The Biggest X-Factor for Every Top NBA Championship Contender
Let's talk about the NBA's most important X-factors, shall we?
Painting this year's championship picture is more difficult than in recent years. The field isn't just deep; it's vast.
Roughly one-third of the league's teams can sell themselves on making it out of their conference this year. Some of the lesser cases will have to catch breaks, but they needn't ask for the moon.
Rather than try to shrink-wrap the title discussion, we're going to steer into the volume. Maybe this cheapens the spirit of contention for certain fans. It shouldn't. The Association is, somehow, simultaneously playing host to a few juggernauts and a bunch of really good teams who could possibly unseat them.
For our purposes, X-factors will be considered swing pieces. Superstars need not apply. Selections can—and will—include bigger-name players, but the idea is to identify someone outside a contender's top two or three options most likely to tip the scales of their impending playoff push.
Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward
Starting with the Boston Celtics makes all the sense in the world—and not just because contenders are being presented in alphabetical order.
They are sort of like the demarcation line for teams that belong in the championship convo. They're really good, a top-five squad on both offense and defense. But are they might-win-the-whole-damn-thing good or just regular-season good?
Boston is vying for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, yet wants for top-shelf star power or a distinct third option who offsets the former concern. As Max Carlin wrote for Celtics Blog:
"The team's two stars, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, are great players, comfortably deserving All-Stars, but inarguably a tier or two below the league's absolute best. While reliance on second-tier stars has proven a viable formula for regular season winning, some recent struggles by those two could presage postseason shortcomings relative to the expectations of a true contender.
... Some may look to Jaylen Brown's line in the box score vs. Houston [on Feb. 11] as evidence that the Celtics do have another creation option, but applying the slightest context to those numbers disqualifies that notion. Brown posted 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting, but just 2 of those points came on self-created looks in the half court, the remaining 17 coming via transition or spot-ups in the half court. When Brown did attempt to create in the half court, the results were disastrous."
Playing through Tatum is a legitimate offensive model. He is closer to All-NBA quality than not but isn't quite there yet. The Celtics won't have the best player in prospective matchups with the Miami Heat (Jimmy Butler), Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo) or Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid), and they cannot guarantee Tatum or Walker will deserve that title against the Toronto Raptors (Pascal Siakam). Meeting the Indiana Pacers could pose the same problem if Victor Oladipo is all the way back.
Getting No. 3-type production from Gordon Hayward is Boston's best shot at bridging whatever best-player gap might exist in the postseason. He's quietly having a feel-good year, and he put together a stronger stretch entering the All-Star break, averaging 20.4 points and 4.0 assists while downing 45.7 percent of his threes over his previous 10 games.
Asking him to regain the level of shot creation he displayed with the Utah Jazz goes a touch too far. He's draining 52.1 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc, but he's not leveraging an off-the-dribble three or dusting slower defenders on switches. Fewer of his shots are coming inside three feet than last season, and his free-throw-attempt rate is at an all-time low. He is still a bit of a wild card, and Boston needs him to be more.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
A right ankle injury sidelined Michael Porter Jr. entering the All-Star break, but he has, when healthy, played his way into the Denver Nuggets' present.
Through his first 39 games, he's posting 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per 36 minutes while drilling 55.3 percent of his twos and 43.2 percent of his threes. Most of his looks aren't all that complicated. He's scoring on a steady diet of spot-ups, cuts and transition opportunities. But he's shown the capacity to generate his own offense in the half-court.
Porter has attempted 64 shots after using two or more dribbles. He's 23-of-47 (48.9 percent) inside the arc on those off-the-bounce looks and a ridiculous 9-of-17 (52.9 percent) on threes. He's even proved capable of converting last-ditch grenades, as FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring noted on The Lowe Post podcast:
"You look at what he does in the last seven seconds of the [shot] clock—which we know that that's kind of an area where you look at that  Spurs series, for instance, where the Nuggets just really struggled at times, where's it's just sort of [Jamal] Murray or [Nikola] Jokic or it's kind of you can't—just certain people. Gary Harris, we know, has struggled a ton.
"[Porter] is 14-of-27 in the last seven seconds of the clock. He can get buckets."
Having that extra layer of from-scratch would be huge for the Nuggets—assuming head coach Mike Malone indulges it.
Keeping Porter on the floor gets thorny defensively if he's expected to cover starrier wings. Beyond that, and his health, it isn't yet clear whether Malone would trust him to be on the floor in crunch time of a playoff series.
Playing Porter probably means yanking Paul Millsap. The two have tallied just 23 possessions together this season. Injuries haven't helped the duo's availability, but Jerami Grant is a cleaner fit beside Porter.
That's not an easy call to make. Nor will Malone necessarily be inclined to lean on a rookie in the NBA's pressure-cooker. All of which puts Porter in the unique position of having the potential to swing a playoff series or fade entirely from it.
Houston Rockets: P.J. Tucker
Turning P.J. Tucker into a full-time 5 is not a gimmick by the Houston Rockets. It is how they need to play this side of the Russell Westbrook trade.
Houston made it clear long ago that having two non-shooters on the floor was not an option. Clint Capela's days were numbered the moment Westbrook arrived. Cannonballing into micro-ball has allowed the former to attack freely. Westbrook is averaging a league-leading 23.7 drives per game—on which he's shooting 61.1 percent—since Capela last suited up for the Rockets on Jan. 29.
But sticking Tucker at center, while perhaps a no-brainer, is not without opportunity cost. The offense is humming. Houston is pumping in 119.7 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile) with Tucker playing the 5. But the team is hemorrhaging looks at the rim on the other side and notching a 113 defensive rating overall (29th percentile).
The Rockets may not care. Their offense verges on unsolvable when Westbrook is surrounded by four viable shooters. They're comfortably in the green during the Tucker-at-center possessions, and uncompromisingly downsizing will force teams with bigger frontcourts into awkward decisions during the postseason.
It helps that Tucker won't be left to fend for himself against centers on every possession. Robert Covington, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha will all pitch in. DeMarre Carroll, too. And whatever the Rockets give up defensively and on the glass, they'll get back in spades when running their offense.
Still, having Tucker spend any time at all covering a Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis is a risk, even if a calculated one. The wear and tear will be real. Rotations shrink in the playoffs, and head coach Mike D'Antoni isn't known for emptying his bench in general. We haven't yet seen enough of the Covington-Tucker combination to know whether their spicy defensive returns are sustainable.
There could be a series or three in which the Rockets' size reduction backfires and they're the ones mismatched out of the playoffs. Tucker is the player most responsible for ensuring that doesn't happen.
Los Angeles Clippers: JaMychal Green
Potential X-factors abound for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac are all worthwhile selections. Ditto for Marcus Morris, whom the Clippers acquired to be their swing piece. Feel free to go with Paul George's health. Or even the closing lineup.
But JaMychal Green is the middle ground. Almost literally.
Head coach Doc Rivers has talked about playing smaller, with Green or Morris manning the center spot in five-out lineups. The latter scenario is a matchup nightmare for opponents but doesn't profile as sustainable against teams other than the Rockets.
The Clippers can get more extended stretches from Green-at-the-5 arrangements. Those combinations are not a staple at the moment, and the defensive returns across a small sample are rough, but steering into that model became ultra-useful in last year's first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Singling out Green is not a knock against Zubac or Montrezl Harrell. Pleas for the Clippers to pick up another big man underestimated how much of a deterrent Zubac can be around the rim, and the defense has held strong with Harrell in the middle.
This is more about matchup-proofing Los Angeles' best lineups. Zubac can fall behind when pulled outside the restricted area to guard quicker players—though, he has the timing to break up plays from behind—and Harrell-at-the-5 groupings are going to get hammered on the defensive glass.
Green does not erase those concerns on his own, but he comes closer than anyone to striking balance between the two while stretching the floor more than both.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
Superheroes who actually wear capes will go with Markieff Morris—assuming he clears waivers—or maybe even the buyout market in general. That's mostly fine. But neither Morris nor what's left of the buyout market simplifies the Los Angeles Lakers' greatest complication: the minutes they play without LeBron James.
Kyle Kuzma it is.
No-LeBron stretches will not be as big of an issue in the postseason. He has never averaged fewer than 38 minutes per game during the playoffs. The Lakers are tasked with surviving maybe 10 minutes a night minus their GOAT playmaker. That's manageable.
It also might not be. Los Angeles is getting outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench. That gap increases when Anthony Davis is part of the lineup, and it widens even further when Rajon Rondo gets thrown into the fold.
Alex Caruso may be head coach Frank Vogel's secret weapon, but he is not the antidote. So many of his LeBron-less minutes include Rondo, and the Lakers aren't especially inclined to play him without another primary ball-handler.
The degree to which Kuzma can help varies. Los Angeles has experienced its biggest drop-off without LeBron on defense. Seriously. The Lakers' defensive rating places in the—deep breath—1st percentile when Kuzma and Davis play without him.
Some of that is bad luck. Opponents are stroking threes at an unfathomable clip during those stints. But the Lakers do need Kuzma to survive reps on bigger wings—or, um, apparently maybe not—if he isn't going to forfeit minutes. And that's not strictly a with-LeBron thing.
Los Angeles will invariably have to downsize in certain situations and put Davis at the 5. Those lineups have yielded mixed results but are mostly above water. The LeBron-Kuzma-AD frontcourt has lit up opponents. They just haven't seen a ton of time together.
Can Kuzma handle more offensive responsibility and diminish the Lakers' dependence on Rondo? Hit a higher percentage of his threes when James is off the court? (He's at 25.6 percent in those stints.) Play better defense coming around screens and on switches?
This isn't another "The Lakers need Kuzma to be a third star" diatribe. Playoff series can be lost during those no-star stretches. Ask last year's Philadelphia 76ers. Los Angeles' postseason outlook improves tenfold if Kuzma can be more dynamic on offense and more consistent overall.
Miami Heat: Jae Crowder
Roll with Andre Iguodala if you must. The Miami Heat are expecting him to play an actual role, at the age of 36, after sitting out for around eight months. That is both a flex and the definition of X-factor.
Jae Crowder still stands to be the larger swing piece. He's not only going to see more court time in the postseason, but he also has a better chance of impacting their lineup distribution.
Less than one-third of Bam Adebayo's minutes have come as the lone big on the floor. The Heat have recorded above-average ratings on both the offensive (85th percentile) and defensive (73rd percentile) ends, but the extent to which they could rely on those formations was slightly up in the air.
Putting Adebayo in the middle without Meyers Leonard, Kelly Olynyk or another big around him leaves Jimmy Butler or Duncan Robinson to act as the de facto power forward. That's far from ideal. Butler has enough responsibility on both sides without having to guard up positions, and Robinson's defensive splits do not accurately reflect how much of a liability he devolves into versus more dynamic assignments.
Slotting Crowder into those combinations arms the Heat with someone better built to cover opposing 4s for protracted stretches. He makes it easier to stash Robinson while freeing Butler to harass smaller wings and guards.
Breaking bread with the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline was first and foremost about offloading bad money and scooping up Iguodala's 16-game ceiling. But Crowder was no throw-in. If he's putting down his threes (and limiting his JR Smith heat checks), he matchup-proofs Miami just as much as, if not more than, Iguodala.
Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo
Eric Bledsoe is free to get the bulk of your attention after the offensive duds he's turned in over the past two postseasons. Brook Lopez works as well. Imagine how good the Milwaukee Bucks would be if he starts complementing his defense, efficiency on drives and chops in the post by...hitting his wide-open three-pointers.
Marvin Williams earned more initial consideration than he probably should have. Buyout acquisitions tend to be more inconsequential than not, but the Bucks are obliterating opponents when Giannis Antetokounmpo plays center. Williams renders those lineups even more usable in the postseason.
Donte DiVincenzo gets the nod anyway.
He has the same positional range on defense as Malcolm Brogdon, and maybe even a little bit more. Milwaukee can put him on either guard spot and has given him some reps against primary wings. DiVincenzo is averaging as many deflections per 36 minutes as Marcus Smart and ranks sixth in defensive real adjusted plus-minus—he moves into fourth when adjusting for luck—according to NBA Shot Charts.
That's all great. The Bucks aren't incredibly deep on the wings outside their starting five. But they didn't get bounced from the playoffs last year because of their defense. Their offense sputtered against the Toronto Raptors. They couldn't get out in transition as regularly and never gained any traction in the half court. Their offense mustered just 0.96 points per possession in that series following an opponent's made shot, per Inpredictable.
Antetokounmpo might be so good—and comfortable taking jumpers off the dribble—that Milwaukee won't run into similar issues this year. Bledsoe could play better. Khris Middleton, in case you haven't noticed, is absurdly good. He's shooting 39.1 percent on contested threes (18 of 46).
DiVincenzo is still necessary as another layer of shot-creation protection. He initiates pick-and-rolls, tosses nifty dimes after leaving his feet and flings quick second passes. It will be harder to keep the Bucks out of transition after he grabs rebounds, and he can scamper past set defenses both on and off the ball.
Milwaukee is annihilating opponents when DiVincenzo plays beside Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Lopez. That four-player base provides the framework to get through rougher offensive stretches. And depending on how he's faring, Bledsoe doesn't need to be the fifth wheel. The Bucks offense has remained above average with DiVincenzo running point.
Philadelphia 76ers: Al Horford
The Philadelphia 76ers acquired Al Horford specifically to be their postseason X-factor. He gave them another body to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo and a second lifeline to milk whenever Joel Embiid was on the bench.
That logic still tracks. Horford isn't moving with the same hyperattentive edginess on defense, but he has the length and mobility to cause problems for Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. And Philly is winning the minutes Embiid doesn't play this year, in no small part because of Horford.
All of this rings hollow if the Sixers cannot figure out how to improve during the minutes their two bigs log together. They're getting outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions in those sessions, with a 99.5 offensive rating (3rd percentile).
Horford's regression from beyond the arc has hampered the pairing as much as anything. He's shooting 32.4 percent from deep overall and just 24.3 percent with Embiid on the court. Add Ben Simmons' limitations to the equation, and Philly's half-court floor balance becomes extra clumpy.
Staggering Embiid and Horford helps. The Sixers have already moved the latter to the bench. But his demotion opens up a whole new can of worms. Chief among them: How much is Horford actually going to play?
Philly can find Horford 25-plus minutes off the bench in a regular game, but the calculus changes during the playoffs. If Embiid plays closer to 35 minutes (or more) in the postseason, that doesn't leave Horford much solo time. Head coach Brett Brown either needs to play them together or make the awkward call to leave Horford on the bench.
This dilemma has already presented itself coming out of the All-Star break. Horford barely played in the fourth quarter and didn't see the court in overtime of the Sixers' Feb. 20 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. And that was with Simmons out of the lineup (lower back tightness). Navigating those crunch-time situations won't get any easier when he's in the rotation.
In a weird, twisted, definitely unplanned way, this sort of makes Horford the ultimate X-factor. Either he equips the Sixers to leave a bigger imprint on the playoffs, or they gave him a four-year, $109 million contract ($97 million guaranteed) to be a matchup-dependent reserve who winds up watching from the sidelines down the stretch of close games.
Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol
Last season's X-factor is once again this year's X-factor for the Toronto Raptors. Marc Gasol helped swing their title race then, and they'll need him to do it now.
Health is part of his, er, X-factorness. Gasol hasn't played since Jan. 28 while dealing with a left hamstring injury. His absence hasn't slowed the Raptors during the regular season—they're second in the East—but the playoffs are an altogether different beast. Success by committee isn't as effective when teams have so much time to game-plan for and target specific players.
Gasol's value to Toronto skyrockets in the postseason. He can be played off the floor on defense but is still hell to tussle with for purer bigs. Gasol vaporized Nikola Vucevic in the first round last year and then went on to neutralize Joel Embiid in the semifinals. His conference finals performance wasn't as flattering, but he closed the series with high-IQ defense and turned in some memorable moments during the Finals.
This year's Raptors need Gasol even more on offense. Bench-heavy units should be used sparingly in the playoffs, but he is the engine best suited to drive lineups that don't feature one of Kyle Lowry or Pascal Siakam.
Just look at Toronto's splits with Gasol this season:
- No Lowry: 876 possessions, 114.5 offensive rating, 14.0 net rating
- No Siakam: 240 possessions, 110.7 offensive rating, 9.2 net rating
- No Siakam/Lowry: 142 possessions, 113.4 offensive rating, 5.6 net rating
Smaller samples can be misleading. Gasol's minutes without Lowry and Siakam are particularly tough to read. Then again, the postseason is a small sample of its own.
Whatever minutes the Raptors log without Lowry or Siakam (or both) are important and can shift the tenor of a series. Gasol won't be extra important every night, but his playmaking and presence around the rim are absolutely critical to Toronto staging a title defense that doesn't top out before the conference finals.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
Mike Conley is the offseason addition who was supposed to shift the Utah Jazz's fortunes the most. He would redirect much of the attention Donovan Mitchell received over the previous two playoff pushes and immunize the offense against total collapse.
Bojan Bogdanovic was acquired to do much of the same, but primary playmakers are better positioned to inflict their will over defenses in the half court. Conley is the more experienced from-scratch ball-handler and, in theory, the more dynamic co-scorer for Mitchell.
Utah is stilling waiting on him to be that player, though.
Left hamstring issues have limited Conley's availability, but he's shooting a career-worst 41.4 percent on two-pointers and attempting more mid-range looks than head coach Quin Snyder would likely prefer to stomach. And while the Jazz aren't losing the minutes he plays, the offense is 3.9 points better per 100 possessions with him off the court, and he hasn't lifted up lineups that don't include Mitchell.
Conley did offer a ray of hope leading into the All-Star break. Over his past four games, he's averaging 20.3 points and 4.8 assists while banging in 50.3 percent of his threes. Tiny samples are dangerous and all that, but he has to start somewhere, and the Jazz need this to be the beginning of something.
Five games against the Houston Rockets in the first round last year exposed a world of holes in their offense. They're not going to shoot 23.6 percent on wide-open threes again, but failing to bury their higher-quality looks was only part of the problem.
Wallowing in half-court futility was the larger issue. The Jazz imploded without an off-the-dribble outlet other than Mitchell. They placed second-to-last among playoff teams in effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers and averaged just 0.94 points per possession (12th) after inbounding the ball following a made shot, according to Inpredictable.
Maybe Utah can get by with a lesser version of Conley. Bogdanovic and Mitchell have been really good. But the difference between the Jazz struggling to make a deep playoff push and their belonging near the top of the championship discussion is the Mike Conley they thought they traded for.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Feb 21. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.