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?
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