The Biggest X-Factor for Every NBA Championship Contender
With the NBA set to restart this week, dreams of capturing the 2019-20 Larry O'Brien Trophy are more attainable than they've been in months for many teams, and for good reason. With so much still up in the air from a health perspective and a four-month mini-offseason potentially impacting on-court performance, more teams than usual could benefit from the vagaries of postseason basketball.
FiveThirtyEight's projection model claims that eight teams have at least a one percent chance of winning the NBA title this fall. The efficacy of those projections can be debated at a later date, but the listed squads do seem to have the best chance of lifting the trophy in October.
Today, we're breaking down the X-factors for each of these clubs. Put simply, these players could help their team win that elusive title, or they could be a significant reason why their team falls short of expectations.
Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker
If you think Jayson Tatum's post-All-Star break run was just a hot streak, then there's a strong case that he's the Boston Celtics X-factor. But even if Tatum regresses slightly from that peak, his postseason range of outcomes is relatively small compared to somebody like Kemba Walker.
It's been a solid first season in Beantown for Walker, as he made his fourth straight All-Star team and is recording a 56.9 true shooting percentage, tied for second-best of his career. But the guard has a history of playoff struggles, having shot 39.4 percent overall in 11 postseason games, and there's no indication that's about to change.
Regardless of what you think of the NBA All-Star Game, Walker was in over his head in the final minutes against the league's very best players, both a function of his relative talent level and the fact that he's an undersized guard who'll struggle to create against big wing defenders. With everyone from Khris Middleton to OG Anunoby to Jimmy Butler as potential Eastern Conference opponents, that'll remain an issue this postseason.
In addition, the knee injury that plagued his final weeks before the shutdown seems to be lingering, and though everyone around the organization is downplaying its severity, that he couldn't fully recover after four months off is alarming.
Let's hope we're overreacting and Walker recovers some of his UConn-era energy this summer and fall. But until he shows that level of competence against the top teams in the league, he'll always be a cut below the sport's best.
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray
Between Michael Porter Jr.'s standout moments in the regular season, Bol Bol's exciting scrimmage debut last week and Gary Harris' subpar season, the Denver Nuggets have plenty of down-roster candidates to consider as X-factors. But Porter and Bol likely won't play enough to deserve such a title, while Harris can raise the team's floor but not its ceiling.
Jamal Murray, on the other hand, is the ultimate ceiling-raiser.
Based on his Game 2 performance against the Spurs in the first round last year, you may think Murray has proved himself to be a consistent playoff factor. But he shot just 28.9 percent from the field in Games 6 and 7 of the following series against the Trail Blazers, and it remains to be seen just how reliable he can be under the bright lights.
Now, to Murray's credit, the 2019-20 regular season is his best yet, and the last month-plus before the shutdown was arguably the best stretch of his career. But dig a little deeper, and the facts put into sharp relief how his efficiency affects the outcome: Denver is 14-5 (.737 winning percentage) with several notable victories (e.g., Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Celtics) when he shoots 50 percent or better from the field and 23-13 (.639) when he makes fewer than half his shots.
Murray doesn't necessarily need to shoot 50 percent from the field for Denver to win a title—that's a nearly impossible task for any guard who attempts threes regularly. But until the Canadian proves to be a consistently accurate shooter at the highest level of the sport, questions will follow him.
Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon
On paper, the 2019-20 campaign is the worst of Eric Gordon's career. He's shooting just 37.0 percent from the field (31.9 percent from three) and has one of the worst net ratings on the Houston Rockets. However, there are obvious reasons why he fell short before play halted, and they appear to have dissipated over the hiatus.
The former Indiana Hoosier was riddled with lower-body injuries this year, undergoing knee surgery in November and facing additional troubles after a late December return. He put together a few nice games, including a 50-point showing against the Jazz, but was mostly a non-factor by his standards.
Thankfully, that all seems to be behind Gordon, as both he and Mike D'Antoni recently stated he's ready to go for the season's resumption.
Given the Rockets' new roster construction, Gordon's return can't come any sooner. For its ultra-small-ball lineups to work, Houston needs as many threatening three-point shooters as possible so James Harden and Russell Westbrook have space to penetrate the lane and get to the hoop. With Austin Rivers leaving the bubble recently and the team already depending on unproven postseason players like Ben McLemore, Gordon's stable veteran presence will be especially valuable.
Does a healthy Gordon make the Rockets a genuine threat to the Lakers and Clippers? In theory, no.
But if he gets hot for a series and Harden and Westbrook each transcend their spotty playoff track records, then an upset could be possible.
Los Angeles Clippers: Marcus Morris Sr.
Previously one of the deepest teams in the NBA, the Los Angeles Clippers are taking heavy damage early on in the bubble. Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams all left the team for various reasons (though Beverley is already back and in quarantine, and Harrell is expected to return soon), while Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac reported to Orlando late and may not be ready to play when games begin Thursday.
Though all five of those players will hopefully be available to play at some point before the playoffs begin in mid-August, the Clippers should prepare for the worst and expect to rely on those who've been with the team the whole time.
For instance, these new developments can only increase the team's dependence on Marcus Morris Sr.
The fact that Morris is arguably the third-best healthy Clipper is not ideal. On one hand, he's proved to be a valuable contributor to winning in the past, specifically giving the Celtics quality minutes on both ends of the floor throughout two recent postseason runs. However, many of Morris' skills as a shot creator are redundant with those of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and his tendency to ball-stop exacerbates a preexisting problem on the Clippers roster.
With a mostly or fully healthy roster, Morris' fit wouldn't be as big an issue, but if he must assume a larger role, it might cause problems.
In the best-case scenario, Morris will rediscover what made him such a successful quasi-starter for the Celtics, draining spot-up threes, playing spirited defense and becoming a valued leader on an NBA Finals-bound team—even in slightly diminished circumstances.
Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso
Without an all-league defender like Avery Bradley to hound elite Western Conference guards, you might think the Lakers will suffer. But Alex Caruso has been just as good (if not slightly better) than Bradley this year.
Part of the reason why Caruso has endeared himself to Lakers fans is because he doesn't look like an NBA player, yet is an elite athlete. Caruso uses this underdog mentality as motivation, bothering some of the league's top ball-handlers. Exceptional guards like Luka Doncic and Jamal Murray have struggled against the Bald Mamba, and he's responsible for the second-best defensive net rating swing on the Lakers—they're the best defense in the league with Caruso (100.3 defensive rating) and sixth-best without him (106.7).
As long as they play JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard major minutes in the postseason, the Lakers will be at a theoretical disadvantage on offense. However, given the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that side of the ball is virtually guaranteed to figure itself out, spacing issues or not. The defense is another story.
With James, Davis and Danny Green, Los Angeles is well-equipped to stop some of the league's more dangerous wing and big-man scorers, but not necessarily players like Damian Lillard, Chris Paul or Ja Morant.
However, if Caruso makes the most of his postseason opportunity and helps mute those opposing guards' offensive impact, then the Lakers could be holding the trophy when the dust settles.
Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe is probably tired of the criticism, and that's understandable. But as long as he continues to disappear in the postseason, he'll continue to be doubted.
If Bledsoe maintained his regular-season performance in the playoffs, it would be game-changing for the Bucks. Though he's never been a great shooter, he's a passable one, and he's a competent enough playmaker and shot creator to be on the floor in big moments (not to mention his All-NBA-caliber defense).
A fully functional Bledsoe that makes open threes, attacks closeouts when necessary and locks up the opponent's best perimeter scorer would make Milwaukee nearly invincible.
Of course, Bledsoe has disappointed at most every turn in his two playoff runs with the team. Excluding a first-round sweep of the Pistons last year, Bledsoe has shot just 39.0 percent overall and 24.0 percent from three in the postseason with the Bucks, notably losing a public feud with Terry Rozier along the way.
In what is a great credit to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has mostly been able to weather Bledsoe's shortcomings. Though neither was an ideal result, losing a hard-fought seven-game series to the Celtics in 2018 and being defeated in the Eastern Conference Finals by the eventual champion Toronto Raptors last year were both fairly acceptable outcomes for where the Bucks were in the team-building cycle. But as they have been the wire-to-wire best team in the NBA this season (at least by record), the stakes are far higher now.
To bring a championship back to Milwaukee, they'll need Bledsoe at his best.
Philadelphia 76ers: Shake Milton
With just 52 career NBA games under his belt, Shake Milton is easily the least-known quantity among Sixers rotation players.
At first glance, Milton's stats as a starter (14.1 PPG, 3.6 APG, 53.9 FG%, 50.0 3PT%) combined with his seven-foot wingspan position him well for postseason duty. But at the same time, most of the second-year pro's best starts came against lottery-caliber teams, and with one notable exception, he disappeared against Philly's most formidable opponents.
Perhaps the former SMU Mustang won't be needed much. Maybe an in-shape Joel Embiid and a fully healthy Ben Simmons will be so dominant that his fading into the background becomes acceptable. Not only does that seem unlikely, but Milton's shooting acumen and willingness to work within a team construct make him a necessary component to a Sixers lineup that has struggled with both of those concepts at various points this year.
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor recently compared him to George Hill, writing that: "[Milton is] a steady, reliable presence who limits turnovers, makes smart passes, and takes shots within the flow of the offense. He’s a better fit for what they have."
Thanks to an overstuffed payroll and the nature of team-building in the modern NBA, the stakes are high in Philly. Brett Brown's job status has been in question for months, and most of the team's star players have been openly discontent. But switching Al Horford with Milton and his more flexible skill set could be the move that locks everything else into place.
Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby
The Raptors have a higher floor than many of the teams on this list, so even if OG Anunoby forgets how to shoot or sprains an ankle (God forbid) and isn't his normal self on defense, they'll still at least be competitive in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, assuming they get that far.
But if Anunoby plays as well as he did over the last month before the shutdown, then Toronto's title chances skyrocket.
In his first fully healthy season, the third-year wing has blossomed into one of the league's best role players, and Toronto's last 15 games bore that out in full. From February 2 onward, Anunoby averaged 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 56.8 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. The list of players to produce those counting stats over a full year is very starry, and none of them matched his shooting splits.
That's not to say that Anunoby is a future Hall of Famer, but his particular combination of outrageous physical tools and improving skills is rare and valuable when fully utilized.
In hindsight, Kawhi Leonard's one year in Toronto was even more fruitful than we may have realized at the time. Not only did he bring Canada its first NBA title, but he shepherded players like Anunoby toward reaching their full potential.
Whether that comes to fruition this fall in Orlando remains to be seen, but even if the Raptors fail to defend their title, they'll hopefully reap the benefits of the versatile Anunoby for years to come.