The phone rings. It’s Steve Ballmer. “Hey, man, the season’s scrapped. I’m sorry.” No, no, no, this can’t be, noooooo……
Patrick Beverley awakes from his nightmare. He remembers that optimism surrounding the season is peaking and that facilities are beginning to open. Slowly but surely, the playoffs might happen. He may get the chance to lock down his favorite target, LeBron James, once more.
Signs of life in the NBA community mean championship runs are back in focus. There’s always one piece that makes the final push for a team. That piece often isn’t the All-Star. Instead, he’s usually the routine starter or even the first guy off the bench. He’s someone who won’t always lead the team but can take over when needed most. He does his essential role to the best of his ability and doesn’t complain about shots or minutes. Opponents have to watch out for him.
Here is a list of one such player from each of the top six teams in each Conference. The success of these teams in the postseason largely depends on their X-factor.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
The Lakers don’t have to look far to find the biggest threat to their title run right now. It’s the Clippers, plain and simple. To stop the Clippers, they will need to demonstrate equivalent depth. Someone will have to step up. That someone is Kyle Kuzma. There’s no avoiding the fact that Kyle Kuzma has had a rocky season. He’s shot a dismal 14% from three since the All-Star break. Shooting woes aside, he has been a solid contributor defensively. Since March, Kuzma has ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive win shares. If Kuzma can get out of his slump, he makes the Lakers twice as dangerous.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
Conversely, the Clippers will have to get past the Lakers to reach the Finals. To defeat LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Clippers cannot engage in a shootout. Locking down James and keeping Davis out of the paint is their best chance at success. When LeBron carries the ball across the court, Patrick Beverley must be there to meet him. Beverley has been confident about defending LeBron this season, at one point calling him “no challenge.” He’ll have to step up in a significant way and shut down King James to give the Clippers a chance.
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray
Besides making headlines recently for the wrong reasons, Murray does not get much attention outside of Denver. There are games when he lights up the scoreboard, such as his 48 point showing against the Celtics a year ago. Denver desperately needs someone to back up Jokic when he isn’t hot, and it remains unclear whether Murray can fill that slot for an entire series.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
Jazz fans have to be disappointed by Conley’s play this season. He hasn’t exactly panned out to be what they expected to get when they traded for him last offseason. Luckily for Utah, Conley seems to be finding his niche among the team, especially since recovering from his lingering hamstring injuries. Since January, his shooting has steadily improved, to the point where he can consistently be a much-needed offensive threat for the Jazz. Conley deserves more respect for his production over his many years in the NBA, and this season’s playoffs will allow him to showcase his abilities and contend for a ring.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous Alexander
The Thunder weren’t supposed to make the playoff picture, but they did. Low expectations aside, their lineup isn’t all that bad. They just lack the depth that the rest of the West has. For Oklahoma City to stay afloat through the playoffs, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander must continue to feed off of his spectacular performances in February and March. He shot over 50% from the field and over 40% from three during that span. It’s a tough task, but if Gilgeous-Alexander can maintain his productivity, the Thunder won’t go down without a fight.
Houston Rockets: Robert Covington
The newest member of the Rockets’ starting five has arguably the tallest task. When the Rockets traded for Robert Covington, they lost Clint Capela, their go-to rebounder and their last remaining big man. Capela neutralized their small-ball lineup while also holding a presence in the paint. Before his departure, Capela was averaging 13.8 rebounds per game. There is no way that Robert Covington will be able to replicate these numbers. What he’ll need to do is provide a balance between rebounding and perimeter shooting to keep the Rockets from getting outsized by bigger, more physical teams.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez plays a massive role in the Bucks’ defensive success. He has emerged as one of the NBA’s best paint protectors, averaging 2.4 blocks per game this season. Yet Lopez hasn’t been able to replicate his pristine three-point shooting that shocked the NBA last season. He is shooting below 30% from deep, down from the 36.5% mark he reached in 2019. He will need to turn that around in the playoffs. Lopez will have a substantial impact defensively, but his range is what could allow the Bucks to reach an NBA Championship.
Toronto Raptors: Fred VanVleet
The Raptors’ defense can match up with virtually any team. They just have to match it with a potent offense if they want to return the NBA Finals. Pascal Siakam can try to replace Kawhi’s scoring numbers, but he just isn’t at the same level. The Raptors’ best option is to find ways to create open shots for guards like Fred VanVleet. VanVleet must knock down those looks like he did last year, when he went 10-12 from three in a two-game stretch of the Eastern Conference Finals. There’s no more Danny Green this season either, so VanVleet will be tested.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
The Celtics are well-balanced, ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating (per NBA Advanced Stats). Offensively, they have plenty of scorers, namely Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. Defensively, Boston depends on Marcus Smart. Smart is the cornerstone of Boston’s defense, and he brings his A-game when it’s needed most. The physicality Smart brings is enough to challenge even the strongest NBA stars like Joel Embiid. Although Smart currently sits at the top of the bench, expect to see him move into the starting lineup deep into a series.
Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo
The Miami Heat have all the pieces to make a deep playoff run. Led by Jimmy Butler, they will be extremely dangerous in any series. Their biggest test will be the Bucks, who they’ll likely face in the second round. All eyes will be on Bam Adebayo, who will get the defensive assignment of Giannis Antetokounmpo. At 6’9”, 255 lbs, Adebayo has the size to hold his ground on Greek Freak. Giannis is more elusive and athletic, but Adebayo is a steadfast defender. Stopping Giannis will be a team effort, but Adebayo must lead the charge. If he can help the Heat successfully shut down the MVP, Miami could be a sleeper to come out of the East.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis
The Pacers’ defense is rolling; they rank 7thin the NBA in opponent points per game and 8th in opponent field goal percentage. One thing they need, though, is a go-to scorer. In the absence of Victor Oladipo, forwards T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis took on the bulk of the team’s offensive duties. Now Oladipo is making his return, but he isn’t putting up the same numbers he once had. The Pacers can’t expect Oladipo to play like his All-Star self anytime soon, meaning Sabonis has to take the reigns of the team’s offensive.
Philadelphia 76ers: Al Horford
Come Playoff time, Al Horford could end up playing a bench role due to Philadelphia’s abundance of size and athleticism. However, the starting lineup won’t always work swiftly. When the Sixers run into teams like Boston and Milwaukee, the abilities of Embiid and Simmons will be partially neutralized. Then, Horford will have to step up and save the team. He is the oldest, most experienced player on the roster, and it’ll be interesting to see how Brett Brown utilizes him.