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

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2021

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

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    NBA teams prize predictability, but sometimes the variables make all the difference.

    Every squad has an X-factor, a player whose specific contributions can have a significant influence on the outcome of a game—or even a season.

    Generally, these guys aren't do-it-all stars, and on the wrong nights, their weaknesses can make them liabilities. But when they're starring in their specific duties—usually ones no one else on the roster can handle—they elevate their team's performance.

    Here, we'll run down the X-factors on all 30 clubs, sometimes reviewing contributors who've played that role through the first quarter of the year, and sometimes forecasting those who might occupy the position going forward.

    These are the subtle difference-makers that have had (or will have) an outsized impact for every team this season.

Atlanta Hawks: Clint Capela

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Clint Capela's year-over-year comparison illustrates how directly his individual performance affects the Atlanta Hawks.

    When the veteran center was turning away shots at the rim and leading the league in rebounding last year, the Hawks finally had the defensive oomph to complement Trae Young's work on the other end. Atlanta's two-way steadiness resulted in a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

    Capela's presence on the floor in 2020-21 coincided with an 8.5-point improvement in the Hawks' defensive rating, an elite figure. This year, that number has flipped, with the Hawks allowing 4.2 more points per 100 possessions with their starting center on the floor.

    It's too early for serious concern, as opponents are hitting threes at a much higher clip whenever Capela happens to be in the game. He can't be held responsible for that, and that trend should correct itself over time. Capela continues to be a major deterrent at the rim, too.

    Still, Capela's block and rebound rates are down, suggesting some athletic decline. Relatedly, Atlanta's overall defense resides in the league's bottom 10.

    The Hawks need their defensive anchor to play like he did a year ago. Otherwise, it'll be tough to imagine a second deep playoff run in a row.

Boston Celtics: Josh Richardson

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Josh Richardson is looking more like a viable rotation option after a brutal start to his Boston Celtics career, with four of his eight highest-scoring games of the season coming since Nov. 15.

    The Celtics have their share of issues, like the appearance of selfish play and the failure to enjoy one another's success, as one league executive told ESPN's Tim Bontemps. Who knows how those problems, if they're truly more than just speculation from an outside source, will get solved?

    Better play from Richardson won't be a cure-all, but capable two-way work from another wing could produce a handful of extra wins. And winning is a panacea.

    With a usage rate that has reached comical lows after trending down for four straight years, Richardson isn't going to pour in points or hand out dimes at high volume. But he can serve as a connector in an offense that has often looked stagnant and disjointed.

    The right pass, delivered on time and to the correct recipient, can ease tension. A timely catch-and-shoot three can remind stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that they don't have to do everything on their own. A key defensive stop can trigger a breakaway, yielding easy points that make everyone involved feel good about the experience.

    Richardson has struggled to find his footing for three teams since leaving the Miami Heat. If he can be a consistent positive on both ends, even in a relatively small role, he could put both his career and the Celtics' season on firmer ground.

Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Sorry to state the obvious, but there's no way to pretend anyone on the Brooklyn Nets (or the entire league, for that matter) is a bigger X-factor than Kyrie Irving.

    Will he play at all this year? Will he be in shape if he returns? Will his teammates accept him after getting ghosted for, so far, a quarter of the season? And finally, would Irving return the Nets to their preseason position as title favorites?

    Normally, Irving would be off-limits as an X-factor. Players with his track record of success and statistical production are closer to known commodities than variables. But virtually every aspect of Irving's status and potential impact with Brooklyn is uncertain.

    He could be welcomed back and immediately turn the Nets into an unstoppable force. He might return to a resentful roster that makes reintegration difficult in the locker room and on the floor. He also might never take the court again at all.

    Championship galvanizer, vibe saboteur or total nonentity? That's some serious X-factor range.

Charlotte Hornets: Kelly Oubre Jr.

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Charlotte Hornets are 8-2 when Kelly Oubre Jr. hits at least three triples.

    Yes, you run into an obvious correlation-or-causation issue when relying on stats like that. But Oubre's X-factor status passes the eye test.

    When he's hitting shots frequently enough to stay on the floor, the Hornets get the added benefits of his live-wire ball pressure and transition speed. When he goes cold, it's much harder for Charlotte to keep Oubre on the court for those marginal impacts.

    Oubre has never been so reliant on his jumper. For the first time in his career, more than half his shots are coming from beyond the arc. His 36.6 percent hit rate from deep is a new high, which is fueling the best effective field-goal percentage of the lefty forward's seven-year career.

    Can the Hornets rely on a notoriously streaky shooter's newfound accuracy—at never-before-seen volume, no less?

    Their playoff position in a deep and formidable East may depend on whether Oubre keeps hitting from downtown.

Chicago Bulls: Alex Caruso

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    You've likely seen his smothering of Monte Morris by now, but that highlight is far from the only one on Alex Caruso's defensive resume this season.

    In that same game, the Chicago Bulls guard put the vice grips on Will Barton. And on Nov. 21, Caruso did the same to New York Knicks forward Julius Randle.

    Lonzo Ball deserves mention here as well, but it's mainly Caruso who's transformed the Bulls defense.

    Coming into this season, it was easy to imagine Chicago putting up big point totals with its revamped roster led by DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. The Bulls have done so, but they've surprised by also dominating on D, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions. 

    Caruso has everything to do with that. He's a perennial presence among the league's top 10 percent in steal rate, he cannot be screened, and his energy transforms games.

    Despite shooting only 33.9 percent from deep, Caruso has become an indispensable part of Chicago's rotation.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Evan Mobley determines whether the Cleveland Cavaliers defense is elite or below average.

    That kind of impact is basically unheard of for a rookie, but Mobley is a special case. You have to go back a long way, perhaps to early Kevin Garnett, to find a first-year big man who could smother perimeter scorers, defend the rim and rotate into help position so adeptly.

    Mobley's presence on the floor coincides with massive drops in opponent accuracy at the rim and from the mid-range area. Attacking him in space is hopeless, and guards can almost never get the 7-foot rookie on his heels. When they try to stop short for floaters or jumpers, Mobley is right there, forcing desperate flings that count as victories for the defense.

    He can switch screens up high or guard both offensive players in a pick-and-roll. He can recover to the perimeter after picking up drivers who've beaten their men and kicked the ball back out. He can do everything, basically. And in yet another entry to the "are we sure this guy's a rookie?" file, Mobley almost never fouls.

    A quarter of the way through the season, Mobley appears to be a franchise-altering talent. But the rookie wall is out there, just waiting to meet him. And as opponents develop more detailed scouting reports, Mobley will face new challenges. He's conquered them all so far.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Throw out the first three games of his season, and Kristaps Porzingis has looked a lot more like the second option the Dallas Mavericks have long needed him to be. Though he's far from perfect and is still prone to the odd night when his lateral mobility just isn't there, he remains a bellwether for the Mavs.

    When he's catapulting deep shots from three steps beyond the top of the arc and acting decisively from the elbows, Porzingis gives Dallas a scoring dimension no one else on the roster can. He won't ever be the type of secondary creator whom the Mavericks need to lighten Luka Doncic's playmaking load, but he can attract enough defensive attention (on some nights) to bend the defense away from Dallas' young superstar.

    Ideally, the Mavericks would deploy Porzingis at center more often. When his body cooperates enough to let him defend in space and protect the rim, his floor-stretching offense is doubly valuable at the 5.

    Unfortunately, Porzingis has played more power forward this year than he has in any season since 2017-18. Whether KP can bring it as a center more often is an X-factor in itself.

    Zooming out, it isn't a great sign for Dallas that Porzingis registers as an X-factor. He's supposed to be a surefire second star.

Denver Nuggets: Aaron Gordon

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Already vital to a thin Denver Nuggets team, Aaron Gordon's role just got even more important.

    Michael Porter Jr. is now expected to undergo back surgery (his third since 2018) and could miss the rest of the season, per Shams Charania of The Athletic, while P.J. Dozier is also out with a torn ACL. Somebody has to take on more offensive responsibility, and the Nuggets are short on options.

    Though part of Gordon's success since joining Denver last season stems from a diminished offensive role that allows him to expend more energy on D (where he's been fantastic), it's now looking like the Nuggets will need a little more of the Orlando Magic version of the versatile forward. His usage rate should climb, as should his shot attempts.

    If Gordon can up his usage and scoring rate while somehow sustaining his critical work on defense, maybe the Nuggets can survive until Jamal Murray returns to the lineup. We should expect a decline in efficiency, as Gordon is currently posting the highest true shooting percentage of his career, flirting with the 60.0 percent clip that typically belongs to the best of the best on offense.

    The key to the Nuggets' season, aside from Nikola Jokic continuing to play like an MVP, may be whether Gordon can mesh the best parts of his Orlando and Denver selves. 

Detroit Pistons: Kelly Olynyk

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Kelly Olynyk is out with an MCL sprain that may keep him on ice until 2022, but his 10 pre-injury games offered plenty of evidence that he's a critical swing piece for the rebuilding Detroit Pistons.

    His three-point shooting, 34.1 percent this year and 36.6 percent for his career, spaced the floor and opened up driving lanes for teammates. It's no coincidence that Detroit scored 9.9 more points per 100 possessions with the 30-year-old big man in the game, or that the ball seemed to move more consistently during his minutes. Olynyk has long ranked among the best at his position in assist percentage.

    Not that the Pistons and Isaiah Stewart need it, but Olynyk also imbues his team with a competitive edge. When you're likely to face a lot of double-digit deficits, it sometimes helps to have a player with a reputation for dangerous physicality. Opponents with big leads showboat at their own risk with Olynyk on the floor.

    The Pistons are led by inexperienced wings and guards, with rookie Cade Cunningham at the forefront. Olynyk creates breathing room on offense and can share the facilitation load, two keys to making things less overwhelming for his young teammates. 

    Olynyk isn't the kind of difference-maker who can keep Detroit out of the league's dark cellar, but his game lets in a little light.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry's offensive greatness gives the Golden State Warriors an edge on every possession, whether he has the ball or not.

    Defenses that attach multiple bodies to Curry or force the rock out of his hands choose to put themselves at a disadvantage when covering the other four Warriors on the floor. It's a bargain they have to make because guarding Curry conventionally is a nonstarter.

    That's where Jordan Poole comes in.

    As the only other playmaking guard on the roster, Poole often has some heavy lifting to do. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala will always make the right pass, and the Warriors are loaded with guys like that. But while Golden State is long on play-connectors, Poole is their only non-Steph starter and finisher.

    He demonstrated his value with back-to-back efforts of over 30 points against the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, both Warriors wins, with the latter coming despite a mere 12 points from Curry. In Tuesday's 104-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Poole was the only Warriors scorer who could get anything going.

    Poole is averaging a career-high 18.5 points per game despite some rough three-point shooting to start the season. His confidence, deft finishing inside the arc and ability to generate at least a half-decent look when the offense bogs down are vital to the contending Dubs.

Houston Rockets: John Wall

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Maybe John Wall got tired of watching his young Houston Rockets teammates mishandle the ball and fling passes into the stands as if they were auditioning for gigs with the in-arena hype crew. Or maybe he realized he wasn't doing his trade chances any favors by sitting out.

    Whatever the case, the veteran point guard, who's still owed $91.7 million over the next two years, wants to get back into the action, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Wall averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists in 40 games last season, although he shot only 40.4 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from deep. If he were to merely reproduce those modest numbers, he'd still upgrade the Rockets' offense.

    Forever a high-usage player, the 31-year-old is a relatively stable presence and reliable generator of quality looks. Even on the downside of his career, Wall can still pick out open shooters in the corners with his patented cross-court finds.

    Wall could bring a modicum of organization to an offense that has so far been chaos incarnate.

Indiana Pacers: T.J. McConnell

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Indiana Pacers have picked things up lately, but they remain among the slowest teams in the league. Only five teams operate out of half-court sets more frequently.

    Scoring is easier in transition, when defenses are scrambled and attackers tend to have the advantage, so it's vital for Indy's offense to pick up a few cheap points per game on the run.

    Last year, backup point guard T.J. McConnell was a valuable creator of transition chances, upping the Pacers' transition frequency at a rate that ranked in the 87th percentile at his position. Indiana added 2.8 points per 100 possessions in transition with McConnell in the game, an elite figure.

    This year, McConnell is juicing the Pacers' transition points per 100 possessions even more. But he and his Indiana teammates just aren't getting out and running as frequently. In fact, the Pacers get into transition less often—not more, as was the case last year—with McConnell on the court.

    Much of this owes to head coach Rick Carlisle exercising a high level of control over the offense. He calls more plays and demands more set actions than most. But McConnell can still be an opportunistic burner, forcing the ball down the floor and finding teammates for clean looks. He can key an offensive uptick in Indiana by pushing tempo like he did so effectively in 2020-21.

Los Angeles Clippers: Nicolas Batum

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Ivica Zubac is the anchor, Terence Mann creates havoc and Paul George has the the accolades, but Nicolas Batum might be the Los Angeles Clippers' most important defensive piece. 

    The veteran wing has been out since Nov. 21 due to health and safety protocols, but prior to that, he was well on his way to replicating the quiet impact he made in 2020-21.

    Batum is a dream role player, content to shoot as a last resort while willingly guarding across all five positions. That he is shooting over 40 percent from deep for the second straight year is merely a bonus. The real beauty of Batum's game is that he only takes clean looks, which keeps both superstars and higher-volume scorers happy.

    Still handsy, as evidenced by steal and block rates that rank in the top 20 percent at his position, Batum is one of those rare defenders who can generate turnovers without gambling. He relies on his length and his intellect to break up opposing offensive plays, and he has sustained top-end rebounding rates even as he's spent more time playing against bigger matchups.

    The Clippers' excellent defense is a collective achievement, but Batum deserves special credit for helping unlock switching schemes while chipping in as a passer and floor-spacer. Every good team needs someone like him.

Los Angeles Lakers: Talen Horton-Tucker

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Scan the Los Angeles Lakers' roster, and the lack of reliable defensive wing options explodes off the page.

    Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk are third and fourth on the team in total minutes, respectively, and both are targets for opposing offenses. Avery Bradley has the reputation as an on-ball stopper, but his teams have been worse defensively with him on the floor in six of his 12 seasons, including this one. You can make the case Bradley has been solid in the past, but he isn't a winning defender in his current form.

    Talen Horton-Tucker has the tools—length, a wide frame, good lateral quickness—to wrangle tough wings, though he's inexperienced and lacks a track record of results. Unless Trevor Ariza has a renaissance upon his return from ankle surgery at age 36 or LeBron James further taxes himself by taking on difficult matchups, Horton-Tucker may have to check the Devin Bookers, Jayson Tatums and Paul Georges of the world.

    That's a tall order for a 21-year-old who's also being asked to provide supplemental scoring and facilitation.

    Horton-Tucker missed the first 13 games of the season, but he was immediately thrust into a heavy-minute role upon his return. He's still finding his form, and he could be the player who helps the Lakers find theirs.

Memphis Grizzlies: Dillon Brooks

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Even before Ja Morant went down with a sprained knee, Dillon Brooks stood to make a significant impact on the Memphis Grizzlies. Sidelined initially by a broken hand, the fifth-year wing is now even more vital to getting the Grizz to the postseason for a second straight year.

    Brooks' aggression and defensive energy are second to none. He changes games with his intensity alone.

    His presence can only help a defense that has spent most of the year allowing more points per possession than any other. Though the sample is small, Brooks has already proved his worth; Memphis is far stingier with him in the game.

    On the other end, Brooks' willingness to chuck up shots is also going to matter.

    Ideally, an offense should funnel shots to its most efficient options at their preferred spots on the floor. But with Morant out, the Grizzlies will have no choice but to settle for looks of lower quality.

    Brooks has historically topped out just below average among wings in points per shot attempt, but he's never had a problem with volume. If he can get them around 20 points per game on acceptable efficiency, the Grizzlies could at least hold down the fort offensively until Morant returns.

    Of course, if Brooks replicates his scorching playoff performance from 2021, when he averaged 25.4 points per game on a 51.5/40.0/80.8 shooting split against the Utah Jazz, Memphis might not even miss Morant.

Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Despite some wonky on-off splits (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo both have negative on-court differentials), the Miami Heat used the first quarter of the season to establish themselves as noisemakers in the East.

    They'll get frighteningly loud if Duncan Robinson remembers how to shoot.

    The sniper who earned the biggest contract for an undrafted player in league history on the strength of a defense-bending stroke hasn't found his range yet this season. He's shooting 32.8 percent from deep and getting hunted on D.

    The Heat can handle Robinson being targeted if he's shredding defenses on the other end with his on-the-move shooting, but that trade-off hasn't been there this year.

    The Heat are assured of an elite defense with Butler, Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker in the rotation. Robinson is the gravitational force they need on offense, one Butler's nonexistent floor-spacing makes doubly important. And now that Adebayo is out for an extended stretch following thumb surgery, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, robbing the team of a valuable facilitator, Robinson's importance is even greater.

    Miami's defense is a chore to play against every night, but Robinson could turn this team into a two-way terror. Remember, he was the only player across 2019-20 and 2020-21 to hit over 500 threes on at least a 40.0 percent clip. In the recent past, we've seen him open up his team's offense in ways few others can.

    The Heat need that version of him to return.

Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Everyone is in love with lineups that feature Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, and it's true the Milwaukee Bucks have been alarmingly good in those configurations this season. They were also at their best with Giannis at the 5 during their 2021 title run.

    Still, the Bucks aren't fully themselves without Brook Lopez in the middle...or 25 feet from the bucket, if we're talking about the offensive end.

    A back injury has limited Lopez to playing only one game so far this season. It isn't a coincidence that the Bucks, though still imposing, have played well below the standard they set last season.

    In 2020-21, Milwaukee ranked fifth on offense and ninth on defense, with Lopez improving their numbers on both ends. This year, the Bucks are just outside the top 10 in both categories.

    Lopez is no more than the fourth-most important player on the defending champs' roster, but it takes everyone to win a title. Other than Giannis, the Bucks don't have anyone who can defend the rim in drop coverage like Lopez, nor do they have someone who can do that while spacing the floor on offense.

    Whenever he returns, the Bucks should level up.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Jarred Vanderbilt

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Jarred Vanderbilt averages under five field-goal attempts per game and has taken only six three-point shots all season, making none. He clearly isn't out there to score.

    However, he is a major part of the Minnesota Timberwolves rotation (and lately, starting lineup) because of everything he does on the margins.

    When the 6'9" forward grabs double-digit rebounds, the Wolves are a perfect 6-0. When he snags at least two steals, Minnesota is 7-2. On balance, the Timberwolves are 9.3 points per 100 possessions better when Vanderbilt is in the game, the third-highest individual net-rating boost on the team.

    Mobile, aggressive and an indispensable piece of a defense that has far exceeded expectations by ranking in the league's top 10, Vanderbilt is a quiet key to Minnesota's success. Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D'Angelo Russell get the most acclaim, but their less-heralded teammate deserves recognition for all that he's done to keep the Wolves competitive.

New Orleans Pelicans: Herb Jones

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans are in a holding pattern that feels a little too much like a downward spiral as they await Zion Williamson's return to the court. Disorganized and inefficient offensively and rarely putting up a fight on D, they've been among the league's most disappointing squads.

    Times have been dark in New Orleans, making Herb Jones' minutes shine all the brighter.

    The rookie forward injects badly needed energy into the game, hounding matchups across the positional spectrum with suffocating defense. The Pels perform like a different team with Jones darting all over the floor, holding opponents to a ridiculous 9.9 fewer points per 100 possessions.

    The 6'8" Alabama product makes the simple act of dribbling in his vicinity a risk, and even superstar wing scorers would be best served by calling for a screen. Jones is where isolation attacks go to die.

    The value of a high-intensity, game-changing defensive presence can't be overstated, especially for a team that isn't getting much juice from anyone else on the roster.

New York Knicks: Alec Burks

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    Hakim Wright Sr./Associated Press

    All Alec Burks has to do is justify the benching of a New York basketball icon. No big deal, right?

    Burks' insertion into the starting lineup over Kemba Walker is head coach Tom Thibodeau's latest attempt to correct the starter-bench disparity that has been killing the team.

    Walker, a starter in all 18 games he's played this year, was far from the only culprit. But his minus-26.0 on-court net rating was the worst on the team, and his performance just wasn't up to snuff for a Thibodeau defense.

    Burks isn't a point guard by trade, although Julius Randle's presence as a playmaker should ease the burden. But this is a suddenly significant role for the 30-year-old slasher who's quietly become a dead-eye three-point shooter over the last four years. Can he bring some of the chemistry magic from the league's most dominant reserve corps to the first unit?

    New York has managed a winning record in spite of the starting five digging holes every night. Burks can't change that all on his own, but he's uniquely positioned to help catalyze an underperforming group.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Mike Muscala

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the obvious choice here, considering that he's the only Oklahoma City Thunder player whom you could imagine occupying a large role on a team that hadn't spent the last two years tearing things all the way down.

    We're going with Mike Muscala instead, OKC's offense-first floor-stretching big. While SGA's production is a given Muscala's is more of a bonus, yet he has legitimately swung games in the Thunder's favor.

    He put up 20 points in only 14 minutes on Nov. 7 to help Oklahoma City pull off a five-point win over the San Antonio Spurs, and then he logged another 12 points (on only four field-goal attempts) in an eight-point victory over the Pelicans on Nov. 10.

    Those are two specific examples, but you can see how Muscala's contributions are more broadly valuable.

    The Thunder are 29th in the league in three-point percentage and dead last in offensive efficiency. But Muscala, who's played center exclusively this year, is drilling 43.6 percent of his triples.

    He's an oasis in OKC's barren offensive landscape—and at a critical position.

Orlando Magic: Franz Wagner

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic have talent up front with Mo Bamba swatting shots and Wendell Carter Jr. expanding his range, and they have promise in the backcourt as well. Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs have shown flashes this year, with Anthony's shot-creation standing out.

    Anthony has battled an ankle injury recently, and Suggs' fractured thumb will sideline him for a while. R.J. Hampton will be pressed into duty and might be the team's X-factor from this point forward, but Franz Wagner, the only reliable two-way wing on the roster, has earned that distinction to this point in the year.

    Wagner was billed as a low-ceiling gap-filler in the draft, the type of plug-and-play talent who'd be a solid defender and decent three-point shooter, but probably not someone who'd make a major difference. He's exceeded those modest expectations by playing with more force and versatility than most imagined.

    The 20-year-old rookie has started every game in which he's played and has already emerged as the Magic's third-best offensive option behind Anthony and Carter. Wagner is third on the team in made triples, assists and rebounds while handling some of the toughest assignments on D.

    If the bigs and smalls in Orlando eventually nudge up against stardom, Wagner will be ready to man a high-end utility role. In fact, he's already doing that right now.

Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Tyrese Maxey's breakout is in full swing. The second-year guard is relentless as a downhill attacker, and he refuses to sacrifice efficiency in a role that requires much higher offensive volume than what he handled as a rookie.

    Despite jumping from 15.3 minutes per game to 35.7, and even though he's facing first-unit defenses far more often, Maxey has improved his accuracy rates from the field (46.2 percent to 47.8 percent) and from deep (30.1 percent to 37.7 percent). He's an ace in floater-and-runner range, a skill that frustrates defenders who have no choice but to be on their heels in anticipation of his head-down drives.

    Most importantly to his X-factor status, Maxey has ably kept Philadelphia's offense humming with Joel Embiid off the floor. The Sixers will only go as far as their MVP-caliber big man can carry them, but Maxey's aggression and production give them a chance to at least tread water at less than full strength.

    Balance is key for the 21-year-old, though. Maxey's usage rate is much higher in Philly's losses than its wins. He's been a revelation overall, but less is sometimes more for the Sixers' dynamic guard.

Phoenix Suns: Cameron Johnson

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns are rolling, cranking out a 17-game winning streak and looking every bit like a team unsatisfied with merely reaching the Finals last year.

    With Chris Paul and Devin Booker running the offense, Mikal Bridges sitting somewhere near the top of the league's three-and-D hierarchy and improved depth at center (Frank Kaminsky's shelving with a stress reaction in his knee hurts on that front), Phoenix doesn't have a lot of holes.

    Except, once in a while, it feels like maybe it needs a little more punch from the combo forward spots manned mainly by Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson.

    Crowder is the known commodity, a playoff-ready vet whose streaky shooting and tenacious defense are always there when it matters. Johnson, though, is less proven. He's the player who, when he's at his best, puts Phoenix on another level.

    Johnson did exactly that by scoring a career-high 22 points in a blowout win over the Nuggets on Nov. 21. When he's scoring in ways that force defenses to account for him, it's too difficult for opponents to cover the Suns' other threats.

    You don't have to look much further than his shooting splits to see Johnson's impact. He posts a 45.0 true shooting percentage in losses and a 56.3 percent figure in wins.

Portland Trail Blazers: Larry Nance Jr.

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    It took new head coach Chauncey Billups nearly 20 percent of the season, but he eventually figured out how to utilize Larry Nance Jr.

    The result has been encouraging production and vibe improvement in Portland that goes beyond Damian Lillard remembering how to shoot.

    With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nance proved he could space the floor a bit, make good decisions with the ball on the short roll and provide defensive value with his great hands. That skill set screams small-ball roll-man who should at least get a touch on most possessions, but the Blazers seemed convinced that Nance was better utilized standing around in the corners.

    The Blazers offense is markedly more dynamic when he plays. It also produces points at a rate that would rank atop the league, if you value that sort of thing.

    Come playoff time, the Blazers will need a downsized option at center who can switch defensively and keep the ball hopping whenever opponents throw two bodies at Lillard. That's the role Nance can fill better than anyone else on the roster, and he's finally getting a chance to prove it.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    De'Aaron Fox shouldn't be here.

    We said at the outset that reliable stars don't qualify as X-factors, and the Sacramento Kings' point guard was supposed to play himself into that trustworthy tier and out of consideration for this exercise.

    Instead, Fox is reeling for yet another disappointing Kings outfit.

    He's made at least half of his shots in only six games this season, and he hasn't scored this inefficiently since his rookie year. Fox's true shooting percentage ranks 34th among the 38 players who've taken at least 300 shots, and his point and assist averages are down from a year ago.

    Hopefully interim head coach Alvin Gentry's preferred pace-and-space style will bring about change. Fox is at his best in transition or attacking a spread floor in the half court.

    His three-point shot has completely abandoned him, which makes it much easier for defenders to give him space. But maybe a stylistic change from Gentry will shake Fox from his perplexing season-long snooze.

    This is a guy who averaged 25.2 points per game last season on the strength of elite foul-drawing craft. The Kings need that player to return if they're going to threaten one of the West's very up-for-grabs play-in spots.

San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The San Antonio Spurs still aren't shooting threes, and we can't blame DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge this time. Both veteran mid-range aficionados are long gone, yet San Antonio still ranks dead last in percentage of field-goal attempts that come from beyond the arc.

    That's why Devin Vassell is so important.

    The second-year wing has taken the third-most treys on the team, and he's the only Spur with at least 70 attempts to post a hit rate above the league average.

    Vassell can do more than shoot from a standstill, which is part of what makes him one of San Antonio's most intriguing prospects. But his willingness to shoot and ability to convert from downtown give him special value on a team seemingly committed to making offense more difficult than it has to be.

    If he could get to the foul line once in a while, he might even help the Spurs climb out of last place in free-throw rate. That's asking a lot of a 21-year-old reserve. We should just be glad he's addressing one of the many tactical deficiencies in the Spurs' attack.

Toronto Raptors: Khem Birch

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Toronto Raptors have been good at only a few things through the first quarter of the season: offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. They rank first and second in those categories, respectively, and Khem Birch has a lot to do with their success in both.

    When Birch is in the game, he ups Toronto's offensive rebound rate by 9 percentage points, a whopping figure that ranks in the 98th percentile among bigs. On the other end, the Raptors force an additional 2.2 percentage points of turnovers with Birch in the game, good for the 85th percentile at his position.

    Though he averages 6.9 points and 5.7 rebounds, Birch, who's started in only three of the 15 contests he's played, owns the best on-off differential of any Raptors big man. His offensive rebounding and pick-and-roll chemistry with Fred VanVleet have been hugely valuable to a Toronto team that struggles to score in the half court. 

    Sidelined recently with a nagging knee injury, Birch has been one of those rare players whose value might be best reflected in his absences. No one on the roster can replicate his contributions on both ends of the floor.

Utah Jazz: Rudy Gay

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    Randall Benton/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz are probably best off figuring out how to keep Rudy Gobert on the court when postseason opponents downsize. That'll require better perimeter defense and a more disciplined approach against the type of drive-and-kick cyclone that the Los Angeles Clippers used to send the Jazz spinning out of last year's playoffs.

    There are alternatives, of course. Most teams have small-ball configurations available, and it seemed like that's what the Jazz were going for when they added Rudy Gay in the offseason.

    The 35-year-old veteran forward shot 36.4 percent from deep in four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs and logged just enough time at center (9 percent of his minutes in 2020-21 and 8 percent in 2019-20) to make Utah using him there for short stretches seem plausible.

    Gay has shot the ball beautifully since starting his season late due to injury, and he's moving far better than one would expect from a guy with his mileage. He's played the 4 almost exclusively, though, which could signal that Utah doesn't intend to try him out as an undersized center.

    It's early, and the Jazz could snag a small-ball 5 via trade (think Thaddeus Young). But Gay still seems like a player who offers the team something it doesn't have.

    It'd be worth seeing what he could bring as a center during the year so the Jazz might have an idea of their playoff options in advance.

Washington Wizards: Daniel Gafford

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    NBA defense is about making concessions. Teams can't cover the entire floor, so they must decide which shots to permit in exchange for the prevention of others.

    The Washington Wizards have been better than anyone at limiting opponents' three-point looks, but that strategy usually comes at the cost of vulnerability inside the arc.

    The Wizards have done well collectively to keep those two-point looks outside the restricted area, but Daniel Gafford is the guy who's made the difference at close range. Opponent accuracy craters at the rim when he's in the game spiking layups into the hardwood or batting floaters into the stands.

    Rim protection isn't coming from anyone else on the roster. Washington often plays small with Montrezl Harrell, listed at an extremely generous 6'7", at center. Combo forward Kyle Kuzma has the third-most possessions logged at the 5.

    Gafford can catch a lob, and he's an occasionally dominant offensive rebounder. But his interior defense and shot-blocking prowess are unique on this Wizards roster.

    When Washington's capable wing defenders execute the game plan by running shooters off the line, he's been the last line of a surprisingly good defense.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Nov. 30. Salary info via Spotrac.

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