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?
Anfernee Simons Can Grow, But Disappointing Blazers Set Him Up To Fail
The Blazers had big expectations for Anfernee Simons this season. The sophomore guard hasn’t lived up to them, calling into question both his long-term potential and Portland’s ability for self-evaluation.
Wide-eyed optimism runs notoriously rampant at all NBA media days.
Before training camp opens and the real games tip off, players, coaches and executives alike inevitably fall victim to the unmitigated promise provided by another season to prove themselves at the game’s highest level. Even so, it’s not hard to suss through the league-wide landscape and pinpoint teams whose hopes and beliefs espoused on media day are rooted far more in reality than the afterglow of summer.
The Portland Trail Blazers’, though, existed somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers exuded the sweeping confidence at media day that would be necessary for them to compensate for a major talent deficit compared to the Western Conference’s true elite.
Hassan Whiteside predicted multiple triple-doubles while playing in Portland’s dribble-handoff heavy attack. Mario Hezonja was féted by his new teammates and coaches as a game-changing point forward. Rodney Hood called his mindset “night and day” compared to last season, while Kent Bazemore admitted that he imagined himself being the Blazers’ “missing piece” while watching last season’s playoffs.
“This year,” Damian Lillard said on Sep. 30, “Our focus is to win the championship.”
Just over halfway through 2019-20, Portland’s focus has shifted dramatically. At 20-27 and tenth-place in the West, with the league’s 19th-best net rating, that much is clear. What’s less obvious and will prove instrumental in charting the path forward is how realistic their goal of winning a title this season was in the first place.
Imagine a world in which Portland’s offseason additions lived up to media-day hype and Jusuf Nurkic quickly regained the form that made him a two-way impact player upon returning from injury. Imagine Neil Olshey flipped Whiteside’s expiring contract for a proven playoff performer on the wing or up in front.
Where would that leave Anfernee Simons?
The same place he is right now – as the Blazers’ third guard. But instead of fading into the background of a lost season, Simons might be Portland’s biggest question mark with the playoffs fast approaching.
Olshey, like the Blazers’ players and coaches, forecasted much bigger things for his team this season than a fight for the last playoff spot in the conference. Among the rosier reasons why were his outlandish preseason expectations for Simons, a 20-year-old sophomore that notched just 141 minutes in the NBA last season after spending the previous year at prep powerhouse IMG Academy.
Gushing about Portland’s revamped roster at media day, Olshey said Simons is “the best young guard in the league.”
The Blazers had been hyping Simons for months, priming local and national media for a breakout campaign they made seem like a formality. Olshey is known for his unflinching and often outlandish optimism. No one realistic thought Simons would challenge for Sixth Man of the Year while backing up Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, let alone match the prorated production of precocious guards from his draft class like Trae Young or Shae Gilgeous-Alexander.
Even outsiders less familiar with Simons’ game, though, anticipated more than what he’s given Portland over the season’s first four months.
Simons is averaging 9.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 23.1 minutes per game. He’s connecting on an ugly 31.7 percent of his spot-up tries from deep, and shooting just 42.0 percent on drives, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Simons as the Blazers’ lead guard, or situations without Lillard or McCollum next to him, possess a 90.3 offensive rating – over 13 points lower than the Golden State Warriors’ league-worst mark.
Nearly as disheartening as the numbers is the eye test. A potential dunk-contest participant at All-Star Weekend with rare burst and fluidity, Simons’ elite athletic profile has been manifested during games on fleeting occasions this season. Absent a head of steam in transition or ample space to rise for alley-oops in the halfcourt, you’d have no idea Simons has routinely been described by Portland as one of the best overall athletes in the NBA.
None of this is to suggest that Simons is doomed. This season is his first taste of real NBA basketball. His blend of raw, on-ball scoring ability and physical tools still tantalize.
It’s not Simons that deserves criticism for underperforming expectations, but Olshey for slotting him in a role he’s definitely not ready to play. Under head coach Terry Stotts, the Blazers have relied on consistent productivity from third guards as much as any team in the league save the Dallas Mavericks. If Olshey wasn’t absolutely certain that Simons could come close to replicating the play of Seth Curry and Shabazz Napier over the years, while sprinkling in dashes of future stardom, earmarking such a crucial place in the rotation for him was always setting Simons up to disappoint.
In that vein, Portland’s failure to live up to preseason title aspirations could be considered a blessing. Simons’ development wouldn’t be hastened by cutting his teeth as the Blazers’ third guard while they chased a championship. The relative lack of pressure playing for a team whose dreams of playing in June have already vanished should make Simons’ ongoing acclimation to NBA basketball a bit easier.
That’s the only silver lining for Portland to glean from wasting a year of Lillard’s prime. The belief in-house is that the Blazers will recover from a debilitating spate of injuries, re-tool on the edges of the rotation and enter next season with the same sense of championship promise as they did this one.
But as 2019-20 has made so abundantly clear, Olshey’s capacity to accurately evaluate the strength of his roster will again loom large – and maybe, without the loftiest of expectations on his shoulders, Simons can still become the player Portland insists he will be.
NBA Daily: Kobe’s 81 Is An Untouchable Feat
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accomplishments and records, his 81-point game is the one that has no peer.
Of Kobe Bryant’s lengthy list of accolades, accomplishments and records, the most obvious of them may also be the most under-appreciated.
NBA fans can cite Kobe contemporaries that can match his five NBA championships. In addition to Tim Duncan and Steve Kerr, LeBron James is at No. 3 and still counting. And of course, James passed Kobe’s 33,643 career points just this weekend, moving into third all-time.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
Kobe’s career-high 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 falls short of James Harden’s current stretch, averaging 36.07 this season and 36.13 last year. In fact, Harden’s career average of 24.97 points slots just behind Kobe’s 24.99, both behind LeBron’s 27.10 and Kevin Durant’s 27.02.
But no modern player has come close to Kobe’s legendary 81-point game during that 2006 season. Sure, Devin Booker tallied 70 three years ago and David Robinson got to 71 back in 1994, but neither were actually that close to Kobe’s iconic torching of the Toronto Raptors.
When Booker poured in 70 against the Boston Celtics, he needed 40 field goal attempts to do it. At his shooting rates that March night, he would have needed to take another seven shots to reach Kobe’s 81. If he didn’t attempt more free throws, then that number ticks up to 10 more attempts.
Sticking to that math, Robinson’s 71 would have needed six more hoists to beat Kobe to 81, a total of 47 hypothetical attempts.
By no means was Kobe the epitome of efficiency when he outscored everyone but Wilt Chamberlain by going 28-of-46 and 7-of-13 from deep – supplemented by an 18-of-20 performance at the free throw line. Nonetheless, he was hardly detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense.
In the last 40 years, only five players have come within 20 points of Kobe’s singular feat while shooting at rates such that they could have theoretically gotten to 81 points on fewer than his 46 field goal attempts. Two of those, naturally, came from Kobe himself.
|Player||Date||Points||FGA||Total FGA needed to reach 81|
For someone long-criticized for his shot volume, Kobe was the definition of an efficient mass scorer more often than anyone else, to such a degree he has essentially been without a peer for 30 years.
Aside from Thompson, the obvious nominee of who might match Kobe is a healthy Stephen Curry, even though he has never scored more than 54 points in a game. When Curry reached that mark at Madison Square Garden in 2013, he would have needed to take another 14 shots to have a genuine chance at 81, for a total of 42 attempts. His 53-point effort in 2015 would have also needed to get to 42 attempts to be on pace to match Kobe.
There is, however, another volume scorer to watch, one who came within 20 points of Kobe’s best just last week. Damian Lillard’s week warrants Kobe-esque notice.
Last Monday: 61 points on 17-of-37 shooting against the Warriors; would have need 50 shots to catch Kobe.
Thursday: 47 points on 16-of-28 shooting against the Mavericks; would have needed 49 shots to catch Kobe.
Sunday: 50 points on 14-of-23 shooting against the Pacers, would have needed 38 shots to catch Kobe.
To wit, take last night as an example: Lillard scored 50 points in an impeccably efficient matter, but if he had somehow not missed a single shot, he would have scored only 74 points.
Fittingly, a monomaniacal guard with a penchant for game-winning shots is the one scoring in bunches in ways that can be compared to only Kobe – yet the Portland Trail Blazers’ guard remains far short of the 81-point standard.
But that just goes to show how amazing Kobe’s night on Jan. 22, 2006 really was.
The five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer achieved many things and left an imprint beyond our grasp this tragic week, but his one night of heaviest binge scoring may be the least likely piece of his career to ever be repeated.
It has no modern peer and even those the closest to matching it have tended to fall a dozen shots and 20 points short.
But that day? In today’s modern NBA landscape, that’s a great chance we’ll never, ever see something quite like it again.
Kobe Bryant, a legend and icon in so, so many ways.
NBA Daily: Deadline Dilemma In Toronto
After winning the 2019 NBA Championship and losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have defied the odds, winning 30 of their first 44 games this season — but Drew Maresca argues that conceding this season in hopes of building an even stronger future roster is the smarter long-term move.
The Raptors have overachieved in a ridiculous way in 2019-20. They were +700 to repeat as NBA champions prior to the 2019 free agency period, according to the Draft Kings.
Immediately after Kawhi Leonard fled West, the Raptors’ odds grew to +2200 to repeat – tied with the Celtics, who just lost Kyrie Irving, and the Nets, whose best player was set to miss the entire year. And yet through 44 games, the Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference with a 31-14 record and only one-and-a-half games behind last year’s pace (32-12).
But what’s in a record? There’s more to unpack than just wins and losses, especially when success has almost certainly been redefined in a city that just experienced its first NBA championship ever. So a logical test is how well you’re playing against the crème de la crème. And in that regard, the Raptors haven’t fared too well. Including their home win against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, the Raptors are still only 7-12 against winning teams with a net rating of minus-37 in those 19 games.
Very few teams would be terribly upset to be in a similar situation as the Raptors. In fact, most teams would be thrilled to be third overall in their conference. But the Raptors are barreling toward an interesting decision: embrace the opportunity to continue to gain playoff experience (and additional playoff revenue) or expedite a miniature rebuild. This writer’s thoughts on the matter are well documented in our 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Season Preview and our recent Atlantic Division – buyers or sellers piece. But let’s officially build a case supporting the Raptors trading some of their veterans in an attempt to add assets prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The Raptors’ most valuable trade chip is also their longest-tenured player – starting point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry is 33 years old and experiencing a career resurgence after taking a back seat to Leonard last year. Lowry is averaging a near career-high 37.1 minutes per game, in which time he’s scoring 20 points per game – more than he’s scored since 2016-17 — and dishing out 7.5 assists.
But Lowry is probably the last guy the team wants to move. He’s a fan favorite and has been with the team for eight consecutive seasons; Lowry is currently third overall for games played in franchise history. But if they chose to dangle Lowry on the trade market, they would certainly get a good amount of interest from teams like the Lakers, HEAT, 76ers and maybe even the Jazz and Nuggets. What interested parties would offer is an entirely different story, but it would have to be pretty aggressive to get the Raptors to part with their franchise player.
But there are other guys who make more sense in a trade.
There’s Marc Gasol, their soon-to-be 35-year-old center. Unlike Lowry, Gasol is not experiencing a career renaissance. He’s missed 12 of their 44 games, with down years in scoring (7.8 points per game compared to his 14.7 career average), two-point shooting (44% compared to his from 49.7% career average) and rebounds (6.4 rebounds compared to his 7.6. career average). But he still has a good amount of utility in him. After all, he leads the Raptors in defensive plus/minus, per Basketball Reference – something that he’s prided himself on throughout his career and an attribute that would be a welcomed addition to most contenders.
There’s also Serge Ibaka, their 30-year-old sometimes-starting, sometimes-backup big man. Ibaka is actually outpacing career averages in scoring (14.9), rebounds (8.4) and assists (1.3). Ibaka is still widely viewed as an above-average and versatile defender, and the fact that he’s shooting 37% on three-pointers makes him all the more valuable to teams like the Boston Celtics – who lack a true big man who can stretch the floor.
Gasol and Ibaka’s standing in Toronto is especially vulnerable since both will enter free agency this summer — whereas Lowry signed an extension last year that runs through 2020-21, when he’ll make $30.5 million. The Raptors could choose to keep Gasol and/or Ibaka, but either or both could walk without returning any assets as soon as this July. Further, the team is unlikely to break the bank for either considering they’ll have to make a generous offer to retain soon-to-be free agent guard Fred VanVleet – who is having a breakout season, averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 38.8% on a career-high 6.9 three-point attempts per game. VanVleet is only 25 years old and fits alongside Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and the team’s young role players like Norman Powell far better than Ibaka or Gasol.
As it stands, the Raptors have about $85 million in salary commitments for 2020-21 with $3.8 million in a player option (Stanley Johnson) and another $1.5 million in a team option (Terence Davis). The cap is projected at $116 million with the luxury tax kicking in at $141 million. They can (and should) invest between $20 and $25 million per year in VanVleet, which brings them up to about $110 million. If negotiations begin creeping north of $25 million per year, the Raptors will have to make concessions elsewhere if they hope to retain VanVleet – Ibaka would theoretically be among those concessions since he’ll probably be looking for at least one more generous payday. It’s unclear what Gasol would seek in a new contract.
All three of the aforementioned Raptors have at least one thing in common – they are the only three Raptors born before 1990. So whether they like it or not, the Raptors have turned their roster over quickly and effectively to the extent that they have a talented young core with the framework of a contender in the making.
All three veteran players can definitely continue contributing for at least the remainder of this season – and to varying degrees, well beyond it. But their impact will be more profound on a contender looking to add quality veterans. And despite what their record tells us, that’s just not the Raptors right now.
Instead, the Raptors are a team in the very fortunate position of being able to reload relatively quickly around a blossoming young core. Yes, they’re significantly better than average, but which would you prefer: a team that qualifies for the conference semifinals in 2019-20 or a team that loses in the first round of the 2019-20 playoffs, but adds additional assets — some of whom help the team remain competitive for years to come?
Granted, dislodging Lowry from Toronto requires a monster offer and would result in at least some backlash; but neglecting to trade Gasol and/or Ibaka is likely to result in one or both leaving to pursue more money and/or additional championships – neither of which can the Raptors offer. The Raptors and team president Masai Ujiri have made bold moves time and again. There is no reason to hold off on moving either Gasol and/or Ibaka before Feb. 6 – and if a sweetheart offer comes in for Lowry, then him, too.
Regardless, the Raptors are fairly well set up for the future, so it is unlikely that this move (or lack of it) is analyzed too aggressively in the future. And also, there is certainly a fine line between being opportunist and greedy. But trading one, both or all veterans allows the team to add additional assets to a cupboard that already looks pretty well stocked.
And it’s probably one of the final opportunities to add talent before their core takes its final form — and if that form results in future championships is partially dependent on how the Raptors proceed before the 2020 trade deadline.
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