Every NBA Team's Biggest X-Factor So Far This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2021

Every NBA Team's Biggest X-Factor So Far This Season

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    As often as the label X-factor gets thrown around in NBA talks, the actual archetype is hard to define.

    At its essence, it's a swing player, or someone with an outsized (and often overlooked) impact on his club's success. His best-case scenario might help his team gain traction in the championship race, but if his floor drops out, then his franchise's might follow.

    That's why the tag typically applies to a role player, since they're inherently more volatile from one night to the next than a top-shelf star. But that isn't always the case. Anything from expectations to extenuating circumstances (like injury concerns or unanswered playoff questions) can turn a star player into an X-factor.

    With the 2020-21 campaign more than a month into its marathon trek, there's enough data on hand to identify the X-factor for all 30 teams.

Atlanta Hawks: De'Andre Hunter

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It's an understatement to say De'Andre Hunter disappointed for last season's Hawks. While all No. 4 picks might not face the same expectations, it always rings a few alarm bells when players taken that high fail to snag an All-Rookie spot in an injury-free season.

    Considering that was already his age-22 campaign, it was fair to wonder whether Atlanta had misfired on the selection.

    About that.

    Before a knee injury forced him off the floor, he hadn't hit the ground running so much as he'd been shot out of a cannon. His shooting rates spiked across the board (51.4/36.6/87.7), and he suddenly rocketed to second-option status on a Hawks team that seemed to load up on tertiary scorers to cover for his limitations.

    He was an easy choice for trade-machine fodder over the offseason, but now he looms as a key cog in Atlanta's rebuild. If the Hawks can maintain their grip on a playoff spot (and perhaps skip the play-in tournament), Hunter's ability to sustain this early success will likely be a big reason why.

Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Celtics were never going to need Kemba Walker to carry the torch as he had to for so many seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. When he signed with the Shamrocks in 2019, Walker was merely meant to be one of four franchise pillars along with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.

    The ongoing ascensions of Tatum and Brown have nudged Walker into third-star status. Or rather, they would if the 30-year-old could prove capable of producing in even that fashion. Left knee issues sidelined him at the start of the season, and he's been a mixed bag of hopeful flashes and ominous struggles in his first six games.

    The Celtics, who lost Hayward in free agency and saw their margin for error become razor-thin as a result, need more from Walker. His past suggests he can deliver it, but his brick-laying present (37.3 percent from the field, 29.3 from deep) is hardly inspiring any confidence.

    "They can't have Walker shoot 1-for-12 in a matchup against the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in which every possession was critical," Gary Washburn wrote for the Boston Globe. "They can't have Walker playing with little confidence wondering when he's going to get his swagger back."

Brooklyn Nets: Jeff Green

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Nets are still finding the balance between Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. But with each averaging better than 24 points per night while also flirting with 50/40/90 slash lines, it's probably a matter more of when than if that ridiculous production turns into consistent (and colossal success).

    That shifts the spotlight over to the supporting cast, where...well, there isn't much to see. Joe Harris is a steady sharpshooter, Bruce Brown has endless energy and DeAndre Jordan still makes enough plays above the rim, but the depth is as decimated as one would expect with Spencer Dinwiddie sidelined by an ACL tear and Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince all sacrificed in the Beard blockbuster.

    That leaves Jeff Green and a collection of largely unproven players. Or, for postseason-rotation purposes, maybe just Jeff Green.

    Initially tasked with support scoring and floor-spacing, Green's to-do-list has now swollen to include backup-big-man stints and whatever defensive versatility he can provide. The Nets are woefully short on centers and stoppers, and while Green isn't the cleanest fit in either role, he might be the best this torn-down supporting cast can do.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Hornets have made several positive moves this side of Kemba Walker's departure, but none meant more to the present and future of this franchise than the drafting of LaMelo Ball with this year's third overall pick.

    Short-term, he's the playmaking glue that potentially holds this roster together. Long-term, he's the best hope the Hornets have of developing a star and ultimately bringing the buzz back to Buzz City.

    He's also 19 years old and working his way out of bad habits (including a funky and erratic jumper and unreliable defensive motor), and both of those things can be noticeable any given night.

    "If he could play an entire NBA game full of nothing but [fast breaks], Ball would be an All-Star already," Scott Fowler wrote for the Charlotte Observer. "... But basketball is a lot more than breakaways, and Charlotte fans are going to need to get used to the many work-in-progress aspects of Ball's game this season."

    The Hornets have relatively slow-played their young point guard, only giving him first start on Monday to replace an injured Terry Rozier. That's fine for now given Ball's need for development, but their best-case scenario for this season has him forcing his way into the opening five on a permanent basis and looking every bit the part of an ascending star.

Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Is Lauri Markkanen a difference-maker? No matter how you answered that, you likely paused before you did. Three-plus years into his NBA career, the Bulls would surely like to have a more thorough read on 2017's seventh overall pick.

    Injuries have factored into this incomplete assessment, but so has a slate of spotty performances. On some nights, he seems like the ultimate mismatch as a 7-footer with three-point range and the skills needed to punish smaller, switching defenders in the post. On others, he looks like little more than a shooting specialist, and his career 36.1 three-point percentage doesn't quite cut it for that gig.

    He has at least (mostly) steamrolled into this season with one of the strongest stretches of his career. A pair of consecutive 30-point outbursts has given him six 20-plus-point outings in 12 contests and tantalized Chicago's offensive possibilities if he, Zach LaVine and Coby White can all get going together.

    But with restricted free agency awaiting Markkanen this summer, it isn't even certain he'll be long for the Windy City. Is he a better trade chip or building block for the Bulls? If it's the former, how far could he go in helping to broker a blockbuster for Chicago? As with most things Markkanen, those are pressing questions that have yet to be answered.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    One half of the best-nicknamed backcourt in basketball, Darius Garland is hooping like he's trying to make up for lost time. That's probably because he is on some level.

    The Cavaliers selected him with the fifth overall pick in 2019, and he seemed to be over his head from the opening tip. He didn't shoot at least .500 until his eighth career game, and he went on to land below that line in all but 14 of his 59 outings. He didn't shoot well enough from distance to drag defenders out to the perimeter, and he struggled to get penetration on drives and often had to settle for mid-range shots.

    But the 2020-21 season provided a clean slate, and he now looks like a fixture for the franchise's future.

    His fiery three-ball is igniting with regularity (42.1 percent), and that has opened the floor to allow him to tap deeper into his playmaking and shot-creating. Cleveland has been desperate for a top-shelf ball-mover since LeBron James left—no one averaged four assists last season—and Garland might be scratching that itch in a big way. After delivering one double-digit assist performance all of last season, he's already cleared that number twice this time around.

    If Cleveland keeps defending at a respectable rate (seventh in efficiency so far), Garland's shooting and distributing could be key in finding the two-way balance needed to pull off a surprise playoff push.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Despite their efforts to find a third star, the Mavericks are motoring forward (for now, at least) with the two-star model built around MVP candidate Luka Doncic and 7'3" walking mismatch Kristaps Porzingis.

    Doncic has been everything the Mavs hoped he'd become and more, and the supporting cast has been serviceable when it's at full-strength. But Porzingis, plagued by his latest round of knee trouble, has struggled to hold up his end of the bargain. His scoring is down to a three-year low (18.6), and he's never been less accurate from distance (30.2 percent).

    The Mavericks, losers of six straight and nine of their last 11, need Porzingis to perform like a high-level sidekick. Right now, he's looking more like a third wheel than the Robin they need him to be.

    Dallas' on-court efficiency swings 6.0 points per 100 possessions in the wrong direction with Porzingis on the floor. Among the Mavs' rotation regulars, only Wes Iwundu has a worse net rating differential (minus-7.0).

Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Does anyone know the whereabouts of bubble breakout star Jamal Murray? The Nuggets would like to know. 

    His playoff performance felt like the true turning of a corner. Gone was the frustrating inconsistency of his past. In its place were near nightly feats of scoring strength. It was the closest he's ever come to sharing the marquee honors with Nikola Jokic.

    But that development apparently didn't make it out of Disney's backyard. While Jokic has climbed another rung on the superstar ladder and Michael Porter Jr. has shown encouraging flashes of third-star production, Murray is back to the up-and-down play that make you question whether he has what it takes to be the second-best player on a title contender.

    He's had three outings with 30-plus points and another three in which he failed to crack double digits. While a host of nagging injuries hasn't helped, the Nuggets have seen these unpredictable swings before. If they're ever going to pave a path out of the Western Conference, they need Murray to recapture the consistency he harnessed in the 2020 playoffs.

Detroit Pistons: Sekou Doumbouya

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Despite shelling out major coin for Jerami Grant and (for some reason) Mason Plumlee this offseason, the Pistons are taking the long view with their rebuilding project. It isn't quite an outright embrace of a youth movement—30-somethings Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin rank second and third, respectively, in shots per game—but the future clearly holds more importance than the present.

    That begs the question: How much does the Motor City have in the way of long-term keepers? Rookies Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey all fit the bill until proven otherwise, but has Sekou Doumboya earned the same distinction?

    There are occasional flashes when you want to say "yes," particularly given his youth and physical tools. However, the Pistons have little to play for this season, yet they're still cutting into Doumbouya's workload. Just about everything is down from his rookie year, including minutes (19.8 to 12.5), shots (6.2 to 4.4) and points (6.4 to 4.5).

    His player efficiency rating is technically trending up, but it's tough to celebrate a rise from 6.2 to 6.7 for a metric in which the league-average mark is 15. He lacks a discernible standout skill, and the Pistons need him to find one quickly. There's a future in which he's a lengthy, disruptive defender who can score in transition and make open shots, but he looks years away from making that a reality.

Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    An overhauled Warriors roster features few players who have a strong familiarity with head coach Steve Kerr's system, and it shows. The offense often boils down to Stephen Curry or bust—though Andrew Wiggins is making encouraging strides—and the defense doesn't always operate with the necessary connectivity.

    Draymond Green is still getting his legs underneath him after missing time this season and last, but he remains the biggest source of optimism for this organization. When he's right, he remains the Dubs' proverbial drink-stirring straw, making rapid reads on offense and disrupting actions at the opposite end by thinking one step (at least) ahead of the opposition.

    "His effectiveness, above all others, will determine whether the Warriors go up or down or sideways," NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole wrote. "Whether they spend this season hovering around .500 and sliding into the play-in tournament or pull 40 wins and become a team that actually scares others when the postseason begins in May."

    The Klay Thompson-less Warriors are short on certainties, but a dialed-in Draymond can cover a lot of their mistakes if he gets fully up to speed sooner than later.

Houston Rockets: DeMarcus Cousins

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The James Harden-less Rockets are full of X-factors given the question marks in the recent past and near future of their most prominent players. But the fight they've shown after this season's first megatrade—7-3 with the fourth-best net rating—shows there's more bite in Space City than most would've imagined.

    Christian Wood looks every bit like the rising star he suggested he could become late last season in Detroit. John Wall can make you forget that prior to this year, he hadn't hit the hardwood since December 2018. Eric Gordon is making last season's struggles become a foggy memory. Victor Oladipo is giving the organization plenty to think about with regard to his upcoming free agency.

    And then there's DeMarcus Cousins, the burly big man finding his way back from a series of lower-extremity injuries in recent seasons: a torn left Achilles in January 2018, a torn left quad in April 2019 and a torn ACL in August 2019.

    There are nights in which the four-time All-Star turns back the clock and still packs a powerful punch. He's had three games with 17-plus points, five with double-digit rebounds and four in which he's dropped at least four dimes. But he has suited up 16 times, so the unproductive nights outweigh the positive ones.

    Houston doesn't have a ton of other hope for internal improvement, so unless it opts for a fire sale between now and the March 25 trade deadline, it needs Cousins to become a consistent force on the interior.

Indiana Pacers: Jeremy Lamb

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The Pacers probably planned on being cautious and not relying too heavily on Jeremy Lamb since he tore his ACL and meniscus last February. But after trading away Victor Oladipo and losing both T.J. Warren (foot) and Caris LeVert (kidney) to surgeries, Indiana is suddenly in dire need of perimeter scoring.

    That's why only seven games into his return, Lamb is already averaging almost as many minutes (26.0) as he did last season (28.1). It probably doesn't hurt that he's handling his floor time with aplomb. His shooting rates have skyrocketed (49.2/41.4/94.7) and pushed his true shooting percentage to a level (64.1) that towers over his previous best (55.9).

    "It's a testament to his work ethic and how he attacked his rehab," Pacers center Myles Turner said, per J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star. "It's inspiring. He's hooping. He's looking like he's back to his old self."

    This could be the best version of Lamb yet, and even when Indiana has its squad at full strength, it will need its smooth-as-silk scoring wing to continue providing positives. Whether he's running with the starters or sparking the second team, he could have a quietly critical say in how high Indy's ceiling can climb.

Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Surprised to see Paul George selected here and not a more traditional X-factor such as Nic Batum? That's understandable.

    It isn't often that a superstar gets thrown in the X-factor bin, but the Clippers' championship hopes are intrinsically tied to his ability to maintain his torrid pace. After flopping in last year's playoffs (shooting 39.8 percent overall and 33.3 percent from distance across 13 games), George is back to being the difference-maker L.A. thought it was putting alongside Kawhi Leonard.

    It might have George's playoff woes (and all the negativity around them) to thank.

    "I'm coming back with vengeance," George said, per Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't like, not so much of the noise and everything around it, but just the fact that people saw weakness. And I had to address that. I had to answer that. That fueled me. That put me in a place where I wanted to come back and be myself again."

    This version of George—owning a blistering 50.2/45.4/91.3 shooting slash—is an all-caps ELITE. He's less of Leonard's sidekick and more on a 1A-1B standing with his Clippers co-star.

    Despite some questions about this supporting cast (most notably at point guard), the superstar tandem of George and Leonard could prove potent enough to give this organization its first-ever NBA title.

Los Angeles Lakers: Dennis Schroder

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Dennis Schroder is quickly discovering that life with the defending champion Lakers isn't all rainbows and unicorns.

    Acquired in the offseason to perk up the perimeter scoring and add another shot-creator, the Sixth Man of the Year finalist has had some trouble acclimating to his new digs. His scoring and shooting numbers are down, but the greater concern is with the declines in the same categories for Anthony Davis.

    "I would say there have been bumps in the road with Schroder trying to find a balance of scoring to passing," Lakers swingman Jared Dudley said on the Inside the Green Room podcast (h/t Heavy.com). "... Listen, if you're a starter, your job is to get Anthony Davis going. LeBron [James] doesn't need anyone's help. Anthony Davis is the key."

    Schroder has previously popped thanks to his scoring ability, but that isn't what the Lakers need most from him. If he can fine-tune his approach to bring out more distributing and defending and supplement those with complementary scoring, that's how he could offer the most value to L.A.

    "He's really the [Rajon] Rondo X-factor this year," Dudley said. "It's Dennis Schroder. We win a championship if Dennis Schroder plays at a high level."

Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The Grizzlies have been and continue to be down multiple key contributors. But if last season taught us anything, it's that this franchise is never out.

    The recent return of Ja Morant has helped carry this club to a seven-game (and counting) winning streak, but the steady hand of Kyle Anderson can't be overlooked.

    Despite operating in slow motion, he's somehow always where Memphis needs him to be. His ability to shape-shift from defender to glass-cleaner to table-setter to scorer means he's more often than not impacting possessions in a good way.

    Even if his point production ticks down a notch—he had 20-plus points in two of his first three games but hasn't topped 18 since—his impact is real, and it's spectacular. The Grizzlies have fared 7.1 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

    His track record gives reason to question whether this is sustainable, but if it truly is a mid-career breakout, then Memphis will be that much more of a pain to the rest of the West.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Tyler Herro rocketed past all reasonable expectations in his first go-round with the Heat, and then he kicked things up a notch during his first playoff run. In a single season, he went from being an interesting freshman to a key cog for an NBA finalist.

    That means no shortage of good things for him and Miami, but there is one catch. Expectations have now been recalibrated, so the hope for an up-and-comer has been replaced by demand for star-level production (or something close to it).

    The Heat have struggled for a number of reasons this season—being unable to consistently field anything close to a full roster chief among them—but their 26th-ranked offense clearly needs more punch. Having Jimmy Butler back obviously helps, but he rarely seems comfortable in an alpha-scoring role. Bam Adebayo is coming closer to filling that void, but he's not always aggressive calling his own number.

    Herro, on the other hand, never needs to be told to turn up his scoring activity. He plays with a noticeable swagger and an unwavering sense of self-belief. Now, he just needs his numbers to fall closer to focal-point range.

    Miami can't just hand him the offensive keys as long as he's posting an unspectacular 44.6/31.0/78.6 shooting slash and nearly erasing his 4.2 assists with 2.9 turnovers per game.

Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    After failing to transform league-leading win totals into NBA Finals berths the past two seasons, the Bucks decided they needed an impact addition to their roster. Jrue Holiday became said upgrade, and it's been so far, so good for the trio of Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who collectively own a plus-10.8 net rating across 415 minutes.

    But Milwaukee had to sacrifice some depth to make this Big Three happen, which upped the pressure on the supporting cast. With players like George Hill and Wesley Matthews departing the Badger State over the offseason, the Bucks have found themselves leaning more heavily on Donte DiVincenzo.

    The third-year guard has handled the transition alright, but the Bucks need more to make their wager pay off. Being fine won't cut it when Milwaukee has promoted DiVincenzo to the opening unit and, barring a trade, almost certainly plans to have him on the floor late in close playoff games.

    DiVincenzo has encountered ups and downs through the early portion of the schedule, but it's been more of the latter of late. His hustle and quick thinking help him handle some of his role-playing duties, but the Bucks need him to regain the scoring and shooting touch he flashed early on.

    Since the calendar flipped to 2021, he's averaging just 7.7 points on 35.5/29.9/81.8 shooting.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The goalposts have almost certainly moved for Minnesota.

    Right or wrong, the Timberwolves had legitimate hopes of squeezing something out of this season. They never would've parted with a top-three-protected pick for D'Angelo Russell or committed $60 million to Malik Beasley if they didn't. But they've wobbled (to put it nicely) at both ends without Karl-Anthony Towns.

    That has likely changed priorities for the Timberwolves, perhaps to doing everything they can to keep that pick from changing hands. But regardless of whether they're focused on the future or clinging to any faint hopes for the present, they'll be placing a tremendous amount of importance on the development of No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards.

    He's been as advertised so far—for better and worse.

    There are flashes of explosive athleticism and advanced shot-making, but there are also inefficient shooting percentages (37.3 percent overall, 33.3 percent outside) and an almost equal amount of assists (1.9) and turnovers per game (1.7). The raw talent is there, though, and if the Timberwolves can do a better job cultivating it, they'll be thanking themselves now and for years to come.

New Orleans Pelicans: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Pelicans can't seem to pin down whether they're playing for today or tomorrow.

    While they traded away Jrue Holiday this offseason, they also traded for Steven Adams. While they're reportedly discussing deals for both JJ Redick and Lonzo Ball, per The Athletic's Shams Charania, they're also hot on the heels of Bradley Beal, per B/R's Jake Fischer.

    If there's a through-line between all the activity and ongoing conversations, it's one that curves an awful lot before reaching its final destination.

    Despite not knowing the franchise's preferred direction, though, the X-factor conversation seems pretty straightforward. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a fascinating prospect with spark-plug scoring provided now and perhaps dynamic off-the-dribble net-shredding and shot-creating coming down the line.

    His role has fluctuated wildly, and it's taken his stat sheet on the same roller-coaster ride.

    He had an eye-popping 37-point performance in mid-January, but he had just five points the game prior. Volatility is probably inevitable, so the Pels should focus on signs of skill development. With a clear demand for more playmaking and outside shooting, those are obvious areas of interest for New Orleans no matter when it's trying to make its move.

New York Knicks: Immanuel Quickley

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Given the many Kentucky connections within the Knicks organization, eye rolls were inevitable when the club snagged Immanuel Quickley with the 25th overall pick. Truth be told, eye rolls were among the kinder reactions to the selection.

    CBS Sports' Gary Parrish lambasted the pick, grading it a D-plus while noting, "This is nearly 30 spots higher than I expected" and saying Quickley's "upside just does not match this place in the draft."

    Apparently, the Knicks might've seen more in Quickly than just his alma mater.

    The first-year guard has been a badly needed shot in the arm for the Blue and Orange.

    Despite not starting a game and averaging less than 20 minutes per night, he ranks fourth on the team in scoring (12.6 points per game) and third in three-pointers (1.6 per game, which he's converting at a 35.8 percent clip). His floater has already emerged as a signature shot, and he's been absurdly effective at the free-throw line (49-of-52, 94.2 percent).

    Now, does it matter that he's fairly undistinguished as a passer? Perhaps. Could the degree of difficulty on his shots catch up to him? With more than 50 percent originating beyond three feet but inside the three-point arc, regression might be coming. Or maybe he's just a lot better than people thought, in which case he can brighten the Knicks' long-term hopes and any playoff dreams they might be entertaining.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Hamidou Diallo

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Thunder have a more firmly established identity than one might expect from a franchise in the early stages of a massive rebuild.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the centerpiece. Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley entrenched themselves as building blocks back at the bubble. And OKC knew what it was likely to receive from George Hill and Al Horford as long as the place-holding veterans call the Sooner State home.

    But Hamidou Diallo seemed far from a sure thing before this season. If he wasn't hammering home a highlight flush, he probably wasn't being talked about. Now, he's forcing his way into the conversation as a game-changing substitute with endless amounts of energy and those trademark hops.

    It would help if he showed more hope as a shooter. But even without that, he's been feasting on buckets. He scored 64 points across a three-game stretch in early January and is currently riding a six-game streak of double-digit scoring.

Orlando Magic: Cole Anthony

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The treadmill of mediocrity is, by its very essence, a road to nowhere. Once you're on it, it feels like there's no escaping its clutch.

    Case in point: The Magic haven't actually been in perpetual pursuit of the East's eighth seed for a decade-plus. In 2017-18, they flat-lined to 14th in the conference. But the lack of splashy acquisitions and ceiling-raising effects have left Orlando appearing trapped in time.

    Their roster largely lacks excitement, and that's especially true with both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz lost to knee injuries. But Cole Anthony, 2020's No. 15 overall pick, can be the exception. He needs copious amounts of seasoning, sure, but at least he's a departure from the Magic's same-old same.

    Orlando promoted him to the first five to cover for Fultz's absence, and while the results haven't always been pretty, progress is being made.

    Anthony is a more natural scorer than table-setter, but given Orlando's constant search for scoring, the Magic have had no trouble giving the rookie guard the green light. Should his shooting rates (36.2 percent overall, 31.9 percent outside) catch up to his highlights, he might help Orlando eventually snap out of this monotony.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    For as loaded as the Eastern Conference looks, this still feels like the time for the 76ers to cement themselves as NBA elites.

    A healthy Joel Embiid is proving to be nothing short of a full-fledged MVP candidate. Tobias Harris is a hot streak at the free-throw line away from making a serious push for 50/40/90 enshrinement. The offseason investment in shooting has paid immediate dividends, and it hasn't come at the expense of the defensive end, where Philadelphia ranks as the fourth-best team in the business.

    The puzzle pieces have almost all fallen into place, except for the always polarizing Ben Simmons.

    The jumbo playmaker with an allergy to outside shooting was nearly traded for James Harden, is taking fewer shots than Shake Milton and is posting a career-worst turnover percentage (22.5). But Simmons is also locking down virtually every position on the defensive end and is one of only five players averaging 13 points, seven boards and seven dimes.

    What should Philadelphia do with its 6'11" floor general? Can the 24-year-old All-Star maximize his ability with this franchise? Or is he more valuable as the primary trade chip netting a star who offers a cleaner on-court fit with Embiid? That debate rages on in the City of Brotherly Love.

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    The Suns have a chance to be scary good.

    Chris Paul has been a godsend. Mikal Bridges deserves serious consideration for Most Improved Player. Devin Booker is a tough cover from the perimeter to the post. Cam Johnson just keeps playing his way into a bigger role. The second unit is loaded.

    Oh, and Phoenix appears nowhere near its peak. The offense looks drool-worthy on paper, but in reality, it's sitting just 17th in efficiency. The potential for improvement is obvious, especially if the Suns can restart Deandre Ayton's ascension.

    He has never averaged fewer shots (10.7) or points (14.2), and while the Suns suddenly have many mouths to feed, the big fella might have a chance to feast with more involvement. His chemistry with Paul is "getting there," according to the Point God, and it's easy to get carried away with visions of Ayton recreating some Lob City magic while adding a new twist to the role as a capable and comfortable mid-range shooter.

    Get Ayton going and the Suns should keep climbing the Western Conference ladder.

Portland Trail Blazers: Gary Trent Jr.

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Health is quickly appearing as Portland's primary X-factor with the club weathering lengthy absences from CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and (as per usual) Zach Collins. But that's a boring answer—and one the Blazers can't hope to control.

    What they can do, though, is squeeze more production out of scoring guard Gary Trent Jr., who seems like he's breaking out for the second consecutive season.

    He started his surge at the bubble in Orlando, where he emerged as a plucky defender with a clear gift for shot-making. That made his sputtering start to this season a bit disheartening, though he's starting to find his form more often than not.

    Without McCollum, the Blazers have needed more of Trent's offense, and he's answering the call. He has started his last four contests—his first four starts of the season—and used them to tally 17.8 points per outing on 43.3 percent shooting (42.5 percent from deep).

    The fact he's able to kick up to the 3 spot means he can have more utility when McCollum returns than Anfernee Simons, another shot-maker whose role is minimized when the Blazers have a healthy backcourt. Portland has needed a two-way wing forever, and with newcomers Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. failing to fill that void, maybe Trent can be the answer.

Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    It hasn't always been clear if Marvin Bagley III belonged in Sacramento's long-term plans. Not even to Bagley's own father.

    But there are stretches in which you see why the Kings selected him second overall in 2018. He's had three 20-point performances this season. Two were among the six games in which he's snagged double-digit rebounds. He looks as comfortable as ever from three-point range (1.0 per game on 35.7 percent shooting).

    And he's doing all of the above while primary playing the 4, not the 5 where his skill set arguably fits best in the modern NBA.

    He's also staying healthy, which didn't happen over his first two seasons. As long as that continues, his comfort and contributions should keep trending up. Even if he stops short of becoming the star Sacramento hoped it was getting, he can be an impact player as an athletic big with a great motor and an expanding offensive arsenal.

San Antonio Spurs: Keldon Johnson

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Spurs clearly have something in second-year swingman Keldon Johnson. The cat got out of that bag when his relentless rim attacks became common sightings in the bubble.

    As his 16-point, five-rebound, three-steal season debut suggested, he's picking up right where he left off. He has soared past 20 points four times already. He's pacing San Antonio with 7.5 rebounds per game.

    Johnson doesn't play like many modern wings. While most of his contemporaries launch one triple after the next, he keeps his gas pedal floored with both eyes on the rim. More than 42 percent of his shots are taken within three feet of the basket, and another 24.8 percent are attempted between three and 10 feet. Spurs legend and broadcaster Sean Elliott has likened him to a young Bernard King.

    Johnson might need to expand his range to sniff stardom, but the 29th pick of the 2019 draft is quite clearly the latest in a long line of draft-night heists for the Spurs.

Toronto Raptors: Chris Boucher

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    There hasn't been a ton to celebrate in Toronto—er...Tampa Bay.

    The Raptors are still trying to recover from a 2-8 start. Pascal Siakam has slipped a notch or two from last season's All-Star emergence. Fred VanVleet's field-goal percentage is stuck on the wrong side of 40. Newcomer Aron Baynes is off to a disastrous start.

    It's not all doom and gloom, but a lot of the good was expected: Kyle Lowry doing Kyle Lowry things, OG Anunoby continuing his climb as a three-and-D ace, Norman Powell pumping in points at an impressive rate. But Chris Boucher emerging as an impact center? Even the most optimistic projections may not have seen that coming.

    Sure, he'd delivered interesting per-36-minutes production before, but he averaged 5.8 minutes just two seasons back. Last year was his first as a rotation regular, and even then, he was often passed over come playoff time.

    It's still tough to tell exactly where Boucher ranks in head coach Nick Nurse's pecking order as he has cleared 28 minutes in seven games and failed to log 16 in five others. But his shot-blocking (2.0 per game) and three-point shooting (1.6 per game at a 43.2 percent clip) both look like the real deal, which could be critical finds in a challenging season.

    He already had a six-game stretch in which he averaged 20.7 points on 66.2 percent shooting (53.6 from deep), 8.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks and 2.5 triples. The Raptors should keep poking around to see what they have in the 28-year-old late-bloomer since his development could be a huge step in the right direction for this frontcourt.

Utah Jazz: Bojan Bogdanovic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last season, the Jazz's failure to bring out Mike Conley's peak powers left them just outside the NBA's elite. Utah has rectified that in 2020-21, but now Bojan Bogdanovic needs a boost.

    His struggles are at least more explainable. While Conley had to fit into a new offense after years at the control of the grit-and-grind Grizzlies, Bogdanovic has simply been working his way back from wrist surgery that prevented him from playing in the Orlando bubble.

    He was uncharacteristically hit-or-miss to start this season, and his percentages still bear the brunt of that inconsistency. His field-goal percentage is down five points from last year (44.7 to 39.7), and his three-point percentage is below 40 for the first time since 2016-17.

    But he might be rounding into form and frightening the entire Western Conference as a result. The Jazz were already steamrolling without him at the top of his game (winning 11 straight before Sunday's loss to the Nuggets), and now he's ready to join the fun.

    He has scored 61 points over his last two outings, hitting 62.1 percent of his shots and 57.1 percent of his threes.

Washington Wizards: Russell Westbrook

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bad news for all the Bradley Beal dreamers out there: The Wizards remain unwilling to part with their 27-year-old scoring leader.

    "It doesn't seem like it's a bluff to drive up the price," a longtime executive told B/R's Jake Fischer. "They don't want to trade him."

    In order to justify this stance, Washington must make the most out of this season. That means maximizing the impact of former MVP Russell Westbrook, who the Wizards sacrificed a future first-round pick to acquire this offseason.

    The productive point guard has to walk the tightrope between relentless aggressiveness and not hurting his team by trying to do too much. While he's prone to bouts of shot-chucking and maddening turnovers, he can still be a problem for opponents on his good nights (see his recent 41-point, 10-board, eight-dime masterpiece as the latest example).

    If he can string more of these good-Brodie sightings together, perhaps the Wizards can finally quiet the Beal trade talks for good.


    All stats current through games played on Feb. 1 and used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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