Every NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

Mandela Namaste@@mandiba13Contributor IMay 24, 2021

Every NBA Playoff Team's Biggest X-Factor

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    Wendell Cruz/Associated Press

    These are strange times in the NBA. Neither the Philadelphia 76ers nor the Utah Jazz—the East's and West's top teams by record—are favored to make the NBA Finals, and both trail the seventh-seeded Lakers in title odds. Suffice it to say that as this postseason begins, anything can happen.

    So, with seemingly endless scenarios in play over the next couple of months, whichever team comes out on top will have to command elite performances not only from its stars, but also from players up and down the roster. Sure, last year's Lakers had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they wouldn't have locked up the title without Rajon Rondo's leadership, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's late-game shot-making and Dwight Howard's interior presence. 

    Along those lines, we're examining each playoff team's X-factor. Not all of the 16 remaining clubs have title-winning potential, but if these players (and additional game-related question marks) live up to or surpass expectations, then their teams have a chance to do the same.

Atlanta Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    After an injury-riddled start, Bogdan Bogdanovic has balled out of late, averaging 22.0 points, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 50.6/49.5/88.9 shooting since April 1. But none of that production will mean anything if he can't continue it in the playoffs, and Atlanta will be counting on him to do so.

    Trae Young struggled mightily against Tom Thibodeau's swarming defenses this year, shooting just 36.2 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from distance in the team's three matchups (all Hawks defeats). He hit a memorable game-winner on Sunday night, but Thibodeau and the Knicks are likely to continue pressuring Young to this degree in their first-round series. If that's the case, Atlanta will need its role players to pick up the slack.

    It'll need Clint Capela and John Collins to be the best roll men in the league, Danilo Gallinari, DeAndre Hunter and Kevin Huerter to drain jumpers like they're Splash Brothers East and Bogdanovic to provide some playmaking support to Young. The final objective will obviously be most important, though, because if you can't make plays for your teammates, then you don't have an offense, and if you don't have an offense, then you won't win a series.

    It's a good sign that the Hawks went 17-5 during Bogdanovic's recent stretch of excellence. That suggests his production has a tangible impact on teamwide performance. Let's see if he continues it against one of the best defenses in the NBA.

Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Kemba Walker has been an X-factor for the Celtics all season long, and his responsibilities have increased since Jaylen Brown's season-ending wrist surgery.

    This is a double-edged sword for Boston, given that while Walker's stats do not look noticeably different than in past seasons, he's visibly struggled to regain his trademark burst since dealing with knee issues through most of 2020. The four-time All-Star did finish strong, averaging 24.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 48.8/39.3/82.0 shooting splits over his last 10 games, but late-season stats are always a mystery. 

    Even if Walker were perfectly healthy, he'd still be an X-factor because of his checkered NBA playoff past. The UConn alum obviously has had his fair share of postseason heroics but couldn't find an extra gear with the Hornets and was limited by terrific defenders like Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo in last year's playoffs. The Brooklyn Nets, Boston's first-round opponent, aren't known for defense, but Bruce Brown is more than serviceable and Kyrie Irving is a good defender when motivated, which he might be against his estranged former team.

    With the Celtics out of the contender conversation for the first time in several years, Walker could use this period of relatively lower-stakes playoff basketball to find his footing on the sport's biggest stage. If he can, then Boston might make the East's title favorites work harder than expected in the first round.

Brooklyn Nets: Nicolas Claxton

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The situation in Brooklyn is not dissimilar to how the Lakers have had to approach their frontcourt since acquiring Anthony Davis. Despite Davis' insistence that he play power forward, the team has undeniably been better with him at center, which led coach Frank Vogel to frequently utilize him at the 5 in the 2020 playoffs.

    Steve Nash doesn't have to worry about that specific conundrum with the Nets, but he does have some knotty internal politics to navigate. Despite Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green all being on the roster, all having a good amount of postseason experience and—most importantly—all being friends with the team's three superstars, none should be playing major minutes at center during the playoffs.

    That responsibility should fall to second-year big man Nicolas Claxton, a versatile and athletic defender who appears to be very low-maintenance on the court, two attributes that make him almost necessary on this defensively challenged, star-laden roster. Almost as if to prove this point further, the Georgia alum recorded five rebounds, one block and a 95.5 defensive rating in Saturday's Game 1 despite only playing 11 minutes.

    Given his age and lack of experience, the 22-year-old probably shouldn't play a ton (at least at first), but he should be getting at least as many minutes as the aforementioned trio of veterans. Maybe Nash will start Jordan or Green at center as a sort of ceremonial designation to keep everyone satiated, or maybe Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have grown to accept exactly what we're laying out here, but if the Nets want to win a title, then giving Claxton a firm rotation spot is a step in the right direction.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    We're far afield from this handshake. Rumors abound about Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis' relationship, and inexplicable comments from Mark Cuban are not helping matters. But as long as Luka is on the Mavericks, they have a chance in the playoffs, as proved by an impressive Game 1 victory over the Clippers. 

    Perhaps the Mavericks' two most important players not named Luka in these playoffs are those acquired from the Knicks—Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

    Porzingis' relevance is obvious.

    When the big man is healthy, he's a rare scorer. Of course, the health qualifier has become increasingly relevant, causing the Latvian to lose much of the defensive versatility that was once a major part of his appeal. There's a scenario where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George attack Porzingis repeatedly, and it gets uncomfortable to watch. But if the big man is scoring at a similar clip, then the Clippers may need to worry.

    Hardaway, despite keeping a lower profile than Porzingis, may have quietly become even better. He posted a career-best effective field-goal percentage for the second straight season, remains an elite off-ball scorer and has talked about doing whatever it takes to win, earning praise from coach Rick Carlisle in the process.

    If Luka builds upon last year's historic playoff showing and gets the best out of Porzingis and Hardaway, then not only are the Clippers in danger, but the rest of the West is, too.

Denver Nuggets: Aaron Gordon

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Michael Porter Jr. is the obvious choice here, but considering how much he wants the opportunity, how well he performed in limited run during the bubble playoffs and how seamlessly he slid into Jamal Murray's secondary scoring role, he seems nearly as much a given as Nikola Jokic over the course of their postseason run.

    Aaron Gordon, however, is a different story.

    Denver acquired him basically as Jerami Grant's replacement, and for a short time, the team's revamped starting lineup of Gordon, Jokic, Murray, Porter and Will Barton looked dominant. However, now that Murray is gone, his playmaking and versatile scoring must be collectively replaced.

    With Jokic, Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo in the fold, Gordon isn't necessarily a major part of Denver's ball-handling solution, but he will be depended on for more points per game, an aspect of his skill set that has somewhat fallen to the wayside since the trade. That added offensive responsibility combined with his status as the Nuggets' defensive fulcrum in the big-oriented Western Conference arguably vaults Gordon past Porter as the second-most important player on the roster in these playoffs. 

    Since arriving in Denver, the 25-year-old has seemed up to the challenge.

    He's been a defensive nuisance to everyone from Devin Booker to Luka Doncic and James Harden to Anthony Davis, and he has begun to master the various nuances that lead to buckets with Nikola Jokic. If he can continue doing so in the highest-stakes games of his career thus far, the Nuggets might not miss Murray so much.

Los Angeles Clippers: Late-Game Shot-Making

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Clippers deserve a lot of credit.

    After an embarrassing collapse in the bubble, they've been generally dominant in this shortened season. They've got the third-best offense in the league by net rating, the eighth-best defense and a historically great bomb squad.

    And while there was some trepidation last year about the team's general lack of chemistry before the playoffs (concern that was, in fact, well founded), no such worries exist this year. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have played 43 games together, and lineups including the two of them recorded a mind-boggling 17.6 net rating

    Despite the team's fourth seed, make no mistake, Ty Lue's club seems much more dialed in than last year's iteration did.

    And yet, as Saturday's Game 1 proved once again, last year's failure looms so large that the Clippers still need to close a tough series to engender trust.

    Though Los Angeles finished the year ranked 19th in clutch net rating, at one point it was one of the worst teams in the NBA in close games, only furthering the idea that it couldn't win under pressure. Winning 21 of 30 to end the season—with two triumphs over the Lakers and one each against the 76ers, Bucks and Suns in that stretch—is a great way to silence such criticism, but when we're talking about a team that may be cursed, doubt isn't totally rational.

    The Clippers have heard all the criticism. Now it's time for them to go out, execute late and put the internet noise to bed.

Los Angeles Lakers: Dennis Schroder

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    On Wednesday night, Dennis Schroder had a rough go of it. In just his third game back after missing nearly two weeks because of contact tracing protocols, the German point guard was bothered to the point of awkwardness by the Golden State Warriors during the play-in tournament, finishing just 3-of-14 from the field. An instantly iconic 30-footer from LeBron James to beat the shot clock helped Los Angeles escape the game with a 103-100 victory, but it did so largely in spite of Schroder's struggles.

    Where does this leave the Lakers?

    Sure, they were able to outlast a Warriors team that's weathered inconsistency all year and doesn't have much supporting talent beyond Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins, but they won't be afforded that luxury against the Phoenix Suns. Styled in the image of their floor general, Chris Paul, the Suns are a meticulous team that doesn't commit many mistakes. Monty Williams' club was a league-leading 27-11 against teams over .500 this year and outlasted the Lakers in Game 1, so they must be treated like threats regardless of their general postseason inexperience.

    Despite James' and Anthony Davis' recent injury troubles, their second-half performances against the Warriors suggest they'll be locked and loaded. Schroder, however, is a different story, and he'll be tested against Paul, a former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate who will be a handful no matter his health status.

    How the 27-year-old handles pressure against the nine-time All-Defensive selection might be the difference between the Lakers repeating and going home early.

Memphis Grizzlies: Dillon Brooks

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    Isaac Hale/Associated Press

    Watching Dillon Brooks defend Stephen Curry in Friday night's play-in was a surreal experience. Curry has been shredding the NBA's best defenses for years and was in the midst of possibly his most thrilling stretch of basketball since the 2015-16 season, so watching this relatively unheralded wing shadow the two-time MVP all over the court was stunning. 

    Given that Brooks was able to bother Steph—arguably the toughest guard to cover since Kobe—defending Donovan Mitchell should be relatively easy, right?

    Mitchell owned the Oregon alum in the regular season, but the two-time All-Star missed Game 1 and could need a few games to fully reacclimate whenever he returns from a month-plus rehabbing a sprained ankle. With Memphis already owning a surprising series lead, if Brooks can pounce on Mitchell and slow him just enough, then the franchise should start preparing for its second 8-over-1 upset in a decade.

    On paper, beating this version of the Warriors should not mean anything for a series against the Jazz, the best team in the NBA for the majority of this season. But Golden State was favored over Memphis, had been playing great and is expected to win any close game with stakes as long as Curry and Draymond Green are on the floor, so the Grizzlies' continued resilience Friday and Sunday night should be taken very seriously. 

    With Mitchell facing added pressure due to Utah's Game 1 loss and Brooks in rare form, it's possible that the Jazz fall victim to Memphis' intensity just like Golden State did.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Though the Heat have been on fire (sorry) lately, winning 18 of 26 to close the season, they don't feel as dangerous as they did in the bubble, in large part because of Tyler Herro's underwhelming play.

    After a thrilling postseason run in 2020, the Kentucky alum fell flat to start the year, shooting just 41.5 percent overall and 32.6 percent from three through the end of March. It was a disappointing follow-up, given how much promise Herro had shown in high-leverage situations last fall, but with Miami's offseason being so truncated, his sluggishness made some sense.

    Now, since April 1 and since the Heat have started to come around once more, Herro has returned to form and then some, shooting 50.5 percent overall and 45.1 percent from three to end the regular season.

    His performance against the Bucks, and potentially further, in the playoffs will probably fall somewhere in between the first three months and the last six weeks of the season, but if Herro continues to play with renewed confidence and remains a quality secondary playmaker for the Heat—the only part of his game that has been promising all year long—then this may be last year's team all over again.

    Herro wasn't particularly great against the Bucks in the 2020 playoffs, but he'll face an extra challenge this time around from Jrue Holiday. If the 21-year-old is able to rise to that occasion, then we may as well start talking about Miami as a Finals contender once again.

Milwaukee Bucks: Jrue Holiday

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Bucks made one major change following their loss to the Miami Heat last fall, swapping Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday. The playoffs are now a clear referendum on both players. Is Holiday just the kind of upgrade Milwaukee needed? Was Bledsoe so bad that any capable point guard would do? Are both statements true?

    It's hard to tell quite yet, but one thing we do know is that the last time Holiday was in the playoffs, he was a menace. In a shocking four-game sweep of the favored Trail Blazers in 2018, the UCLA product averaged 27.8 points and 6.5 assists per game on 56.8 percent shooting for the Pelicans while harassing Damian Lillard

    Now, Holiday has less offensive responsibility than he did in New Orleans, playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but the challenges he'll face on defense might be even greater.

    In particular, a second-round matchup with Brooklyn looms in which Holiday would have to guard James Harden or Kyrie Irving, the latter of whom was particularly unstoppable in two matchups between the teams this year. The Nets would likely be favored in that series, lowering the pressure on Holiday somewhat, but considering Milwaukee moved heaven and earth to acquire the two-time All-NBA defender, there's still some level of expectation that he perform over the ensuing weeks and potentially months. 

    If he does, then a title is finally within reach for the Bucks.

New York Knicks: Shooting

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Like most Tom Thibodeau-coached teams, these New York Knicks are defense-first. But offensive improvement has been integral to the club's success, too. Julius Randle is the favorite to win Most Improved Player, RJ Barrett has rounded out his bag of tricks, and Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock have found a home as shooters while Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley provide floater magic. But let's not assume those improvements are permanent. 

    Not so long ago, the Knicks had poor spacing. Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel are non-shooters, Randle had never shot above 35 percent from range before this season, and Barrett was a 32.0 percent three-point shooter as a rookie. Adding Rose, a career 31.1 percent distance shooter, during the season shouldn't have helped, yet New York finished the regular season tied for second leaguewide in three-point efficiency. 

    However, it's quite possible that these new-and-improved jumpers abandon the Knicks. Whether it's DeAndre Hunter and Clint Capela with the Hawks or Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle with the 76ers, there are numerous terrific defenders in the East who can harass New York into bad shots. This may seem overly cautious, but it's happened recently to players like Pascal Siakam, who improve massively in the regular season but forget how to shoot when defenses lock in. 

    It may sound simple, but the Knicks' ability to continue making smart decisions on offense and not panic when defensive pressure is ratcheted up will determine how far they proceed this spring.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    After years of valid questioning, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons officially became a dominant duo this year, as the 76ers posted a 15.5 net rating when their two All-Stars shared the court. But it remains to be seen if that improvement will translate to the playoffs.

    If Embiid continues to shoot a career-best percentage from three, then everything else will come easier, but even under that circumstance, it's tough to trust him in mano a mano battles with Brooklyn's Big Three, the Lakers' and Clippers' elite duos or Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. 

    Embiid will need Simmons to act as an off-ball agent of chaos, serving as a roll man, cutting to the basket or sitting in the dunker's spot waiting to put back an errant jumper.

    The 2016 first overall pick has struggled with many of those roles throughout his career—this year included—preferring to think of himself as a traditional on-ball point guard, but hopefully Doc Rivers has made Simmons realize that his willingness to stand still on the perimeter without the ball enables defenses to leave him alone and redouble their efforts to guard Embiid and the Sixers' other three players. 

    At this point, Simmons might be the best and most versatile perimeter defender in the NBA. His Defensive Player of the Year nomination is well earned. But if he can't find a way to be useful on offense in close games, then it will all be for naught.

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton's improvement has been covered a lot this season. Chris Paul recently said he's grown more than any other Sun, and Paul isn't exactly known for effusive praise. But if Phoenix wants to live up to its second-seed billing and advance deep into the postseason, then Ayton must continuously rise to the occasion, particularly on defense. 

    Obviously, the first challenge comes against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers' big-laden roster in the first round. If the big man is able to relatively neutralize them like he did in Game 1, then another challenge may await in Nikola Jokic.

    Now, Ayton actually did a pretty good job of defending the MVP favorite this year, but the postseason is a different animal. Then, if he and the Suns win that matchup, Rudy Gobert and the Jazz may be next up. Let's not even worry about a potential clash with Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Finals just yet.

    The point is, this postseason is about to be dominated by big men, particularly in the West, and despite his high pedigree and continued growth, Ayton is pretty far behind the aforementioned stars in virtually every department.

    Can he surpass expectations? Sure. The degree and nuance of his improvements thus far have been surprising, so let's not rule out another potential leap. But if Ayton falls short against any of those decorated superstars and contributes to an underwhelming showing for Phoenix, that wouldn't be a shock, either.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    With the Denver Nuggets down Jamal Murray, the Portland Trail Blazers have an especially inviting opportunity to make waves this postseason. But winning such a series is no easy task, particularly when the Nuggets still have MVP favorite Nikola Jokic healthy and cooking.

    Despite Murray's absence and the Blazers' Game 1 win, Denver should still be the favorites. Jokic has been an elite postseason performer from the very start, and against Portland's 29th-ranked defense, you have to expect his stellar play to continue. It's yet another feather in the Nuggets' cap that the Blazers have nobody to bother Michael Porter Jr. (not their fault, though—when he's rolling, not many teams can bother him). 

    However, in Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers have a big man who might be able to make Jokic work a little harder than usual.

    In the two regular-season games that Nurkic played against the Nuggets, he "limited" Jokic to 23.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Denver won the first game by just one point, and Portland won the second affair by 16, showing that Nurkic might know how to bother his former teammate just enough to make a difference. This trend continued Saturday evening as Jokic contributed 34 points and 16 rebounds but was a minus-13 in 35 minutes and only managed one assist in a 14-point loss.

    If Nurkic is able to continue holding down the fort against Jokic and Portland gets its usual postseason greatness from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, then things could get interesting.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell's Ankle

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    We could have assigned injury-related risk to several teams here, but LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal all got some reps in during the play-in tournament and are relatively close to game shape (even if Davis' Game 1 performance raises doubts as far as that is concerned).

    Donovan Mitchell, on the other hand, just practiced for the first time in over a month and is entering the hottest pressure cooker going, as the Jazz surrendered home-court advantage to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies on Sunday night.

    The reason why we're listing Utah's All-Star guard as its X-factor rather than, say, Jordan Clarkson, is a simple one. The Jazz were the best team in the NBA for a large majority of the 2020-21 season, and if Mitchell is healthy and in good form, then he'll help them maintain such dominance. 

    The 24-year-old has improved each regular season, but he's really exploded in the playoffs.

    He led Utah to a surprise first-round victory over Oklahoma City as a rookie and averaged 36.3 points per game on 52.9/51.6/94.8 shooting (yes, none of those are typos) in last year's heartbreaking first-round defeat to Denver. If you insert Playoff Mitchell alongside the rest of the Jazz's rotation—three of whom are award finalists, another of whom made the All-Star team this year and another of whom nearly scored 50 points against a playoff team earlier this month—then conceiving of this team as a regular-season powerhouse without the star power to do much against the Lakers or Clippers may seem rather foolhardy.

    Here's hoping Mitchell gets his mojo back quickly and rises to the occasion once again.

Washington Wizards: Daniel Gafford

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In a move that flew under the radar at the trade deadline, the Wizards acquired big man Daniel Gafford from the Chicago Bulls. Buried on Chicago's depth chart, Gafford used the change of scenery to make an immediate impact, as Washington proceeded to win 17 of 23 games when he played.

    That may seem like a cherry-picked stat—especially since Russell Westbrook got rolling right around the same time—but Gafford shot 68.1 percent from the field in Washington, had the third-best net rating swing among current Wizards and finished seventh in the NBA in block percentage.

    Make no mistake, the second-year big is contributing to winning.

    Now, the real challenge begins. Despite getting hot recently, the Wizards are long shots to win their first-round series against MVP finalist Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Gafford in particular faces one of the team's tougher tasks, protecting the rim against assaults from Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris.

    Given that the former Razorback is not a score-first player, his performance in this series will not make or break Washington's chances in it.

    However, at his best, Gafford's energy is contagious and you can definitely picture an exciting defensive stand that turns into a fast-break opportunity for the Wizards, galvanizing the team for the rest of a given game. He acquitted himself well in Game 1, recording 12 points and six rebounds in just 20 minutes, so let's see if that continues going forward.

    At the very least, a good showing from Gafford against the East's top team will give Washington and its fans a young player to feel good about heading into the offseason.


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