The Biggest X-Factor for Every NBA Title Contender
Coming out of the All-Star break, the NBA world knows which teams are contenders, which are pretenders and which are trending toward a pursuit of the best odds in the 2018 draft lottery.
Given the devastating effectiveness of 2017-18's top squads, the first category is a rather tiny one.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and revamped Cleveland Cavaliers are fighting it out for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and a chance to represent their half of the Association during the Finals. A two-horse race has emerged in the West, with a pack of teams trailing the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets by a substantial margin.
But who could push these outfits—plus a few notable honorable mentions—toward even higher levels of play during the league's second season? Which men can emerge as the X-factors and spark more success for their respective teams?
We're not worried about the best players, or even those with the most untapped potential. These are the contributors who could realistically change something about their performances—whether developing new skills or finding a bit more consistency or getting healthier—and improve the title chances of their teams.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins
Making the jump into title contention is a tough ask from any team, but especially so for one coming off a year in which it finished well outside the Western Conference playoff picture with a 31-51 record. The Minnesota Timberwolves are still doing their darnedest, coming out of the All-Star break with five more victories than they earned all of last year, thanks largely to a deadly offense.
All these strides have come while Andrew Wiggins still disappoints. He sits ahead of only four players in NBA Math's total points added and at No. 249 in ESPN.com's real plus/minus, sandwiched between Pat Connaughton and Ish Smith. He's scoring plenty of points but doing so while slashing just 43.8/31.5/63.4. He only has three more assists than turnovers. He's made slight defensive improvements, yet he remains a major point-preventing liability.
Imagine if his high-upside frame finally started producing like he's worth the max extension he's already inked. Minnesota would have one more star to pair with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, rather than an anchor dragging them down while playing major minutes.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Terrance Ferguson
Terrance Ferguson is a 19-year-old rookie for the Oklahoma City Thunder who's widely viewed as a long-term prospect. He's played only 12.5 minutes per game during his first 43 NBA appearances, averaging 2.9 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.3 assists while shooting 38.8 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from downtown and 83.3 percent from the stripe. Up to this point in his young career, his highlight-reel dunks are the most notable part of his resume.
But the Thunder desperately need someone who can replace some of what Andre Roberson offered, since the Defensive Player of the Year candidate is now lost for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured left patellar tendon. Oklahoma City had produced a 10.0 net rating with him on the floor (tops among rotation members). Without him, the number plunges to minus-0.8.
Alex Abrines and Kyle Singler aren't filling that role. Josh Huestis is a decent defender but offers limited upside. Through attrition, Ferguson is the Thunder's best bet at somehow squeezing similar production out of their internal options, though he's a long shot to become an X-factor so impactful that he can push OKC back into the realm of legitimate contenders.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
While head coach Gregg Popovich paces the sidelines, picking fights with referees in defense of his players and calling early timeouts to motivate his troops, the San Antonio Spurs should never be considered out of the title picture. His squad is still trending toward the 50-win benchmark it's reached for what feels like an eternity (18 straight years, to be exact).
But the Spurs still aren't really in the hunt. Not with a 3.2 net rating and widespread issues scoring the basketball. LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills and the rest of this makeshift rotation can only keep doing so much of the heavy lifting.
Of course, this changes if Kawhi Leonard recovers fully from tendinopathy in his right quadriceps and is able to resume his challenge for NBA-wide supremacy. The two-way superstar looked like a threat to LeBron James' throne during the end of the 2016-17 season, and picking up where he left off would make the Spurs a thorn in the side of the Western Conference favorites come playoff time.
Unfortunately, it sounds like we might have to wait until the postseason for his re-debut...if it even happens at all. As ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright reported Tuesday, "Pop just said he'd be surprised if Kawhi returns this season."
Here's hoping he elided the word "regular."
Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown
For all the good Kyrie Irving has done with his yo-yo handles, the Boston Celtics still struggle to score the basketball. They're producing just 104.4 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them at No. 21 in the leaguewide standings, in the same realm as the Atlanta Hawks (103.9), Dallas Mavericks (104.5) and Orlando Magic (104.6).
Defense is supposed to win championships, but that truism only holds when the offense is at least palatable. And the Celtics' scoring unit often isn't, especially when Irving is off the floor and Boston can only muster a 99.4 offensive rating.
Head coach Brad Stevens needs to find a second high-volume scorer to share the heavy lifting with the superstar point guard, and Jaylen Brown is the best option. Players such as Al Horford, Greg Monroe and Jayson Tatum are still best served in smaller offensive roles that maximize their relatively limited skill sets and takeover abilities, but the California product has the necessary upside to immediately become something more.
During his breakout season, Brown is averaging 14.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from downtown. He's been an inconsistent presence on the scoring end, partially because he's often exerting much of his energy while taking on tough defensive assignments against the oppositions' premier wings. He has, however, shown the ability to mix together rim-attacking athleticism with twine-tickling marksmanship.
We've already seen Brown break past the 20-point barrier on 10 separate occasions—only twice doing so without hitting more field-goal attempts than he missed. But that type of output needs to become more regular as the Celtics attempt to move through the postseason field and prove their early success in 2017-18 was sustainable.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Larry Nance Jr.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a plethora of X-factor options after overhauling their roster at the trade deadline.
Maybe George Hill could become a perfect fit at point guard alongside LeBron James, thriving in a spot-up role and playing intense defense to spearhead an improved stopping unit. Perhaps Rodney Hood's knack for creating his own buckets as a patient prober could complement the efforts of the four-time MVP. Ditto for Jordan Clarkson, who could provide that necessary backcourt punch. What if Cedi Osman breaks out in a bigger role?
But the most likely X-factor is Larry Nance Jr., both because of his status as an ideal running mate for James and the underrated nature of his play with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"When I saw the trade with Larry Nance, I said, man, he's going to be great for them," former James teammate Chris Bosh told USA Today's Erik Garcia Gundersen at the All-Star break. "An athletic big, you're going to play well with LeBron. I'm telling you his dreams will come true by rolling to the basket. That's all he has to do and be himself to get up and guard those screen-and-rolls. It gives them a little more versatility."
Last year, Nance scored just 0.93 points per possession as a roll man in purple and gold, which left him in the 32.6 percentile. That number is already up to an even 1.0 in his first two Cleveland games, and it should keep improving now that he has James throwing him the rock around the rim, looking to make the most of his prodigious athleticism.
Nance already sits at No. 10 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus among power forwards, thanks largely to his athletic efforts around the basket and ceaseless desire to impact the proceedings on the less glamorous end. As his offense improves, so too will his overall numbers, as well as his role on a contending team.
Golden State Warriors: Jordan Bell
Do the Golden State Warriors need an X-factor?
Their starting lineup is brimming with talent, and the quintet comprised of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia is outscoring the opposition by 7.56 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats.com. They also boast myriad units featuring mixes of bench pieces that torment their adversaries, routinely working in combinations of David West, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw, Omri Casspi and Nick Young.
But they do have one player who could be used even more frequently, thereby lessening the responsibilities endured by elder Warriors and increasing the upside of some oft-used bench lineups.
Jordan Bell, though he's been sidelined due to inflammation in his left ankle since mid-January, has been fantastic in limited run.
The rookie power forward has averaged 12.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. His advanced numbers are universally excellent, whether we're talking about his 19.4 player efficiency rating, his 3.04 RPM (No. 6 among power forwards, trailing just Giannis Antetokounmpo, David West, Anthony Davis, Al Horford and Draymond Green) or his 56.99 TPA (No. 2 among rookies, behind only Ben Simmons). The Warriors are outscoring opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
That last mark is particularly notable because it's the second-best figure on the Golden State roster. Only Damian Jones (27.9 on-court net rating in a meager eight minutes) has proved to be superior, while he outpaces Livingston (14.3), Curry (13.6) and everyone else.
Bell provides an immediate injection of athleticism for an already athletic squad. The team is able to switch everything when he's on the floor, and his basket-attacks keep defenses from sending quite as much attention toward the bevy of shooters.
The Warriors may not need an X-factor. But they'll have one nonetheless when this draft-day gem regains his health.
Houston Rockets: Ryan Anderson
I thought about choosing PJ Tucker, Gerald Green or Luc Mbah a Moute. I really did. But Ryan Anderson makes too much sense, since his flame-throwing habits can push a historic Houston Rockets offense to even greater efficiency.
Though the Rockets are finding plenty of success and emerging as legitimate challengers to the Golden State Warriors' stranglehold on the Western Conference, they're doing so while their sharpshooting power forward has a down season. Anderson is scoring fewer points per game than he has since his 2009-10 efforts with the Orlando Magic, and he's knocking down just 38.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Houston's net rating soars by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when he's riding the pine next to head coach Mike D'Antoni.
But you need only turn to some win/loss splits to see the impact Anderson can have on the team's upside.
When the Rockets lose, the power forward averages 8.8 points and 6.1 rebounds with a slash line of 35.9/31.1/78.3. Despite playing 2.2 fewer minutes in victories, he submits per-game marks of 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds while knocking down 45.7 percent of his field-goal attempts, 41.1 percent of his triples and 79.3 percent of his looks from the charity stripe.
This shouldn't be a surprise. When Anderson is clicking from beyond the arc, he opens up more space in the middle for Chris Paul and James Harden to attack the basket, either creating for themselves or probing for kick-out opportunities. That's doubly true since this stretch 4 is one of those players who finds even more success a foot or two outside the rainbow, thereby dragging larger defenders even further outside the paint.
"At the end of the day, I'm a role player on this team," the big man acknowledged prior to the All-Star break, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "I space the court for those guys. I can't necessarily control how many shots I get. I just need to be aggressive going into pick-and-rolls, play the same way if I'm starting or come off the bench."
He's right. But when he fills that role successfully, he drastically raises the ceiling of this squad.
Toronto Raptors: Dwane Casey
- Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have traditionally struggled in the playoffs, to the point that large swathes of the NBA-watching population are eager to write off their regular-season success.
- Depth isn't as relevant in the postseason, when rotations shrink and coaches hand more minutes to their star players.
- LeBron James is guaranteed to emerge unscathed from Eastern Conference battles.
For the Toronto Raptors to successfully navigate their way through the Eastern Conference portion of the postseason and then take down the Western representative, head coach Dwane Casey will need to subvert a number of postseason tropes:
Casey can't do much about the third truism in a vacuum, but he can prove it false by addressing the other two and flipping the narratives 180 degrees. And really, it all boils down to the second point, because the increased efficacy of Toronto's second unit is already helping the All-Star backcourt thrive.
The Raptors don't boast many big names on their bench, but the amalgamation of talent has helped the second unit earn a league-best 8.8 net rating while playing the sixth-most minutes among all collections of non-starters. Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and CJ Miles have all been valuable presences for the Canadian franchise, and that's before factoring in the beneficial work of Lucas Nogueira in limited action.
In fact, the Raptors have a staggering eight players (Lowry, DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, VanVleet, Poeltl, Wright, Siakam and Serge Ibaka) ranked within the top 100 by Player Score, which I recently used to determine the best efforts throughout 2017-18. How does that stack up against the other teams listed here as title contenders? I'm glad you asked.
The Houston Rockets have four (James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza). The Golden State Warriors check in with six (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, David West, Klay Thompson and Jordan Bell). The Cleveland Cavaliers boast three (LeBron James, Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr.), while the Boston Celtics lay claim to another five (Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown).
Toronto's depth is extreme, and it's on Casey to continue using it in the postseason. For that matter, it's also on him to continue calling for an egalitarian offense rather than falling back on the Lowry and DeRozan isolation plays that frequented the schemes of the 2016-17 Raptors. Only then can they avoid repeats of quotes like last year's about James.
It's all connected. All the pieces matter.
This is a drastically different iteration of the organization than we've seen in the past, but carelessness and/or a lack of conviction from Casey could allow for severe backsliding. His continuing to serve as a Coach of the Year candidate makes for a bigger X-factor than the breakout of any singular on-court figure.