The Biggest X-Factor for Every NBA Play-In Tournament TeamMay 18, 2021
The Biggest X-Factor for Every NBA Play-In Tournament Team
Excited to talk about some NBA play-in X-factors? Me too. But before we start, let's establish a few conceptual ground rules.
Defining what constitutes an X-factor is an exercise without consensus. Can superstars qualify? Should we immediately be defaulting to the second- or third-most important player on each team? Do key absences meet the criteria? Are we obligated to pluck out the most crucial role player? Or a squad's biggest wild card?
This approach blends a little of (almost) everything. We will not be focusing on players who are unavailable, and superstars will be off the table unless they're attempting to outlast an injury.
Other than that, everybody is fair game with the following guideline in mind: We want to shine a light on the most critical swing pieces—which, in most cases, is the non-star(s) who will have the biggest impact, for better or worse, on their team's chances of emerging from the play-in tournament.
Boston Celtics: Evan Fournier
Kemba Walker deserves some consideration here despite his star profile. Left knee and oblique issues have hindered his availability, and he's been a roller coaster when actually on the court.
The Boston Celtics were never built to withstand such inconsistency. They're even less equipped now, on the heels of Jaylen Brown's season-ending left wrist injury. Walker no longer has luxury of a feeling-out process. Boston cannot win with him as its third or fourth best player on any given night. He needs to be No. 2, directly behind Jayson Tatum, all the time.
If his final few games of the regular season are any indication, though, Walker is decidedly on the come-up. That shifts the burden of focus unto Evan Fournier, whose offense becomes exponentially more important without Brown in the rotation.
This isn't an issue on its face. Fournier is averaging 13.5 points and 3.5 assists while downing 45.8 percent of his threes since exiting the league's health and safety protocols. He doesn't put Brown's type of downhill pressure on defenses, but he's no stranger to generating his own looks.
Though the Celtics haven't used him in that vein—just 26 percent of his made baskets have gone unassisted since the trade deadline—more than 42 percent of his converted looks went without a helping hand prior to leaving the Orlando Magic. His outside shot-making is now mission critical to a team that relies on pull-up jumpers in higher volume than every team except the Portland Trail Blazers.
Granted, Fournier stands to have a larger impact across an actual series. Boston can steal a single victory against the Washington Wizards (or via a second play-in game) without him going off. But its path into the actual playoffs will be a whole lot smoother if Fournier delivers a 6-of-11 or 8-of-14 night rather than a 6-of-20 clunker or a clip without much volume (3-of-6, 0-of-3, 1-of-7, etc.).
Charlotte Hornets: P.J. Washington
Small-ball remains the mode of operation most leaned on by Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego. Whether his logic is borne from necessity or preference doesn't particularly matter. It's probably some combination of both. The Hornets aren't flush with conventional center options, but their dependence on switching gets a lot dicier when trotting out a pure 5.
Whatever the reasoning, it increases the sway of P.J. Washington. Borrego is going to use him a crap ton at center against the Indiana Pacers and in any subsequent games, even if he's also sprinkling in more minutes for the not-as-frequently-deployed Cody Zeller. Charlotte's effectiveness during those runs won't just shape the outcome of any one game. It has so far been one of this season's defining developments.
Lineups featuring Washington at the 5 have fared well for the year. They have no chance of controlling the glass, but they churn out mismatches on offense and have tread water at the less glamorous end, posting a defensive rating in the 67th percentile among all units that have logged at least 15 possessions.
Gordon Hayward's absence (right foot) doesn't much compromise this approach. Miles Bridges is predominantly used to man the 4 spot in these situations. But Washington's own stamina within these arrangements is an issue. He has not looked like the same player night in and night out.
The breadth of matchups he's saddled have seemingly taken their toll, and Washington isn't the only one feeling the ramifications of downsizing. Charlotte enters its matchup with Indiana having lost 16 of its final 21 games.
"The fact that the best P.J. we got this year was a stretch where he missed about a week with a sprained ankle, came back and started hitting shots, it's almost like the schedule was built for teams to wear down and fail at some point," Konata Edwards said during a recent episode of the Locked On Hornets podcast. "The thing is, and I hate to say 'They're tired' when everybody's tired, but it hurts you when you're tried and you're small. And that's what happened with this team at the end of the season."
Turning to Washington-at-the-5 units can have all sorts of consequences. Maybe it throws Domantas Sabonis and the Pacers out of whack on offense. Maybe the Hornets get brutalized to no end on the glass and in the paint. This lineup structure, in essence, is at once their greatest strength and weakness. Players like LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier matter more, but Washington's performance up front will say just as much about how Charlotte finishes the year—inside the actual playoff bracket or headed back to the lottery.
Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole
Draymond Green will be the reflexive choice here for many others. That's not wrong. The Golden State Warriors desperately need his outside-in playmaking, not to mention his recent semi-willingness to finish offensive possessions himself.
Minutes with him at the 5 are also infinitely important knowing their opponent. The Los Angeles Lakers run dual bigs, which might be a license for the Warriors to downsize and forge mismatches. But the upside of going that route is intrinsically capped when L.A. can and will respond with Anthony Davis-at-the-5 arrangements.
At any rate, Green feels too high profile to be an X-factor. He is Golden State's second-most important player, through and through, and too many of his minutes are aligned with Stephen Curry's court time to meaningfully change the team's deepest pitfall: the time it spends without the alpha Splash Bro.
Working through minutes sans Steph isn't so much of a wholesale issue when viewed through the lens of a single win-or-go-home game, mostly because those stretches should barely exist. He logged nearly 40 minutes in their regular-season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies. He should play just as much, if not more than that, versus the Lakers or during an eventual rendezvous with the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.
Still, games can be lost in the, say, four to eight minutes Steph isn't the floor. And even when he's captaining the ship, he needs some level of support. The Lakers defense, in particular, is built to force the ball out of his hands and neutralize Green's playmaking up top. Someone else will need to hit—and even generate—residual shots.
Enter Jordan Poole. He has for the most part been a revelation since returning from a right ankle injury but went absolutely nuclear over the Warriors' final five games, averaging 21.8 points while canning 77.2 percent of his twos and 45 percent of his threes.
When he's cooking, he arms the offense with another capable off-the-dribble shot-maker, someone Golden State has sorely needed all year. When he's not, the Warriors seem eminently vulnerable, even during the spans in which Steph goes full extraterrestrial.
Indiana Pacers: Doug McDermott
Potential X-factors abound for the Pacers. Some will be inclined to single out any one of the banged-up players on the roster. Close your eyes, gesture randomly at the depth chart, and you'll find one. A few people might even want to focus on actual vacancies in the rotation, like the absence of Caris LeVert (health and safety protocols), Myles Turner (right toe) or T.J. Warren (left foot).
Spotlighting one of the Pacers' primaries is on the table, as well—beyond just their health. Can Malcolm Brogdon effectively attack the Hornets' switches if he plays? How does Domantas Sabonis fare when Charlotte goes small? Will he punish mismatches? Capitalize on double-teams? Compromise Indy's transition defense?
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not sure there's a wrong answer. Doug McDermott's inclusion just feels more right than most.
His range and cutting, both in efficiency and volume, will be crucial if the Pacers want to beat up on the Hornets' pocket-sized combinations. Brogdon, LeVert and Sabonis will all garner scores of attention off the catch or when putting the ball on the deck. McDermott is their most dangerous outlet—he sees green more than Justin Holiday—and has shown the ability to attack open spaces. He's shooting 64.1 percent on all twos and 52.4 percent on drives.
Depending on Charlotte's lineup and how Indiana counters, McDermott might also spend time matching up with Miles Bridges on defense. The Pacers can trying futzing with their individual matchups, but experimenting elsewhere gets difficult if P.J. Washington plays the 5 and Sabonis is in the game.
Either way, McDermott's defense could inform how available he is to Indiana on offense, where it needs him now more than ever.
Los Angeles Lakers: Dennis Schroder
Feel free to harp on LeBron James' right ankle. It cost him a total of 26 games, and the Lakers offense is not hard-wired to operate with him on the sidelines or at anything less than almost full strength.
That's kind of the point. The Lakers finished with the league's second-best defense despite LeBron and Anthony Davis missing a combined 63 games, but the offense has remained riddled with question marks even when they're available.
Will the Lakers take enough threes? Make enough threes? Does the half-court offense have enough juice when they're not freely getting out in transition?
Having LeBron and AD on the court at all removes much of the uncertainty. The Lakers are pumping in 117.1 points per 100 possessions when they play together, with a half-court offense that places inside the 77th percentile.
Losing sleep over Los Angeles' numbers without LeBron, meanwhile, rings a little hollow when he'll sponge up however many minutes is needed against the Warriors or during a second play-in game. But will he go a full 48? Probably not. And any stretches without him can have a dire impact. The Lakers' half-court offense rates in the 18th percentile when he's on the bench and doesn't improve by all that much with Davis on the court.
Dennis Schroder is the key to maximizing those stretches, however brief. And while we can't definitively say he's overstretched in that role, we can't endorse him for it, either. He and Davis have limited experience playing together without LeBron. This partnership has seen just 633 possessions under those circumstances, during which time the half-court offense has remained below average.
And look, this isn't just about the LeBron-less ticks. Schroder has played two games since missing seven in the league's health and safety protocols. Neither of those outings screamed "he's back," and he will still have ample control over the offense even when playing beside AD and LeBron.
After the latter, Schroder is the player most suited to put pressure on set defenses and run the two-man game with Davis. And if that's not enough to sell you on his being the Lakers' third most important player, the reality of his having to soak up defensive reps against Stephen Curry should be.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has just 11 games under his belt after missing most of the year with a left knee injury, so he deserves all the leeway in the world. Over the long term, it doesn't make much sense to worry about his 28.3 percent clip from three, or about the Memphis Grizzlies getting pummeled when he's on the floor. He will be fine.
Immediately, though, is a different story.
Memphis needs Jackson to kick things up a notch if it has a prayer of beating the San Antonio Spurs and then squeaking out a victory over the Lakers or Warriors to reach the first round. Despite an offensive surge over the latter part of the schedule, it doesn't have the bankable firepower to go on a pre-playoffs, post-regular-season push without him.
Simply sticking him on the floor has default value. Defenses have to guard against the threat of his past shot-making, and he opens up the half-court by virtue of his volume. The quintet of Jackson, Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas—Memphis' probable starting five versus San Antonio—has a 127.3 offensive rating in the scant time (77 possessions) it has logged.
That same value-through-availability doesn't apply as readily on defense. Opponents are shooting 55.4 percent against Jackson at the rim, a rock-solid mark relative to the volume of looks he challenges. He can jump-start offensive sets with his ability to finish defensive possessions at the basket, either as the helper or primary presence around the hoop.
He is not as much of a certified asset when pulled away from the rim or forced to defend on the move. Fouling remains a problem; he's averaging 5.9 per 36 minutes. And the Grizzlies are limited in how they can toggle matchups when he's playing beside Valanciunas.
This doesn't make Jackson an out-and-out liability. On the contrary, the best version of Memphis has no chance of materializing this season without him. He's irreplaceable on offense, and the idea of his shooting and defense still tantalize. The Grizzlies just need those ideas to creep back toward reality if their season is going to last beyond a play-in game.
San Antonio Spurs: The Bench
San Antonio's bench is forever important, usually because it's an inarguable strength. That's not exactly the case now. The Spurs' second-stringers are getting outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions since the trade deadline—the seventh-worst mark in the league.
The absence of Derrick White, out for the season with a right ankle injury, from the unit explains some of the prickliness, but he spent almost no time coming off the pine this year. Jakob Poeltl's promotion to the opening group has been more of a driving force, though it's not the lone factor.
These struggles aren't the byproduct of playing too many reserves at once, either. San Antonio is losing the minutes it has tallied with DeMar DeRozan working alongside backups and hasn't gone all-bench with extreme frequency.
The Spurs better hope something gives against the Grizzlies. Their projected starters have been unable to effectively set the game's tone. The lineup of DeRozan, Poeltl, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson is hemorrhaging points on defense. Recalibrating their most-used combos around DeRozan, Johnson and Murray, while a worthy idea, is harder to do without White.
Perhaps Memphis offers the ideal matchup as another team heavily dependent on its bench. But that doesn't erase the warts on San Antonio's second-stringers. Rudy Gay hasn't brought the offensive heat consistently since the trade deadline, and Patty Mills feels like he's been in a rut since the dawn of time.
Beyond that, the Grizzlies aren't the Spurs' only concern. A victory against them portends a meeting with the Lakers or Warriors, two squads that would most assuredly outplay the top of the San Antonio roster.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal's Hamstring
You mean to say the Wizards are more likely to beat the Celtics or survive a second play-in game if their best player is healthy?! Talk about a hot take.
Reactions along these lines are fair. This isn't meant to be a half-assed swing at ground-level fruit. LeBron James' right ankle, after all, didn't get play for the Lakers. Why is Bradley Beal's left hamstring any different?
Because it appears to be having more of an impact on him.
Beal returned to the Wizards for the final tilt of the regular season after missing three games. They beat the Hornets, but he was visibly laboring through his hamstring strain. To what end his injury caused an 8-of-27 clip is unknowable. It cannot, however, be a coincidence that he turned in his fifth-worst single-game effective field-goal percentage of the season while favoring his left leg.
Boston will not be at full strength itself. Jaylen Brown is out for the year after tearing a ligament in his left wrist. But the Celtics still have Evan Fournier, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. The Wizards don't enjoy as many supporting shot creators beyond Beal and Russell Westbrook to consistently eke out victories when getting a down night from one of them.
For anyone who wants an alternative X-factor: Zero in on Scott Brooks. His rotation decisions could wind up swaying the outcome of any game.
How will he run his center platoon? Will Alex Len still get an honorary start? How much will he rely on Daniel Gafford? Does he trust Garrison Mathews enough to roll him out in high-leverage minutes? Will he have a choice if Beal is grimacing through his injury or Raul Neto is hurting with his own hamstring ailment? Will Anthony Gill get any run?
These questions, and Brooks' answers to them, matter.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Sunday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.