The Biggest X-Factor for Every 2022 NBA Playoff Team
Big names dominate NBA playoff coverage for a reason: Stars tend to determine the fate of a series—and the entire postseason—more than anyone. They are the most important components for any team hoping to be more than happy-to-have-been-here-but-now-we're-gone footnotes.
This is not to say we have to always-always-always make everything about the stars. On the contrary, to do so would be counterintuitive. Even the most top-loaded roster needs capable depth to get by—fringe stars or glue guys or specialists or developing kiddies on the rise who add extra oomph.
This one is for all of them.
Extreme limitations will not be placed on our criteria for every squad's biggest X-factor. Stars will be avoided, as will primary options. Injury-related choices will generally be skirted, too. Everyone else is fair game, and with each choice, we're seeking to identify the player who can have the most important yet understated impact on their team's chances of winning any given postseason series.
Atlanta Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic
Health will be massive for the Atlanta Hawks entering the playoffs. Clint Capela (left knee) and John Collins (right foot) are both banged up at the moment. Neither is the pick. They're too hallmark, and harping on injuries would set a warty precedent as we journey through this rabbit hole together.
Delon Wright made his case during Atlanta's come-from-behind play-in victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. His defensive energy is infectious.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is just too juicy of a pick. The Hawks don't necessarily have an offensive identity beyond Trae Young, but Bogie has given them a viable No. 2. After Collins went down, he closed the regular season averaging 17.8 points and 3.3 assists while canning 38.2 percent of his triples, including 36.8 percent of his pull-up threes.
Equally, if not more, critical: Atlanta won the minutes on the season that Bogdanovic logged without Young. (The backcourt combination of Bogie and Wright just seems to work.) Beating the Miami Heat in the first round shouldn't be about the minutes the Hawks play without their best player, but they need all the secondary firepower they can get when starting off the postseason against a hellfire defense. With and without Trae, Bogie represents the lion's share of their offensive depth.
Alternative X-factor: Delon Wright
Boston Celtics: Grant Williams
Robert Williams III won't return from his torn left meniscus unless the Boston Celtics make an ultra-deep playoff run. They're going to need Grant Williams in order to make that happen.
Boston is not without options in Timelord's absence. Head coach Ime Udoka has Grant Williams and Daniel Theis and can downsize to Derrick White alongside Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum plus one big. The team was also a plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions without RWIII on the floor during the regular season while preserving much of their stingy defense, minus some scorching-hot opponent three-point shooting.
This is all to say: the Celtics are not in an end-of-the-world situation. But Grant Williams does loom as the most important X-factor, if only because he figures to pick up the largest chunk of the playing-time slack. His minutes ticked up significantly following RWII's injury.
Not much should change. Williams isn't the same level of rim-runner as Timelord, but he stretches the floor with a reliable three-point stroke. And while Boston will miss RWIII's help rim protection and perimeter mobility on defense, Grant Williams does have plenty of switch to him, as well.
How well the latter plays will say a great deal about the Celtics' postseason rotation. He is not only their ticket to sustaining two-big sets but could also need to take on waaay more time at center if Udoka doesn't want to overburden Theis with backup 5 burn.
Alternative X-factor: Derrick White
Brooklyn Nets: Bruce Brown
Ben Simmons (or Ben Simmons' back) will nab this honor from others. He might be targeting a return—read: season and team debut—toward the tail end of the Brooklyn Nets' first-round matchup with the Celtics.
I can't get there. Head coach Steve Nash has already said Simmons still isn't doing anything in practice, and he's not one to provide any sort of clarity...ever. For him to say that feels telltale.
Even if it's not, a player who hasn't taken the floor in about a year and is being integrated into a completely new team headlined by two other stars predisposed to working on the ball doesn't profile as an insta-fit.
Bruce Brown is the correct answer. Really, though, there is almost no wrong answer. Anyone aside from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will do. The Nets' depth and rotation is that ambiguous and shaky.
Going with Brown is a nod toward the scope of his role. The Nets will liberally, and necessarily, throw him on the toughest defensive covers. They may even elect to close games with him and Durant as the primary frontline members; it's not something they've done often, but it'll be on the table if Nash isn't vibing Andre Drummond or Nicolas Claxton.
Whether saddling Brown with extensive run is tenable on offense is a more complicated matter. Brooklyn should never want for scoring with Kyrie and KD, but if teams aren't scared of Brown's passing out of the short roll or his long-range shooting, they'll have easier paths to blitzing both stars.
To Brown's credit, he has knocked down 48-plus percent of his triples since early February. But his efficiency comes on less-than-modest volume (two attempts per game). The playoffs are also a different animal. If Brown isn't making plays or wide-open jumpers on offense, the Nets will find themselves in a pickle that, frankly, they don't have the alternative personnel to overcome.
Alternative X-factor: Nicolas Claxton
Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams
Nobody is picking the Chicago Bulls to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Lonzo Ball is done for the season (knee), and neither Alex Caruso (back) nor Zach LaVine (left knee) is anywhere near full strength.
Chicago's offensive shot profile, meanwhile, stands to be its own, separate issue. No team attempted a lower share of its looks from deep during the regular season, and Milwaukee's defense is built to both limit and contest two-pointers to no end.
The Bulls are better off treating this matchup as an opportunity for self-discovery. What does Nikola Vucevic have left to offer in a playoff series? How does Ayo Dosunmu hold up in the postseason? Javonte Green, too? And Coby White? Can they downsize at the 5, with Derrick Jones Jr., for any stretch of time? Should they even try?
And most importantly: What do they have in Patrick Williams?
Left wrist surgery cost him most of the regular season, but he's tantalized as an offensive accessory with 53.4 percent shooting inside the arc and a 51.7 percent clip from downtown (on finite volume). Will his efficiency stand the test of playoff defenses? And how does he look as, presumably, the person who will spend the most time guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Any information, at all, will help the Bulls leading into the offseason, where they'll be tasked with identifying and/or acquiring impactful, long-term keepers on the wing.
Alternative X-factor: Ayo Dosunmu
Dallas Mavericks: Reggie Bullock
But what about Luka Doncic's left calf?!?
Shout-out to anyone, er, clever enough to go here. But anything Doncic-related isn't X-factor material. It's more like all-defining. The Dallas Mavericks aren't beating the Utah Jazz if he misses most of the series. They'll be hard-pressed to make the second round even if he returns and isn't able to dance with the ball using his usual start-and-stop cadence.
Reggie Bullock is more in the spirit of this exercise.
Dorian Finney-Smith will get the toughest defensive assignment, but he can't play 48 minutes. Or maybe he can. Who knows. Even if he does, playoff teams tend to have more than one premier perimeter scorer.
Enter Bullock. He is the Mavericks' second-best option to throw at the point of attack. Well, actually, Frank Ntilikina might be the second-best option. But Bullock provides real, tangible offensive value when he's swishing threes. And he's done just that following an arctic-cold start to the season. Granted, there have been some wild night-to-night swings, but he's downed treys at a 39.6 percent clip overall since Dec. 31.
Feel free to roll with Maxi Kleber or Davis Bertans if you're looking only at Dallas' matchup with Utah. Lineups with either one of them at the 5 can bend the Jazz's supplementary defense—i.e. non-Rudy Gobert dudes—to the point of implosion. But Bullock's importance is less matchup-specific and more universal. Especially given how many minutes he logged over his final 25 games of the regular season.
Alternative X-factor: Maxi Kleber
Denver Nuggets: Aaron Gordon
Close your eyes, point at a name on the Denver Nuggets roster, and you'll probably land on a major X-factor. Will Barton, Bones Hyland, Monte Morris, Jeff Green, Austin Rivers and maybe even DeMarcus Cousins all have strong cases of their own.
Such is life without Jamal Murray (left knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), two of Denver's three most important players.
Given the top-end talent the Nuggets are missing after Nikola Jokic, the X-factor discussion boils down to a question no team wants to ask so late into the season: Who needs to be their second-best player on a regular basis?
Aaron Gordon is the answer.
He is their best option at the point of attack defensively, and they haven't pretended otherwise. Among 270 players to clear 1,000 minutes this season, only eight posted a higher matchup difficulty score, per BBall Index.
This says nothing of how integral he is to the offense. He has developed nice two-man chemistry with Jokic (who hasn't?), but the Nuggets need him to consistently cut off the ball, drain standstill threes, weed out junky step-backs and put pressure on the rim to have a shot in hell of advancing past the Golden State Warriors and beyond.
Alternative X-factor: Will Barton
Golden State Warriors: Kevon Looney
Secondary shot creation continues to be at a deficit for the Warriors. They have Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole and, then, yeah. Andrew Wiggins or Klay Thompson is next up. That's not ideal.
It also isn't their biggest concern so much as an ingrained reality. Poole's emergence is almost a bonus, even if he's still at his best when paired with Curry rather than staggered against him. But the Dubs offense has sniffed league average when Poole and Thompson, who ended the regular season on fire, play sans Curry. Mostly, I just can't bring myself to laser in too much on Golden State's performance without Steph when it sounds like plenty of Steph will be on the menu sooner rather than later.
Kevon Looney stands out when looking at the Warriors' prospective path through the Western Conference, even after logging just 13 minutes in Game 1 against Denver. If they beat Nikola Jokic, they'll move on to face either Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams or Karl-Anthony Towns in Round 2. From there, they could see Deandre Ayton or Rudy Gobert in the conference finals.
Put another way: Effectively handling large humans will be atop the to-do list—particularly in the earlier rounds. The Warriors can't do that without Kevon "Played in All 82 Games" Looney. Draymond Green-at-the-5 has never truly been their default, and having him commit to singular assignments does a (slight) disservice to his capacity for doing literally everything.
Maximizing how much time the Green-Looney frontcourt logs will absolutely matter. Looney has more switch to him than gets discussed, and he was Golden State's primary option against Jokic through four regular-season meetings (none of which featured Green). And relative to how many of the Warriors' bigger wings not named Otto Porter Jr. dependably crash the boards (looking at you, Mr. Wiggins), Looney will be instrumental in keeping enemy giants away from the offensive glass.
Alternative X-factor: Jordan Poole
Memphis Grizzlies: Desmond Bane
Questioning the merit of the Memphis Grizzlies' ascent and regular-season dominance is no longer the teensiest bit fair. They have done enough, for long enough, to earn the benefit of the doubt.
That does not preclude us from harping on pitfalls and quirks. And it is absolutely reasonable to wonder how well their fourth-ranked offense will hold up in the postseason.
The Grizzlies butter their bread in transition and on the offensive glass. It's a mode of operation that invites skepticism. How will they respond when things bog down? They have Ja Morant, sure, but were 22nd in half-court efficiency during the regular season. He alone won't cut it.
Memphis will need Desmond Bane's meteoric rise through the individual player ranks to continue if it wants to survive deep into the spring. They have other options to lean on if the ball is forced out of Morant's hands, but Bane's three-point volume is indispensable to a team that doesn't jack enough treys, and he ran enough pick-and-rolls this year to curry favor over Dillon Brooks in certain, perhaps most, situations.
Choosing Tyus Jones is not egregious. Depth still matters in the playoffs, and he has an enviable command of the game in the half court. But he's not a frequent enough outside shooter, and unlike Bane, he won't be on the floor during the highest-leverage moments.
Alternative X-factor: Dillon Brooks
Miami Heat: Tyler Herro
Concerns over the Miami Heat's half-court offense seem hyperbolic at first glance. They finished 11th in efficiency without subsisting on second-chance buckets, and their rotation includes a cornucopia of on-ball options, including the recently returned Victor Oladipo.
Dig deeper, and you'll find genuine cause for some angst.
Miami's half-court offense has been propped up by killer bench-heavy units and actually operates with less space when its best players are all on the court. Two of their three stars, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, barely dabble in outside jumpers, and they own a half-court rating that places them inside the 41st percentile when both play with Kyle Lowry.
Tyler Herro's shot diet may be a source of consternation and pessimism for some, but his reliance on tough looks is so often the result of his playing the hand he's dealt. Nobody on the team made more off-the-dribble triples this year, and his 39.2 percent clip from mid-range, while not great, still outpaced the efficiency of Butler (37.8 percent) and Bam Adebayo (35.3 percent) in the same area.
To what end Herro must buoy the half-court offense is debatable. The Heat have the look and feel of a postseason terror on defense, and he may not close tight games against teams built to hunt him. Then again, as of now, Miami's offense borderline can't afford to navigate high-stakes moments without him.
Alternative X-factor: Victor Oladipo
Milwaukee Bucks: Wesley Matthews
Brook Lopez is a close runner-up here. He's looked pretty comfortable since his return from a back injury, and if he's capable of creeping back above 25 minutes per game and hitting his threes at or around his regular-season clip (35.8 percent), it limits how much they need to play Giannis Antetokounmpo as the primary-big role and caps their dependence on Bobby Portis.
Still, Wesley Matthews seems destined to address the "So, uh, who will be Milwaukee's fifth starter?" dilemma. He is also their best hope at offering Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton any sort of reprieve whatsoever.
The Bucks have used Matthews on everyone from point guards to bigger wings, with an emphasis on the latter. He is someone who will take on either DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine in Round 1, and you better believe they'll use him against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving or Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum should they make it to the semifinals.
Some situations will call for Grayson Allen's lightning-rod offense. Others will beg for the two-way accessory play of Pat Connaughton. But if Matthews can connect on enough of his looks from downtown, where he shot 33.8 percent for the regular season (35.2 percent since March 1), he more than anyone else is suited to emerge as Milwaukee's fifth-most important player.
Alternative X-factor: Brook Lopez
Minnesota Timberwolves: Patrick Beverley
Jarred Vanderbilt, potentially. His boundless motor is paramount to the Minnesota Timberwolves' most aggressive coverages, and he is, theoretically, one of their solutions to shoddy defensive rebounding. But Minnesota doesn't improve much on the glass when he plays next to Karl-Anthony Towns—Vanderbilt isn't always guarding near the basket, to his credit—and he will be tabled in select matchups for Jaden McDaniels' more conventional wing defense.
Not that Vanderbilt is a bad choice. This is more about Patrick Beverley.
The truth lies somewhere in between. And the truth is, Beverley remains both volatile and important. His threes won't always fall (especially this season), and he's not Kryptonite for superstar guards. He does, however, ferry a gargantuan workload.
Nobody on the Timberwolves spent more time guarding No. 1 options during the regular season, according to BBall-Index. That won't change now. If anything, it'll amplify.
Beverley logged more possessions in the regular season defending Ja Morant than anyone else in the league. That's the same Ja Morant who Minnesota is currently going up against in the first round. And beyond the reps he'll monopolize guarding rival stars, the Timberwolves need everything from Beverley's rebounding and pursuit of loose balls to his attempts at coaxing opponents into technical fouls.
Alternative X-factor: Jarred Vanderbilt
New Orleans Pelicans: Jose Alvarado
Full disclosure: I don't want to pick any one player for the New Orleans Pelicans.
It could be Larry Nance Jr., who showed out in the play-in victory over the L.A. Clippers and is more equipped to salvage defensive possessions than Jonas Valanciunas or Jaxson Hayes when someone blows by CJ McCollum.
It could be Trey Murphy III, who gave the Pelicans outside shooting when they needed it most against the Clippers, and who buried 43.8 percent of his threebies upon becoming a permanent fixture in New Orleans' rotation. His shot-making will be needed when defenses blitz McCollum and/or Brandon Ingram in the half court.
It could be Herb Jones, except it can't be Herb Jones because Herb Jones needs to be a household name now since the ubiquity of Herb Jones is already worthy of All-Defense consideration. (It can still be Herb Jones if you really want it to be.)
It could be Devonte' Graham, who could maybe start making shots, but who also might not get the continued opportunity to make shots if Friday night is any indication.
It could be Jose Alvarado, and so it will be Jose Alvarado, because his defensive energy is, somehow, unhinged and poised and ubiquitous, all at once. Head coach Willie Green already prefers him to Graham, but if Alvarado can keep defending his ass off against the Phoenix Suns backcourt, continue making the right passes and semi-consistently hit his threes, the Pelicans become much more dynamic at both ends—and, by extension, much more than a first-round steppingstone.
Alternative X-factor: Trey Murphy III
Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey
James Harden's arrival has not diluted Tyrese Maxey's value to the Philadelphia 76ers. And, like, how could it? Not only has Harden's shot-making and on-ball burst been a roller coaster of variability, but the Sixers were shorthanded in the first place. Maxey would have remained necessary even if Harden didn't cost Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, in addition to the absentee Ben Simmons.
The second-year blur is something more than essential now. Philly remains a billboard for instability, and he looks comfy in his new, streamlined gig as the No. 3 option.
Through 559 minutes beside Harden during the regular season, Maxey torched defenses from the inside and out, drilling 64 percent of his twos and 48.8 percent of his threes. That degree of efficiency is both unsustainable and an asset the Sixers cannot afford to surrender, not with Harden's own shot-making on the fritz.
Hairier situations exist. A tamped-down version of Harden remains a playmaking sorcerer who incites defensive overreaction. Maxey will continue to have pockets of space in which to attack and let jumpers rip. The Sixers also need more than that.
Staggering Harden and Joel Embiid hasn't quite worked out to date. Philly is getting hammered when Maxey and Embiid play without Harden and when Harden goes at it alone. Will the tide turn in the playoffs? Does head coach Doc Rivers ditch the staggering pretense and instead give his sophomore guard more solo responsibility? Whatever the Sixers do, Maxey will be vital to making it work.
Alternative X-factor: Tobias Harris
Phoenix Suns: JaVale McGee
Settling on an X-factor for the Phoenix Suns is surprisingly difficult. Everyone who makes up the meat and potatoes of their roster feels like they exist in concert. The Suns are as close to infallible basketball as it gets right now.
JaVale McGee it is, then.
Perhaps this ascribes too much value to how they lost in the 2021 NBA Finals. Counterpoint: Is there such a thing?
The Bucks grabbed 31.6 percent of their own misses during last year's Finals while outscoring the Suns by 16.5 points per 100 possessions in the minutes Deandre Ayton didn't play. Milwaukee also combined to average over 30 second-chance and fast-break points per game for the series.
Just so we're clear: McGee alone doesn't alter the course of the 2021 Finals. I think. The Suns were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, and Chris Paul was dealing with, approximately, 87 different injuries while coming off pre-Finals COVID-19.
But unless Phoenix plans to downsize or play Ayton every minute of every game, having McGee to sponge up second-string center reps goes a long way—infinitely so versus frontcourts populated with athleticism and explosion or, in Milwaukee's case, The Human Thingamabob.
Alternative X-factor: Torrey Craig
Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes
Scottie Barnes became more of an X-factor for the Toronto Raptors in their Game 1 loss to the Sixers. After piecing together a stellar performance at both ends, he suffered what the team called a sprained left ankle. X-rays came back negative, but his status moving forward is mission critical.
For starters, Barnes is a rookie playing a monumental role on a postseason squad. That doesn't happen; not to this extent. Just four other players over the last 30 years have averaged 35-plus minutes across more than 70 appearances in their first year for a postseason-bound unit: Penny Hardaway (1993-94), Tim Duncan (1997-98), Carmelo Anthony (2003-04) and Derrick Rose (2008-09).
More than anything, though, Barnes is legitimately essential to what the Raptors do. His roving defense creates transition opportunities at the other end, and it also means he will tally possessions guarding everyone. Bake in the situational expansion of his offensive responsibility, and you've got a rookie who can have nearly unprecedented influence over his team's postseason ceiling.
Alternate choices abound if you're so inclined. OG Anunoby has X-factor written all over him given how the Toronto Raptors' offensive hierarchy has shape-shifted, and relative to how choppy his availability was for much of the year. Fred VanVleet is too high-profile for this exercise in a vacuum, but his post-All-Star-break shooting slump amid right knee problems allows for potential exception status.
What about Precious Achiuwa simultaneously becoming a lockdown switch defender and all-time-great shooter? Or Thaddeus Young's steadying, high-IQ presence for a bench rotation that is still kind of, sort of just begging for bodies? How about Gary Trent Jr., and the chaos he inflicts in passing lanes, and the more-than-occasional on-ball electricity he shows at the offensive end?
You can't go wrong here. Scottie Barnes just feels most right.
Alternative X-factor: Precious Achiuwa
Utah Jazz: Danuel House
Public Service Announcement: This is not "Rudy Gobert is a defensive liability, actually!" content. Nor is it packaged as a "Danuel House-at-the-5 LFG" rallying cry.
It is a nod to the Jazz's lack of defensive versatility beyond Gobert and nothing more.
Royce O'Neale is Utah's only reliable, in-their-prime defender aside from The Stifle Tower. Mike Conley deserves more credit for the point-of-attack workload he carries, but he's 34. That's not ideal. And O'Neale is flat-out overtaxed regardless. He finished eighth in BBall Index's defensive matchup difficulty this season among every player who totaled at least 1,000 minutes.
Arm-twisting the Jazz into awkward situations gets too easy when they're so bare on the perimeter. It's comically alarming if you're a team that can capably run. Gobert can hang when yanked outside the paint but doesn't have quick or adequate help behind him. Letting him patrol the interior no matter what is fine, but only if there's a non-shooter to leave unattended.
House isn't a panacea for what ails Utah. But he can help in thorny matchups more than Rudy Gay or Bojan Bogdanovic. And though the sample size for such lineups isn't too extensive, don't be surprised if House ends up closing some tight games alongside Gobert and O'Neale—a tough decision that inches toward tantalizing should House keep shooting north of 30 percent from deep.
Alternative X-factor: Mike Conley