Every NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 12, 2018

Every NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

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    It took all 82 games to get sorted out, but the 2018 NBA playoff picture has come into focus.

    Sixteen teams are left standing, each with some degree of championship hopes and a small cast of characters critical to success. While megastars will likely determine which team parades through its home city in June, the following 16 X-factors will have a significant impact on how their clubs fare.

    These players come from all walks of Association life. There's a former No. 1 pick and multiple max-money recipients. There's also a player who spent a lot of his season in the G League and another who reached the waiver wire after being bought out by his initial employer.

    The common thread is the ability to elevate something about themselves that could extend their teams' playoff lives—anything from sharpening a certain skill or finding more consistency to rising up in the absence of an injured teammate. If those steps are taken, their teams' playoff outlooks will brighten considerably.

Toronto Raptors: Norman Powell, SG

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    This is a "prove-it" playoff run for the Toronto Raptors, putting all eyes on Canada's club to see if systematic tweaks will produce greater postseason results than in the past. DeMar DeRozan (career 40.3 percent shooting in the playoffs) and Kyle Lowry (39.4) can't become volume scorers. And Toronto's frontcourt has to find a balance where its spacers are hitting and the low-post bruisers are owning the block.

    But third-year swingman Norman Powell looms as the primary X-factor even though his minutes and points have fallen over the course of the campaign. He's flashed three-and-D ability before, and he has one of the highest two-way ceilings among the Raptors' support pieces.

    "He's an aggressive defender who can make shots and who will put the ball on the floor and attack the rim," Frank Zicarelli wrote for the Toronto Sun. " … [Powell] has shown to be a difference-maker in the postseason."

    Toronto has other options if Powell continues to struggle, but each comes with an asterisk. C.J. Miles has never been an intimidating defensive presence, and rookie OG Anunoby has never appeared on this stage.

Washington Wizards: Kelly Oubre Jr., SF

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    With the way the Washington Wizards are wobbling into the postseason, their entire roster feels like an X-factor right now. But assuming their starting five right the ship—they own a plus-6.0 net rating—the District's biggest question marks will take their usual position around the second unit.

    No Wizards sub is under a brighter spotlight than Kelly Oubre Jr., whose apparent breakout season is coming to a frustrating close.

    His post-All-Star shooting numbers are dreadful—36.7 percent from the field, 29.3 percent outside. He's also seen his defensive rating balloon from 106.4 to 110.4.

    "He hasn't shot the ball well, but I'm more concerned about him getting blown by on defense," Wizards coach Scott Brooks told reporters. "Seems like every time his man is scoring on him. He has to step up and start playing some defense if he wants to continue to play."

    Brooks' quote makes it sound as if Washington has other options. It doesn't. Someone needs to share the reserve perimeter minutes with Tomas Satoransky, and Jodie Meeks' 39.8 field-goal percentage says he's not the guy.

Boston Celtics: Jaylen Brown, SG/SF

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    Don't be fooled by Jaylen Brown's modest 14.5 points per game. The sophomore wing is now the Boston Celtics' most consistent scoring option with Kyrie Irving shelved by knee surgery.

    Brown's year-to-year improvement has been pronounced, a fact revealed by his 25-point eruption on opening night. He's not always a steady source of points, but he has engineered 16 outings of 20-plus points—15 more than he had as a freshman.

    He finished his first season by averaging 12.6 minutes in the 2017 playoffs. He might triple that number this time around, when he'll be tasked with helping to replace Irving's scoring and (for the foreseeable future) Marcus Smart's lockdown defense.

    Brown is an effortlessly explosive athlete with rapidly improving handles and shooting range. But the luxury of picking and choosing his spots alongside Irving (or Isaiah Thomas last season) is out the window.

Milwaukee Bucks: Jabari Parker, SF/PF

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    Jabari Parker hasn't been as big a part of the Milwaukee Bucks' past as he (or they) would like thanks to a pair of ACL tears in his short career. He might not be a part of their long-term future depending on how his upcoming restricted free agency goes.

    But he's a significant piece of their present.

    "We need him to be good," Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said, per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He's a huge part of what we're doing … and going forward he's going to be a big part of that success."

    Parker is Milwaukee's most trusted scorer outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a better shooter than Eric Bledsoe and a more capable creator than Khris Middleton. Parker has only topped 32 minutes twice this season, but he averaged 25.5 points on 55.3 percent shooting in those contests. He has star sidekick skills, and the ceiling for the Antetokounmpo-Parker duo could make these deer worth fearing.

Philadelphia 76ers: Robert Covington, SF

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    Provided Joel Embiid returns sooner rather than later, star power won't be an issue for the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid might be the NBA's premier center, and Ben Simmons is a nightly triple-double threat as a supersized point guard.

    But glue guys can often determine playoff contests, and Robert Covington works as a bonding agent with his three-and-D skills.

    Statistically, no one means more to Philly. The Sixers' net rating plummets from plus-10.6 with him to minus-4.9 without. He's present on four of their five most efficient lineups that have logged at least 25 minutes.

    Spacing is critical for Philly to operate at optimal levels. Simmons never shoots threes, and while Embiid is willing to launch them, he only connects on 30.8 percent. Covington leads the team with 202 long-range makes, and he's converting those shots at an above-average 37 percent clip. He's streakier than Philly's gunners, though, and it shows in his shooting during wins (39 percent outside) compared to losses (34.1).

    But he's even more important on defense, where he routinely draws the toughest assignment. His versatility keeps the likes of J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli from being exposed. Covington's quick hands and sharp instincts helped him become one of only 11 players this season with at least 100 steals and 50 blocks.

Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside, C

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    How many NBA centers are better than Hassan Whiteside?

    Don't try to answer that. It's a trick question depending on which Whiteside we're discussing.

    "When he's into it, he's one of the most dominant centers in the game," Dwyane Wade told reporters.

    The obvious inference is that Whiteside isn't always into it. The numbers back that up. Despite being an athletic, 7'0" dunk machine, he's been held to single-digit points 15 times.

    But when Whiteside is engaged, he gives the Heat a unique dimension—a badly needed identity on a starless squad that often wins with superior coaching and hustle. He's also perhaps looking at a workload increase with rookie Bam Adebayo's fade down the stretch and Kelly Olynyk hampered by defensive limitations.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Rodney Hood, SG

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers have assembled an erratic supporting cast around LeBron James and Kevin Love, meaning there's no shortage of candidates. But Rodney Hood gets the nod because his good nights are potent enough to make you believe he's Cleveland's best shot-creator of the non-stars.

    Fewer than 30 percent of his career two-pointers have come off assists, so he has the skills to succeed in this isolation-heavy offense. But he's been unpredictable since his midseason move to Northeast Ohio, reaching 15 points six different times but managing six or fewer in another five outings.

    The Cavs haven't seen the good Rodney Hood yet, the guy who authored eight 25-point performances in the first half for the Utah Jazz. If that player surfaces, Cleveland could finally have clarity regarding the identity of its third-best player.

    But if he doesn't, the Cavs will continue cycling through volatile offensive sources behind James and Love.

Indiana Pacers: Myles Turner, C

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    So much of the Indiana Pacers' 2017-18 campaign went off-script. Most of it was good, from Victor Oladipo's All-Star ascension and Domantas Sabonis' sophomore leap to the team's improved record without Paul George.

    The one surprising pitfall was Myles Turner's failure to jump forward. The 22-year-old took a half-step back with fewer points, rebounds and blocks than he provided last season.

    "For the Pacers to make any serious run in the postseason, Indiana needs the aggressive/productive Turner that was seen in late February and early March," Kevin Bowen wrote for 1070thefan.com. "But, for now, the lingering question that has been there for a majority of the 2017-18 season is again looming over: What Myles Turner should the Pacers expect with playoff basketball arriving this weekend?"

    On Turner's good days, he enjoys the unicorn skill set of three-point shooting and rim protection. He also has the bounce to deliver one of this season's most ferocious throwdowns.

    But he needs to string dominant performances together for the Pacers to advance, something he's failed to do for most of this season.

Houston Rockets: Trevor Ariza, SF

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    Given their past playoff slip-ups, James Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D'Antoni might all meet certain X-factor criteria. But Trevor Ariza fits the more traditional mold as an unsung hero who can be the difference between very good and great on certain nights.

    He's a malleable defensive weapon whose versatility became even more important with Tuesday's injury to Luc Mbah a Moute. Ariza's fellow Swiss army knife will likely miss the opening round after dislocating his shoulder, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Ariza can defend up or down a position, making it easier to hide a defensive liability like Harden or Ryan Anderson. Ariza is also an underrated weapon in Houston's three-point arsenal, ranking third in total triples while connecting on the third-highest percentage of his career (36.8).

    "Trevor's a blue-collar player who does everything," Nene said, per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "He can defend, he can pass, he can shoot it well. ... He's a leader and he makes everybody better."

    Ariza has been searching for his touch lately, though, hitting only 34.5 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from distance over his last 11 outings. Houston needs him to find it fast, because he's one of their top two-way contributors. The Rockets will lean heavily on his defense while Mbah a Moute is out, and Ariza could move up the offensive pecking order if guys are misfiring ahead of him.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins, SF

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    It's hard to fathom that Andrew Wiggins qualifies for this list since he's a former No. 1 pick who has already inked his first max contract. Problem is the idea of Wiggins is better than his reality.

    A lot better.

    With his length, athleticism and build, Wiggins looks like the ideal shape-shifting, versatile defender needed on the perimeter. In actuality, he's 79th among 89 small forwards with a minus-1.49 defensive real plus-minus. Similarly, his scoring looks impressive (17.7 points per game) until you notice he's a below-average shooter from the field (43.7 percent), outside (32.7) and at the line (64.4).

    "No. 1 picks and maximum contract players are expected to dominate, not meander," Jim Souhan wrote for the Star Tribune. "Wiggins meanders like a St. Paul side street, playing hard enough in bursts to make us all realize what we're missing the rest of the time."

    Wiggins has the chance to change his narrative. The same raw talents that pushed him to No. 1 and added all those zeroes to his paychecks are still there. He's just 23 years old and should be energized by his first exposure to the playoff lights. If he can flip his switch, the Minnesota Timberwolves could morph from a just-happy-to-be-here participant into an upset threat.

Golden State Warriors: Quinn Cook, PG

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    It's tempting to put Stephen Curry—or, more specifically, his sprained MCL—here since a hobbled Chef is the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors' title hopes. But advancing far enough to get Curry back in the action—head coach Steve Kerr does not expect to have Curry in the first round—would first require quality minutes from his understudy, Quinn Cook.

    The 25-year-old scoring guard has the game to make an impact. But he also has just 47 appearances on his NBA resume and zero postseason experience.

    The big league numbers are encouraging. He boasted a Curry-esque .484/.442/.880 shooting slash in 33 games with the Warriors and averaged nearly three times more assists (2.7) than turnovers (1.0). Before his promotion, Cook blitzed G League defenders for the junior varsity circuit's first 50/40/90 campaign.

    But now he's facing playoff defenses and detailed game plans built to make him uncomfortable. Golden State's wealth of scoring support will help, but the Warriors need Cook to put up a formidable fight in his one-on-one encounters.

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray, PG

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    The San Antonio Spurs—and the NBA postseason as a whole—would be more interesting if Kawhi Leonard was in this spot. But it's almost impossible to hold out hope for his return since he last suited up in mid-January and it's been mostly radio silence ever since.

    So the spotlight shifts to Dejounte Murray, who's gone from lightly used rookie to San Antonio's starting point guard in a year's time.

    "He has really progressed quickly," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "He is fearless and he has taken on the challenge, and he keeps asking for more."

    Murray's offensive production is spotty. He's a non-shooter (18 threes in two seasons), and his decision-making is developing (2.9 assists against 1.7 turnovers). But his size, length and athleticism make him a feisty defender at the head of the Spurs' fourth-ranked defense.

    San Antonio doesn't have the offensive firepower to win track meets. No team plays at a slower pace, meaning the Spurs will have to grind out victories. Murray's defense can assist those efforts, but his execution must be razor-sharp at the other end too.

Portland Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu, SF/PF

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    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum don't alter the Portland Trail Blazers' identity when they're rolling. That's what's supposed to happen, and it's the lifeblood of this team. On a smaller scale, Jusuf Nurkic provides an offensive outlet, but even his biggest nights won't change the offense's outside-in approach.

    Al-Farouq Aminu, though, can transform the Trail Blazers into something greater than normal when he's lighting the lamp from three.

    That's not his primary function, of course, as his biggest contributions are made in rebounding and defensive versatility. It's a no-frills game, but the stat sheet says it's vital. Only Lillard has a wider on/off split than Aminu (plus-4.4 on the court, minus-1.0 off).

    But Portland almost always capitalizes on his active-offense nights. The Blazers are 20-10 when Aminu scores in double figures, while he's a much better shooter in wins (41.9 from the field, 39.4 from three) than losses (36.3/33.8). His outside shot serves as Portland's skeleton key, unlocking myriad frontcourt combinations when it's finding its mark.

New Orleans Pelicans: Nikola Mirotic, PF

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    For most of the post-DeMarcus Cousins injury portion of their season, the New Orleans Pelicans only had a two-step solution for any offensive issues. Making every effort to find Anthony Davis was the first option. If that couldn't work, they could see what Jrue Holiday might create.

    After that, it was nothing—at least in terms of a consistent answer.

    Nikola Mirotic's career says it's dangerous to mention him and consistency in the same sentence. Case in point, he bookended a recent 20-point outburst with scoring totals of two and four points.

    That said, his hot streaks are as fiery as the Pelicans will find from anyone not named Davis or Holiday. Mirotic happens to be breathing fire ahead of the playoffs with 27.0 points on 55.6 percent shooting (50.0 from three) over his last four outings.

    He's a multitalented, two-way contributor when he's right, and he's by far the best Boogie-less frontcourt partner for Davis. If Mirotic can stay hot, the Pellies won't be an easy out. But if he falls back into one of his frigid spells, New Orleans could struggle to win a game.

Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio, PG

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    The Utah Jazz had the Association's best defense by a mile after the All-Star break. They surrendered just 96.0 points per 100 possessions, 5.5 fewer than Boston's league-leading mark.

    Salt Lake City's stoppers will keep this club in most games. The issue is whether there's enough offense to close the deal. Donovan Mitchell is the only player averaging more than 13.5 points, and his 54.1 true shooting percentage ranked 25th among the 28 players to average 20-plus points.

    The Jazz need point-producing support. Ricky Rubio is capable of providing it. When he does, Utah is almost unbeatable. He had 15 games with 20-plus points, and 13 of them were Jazz wins.

    Efficiency is just as important as volume. Because Utah often deploys the non-shooting frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors (15.6 minutes per game), it can't afford to lack spacing at any perimeter position. Rubio's win/loss splits attest to that. He shot 45.7 percent from the field and 40.8 percent outside in Utah's victories and only 35.8 and 26.0, respectively, in defeat.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shooting Guards

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    Who would've thought replacing Andre Roberson would be this difficult for the Oklahoma City Thunder? Everyone should have, actually. Roberson's much-maligned shooting woes didn't lessen his on-court impact. He still owns the highest net rating of the rotation players by a comfortable margin (plus-10.0).

    Besides, have you seen the non-Roberson options?

    Corey Brewer, who has never posted an average player efficiency rating in his 11 NBA seasons, is getting 28.4 minutes per game. Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson and Josh Huestis have each started a handful of games and watched a handful of others from the bench. Brewer, Ferguson and Huestis all struggle to shoot, and Abrines is little more than a traffic cone on defense.

    Someone needs to fill Roberson's minutes, and it's unclear which player that should be. Guess right, and maybe OKC makes the run its talent level says it should. Guess wrong, and it could lead to both an early exit and increased anxiety regarding Paul George's upcoming free agency.


    Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and are current entering games April 11.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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