The Biggest X-Factor for Every 2017 NBA Playoff Contender
If an NBA team has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, it should still be looking for every possible way to get better.
Even this year's juggernauts—the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, above all else—have room for improvement. That's doubly true for squads like the Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks, who are fighting uphill battles to qualify as their respective conference's No. 8 seed.
Oftentimes, one player can make all the difference—the X-factor, if you will. Whether by maintaining his recent level of play or boasting untapped (but accessible) potential that could significantly aid his team's cause, these non-stars could be the differences between early exits and deep runs, or lottery finishes and first-round battles.
For the purposes of this article, we're only looking at the X-factors for the playoff contenders. And due to the parity of the NBA's current middle class, a staggering 22 teams qualify, with the New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings serving as the top teams left out in each half of the league.
Atlanta Hawks: Ersan Ilyasova
Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
The boogeyman is always looming. For the Atlanta Hawks, that fearsome specter is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have proved too much to handle in the playoffs time and time again. Barring some drastic improvement, he'll strike once more if the two franchises should meet in the 2017 postseason.
Atlanta has established itself as a strong defensive unit. That's the primary reason it's in the hunt for home-court advantage during the opening round.
But the offense often grinds to a halt, and Ersan Ilyasova, who was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers just before the trade deadline, could be a quick fix. The veteran power forward has basically refused to miss during his first few games in a Hawks uniform, validating the idea that he's a strong fit in the schemes employed by head coach Mike Budenholzer, which often rely on frontcourt players providing spacing.
Though Atlanta will have to work to overcome Ilyasova's defensive porosity and the shooting regression that's inevitably coming, the new element he adds makes the offense a bit more potent. If he catches fire during the postseason, the defense is strong enough to hang with most Eastern Conference opponents.
Boston Celtics: Avery Bradley
Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
Avery Bradley hasn't quite been himself this year, in large part because he's been forced to overcome a problematic right Achilles that keeps knocking him out of the lineup. His offensive game has been excellent, but his defense has lagged behind, despite his sterling reputation as one of the NBA's most pestilent presences.
According to ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, Bradley has been a distinct negative, sandwiched between Ben McLemore and James Harden to sit at No. 71 among the league's 97 shooting guards. NBA Math's defensive points saved isn't quite so harsh, listing the 2-guard as a slight negative. And the Boston Celtics have allowed an additional 4.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, though that's partially due to Isaiah Thomas' turnstile imitation.
Imagine if a healthy Bradley could change those numbers and live up to his reputation.
He's already been a tremendous rebounder, solid facilitator and legitimate floor-spacing option for the C's. But if he could resume his status as a two-way player, Boston would grow even more dangerous in its quest to end LeBron James' Eastern Conference reign of terror.
Charlotte Hornets: Cody Zeller
Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks
The Charlotte Hornets aren't the same team without Cody Zeller.
Seriously. Look at the numbers:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|With Zeller||108.2 (No. 9)||100.9 (No. 2)||7.3 (No. 3)|
|Without Zeller||103.7 (No. 25)||107.1 (No. 21)||minus-3.4 (No. 25)|
Zeller still doesn't receive much national hype, but that should start to change now that his importance to head coach Steve Clifford has become so readily apparent. Not only is he a tremendous interior defender but also his screen-setting and knack for efficient scoring helps make the Charlotte offense hum.
The Hornets like to begin their offensive possessions with Kemba Walker handling and waiting for a screen at the top of the key. But no player's picks free him up quite like Zeller's, who trails only three players in screen assists per game and still has time to excel as a roll man (60.4 percentile).
It's no mere coincidence that his quadriceps injury, which forced him to miss 13 games during the middle portion of the 2016-17 calendar, overlapped with the Hornets going 2-11 and falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Now, his return could help them narrow the gap and climb back into contention for the No. 8 seed.
Chicago Bulls: Bobby Portis
Per-Game Stats: 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Is the idea of Bobby Portis better than the actual version the Chicago Bulls get to deploy?
At the very least, there's a chance. The former Arkansas standout has done little to prove himself after submitting promising stretches during his rookie season. He still doesn't look the part of Chris Bosh 2.0, despite flashing that floor-spacing ability, athleticism and understated interior protection when given opportunities in 2015-16.
Now, with Taj Gibson suiting up for the Oklahoma City Thunder, tapping into Portis' upside might be the team's only chance of upping its ceiling. He's been thrust into the starting lineup, but he's only responded by averaging 11.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.2 blocks while shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from downtown.
Those are solid numbers, but they need to become special for Chicago to overcome the poor shooting that's plagued it throughout the current campaign.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Deron Williams
Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
"We need a f--king playmaker," LeBron James told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin in late January. "I'm not saying you can just go find one, like you can go outside and see trees. I didn't say that."
The Cleveland Cavaliers may have found one.
Signing Deron Williams after the veteran point guard was released by the Dallas Mavericks could be a huge boost for the title defense. But that will only be true if Williams can regain his shot while working in a new uniform. He's struggled tremendously ever since joining the Cavaliers.
At this stage of his career, the 32-year-old floor general can legitimately function as a true playmaker, capable of setting up his teammates and using a not-quite-as-devastating-as-it-used-to-be crossover to leave defenders in the dust. But if his shots aren't falling, his offensive value isn't high enough to negate his shoddy defense, which will force Cleveland's bench to remain slightly inadequate.
Basically, if Williams doesn't pan out, the Cavs may still need a f--king playmaker.
Dallas Mavericks: Seth Curry
Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Lost in the hype associated with Dirk Nowitzki's successful quest to join the 30,000-point club and the rise into playoff contention is the simple fact that Seth Curry has been the team's best player.
Shooting is what stands out first, and not just because of his last name. The combo guard is averaging 12.9 points while knocking down 48.7 percent of his shots from the field, 43.5 percent of his three-point attempts and 83.1 percent of his free-throw tries. His effective field-goal percentage (58.5) and true shooting percentage (60.5) look rather similar to his older brother's numbers—57.2 and 61.8, respectively.
But Curry isn't just a sniper. He's honed the other parts of his game, and those new elements are the pieces that have allowed him to play a prominent part in the playoff push.
"He's been very consistent at both ends. Everyone knows he can score, but his defense has been a pleasant surprise," Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle told Bleacher Report about what's impressed him most. "He's handling things well."
Denver Nuggets: Emmanuel Mudiay
Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
While Emmanuel Mudiay sat out and nursed his injuries, the Denver Nuggets asserted themselves as favorites for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. With Jameer Nelson leading the charge and Jamal Murray filling in as the backup point guard, Denver went 7-7 during Mudiay's late-season absences.
Right now, the 21-year-old makes the team worse. That point basically can't be argued, since he's a matador on the defensive end and still struggles excessively with his shot.
But the turning point could come at any time.
It's strange how quickly the world has turned on Mudiay, considering he was drafted as a raw teenager who hadn't played collegiate basketball. Going to work in China isn't adequate preparation for the NBA, and yet it often seems as if the Nuggets want him to operate on an expedited developmental timetable.
Mudiay is still young. He's still learning how to work against NBA guards, and he should be afforded some patience.
If he breaks out, this team only grows more dangerous.
Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson
Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
This isn't how Reggie Jackson's 2016-17 season was supposed to go.
Last year was solid for the former sixth man. But while this one was intended to solidify his status as an All-Star candidate, it's instead seen him exposed while working to recover from a preseason knee injury. Jackson hasn't been able to get healthy, and it shows.
The weakness has been especially evident on defense, where the 1-guard has functioned as one of the Association's worst defenders. He can't close out against shooters in timely fashion, and his inability to stop any sort of dribble penetration hinders the Pistons' overall efforts, forcing Andre Drummond (or whoever else is guarding the rim) into way too much responsibility.
But Jackson's offense also hasn't been without its warts, primarily because his aggressive style stands in stark contrast to the game played by Ish Smith. He's forced his teammates to adjust, rather than doing the adjusting himself.
The good news, of course, is Jackson's pedigree. Because if he can turn his season around and finally get that pesky joint healthy, the Pistons could be a tough out in the postseason.
Golden State Warriors: Patrick McCaw
Per-Game Stats: 3.7 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks
No Kevin Durant is problematic for the Golden State Warriors, but there are silver linings to his absence.
Now, during a stretch run that only matters because the Dubs have to stave off any charges from the San Antonio Spurs, they can hand more minutes to Patrick McCaw and see what the rookie swingman brings to the table.
"The ball moves when he's out on the floor," head coach Steve Kerr said early in the season, per SFGate.com's Connor Letourneau. "He just catches it and moves it to the first open guy. And he's very good defensively, too."
McCaw hasn't done enough to move into any Rookie of the Year conversations. Frankly, he doesn't even seem to be the steal he was anointed as after falling from potential lottery pick to the second round. But he's been a steady presence in a number of different areas, and this opportunity could turn him into a super-sub when Durant eventually returns from his MCL sprain and bruised tibia.
You know, because Golden State needs one more quality piece.
Houston Rockets: Trevor Ariza
Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
The Houston Rockets can score with anyone. But if they're going to take a step toward dethroning the Cleveland Cavaliers—or even getting by the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference—the defense also has to be on point.
Thus far, head coach Mike D'Antoni's troops rank No. 2 in offensive rating, behind only the aforementioned Warriors. But they're allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them trailing 14 squads. That's not going to cut it during a title quest, and much of the responsibility falls to Trevor Ariza.
Regardless of who's lining up in Houston's backcourt, defensive help is needed. James Harden is a notoriously poor defender, and the two-man bench-scoring juggernaut of Eric Gordon and Lou Williams doesn't offer much room for improvement.
Houston's interior can protect the rim, but it's up to Patrick Beverley and Ariza to curtail the dribble penetration. And given the versatility the latter is routinely asked to display, that makes him the easy choice here.
Indiana Pacers: C.J. Miles
Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Indiana Pacers have gone small to provide a spark lately, and that's forced C.J. Miles into a new role. Though he typically lines up at small forward, he's been asked to guard power forwards for brief spells, thanks to a philosophy that requires wings to switch on screens and attempt to keep up with a swinging ball.
"I've done some of the drills for it," Miles explained about this new role, per IndyStar.com's Nate Taylor. "On the defensive end we kind of just switch and guard who guards you. On the offensive end, it’s just about us spacing [the court], which kind of helps us because we play off of each other a little bit. I try to take that role in the fourth spot of the screening and stuff just because I have more experience at it."
Paul George is a phenomenal basketball player. Myles Turner is blossoming into a two-way center, courtesy of his rim-protection and floor-spacing touch. Jeff Teague is one of the league's more underrated point guards—a consistent distributor who can spark impressive offensive runs.
But the Pacers need more in their quest to rise up the Eastern Conference standings. And Miles, given his ability to unlock new lineups, can help with that.
Los Angeles Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute
Per-Game Stats: 6.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks
The Los Angeles Clippers even have depth this time around, thanks to the hot shooting of Marreese Speights, improved play from Austin Rivers and the occasional contributions from everyone else. But there's still one glaring hole we haven't yet covered.
No matter how hard they try, the Clippers can't seem to plug the small forward position with a suitable stopgap. They've tried approximately 7,162 different options over the last few years, and not a single one has been so solid that they can stop looking at replacements.
There's no external help coming this late in the year. If the Clippers are going to have a complete team, it'll be up to one of the current pieces, and Luc Mbah a Moute's defensive chops make him the best option. it's as simple as that.
Memphis Grizzlies: Vince Carter
Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
According to NBA Math's total points added, only three players on the Memphis Grizzlies roster have been more valuable than Vince Carter in 2016-17. Marc Gasol paces the team (187.28) and is joined in the upper echelon by Mike Conley (177.12), while JaMychal Green (27.28) and Carter (20.58) battle it out for the bronze medal.
That's an impressive feat in and of itself, considering Carter has celebrated his 40th birthday and could reasonably be commentating on games rather than playing in them. But his commitment to filling a defensive role and spacing out the court as an off-ball sharpshooter has pushed Memphis higher up the Western Conference standings.
It's strange to think that serving as a role player might solidify a player's Hall of Fame credentials, but that could be the case for Carter.
He's already done his time as a superstar. Now, he's altering his reputation by continuing to thrive in a low-profile role, and his work off the bench could help the Grizzlies survive their first-round opponent in the star-studded postseason.
Miami Heat: Dion Waiters
Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
Since working his way back from injury and re-entering the starting lineup, Dion Waiters has averaged 18.0 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists over the course of 22 appearances. Even more impressively, he's done so while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc.
This is what the NBA expected from Waiters when he was leaving Syracuse.
He's playing with unmitigated confidence on offense, never afraid to fire away in clutch situations or carry the scoring load for sustained stretches. He's at least trying on defense, and his overall impact has helped the Miami Heat's out-of-nowhere rise into contention for the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed.
Now, he can't slow down.
Tyler Johnson is having a great season off the Miami bench, while James Johnson's versatility has unlocked so many new possibilities for head coach Erik Spoelstra. But no matter how well those two play, the Heat need to provide Goran Dragic with more help so Hassan Whiteside can focus on his strengths and not be forced into a role that actively hinders Miami's chances at victory.
And that's where Waiters comes in.
Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon
Per-Game Stats: 10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.1 blocks
Malcolm Brogdon may well be the Rookie of the Year now that Joel Embiid is out for the season, limiting his impact to just 31 appearances for the Philadelphia 76ers. But even more importantly, he may be the man capable of lifting the Milwaukee Bucks into the playoffs.
Steadiness is the only way to describe Brogdon's best attribute.
The first-year guard always knows how to diagnose the action, and he rarely gets baited into mental lapses. He's comfortable operating at full speed, which allows him to feed the ball into tight spaces and boast an offensive impact many players only dream about while fresh out of college.
Now, head coach Jason Kidd has to trust him. Especially with Khris Middleton joining the action and helping make up for the loss of Jabari Parker to another torn ACL, he has the pieces around him necessary to lead a legitimately potent offense.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins
Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
If the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to crawl back into the Western Conference playoff picture, Andrew Wiggins will have to make the advanced stats like him.
Though it might be hard to wrap your head around, the young wing hasn't been a highly valuable player despite scoring 23.2 points per game. Those buckets don't always come in efficient fashion, he regularly fails to contribute in other areas and his defense is among the worst in the NBA. ESPN.com's RPM lists him as a below-average player, while only 17 have added more negative value in NBA Math's TPA.
But Wiggins is so talented that he could change that in the blink of an eye, thereby lifting Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and the rest of the 'Wolves into the postseason while Zach LaVine continues to rehab his torn ACL. After all, he's already displaying flashes of growth.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Wiggins' increased activity on defense has coincided with Minnesota growing a bit stingier. He's also attacking the basket regularly instead of settling for as many perimeter jumpers, finally playing the way he needs to in order to live up to his lofty potential.
Don't be distracted by Wiggins' gaudy scoring figures. If Minnesota can stay alive in the playoff hunt, it'll be because those aren't the only positive aspects to his game.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Taj Gibson
Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
Someone has to give Russell Westbrook a bit more help.
Maybe it's one of the men who's spent all season next to the MVP candidate, though it's unlikely someone like Victor Oladipo has another gear he hasn't yet reached. It's more probable that the help could come from a midseason addition, which leaves Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson as the primary candidates.
McDermott hasn't done enough to convince the Oklahoma City Thunder he can be anything more than an end-of-bench scorer. Until his offensive game returns and he figures out defensive positioning, even that may be asking too much from the former Creighton standout. It's Gibson who could instead legitimately boost the Thunder's chances with his mid-range scoring and point-preventing acumen.
Of course, that hasn't happened yet.
OKC has outscored the opposition by 2.3 points per 100 possessions when Gibson sits, and the net rating dips to minus-6.6 when he plays. But that's likely to change as he gains comfort, and he can just keep hitting 61-footers for the time being.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Per-Game Stats: 8.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
"Through six games, the Blazers have a 99.9 defensive rating when Nurkic is on the floor, a number that would lead all teams this season," Kevin O'Connor writes for The Ringer. "The Blazers have had a bottom-four defense this season, so it's a staggering about-face for Nurkic, one of the laziest big men in basketball, to make such a difference."
Then come the qualifications:
"Maybe this will just be a honeymoon for Nurkic and Portland. There may come a time when concentration turns to complacency, and energy turns to lethargy. Nurkic could be the key to the Blazers supplanting the Nuggets as the 8 seed, but he'll need to sustain his effort level for that to happen."
That uncertainty is what makes Nurkic a perfect X-factor. He's played phenomenal two-way basketball since he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers, flashing all sorts of pieces he didn't display in the Mile High City: deft passing touch, defensive energy and more.
If it continues, Portland has a legitimate chance to climb into the playoffs by surpassing Nurkic's old team. But there's also a distinct possibility we could all be witnessing a flash in the pan.
San Antonio Spurs: Dewayne Dedmon
Per-Game Stats: 5.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Unless you're a diehard San Antonio Spurs fan, you're probably underrating Dewayne Dedmon. In fact, even the team's biggest supporters may not yet realize just how much of an impact the 27-year-old center has made.
According to ESPN.com's DRPM, only Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green have been more effective on the point-preventing end, regardless of position. Even when Dedmon's slightly negative offense and limited playing time are factored in, his overall wins added leave him behind just 16 centers, placing him ahead of bigger names such as Andre Drummond and Joel Embiid.
It gets more impressive.
The defensive system put in place by head coach Gregg Popovich typically muffles any on/off noise. It covers up weaknesses and promotes strengths so well that even the best defenders struggle to bring the team to new heights while on the floor. But that doesn't apply to Dedmon, whose presence has dropped San Antonio's defensive rating from a respectable 103.1 to a borderline-unfair 95.6.
This is no fluke, even if his role will shrink with a healthy Pau Gasol back in the fold. Adding him to the Spurs' ever-rich coffers might be what pushes them over the top during a season in which they've been passed over for more glamorous storylines.
Toronto Raptors: Cory Joseph
Per-Game Stats: 8.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks
Without Kyle Lowry in the lineup as he heals from surgery to remove loose bodies from his wrist, primary point guard responsibilities fall to Cory Joseph.
So far, it's gone smoothly.
During his six games as a starter, the Texas product has averaged 11.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 47.0 percent from the field and refusing to turn the ball over. His steady leadership has helped the offense thrive, to the extent that it's scoring 113 points per 100 possessions while he's on the floor.
Obviously, Joseph isn't going to stick in the starting lineup when Lowry returns. The All-Star point guard will immediately resume his old duties, which sends his replacement back to the bench.
But this does help Joseph stave off any advances from Delon Wright, and it might give him the confidence he needs to turn around his season of backsliding in time for the playoffs. If he's a legitimate leader of the second unit, Toronto will grow even more dangerous during the postseason.
Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors
Per-Game Stats: 9.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
"Especially in the case of Derrick Favors, who in reality hasn’t looked right all season, while it’s a frustrating new development to have him sidelined for one of the biggest games of the year, his absence is really not all that shocking," Jared Woodcox wrote for Purple and Blues.
"Favors played great against the Rockets in Utah’s victories last year, however, and it’s no secret that Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles have both been less than adequate substitutes at the power forward position, so it’s definitely a bit of a letdown."
There's no other way to put it.
From the start of the season to the present day, Derrick Favors has struggled to look like, well, Derrick Favors. His knee keeps troubling him, and it limits him significantly even when he is able to step onto the floor.
The Utah Jazz have persevered, to the point that they remain in contention for home-court advantage during the playoffs' opening round. But just imagine what might happen if their fringe All-Star candidate is able to join forces with George Hill, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert while operating at full strength.
Washington Wizards: Bojan Bogdanovic
Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks
It's not hard to figure this one out. Just take a gander at how the Washington Wizards' oft-criticized bench has fared (rank is in comparison to all other second units) before and after the midseason arrival of Bojan Bogdanovic:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|Pre-Bogdanovic||101.6 (No. 28)||107.9 (No. 23)||minus-6.3 (No. 29)|
|With Bogdanovic||106.8 (No. 8)||110.1 (No. 30)||minus-3.3 (No. 21)|
The bench still can't stop a nosebleed.
But with Bogdanovic leading the scoring charge, it finally has a distinct identity, and that's helped it avoid squandering leads like the much-maligned group did prior to the deadline. Some regression may be coming as the former Brooklyn Net cools off, but that's perfectly fine. It should even be expected.
Either way, Bogdanovic has helped fix—to some extent, at least—the team's biggest weakness.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.