Every Projected NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor
The NBA is now less than a month away from resuming its truncated 2019-20 season.
Due to this long layoff, the quality of play will likely be worse than what we're used to in the regular season, let alone the levels that teams usually reach in May and June.
While the postseason is normally star-driven, we may see a more egalitarian, role-player-dependent playoffs in Orlando. Top players contracting the coronavirus while in the bubble could make each team's lesser starters and top bench players that much more important.
Here, we're looking at each projected playoff team's biggest X-factor—the player who could either help his team surpass expectations or be an integral contributor to their disappointment.
To project which teams are in and out, we'll turn to Greg Swartz's playoff projections from June 12.
Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker may seem too good to be considered an X-factor, especially given the presence of Marcus Smart, another obvious choice for this label. But whereas a bad Smart performance would make winning more difficult, a bad Walker series will sink the Celtics.
Any All-Star performing below expectations will adversely impact his team, but Walker is more likely than most stars to do that in the postseason. Players of his size rarely succeed in the playoffs—just ask ringless Chris Paul and ringless John Stockton. Walker is not an all-timer like those two, so you can imagine how hard it will be for him to run an offense against lockdown defenders.
And that isn't just theory, either. Walker has cratered in the playoffs, including when he shot 36.6 percent from the field (and 3-of-16 in Game 7) against the Miami Heat in 2016.
Thankfully, Walker's new teammates are far more accomplished. Jayson Tatum looks more like a future superstar every day, and Jaylen Brown isn't far behind him. But with trigger-happy Smart and Brad Wanamaker as Walker's chief backups, the Celtics cannot afford to see their prized point guard falter under the bright lights.
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert
One could make a compelling case for Taurean Prince here. He was in the midst of a career-worst campaign when the season was suspended, and perhaps a four-month hiatus was the best medicine for such a slump.
But while Prince will merely help raise the Nets' floor even at his best, Caris LeVert could increase the team's ceiling. That distinction makes all the difference in the postseason.
As is sadly the norm, LeVert has struggled to stay on the floor this year, missing 25 games. However, he showed marked improvement when healthy, averaging career highs in points per 36 minutes and three-point efficiency while maintaining previous improvements as a versatile defender and distributor. Though there've been plenty of stops and starts, LeVert could still become a Khris Middleton-style wing in a best-case scenario.
Even if LeVert plays the best basketball of his career in the bubble, Brooklyn will get blown off the court in the first round. But if he at least shows up in a major way in Orlando, then the Nets have reason to be even more encouraged for next season, when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving hopefully return to full strength.
Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway's 2019-20 regular season was a confirmation of Luka Doncic's superstar trajectory, but at the highest levels of the sport, he won't be able to lean on the Slovenian star in the same way.
After years of being a low-efficiency, shoot-first gunner on middling-to-bad teams, Hardaway has seemingly found a home for himself. The 28-year-old has shined in a limiting but more defined role with the Mavericks, recording a sterling 53.7 effective field goal percentage in 82 total games with the team and posting an 8.0 net rating this year, easily a career-best mark.
However, Hardaway has a shooting slash line of 31.5/23.2/64.0 in 15 career postseason games. He has improved drastically as a player since then, so we shouldn't necessarily expect efficiency that low again. But some players seem to consistently falter time and again when the pressure is on (see Bledsoe, Eric).
Is Hardaway destined to be one of those eternal postseason disappointments, or can he transcend previous struggles to become a stalwart role player on a team seemingly destined for future greatness?
We'll get our first peek at the answer this summer.
Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris
Michael Porter Jr. has been called the Nuggets' X-factor for months on end now, but based on head coach Mike Malone's rotation patterns, Porter is more likely to sit on the bench all postseason than be a key figure in Denver's playoff run.
Gary Harris, on the other hand, doesn't have the cover of inexperience to make up for his subpar 2019-20 campaign. The shooting guard has been trending downward for several years but hit a nadir this season, posting his worst shooting splits since his rookie season.
While Harris would be considered a lost cause in another situation, there are plenty of reasons to buy low on his potential.
First, the 25-year old has won the trust of those around him, with Malone, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray all offering vociferous defenses of him. In addition, something may have clicked late in the year, as Harris shot 53.2 percent from the field and 57.7 percent from three in Denver's last 10 games.
If that wasn't just a hot streak and indicates a return to form for Harris, then Nuggets fans can go wild with postseason dreams.
Houston Rockets: Robert Covington
The Rockets are placing a lot on Robert Covington's plate.
In certain situations, he'll need to lock down the opponent's best perimeter scorer, while in others, he'll serve as a rim protector and need to contest finishes from the likes of LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. In addition, on every offensive possession, Covington needs to be a competent enough stand-still shooter to let Russell Westbrook or James Harden have free rein over the paint.
In some respects, his responsibilities are straightforward. Seen another way, however, they're constricting and pressure-inducing, especially considering Covington has only played 14 games with Houston.
On top of all this, Covington's one postseason appearance with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017-18 went terribly. Though his role on that team was different than it now is with the Rockets, he still shot a horrid 32.5 percent from the field and recorded a negative net rating for a team that won a series.
Given their top-line talent, the Rockets are likely to at least make it to the second round even if Covington forgets how to shoot again. But if he doesn't show up in later postseason rounds, then the Rockets' chances to progress further are dead on arrival.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo was starting to round into form when the season was suspended. Over his final seven games, he averaged 16.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from three. Those aren't eye-popping statistics, but Oladipo was clearly on an upward trajectory.
However, while four extra months of rest and recovery would seem like a godsend for a player in his position, caution should still be heeded.
First, Malcolm Brogdon recently disclosed his positive coronavirus test. While he currently plans to play out the rest of the season, the former Rookie of the Year could either change his mind or may have limited playing time, which would increase Oladipo's role exponentially. In addition, Oladipo still isn't sure whether he'll participate, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, due to the stop-and-start nature of this season and his rehab schedule.
The Pacers were an entrenched playoff team before Oladipo's return, so it isn't as though their fate this year hangs on his decision and subsequent performance. But the events of this strange period could inform how he and they move forward over the next few years.
Los Angeles Clippers: Marcus Morris Sr.
On paper, the Clippers own a nearly perfect roster. Sure, they have one rotation player taller than 6'8", but when it comes to a balance of talent and modern team-building, no other team is better.
As a result of the Clippers' excellent combination of stars and depth, you could contend that if Marcus Morris Sr. decides to ball-stop or take ill-advised jumpers in a critical moment, head coach Doc Rivers will just bench him for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley or anybody else waiting in the wings.
However, Los Angeles made a move for Morris at the trade deadline for a reason. He gives the team another excellent shooter and solidifies its defensive front against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers in a potential postseason matchup.
Morris has admittedly struggled with the Clippers. In 12 games with his new club, the forward has averaged just 9.5 points while shooting 38.6 percent from the field and posting his worst turnover percentage in four years. If that continues, he'll likely be marginalized in the postseason.
But if he rediscovers the magic that made him such a valuable role player for the Boston Celtics, then the Clippers might become the title favorite.
Los Angeles Lakers: Danny Green
Avery Bradley's withdrawal from the bubble is quietly very important. The 29-year-old's spacing and guard defense helped provide a high defensive floor for the Lakers, and now he's gone for the most crucial portion of the year.
Obviously, Los Angeles' title chances don't rise and fall with Bradley. But with so many great point guards in the NBA, the Texas product would have been especially integral, and he needs to be replaced.
If Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo or Quinn Cook becomes necessary to another Los Angeles title, the team is in trouble, and despite his history with the Cavaliers, the newly acquired JR Smith doesn't exactly have the strongest postseason track record. So it must be Danny Green.
Green hasn't defended point guards much this year, but he's got a great recent history against the league's best. Stephen Curry shot just 28.6 percent from the field with Green on him in last year's Finals, while James Harden has matched that putrid percentage this regular season.
He doesn't equal Andre Iguodala, Dennis Rodman or Robert Horry as a high-level postseason role player. But between his 2009 UNC squad and the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Lakers, Green has only played for title contenders.
In the right scenario, this year might see his most important contributions yet.
Miami Heat: Andre Iguodala
Andre Iguodala may be washed. He certainly wasn't good in 14 regular-season games for Miami, as 4.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game will tell you. But to count the 36-year-old out now is to ignore recent history.
Iguodala's regular-season stats have been declining for years. He hasn't averaged 10 points per game since the 2012-13 campaign and hasn't played 30 minutes per night since the 2013-14 season.
The postseason, on the other hand, has been a different story. The wing has recorded a positive playoff box plus/minus every spring since 2008 and was a standout individual defender as recently as last year.
In addition, an extra eight months of rest could be sublime for Iguodala's aging limbs and joints. If those aforementioned 14 games and the eight seeding matchups in Orlando are a tune-up period, he very well could become a premier perimeter defender once the playoffs begin.
This may be a send-off postseason for Iguodala. But if he goes out swarming Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam or Jayson Tatum as part of a top-flight perimeter defense alongside Jimmy Butler, then it may be a sweet memory for Heat fans.
Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe
There's no more obvious pick here. The Kentucky product is a shining example of what Draymond Green famously called an "82-game player."
While a solid point guard in the regular season, to the point that he made the All-Defensive first team in 2018-19 and was a borderline All-Star this year, Bledsoe has faltered spectacularly in each of the last two postseasons. He was memorably punked by Terry Rozier and the Boston Celtics in 2018 and shot just 35.7 percent from the field in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Eastern Conference Finals last year.
Thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks somehow continue to improve and were approaching a 70-win pace before the 2019-20 campaign was suspended. Unfortunately for Bledsoe, however, they may need him more than ever in these playoffs.
With player health serving as an even more volatile proposition than usual this year and Giannis' jumper still eminently questionable, the point guard will likely be called upon at some point. Will he be able to rise to the occasion and complete a Hollywood-style redemption arc? Will the memories of previous failures continue to loom large?
The answer could determine whether Milwaukee wins a title. By extension, it could also determine whether the Bucks are able to keep Giannis for the next half-decade.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams
Given the omnipresence of pace-and-space schemes in the NBA, the fact that Steven Adams remains integral to a playoff team's success is surprising. But let's see how long that continues.
In some respects, Adams is adapting. He has posted the best assist percentage and box plus-minus of his career by a wide margin this year, and he remains a master of esoterica like screening and shot alteration. The Kiwi has even earned the respect of Chris Paul, who recently stated on the All the Smoke podcast (h/t Forbes' Nick Crain), "[Adams is] going to do whatever the team needs him to do."
Even if all that is true about Adams, it doesn't mean he'll be a postseason asset.
For all those intangible pluses, the Kiwi is still a rather traditional center. He's made just 59.0 percent of his free throws this season, second-worst among qualified players, and remains at risk of being torched in pick-and-rolls by the likes of Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell.
Adams has been a solid perimeter defender this year, but his potential shortcomings could force head coach Billy Donovan to play Nerlens Noel over him or even use Danilo Gallinari at center.
Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon
The gap between the Magic's 2019-20 floor and ceiling is fairly minimal. At best, they'll lose a competitive series to a top-two seed. At worst, they'll get swept by a much more talented team. But as long as the team stays healthy, it'll still be able to form personnel opinions based on this six-week sojourn.
As has been discussed ad nauseam, Orlando's frontcourt is overstuffed, and this season, Aaron Gordon has suffered the most.
The big man has recorded his worst effective field-goal percentage since his rookie year and posted a negative net rating. However, he did improve after Jonathan Isaac suffered a knee injury, averaging 15.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 46.0 percent from the field in the 29 ensuing games.
Will the long layoff and increased spacing help Gordon keep up that pace, finally turning him into Blake Griffin-lite? If that's the case, Orlando should either sell high and trade him for young players and picks or commit to building around him and Isaac while shopping Nikola Vucevic instead.
These stakes aren't super high, but they'll inform the direction of the Magic franchise for the foreseeable future.
Philadelphia 76ers: Al Horford
The 76ers might be winners of the NBA's hiatus.
In the grind of a season, it's hard to find time to work out on-court issues. However, three-plus months away from the court have given Philly a chance to solve serious questions.
If the team starts turning it around, then no Sixer stands to benefit more than Al Horford.
Horford's contract with Philly last summer was considered a smart move at the time. Instead, the 34-year-old has acted his age, looking a step slow on defense and spending most of his time standing at the three-point line on offense. In his own way, Horford has complained about this. But just before the season halted, head coach Brett Brown may have stumbled upon the solution: bringing the big man off the bench.
Given his $109 million contract, it's bad optics to move Horford to the bench. But he'd dominate other second units in a tailor-made role while a shooter like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III would settle the starting lineup.
Talent-wise, the ceiling in Philly could still lead to a title. The team just needs to continue tweaking its rotations until it finds the combination that can capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Congratulations on recovering from a gruesome injury, Jusuf Nurkic.
Your reward? An entire organization has spent the better part of a year spinning its wheels, waiting for you to return from that injury. Now that you're ostensibly healthy, you must be the savior who helps carry this team back to the playoffs.
The fact that injuries to Nurkic and Zach Collins have been used as cover for a lackluster 2019-20 season in Portland heaps significant pressure on their respective returns. This is especially true for Nurkic, who was in the midst of a career year in 2018-19 before he suffered a compound leg fracture.
Currently 3.5 games out of the eighth seed and in position to force a play-in series, Portland could make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year. But with one of the most difficult schedules of any bubble team and the potential reintegration of a big man coming off a major leg injury, it will be a challenge.
Toronto Raptors: Marc Gasol
Even in his younger years, Marc Gasol was never this slim. In fact, he was infamously out of shape. And while you can argue that losing such a drastic amount of weight this quickly at age 35 will detract from what made Gasol effective in the first place, anybody who believes that hasn't watched a second of his career.
The Spaniard's game has only ever relied on power and girth in tangential ways, and he's a three-time All-Star because of a high basketball IQ and surprising agility as a perimeter defender. Losing weight will obviously not affect decision-making, and it can only heighten his ability to switch on defense.
It's hard to say how this affects the Raptors' championship aspirations. They have a clear offensive hierarchy, and Gasol was a stout defender this year even before the weight loss.
But it certainly can't hurt to have a former Defensive Player of the Year in peak physical condition.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
As if Mike Conley's integration into the Utah Jazz lineup wasn't complicated enough, he now has a new set of obstacles to take on in the bubble.
On one hand, the point guard will take on a bigger role out of necessity after Bojan Bogdanovic's season-ending wrist surgery. On the other hand is the elephant in the room: Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert's relationship.
The organization is saying the right things, but it's not like the two were ever a seamless fit. The paint-bound Gobert was always an offensive impediment to Mitchell, a Dwyane Wade-style guard who thrives as a slasher and finisher around the rim.
Now, what does Conley have to do with any of this? Well, he's the team's point guard and elder statesman, meaning he's ostensibly in charge of the Jazz's fate.
If he's finally able to make sense of his role and help Mitchell and Gobert regain solid chemistry, then Utah could win a series. If he continues to show signs of decline, then the Jazz may need to bite the bullet and begin shopping him.
With Gobert potentially on the trade block and Conley seemingly past his prime, Utah's roster could look very different come December.