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NBA Daily: The Eastern Conference X-Factors

Drew Mays takes a look at four Eastern Conference players whose play will swing their team’s fortunes one way or the other.

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The NBA is a star-driven league, and 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 – you need an X-Factor, a player that can elevate his game either as a complement or when your stars are struggling.

So, with the season nearly underway, Basketball Insiders decided to examine a handful of those players who could have a significant impact on the success of their respective teams in the Eastern Conference. To make it more interesting, we tried to stay away from All-Stars.

Josh Richardson

Philadelphia rolls out one of the quirkiest starting lineups of recent memory. As the league trends towards downsizing, the 76ers bet big, re-signing Tobias Harris and acquiring Al Horford and Josh Richardson in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s departure. Their starting five will be (maybe) the best in the league and an absolute terror on defense.

But Richardson determines how far this team can go. While Butler was the headline exit, JJ Redick’s could be just as impactful. Outside of Redick, Philly didn’t really have any floor spacers – paramount in an offense whose two best players are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Harris is a career 36 percent three-point shooter and he shot only 33 percent since joining the Sixers in the spring.

He shot 36 percent last season on almost nine attempts per game, a rate that was hampered by his 29 percent clip on off the dribble threes. Now on a team with more talented and versatile offensive weapons, more of his looks should come on spot-up attempts, and those pull-up three numbers should decrease.

Richardson’s biggest offensive responsibility may come in the playoffs as a ballhandler. Simmons’ lack of shooting glows in the postseason – so Jimmy Butler took the lead, operating in isolation and out of the pick and roll. Richardson was occasionally overtaxed as a playmaker in Miami. But with less of a burden throughout the regular season, he can hopefully provide it in spurts when playoff defenses load up on the non-shooting Simmons.

Cooler, he’s a stud defensively. Having him will be a welcome change from hiding Redick on that side of the ball. If Richardson can combine his defense with a portion of Redick’s shooting and Butler’s playmaking, the 76ers will find themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

Caris LeVert

LeVert was on a star-like trajectory before dislocating his foot last November. During his three-month absence, D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star and the Nets morphed into a trendy playoff team. LeVert returned in February, struggling for two months before being Brooklyn’s best player in their first-round playoff defeat.

Now, the Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With Durant set to miss the entire season, LeVert is in prime position to show whether he’s the third member of Brooklyn’s new big three, or an ancillary player for their big two.

Against Philadelphia in the postseason, LeVert was the only Net who could get anything going. He averaged 21/4.6/3.0 on 61.2 percent true shooting in only 29 minutes per game, using his length to get in the lane and challenge the bigs, something Russell was unable to do.

LeVert has the makeup of a prototypical secondary star. He isn’t a full-time lead ballhandler, but he has the talent to do so for stretches – his 24 percent usage in the regular season spiked to 26.9 percent during the playoffs – and he has the same slithery moves you see from someone like Paul George. George was a much better shooter, but his early Indiana years are comparable to what LeVert’s been able to do over the last season when healthy.

If he can stay on this path and bump his three-point percentage up to league-average, Brooklyn may have a third All-Star to join Kyrie and Durant.

If he doesn’t, the Nets will still have a good, useful player – just not one who can get them by Philadelphia or Milwaukee prior to Durant’s New York-era debut next year.

T.J. Warren

The Pacers are a mystery. Victor Oladipo is still months away from a return. Domantas Sabonis just signed an extension, but Indiana is still trying to figure out how, and if, they can play him with Myles Turner. Speaking of Turner: No one can figure out what he is, or if he’s going to make the mini-leap analysts have predicted for years.

Yet they are historically a postseason staple and they held it together without Oladipo last season. They added Malcolm Brogdon and whatever you think about his money, he’s a hyper-efficient secondary or tertiary playmaker and scorer. Between Brogdon, Sabonis, Turner and newcomer Jeremy Lamb, the Pacers boast four guys that averaged between 14.1 and 15.6 points per game. That’s not a bad problem to have, but someone inevitably has to take the reins as the go-to guy.

T.J. Warren could be the guy to do that. Over the last two seasons, Warren has averaged over 20 points per game per 36 minutes on 55 percent true shooting. After taking only 90 threes in 2017-18, Warren launched 180 from behind the arc and shot an impressive 42.8 percent. This occurred in Phoenix – so there’s a reason to believe this shooting is sustainable with more talented teammates.

There’s a chance Warren’s numbers with the Suns were empty calories on a tanking team. However, at 6-foot-8 and with improved range, Warren projects as a scoring stretch wing on a team that desperately needs it. The final piece of encouragement is this: Assuming that Oladipo comes back as some close-to form of the All-NBA player he was pre-injury, Warren only needs to be a primary scorer for two or three months.

If he manages to do so, Indiana will stay afloat and remain a playoff team. If he doesn’t, they’ll find themselves on the outside looking in when Oladipo returns.

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward may be the most obvious X-Factor in this group; he’s the only former free-agent darling and former All-Star. But after a disappointing 2019-20 that saw Boston win just 49 games, the Celtics may win even less without a full-year of an effective Hayward.

Outside of the top two, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Hayward’s play has the chance to swing Boston anywhere from the No. 3 overall seed to the six or maybe the seventh, contingent on Miami with Butler and pending any midseason moves. The Celtics also lost Al Horford. A tough task already, they will look to replace him with Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. After a down sophomore year, it seems rash to assume Jayson Tatum will fix himself.

Hayward’s return to his former glory renders these issues void. It adds a second All-Star alongside Kemba Walker and lightens the playmaking load on him as well. It would also lessen the burden on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to produce points, a welcome addition in an offense that should have more continuity than last year.

As currently constructed, Boston has only one star. Hayward’s ascension not only gives them a second but gives Tatum more room to become the potential third. His play post-All-Star needs to be the norm if the Celtics want to remain in the top half of the conference.

These four may not make an All-Star team this season, but their performances will have just as big of impacts on their respective teams as any other players in the Eastern 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?

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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