers among others. He’ll have the opportunity to show off his new body and his improving perimeter skills.
“I’ve been working on my outside shot and on handling the basketball,” Thomas said. “I wanted to improve my shot since I was kind of inconsistent during the year. Now, I’ve worked on it a lot, moved my range out further and expanded my perimeter game.”
In the NBA, Thomas believes he’ll play shooting guard. At his size, he would be able to cause some match-up problems with other two-guards and be able to score inside and out.
“Being a bigger wing and moving to the two-guard spot, I’ll be stronger than most twos and I’ll be able to post up smaller guards,” Thomas said. “I’ll also be able to make open shots and be able to move without the ball. I’ll also bring that defensive intensity. Coming into the NBA, a lot of rookies are used as defensive players and that’s how you get minutes on the floor. I want to be able to play defense at a high level so that I can get on the court and contribute as much as possible at the next level.”
Because he’s a big shooting guard with a versatile skill set, Thomas has drawn comparisons to Joe Johnson as well as Caron Butler.
“A lot of people have compared me to Joe Johnson based on my body type and my ability to hit the outside shot,” Thomas said. “I think I’m more athletic than him and I’ll bring more defensive intensity on the floor, but I do think it’s a good comparison. There may be some more. Coach [Damon] Stoudemire mentioned that he wanted me to be a Caron Butler type of player on the perimeter. There are a lot of different guys, but I definitely want to make a name for myself.”
Thomas has been working hard this summer so that he’ll have an opportunity to make a name for himself. NBA teams have been intrigued by Thomas since high school, when he was named a McDonald’s All-American and one of the top recruits in his class, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would someday be in the league. That day is finally approaching and Thomas’ NBA dream will likely become reality in a little over three weeks.