In less than two weeks, the NBAs best teams will resume their battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Orlando Bubble. While the leagues remaining teams vary widely in their makeup and player personnel, each team has a player who (whether a star or not) will inevitably be a key linchpin in the team’s success. Here are the Orlando Bubble x-factors for the western conference.
Read about the eastern conference team’s x-factors here.
Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James
The best team in the western conference also happens to have the most obvious key to its success. Fact-of-the-matter is, the Lakers without LeBron James on the court are about as average as you can get, even with Anthony Davis. The Lakers sans LeBron rank 15th in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating, a whopping +0.1 plus-minus. With him, they rank in the top three in both categories. James’ talent is obvious and transcendent and its no question that the key to a Lakers title run rests on his shoulders.
Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George
Only one of the Clippers two massive signings this offseason have panned out exactly to plan, that being Kawhi Leonard. Paul George, on the other hand, has seen his fair share of struggles this season. While certainly not bad, he has struggled to find his form at times, resulting in him missing the All-Star game for the first time since 2015. In order to charge through the western conference gauntlet, George will need to find his form from last season which saw him finish third in MVP voting. When both he and Kawhi are scoring the Clippers are hard to beat. In games where both of them scored 25+ points, the Clippers are 4-2 with the two losses being close games versus the Rockets and Lakers.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
There is no player quite like Jokic in the sense that every part of the Nuggets game runs through him. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players who are leading their teams in points, rebounds, and assists this season. And unlike Giannis, Jokic is a true bonafide distributor in the low post. He as a great eye for teammates making cuts and for open players. Denver needs Jokic to do it all in Orlando, they’re 9-3 when he records a triple-double.
Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles
Utah is going to have to learn to survive without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, who got season-ending surgery in March. While its certainly a tough blow, the Jazz have a very capable replacement in Joe Ingles. A very efficient scorer in small doses, Ingles will have to prove he can score at a higher volume in Orlando in order for Utah’s offense to keep up. Ingles is also a very solid all-around player, especially as a facilitator and a defender. If Ingles can plug himself back into the starting lineup seamlessly, Utah will be feeling a lot more confident.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Andre Roberson
The Thunders Achilles heel all season has been the small forward position. While they have four quality starters in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgious-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they just have not been able to find a quality player to play the 3. And just when all hope seemed lost, a player many people have forgotten about is set to make his return. Andre Roberson hasn’t been seen on an NBA court since a brutal knee injury in early 2018 but is finally set to make his return in Orlando. Roberson is just what the Thunder need, a lockdown defensive forward who can guard a variety of positions. They have the firepower to hide his offensive weaknesses and if Roberson can give them that defensive spark, he could be the key to a Thunder playoff run.
Houston Rockets: Russell Westbrook and PJ Tucker
When he traded away Clint Capela before the deadline in February, Darryl Morey put all his cards on the table. The Rockets from that point on would be fully committed to a small-ball style of basketball built around launching threes and outsourcing opponents.
So far its been to mixed results, but only because its two key pieces have not been fully healthy. This system is built around, and dependent on, the driving ability of Russell Westbrook and the defensive acumen of PJ Tucker. On offense, Westbrook provides the needed interior presence in order to keep defenses honest, able to explode to the basket at a moment’s notice. On defense, Tucker is tasked with guarding the opposing team’s big men and is the only player on the Rockets roster really capable of guarding dominant interior scorers like Anthony Davis. With both of them healthy and ready to play big minutes, expect the Rockets to deliver on the hype.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis
Dallas traded for Porzingis at the 2019 trade deadline to solidify their future around two young European stars, the other being Luka Doncic. So far the two have delivered on the hype, they’ve led the Mavericks back into the playoffs and to the best offense in basketball. A good case could be made for either player as Dallas’ x-factor but Porzingis makes more sense because his form is more closely tied with Mavericks wins. In wins, he shoots six percent better overall, including a huge jump in three-point percentage from 31 to 38 percent. If Porzingis is knocking down his shots, Dallas’ offense will look that much better.
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant
Memphis’ potential return to the playoffs has been led by a bevy of young talent. Jaren Jackson Jr, Brandon Clarke and most importantly Ja Morant have led a culture change in Memphis towards a more exciting and high-octane brand of basketball. Morant especially has been at the forefront of this with his acrobatic dunks, unreal court vision, and once in a generation flair for the dramatic. His biggest struggle this year has been consistency, something he will desperately need come playoff time. Of Morants 20 worst games this season by game score, the Grizzlies have won only six so they need Morant at the top of his game night in and night out.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Last year’s western conference finalists have found themselves on the playoff wayside this year thanks to a host of injuries, none more detrimental than Jusuf Nurkic’s broken leg. He lies at the center of Portlands offensive scheme thanks to his exceptional court vision, he ranked 10th among centers in assists last season and his great chemistry on the pick and roll with Damian Lillard. With Nurkic back in Orlando, head coach Terry Stotts will finally be able to utilize the entirety of Portlands playbook, opening up their offensive game. Nurkic’s return will also help Portland on the defensive end, he was Portlands’ best defensive player last season and was an especially elite interior defender.
New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball
The arrival of Zion Williamson has been a godsend for the New Orleans Pelicans, who were second to last in the western conference before his debut in January. Zion’s presence has been especially helpful for Lonzo Ball, who seems to have finally found the perfect player to throw absurd lobs to game after game. Since January, he has averaged north of eight assists per game, which puts him in the top five in the league during that time. His three-point shot is also finally starting to fall, accentuated by a scorching hot march when he shot 50 percent from deep. New Orleans will need Balls elite passing in Orlando when he records ten or more assists the Pelicans are 8-5.
Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox
De’Aaron Fox has steadily improved his game over the course of his first three seasons to become one of the premier point guards in the league. He is the first Kings player since Demarcus Cousins in 2016 to average over 20 points per game, and ranks in the top 20 in both assists and steals per game. Where Sacramento really needs Fox to shine is in the scoring department. The Kings often struggle for crunch time baskets and Fox asserting himself as the teams’ go-to scorer could help alleviate that. Fox scoring big is often a sign of a Kings win. When he has scored 25+ this season, Sacramento is 8-5.
San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
The Spurs have two very reliable scorers in the form of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan but are in need of a quality third option in the scoring department. Nobody else on the team averages more than 12 points per game but of the available players, Dejounte Murray has the best chance of doing so. While more known for his defense, Murray has had a quietly efficient offensive season this year. He averaged 11 points on 48/38/80 splits. Before the season was suspended, it seemed like Murray was becoming the Spurs bonafide third option. Over their last 11 games, Murray was averaging over 14 points per game and attempted more than 10 shots on nine separate occasions.
Phoenix Suns: DeAndre Ayton
Even though Phoenix was invited to Orlando, they are all but eliminated from playoff contention. They would be better served using this time to cultivate their young talent, such as first overall pick DeAndre Ayton. Ayton has had a strong sophomore campaign, albeit one that hampered by a PED suspension. He improved in a number of key categories, especially at the defensive end where his blocks per game nearly doubled from his rookie year. Expect Phoenix to continue to give Ayton big minutes, especially since it will be good experience against the best centers the NBA has to offer. If Ayton gets hot, the Suns could rekindle their early season form which saw them in playoff contention for a couple of months.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference
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