The Biggest X-Factor for Every Team in the 2014 NBA Playoffs
Every team in this year's NBA playoffs has an X-factor—an individual whose impact is hard to account for, but one who inevitably becomes as important to their team's success as the superstars that carried them to the postseason.
These hidden variables have the skills to alter a game or series on their own, and it is that power that makes their story so compelling. They have the potential to make or break their team's championship hopes.
Now, an X-factor doesn't have to be a virtual unknown, even though their major contributions may come as a surprise. It could be a young player who uses the grand stage to up his profile, or it could be a declining or oft-injured veteran that shocks the world by having a little bit more left in the tank.
After examining each of the teams in this year's tournament, these are the guys with the best chance of turning the tide.
As always, reader participation is encouraged. If you agree, disagree or would like to offer up a player of your own, feel free to drop a line in the comments section. We'll go from lowest seed to highest seed in each conference, with the Eastern Conference up first.
No. 8 Atlanta Hawks: PG Jeff Teague
If the Atlanta Hawks are going to stand a chance against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, they will need someone who can take some of the load off Paul Millsap's shoulders. The player with the highest potential of being Robin to Millsap's Batman is point guard Jeff Teague.
Teague has momentum on his side after winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played from April 7-13. During that span, he averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He also shot over 50 percent from the field.
While Teague has been productive for the last three seasons, he's hardly a household name. However, he's got the skills to be a complete point guard. The Hawks may not be able to pull off the upset (although, with how Indiana has played these last few months, who knows?), but he can rise up the point-guard ranks with a strong series.
No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats: SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The Charlotte Bobcats have a pretty potent ace up their sleeve if they can ever get former No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to reach his full potential. Nearing the end of his second season in the pros, MKG's warts have been pretty obvious.
Most notably, his ability to score is hindered by a lousy jump shot. He's shooting a putrid 11 percent from behind the arc. For the season, he's averaging just 7.2 points per game.
However, even during his college days at Kentucky, MKG was never an elite scorer; his game has always been predicated on athleticism and hustle. In the playoffs, you can never have enough young guys that play with a relentless tenacity.
The Bobcats have a solid one-two punch in Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, but they need Kidd-Gilchrist to fill in some of the blanks. He can have an impact simply by doing the little things. If he can chase down a few extra boards or play some tough defense, that will mean more to Charlotte's chances than him lighting up the scoreboard.
It's a stretch to think Kidd-Gilchrist will become a star overnight, but if ever there was a time and a stage for it to happen, this is it.
No. 6 Washington Wizards: SF Trevor Ariza
Trevor Ariza already knows what it's like to be an X-factor. During his championship run with the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers, Ariza made a name for himself by hitting clutch shots and playing some aggressive defense.
After making a few pit stops around the league since that time, Ariza has the opportunity to be the man he once was with the Lakers. This time around, he's the savvy veteran on a young Washington Wizards team finally making a return to the postseason.
Ariza is in the midst of the best season of his career. He's averaging 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds (a career high) and 1.7 steals per game. He's also shooting 45.5 percent from the floor, including a career-high 41 percent from downtown.
With so much attention being paid to the backcourt of Bradley Beal and John Wall, Ariza will be able to continue carving his niche by feasting on open jumpers and playing solid defense. As added motivation, the 28-year-old will also be playing for a new contract this summer.
Just like in '08-09, a strong postseason could catapult Ariza into one last big payday.
No. 5 Brooklyn Nets: SF Paul Pierce
The Brooklyn Nets are such an intriguing enigma that you could have gone with a number of different names in this spot. The starting rotation has enough star power that any of the team's top-four players could swing a series with a spirited performance.
Last year, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson could only take the Nets so far. That's why the team brought in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for one last hurrah. The former Celtics duo brings a lot of playoff experience and championship pedigree to the table.
Of the two aging stars, Pierce's decline has been less obvious. This season, he's averaging 13.5 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from three.
However, Pierce's biggest contributions won't be seen on a stat sheet. With an inexperienced head coach in Jason Kidd, Pierce's leadership (as well as KG's) will be crucial toward getting the Nets over the hump. Even at 36 years old, Pierce can still be a factor on the court.
He may be running on fumes, but there might be just a little bit left in the tank for The Truth.
No. 4 Chicago Bulls: SF Jimmy Butler
It's rare that you see a player with an opportunity to be a playoff X-factor two years in a row. However, Jimmy Butler remains the Chicago Bulls' wild card. After a big postseason performance last year, Butler was poised to take the next step this season.
Instead, the 2013-14 stat line for the kid known as "Jimmy Buckets" has been rather ho-hum. He's averaging 13.1 points and 1.8 steals (sixth in the NBA) per game. He's shooting just 28.5 percent from deep, which is down from his career mark of 31 percent.
Still, much like he did last year, Butler can atone for his pedestrian regular-season numbers with another postseason coming-out party. Last season, he raised his scoring average from 8.6 points per game in the regular season to 13.3 in the playoffs.
With Derrick Rose injured and Luol Deng in Cleveland, the door is open for Butler to be the man many had hoped he'd be and take some of the pressure off Joakim Noah. At just 24 years old, Butler can still develop into a solid two-way player, and the playoffs are the perfect place for it to happen.
No. 3 Toronto Raptors: C Jonas Valanciunas
The Toronto Raptors have been the beneficiaries of many breakout performances this year; shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was an All-Star, point guard Kyle Lowry probably should have been and small forward Terrence Ross had his flashes of brilliance as well.
The biggest breakout (literally and figuratively), however, has yet to come. In an Eastern Conference lacking quality big men, this postseason can be 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas' time to shine. To his credit, he's finishing the season strong.
In his last five games, the big Lithuanian is averaging 17.8 points and 13.4 rebounds. That includes a 14-point/21-rebound performance on April 11 against the Knicks as well as a 26-point/12-rebound night against the 76ers on April 9.
Those kinds of games will only help build Valanciunas' confidence. With more development on the defensive end, he'll be even more of a monster on the inside. Toronto's trio on the perimeter has been good enough to carry the team to the third seed in the East, but his potential emergence makes them a very scary team going forward.
No. 2 Miami Heat: SG Dwyane Wade
It's tough to call a 10-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion and one of the league's best guards a potential "X-factor," as there is no doubt that Dwyane Wade is an established commodity. Even in a season where he's been held to 53 games, Flash is averaging 19.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
Even as he closes out his 11th season in the pros, he's shooting just under 55 percent from the floor.
Still, it isn't unreasonable to wonder how much of a toll the NBA grind has taken on D-Wade. As the seasons have piled up, so have the litany of injuries. Eventually, that wear-and-tear is bound to slow down one of the greats of this generation.
The Heat have made the NBA Finals in each of the last three seasons thanks in large part to the greatness of LeBron James, but also due to the contributions of Wade and Chris Bosh. While King James is strong enough to carry a team on his own, he needs Wade to lighten the load if he wants to make it back to the Finals.
Even as the No. 2 seed, the Heat are the team to beat in the East. However, the landscape of the conference has changed. The teams around them have developed in a never-ending effort to dethrone the champs.
Whether the Heat make it to an astonishing fourth straight NBA Finals is dependent on what version of Dwyane Wade shows up. If he's back to his old form, this is a moot argument. But if his body starts waving the white flag, the Heat might not have enough to gut out another championship run.
No. 1 Indiana Pacers: C Roy Hibbert
Much like the Miami Heat with Dwyane Wade, the Indiana Pacers' championship hopes are dependent on which form of Roy Hibbert shows up. If he's the towering colossus that he's been throughout his career, Indiana will once again be in the mix for an NBA championship. If he's the guy that looked spent down the stretch, the Pacers could be in trouble.
Indiana survived some shaky play in the second half to nab the top seed in the East. Even with its struggles, it should have little problem disposing the lowly Atlanta Hawks.
However, the last time the Pacers faced the Hawks, Hibbert was benched midway into the second quarter after failing to register anything but a turnover in nine minutes of play. After the game, head coach Frank Vogel had this to say to Candice Buckner of the Indianapolis Star about his prized big man:
I considered resting Roy before tonight's game because he looks worn down; he's a 7-2 player that's played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He's giving good effort, but he looks to me to be worn down.
It's possible that fatigue did indeed set in for Hibbert, but what about his performances afterward? After sitting out against the Milwaukee Bucks, the former Georgetown Hoya registered just five points and one board in 34 minutes against the Heat on April 11. Two days later, he didn't score a single point in 27 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Without Hibbert's dominance, the Pacers are a mess inside. Midseason addition Andrew Bynum can't be relied upon to stay healthy, let alone be a key contributor, and Ian Mahinmi isn't very inspiring either.
The talent around Hibbert is good enough to get Indiana into at least the second round, but if Hibbert can't return to form, this year will once again end in disappointment for the Pacers.
No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies: PG Mike Conley Jr.
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. seems to get better as the years go by. He's raised his scoring average in each of the last three seasons, and he's becoming a chief thief on the other end of the court.
This season, the former Ohio State standout is averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He's also shooting close to 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from behind the arc. By now, Conley's excellence shouldn't sneak up on anyone.
However, there's still the scary thought that he might keep getting better. Conley has made his mark by holding his own with some of the game's best at his position. He gave Chris Paul everything he could handle for two straight years in the playoffs.
This year, he has a possible matchup with Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs, depending on how the Grizzlies' final game of the season goes (they are still battling Dallas for the seventh seed). The Spurs eliminated the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals last year, but this has the makings of an exciting rematch.
As the team's biggest threat on the perimeter, Conley is key for Memphis pulling off the upset. He has to be able to prove he can get the best of Parker on both ends of the court for an entire series. If he continues to evolve, we may look back at this showdown as a passing of the torch.
No. 7 Dallas Mavericks: SG Monta Ellis
Shooting guard Monta Ellis played a huge part in the Dallas Mavericks' spirited run into the playoff picture. For his recent efforts, Ellis won Western Conference Player of the Week honors for April 7 to April 13. During that stretch, he averaged 25.7 points, 4.7 assists, four rebounds and one steal per game.
Once the playoffs start, it will be up to Ellis to take some of the scoring load off of last week's Player of the Week, Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks don't have another reliable offensive weapon beyond their top-two scorers.
Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are on the wrong side of 30, while point guard Jose Calderon is more of a passer than a viable offensive threat. The Mavericks will have a tough time keeping up regardless of who they draw in the opening round, but that battle will become tougher if Ellis can't draw attention away from Nowitzki.
Dallas will also need Ellis' continued efforts on the defensive end, as the 28-year-old's 1.7 steals per game rank 11th in the NBA.
No. 6 Golden State Warriors: SG Andre Iguodala
The Golden State Warriors didn't bring Andre Iguodala in this past offseason for his scoring, as they already have plenty of that in the form of The Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and David Lee. They picked him up because he's one of the best defenders in the league.
The Warriors defense, which ranks ninth in the NBA in points allowed per game this season (99.3 points per game), took a huge hit when center Andrew Bogut fractured his rib in Sunday's overtime loss to Portland. He is now out indefinitely, per Royce Young of CBS Sports, and his absence makes Iguodala's defense even more of a necessity.
According to 82games.com, opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 46.5 percent when they've faced Iguodala this season. That kind of lockdown defense will be huge in their upcoming first-round series with Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers, who rank first in the league in offensive efficiency, per ESPN.
Iguodala's ability to slow down the Clips to buy time for this dynamic Warriors offense will be key in Golden State pulling off an upset. Without his efforts on defense, this series will become a glorified shootout, and the W's will have a tough time stopping L.A.'s balance on offense.
No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers: C Robin Lopez
Center Robin Lopez is quietly having a solid season in his first year with the Portland Trail Blazers. He's averaging 11 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks (eighth in the NBA) per game with a PER of 17.5 (third-best on the team). He's also shooting nearly 55 percent from the field and 82 percent from the line.
With the exception of his scoring (down .3 points from last year) and field-goal percentage (his best since 2009-10), all of those stats represent career highs for the kid out of Stanford. The most important part of Lopez's efforts, though, is his work on the defensive end.
On a team that allows 102.7 points per game (22nd in the NBA), Lopez represents the closest thing Portland has to a defensive threat. His ability to protect the rim will be especially important in the Trail Blazers' first-round showdown with the Houston Rockets.
Houston is a team that likes to attack the rim. It also has the league's best center in Dwight Howard. It is crucial that Lopez not only contests Houston's shots at the rim, but also makes Howard work for everything he gets on both ends of the court.
No. 4 Houston Rockets: C Omer Asik
This could have gone a number of ways. You can make an argument for Chandler Parsons, who plays a huge role as the team's de facto third option. You could talk yourself into putting Patrick Beverley in this spot because he's the team's lone perimeter defender. And you could even make a case for Jeremy Lin.
Of all the potential candidates, however, Omer Asik offers the most upside. For starters, he could very well be the best backup center in these playoffs. If Dwight Howard were to get hurt or in foul trouble, the Rockets could put Asik in and not miss much of a beat.
The real wild card, though, is whether Asik and Howard can work together. So far this season, the experiment hasn't really worked out. Some of that could be blamed on a lack of time playing together (thanks to injuries), and some of it can be blamed on their styles being too similar.
However, if the Asik-Howard tandem works, even as a short-term option, the Rockets will have a huge edge on the glass and on the defensive end. Asik doesn't offer much on offense, but he's excellent on the boards and at protecting the rim.
When you pair that with a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who is fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game, that's going to be a nightmare for opposing offenses.
The season got off to a bad start for Asik due to trade demands and injuries, but he can make up for all of that with a solid showing in the postseason. If he still truly wants out of Houston, there is no better way to audition for potential suitors than to come up big when it matters most.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers: C DeAndre Jordan
The biggest testament to the impact that head coach Doc Rivers has had in his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers is the improvement of DeAndre Jordan. Jordan is posting career highs in points (10.6), rebounds (13.8) and blocks (2.5, third-best in the league) per game.
His 67.5 percent shooting from the field (best in the NBA) is his best effort since 2010-11 (68.6 percent). Rivers has transformed Jordan from a niche player to a double-double machine who is a dark horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Defense is where Jordan will make his biggest impact in the postseason. For all of Blake Griffin's greatness, he still has work to do as an interior defender (though he's shown improvement in that area). Jordan is the only big man on the roster with better-than-average skills at protecting the rim.
The lack of depth inside stands as the Clippers' biggest potential Achilles' heel. Of course, none of that matters if Jordan continues to emerge as one of the league's best centers.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder: SG Jeremy Lamb
Jeremy Lamb was once one of the big prizes in the trade that sent James Harden to Houston. Nearly two years later, Lamb has yet to make the type of impact that Oklahoma City was hoping for. This season, the former UConn star is averaging 8.5 points per game.
However, after losing Harden and Kevin Martin in back-to-back years, OKC could use someone that can provide a consistent spark off the bench. Jackson has been solid when he hasn't filled in for Westbrook in the starting lineup, but the team could get a real boost if Lamb contributes as well.
Traditionally, the playoffs have been where the Thunder's young players come of age. If Lamb becomes the latest prospect to emerge, the Western Conference would appear to be Oklahoma City's to lose (if it isn't already).
The Thunder don't need Lamb to be the man right now, but his success would help justify the Harden trade. It also would ease the minds of those concerned over whether Lamb will ever live up to his potential.
Granted, he's only 21 years old, but if Lamb's breakout isn't coming soon, will it be coming at all?
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs: SF Kawhi Leonard
On a team with so much established talent, the San Antonio Spurs' X-factor had to be Kawhi Leonard by default. It also helps Leonard's case that the team seems to be a different animal when he's on the floor.
Rockets.com writer Jason Friedman tweeted out this stat prior to Houston's clash with the Spurs on April 14: San Antonio is 54-11 this season when Kawhi Leonard plays (8-8 when he's out). That's a pretty impressive record as well as a testament to Leonard's impact on the Western Conference's top-seeded team.
Leonard has grown exponentially in the three short years he's been in the league, and he's developed into one of the NBA's rising stars. His contributions to the team go beyond what the box score represents, though, as he brings a special kind of tenacity and hustle.
Most importantly, he provides fresh legs on a team with a lot of aging veterans.
To make it back to the Finals, the Spurs will need Leonard's excellence on the boards and in defending the perimeter. He's averaging 6.3 rebounds per game, and opponents are shooting 47.3 percent from the field against him, according to 82games.com.
Role players have a history of emerging under head coach Gregg Popovich; we've seen it with guys like Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Gary Neal. However, Kawhi Leonard is more than just a role player.
As the 22-year-old continues to develop, he represents the potential future of the franchise as the old regime continues to get long in the tooth.