NBA Playoffs: Western Conference X-Factors
Now that the full eight-team playoff field in the Western Conference has been set (even if we don't yet know what the matchups will be), it's time to take a look at who some of the most important players in the playoffs will be.
But this list will not include the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki or Manu Ginobili.
We're looking deeper, at who each team's "X-Factor" will be. Who is the most important secondary player that can lead each given team to a deep playoff run? Find out by clicking through...
Memphis Grizzlies X-Factor: Tony Allen
At first glance, Tony Allen doesn't exactly look like an X-Factor type player. With season averages of just 8.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, he doesn't jump off the page as a guy who could really make a difference in a playoff series.
But if you've been watching the Grizzlies at all this season, you know that Allen is the linchpin in what has become a stifling Grizz defense. You know that those per game averages jumped to 11.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game in February, and 14.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in March. And you know that he has averaged 1.8 steals per game for the season despite logging just 20.8 minutes per night.
And if you've been paying attention to the Boston Celtics at all the last few seasons, you know that Allen has the ability to frustrate even the best scorers in the game. Just ask LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Allen will guard the opposition's best perimeter scorer and make it extremely difficult for whoever that may be. Whether it's Kobe, Durant, or Manu Ginobili, they will have to work for whatever points they get.
New Orleans Hornets X-Factor: Carl Landry
When David West went down, the Hornets' hopes of winning a playoff series likely went with him. But if they are to make any noise, Landry will undoubtedly have to step up.
Chris Paul lost his favorite pick and roll partner in West, and Landry has to fill that void. West left an 18.9 point, 7.6 rebound per game hole in the Hornets' lineup, and Landry has to fill it, or the Hornets aren't beating anyone.
More importantly, he has to step up and help Emeka Okafor defend Western Conference big men, which is a (pardon the pun) tall task, to be sure.
Landry has been solid, if not spectacular, since West went down. But 5 point, 5 rebound, 0 assist/steal/block efforts like the one he just put up against Utah's front line won't get the Hornets anywhere.
Portland Trail Blazers X-Factor: Gerald Wallace
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Wallace transformed the Blazers into an entirely different team after coming over from Charlotte. They now have the ability to go big or go small because of both Wallace's versatility and LaMarcus Aldridge's willingness to play more at the five-spot this year.
They can throw now out a front life of Marcus Camby, Aldridge and Wallace and really frustrate teams with their length, or they can play a three-guard lineup with Wallace at the four and any three of Nic Batum, Andre Miller, Wes Mathews, and Brandon Roy on the wings.
He's been nothing short of terrific since arriving in Portland; averaging 15.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game, and playing excellent defense. Defensively, he's almost as important to Portland's success as he is on the offensive end.
His ability to frustrate scorers like Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant is paramount to the Trail Blazers getting out of the first round. He'll guard the opposition's best front court scorer, no matter who it is, and make them work for everything they get.
Denver Nuggets X-Factor: Danilo Gallinari
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Unless you've been living under a rock since late February, you know the Nuggets have been on some kind of roll since they sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, to the tune of an 18-6 record. The whole team looks FREE.
Free of the Melo Drama, sure. But mostly free on the court to do what they do best. Lawson and Felton push the pace relentlessly. Nene pounds and grinds on the inside. Birdman and K-Mart play defense and grab boards. Aflallo and Wilson Chandler man the wings.
But Gallinari is the one guy who can explode as a scorer on any given night. He's been terrific at getting to (and converting from) the free throw line when he hasn't been sidelined with an injury and obviously has one of the better 3-point strokes in all of basketball.
While with the Knicks, he flashed the potential to be a big time scorer; with the Nuggets, he has shown it even more (or maybe it's just been noticed more). Either way, Gallo will need to shoulder that load in the playoffs.
He'll also be counted on, along with Chandler, Aflallo and J.R. Smith to defend the perimeter. The Nuggets have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since the trade, and they will have to continue that defensive prowess in the playoffs to escape the first round.
Oklahoma City Thunder X-Factor: James Harden
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Picking up Kendrick Perkins was a huge key to this team's playoff success. He's the one guy in the league who we know can guard Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Paul Gasol, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, etc. But I'd argue that Harden is just as, if not more important to the Thunder making a deep run.
Trading Jeff Green and inserting both Perkins and Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup opened up a scoring void in the Thunder lineup, and Harden has really stepped up and filled it off the bench. He poured in 16.8 points per game in the month of March.
He's only averaging about three more minutes of playing time per game, but his scoring has gone up over 4.5 points in that time.
That kind of scoring power off the bench is huge, especially when there are three guys in your starting lineup who don't really provide much offense (Thabo Sefalosha is the other). Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to get theirs, but they'll need a complementary scorer to be able to get by any of the West's best.
Los Angeles Lakers X-Factor: Shannon Brown
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As the first guard off the bench for Phil Jackson, Brown has to contribute on both ends of the floor. He's Kobe's back-up, but he'll also play a little bit at the 3-spot for Ron Artest.
He's one of the most athletic finishers in the NBA, and his rim-rattling dunks really get the Staples Center going. That kind of energy and firepower off the bench is exactly what the Lakers have been lacking in their recent losing streak.
Brown turned down bigger offers this summer to stay in Los Angeles because he knows his role and excels at it, and he wanted to win another title. He's going to be intricately important to doing just that, especially as the Lakers slide further down in the standings and will not have home court advantage throughout as they have in the past.
Dallas Mavericks X-Factor: Tyson Chandler
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Dallas is seen by many as the Western Conference team most likely to get upset in the first round of the playoffs. Their history of early flameouts certainly doesn't help.
If they are to stave off a potential upset, Chandler will have to be a beast protecting the rim. We all know by now about Dirk Nowitzki's aversion to defense, but he's by far and away the best player on the team, so he'll play big minutes down low.
Chandler will have to be provide good help defense on scorers like LaMarcus Aldridge or Zach Randolph, and as they move further in the bracket, Paul Gasol and Andrew Bynum. He'll also have to show and then get back on screen and rolls against point guards like Chris Paul or Andre Miller, and later Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker.
Chandler also will have to be a big contributor on the boards to get Dallas' fast break moving. Dirk Nowitzki is at his best when he can get a mismatch off of transition; backing down a smaller defender or driving past a larger, slower one.
San Antonio Spurs X-Factor: DeJaun Blair
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Blair doesn't log a lot of minutes for Gregg Popovich, but the ones he does play are supremely important. His energy and rebounding off the bench are crucial to the Spurs' playoff hopes, especially with Tim Duncan banged up.
Duncan likely won't be able to hold up to the wear and tear of playing 35-40 minutes per night in the postseason, so Blair will be counted on for about 20 minutes a night of doing what he does best.
He's proven himself to be a player who can make an impact on both sides of the floor, despite dropping to late in the second round of the 2009 draft because he doesn't have any ACLs.
Most teams saw a player who couldn't be a superstar because his knees would never hold up, but R.C. Buford and company saw one who would come in and contribute in a positive way immediately.