The Biggest X-Factor for Every Likely NBA Playoff Team
The NBA is a superstars' league, and its biggest and brightest stars will largely determine what happens between now and some lucky team's championship celebration in June.
But every club also has an X-factor, someone who pushes it to new heights or, if he falls short, drags it down with him.
As often as the term gets thrown around in the sports world, it lacks a catch-all definition. It's most commonly attached to role-playing wild cards, players who vacillate between fiery hot streaks and frigid stretches. But it can go all the way up to a team's centerpiece if his performance is disproportionately important to its success.
After projecting the 16 likely playoff participants based on performance and growth potential, we've spotlighted the biggest X-factor on every one.
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
For all the storylines circling the Boston Celtics this season, Gordon Hayward has managed to stay largely off the radar. That might not seem like a big deal for an X-factor, but when it's the team's highest-paid player, you'd like to see him generating more positive press.
Hayward looks like he's still finding his footing, which makes sense when all but five minutes of his 2017-18 campaign were erased by a gruesome ankle break. He's averaging his fewest minutes since his rookie year (26.0), while his field-goal percentage (43.8) and three-point mark (33.7) are shy of his career conversion rates.
He is, at least, trending the right way. February has been his most productive month to date, as he tallied 14.6 points on 57.1 percent shooting (52.4 from range), 4.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists over Boston's final seven contests ahead of the break.
"Physically, I've felt pretty good," Hayward told Basketball Insiders' Spencer Davies. "I think I'm definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season. I'm getting more and more confident with each month, each week."
Boston's 37-21 record may not show it, but this is close to being the powerhouse most expected it to be. The Shamrocks' plus-6.2 net efficiency rating is the Association's third-best, and that's without Hayward even approaching his peak. If the former All-Star continues to ascend, the Celtics may yet prove to be the team to beat out East.
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
Prior to dislocating his right foot in November, Caris LeVert had thrown his hat into the Most Improved Player award race. The third-year swingman scored 20-plus points in seven of the Nets' first 11 outings, connecting on career-best rates from the field (49.1 percent), three (35.3) and the stripe (79.2).
LeVert's campaign was nearly derailed shortly thereafter, and he only recently returned from a near-three-month rehab. He looks predictably (and understandably) rusty, especially with his shot. Over Brooklyn's final three games before the All-Star break, he shot just 36.1 percent from the field and misfired on 11 of his 13 long-range looks.
But with Brooklyn appearing increasingly likely to make the playoff cut—FiveThirtyEight pegs its postseason chances at 76 percent—it'll need LeVert to get back to his old form to help power the club through the stretch run and into the second season.
At his best, he's almost a jumbo three-and-D player—6'7" with a 6'10" wingspan—only there's more in his off-the-dribble toolbox than that label would imply. He can work on or off the ball, find shots for his teammates, create his own looks and defend multiple positions.
His health, though, remains something to monitor, and he'll need to adjust to a Nets team that looks plenty different from when he went down. His challenge isn't just to fit what Brooklyn is doing now—it's to find a way to enhance it. Do that, and the Nets could be a tricky matchup for any first-round playoff opponent.
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray
Ever watched the Nuggets and thought they looked like full-fledged title contenders? If you have, there's a good chance you reached that conclusion during one of Jamal Murray's good nights.
The ignitable scoring guard can get too hot to touch when he's cooking. He's twice cleared the 45-point mark this season, a claim only six other players—all of them All-Stars—can make. Murray's point production is especially critical in Denver, where impact players like Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap aren't exactly the most aggressive scorers.
Murray, though, is still searching for the key to consistency, which isn't super-surprising considering he's just 21 years old (turns 22 on Saturday) and only 214 games into his NBA career. He's finished seven games in single digits, which shouldn't be possible with all the weapons in his arsenal. Efficiency remains elusive, too, as evidenced by his 43.0/36.8/84.3 shooting slash.
But the Nuggets are almost unbeatable when he's splashing with regularity. They're 9-0 when he scores at least 24 points and 15-4 when he clears 20. Similarly, he's a 19.8-point scorer and 45.5 percent shooter in their wins, but he supplies just 15.2 points on 37.8 percent shooting in their losses.
The volatility can be uncomfortable given his importance to this group, but the closer he climbs to his ceiling, the more he moves the Nuggets nearer to theirs.
Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson
It seems as if injuries, inconsistency and bouts of inefficiency have permanently forced the Reggie Jackson hype train out of service. Still, he's the starting point guard, third offensive option and arguably most competent perimeter player on a playoff hopeful. In fact, Detroit's postseason chances could come down to his level of effectiveness over the final two months.
That's potentially scary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is a career 16.0 player efficiency rating that suggests he's essentially a league-average contributor. But it could be construed as encouraging in certain lights, since he's flashed big-time ability at different points of his career.
The good Jackson is a tough cover, relentlessly attacking off the dribble, setting the table and striping just enough three-pointers to demand defensive attention along the arc. Between his Feb. 2015 arrival through the end of his first full season in the Motor City, he was good for 18.5 points and 7.0 assists (against 3.0 turnovers) a night.
The Pistons probably aren't getting that player back for the stretch run, although his February efforts—19.3 points on 50.0 percent shooting and 5.5 assists in six games—are as intriguing as any he's had all season. But with Blake Griffin assuming alpha status and Andre Drummond settling in as his sidekick, Jackson only needs to tie this triumvirate together.
Detroit's wing rotation is a mess and Ish Smith has battled injuries most of this season, so all perimeter hopes are on Jackson's shoulders. He's talented enough to make that a good thing, even if his track record doesn't inspire a ton of confidence.
Golden State Warriors: DeMarcus Cousins
The Warriors have 10 wins—six of the double-digit variety—against just one loss in the 11 games DeMarcus Cousins has played so far. That might have little to do with Boogie himself, as the Dubs have been steamrolling everyone in the new calendar year and faring better without him.
But just imagine what can happen once he's comfortable. The last time he was healthy, the four-time All-Star was busy compiling never-before-seen statistics. Even if the Dubs don't have to lean on him nearly as heavily as his previous employers, he can still be a welcome inside addition to a club that's been raising championship banners from the outside.
Considering he's a 6'11", 270-pound bruiser coming off a torn Achilles, Golden State will carefully monitor his workload. Scoring 20 points or snaring 10 rebounds—which he's usually done on a nightly basis—might be the exceptions as long as he's handled with kid gloves.
Still, his on-court impact could eventually be tremendous. Dubs' opponents have always needed to pick their poison with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson sharing the floor. Now, there's another lethal concoction in the mix.
And don't discount Cousins' role off the court, where his vigorous rehabilitation and efforts to assimilate have already provided rallying points to a potentially fatigued locker room responsible for four consecutive Finals trips.
"When you've won back-to-back titles, you look for motivation, you look for joy, you look for things that are different," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told The Athletic's Tim Kawakami. "So I think that a lot of our guys are just excited to have DeMarcus, but they also want to see him win a championship. That's powerful."
Houston Rockets: Chris Paul
The Rockets are built to run with two near-equal conductors. Harden spends more time on the controls, but ideally, Paul is equally capable of steering the ship in spurts or providing All-Star levels of support when serving as second in command.
Last season, the dual-attacker setup worked to the tune of 65 victories. This year, the Rockets are on pace for just 47.5 victories, plagued by many things but particularly Paul's lack of both availability and production.
His problematic hamstring has often kept him off the floor, but he's also been barely recognizable when he's on it. He has never averaged fewer points (15.6) or shot a worse percentage from the field (41.9). His 19.0 PER is three ticks off his previous low, and his 2.46 offensive real plus-minus is outside the top 10 at the point guard position, per ESPN.com.
Harden's iso-driven heroics can only take Houston so far. If the Rockets are going to make any kind of postseason noise, they'll need Paul performing like the elite player they're paying him to be.
Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic
For the first half of this season, Bojan Bogdanovic was on a short list of the league's most pleasant surprises. He was building toward a second consecutive breakout, scoring and shooting like never before while offering some protection to a Pacers offense that, at times, asked a little too much of Victor Oladipo.
But everything changed on Jan. 23—for Bogdanovic and the Circle City as a whole. That's the night Indy lost Oladipo to a season-ending ruptured quad, presumably sinking any hopes of escaping the opening round.
Indy hasn't fallen apart, though, in large part because Bogdanovic has discovered an extra gear. In the 11 games since Oladipo went down, Bogdanovic has boosted his output to 20.4 points per game on 50.6/39.1/86.1 shooting.
"Bogey is a walking bucket," Thaddeus Young said, per J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star. "He can score in different ways that people don't even know."
Bogdanovic, though, has never previously averaged 15 points or even two assists. He's a 29-year-old who has spent the entirety of his career supporting bigger stars.
But without Oladipo, Bogdanovic might need to serve as the featured scorer the rest of the way. He's well past the point of surprising people. Now, it's about sustaining efficiency through a significant volume increase and helping Indy survive the loss of its least replaceable player.
Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James
LeBron James is arguably the best player we've ever seen, which doesn't exactly mesh with the traditional X-factor designation. But given the volatility of his young teammates and the Lakers' inability to add a second star at the deadline, L.A.'s playoff climb hinges on his ability to perform miracles.
He's blown our minds more than a hundred times before, which is the only reason the Lakers even make our playoff cut. FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 26 percent chance of gaining entry to the big dance, but it's hard to imagine James being left out. He's made the Finals in eight consecutive seasons, and he last missed the postseason in 2005.
Still, there are no guarantees he can snap his fingers and fix his new squad this season.
The young Lakers don't look ready to compete on a playoff stage. James, who turned 34 in December, looks like he might finally be feeling some effects of aging. According to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, the club is concerned about his health and intensity since he suffered a groin strain on Christmas—though he told reporters Wednesday that his playoff intensity has been activated. There are also whispers he's carrying quite a few extra pounds.
Maybe that doesn't matter. He is, after all, averaging a triple-double since returning from injury (23.2 points, 11.0 assists and 10.8 rebounds). But L.A. won just two of those five games, proving how massive the burden is that he's shouldering.
Milwaukee Bucks: Nikola Mirotic
On paper, Nikola Mirotic seems like the perfect fit for Milwaukee.
The Bucks can't get enough three-point shooting under coach Mike Budenholzer, and Mirotic opens even more five-out possibilities. He's a 6'10" sharpshooter who averaged at least two triples on 37.5-plus percent shooting in two of the last three seasons.
"He's a very high IQ guy, which everybody values," Budenholzer told reporters. "He has ability to shoot, spread the court. The more shooting we have out there, the better. I also think he's unique as a big who can be a playmaker and put it on the floor and make decisions."
Theoretically, Mirotic addresses nearly all of Milwaukee's concerns. He's incredibly potent on his fiery nights (six games with 25-plus points already this season), which can help take some heat off Giannis Antetokounmpo, the club's only player averaging more than 18 points. Mirotic's spacing helps clear any offensive clutter, and his willingness to make the extra pass should keep the ball moving.
That said, consistency has never been his strength. Given his reputation as a sniper, you'd think he'd have better than a 35.9 percent perimeter success rate for his career. And if he's not making outside shots, he doesn't always provide value. In fact, the New Orleans Pelicans were better without him this season.
It's hard to imagine any scenario in which Mirotic makes Milwaukee worse, but there's no telling whether he'll be able to lift this contender's ceiling between now and the second season.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Dennis Schroder
The Thunder know what they're getting from most guys on any given night: MVP-caliber play from Paul George, a triple-double from Russell Westbrook, two-way interior enforcement from Steven Adams, disruptive defense and sporadic spacing from Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson.
Dennis Schroder, though, is more of a wild card.
Granted, he's a massive upgrade over what OKC previously put behind Westbrook, and if Sixth Man of the Year voters continue their infatuation with counting stats, Schroder could be a contender for the hardware. There aren't many second-teamers giving their clubs 15 points and four assists a night.
But Schroder is also having one of his worst seasons as a shooter, connecting on only 42.6 percent of his field goals. That's the 12th-worst rate among the 46 guards who've logged at least 1,500 minutes. And he's 79th out of 100 qualified passers with only 1.76 assists per turnover.
OKC's margin for error is slim at the offensive end, putting a premium on Schroder's effectiveness. He's one of only five Thunder players averaging more than seven points, and two of them are arguably most important for their defensive contributions (Adams and Grant).
Schroder has tallied 16.7 points on 46.3 percent shooting (39.9 from three) in Thunder wins and only 14.1 on 35.7 (30.0) in their losses. Getting him going consistently could be OKC's key in becoming the best non-Bay Area-based team in the West.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
The Magic have seven wins to show for their last eight outings, perhaps justifying their decision to retain their win-now parts at the deadline instead of cashing them in for future assets.
Terrence Ross might be at the top of that list. The 28-year-old former lottery pick seemed an obvious sell-high candidate, as he was conveniently peaking during a contract year. With dunk-contest athleticism and a three-ball that wows with volume and efficiency, he would've been an easy sell in a wing-starved market.
Then again, if Orlando wants to chase a postseason goal, why not ride the hot hand as far as it can go? The 6'7" swingman came sprinting into the All-Star break with 19.0 points on a face-melting 45.4/40.6/94.7 shooting slash over the Magic's eight-game surge.
"He's such a dependable player; we don't win many nights when he's not scoring," Magic coach Steve Clifford told reporters. "He's that important to our team."
Orlando's roster has a bunch of possible swing players, including Aaron Gordon (trending down of late) and Jonathan Isaac (trending up). But Ross could quietly be the most significant of all in this stretch run, because he's the only quality-plus-quantity shooter in the rotation and lone flamethrower coming off the bench.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris
The 76ers may have added the best player and formed the fiercest starting five at the trade deadline. Tobias Harris is a monster—within a stone's throw of averaging 21 points on 50/40/90 shooting—and he's joining three elites in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.
Add JJ Redick to the equation, and Philly's opening group has no obvious holes. Harris helps address a need for outside shooting, and he makes this team even more pliable on defense and gives opponents another shot-creator to try to contain.
"He can score the ball, he fits in with us defensively and he has a high IQ, a great IQ," Simmons told HoopsHype's Alex Kennedy. "He wants to be on this team and we're happy to have him. ... It's a great opportunity to have someone like that join us."
The potential reward could not be higher. If the Sixers weren't title contenders before Harris' arrival, his addition clinched that status. Their size, versatility and scoring depth all make you wonder if this is the Warriors' greatest external threat.
But there is zero margin for error here. Philly has two months to figure things out ahead of the playoffs, and the adjustment for Harris is massive. He was top dog on the Los Angeles Clippers; in Philly, Embiid, Redick and Butler average at least as many field-goal attempts per game.
Portland Trail Blazers: Rodney Hood
Long gone are the days when optimism painted Rodney Hood as a potential go-to scorer. But given the perennially underwhelming state of Portland's wings, the slippery swingman still has the chance to be an impact addition.
While his 12.0 points per game this season are the second-lowest of his career, they're also better than all but three Blazers—Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic—have managed so far. If Hood becomes just a pinch more consistent, he could become Portland's best option at the wing by a healthy margin.
While he's hardly a stopper, he does show the most two-way potential among this collection. He has length and size that the Blazers need, plus a better combination of shooting, passing and shot-creating than any of Portland's other options at the 3. While Jake Layman and Maurice Harkless force coach Terry Stotts to choose between offense and defense, the hope is Hood can land nearer to the middle.
Is he the missing perimeter piece that finally balances this roster? Probably not. But is he more interesting than Layman, Harkless or Evan Turner? That's easier to see.
He's had some encouraging stretches. Before his ill-fated move to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the 2018 trade deadline, Hood had been giving the Utah Jazz 21.8 points and 3.4 triples (on 38.9 percent shooting) per 36 minutes. He probably won't have the opportunity to reach those marks, but even if he's in the upper-teens per 36 minutes, he can nudge this good team closer to really good.
Sacramento Kings: Harrison Barnes
Are we positive the Kings will soon be snapping the Association's longest current playoff drought? Of course not. Are we rewarding them for going for it anyway and rewarding their ahead-of-schedule roster with a pricey win-now pickup? Perhaps.
But if you blur your eyes a bit, you can see Harrison Barnes addressing some of Sacramento's primary issues.
The Kings needed a big wing to check the Kevin Durants of the world, and Barnes has perhaps made his most money defending larger players in the post while also having the athleticism needed to switch on the perimeter. He's a capable shot-creator when used in moderation, and his career 37.0 three-point percentage shows he's accurate enough outside to keep defenders at bay.
Sacramento just can't view him as a savior. Barnes' arrival shouldn't force the ball away from De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, still the squad's biggest suppliers of steady offense. There's no need to slow the pace for Barnes, who should be most effective sprinting alongside the Kings' open-court gazelles.
The Kings clearly like what they see in Barnes and hope to keep him around for the long haul, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Casting Barnes in the proper role will go a long way toward determining whether that admiration will carry on into the future.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry has weathered a major source of discomfort for much of this season, and it's not the Raptors' decision to trade away his longtime All-Star running mate DeMar DeRozan. Rather, it's a nagging back injury that refuses to go away.
As SportsNet's Michael Grange noted, Lowry's back problems could plague him all season:
"Lowry's back will very likely be an on-going concern, it seems safe to assume, for two reasons: One is the obvious – when his back flares up or is even threatening to flare up, he can't play and the Raptors need him on the floor. The other is that when it does give him problems to the point he has to miss games, it's a significant setback that extends beyond his return to the floor. Every time his back acts up, Lowry has to shut things down."
Lowry hasn't been himself all season. His 14.3 points per game are the fewest he's averaged since 2012-13. His 41.0 field-goal percentage is the lowest it's been over the same stretch. His 16.9 PER—uncomfortably close to league average—is the worst he's had as a Raptor.
Toronto is desperate for Lowry to rediscover his form. Even with the rise of Pascal Siakam and addition of Marc Gasol, Lowry remains the primary provider of offensive support for Kawhi Leonard. If the Raptors truly must contend for a title for Leonard to consider staying, then it's not hyperbolic to suggest this core's fate rests entirely on Lowry's back.
Utah Jazz: Dante Exum
Four-plus injury-riddled, uneven seasons has yet to damage Utah's belief in 2014 No. 5 pick Dante Exum. After re-signing him to a $33 million deal this summer, the Jazz doubled down on their commitment by keeping him out of trade talks for Mike Conley.
Now, the Jazz need some type of return for all that support.
So far, 2018-19 has been more of the same for the lanky lead guard. Prior to injuring his ankle in early January, Exum had been averaging just 7.4 points on 43.2 percent shooting (30.5 from three) and 2.7 assists in 16.3 minutes per game. His 12.7 PER is a couple notches below average, and his offensive value is nonexistent (minus-4.5 offensive rating differential).
He is, however, a relentless defender with suffocating length (6'6" with a 6'9" wingspan). Utah's defense is already among the league's stingiest, but it surrenders 4.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when Exum serves as the head of the snake.
Right now, his offensive limitations effectively cancel out his defensive prowess. But if he could carve out any kind of offensive niche, he's the most likely player to change this team's fortunes for the better. The rumblings around Utah's trade season highlighted a desire to upgrade over Ricky Rubio, and if Exum is the player the Jazz think he can become, maybe their patience will finally pay off.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.