With the NBA season set to resume just over a month away, fans can expect some ring rust from most players. July 31st will be the first time since March 12th that we’ve seen any sort of NBA action. That span of time is actually longer than a typical offseason, so in certain ways, it’s an entirely new season for most players. That being said, with only 8 regular season games to play before the playoffs begin, certain players will have to find their stride quicker than most, or it will end up costing them. These players are deemed “playoff X-factors”. Here are the five biggest NBA playoff X-factors.
Five Biggest NBA Playoff X-Factors
Hayward bounced back this year after rehabbing from his devastating leg injury, but can he show up when it matters most?
At the top of the biggest NBA playoff X-factors is Gordon Hayward. The Boston Celtics’ aspirations for a deep playoff run rely on Hayward’s contributions. The Celtics’ current big three of Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown make for one of the league’s best offensive attacks, and with a player like Hayward as the 4th option, that puts him in the best position to thrive.
Hayward enjoyed a resurgent season this year after a brutally inconsistent rehab season a year ago. He upped his scoring output to 17.3 PPG while raising his shooting percentages to 50% from the field and 39% from three. His contributions to the Celtics come playoff time is going to be crucial, with little room to disappoint.
First off, Hayward needs to prove that he is worth that massive contract he signed three years ago. His first season with Boston was erased after five minutes, his second was a disaster, but this year we saw the kind of player we managed to pry from Utah. Now, under the big spotlight, Hayward needs to make good on that deal.
Second, and more crucially, Boston is not a very deep team. Outside of their extremely efficient starting 5 of Walker-Brown-Hayward-Tatum-Theis, and the do-it-all play of Marcus Smart, Boston’s bench isn’t exactly championship material. They lack a pure scorer off the bench, outside of Marcus, who put up a career-high 13.5 PPG this season. If Boston is going to make a serious run as a contender, then Hayward has to deliver as the team’s 4th option.
After a disastrous Eastern Conference Finals a season ago, Middleton is out for redemption
Khris Middleton being an NBA playoff X-factor depends on whether or not the Bucks square off with the Boston Celtics. If this happens, then it is certain that Middleton will shoot lights out every night. Otherwise, Middleton has a lot to prove after a shaky postseason one year ago.
After the Bucks made quick work of the Celtics in a 4-1 beatdown last year, Middleton and the Bucks went toe-to-toe with the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors. After dominating the Celtics a series prior, Middleton completely disappeared in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Middleton scored a mediocre 13.5 PPG on 41% shooting and 37% from behind the arc. As Milwaukee’s second option behind Giannis, Middleton failed to deliver and his lackluster performance was a major contributing factor to Milwaukee being knocked out by Toronto.
This year, Middleton has to prove himself to Giannis and the Bucks, especially with Giannis set to hit the market next summer. The Bucks’ built their entire scheme around Giannis, as they surround him with elite shooters like Middleton to create space for him to operate. This play style has worked to a tee at this point, but now it’s time to deliver on their year-long redemption story.
If Middleton fails to provide scoring behind Giannis once again, and it costs Milwaukee, the stakes may be higher than losing not just one postseason series, but potentially losing their franchise superstar.
3. Michael Porter Jr
Porter’s playoff performance will determine what Denver has in their young core
Michael Porter Jr. is not just a playoff X-factor, but he will solely dictate whether or not the Denver Nuggets are a future NBA contender. The 2018 draft lottery pick fell to the Nuggets in the late stages of the lottery, with much uncertainty if he would play his rookie season after dealing with injuries suffered during his time in Missouri.
After a rocky start to this season, Porter Jr. started to find his groove. Don’t put too much stock in his numbers, as he only averaged 7.5 PPG, 4 RPG, and less than one assist a night. What he did show was consistent progression towards the second half of the year, providing flashes of what he can do in perhaps a bigger role on the team.
MPJ was one of the top prospects in his class that many believe would blossom into a future star in this league. While he has yet to reach that level of play, he still has plenty of time to get there. This isn’t to say that Porter’s performance will make or break his career. Nothing that extreme. All it will affect is Denver’s performance as a team this year because as it stands, their roster isn’t exactly championship material. Time, progression, and consistency are going to be what makes Michael Porter Jr. what Denver needs for their young core of Jokic, Murray, and company.
VanVleet will once again play the role of playoff X-factor this year after delivering a season ago
It’s no stretch to say that the Toronto Raptors doesn’t win a championship last season without Fred VanVleet’s heroics. In the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, respectively, VanVleet came alive as he put up incredible shooting numbers for Toronto as the team needed that extra push to get over the two best teams in the league in Milwaukee and Golden State.
VanVleet’s most memorable moment of those playoffs came in the series-clinching game six in the NBA Finals, as his scoring output of 22 points on 46% shooting from three came at just the right time. It was enough to push them over the hump and bring the nation of Canada their first NBA championship.
This year, VanVleet’s efforts are going to be needed again, even more so this time around. With reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard now out of the picture, VanVleet took on a bigger role with the team, as his numbers skyrocketed across the board while teammate Pascal Siakam rose to superstardom. VanVleet provides Toronto with a large chunk of scoring on a nightly basis, putting up just over 17 points a night.
What’s been most impressive about Toronto this year is how they’ve remained a title contender despite losing perhaps a top-three player in the league in Kawhi Leonard. VanVleet has become largely responsible for that. If Toronto has any aspirations of returning to the championship picture, then VanVleet is going to be one of the biggest NBA playoff X-factors.
5. Lou Williams
The veteran scorer needs to find consistency so Kawhi and PG can thrive
The Clippers spent this season rounding out their roster into a complete championship contender as they acquired role players Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson midseason to reload their arsenal and make that bench even deeper. At the forefront of that second unit in Los Angeles is Lou Williams.
What will make Williams among the key NBA playoff X-factors is that he is the first man off the pine for LA each and every night. Despite being in their second unit, Williams plays a key role in the Clippers’ attack on offense. He is third on the team in scoring with 18.7 PPG, behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and also chips in as the team’s assist leader at 5.7 a night. While the Clippers did an excellent job providing weapons in just about every facet, Williams is going to be a key factor in their championship hopes.
If he underperforms over a few stretch of games, or struggles to find consistency, then the Clippers are vulnerable. In a loaded Western Conference, where heavy-duty scoring and high powered super teams seem to be the norm, it takes a team effort to get over the hump.
The Clippers can’t rely solely on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George throughout the playoffs, as we only actually got a small sample size of the two on the court together this season. The team will need some scoring and efficiency insurance from Lou Williams, maybe just to bail them out every few possessions.
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