Stars drive winning in the NBA. In recent years, supernova talents have willed their teams to victory. Over the last nine seasons, one of Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry has won the championship. Star power rightfully gets most of the glory. But one could make the case that there are ten legitimate contenders with star power. Role players are the X-Factors in the playoffs that differentiate the best from the rest of the elite teams.
Looking at all of those championship teams of the last nine years, each of them had role players who made a difference during their run in the playoffs. Andre Iguodala won the 2015 Finals MVP on a team with Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. A young Kawhi Leonard helped propel Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili to their 2014 title. Even Lebron, a one-man wrecking crew, has depended on elite shooters like Ray Allen or JR Smith to help lighten his load. And last year, Rajon Rondo was instrumental in making the Lakers’ offense run smoothly.
As the postseason approaches, we identified role players who could be X-Factors for each team’s potential championship run in the playoffs this year. There are obviously different ways that players become X-Factors. Some of these will need to contribute on the defensive end, others on offense, and others will bring leadership or energy. That said, for this article, we defined role players as anyone outside the top three on their team in scoring.
Having laid out the ground rules, let’s get into it.
Eastern Conference X-Factor Role Players
Philadelphia 76ers: Seth Curry
Joel Embiid has played at an MVP level when healthy this year. Ben Simmons can make plays on offense and lockdown anybody on defense. That said, the key for the 76ers’ offense will be shooting. Without it, the floor spacing could fall apart, and their dynamic duo would lose space to operate. Curry is shooting 44.3% for the season and has been elite throughout his career. He is probably one of the three most important role players on any team in the playoffs this year. He needs to keep that up.
Brooklyn Nets: Jeff Green
If there is one team that could win in the playoffs even without strong contributions from their role players, it is the Nets. No other team rivals their offensive firepower. The main question is health: their three best players have played nine games together all season. If healthy, they should be able to outscore anyone. That said, Green’s defensive versatility and three-point shooting ability could make a big impact on both ends. He also brings valuable playoff experience thanks to his experience playing with Lebron on the Cavs and Harden on the Rockets last year.
Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo
The Bucks feature their own big three, but questions remain about the rest of their team. Perhaps DiVincenzo can recapture the magic of his Final Four with Villanova, and bring some explosive scoring punch. Playoff teams have shown that they can build a wall around the hoop to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. If the Bucks want to get over their playoff struggles, their role players need to step up in the playoffs and score more consistently than they have in years past.
New York Knicks: Alec Burks
Frankly, everyone on the Knicks is a role player to the supernova that is Julius Randle. There are shooters (Reggie Bullock and Immanuel Quickley) and interior defenders (Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson). Derrick Rose and RJ Barrett both need to score efficiently as secondary playmakers. Alec Burks could be one of the X-Factors for the Knicks, though, because of his combination of shooting and ability to get to the rim.
Atlanta Hawks: Clint Capela
Capela is the defensive anchor and vocal leader of this Hawks team. He also is a monster on the boards, leading the league in rebounding. The Hawks’ offense should be humming with Trae Young at the reins. He can shoot and make plays for his teammate. But Capela needs to do the little things to help stabilize the Hawks on defense and dominate on the interior.
Miami Heat: Goran Dragic
Last year, Dragic’s playoff performance helped bring the Heat to the Finals. Jimmy Butler is the heart and soul of this team, and as he goes, so do the Heat. However, he is not necessarily a pure scorer. Dragic averaged nearly 20 points a game in the playoffs last year and might need to match that this year.
Eastern Conference Play-In X-Factor Role Players
Boston Celtics: Tristan Thompson
The Celtics need Thompson to bring the same interior defense and aggressive rebounding from his run on Cleveland with Lebron. While he isn’t a dominant scorer, he can impact the game in those two ways. The Celtics’ chances seem bleak after Jaylen Brown’s season-ending injury. But if Tatum plays at his superstar potential and we see a revival of Cardiac Kemba, the Celtics could make a run. Thompson and Boston’s other big men need to be X-Factors and do the little things to make that possible.
Washington Wizards: Davis Bertans
The Wizards star backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal have to carry this team. As playoff defenses key in on them, the floor should be wide open for the rest of these Wizards. Bertans is a 39.8% three-point shooter for the season and will be essential in punishing defenses that key in on Westbrook and Beal. If he can knock down his shots, not only will he rack up points, but it should help loosen the coverage on those two.
Indiana Pacers: TJ McConnell
The Pacers’ sixth man does all the little things a team could ask for. He plays pesky defense, racking up absurd steal numbers. He also can facilitate the offense for the second unit, as shown by his assist totals. The Pacers have faltered down the stretch but still possess the talent to make it out of the play-in and maybe make a top seed sweat.
Charlotte Hornets: PJ Washington
Much of the attention this season has gone to point guard Lamelo Ball and commentator Eric Collins. That said, the Hornets have other weapons and role players who can help key a serious run in the playoffs. Gordon Hayward averaged nearly a 20-5-5 stat line, and Terry Rozier can flat-out score. The issue with the Hornets isn’t perimeter talent. The question is whether PJ Washington can hold his own on the inside on a team devoid of dominant big men. The second-year power forward out of Kentucky is set to make his playoff debut and first foray into the NBA limelight. It will be interesting to see if other teams try to pick on his size on defense or dare him to be a scorer on offense.
Western Conference Playoff X-Factors
Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles
The sweet-shooting lefty from Australia could very well win the Sixth Man of the Year award. He has leveled up his game this year, knocking down shots with historic efficiency. Besides being a lethal three-point shooter, “Jinglin’ Joe” can also make plays when called upon. He has good pick and roll chemistry with Rudy Gobert when he runs the offense. The Jazz have had one of the best offenses in the league this year. Ingles will have to maintain his high level of play if Utah hopes to make a deep run.
Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges
Chris Paul and Devin Booker get most of the attention for this Suns team, and rightfully so. But Bridges’ development has been key to Phoenix’s leap from the bottom of the standings to the top. He has shown the ability to complement his outside shooting with the ability to get to the rim. The Suns have flown under the radar all year. If they want to capture the respect they deserve, Bridges will have to make plays. [As an aside, Cameron Payne deserves a brief nod. He has led a dynamic bench mob for the Suns.]
Denver Nuggets: Aaron Gordon
Some counted the Nuggets out after Jamal Murray went down. But led by MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic, they have just kept winning. Denver had the best record in the league after the all-star break, and the addition of Gordon has been a big part of that. He defends big wing players and is an elite cutter with some shooting. The road to the Finals likely involves taking down at least one LA team, and Gordon’s defense against their all-star forwards will be one of the X-Factors.
LA Clippers: Rajon Rondo
He was one of the X-Factors for last year’s Lakers, and he could be the same for their crosstown rivals this year. The big concern coming into the year for the Clippers was that they lacked a true point guard. The trade for Rondo certainly fills that void. If he plays up to his own lofty standards, he can help get Paul George and Kawhi Leonard easier shots. He also can keep the ball moving for others and rack up assists. Will he be the key that unlocks the Clippers’ championship potential?
Dallas Mavericks: Jalen Brunson
Brunson’s emergence as a Sixth Man of the Year contender has been key for the Mavs. Luka Doncic will do superstar things regardless, and Kristaps Porzingis is a weapon when healthy. Brunson’s steady contributions off the bench as a scorer and playmaker make him one of the Mavrericks’ X-Factors. If he sustains his regular-season success, the Mavs will be a team nobody wants to face in the West. When he’s playing well, they unlock so many weapons.
Portland Trail Blazers: Carmelo Anthony
Melo’s offense isn’t in question here. He adds knockdown shooting and the ability to go iso to this Blazers team. The question is whether he can stay on the court defensively. Teams hunt mismatches in the seven-game playoff series. Melo has been something of a defensive liability most of his career. He has to remain stout on defense so the Blazers can take advantage of his offensive gifts.
Western Conference Play-In X-Factors
LA Lakers: Alex Caruso
The real X-Factor is the health of Lebron James and Anthony Davis. Without those two, the Lakers are toast. With them, they are still the defending champs and one of the biggest threats to win it all. Either way, the Lakers need former-meme Alex Caruso to bring his elite defensive skills to the playoffs. Caruso brings relentless energy as a gnat on that end of the court. He gets under opposing players’ skin and muddles offensive sets. He also can spark the Lakers’ transition game and get them some easier buckets.
Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole
Poole seemed like a bust after his first year out of Michigan. He was lost on defense, and his shooting efficiency disappeared. In this, his second year, he has completely flipped the narrative. During the second half of this season, he has been on a scoring tear, including a recent 38 point outburst against the Pelicans. Steph is going to score. Draymond will be a playmaker and hard-nosed defender. Andrew Wiggins will do a little bit of everything. But if Poole can be a real second or third scorer for this Warriors team, they can return to their winning ways in the playoffs. Steph can’t do it alone.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The question isn’t about Jackson’s ability but more about his availability. The Grizzlies have managed this season without one of their franchise cornerstones. Ja Morant has dazzled, Dillon Brooks has shot the ball well, and Jonas Valanciunas has gobbled up rebounds and bullied paint defenders. The Grizzlies are well-rounded with seven double-digit scorers, but they lack star power. If Jackson can make a quick return to health, he could help bring some serious scoring power.
San Antonio Spurs: Patty Mills
The Spurs are confusing. Most of their key players are young, but their star is an aging Demar Derozan. They look terrible in some games, and then they blow out the Bucks. They could have five different leading scorers in five straight games, and nobody would be surprised. But Mills brings some stability. The last man standing from the Spurs dynasty (other than the ageless Gregg Popovich) continues to bring it. He is an orchestrator off the bench and needs to keep everybody involved in the offense. More importantly, he brings veteran experience and a championship pedigree. The Spurs haven’t shown much this year, but it is hard to count out a Gregg Popovich team. Mills needs to be the on-court manifestation of his long-time coach’s brain.
Those were the players who need to step up. Three other X-Factors remain and need to be touched upon briefly: health, home-court advantage, and team three-point shooting. Health trumps all. An injury to a star player could derail a team’s playoff hopes. All of the above picks were based on assumptions of good health for stars.
The effect of home-court advantage in the Covid-era is unknown. Will teams struggle in Game 7’s on the road without a raucous crowd against them? And most important of all in the modern NBA is three-point shooting. Many of the individual X-Factors were singled out for their shooting. But frankly, team shooting is the big X-Factor.
If teams are hot, they can rack up points in a hurry and spread the floor to drive the paint. If they are cold (think Clippers in Game 7 against the Nuggets last year), they can kiss their playoff chances goodbye.
As the playoffs begin, so much is unknown. Both conferences boast plenty of real contenders. The question remains to be answered: which teams, not just stars, can elevate their play.