The NBA is a star-driven league and, as always, it’s almost impossible to win without one. But as important as they are, you still need role players to fill the gaps in-between. To wit, you need an X-Factor, a player that can elevate his game either as a complement or when the stars are struggling.
So with the season now fully underway, Basketball Insiders decided to examine a handful of those players that could have a significant impact on the standings in the Western Conference. To make it even more interesting, we tried to stay away from All-Stars.
You can find our X-Factors in the Eastern Conference here.
Denver is a hot pick to run the table in the West this season. Jokic, a hopeful leap from the 170-million-dollar-man-Jamal Murray, general continuity and then even more Jokic will give you those expectations. Mix in the mystery of Michael Porter Jr. and what he could be, and you have a recipe for the No. 1 overall seed in a crowded conference full of turnover.
Even with everyone of note returning, the Nuggets went and got Jerami Grant. Grant was acquired from Oklahoma City in a move that was easy to overlook — but was highly-praised by intelligent basketball minds. Always a versatile defender and ferocious straight-line rim attacker, Grant added to his game in a big way last year at the three-point line. He shot 39.2 percent on 4.0 attempts per 36 minutes, a huge jump from his 29.1 percent mark in 2017-18.
Grant adds the flexibility defensively Torrey Craig provided last year while shooting a much higher percentage from three. Best of all, Mike Malone can feature lineups with four credible shooters around Jokic without sacrificing on the other side of the ball.
Perhaps more importantly: Shooting aside, Grant gives Denver another long, lanky defender on the wing. Players with his makeup are needed to win in today’s NBA landscape. The Clippers are title favorites in major part because they have two of the three best rangy wings in the league. Having Grant as another capable body to throw at Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and LeBron James in April is incredibly useful.
The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the most divisive teams in the league this season. Half of all basketball analysts seem to have them slated for another overachieving year that ends in a playoff berth. The other half have them missing the playoffs, despite making it the past six years. This divide necessitates Portland having a few players that could be potential X-Factors. Anfernee Simons had a popularity spike during summer league; who knows how many minutes he’ll actually see behind Lillard and McCollum. Rodney Hood is back in the starting lineup after a solid postseason run; but entering his sixth year, we know who he is.
Zach Collins is the unknown. He’s the guy to make or break Portland in 2019-20.
A lot of people love Collins. He’s 6-foot-11 with solid feet, big enough to play center but quick enough to guard some mobile bigs on the perimeter. He possesses some good touch and projects as a shooter. But, so far, he’s also been foul prone, gets moved around by stronger players inside and only averaged 16.7 minutes per game over his first two seasons.
This year, he’ll play far more than 17 minutes per game. He played 31 minutes in the Blazers’ opening loss to Denver and parts of the game were a microcosm of what Portland expects and needs from him this season. He was fourth on the team in shot attempts — behind Lillard, McCollum, and Hood — which will usually be the case. Similarly to another player on this list, he has an expanded role next to two proven stars. Portland knows what they’re getting from Hood, Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. This is the year they find out what they have in Collins.
His improvement, or lack thereof, will determine which half of those analysts are correct about Portland.
We promise that Green made this list before he went nuclear on opening night.
Green scored 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting, sparked by 18 in the third quarter on 5-for-5 from three-point range. Beyond that, he even grabbed seven rebounds for good measure.
If Tuesday night was any indication, Green will need to provide more scoring punch than he has in recent years. The Lakers looked awkward on offense and a lack of firepower had them repeatedly dumping the ball into Anthony Davis, or standing and waiting for James to do something. While the latter is a typical function of a LeBron-led offense, it’s far more effective he or when his teammates are playing well. Green played well and it was the biggest reason the Lakers stayed in the game.
Green’s most substantial responsibility will be night-to-night consistency. James and Davis will be fine. Kyle Kuzma, despite the unknowns about his game, will likely give Los Angeles. 17-to-19 points per game once he’s healthy. Outside of that, the contributions from other Lakers are in flux. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hold the same profile as Green, but they are far lesser players. They can’t shoulder the burden of quality 3-and-D performances most nights.
Danny Green can.
And if they Lakers want to live up to expectations, he will have to for all 82 games this season.
Another player that boosted his stock with his playoff performance, Looney returns to Golden State after signing a three-year, $15 million contract. He also returns not as a bench player, but a starter on a gutted Warriors team.
Like Portland, Golden State is a semi-popular pick to miss out on the playoffs, notwithstanding their pedigree. The departure of Kevin Durant and injury to Klay Thompson leaves Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as the only remaining stars to pick up the slack. The departure of Andre Iguodala, Quinn Cook and DeMarcus Cousins, plus the retirement of Shaun Livingston, leaves Looney as the only returning role player.
As is the common theme, Golden State knows what to expect from Curry and Green and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo Russell. Willie Cauley-Stein is a serviceable player, but he’s new. As the incumbent big, Looney has to have a huge season for the Warriors to get back to the postseason.
Small sample sizes aside, Looney impressed in last year’s playoffs. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and will need to replicate those numbers in the regular season. Similarly to Collins, the questions surrounding Looney are focused on whether or not an increase in minutes will lead to a rise in production at the same efficiency. Looney had a true shooting percentage of 63.6 over 18.5 minutes per game in 2018-19. Can he shoot in the ballpark of that range with added playing time?
It’s possible Looney’s biggest strength was his ability to stay with guards on switches. This ability, of course, won’t be affected by more minutes — but his scoring is connected to this. If Looney stays efficient and expands his offensive game, he’ll remain on the floor instead of making way for lesser defensive players.
Looney was the perfect role player on a team stacked with talent last year. To be the perfect role player in 2019-20, he’ll need to increase his production to compensate for Golden State’s personnel losses. Otherwise, the Warriors will be on the outside of the playoff race looking in.
These four may not make an All-Star team this season, but their performances will have just as large of an impact on their respective teams as any other players in the Western Conference. Thankfully, after a long, long summer and offseason — the wait is finally over. Can these players help push their respective teams over the top?
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 12/6/2019
A Washington sharpshooter joins the ranks of the league’s best reserves, but the Sixth Man conversation still focuses on Los Angeles in Douglas Farmer’s opinion.
In this update on Sixth Man of the Year candidates, one name must be bid farewell. Unexpected to begin the year but increasingly expected in recent weeks, Charlotte Hornets guard Devonte’ Graham has played too well to keep coming off the bench, most recently shining with 33 points on 10-of-16 shooting from deep Wednesday. In a lost season for the Hornets, Graham’s emergence may be the brightest silver lining, hence his starting their last 13 games.
A similar fate is set to befall another name below in the absence of an injured superstar, but technically speaking, that Brooklyn Nets guard has not started half his team’s games yet, so he remains in this listing one more time …
5. Dāvis Bertāns — Washington Wizards
Bertāns’ recent shooting spurt has not brought the Wizards many wins, but it has led to him reaching double digits in eight of their last nine games, including four instances of 20 or more points. During that stretch, Bertāns has hit 47.5 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, the type of shooting that earns notice.
At this point, he is averaging only 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, numbers that may not bring out the checkbook this summer, but if Bertāns keeps at his recent pace, his contract year should elicit a worthwhile payday. That would be true in any summer, but even more so in an offseason devoid of many pertinent free agents like 2020 should be.
4. Dwight Howard — Los Angeles Lakers
No. 39’s numbers have not taken off, and they will not, but this space will continue to trumpet Howard’s impact because it has been surprising and quietly important. Even beyond his counting stats — 7 points and 7 rebounds per game — playing fewer than 20 minutes per game will keep Howard from broader recognition for most of the season.
In the Lakers’ 12 wins by 10 or fewer points, Howard has totaled a plus-38. As long as Anthony Davis stays healthy and Los Angeles is the title favorite, Howard’s contributions should not be diminished, even if he is not the prototypical sixth man candidate.
3. Spencer Dinwiddie — Brooklyn Nets
When the Nets face the Hornets tonight, Dinwiddie’s nominal bench status will be in the rearview mirror for the foreseeable future. Through 21 games, he has started 10, fitting the sixth man qualification by one role night. With that distinction, his 20.8 points and 5.8 assists per game place him firmly in this conversation.
If he will have started half Brooklyn’s games by the end of the day, then why include him between Howard and a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner? Because when Kyrie Irving returns from his extended absence (shoulder injury), Dinwiddie may return to the bench and skew his games off the bench back to the majority of his action.
That effect combined with Dinwiddie keeping the Nets steady and in the East’s top half without Irving is a unique combination of a contribution.
2. Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Death, taxes and Lou Williams. He has broken 20 points in 14 games this season with two more cracking 30, averaging 21.1 points per game. That was to be expected, even with his slow start to the year. The 14-year veteran is a metronome of a bucket-getter.
His 6.3 assists per game, however, are on pace to be a career-high. While that may not have been anticipated, this will be Williams’ fifth year in a row raising that average. Those dispersals have not shorted Williams’ scoring, as everyone knows. That is all to say, the league’s ultimate sixth man, maybe its best ever, has improved as a complete player in the latter half of his possibly interminable career.
1. Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
At some point this year, this biweekly Sixth Man listing may need to become a one-man testament. Harrell is rendering the preceding four nominations moot. His 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are impressive, but his pivotal role with the Clippers is even more deserving of lauds.
His 29.7 minutes per game are fourth for Los Angeles — a category Williams actually tops — and his plus-156 leads the Clippers handily, with only Kawhi Leonard’s plus-144 within 60 of Harrell. Yes, Harrell’s on-court impact in Los Angeles rivals Kawhi Leonard’s, despite one of them coming off the bench in 20 of 22 games and the other being the reigning Finals MVP.
The season is still in the early aughts — but some classic and new frontrunners are here to stay. For now, we’ll have to see how Paul George, Kyrie Irving and others ultimately impact the leaders on this list, but the Sixth Man of the Year race has only just started to heat up.
NBA Daily: Equal Opportunity System With Butler Fueling HEAT
Seemingly always trapped in “good but not good enough” territory, the Miami HEAT have finally turned a corner. They might even be contenders, writes Drew Mays.
209 wins, 202 losses.
That’s what the Miami HEAT have to show in the record column since LeBron James left in the summer of 2014.
Their record tells us out loud what we’ve known over the last five years: Miami is a proud franchise. The team maximizes what it has and is a perennial postseason threat no matter who is on the roster.
Middling seasons aren’t necessarily a good thing by NBA standards, however. Competitiveness is a stepping stone to title contention. Without contention, it makes sense to bottom-out and rebuild through draft capital and assets. 40-win seasons are neither of these things.
But what the HEAT have in their favor is their location. NBA stars love South Beach. And this summer, Miami got what it needed: A star to push them over the hump in Jimmy Butler.
Butler wasn’t the shiniest addition, but he was one of the most important. A top-15 player, Butler’s antics in Minnesota frustrated his value over the past few seasons.
Those annoyances were overshadowed by his play for Philadelphia in the playoffs last spring — even with Joel Embiid, Butler may have been the 76ers’ best player. Either way, he was definitely their most important. He took control of games as a ball-handler down the stretch, repeatedly working from 15-feet and in and running pick-and-roll when the games screeched to a halt and defenses were loaded up. With Butler in tow, the Sixers were a few bounces away from the Eastern Conference Finals — although, he’d tell you they would’ve won the whole thing.
Instead of running it back in Philadelphia, Butler flew south in free agency to where he’d always wanted to go: Miami. His signing, followed by the arrival of rookie Tyler Herro, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn, a jump by Bam Adebayo and the support of the rest of the roster has the HEAT at 15-6 and poised to make a deep playoff run.
Miami has seven players averaging double figures. Kelly Olynk, averaging 9.2 per game, is close to making it eight. The balance extends beyond scoring numbers – those eight players all play between 23 and 34 minutes, with fifth starter Meyers Leonard as the lowest-used regular at just under 19 minutes per game. No one shoots the ball more than Nunn and his 13.8 attempts per game, and four players average over 4 assists each night.
While most teams are built on top-down schemes with a few stars and role players filling in the blanks, Miami is thriving in an equal-opportunity system. Much of this has to do with their culture and ability to amplify each player’s talents.
This even attack wouldn’t exist if Herro wasn’t flourishing in his rookie season; if Nunn hadn’t become a revelation after going undrafted in 2018; if Adebayo hadn’t made a leap, detailed recently by Jack Winter; if Goran Dragic hadn’t accepted going to the bench after starting essentially the last seven years; if Duncan Robinson hadn’t developed into an NBA rotation player.
All of these things are hard to predict individually, let alone them coming together at once. But with Miami, and with what we know about Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, it was almost a foregone conclusion.
Butler’s infusion into Miami’s culture has been the perfect marriage 20 games in. His toughness matches the HEAT’s, and he seems to respect the work ethic of his teammates – something that’s been a huge problem in the past. He’s been able to be “the guy” without forcing it, leading Miami in scoring, but trailing Nunn in attempts per game.
The HEAT’s diversity on offense has led to an effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent, second-best in the league. They’re 3rd in three-point percentage, 6th in two-point percentage, and 7th in free throws made. They’re 10th in assists. Even with their league-worst turnover percentage, they are 11th in offensive rating and 6th in overall net.
Defensively, the team is doing what Miami has traditionally done. They’re eighth-best in opponent field goal percentage and 2nd in the entire league in three-point percentage at 31.6%. In today’s NBA, defending the three-point line that well will breed success.
After defeating the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — and the defending champions’ subsequent loss to the Houston Rockets — the HEAT are tied with them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings. And we’re 20 games in, so what we’ve seen from them so far is real. They are contenders to represent the East in the Finals in June.
Toronto and the Boston Celtics are good. They’ve both had strong starts, bolstered by the ridiculousness of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Kemba Walker, respectively. But they aren’t markedly better than Miami. Are their offenses good enough to overcome the HEAT in a playoff series?
The Milwaukee Bucks, the proverbial frontrunner, still have the glaring non-Giannis weaknesses. They lost Malcolm Brogdon and showed their vulnerability by losing four straight in the conference finals last year. Philadelphia struggled out of the gate, but have won 8 of their last 11. But sans Jimmy Butler, the Sixers face the same questions they faced before his arrival in 2018-19: Who is the guy down the stretch? Who can create offense late in a playoff game?
That hasn’t been answered for Philadelphia yet. There’s no assurance that it’ll be answered at all. That question is answered in Miami.
They have Butler now. They have their star.
Combine that with Herro, Nunn, Adebayo, Dragic, Justise Winslow — who they haven’t even had for half of their games thus far — and the rest of the package, and Erik Spoelstra has what he hasn’t had since LeBron James was still in Miami.
Simple Problems With Difficult Solutions
Matt John takes a look at three teams that need to address weaknesses in their rosters and the challenges each team faces in doing so.
Remember when Carmelo Anthony was out of the NBA? That seems so long ago now even though his stint in Portland started less than a month ago.
Let’s go back to that time. In ‘Melo’s almost one-year exodus from the NBA, fans, media, and even players alike were begging for his return. To be fair, this was based more on his reputation as one of the best scorers of his time rather than his recent play with his previous two teams.
Looking back, it was a little odd that for almost an entire year, absolutely no one wanted to roll the dice on Carmelo. Not even on a non-guaranteed contract. But, what was even odder was that although he had plenty of advocates on his side, said advocates couldn’t collectively decide which team really needed him.
At this stage in his career, it was a little tricky to figure out what role he could play because it wasn’t clear how much he had left in the tank or how he’d adapt to his decline after his underwhelming performances with both Oklahoma City and Houston. There was a lot of demand for Carmelo to come back to the NBA. Where he should make his comeback was the question.
Of course, now, we’ve seen that Carmelo can still bring it – so far – if given the right opportunity. The simple problem, in this case, was that Carmelo needed another chance in the NBA. The difficult solution was that, at the time, there was no clear-cut team that would have been perfect for him to go.
That brings us to this season. We are approaching the 1/4th mark in the NBA regular season and now we’re starting to see the true colors of some of these teams. The following teams have simple problems that need to be fixed. At the same time, how they’re going to solve them will be tough to figure out.
San Antonio Spurs
With every minute that passes, the playoff odds are looking less and less in the Spurs’ favor. When was the last time anyone said that about San Antonio? 1996? The naysayers have been dreaming of this day for longer than Vince Carter’s entire career, but this might just be the moment they’ve been waiting for – the end of an era.
San Antonio is currently 8-14, they have a point differential of minus-4.0, and worst of all, they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the NBA. Maybe it would be different if Davis Bertans or Marcus Morris were around, but that doesn’t change that it’s only going to get harder from here.
Twenty-two games into the season and it’s clear the Spurs’ established stars – DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – do not mesh well with one other, sporting a net rating of minus-7.2 together. Any three-man lineup with DeRozan/Aldridge plus one of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White has a frighteningly negative net rating – all are minus-7.3 or lower.
It gets worse. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have very negative net ratings – Spurs are minus-10.5 with Aldridge on the court, minus-13.3 with DeRozan. All three of Murray, White, and Forbes have negative net ratings as well, but why it looks worse for the former All-Stars is because those two are supposed to be the main ingredients of a projected playoff team and they’re most certainly not that right now.
Trading them would be the advisable next step but to who is the million-dollar question. Both of them are really good players. They’re just not great players. They’re both lethal scorers. Both of them can put up 20-30 points on any given night. The real issue is that even if they put up their usual numbers, that doesn’t always equate to a win. If you don’t believe that, look at the Spurs’ record again.
Aldridge would be easier to trade on paper because his contract is more favorable since it’s guaranteed for next season, but potentially trading for DeRozan is a little more delicate of a situation. DeMar has a player option after this season, which can be a catch-22 for players like him. If he plays well, he’ll opt out of the contract and go for his next payday. If he doesn’t, he’ll opt-in and drag the cap down another season.
That makes it harder for teams to invest assets for a guy like him. He would usually be worth more if his contract was longer, but the risk of him leaving after less than one season is too big to give up something good for him. There are teams that could definitely use the offensive boost that DeMar provides, but they may not have the matching contracts nor be willing to offer the young value that the Spurs would want in a deal.
Some retooling definitely looks in order for San Antonio, but this situation is a lot more complicated than it was last year.
At 15-5, the Celtics are both exceeding expectations and are fun to watch. In other words, they look like a Brad Stevens team again.
Boston’s offense has looked much-improved thanks to both better production from Brown, Hayward and Jayson Tatum as well as letting their most egregious ball stoppers walk. By having less pure scorers on the team, there are a lot more touches to go around, which has made the offense look more fluid than it did last year.
What’s more surprising than their more team-oriented offense is their stingy defense. The Celtics have the sixth-best defensive rating, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, despite losing Al Horford and Aron Baynes.
Marcus Smart’s ability to cover just about anyone on the basketball court provides so much cushion for them on the defensive end. Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum have all been stingy switchable wings that make life harder for opponents. Even guys like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams have proven to be passable options as undersized centers.
Even their pure bigs haven’t been that bad. Daniel Theis has been excellent as the team’s most reliable rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 52 percent at the rim, and Enes Kanter has the third-best net rating among rotation players, as Boston is plus-5.6 with him on the floor.
Despite that, no matter how good this Celtics crew may look, the knock on them will be the same until they change it: They need an upgrade in the frontcourt.
Theis has been about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for from him, but as of now he can only reasonably be counted on for 20-25 minutes at most. The Celtics have done a great job covering Kanter’s holes, but is that going to hold up in the postseason? Robert Williams III has made substantial progress, but the young mistakes he makes demonstrate that he’s still a year or two away.
Boston has been better than what many thought they would be, but they’d rest easy knowing they had another dependable option in their frontcourt.
Where do they get one though? They don’t have any expendable contracts to give up in a deal. They’ve made it clear that neither Hayward nor Smart are going anywhere, and for good reason. The only other big contract they have on the books is Kemba Walker, and they’re definitely not trading him.
Since Theis and Kanter get paid $5 million each, it’s hard to combine them for an upgrade because the hypothetical upgrade they would need would cost more than that. Since those two are Boston’s most proven bigs, it’d be hard to see them getting rid of both. Their only option might be the buyout market in February, which is a risky game to play.
As good as Boston has been, they haven’t squelched the fears surrounding their frontcourt issues. It only makes you wonder what this team would look like if they still had Al Horford.
They may not be a good team right now, and probably won’t be a good team for a couple of years, but how can you not like this young Memphis Grizzlies team?
They’ve hit two consecutive bulls-eyes with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant. They’ve got some good complementary veterans in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder as well as good complementary young guys like Brandon Clarke and Dillion Brooks.
It might be weird to say this, but even though they are one of the worst teams in the league, they’re ahead of schedule. The pieces are in place. They are forming a good culture. They probably will get another high lottery pick depending on what record they finish with. It’s a far cry from the Grit-n-Grind era, but the promise the young Grizzlies possess is undeniable.
There’s only one elephant in the room – Andre Iguodala. He’s been an issue that they’ve been avoiding ever since they acquired a first-round pick by adding his “services.” The word “issue” should be taken with a huge grain of salt because it’s not really causing any disruption. Iguodala wants to play for a winner, and Memphis wants to get something good for him.
It makes all the sense in the world. Neither side owes the other anything. Iguodala shouldn’t be spending what’s left of his career on a team that just pressed the reset button. Memphis shouldn’t let a guy with his skillset go if he can be had for something. Even at almost 36, Iggy is still a valuable player.
Besides the fact that no one is going to offer a first-round pick for a role player in his mid-30’s on an expiring deal, the biggest issue for the Grizzlies is that hardly any team vying for his services has an expendable matching contract to trade for Andre and his $17+ million contract.
Most teams who have expendable deals in the NBA are ones that don’t have any use for Andre because they’re not going anywhere. Atlanta, Cleveland, Charlotte, Detroit are all teams that have guys on overpaid deals that are worth giving up, but the likelihood that they go for a guy like him with the place they are at now isn’t likely.
Teams like the Clippers, Blazers or HEAT could certainly put themselves in the bidding, but that would require sacrificing guys who are thriving in their rotation, like Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless, or Kent Bazemore.
The one option that makes sense is Dallas. They have a player currently out of their rotation that is being paid enough to be used to get Andre – Courtney Lee. They definitely need some help along the wing, and Iguodala would bring championship experience to a team that has exceeded all reasonable expectations.
What Dallas might do is try to see if they can get a better overall player since the team has both Lee’s and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts that can be used to acquire a star. They don’t have a lot of assets, but that may be worth looking into first before looking at Iguodala.
Releasing Iguodala would be Memphis’ last resort, which they don’t want to do, but finding an acceptable trade partner is going to be difficult especially if they want to get something back for him. The longer they wait, the lesser the value.