The Biggest X-Factor for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 20, 2021

The Biggest X-Factor for Every Projected NBA Playoff Team

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The term X-factor might be prominently placed in the NBA lexicon, but it lacks a catch-all definition.

    It's most easily attached to those ignitable reserves or complementary starters who occasionally punch above their weight class, but it can be tagged to stars who are battling the injury bug or even encounter spells of inconsistency. In certain cases, it doesn't even have to apply to specific players.

    While the Association runs through its superstars, these X-factors can change the course of a game or even an entire series if they repeatedly put their best foot forward. In the moment, their contributions often carry an out-of-nowhere vibe, but early examination of the stat sheet and eye-test results can identify them ahead of those "surprise" spikes.

    Our aim here is to make those early identifications of the X-factors who could be the talk of hoops town in a matter of months.

    Since the play-in tournament merely buys a ticket to the actual postseason and is formatted to favor the seventh and eighth seeds, we'll focus only on the eight teams in each conference with the highest playoff probabilities from ESPN, FiveThirtyEight and Basketball-Reference. That's good news for the Memphis Grizzlies (58 percent combined chance), but not for the Golden State Warriors (48.5).

    Let's get rolling.

Atlanta Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Bogdan Bogdanovic got off to a slow start in Atlanta, first lagging behind expected production levels and then losing nearly two months to an avulsion fracture in his right knee.

    With the rust knocked off from his return in early March, the 6'6" swingman is suddenly showing why the Hawks felt confident giving him $72 million as a restricted free agent last offseason. He reclaimed a starting spot in late March and apparently has no interest in letting it go. Over his past 13 outings, his per-game contributions are up to 20.5 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 threes with an elite 50.3/49.5/88.2 shooting slash.

    "I've been a little more aggressive game by game and not trying to force anything," Bogdanovic told The Athletic's Chris Kirschner. "I've just been playing with the thinking that this is what my team needs out of me. That's it."

    The Hawks have long been hunting for non-Trae Young scoring options and Bogdanovic could be the piece who both complements Atlanta's star and keeps the offense humming without him.

Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    While X-factor arguments can be made for new starting center Robert Williams III, deadline acquisition Evan Fournier and long-time Boston barometer Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker still seems likeliest to set the Celtics' ceiling.

    The 31-year-old's All-Star days could be behind him—lost both to Father Time and knee problems—as the one-time elite shot-creator is now just a 59th percentile player as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. His field-goal percentage (40.1) and true shooting percentage (53.8) have both dipped lower than they've been since 2014-15.

    But when the Shamrocks get "Vintage Kemba," they're almost unstoppable (10-5 when he scores 20-plus). They also need his playmaking now more than ever with Gordon Hayward having relocated to Charlotte, and it's no coincidence Walker's best month as a distributor (6.5 assists per game in March) has been Boston's strongest as a team (8-1 with a plus-8.6 net rating).

    The Celtics' roster has a slew of question marks surrounding star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If Walker moves into the certainty category, this group just might find a way to factor into the Eastern Conference race again.

Brooklyn Nets: Health

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Is this a cop-out answer? Maybe some of you think that, but we make the rules, and we're saying it counts. Sure, we could spotlight a "traditional" X-factor like Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet or Nicolas Claxton, but those players are, at most, swinging the outcome of a playoff game here and there.

    The collective health of Brooklyn's Big Three juggernaut of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, might determine the league's championship picture at large.

    The Nets have played 57 games so far and Irving is the high man of this trio with 41 appearances. Harden has played 34 games and is fighting a right hamstring strain. Durant, who has only taken 24 trips to the hardwood, exited Brooklyn's most recent contest with a left thigh contusion.

    Collectively, the three have played just 186 minutes together across seven games. They were predictably brilliant on offense (122.4 offensive rating), but leaky enough at the other end (114.0 defensive rating) to not be knock-your-socks-off dominant (plus-8.4 net rating, slightly worse than the Utah Jazz have posted this season).

    Time is ticking for the Nets' stars to build some rhythm together. Every other championship dreamer should track how this situation plays out, because it might directly impact their own title hopes.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Maybe this is wishful thinking since early reports said LaMelo Ball would be shelved for the rest of the season with a fractured right wrist. But the Hornets haven't closed the door on their freshman floor general potentially making a return.

    "What (the surgery) doesn't do is preclude him from coming back this season," Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters in late March. "... We'll wait until five weeks. And we'll evaluate where we are as a team at that time."

    The Hornets haven't folded without Ball yet (8-7 since his injury), and the projection systems don't expect they will. If they can keep treading water while his wrist heels, they could add a fascinating ingredient into their playoff recipe.

    Ball's playmaking has been as advertised (6.1 assists per game) and he was ahead of schedule as a scorer (15.9 points) and shooter (2.0 threes at a 37.5 percent clip). Having him healthy takes heat off of Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier and gives the Hornets one of the league's top bench backcourts with Devonte' Graham and Malik Monk.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    For all of the focus on the Mavericks' search for a third star, perhaps the better question is whether Kristaps Porzingis can be the second star Luka Doncic needs to succeed.

    The box scores don't reveal major concerns with the 7'3" unicorn, who is averaging 20.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 35.9 percent from distance.

    But it feels noteworthy that Dallas has fared considerably better with only Doncic on the floor (plus-4.6 net rating) than it has during the minutes he shares with Porzingis (plus-1.7). Dallas' offense barely functions when Porzingis flies solo (107.4 offensive rating, would rank 27th overall).

    Porzingis is a target on defense for teams that can pull him away from the basket, as he struggles in space due to his lack of mobility. He can get some of that back on the offensive end, but Doncic does so much with the ball in his hands that Porzingis is often confined to catch-and-launch duties. The Mavs need to juice the orange more with Porzingis, especially since their supporting cast isn't exactly loaded with consistent offensive threats.

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Nuggets will be a handful on offense as long as Nikola Jokic mans the middle, but the loss of Jamal Murray (torn left ACL) took plenty of zip out of this attack. Denver doesn't have another player who can play the roles of shot-creator, shooter and off-the-dribble threat in its lineup.

    Michael Porter Jr. is a three-level scorer, but he plays like his pass button is broken (91 assists in 101 career games). Aaron Gordon can find shots for himself and his teammates, but opponents aren't worried about his outside shot (career 32.2 percent).

    Will Barton arguably comes closest to checking all three boxes, which makes the Nuggets uncomfortably dependent on the erratic veteran. His wide range of outcomes from one night to the next (eight outings of 20-plus points, another eight with five or fewer) also covers the conventional description of an X-factor.

    He can be great, not good or anything in between. The Murray-less Nuggets have to lean on Barton for offense, so they can only hope he saves his most fiery hot streak for their playoff run.

Los Angeles Clippers: Rajon Rondo

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Anyone else raise an eyebrow when the Clippers parted with Lou Williams and a pair of future second-round picks to add Rajon Rondo at the trade deadline? They had a nagging need for playmaking, sure, but the cost seemed steep for a 34-year-old averaging 3.9 points and 3.5 assists.

    But L.A. has bought into the allure of Playoff Rondo from the very beginning and his first eight Clippers contests—seven of them wins—have only furthered those beliefs.

    "He's that guy that we go to whenever we need to come together," Patrick Patterson told reporters. "He sees the floor like no one else. ... So just having him out there, he's that, I feel like, big missing piece, a part of the success that we want, the success that we need."

    Rondo had a pretty ho-hum 2019-20 season before elevating just in time to help the Los Angeles Lakers capture the championship. The Clippers have a lot riding on his ability to summon that same postseason rise.

Los Angeles Lakers: Dennis Schroder

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Last season, the Lakers wagered they had enough firepower between LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the supporting cast to offer sufficient assistance without a clear-cut third option. A championship banner proves they were successful with that bet.

    But they sought out a surer hierarchy this offseason by acquiring Dennis Schroder and entrusting him with secondary playmaking and third-option scoring duties. He has handled both tasks reasonably well (15.4 points and 5.5 assists per game), but the real challenge awaits the 27-year-old who has never played in the NBA Finals and only twice advanced beyond the opening round.

    When the stakes are highest and the spotlight brightest, can Schroder continue handling his offensive roles while handling some point-of-attack defensive duties at the other end? The Lakers won't know for sure until the postseason starts.

    The good news is he doesn't need to dominate; James and Davis will handle that. The not-so-great news is Schroder must be consistent. If he was really reliable, he wouldn't stand out as such an obvious X-factor.

Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    No one means more to Memphis than reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. However, a good argument could be made that the second-most important Grizzly is someone who hasn't suited up all season.

    Jaren Jackson Jr., the fourth overall pick in 2018, is closing in on his return from an August surgery on his left knee. That could be the kind of development that transforms the Grizzlies from plucky playoff participant to legitimately challenging matchup.

    When Jackson is right, he's an asset on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he's a super-sized sharpshooter (6'11" with a career 38.4 percent splash rate from three) who can create offense off the dribble and finish at the rim. Offensively, he's an intimidating rim protector (career 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes) with enough lateral quickness to pester perimeter players on switches.

    Memphis has masterfully covered his absence this season with Morant leading the charge and a deep stable of scorers behind him (seven other players are averaging more than nine points). But star power is a necessity in postseason play and Jackson offers more than anyone on this roster not named Morant.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    After a surprise trip to last year's Finals, the Heat have struggled to resemble anything close to a contender this season. The failure to adequately replace Jae Crowder is a common explanation for the back-tracking, and Jimmy Butler more recently pointed to a lack of toughness.

    Want a simpler reasoning? The offense stinks. Only six teams have been less efficient on basketball's most glamorous end and none of them are entertaining playoff hopes.

    For Miami to make any kind of noise this postseason, the Heat need to pose a bigger threat on offense. Sophomore scoring guard Tyler Herro is the one who can make that happen.

    He had some of Miami's most magical moments in the bubble, delivering four playoff outings of 20-plus points, including a 37-point masterpiece that helped put away the Boston Celtics in the conference finals. When he's on, he has in-the-gym shooting range, the handles to free himself and the confidence to take and make huge shots. But his nightly tallies of 14.8 points and 3.4 assists aren't cutting it.

Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Bucks aren't short on X-factor candidates.

    The annual questions of whether Khris Middleton can be the second-best player on a champion are sure to come up. Jrue Holiday is an obvious one, since the Bucks built their offseason around acquiring him (at the cost of three future firsts). Mike Budenholzer is an option after failing to adjust amid premature exits from the past two postseasons. Newcomer P.J. Tucker is another, as he's tasked with increasing the defensive versatility and sinking corner threes.

    But Donte DiVincenzo makes the most sense as someone who can elevate his game and would have a big impact on his club if he can.

    His glue-guy game lacks a standout skill, but he can contribute as a microwave scorer, secondary distributor, spot-up shooter, off-ball cutter and frisky defender. He isn't consistent enough for opponents to seriously game-plan against, but when he's rolling, he'll make opponents pay for not paying close enough attention to him.

New York Knicks: RJ Barrett

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    When the Knicks invested 2019's third overall pick in RJ Barrett, they planned on getting a walking bucket. They're starting to see that player with more regularity.

    His off-and-on outside shot can limit his efficiency, but when it finds his mark, it opens up his entire arsenal. If defenses have to respect him from distance, he has the burst to blow by them on the perimeter and the strength to either finish at the rim or work his way to the foul line.

    Over his past 25 outings—15 of them Knicks wins—he has looked closer to stardom than ever. In this stretch, he's been good for 19 points a night on 47.4/44.8/74.1 shooting.

    If the Knicks have this version of Barrett alongside All-Star Julius Randle to pair with their third-ranked defense, they'll be a tricky first-round opponent for anyone.

Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    It's possible the Sixers roster features both the unstoppable force (MVP candidate Joel Embiid) and the immovable object (Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons). Health permitting, there's enough star power between them to support a championship run.

    But the complementary cast has to deliver. No member of that group has a bigger say in establishing the ceiling than Tobias Harris.

    He may not be a household name (among casual fans, at least), but he is the second option for the East's top seed. He used to be a little hit or miss with efficiency, but he's now a free-throw hot streak away from crashing the 50/40/90 club—he's at 52.1/40.7/88.6 so far—while also delivering a career-high 20.5 points per game.

    When teams inevitably throw every available kitchen appliance at stopping Embiid, Harris is the one who has to punish them. And with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Jimmy Butler potentially looming on the path out of the East, Harris must be at his best defensively, too.

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Not to drench everyone in the coldest take of the year, but the Suns must be thrilled with how much has gone according to plan this season.

    They haven't been a playoff participant since 2010 and now they're positioned to barge into the postseason with the West's second seed and the league's third-highest net rating. Devin Booker is a star. Chris Paul is the floor general this franchise desperately needed. Mikal Bridges is a two-way wrecking ball on the wing. The supporting puzzle pieces have been expertly assembled by head coach Monty Williams.

    But Deandre Ayton, 2018's top overall pick, still looms as something of a mystery man in the middle. His numbers are mostly down this season beyond his expected rise in field-goal percentage—good shots tend to fend you when you play with the point god—and it doesn't always seem the Suns are squeezing as much scoring out of Ayton as they could.

    Maybe the Suns think they're fine without it. Considering they are seventh in offensive efficiency, it's tough to get too critical of the approach. But when he has it going, this offense is brilliantly balanced on the inside and out, and that's when the Suns are nearly impossible to beat. Phoenix is 10-3 when he scores at least 19 points this season, and that's a number this coaching staff should consider ahead of the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Blazers won't have two-way balance. This roster simply isn't built for it. Only the lowly Sacramento Kings have been less efficient on that end.

    Portland needs to find a way to be passable on defense, though, and the easiest path is a return to form for Jusuf Nurkic. He can't solve all of the issues on his own, but his presence has been a giant step in the right direction. On the season, the Blazers are 8.8 points better defensively per 100 possessions with him than without.

    The problem is he's had multiple bouts with the injury bug already and looks worse for the wear. He has never had a lower block percentage (3.8) or a higher turnover percentage (18.9). His 16.6 player efficiency rating is his worst since 2015-16. Same goes for his 48.8 field-goal percentage.

    His diminished version is still probably preferable to giving Enes Kanter major minutes, as the ideal Blazers' big is one who can protect the paint, defend away from the basket and move the basketball. None of those are strengths for Kanter. They all can be for Nurkic if his body cooperates.

Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    When the Jazz acquired Jordan Clarkson in Dec. 2019, he brought a reputation with him to Salt Lake City. Some of that pointed to strengths, like the ability to manufacture offense and score points in bunches. Other aspects of his reputation weren't quite as flattering, like too often going rogue and taking a lot of tough shots.

    The Jazz needed a second-team spark, though, and they bet he could provide that. They let him be himself, and in return he provided the expected (and needed) scoring while being a bit more efficient than he'd been elsewhere.

    It seemed this season was headed that same direction, as he built a big early lead in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But his shooting rates have trended the wrong direction (44.7/37.0/96.7 before the All-Star break, 36.9/30.1/90.6 since), and, perhaps on a related note, some nagging injuries have started piling up.

    He still gets buckets—only Donovan Mitchell averages more than Clarkson's 17.4 points—but there isn't enough quality to go with the quantity. The Jazz need him to reverse these trends. His creativity and attacking help him handle roles Utah might otherwise struggle to fill, but his numbers will ring hollow if he can't get his shooting back on track.

                     

    All stats current through April 18 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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