Every NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor
Stars drive the outcome of every NBA playoff series. Titles are not won without them. The list of Finals MVPs wouldn't be dominated by Hall of Famers, both present and future, if they didn't have the most control over postseason fates.
Still, playoff basketball isn't only about the most obvious players. Teams are more than their tippy-top talent. They have sidekicks, role players, unsung heroes and, yes, higher-profile wild cards.
Everyone's interpretation of X-factors is different. Some will argue that superstars can act as undersold turning points. They're not wrong. Others see this designation as an opportunity to celebrate a roster's deepest cuts. They're not wrong, either.
Our search for this year's top X-factors exists somewhere in the middle. Marquee talent isn't off-limits, but we're not singling out megastars. Their importance is assumed.
This is an ode to the postseason's biggest swing pieces—unheralded No. 2s, fourth and fifth wheels and the occasional household name who fills a lesser role.
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
Jaylen Brown is a tempting selection. Marcus Smart's absence will impact him more than anyone. Many of the toughest defensive assignments, beginning with Bojan Bogdanovic, will fall to him.
That curveball isn't enough to overtake Gordon Hayward, though. He has been the Boston Celtics' ultimate X-factor since the start of the season—their championship swing piece. Boston is a different team if he is even 75 percent of the player it signed in 2017.
It has taken time. Hayward still doesn't look like himself after he suffered a dislocated ankle and fractured left tibia on opening night last season. Rival offenses continue to target him in the half court.
More and more, though, Hayward is getting closer to all the way back. As The Athletic's Jay King wrote:
"He has escaped from his post-injury funk with the battering, slashing style that made him an All-Star in Utah. Hayward is finishing at the rim with power and balance once again. He’s drawing free throws at approximately double his rate versus earlier in the season. He always seems in control, whether he’s spinning into a fadeaway jumper or firing a cross-court pass into a teammate’s shooting pocket."
Hayward is averaging 12.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while slashing 55.7/38.7/82.5 since Feb 1. Those numbers lack a certain superstar aesthetic. That won't change so long as he is playing a reserve role. (He enjoyed a scoring uptick over the final two weeks of the regular season, when Boston ran him out for nearly 30 minutes per game.)
That's neither here nor there. Playing time is secondary to ability, and Hayward has flashed the chops to carry an offense again. The Celtics are pumping in 110.5 points per 100 possessions when he logs time without Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Those minutes will be fewer and further between in the postseason but are no less important to Boston's survival.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Jaylen Brown
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
D'Angelo Russell gives the Brooklyn Nets a genuine star through which to run everything. It gets a little touch-and-go after him. Brooklyn is deep—not to mention tireless—but wants for higher-end talent.
Caris LeVert is best suited to begin bridging that talent deficit the Nets will face every game. He emerged as their top gun early in the season before a dislocated right foot halted his progress in November and opened the door for Russell to bust out. The variance in his play is real, but he's the closest Brooklyn can come to a conventional second option.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson shares this position, per the New York Post's Brian Lewis:
"The good thing, we haven't seen any regression. You're afraid it's just a one-game thing or a two-game thing; now he's stringing three, four, five games together. It changes the conversation. He's an X factor in these playoffs. If he can continue to play at the level he's playing—even raise it one more level—that gives us more confidence going into the playoffs."
LeVert went kaboom in the final two weeks of the regular season. He averaged 16.0 points and 4.3 assists over his final eight games while putting down 47.6 percent of his pull-up triples and posting a true shooting percentage of 59.1.
Teensy-tiny end-of-the-year samples are not reliable telltales. But this isn't about the (nonexistent) merits of momentum. LeVert was scoring at a similar clip, albeit with frostier shooting from distance, before his Nov. 12 injury. His most recent progress is more of a return to normal than temporary transformation.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Jared Dudley-at-the-5 lineups!
Denver Nuggets: Will Barton
Gary Harris' pull in this discussion is nearly irresistible. Hip and hamstring injuries messed with his availability during the regular season, and he lost his deadly accurate touch from beyond the arc and at the rim.
Update: He found them both. He buried 40.6 percent of his threes and upped his shooting in the restricted area from 54.4 percent to 63.1 percent over his final 20 games. Couple his offensive resurgence with the primary guard and wing assignments he'll draw on defense, and he has the potential to turn an entire series as the fringe third star among the Denver Nuggets' throng of role players (and Paul Millsap).
Will Barton is getting the nod anyway. He's not more important than Harris per se, but he's more mission-critical in the context of the postseason.
Denver's offense is not matchup-proof. Nikola Jokic is a nontraditional hub. He does just about everything but won't face up and fire off the dribble. That's Jamal Murray's job, and he's doing it well. But the Nuggets need someone else to leverage that same style when things bog down—preferably an attacker more apt at getting to the line.
Barton is supposed to be that guy. Right now, he's not. He isn't shooting well since he returned from his own hip injury Jan. 12, and as Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn wrote, he's altered his play style for the worse:
"Barton has settled for more perimeter jumpers than ever before, clearly affected by the groin injury that stole half of his season away. Already possessing a slender frame and the maneuverability to avoid contact on drives, Denver’s starting small forward hasn’t gone to the free throw line quite as much as one would hope for a ball handler. Among all players with 1,000 minutes played and averaging greater than 5.0 assists per 100 possessions, Barton is in the 16th percentile in free throw rate, right in between Patty Mills and Nicolas Batum. By comparison, last year’s number would have put him in between Evan Turner and Stephen Curry, much more competent foul-drawers."
Dizzying amounts of half-court cuts and handoffs keep the Nuggets in business most of the time. They'll be even more dynamic if Barton can successfully create for himself.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Gary Harris
Detroit Pistons: Luke Kennard
Blake Griffin has carried the vast majority of the Detroit Pistons' from-scratch workload this season. That's hardly ideal when he's playing All-NBA basketball, but it turns into a crippling limitation when he's coping with a left knee injury.
Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith are the natural choices to pick up the slack if Griffin is hobbled or—gasp—unable to play in every game. Both can put pressure on the defense inside the arc, but neither is a reliable pull-up weapon. And good luck to any point guard who hopes to beat Eric Bledsoe off the dribble this season.
Luke Kennard is in a better position to turn the Pistons' fortunes. He will face the more favorable defensive matchups coming off the bench, and he has parlayed his sweet outside touch into a more comprehensive game.
Detroit has him jump-starting some pick-and-rolls, and he's posting a higher assist percentage on drives than Jackson. Kennard has become more comfortable at launching on a dime amid the additional ball control. He is draining 36.6 percent of his pull-up treys since the All-Star break and has experimented with step-back jumpers.
Giving Kennard more run with the starters in Bruce Brown's stead is the Pistons' best chance of making the Milwaukee Bucks sweat. They have a plus-44.8 net rating in the 138 possessions he's logged with Jackson, Griffin, Andre Drummond and Wayne Ellington.
The Bucks will catch on to Kennard's offensive agency, but it might not matter. As long as Malcolm Brogdon is on the shelf with a foot injury, they won't have the every-play antidote without pulling Bledsoe or Giannis Antetokounmpo off their primary assignments.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Blake Griffin's left knee
Golden State Warriors: DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins is not a conventional X-factor. The Golden State Warriors' bid for a three-peat does not rest on whether he plays his best basketball.
Still, his performance matters. The Warriors gambled on him with this time of the year in mind. He has the power to spare them from the faintest traces of uncertainty—of competition. But he has to fit in, otherwise head coach Steve Kerr will be forced to make tough playing-time calls.
Chemistry on offense isn't the problem. Cousins isn't faring well by his standards. He has the counting stats but is shooting 27.4 percent from three and 39.6 percent on drives. The Warriors can work around his rust without issue. He's also perked up in recent weeks.
Navigating his defensive warts is tougher to reconcile, especially in a prospective second-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. Cousins is slower than ever at getting back in transition and still fouls too much. Kevon Looney—and, obviously, Draymond Green—are more airtight options in the middle if he's getting tripped up.
To Cousins' credit, his half-court defense is on the rise. He's not getting lost around the rim as much, and Kerr has praised his activity against the pick-and-roll, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater:
"If the ball is anywhere in the area, whether a guy's got it dribbling, bounce pass or whether it's exposed, he's getting his hands on that ball. It's been interesting to watch. That's the natural place for everyone to attack in the league—pick-and-roll at the 5-man. We do that. Everyone does. He looks like a target, but you watch the tape, he figures it out and gets it done. He's good."
Golden State is allowing a stout 100.2 points per 100 possessions with Cousins on the floor over his past 15 games. That defensive rating improves to 86.8 when he plays with the starters. This could be nothing more than end-of-the year noise. Or it could be a harbinger of what's to come, in which case, the Warriors are more equipped than ever to steamroll every team they face.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Draymond Green's three-point shooting/Stephen Curry's right ankle
Houston Rockets: PJ Tucker
Eric Gordon earns this nod for anyone who is worried about the possibility James Harden could burn out from another overtaxing workload. He enters the postseason with the second-highest usage rate in league history, and his past three playoffs are cautionary tales for everyone who pushes themselves to regular-season exhaustion.
Chris Paul saved the day when Harden hit a wall last year. That second-round clash with the Utah Jazz would've gone longer than five games if he didn't detonate. Paul doesn't look the part of offensive savior this season, though. Gordon will have to pick up more of the slack if Harden crashes.
But counting on a top-two MVP candidate to flame out feels wrong. Harden earns the benefit of the doubt by virtue of his regular-season transcendence. Houston's defense is more of a wild card even if he cracks up.
The Rockets are second in points allowed per 100 possessions since the All-Star break but 18th for the season. Their upswing may not hold. Opponents are hitting a lower percentage of their wide-open threes, and they're facing more top-of-the-line offenses in the postseason. The Jazz are the most solvable of all potential opponents, which is not the slightest bit comforting.
PJ Tucker is entrusted with keeping the defense on balance—even more so than Paul, who has been instrumental in Houston's rise. Tucker is the Rockets' eyes and voice off the ball, and a blanket on the perimeter. He crowds ball-handlers, even on the break, without getting cooked. Few players are harder to screen. Even fewer are better at recognizing when to double.
Houston's reliance on Tucker increases tenfold in the postseason. Clint Capela isn't easy to play onto the bench, but he's not small-ball immune. Tucker-at-the-5 combinations could become imperative if the Rockets make it out of the first round.
Even if they don't, he'll remain the soul of their defense—the do-it-all spark plug most responsible for keeping Houston on task in the half court.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Eric Gordon
Indiana Pacers: Thaddeus Young
Thaddeus Young has always held a special, understated defensive significance. He does all the little things in a big way.
He is interchangeable on wings and bigs and is among the most effective hedgers in the pick-and-roll. His help defense is dripping with purpose. He recognizes mismatches that need his assistance, teleports into driving lanes when teammates are beaten off the dribble or screened out of plays, and makes absurd cross-court closeouts.
Al Horford will monopolize Young's time in the first round. The Indiana Pacers have no choice against the dual-big front line the Celtics run out to start games, but the matchup will persist even when Boston goes smaller. Horford plays all over the place, and Myles Turner needs freedom to patrol the paint without interruption.
This head-to-head battle does not favor the Pacers. They're allowing 1.2 points per possession on the season whenever Young guards Horford. Don't expect them to change things up. They don't have the personnel to make it work. Young is their best option against Horford, and any other outside-in bigs they might encounter.
And as if that's not enough, Young is now paramount to the offense. The Celtics will dare him, in some form, to make plays, just like they did in their final two regular-season meetings with the Pacers.
Indy Cornrow's Caitlin Cooper wrote:
"They generated early offense, and they muddled their opponent's offense by being brave enough to take added steps away from Young. Intent on channeling their defensive attention elsewhere, the Celtics dropped deep, when he popped; cheated, when he spaced; and threw extra bodies at drivers or cutters, when he wasn't posting or otherwise near the basket."
Young is shooting 36.6 percent from deep over his past 35 games, so he could make Boston pay for leaving him unattended. Failing that, Indiana should get him moving both on and off the ball. Have him screen, cut, initiate pick-and-rolls, whatever. Anything that forces defenses to treat him as more than an afterthought goes a long way.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Cory Joseph
Los Angeles Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
No one expects the Los Angeles Clippers to do anything against the Warriors. They play hard and without ego, but they're starless and depend heavily on inexperience. Their starting lineup includes two rookies and a third-year center in Ivica Zubac who has barely 2,000 career minutes on his resume.
Plenty of people will be shocked if the Clippers even take a game from the Warriors. Picking their X-factor is less about finding hidden hope and more about identifying a less-obvious player who can help ensure Golden State feels this first-round warm-up.
This search doesn't take long. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the guy.
Rookies are combustible in the postseason. The Clippers don't have the flexibility to care. Gilgeous-Alexander will spend a lot of time guarding Klay Thompson, but he'll get the call to pitch in on Stephen Curry after Patrick Beverley and even see reps against Kevin Durant.
Any game the Clippers win, or come kind-of, sort-of close to winning, must include a strong defensive performance from him. He'll get his long arms and big hands in front of jumpers, break up drives from behind and successfully gamble on Golden State's fancier passes.
Whatever Gilgeous-Alexander can give the Clippers at the offensive end is gravy. Aggravating the Warriors' half-court defense will predominantly fall to Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams. But things will inevitably bog down. We've seen it before with Williams—although his synergy with Montrezl Harrell helps.
Gilgeous-Alexander is the Clippers' sleeper safety valve. He's shooting 43.8 percent from three and 48.3 percent on drives since the All-Star break and already looks at home while running pick-and-rolls. If Gallinari or Williams gets locked up, Gilgeous-Alexander will be key to keeping the offense afloat.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Landry Shamet
Milwaukee Bucks: Sterling Brown
Late-season injury bugs have hit the Bucks hard, which makes for a difficult selection process. Donte DiVincenzo (heel) is done for the year, while Malcolm Brogdon (right foot), Pau Gasol (left ankle), Nikola Mirotic (left thumb) and Tony Snell (left ankle) have all missed extensive time.
Brogdon is by far the biggest loss, and the timetable for his return remains unclear. He's expected to be ready for the second round, but plantar fascia injuries can be fickle. It might take him longer to rejoin the rotation, or he could need to work off some rust.
Sterling Brown is sponging up extra minutes in the interim, and he's faring quite well—good enough, at least, that Milwaukee hasn't noticeably increased George Hill's court time. The 6'6" Brown offers similar size on defense and is canning 44 percent of his spot-up threes since the 6'5" Brogdon went down March 15.
Whether Brown is the definitive answer to Milwaukee's injury woes is another matter. He's spending ample time with the starters while Mirotic and Snell are out, and that lineup has yet to find its footing.
The Bucks are getting outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions for the season when Brown plays with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. That net rating has plunged even further during Brogdon's absence, to minus-17.8.
This isn't on Brown alone. A lack of familiarity and homestretch noisiness are both factors. But if the numbers keep tilting in this direction, the Bucks will need more from Hill or Pat Connaughton while they wait on their rotation to inch closer toward full strength.
Second-Biggest X-factor: George Hill
Oklahoma City Thunder: Jerami Grant
Dennis Schroder almost took Jerami Grant's spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder's offense is a letdown overall, but they're even worse when Russell Westbrook leads the charge without Paul George. That won't change without more efficient shooting from Schroder.
But George's breathers are an isolated issue. He averaged 36.9 minutes per game in the regular season. That number will only climb. Oklahoma City will have an easier time surviving without him simply because it won't have to do it as often.
Consistent floor spacing is the more wholesale concern. The Thunder appeared to turn a corner in the middle of the season, but the sweet shooting didn't stick. They're 25th in three-point accuracy since the All-Star break and still lag behind in catch-and-shoot efficiency.
George's rut hasn't helped. He's shooting 33.6 percent from beyond the arc since the break. Only two players on the Thunder are nailing 35 percent or more of their long balls during this time: Grant and Raymond Felton.
So, um, yeah. Grant's drastic improvement from downtown was always big—huge, even. Now it's necessary. Without him banging in threes at an above-average clip, the Thunder become irrationally dependent on George to drain contested bombs.
Oh, and don't forget about the Grant-can-guard-every-position thing. That matters, too.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Dennis Schroder
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
People are quick to commend the Orlando Magic for their defensive ascent and are just as likely to congratulate them on their first playoff berth since 2012. Lost amid those hunky-dory vibes is another feel-good twist: The Magic are ninth in points scored per 100 possessions since Jan. 15. That covers 39 games.
Put another way: They've owned a better offensive rating than the Celtics and Nuggets for nearly half the season.
This is a wild development. The Magic are getting some nice contributions across the board—Jonathan Isaac hits threes now—but they spent so long living and dying by Nikola Vucevic's minutes. They mustered just 94.7 points per 100 possessions without their All-Star big man on the court before Jan. 15. They're pumping in 106.6 whenever he sits since then.
Terrence Ross deserves a round of applause for giving the Magic a second lifeline. He's averaging 16.7 points while shooting 38 percent from three on 8.3 attempts during this extended run, and he's among the team's few players who are comfortable firing off the dribble.
Out of the 69 players who have attempted at least 100 pull-up triples, Ross' 38.4 percent clip ranks sixth. (D.J. Augustin is fifth with a 38.9 percent success rate on slightly less volume.) And while he's not a go-to setup man or someone who draws a ton of fouls, Ross has made strides as a finisher. He's shooting 52.6 percent on drives and 69.4 percent in the restricted area since Jan. 15.
Parse Orlando's Vooch-less lineups during this offensive renaissance, and Ross is the most common denominator in the most effective combinations—more so than Augustin, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. If the Magic give the Toronto Raptors a series, it'll be because their half-court defense remains stifling, and because Ross keeps playing like a true No. 2.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Jonathan Isaac
Philadelphia 76ers: Brett Brown
Brett Brown's future in Philadelphia is officially on the line. The 76ers tipped their hands by trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, two soon-to-be free agents. They're all-in, and if they get prematurely bounced from the playoffs, something's going to give.
"They have a lot of major wild cards," Zach Lowe said during ESPN's Woj & Lowe playoff special. "The two everyone's talking about is Jimmy Butler [and] Tobias Harris. And I think there's a third. I think Brett Brown is under pressure in these playoffs. And maybe it's fair pressure; maybe it's not. But if they flame out in Round 1, that's interesting. And if they get rolled in Round 2, I think that's still interesting."
Caveats abound, the biggest of which is Joel Embiid's left knee. The Sixers won't be safe until he's remotely close to full strength.
That's not on Brown. The Sixers are shallow by their own hand, and juggling so many ball-dominant scorers is a tall order. Brown's job is not easy.
Flanking Ben Simmons with more shooters when he's not playing beside Embiid is a good place to start. Brown is limited by the personnel at his disposal—particularly as James Ennis nurses a right quad injury, but he exacerbates the problem with nightmare combinations. Philly should never, ever run out Simmons, T.J. McConnell, Greg Monroe and Amir Johnson at the same time.
Deploying Simmons as the de facto center in lineups with Butler and Harris makes too much sense. The Sixers aren't a pick-and-roll-heavy team, but they're boxing themselves in by not using Simmons as a screener. He has just 17 possessions to his name as the diver.
This won't fly with Embiid on the court because the Sixers won't have the space. But he logged a mere 24 minutes in Game 1. Brown has the runway to restructure his substitution patterns to more effectively stagger his two best players.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Joel Embiid's left knee
Portland Trail Blazers: Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter is a different kind of X-factor. His value to the Portland Trail Blazers is not necessarily about what he will do, but what he may be unable to do.
Starting him in place of the injured Jusuf Nurkic (leg) is a monster gamble. He remains an enormous defensive liability. Opponents are shooting 69.1 percent against him at the rim since he arrived in Portland on Feb. 13, and the Blazers are letting up 112.7 points per 100 possessions when he jumps center.
Very few of Kanter's reps have come alongside the four other starters. He spent the first part of his Blazers tenure coming off the bench, and CJ McCollum missed time with a left knee strain. That comes as minimal comfort.
Portland's defensive rating is north of 111 in the 72 possessions Kanter has played with McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Damian Lillard. And while his pick-and-roll defense hasn't looked terrible with the Blazers, the postseason is a different beast. He's getting more run against starters, and Oklahoma City, for all its flaws, knows how to target weak links in the middle.
If he can hang for longer stretches, it'll be business as usual. If the defense crumbles, the Blazers will have to scramble.
Can Zach Collins hold up against Steven Adams at the 5? How about Meyers Leonard? Should they go small by inserting Rodney Hood and putting Aminu at center? Do they dust off Skal Labissiere out of desperation?
Though Kanter may well pass the X-factor baton before the first round ends, he will invariably define the Blazers' postseason identity—for better or worse.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Zach Collins
San Antonio Spurs: Derrick White
Derrick White's importance to the San Antonio Spurs is growing so quickly he's on the verge of playing himself beyond this exercise.
His usage does not reflect his place in the offensive pecking order. He is very much a focal point in waiting.
White initiates more pick-and-rolls and burns through more drives than everyone other than DeMar DeRozan. His assist percentage on those downhill attacks is a team-high 12.5 percent, and he's boosted his volume on pull-up jumpers this side of the All-Star break.
San Antonio's half-court actions don't invite too many looks at the rim, but White gets there more often than any other Spurs guard or wing. He is drawing more fouls in transition on those rare occasions when the Spurs push the ball. His expanded arsenal will come in handy if DeRozan is embroiled in another one of his trademark postseason dry spells.
And yet, White's X-factor quality will shine most at the defensive end. He's the closest San Antonio gets to a perimeter stopper without Dejounte Murray.
No one else on the team has the athleticism or head-on-a-swivel mobility to tag Denver's many, many, many off-ball beelines. If the Spurs make it to the second round, he'll pull Damian Lillard or Russell Westbrook duty.
The flexibility White brings to the wings cannot be overstated. His matchup malleability is San Antonio's greatest source of defensive stability, and it trickles down to the rest of the roster.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Davis Bertans
Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol should be too high-profile for X-factor status. That he's not is a nod to the Raptors' marquee depth and his general newness.
Putting Gasol into the starting lineup has worked. The sample size isn't huge (161 minutes), but the new five-man unit is pouring in 119.5 points per 100 possessions with an assist percentage of 71.0. They're even better by the eye test.
Kawhi Leonard looks more like he's operating within Toronto's offense rather than as a separate entity. Gasol is integral to this shift. Only Pascal Siakam—who, by the way, is definitely too high profile to be considered an X-factor—has assisted on more of Leonard's buckets than Gasol since the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
That effect on the offense alone renders the Gasol deal a win. At the same time, Toronto is still waiting on the full Big Spain experience. He has spent the first two months of his Raptors tenure trying so hard to fit in that his own offense has fallen by the wayside.
Gasol's usage rate has dropped by six points since his arrival, and he's attempting under nine shots per 36 minutes since being permanently inserted into the starting five March 11. The Raptors don't need him to score like an All-Star, but embracing a smaller role is different from passing up wide-open threes.
Toronto also needs to see how he fares versus stretchier bigs. Nikola Vucevic is a good first test. Gasol faced him twice during the regular season as a member of the Raptors, and the results weren't great.
Vooch shot 8-of-15 against him, while Toronto's defense gave up 1.15 points per possession overall in those situations. And if matching up with Orlando's frontcourt is even slightly problematic, the Raptors will have to think about leaning into more Serge Ibaka- or Siakam-at-center arrangements.
Second-Biggest X-factor: Danny Green (or OG Anunoby if/when he returns from his emergency appendectomy)
Utah Jazz: Royce O'Neale
Dante Exum ain't walking through that door.
Not that Jazz head coach Quin Snyder would play him if he didn't have an injured knee. Exum is forever on the outskirts of his rotation even when healthy. But Snyder probably would've made an exception in a first-round matchup with the Rockets. Exum did a number on James Harden during spot minutes last year, and no team in the league has the luxury of ignoring a partial solution to The Beard's step-back shenanigans.
Royce O'Neale will now share in the responsibility of shadowing the NBA's leading scorer. Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles should all see reps against Harden, but O'Neale is the best full-time bet if the Jazz can spare the minutes. He's more of an in-your-personal-space gnat, which closely mirrors Exum's approach from last year.
Figuring out who should spend the most time on Harden is at least partially pointless. He is going to cook. He has his moments even when he's slumping. But the Jazz have a much better chance of keeping pace with the Rockets if someone, anyone, can make Harden's life difficult.
O'Neale also stands to be a pivotal part of Utah's offense. Playing Mitchell at point guard is all too tempting if Rubio keeps laying bricks. That call's a lot easier to make when O'Neale's hitting his threes (he is) and limiting his turnovers out of the pick-and-roll (he's not).
Second-Biggest X-factor: Jae Crowder