Although the play of superstars is the most important deciding factor for teams facing off in the NBA playoffs, it’s sometimes the contributions of role players that can help swing a series.
In the past, there have been breakout performances from young-players-turned-X-Factors that have helped decide postseason outcomes, like when a 23-year-old Tayshaun Prince became a defensive monster in the 2004 playoffs and helped the Detroit Pistons reach, and ultimately win, the NBA Finals.
At other times, it’s the veterans who come through for their teams in the postseason and help them vanquish elite opponents, like when Danny Green shot 48.2 percent from three over the course of the 2013 playoffs, and 55.1 percent in the Finals, when the San Antonio Spurs came within one game of a title.
Below, we break down the top candidate on each 2018-19 playoff team to be a series-changing X-Factor.
X-Factor: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
How rookie floor general Shai Gilgeous-Alexander responds to his first taste of playoff basketball will go a long way toward determining whether the Clippers can make things interesting against the Golden State Warriors in Round 1.
Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t receive the fanfare of fellow first-year guards Luka Doncic or Trae Young, but the Kentucky product had a solid rookie campaign in his own right, averaging 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game. His teammate and backcourt partner Patrick Beverley even tweeted that the young Canadian deserved more love in this season’s heated Rookie of the Year campaign:
If Gilgeous-Alexander is able to produce over these next few games like he did in the regular season, the Clippers may be able to steal a game or two from the defending champions. If he gets played off the floor, however, Los Angeles will probably find themselves at the wrong end of a sweep.
X-Factor: Draymond Green
Possibly the league’s biggest X-Factor of the last few seasons, Draymond Green isn’t as smooth or talented as his All-Star teammates, but he is still one of the most important players on the best team in the league.
Green’s ability to defend plodding bigs down low or switch on the perimeter onto quicker guards makes Golden State’s defense an extremely difficult one to crack, especially when they’re locked in, while his mastery of hitting cutters and feeding shooters when they’re open helps the Warriors’ offense click.
And if Green can knock down his open looks from deep once the postseason starts as he did two playoffs ago when he shot 41 percent from three, then Golden State goes from merely hard-to-beat to nearly unstoppable.
X-Factor: Derrick White
Second-year player Derrick White has quietly posted a strong season for the Spurs, starting 55 games for the five-time championship franchise, and putting up 9.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists nightly.
Per Synergy, among players with at least 400 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (passes included), White ranks 16th in production at 1.02 points per possession (PPP), which trails Chris Paul by just one spot, but puts him ahead of LeBron James (1.01 PPP) and Stephen Curry (1.01 PPP).
White saw action in just 18 playoff minutes last season, so this year will be his first true taste of postseason playing time – and how he responds to that elevated intensity will go a long way in bolstering (or hurting) San Antonio’s chances. Facing off against a team with excellent guard play, White’s defense will be vital if the Spurs are to upset the Denver Nuggets, and if he can shoulder some of the scoring load to boot, this series could get very interesting despite the seed disparity.
X-Factor: Malik Beasley
Although his numbers dipped a bit over the last few weeks of the season, Malik Beasley still turned in an impressive campaign for Denver, averaging 11.3 points and 2.0 three-pointers per game, shooting 47.4 percent from the floor and 40.2 percent from beyond the arc.
According to Synergy, Beasley ranked in the “excellent” range as both a spot-up shooter (1.22 PPP; 93rd percentile) and as a transition scorer (1.33 PPP; 87th percentile) – two play types that helped Beasley turn in a magnificently efficient season.
Whether Beasley can find his early-season form will help determine the outcome of this series, especially due to the fact that Gary Harris has struggled returning from injury for most of the year while Will Barton has battled consistency issues for much of 2018-19, which has made Beasley’s tidy production all the more important to Denver’s cause.
X-Factor: Dennis Schroeder
Thunder backup point guard Dennis Schroeder had an up-and-down 2018-19 season, at times looking like a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate and at other times looking unworthy of a rotational spot on a playoff-caliber team.
Schroeder’s real value lies somewhere between those two extremes, as the German point guard can be quite productive, but usually at the expense of efficiency. For the season, the 25-year-old averaged 15.5 points, 4.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per contest on 41.4/34.1/81.9 shooting splits.
Thanks to Schroeder’s ability to get hot and his unshakable confidence, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take over a fourth quarter and leave a major mark on a playoff game or two. But just as likely as that happening is Schroeder putting up an absolute stinker with Oklahoma City struggling during his time on the floor. It remains to be seen which version shows up.
X-Factor: Enes Kanter
We could have gone with Moe Harkless here, as the underrated wing has the tendency to make vitally important plays late in games for the Blazers.
Instead, though, we chose Enes Kanter as Portland’s X-Factor, primarily because of the massive vacancy he’s filling as the Blazers’ new starting center. After losing Jusuf Nurkic, who was having the best year of his career, to a brutal leg injury, Portland was forced to turn to Kanter as their new starting big man.
So far, it seems like the 26-year-old is taking well to the new role. As a starter over seven games to close the regular season, Kanter put up 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds per game on 60.4 percent shooting.
However, Kanter’s ability to put up impressive numbers has never been in question. It’s his contributions on the less glamorous end of the floor that has been a concern, and if he’s not able to at least partially slow down former teammates Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams in their pick-and-roll forays, then Portland is going to be in huge trouble this series.
X-Factor: Royce O’Neale
Second-year forward and one of the players who will surely be tasked with trying to slow down James Harden, Royce O’Neale will quietly be one of the Jazz’s most important players in this series.
O’Neale didn’t post a huge season statistically, averaging just 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, but he did shoot 38.6 percent from three while providing excellent defense on the perimeter, making him one of the most underrated 3-and-D types league-wide.
It’ll be nearly impossible for Utah to completely shut down Harden, but guys like O’Neale and Jae Crowder can at least make life hard for him. And who knows? Perhaps Crowder will share some of the Harden-stopping tips he got from Beverley with O’Neale.
X-Factor: Austin Rivers
As a member of the Houston Rockets, Austin Rivers has carved out a nice role as a defensive-minded guard who can play both on and off the ball.
His numbers as a Rocket – 8.7 points and 2.3 assists per game – weren’t overly noteworthy, but Houston doesn’t need him to score a lot to make an impact. What they need him to do is play hounding defense on the perimeter and knock down open threes.
And up against a team like Utah, with an explosive scorer like Donovan Mitchell manning the lead-guard spot, Rivers’ point-stopping contributions will be vital for Houston’s chances.
X-Factor: Luke Kennard
The Pistons face a huge task ahead against the regular season’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks. And with a gimpy Blake Griffin, who’s day-to-day as we enter the playoffs, that task might be nearly impossible.
Even so, this is the NBA and stranger things have happened, so you can never truly count any team out. But for Detroit to have a chance, they’re going to need huge contributions from their non-star level players, guys like Ish Smith, Wayne Ellington and… Luke Kennard.
The second-year pro out of Duke put up a decent 2018-19 season, and, more importantly, got better late in the campaign when games started to really matter. Over his last 11 games of the regular season, Kennard put up 11.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, knocking down a fiery 43.1 percent of his triples.
If Kennard can stay hot over the next couple of weeks, if Griffin doesn’t miss any postseason action and if the other Pistons play over their heads, Detroit may have a chance of pulling off the upset.
Not a great one, probably, but a chance nonetheless.
X-Factor: Pat Connaughton
By product of Milwaukee having so many injuries to their strong group of role players, picking who their playoff X-Factor will be wasn’t easy.
So we went with Pat Connaughton.
The Notre Dame product will have an important job to open the postseason for Milwaukee: filling the backup guard role for the injured Malcolm Brogdon.
Thus far, he seems to be taking to the role well.
Over his last 12 games, Connaughton is playing nearly 30 minutes nightly and averaging 10.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per outing on awesome 51.6/38.8/75.0 shooting splits. Connaughton won’t be asked to do much outside of knock down open threes, defend and attack the glass, but as long as he can succeed doing that job, the Bucks will be even harder to beat four times in seven games.
X-Factor: Jonathan Isaac
Second-year forward Jonathan Isaac bounced back nicely after an injury-riddled rookie campaign, suiting up in 75 contests over the course of 2018-19, and averaging 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Statistically, the Orlando Magic were a better team this season with Isaac on the floor and that’s because, even in spite of his inconsistent offense, he is already one of the most impactful young defenders in the Association.
Isaac was one of just 10 players this year to total at least 98 blocks and 59 steals, joining the likes of defensive stalwarts such as Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert on the list. His ability to stop opponents one-on-one on the wing, rack up deflections and sky in out of nowhere to protect the paint make him a special point-stopper, especially considering he’s just 21 years old.
And if the Magic are to have a chance against the Toronto Raptors, they’re going to need every bit of Isaac’s defensive impact on a nightly basis.
X-Factor: Norman Powell
At this point last year, we might have gone with Pascal Siakam as Toronto’s X-Factor. This year, however, that’s impossible considering Siakam has developed into one of the East’s better wing players.
So instead, we’re going to go with one of his fellow forwards, Norman Powell. Despite an overall inconsistent season, Powell managed to put up a career-high 8.6 points per game in 2018-19 while knocking down a pristine 40.0 percent of his triples.
What’s more, if his recent form is to be taken into account, Powell is heating up even more at the perfect time, as the UCLA product is putting up 11.3 points over his last nine games, nailing an insane 63.3 percent from deep in the process.
Although that clip can’t possibly stay that high, even if it dips, Powell’s still shooting well enough this year to force the respect of defenses, and that, plus his athleticism on the wing in transition, could make him a candidate for a surprising outburst or two over the playoffs.
X-Factor: Caris LeVert
In his first 18 games back from an ugly leg injury, Caris LeVert shot a paltry 34.8 percent from the floor, 24.2 percent from three and put up 9.0 points per game. This was understandable, considering the nature of the injury he suffered.
Luckily for the Nets, however, LeVert looks like he’s starting to find his pre-injury form. Since March 25, the 6-foot-7 swingman is averaging 16.0 points, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals per contest, shooting 48.9 percent and 45.2 percent from three.
If the Nets can get that guy – the one who looked like a frontrunner for Most Improved Player at one point – back for the playoffs, it’ll give them a huge boost for their series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
X-Factor: Jonathon Simmons/James Ennis
For the 76ers, their postseason outlook will likely hinge on what they can get out of their role players. Overall, the team is very much top heavy, as their starters are all either All-Stars or elite shooters while their bench is completely lackluster.
As such, we decided to go with their two top reserve wings, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis, as their X-Factors. In order to make actual noise these playoffs, the Sixers will need at least one of them to break out of their season-long funk to contribute some much needed two-way play off the bench.
The likelier candidate to do so is Simmons, since he has shot 42.9 percent from three over 15 games as a 76er, and also because Ennis could be out for another week with a quad contusion. But Ennis, the springier and longer of the two, could be counted on more once he returns for his defensive and transition contributions.
Either way, Philadelphia absolutely needs to get something out of at least one of these wings.
X-Factor: Wesley Matthews
Wesley Matthews started his stint with the Indiana Pacers off hot, but has since cooled off considerably.
Over his last 10 contests, Matthews is averaging 8.4 points and 2.8 assists on 36.1/32.6/75.0 shooting splits. Not so coincidentally, over that stretch, the Pacers had the league’s 19th-ranked offense at 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions, a number that could be a death sentence if it’s not improved upon once the playoffs arrive.
At the very least, Indiana will need Matthews to become a league-average three-point shooter if nothing else in order to give them a chance against the Boston Celtics. If he stays at sub-33 percent, though, their stay in the postseason might not be too long or notable.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward
It’s not common for a player on a max contract to be considered an X-Factor, but, at the same time, Gordon Hayward’s Celtics career thus far has been anything but ordinary.
After the brutal opening-night injury that cost him all of 2017-18, Hayward returned this season and was clearly a ways away from the player Boston signed prior to last year to the point that he lost his starting job before December even arrived.
Thankfully for the Celtics, however, it looks like Hayward may be close to finding that pre-injury form.
In his last 14 games of 2018-19, Hayward put up 14.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting an astounding 60.0 percent from the floor and 36.4 percent from deep.
As long as he can maintain that level of production in the playoffs, the Celtics will get a huge boost in the form of solid wing play off the bench. And if he could reach an even higher level, Boston could turn into a scary foe for Eastern-Conference opponents.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.