As the playoffs are fast approaching, the LG Hoops team has gotten together to make a collaborative article about the X-Factors on each playoff team.
Check out each breakdown below and follow each writer for more great hoops content!
X-Factor: Khris Middleton
The NBA is as competitive and wide-open as it’s ever been. Multiple teams in both conferences have a real chance at hoisting the Larry O’Brien in June, but the Milwaukee Bucks have emerged from the pack as the expert’s favorite. They’re as good as they’ve ever been with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the charge. Jrue Holiday made his first All-Star game in a decade. Brook Lopez is playing career basketball and is firmly in the Defensive Player of the Year race. The bench unit is bolstered with postseason-caliber contributors. All of that said, however, the best team (record-wise) in the league’s championship chances are riding on the shoulders of one man: Khris Middleton.
Middleton went down with an injury at a crucial time in the 2022 playoffs and was sorely missed in Milwaukee’s second-round duel against the Celtics that resulted in their elimination. Said injury lingered into this season and has prevented him from finding his usual rhythm. Milwaukee’s offense, especially when Giannis takes a breather, heavily relies on Middleton’s ability to create for himself and others. He’s also crucial to their crunch-time attack and hit countless huge shots during their 2021 championship run. If Giannis and company are going to win their second ring in three years, they need Middleton to find his stride and deliver All-Star performances like we’re used to seeing from him.
Middleton picks it up and Milwaukee wins it all with him as their second-best player
Middleton’s inconsistency continues, causing Milwaukee’s offense to struggle, and they fall short in the Conference Semi-Finals
X-Factor: Robert Williams III
Jaylen Brown said just a few days ago, “Rob is fantastic. Rob is the key. We gotta keep Rob healthy, keep his mindset strong, keep finding him when he gets to the basket. He’s such an impactful player on both ends of the floor. Anytime he’s out there, he makes our team a lot better.”
A lot of what spurred Boston’s late season surge to the NBA Finals last season was thanks in large part to none other than the Time Lord. The Texas A&M product was an All-Defense player last year and has shown the same this year. Despite missing time to injury he remains an elite versatile big. He’s one of the best rebounders, especially on offense. Opponents shoot 8.6% worse at the rim when he contests a shot compared to a normal defender and his BLK% is elite as well (see image below from CraftedNBA). Another interesting thing is he’s also an impactful and positive offensive force as a roll/cut big man. The issue is and will always be availability. Boston is 21-10 when he plays this year and has even seen some success coming off the bench when Boston goes small by starting Horford at the 5 and Tatum at the 4. Can Boston count on his talents in the playoffs?
NBA Championship – The Time Lord is able to replicate a masterful postseason like he had last year when he played in 17 games and helped Boston’s defense to be 6.4 points per 100 better compared to when he sat. His presence gives Boston much needed security on defense and opens up the guards to play more aggressively. The Men in Green ride the intensity to an NBA title.
2nd Round/Conference Finals Exit – A lot of this will depend on playoff positioning but the inability of RW3 to stay on the floor greatly hampers Boston’s ability to handle Giannis and the Bucks, a player they were able to at least make work extremely hard for his numbers without Middleton. This causes Boston to fall early in the playoffs.
X-Factor: The Bench
Philadelphia has quietly solidified themselves as a serious championship contender this season, ranking 4th in offensive rating and 7th in defensive rating. Having stars like MVP candidate Joel Embiid and former MVP winner James Harden can make running the offense look pretty easy. An astounding 47% of the 76ers total points are accounted for by their dynamic duo. There is no doubt that Embiid and Harden can score with the best of them, there is doubt if they can continue such a high load throughout the entirety of a deep playoff run. Both Joel and James have suffered with injuries in playoff runs multiple times before. Since they are almost half of Philly’s offense, it forces them to stay on the court for long periods of time, which can lead to not just injuries, but tired legs in the 4th quarter.
The 76ers tried to give their bench unit more of an offensive punch by having Tyrese Maxey come off the bench, but Doc Rivers inserted him back into the starting lineup. In my opinion, Maxey should be coming off the bench and De’Anthony Melton should be starting next to Harden, but that is neither here nor there. When you look at Philly’s main bench unit (D.Melton, S.Milton, G.Niang, J.McDaniels, P.Reed) they combined average 36.4 points, just 32% of the total points scored. If Philadelphia wants to preserve their top of the league scorers for when it matters most, the bench needs to step up.
The good thing about Philly’s bench is they have a good balance of shooting, and defense. Melton (40%), Milton (39%), and Niang (40%) all are amazing three-point shooters. They provide a lot of spacing to allow Embiid, Harden, and Maxey to run the offense.
McDaniels and Reed aren’t looked at for three-point shooting, or any offense frankly, but they are both above average defenders. Both are rangy, diverse defenders with long and active hands, as well as feet that are quick for their size. Melton is also a great defender, arguably the 76ers best perimeter defender. The one downfall of their bench is there is not much shot creation. Shake Milton is the exception, being able to get to the rim at will and finish through defenders.
If Philly can win the minutes that their stars are on the bench, they will be incredibly hard to stop in the playoffs. They will breeze by their first round matchup and have a tough fought battle versus the Boston Celtics in the second round. They will beat them and then go on to the Eastern Conference Finals where, for the first time, Joel Embiid will make the NBA Finals. The Philadelphia 76ers will then be crowned NBA Champions in a year where the NBA had some of the most parody it’s ever seen.
As mentioned before, Philly’s bench has very little shot creation. Their main strengths are catch and shoot threes or dump down passes for easy finishes at the rim. The 76ers try to stagger Harden and Maxey’s minutes so their bench is never out there without a primary ball handler. That still leaves a lot of responsibility for Shake Milton to be the secondary ball handler against a playoff defense. On top of that, Jaden McDaniels and Paul Reed are great defenders, but struggle heavily on the offensive side of the ball. They could clog up areas of the court in a lineup that is already struggling to create offense.
If Philadelphia has to play Joel Embiid and James Harden 40 minutes a game every playoff game because they can’t get any bench production, they run a heavy risk of injuring one of them. With their history you can never be too safe with either of them. Overall that is a lot of minutes, and could lead to fatigue and cause them to struggle down the stretch. Without adequate bench production, the 76ers won’t make it past the second round. They will more than likely have to face the Boston Celtics who have been amazing all season. They will need the help of the bench to succeed.
X-Factor: Caris LeVert/Isaac Okoro/Cedi Osman
The Cavs future looks bright whether you’re looking at the dynamic backcourt of Mitchell and Garland or the imposing front line of Mobley and Allen. The biggest question mark is what to do with that 5th spot. The logjam consists of LeVert, Okoro and Osman, all of whom have played significant minutes for Cleveland yet play distinct roles.
LeVert is the most dynamic of the 3 offensively in terms of playmaking, shot creation and ability to isolate. On the season, he is shooting 36% from three, but he has shot only 22% since February and is plagued by inconsistency.
Osman doesn’t give you much defensively but he’s an awesome spot up player on offense. He’s plagued by inconsistent individual play as well yet he’s a part of some of Cleveland’s most lethal lineups. The Cavs have a 28-13 record when Osman plays 20 minutes or more, compared to 20-15 when he doesn’t (or doesn’t play entirely).
Okoro is mostly just an athletic finisher on offense but he’s a legitimately elite defensive wing.
He navigates ball screens well, he’s versatile and so on. He’s also made massive strides with his shot. After starting the season shooting horrendously from 3, he’s now 45% on catch and shoot 3s since Jan 1.
This could very well end up being a matchup dependent solution and could sink or save a series.
Eastern Conference Finals appearance – Okoro’s offense keeps pace as it has the last few months which allows him to stay on the floor in tight playoff games and contribute with his valuable defense. The rest of the rotations fall into place and the Cavs make a surprise run to the Conference Finals.
First round exit – The Cavs draw an unfavorable matchup in round 1. Rotations get sticky. LeVert can’t find consistency. Okoro’s shot doesn’t drop and the Cavs go home earlier than they expected.
New York Knicks
X-Factor: RJ Barrett
With the Knicks having their best regular season since the Carmelo Anthony era, they end the regular season with hopes of elevating their play to propel a deep playoff push. With new free agent signee Jalen Brunson consistently controlling the pace of the offense, and Julius Randle giving a strong presence from beyond the arc and on the glass, the Knicks look to their fourth year lottery pick RJ Barrett to step up.
One of the areas where Barrett is especially struggling is from beyond the arc. Shooting a career low 31.8% from 3, his lack of ability to stretch the floor not only hurts himself, but the teammates he shares the floor with. This can lead to teams helping off of RJ, leading to a clogged paint, the area where Jalen Brunson likes to do a majority of his scoring, or to a double team, something that has proven to bother Julius Randle. Barrett’s three-point shooting is a vital piece to his X-Factor puzzle.
The other piece comes on the opposite side of the ball, his defensive engagement. At 6’6, RJ is the Knicks biggest wing and will be counted on to defend the many other big wings that are sprinkled throughout the Eastern Conference. Early in his career, Barrett was a positive defender, with the tools to become a versatile lockdown defender able to guard one through three and possibly some fours. This season however, his defensive impact has taken a step back. His feet shift slower, he gets caught on backdoor cuts, and is overall a negative defender. The Knicks will need RJ to turn back the clock and resort back to his previous ways of showing effort and hustle on the defensive side of the ball if they want a chance in the playoffs.
With offenses slowing down in the playoffs and teams forced to play more in the half court, New York will look for Barrett to be able to make them pay for helping off of him and shoot the ball effectively. RJ has shown promise that his shooting can improve, shooting 40.1% his sophomore season in the NBA, as well as some terrific shooting games this season, including a 6/6 three-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. While Barrett’s strong suit is attacking the basket, shooting a career high 49.4% on twos this season, his three-point shot is key for New York to have any playoff success. It will also be important that Barrett can help slow down the opposing team’s wings. Guys like Cleveland’s Caris LeVert, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, and Boston’s Jayson Tatum, are all vital to their team’s offense (some more than others) and if RJ can disrupt their flow, it would make things a lot easier for the Knicks defense. If Barrett can check all these boxes, the Knicks can push past the first round, and see themselves in a competitive series in the second round against one of the juggernauts of the east, but losing in 6 or 7.
If Barrett continues to shoot poorly from three, teams will have no problem leaving him open in exchange for troubling Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. This was a large part of New York’s collapse against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, getting beaten 4-1. As mentioned before, Jalen Brunson’s favorite spot on the court is in the paint, and floor spacing would be vital going up against Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, or Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. Add in the Knicks’ already poor 34.9% (23rd ranked) three-point shooting, and half court offense will only get tougher in the playoffs. New York will already have their hands full trying to guard Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, so letting guys like Caris LeVert and Cedi Osman get hot would be a backbreaker for the Knicks.
If Barrett continues to struggle in these areas, they will get smothered by the Cavs defense and will not be able to stop their offense, leading them to a first round exit, losing in 4 or 5.
X-Factor: Spencer Dinwiddie
After the midseason trades of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Nets were put in an unusual position. With aspirations of a championship before the trades, the Nets sat at the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Since then, they obviously have fallen in the standings, but because they don’t have their own 1st round picks (Houston; James Harden Trade) they are still looking to compete. The only thing is, the blockbuster trades left them with a surplus of wings, like Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith, and a lack of facilitators, only having Spencer Dinwiddie, and Patty Mills. With Mills getting up there in age, a large majority of the offensive responsibilities fall onto Spencer Dinwiddie.
Although Dinwiddie is a point guard, throughout his career he has always had a “score first” mentality. Ever since coming back to Brooklyn though, he has felt the need for his playmaking talent and has put his focus to that. He is averaging 8.3 assists in 20 games for the Nets so far this season. That would be a career high. Since he has to focus on finding shots for his teammates, his scoring efficiency has taken a hit. Spencer is only shooting 40% from the field, and an abysmal 29% from three-point range. If the Nets want to secure a playoff spot, and be competitive if they make it, Dinwiddie must find a way to balance the two, continuing to set up the offense for his team, while staying efficient when it’s his time to score.
With the Nets in a tight battle with the Heat for the 6th seed, and the right to skip the play-in tournament, every game is more important than the last. If Spencer Dinwiddie can bring his efficiency back up to normal, the Nets’ offense would go to another level. Having a guy that can read the defense and make the right pass, while also being able to pick his spot and score on his own makes things way harder on opposing defenses. This is where having a surplus of wings comes in handy. At all times Dinwiddie is surrounded with great catch and shoot targets to spread the floor. He has been fantastic with finding the open man and making the right pass. He needs to take advantage of the great spacing and start attacking the rim more with his lengthy 6’5 frame. Spencer is also an above average midrange shooter and has been able to knock down the three as well throughout his career.
If Spencer can handle the workload, Brooklyn will see themselves locking up the 6th seed and escaping the play-in. This would lead them to most likely face the 76ers in the first round. The Nets would fight hard and steal a game or two, losing in 5 or 6.
When it comes to the playoffs, the intensity and importance increases on every possession. This uptick of defensive intensity could hurt Brooklyn immensely if they do not have a dynamic ball handler. As mentioned before, the Nets have a surplus of shooters, but not many people who can create efficient offense for themselves. Mikal Bridges has opened up his game a lot since coming over to Brooklyn, attacking off the dribble and taking more pull up jumpshots.
Cam Thomas has also had some great scoring games this season, but he is very up and down with his efficiency and when his shot is not falling, he hurts the Nets more than he helps. Without the scoring threat of Dinwiddie, half court offense could halt to a standstill.
With the playoff race so tight, that intensity may overlap the end of the regular season. This could lead to the Nets falling to the 7th seed and into the play-in tournament.
X-Factor: Scoring outside of Big 3 (Butler, Adebayo, Herro)
Ever since the Bubble Finals in 2020 it has felt as though the Heat have been searching for some sort of additional talent outside of Jimmy, Bam, and Herro that could get them over that Eastern Conference Finals hump that is seemingly in their way. Miami thought the addition of Kyle Lowry would do it for them, but that has been an inconsistent marriage. Victor Oladipo? Sometimes he plays like prime Oladipo, but other times it feels like the injuries have done too much damage. The other secondary players like Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Kevin Love, and Duncan Robinson are all hit or miss with making game-changing impacts.
So how will the Heat make a run in the postseason? Well, it all really depends on getting a consistent scoring output from, in my opinion, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Kevin Love. If each of these guys can knock down 3’s and provide 10-20 points every game, then I would expect the Heat to win playoff series and even make a competitive series with the Celtics, Bucks, or 76ers. But if the previously mentioned guys struggle… it’s Cancun time for the Heat.
Making it to the Second Round/Upsetting one of the top 3 seeds (Celtics, Bucks, 76ers) with secondary players scoring consistently
Play-In Game Loss and Exit with low efficiency from secondary players
X-Factor: Fred VanVleet
The experiment of all wing players and Fred VanVleet running the show was definitely a failure by the trade deadline as the Raptors were outside of the playoff picture and in talks of being sellers. But then they made the move of bringing back Jakob Poeltl which brought rim protection and rebounding and a stability to the Raptors lineups and rotations. Since that trade, Toronto has been one of, if not THE, best teams in the league according to Net Rating – with the VanVleet/Anunoby/Barnes/Siakam/Poeltl lineup leading the charge.
With this Raptors team you generally know what you are gonna get from the extremely talented wing trio, but the real game-changer for Toronto is which Fred VanVleet will you be getting? The offensive initiator that takes what the defense gives him and knocks down tough shots? Or the inefficient shot “taker” who is taking attempts away from the more talented wing players? That is the biggest question mark for Toronto, but if VanVleet can turn back the clock to just a couple of years ago, then these Raptors could give some contenders a real scare.
Second Round Exit after a surprise upset in the First Round
Quick First Round Exit with VanVleet shooting inefficiently and trying to do too much
X-Factor: John Collins
The most .500 team of all time, the Atlanta Hawks are supremely talented but just haven’t been able to put it all together this year. The Trae Young and Dejounte Murray experiment hasn’t been the best in their first season together, but that is far from biggest issue for Atlanta. Coaching issues (McMillan before his exit), consistency issues (we’ll get to that in a minute), and injuries from key players have held this Hawks team in NBA purgatory this year.
Whatever it may be, at this point in the season the Hawks are what they are but if they want to make any noise in the playoffs then John Collins HAS TO provide consistent scoring and overall positive production. At the beginning of the year John Collins couldn’t buy a bucket and was incredibly inefficient but as of late he has performed at the JC level we all saw on that Eastern Conference run that Hawks made just a few years ago. If, and it’s a big if, Atlanta continues to get this play from John Collins as the 3rd option and even sometimes 2nd option, then we could see the Hawks put up a decent fight against the Celtics or Bucks in the first round.
Win Play-In and have competitive First Round Series with John Collins as a solid 3rd option
Collins reverts to early season woes and the Hawks are bounced in the Play-Ins
X-Factor: Patrick Beverley
There is a long list of words that could be used to describe Patrick Beverley. Problematic. Dramatic. Nuisance. There’s one word, however, that should always be included in discussions around him, however, and that’s winner. Only one team employing Beverley has missed the postseason in his ten-year career: the Clippers in 2018 when he was sidelined most of the year with an injury. Now a member of the Chicago Bulls, he’s the key to keeping that streak alive.
In tangible and intangible ways, Beverley is a floor raiser. Wherever he goes, wins follow because he brings contagious energy and grit. Just last season he was instrumental in Minnesota’s play-in victory and consequent six-game push against Memphis. Since the All-Star break, when Beverley joined them, Chicago has the best defensive rating in the association. He’s a ceaseless hound on defense and can make it nearly impossible for his matchup to get in the zone. In a win-or-go-home setting, he could significantly affect an opposing team’s offense by taking a star out of their groove which is what makes him the x-factor for an upward-trending Bulls squad.
Beverley and the rest of the Bulls lock up and make it out of the play-in
Chicago’s defense doesn’t come to play and they end up in the lottery
X-Factor: Corey Kispert
Even though it seems Washington has had a very quiet season, they are only two games out of 10th and right in it for the Play-In. For the fourth year in a row, Bradley Beal is set to miss 20+ games, but Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma have held the fort down as long as they could.
But don’t look past sophomore guard Corey Kispert. He has increased his offensive efficiency from his first to second year, shooting nearly 50-42-85. Perhaps his Achilles heel has been his defense, which he still has time to improve on, but he has been a stellar, quick-release shooter from long range this season.
Although the team has suffered as a whole in March, Kispert has been a bright spot this month — he has scored under 10 points only three times, and if he can keep this up, the Wizards may be able to reach that first round of the Play-In. Perhaps one of the league’s streakiest teams can ride their latest win over Boston into that 10 spot.
First Round Play-In Victory
X-Factor: Denver’s “others” being able to mask Jokic’s defensive weaknesses
Assessing what the Denver Nuggets are capable of as they gear up for the playoffs is a daunting task, much like trying to predict the weather in the unpredictable Rocky Mountains in the month of March. Will they live up to their potential and make a deep postseason run? Or will they falter under the weight of their inconsistencies?
Recent results have done little to provide clarity. Despite an impressive 45-19 start to the season and a likely 1-seed in the West, the Nuggets have stumbled as of late, dropping five of their last six games and boasting the worst defensive rating in the league during that stretch. The team’s fortunes seem to fluctuate at the drop of a hat, leaving analysts scratching their heads and fans on the edge of their seats.
At the heart of this unpredictability is the team’s star player, Nikola Jokic. The two-time MVP is undoubtedly the x-factor for the team’s playoff success, but his defensive performance has been uneven at times this season. In a recent ESPN article from Kirk Goldsberry, his weaknesses were poignantly highlighted:
- Jokic is last amongst all qualified players in field goal percentage allowed at the rim (69.0%)
- Jokic ranks 222nd in efficiency out of 226 qualified players in defending ball handlers, allowing 1.16 points per chance.
But all is not lost for the Nuggets. Teams have won before with weak defenders, and as with any team, much of Jokic’s individual success will depend heavily on the play of his teammates. They will need to be proactive and one step ahead of their opponents in order to execute defensive schemes that remove Jokic from getting caught defending in 1:1 in space, or challenging a guard coming downhill to the rim.
We have seen the Golden State Warriors perfect this type of defensive scheme to prevent big guys like Kevin Looney from getting switched onto a quicker guard, or a big wing being switched onto Steph Curry.
When Denver’s locked in, they have a surprisingly high defensive ceiling. From December 14th- March 1st, Denver had the 7th best defense in the NBA. They showed the ability at times to anticipate when teams brought Jokic in the pick-and-roll action, and allow Jokic to hedge, and recover back to the paint during this stretch against high level opponents.
When the perimeter defenders communicate and switch ball screens successfully, Jokic is able to be a disruptor, getting his hands into passing lanes, rebounding, and igniting the break. This is where Denver is at their best. They have some weapons on defense they didn’t have last year in KCP, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun as well as some surprisingly switchable defenders in Aaron Gordon, and Zeke Nnaji. If (and it might be a big if) the Nuggets can take what they have done in small samples, and extrapolate it to the playoffs, the Nuggets ceiling is as high as anyone.
Finals Appearance – Denver plays proactive vs reactive defense and succeeds in preventing mismatches, and Jokic is able to focus on being the disruptor / rebounder.
1st or 2nd round exit – Denver is simply unable to execute dynamic defensive coverages, forcing him to play up in the pick and roll and he tires from overexertion.
X-Factor: Dillon Brooks
Like him or hate him, enjoyable or insufferable, there’s undeniably been no shortage of Dillon Brooks in the news cycle this year. The Grizzlies wing is without a doubt one of the most controversial figures in the league this year for his numerous run-ins and scuffles with opponents this year. Talking about all the on-court shenanigans themselves isn’t the goal of this piece, but rather how much do the Grizzlies championship hopes hinge on Brooks and his ability to not get in the way of things?
Brooks is Memphis’ glue guy, enforcer and tough guy. Every team needs an “irrational confidence” sort of player but whether or not that deters the Grizzlies from their quest to a title is the question. Per BBall Index he ranks in the bottom 4-13% in terms of overall shot quality, shot making and off-ball shot making. While his inefficiency shooting the ball is well documented (-9.1 rTS% this season is not great…), where he does bring volume is as a capable secondary ball handler and even grades decently at creating shots at the rim and playing through contact.
That being said Brooks isn’t providing nearly as much value offensively as he does defensively where he ranks as one of the best on ball stoppers in the entire league. Of all players in his defensive archetype, he ranks amongst the best of the best in these categories:
That sort of defensive skillset is insanely vital in a playoff setting.
NBA Finals appearance – Brooks remains an irritant for opposing teams without being too much of a distraction while providing elite perimeter defense and timely shooting. His play enables Ja, JJJ and Bane to scratch their ceiling and the Grizz make their first Finals in franchise history.
2nd round exit – Dillon never finds his shot but early losses cause frustrations on the team despite his defensive contributions. The Grizz stall out and bow out in the 2nd round entering the offseason with more questions than answers.
X-Factor: Malik Monk
The Sacramento Kings will be making their first playoff appearance in sixteen years. Not only are they ending the NBA’s longest-ever playoff drought, but they’re doing so in convincing fashion, boasting the best offensive rating in the league (119.6) and currently on track to finish as one of the top three teams in the West. While De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are leading the offensive charge, Malik Monk has emerged as a vital part of Sacramento’s success with the minutes he’s providing off the bench.
Despite playing in limited time, Monk has delivered in major ways for the Kings. He serves as a lethal scoring spark for the second unit and has added to his game by becoming one of Sacramento’s most reliable playmakers. At present, Monk sits third on the team in assists per game (3.8) and has increased his assist rate from 15.2% last season to 24.8% this year. Mix this development with his improved ability to draw contact (he’s shooting 89% from the line on a career-high 2.8 attempts), and it’s clear the 25-year-old has developed into an important, multi-faceted offensive contributor for this competitive Kings squad.
For Sacramento to make a deep playoff run, Monk’s ability to provide shooting consistency will be key. While he shoots a league-average rate from three on high-volume (35.2% on 5.1 attempts), he can be very streaky, which causes his game-to-game production to significantly waver. Since Monk is fourth on the team in field goal attempts per game (10.3), his ability to string together multiple strong shooting performances will prove critical in giving the Kings a legit opportunity at success.
Western Conference Finals – If Monk continues to provide playmaking, rim pressure and can be consistent beyond the arc, he’ll only add to Sacramento’s high-powered offense – which is truly the Kings’ best shot considering the club boasts a bottom-ten defense.
First Round Exit – However, if Monk struggles on high-volume three-point attempts, that will significantly hurt Sacramento’s offensive output; in turn, this can easily play a role in a disappointing playoff appearance.
X-Factor: Deandre Ayton
Unsurprisingly, Phoenix leapt into title talks when they acquired one of the fifteen best players to ever lace ‘em up in Kevin Durant. In the small sample size we’ve seen of KD in a Suns uniform, his offensive chemistry with Devin Booker proved to be just as formidable as imagined. The Slim Reaper’s ability to casually drop 30+ nightly without dominating the ball means his necessary adjustment period is short and it took him no time to get acclimated in his new city. The Booker-KD pairing, along with all-time floor general Chris Paul, is a virtually unstoppable perimeter attack that will give opponents nightmares in the big dance.
That said, there is a fourth player who, if used properly, could turn Phoenix’s offense into something we’ve never seen before. That guy is former top pick Deandre Ayton. An absolute mammoth of a man, Ayton has the ability to dominate a game from inside fifteen feet using a combination of power and finesse. If Monty Williams makes a point to involve him often, it would create deadly pick-your-poison situations for defenses. Do you run drop coverage to prevent a lob to Ayton, risking giving up a pull-up middie to Booker, KD, or CP3? Do you send a double on an Ayton post-up, potentially leaving a knockdown catch-and-shoot threat wide open? None of those options are desirable. Deandre Ayton’s involvement is the key to constructing a relentless offensive machine capable of rolling over anyone in its path.
Phoenix’s offensive is way too much to handle for even the best defenses and they roll to a ‘chip
Ayton is a non-factor half the time and a team loaded with defensive personnel like Boston or Milwaukee takes them down
Los Angeles Clippers
X-Factor: Ty Lue
The Clippers have one of the deepest and most well-rounded rosters in the league. They’re rich in Swiss Army Knife guys and are capable of playing elite ball on both ends. With a finally healthy Kawhi Leonard at the helm, they have all of the necessary tools to make a championship run. To do that, though, they will need head coach Tyronn Lue to put them in the best position to be successful.
It was recently announced that power forward Marcus Morris Sr. will be benched in favor of Nicolas Batum with Robert Covington expected to fill the backup minutes. Morris had been struggling to find his shot and when he isn’t scoring, he isn’t providing anything else, so giving his playing time to switchable defensive-minded forwards who can also hit catch-and-shoot threes was the right move. It’s rotational decisions like this that will help the Clippers make it to the promised land. Optimal lineups can vary with matchups and Lue has the arsenal needed to take on anybody, but will he make the right adjustments at the right time? The answer to that question will be the difference between a ring and an early exit for his squad.
(P.S. Terance Mann needs more minutes)
Lue has an answer for everybody and the Clippers win it all
Lue fails to make appropriate adjustments and the Clippers are sent home early
Golden State Warriors
X Factor: Jordan Poole
Former 2022 NBA Champion Jordan Poole was a crucial piece of the Warriors championship run. If the Warriors hope to go back to back, Poole will need to do the same this year.
The Warriors dynasty has dominated the NBA since 2015, racking up a total of four championships in their six finals appearances. This success can largely be credited to the big three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (with a little help from a guy named Kevin Durant).
However, role players win championships. The Warriors have needed guys like Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, Andre Iguadala, Gary Payton Jr and Jordan Poole to step up in times of need. They will need the same this year, especially from Poole.
During last year’s finals run, Poole averaged an impressive 17.0 PPG and 3.8 APG on eye opening 51/39/92 shooting splits. Poole’s efficiency and ability to go on explosive scoring runs was a key part to the Warriors success last season.
After the Warriors lost to the Timberwolves on March 26th, 2023 Klay Thompson highlighted Jordan Poole’s importance to the Warriors last ring when asked about his confidence level in Jordan Poole.
“That right there.” Thompson said to the media during his post game press conference, “He was a huge part of that. People tend to forget.”
Whether Poole is coming off the bench as a sixth man, or asked to start when Coach Kerr decides to change things up, it is important that he fills his role consistently. Consistency has been an issue for Poole this season, and it is something that the Warriors can not afford to deal with come playoff time.
If there is one thing we have learned over the years it is that you can never count the Warriors out. This team is structured extremely similarly to their 2022 Championship roster, who exceeded all expectations.
As the Dubs look to go back to back for the second time in recent history, it is extremely important that former Michigan guard Jordan Poole shines in the spotlight yet again.
NBA Champions once again with 2022 Playoffs version of Poole.
Second Round Exit with an inefficient, shot chucking Poole.
X-Factor: Karl-Anthony Towns
Generally, a player of Karl-Anthony Towns’ caliber shouldn’t be considered an x-factor. He’s an established All-NBA guy, Minnesota knows what they’re getting from him. That said, it’s not KAT who’s their most significant variable, it’s more specifically the way he’s deployed on the side of the ball that wins championships. The Wolves have put together a talented and versatile defensive unit headed by two of the best defenders in the sport (Jaden McDaniels and Rudy Gobert) and are starting to gel on that end as of late. They played most of this season without their star big man though and integrating him into the defensive scheme will be one of the most important aspects of the gameplan for Chris Finch as the postseason approaches.
With Gobert occupying the center spot, KAT will be playing outside of his natural position at times and opposing offenses will therefore target him. He’ll be thrown in pick-and-rolls and hunted in open space and if he can’t hold up, Minnesota’s defense will leak points to quick guards. To avoid this, Coach Finch could have KAT show at the level of the screen rather than switching, allowing for his teammate to recover which would prevent mismatches. Additionally, depending on the matchup, he may be able to shadow a non-shooter and play more of the Giannis free-safety role from the help side. All of this is dependent on the big fella’s effort, though. He’s capable of making on stand in isolation but if he doesn’t consistently work to stay in front or be in the right place from the help side everything will fall apart.
Everything clicks for KAT and the Wolves on both ends and they upset the Kings in the first round
Minnesota’s defense can’t hold up in the slowed-down, grinded-out style of the playoffs and they lose as an eight seed
New Orleans Pelicans
X-Factor: Trey Murphy III: 10-3 when he scores 20+
In a season plagued by injuries, Trey Murphy III has been one of three (along with Jonas Valuncianas and C.J. McCollum) who has almost always been there to carry this squad. Before Zion Williamson’s season-ending injury, the Pelicans had been thriving at 17-12 when Williamson played, even with Brandon Ingram out a majority of those games.
New Orleans has since relied on another young player’s shooting all season. Regardless, Murphy’s next six games will be when he needs to step up most. He has been shooting just under 50-40-90 through 73 games and is the closest to that mark among qualifying players leaguewide.
On the offensive end, the Pelicans are 10-3 when Murphy scores 20+ points. But don’t look past Murphy’s defensive impact; he’s been right there trying to hold it down with Herb Jones on the other end. As a young guard with a 7’0 wingspan, he is growing up to be the archetype 3&D his team needs him to be.
Despite multiple players going down, the Pelicans are still treading water. Currently tied for 7th and 1.5 games out of fifth, they have some work to do if they want to keep this position. They have the toughest remaining strength of schedule — all six teams they play are above .500. But if, somehow, they are able to make it into the Play-In and finish as No. 7 or 8, Denver or Memphis will be licking their chops.
Los Angeles Lakers
X Factor: D’Angelo Russell
The Los Angeles Lakers season has been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. It is no secret that the Lakers struggled immensely throughout the first half of the season. After making some impressive moves at the trade deadline, the Lakers have turned their season around in a way most people did not expect.
One of the biggest acquisitions for the Lakers during the trade deadline was the former second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft: D’Angelo Russell.
In his first eleven games with the Lakers, Russell has been averaging an efficient 18.6 PPG, 6.4 APG and 3.1 RPG on 47/40/82 shooting splits. During this stretch, the Lakers have accumulated a record of 7-4. Interestingly enough, throughout those eleven games, Russell only played with LeBron James two times before James suffered an ankle injury.
Come playoff time, the Lakers have two of the biggest weapons in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, in order to make a deep playoff run, LA will need Russell to step up big time. He is undoubtedly the X Factor for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last season Russell played all six games in the Timberwolves first round matchup against the Grizzlies. During the series, Russell averaged an unacceptable 12.0 PPG, 6.7 APG and 2.8 turnovers on 33/39/75 shooting splits.
Russell’s lackluster play in the Timberwolves series was a huge reason for their first round exit. The Los Angeles Lakers will need a consistent, poised floor general in Russell in order to make a deep playoff run. Russell has been one of the best shooters in the NBA this season, shooting 39% on seven attempts per game. If he can knock down his shots, control the tempo and provide relief for the two superstars alongside him, the Lakers will be in good shape.
Finally, Russell needs to be able to come up big in the clutch. One of the most valuable and notorious aspects of Russell’s repertoire is his ability to perform in the clutch. If the Lakers can rely on Russell to come up big down the stretch, it makes them a lot more dangerous already having two superstars that can do the same. Defenses will not be able to handle three solid threats to take over and win the game.
Having LeBron James on your team in the playoffs itself is an almost guaranteed trip to the second round. We have seen him and Anthony Davis take a Lakers team the distance before.
If D’Angelo Russell steps up, the Lakers could be champions once again. The Lakers need Russell to have lots, and I mean lots, of ice in his veins.
NBA Champions with an efficient and poised D’Angelo Russell.
Second Round Exit with the 2022 Playoffs version of D’Angelo Russell.
Oklahoma City Thunder
X-Factor: Lu Dort
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a pleasant surprise this season, as a team initially expected to tank for Wemby now has a legitimate chance of making the Play-In Tournament. Plenty of factors allowed OKC to reach this point, including Shai’s All-NBA level play and guard Jalen Williams’ impressive impact as a rookie. However, out of everybody who logs heavy minutes on this roster, Lu Dort is the one who’s contributions can make or break the Thunder’s playoff success – specifically on the offensive end of the floor.
Defensively, Dort is a lockdown point-of-attack defender who’s capable of making life difficult for the league’s best athletes (e.g. Kawhi Leonard). This is his main role, and he performs it well on a consistent basis. On the other hand, his offense is anything but consistent, especially when it comes to his home/road shooting splits. When playing in the Paycom Center, Dort shoots 43.5% from the field and 37.1% from three; outside of OKC, he shoots a lowly 34% overall, including an abysmal 30.6% from beyond the arc. Considering Lu is third on the Thunder in field goal attempts with 11.8 per game (including 5.6 3PA), his inconsistent shooting is capable of completely derailing the team’s offensive output when he’s having an off night.
For Dort to have a positive offensive impact, he needs to take smarter shots. The key for him here is to limit self-creation as well as stop shooting threes early in the shot-clock. If he can let the offense naturally come to him as well as play off the Thunder’s main ball-handlers, he’ll receive more open looks which will help increase his overall efficiency. This may also lead to a decrease in his attempts, but quite frankly this will prove to serve Oklahoma City’s best interests.
2nd Round Exit – If Dort plays elite-level defense and cleans up his act offensively, OKC is a scrappy enough squad to pull-off a major upset and knock a top Western Conference team out of contention in round one.
Early Play-in Exit – On the flipside, even if Dort locks down his opponent, if he takes poor shots in a Play-In game this could ultimately lead to the Thunder’s demise and a missed opportunity at a playoff spot.
X-Factor: Josh Green and Reggie Bullock
The Kyrie Irving trade has turned out to be a mess. Not in the sense of Kyrie being a disappointment, but just the highlighting of the glaring depth and supporting cast in Dallas. Over the past few weeks, it has felt like the Mavs need heroic efforts from both Doncic and Irving in order to squeeze out the most minor wins. Now the blame can be partially put on these two superstars, but the consensus is the lack of defense and supporting cast has handcuffed the Mavericks from reaching new heights.
Now what has to happen for this Dallas squad to move past these struggles and make a run? Well, it’s obvious they need greater defensive impact from the wings and paint, which would be huge from 3&D guys like Josh Green and Reggie Bullock. It would be great if there was more rim protection, but obviously Green and Bullock cannot provide that. But in addition to strong perimeter defense, this Green and Bullock duo can bring shooting and, in Green’s case, secondary playmaking and ball handling.
Will the Mavs be able to get starter-level play from Josh Green and Reggie Bullock? Time will tell.
The Mavericks figure out their defensive woes and get help from secondary scorers led by Green and Bullock
The supporting cast around Kyrie and Luka fail to step up and they don’t make/lose in the Play-In
X-Factor: Walker Kessler
Once the new year hit, the two rookie first-round picks started playing and earning well-deserved minutes. Walker Kessler, who led the nation in blocks in his final season at Auburn, has maintained that defensive prowess since coming into the league. Although not contending the rim with 4.6 blocks per game, he remains top five in the NBA with 2.4 BPG.
Not to mention he ranks No. 1, yes, No. 1 in field goal percentage in the league at 72%. Kessler has done it on both sides for the Jazz this season and has been a reliable player since the beginning of December — that is, when he started getting minutes — putting up nearly 11 points per game and still locking down the paint.
Despite Kessler’s dominance in the paint on both ends of the floor, not to mention all-star Lauri Markkanen having a breakout season, Utah is on the outside looking in. Since starting 6-2, the Jazz have had only one month with a winning record. Surely, they will have bright spots to look forward to, but it will be tough for Markkanen and Kessler to carry this young squad to the play-in, forget the playoffs.
Utah is currently 3.5 games out of fifth and have the fourth-toughest remaining SOS. It’s been a fun season for first-year Head Coach Will Hardy.