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The Biggest X-Factor for Every Western Conference Playoff Team

Garrett Ellwood-Getty Images

In what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive playoffs in years, every team has a shot for a deep run with the right variables.

While NBA fans have long figured that the Golden State Warriors would enjoy an unimpeded romp to the 2018 Finals, some key injuries have caused pundits to reconsider the field in the Western Conference. Led by the MVP-caliber campaign put together by James Harden, the Houston Rockets have emerged as a serious obstacle for Golden States’ chances at a fourth consecutive Finals appearance. The playoff seeding has been a wild ride all season in the West, so which player for each team will play the role of “X-Factor” in their team’s hopes to advance?  

Nemanja Bjelica - Minnesota Timberwolves

As the eighth seed, the Minnesota Timberwolves will often be forced to play the tempo dictated by the Houston Rockets. For Minnesota, this means that they will need to up their percentages from the 3-point arc to go toe-to-toe with Houston. To accomplish this, the T-Wolves’ X-factor is Nemanja Bjelica. Off the bench, Bjelica is Minnesota’s second-best 3-point shooter (42.0%), after their homegrown star Karl-Anthony Towns (42.1%). While he might not be one of the bigger names on the roster, Bjelica’s long-range prowess might prove to be the difference in whether or not the T-Wolves can hang in with the Rockets’ barrage from deep. 

 

Carmelo Anthony - Oklahoma City Thunder

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Carmelo Anthony can elevate the team to the championship-caliber level Sam Presti gambled for. While he has been struggling through a down year with his reduced role, the Thunder are hoping that Anthony can tap into vintage Melo for his most important games since 2013. For the year, the 33-year-old has hit career lows in PER (12.8), true shooting percentage (50.3%), and most offensive categories, but this is expected to coincide with his career low usage rate (23.2%). For the first time in his career, his value above replacement player has hit a -1.1. 

However, Anthony is still one of the purest scorers in the game, and if he can catch fire offensively to support Russell Westbrook and the defensively-minded Paul George, the Thunder could prove a tough out for any opponent.

Kawhi Leonard - San Antonio Spurs

The X-factor in San Antonio is simple: Kawhi Leonard. Though the player most responsible for their success this season has been the rejuvenated LaMarcus Aldridge, whether or not Leonard suits up for the playoffs could be the difference between a deep run and a first round exit. Though his quad injury has been lingering for a strangely long amount of time, Leonard’s potential return could be the shot in the arm the Spurs need to hold their own in the cutthroat West. While Leonard has only appeared in nine games for San Antonio this season, adding perhaps the best two-way player in the NBA, however rusty, will be a major boon to the Spurs’ Finals chances.

 

Rajon Rondo - New Orleans Pelicans

While Anthony Davis and his partner in crime Jrue Holiday (in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins) are the major catalysts for New Orleans’ success, the sneaky X-factor for the Pelicans moving forward is Rajon Rondo. Though Rondo’s stardom has long faded due to ineffective stints and off-court issues, he has been one of the most important sparks for New Orleans this season. 

In 62 starts, Rondo has been a great asset in facilitating ball movement, leading the team with 8.1 assists per game. This benefit is also reflected in Rondo’s on/off splits: the Pels’ assist percentage jumps from 60.6% to 65.7% when Rondo plays. Without the scoring of Cousins, New Orleans will need Rondo to create easy opportunities for Davis and Holiday. 

Maurice Harkless - Portland Trail Blazers

Like the Spurs, the “over-the-top” player for the Portland Trail Blazers is currently injured: starting small forward Maurice Harkless. The quintessential “3 and D” player, Portland misses Harkless’ contributions on both sides of the ball. 

While Lillard and McCollum carry the brunt of the scoring load for the Blazers, Harkless spaces the floor with his sharpshooting; he is knocking down a career high 49.5% from behind the arc. In his 12 games after the All-Star break, Harkless had been averaging 10.3 points on 59.5% from the field, while holding opponents to just 41.9%. With Harkless on the shelf, Portland has limped across the finish line, losing their last four games. 

 

Donovan Mitchell - Utah Jazz

For Utah, the player to watch is rookie Donovan Mitchell, although he is less of an X-factor than the others here. The Jazz have made it this far from the defensive leadership of Rudy Gobert and the emergence of Mitchell as a scoring threat, and it will be interesting to see if his excellent start to his career will transfer to the bright lights of the playoffs. 

Though he will most likely lose the Rookie of the Year Award to Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Mitchell is leading all rookies with 20.5 points per game. Facing Oklahoma City in the first round, Mitchell will need to keep pace with defending MVP Russell Westbrook if he hopes to lead the Jazz to victory in what should be an entertaining series. 

 

Eric Gordon - Houston Rockets

For the Rockets, one of the more important players on the roster not named Paul or Harden is last year’s Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon. In many ways improving on his campaign last season, Gordon continues to be Houston’s spark off the bench. Bringing the scoring punch, Gordon has upped his field goal percentage from 40.6% to 42.8%, and upped his point averages from 16.2 per game to 18.0. The Rockets are built with one of the deepest and most well rounded rosters in these playoffs, and Eric Gordon should figure prominently in Houston’s success. 

 

Health - Golden State Warriors

In the case of the Warriors, the X-factor is the health of their stars. Although their most recent worrying injury involves Stephen Curry, almost all of the Warriors’ big stars have been hobbled throughout this season. If the Warriors hope to continue their march through the playoffs, they will need to be at full strength. Their success is less dependent on one player, but this might be one of the more difficult fields they have faced since their recent dynasty began. If they do reach full strength, however, it might be difficult for any number of Western X-factors to dethrone Golden State.

Edited by Emily Berman.

SQuiz
Before 2018, when was the last time Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs
Created 4/12/18
  1. 2002
  2. 2004
  3. 2006
  4. 2007

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