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NBA X-Factors for Title Contending Teams

The NBA is headed to Disney World! As we’re now aware of how the rest of the regular season and postseason format will look like for all 22 teams invited, let’s take a look at who needs to step up critically for each real contender (teams that have a real or outside shot to make the conference finals or finals) to succeed and make a deep run in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers – Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma has been extremely underwhelming during this entire season. Just one year ago people were comparing him to players like Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and even Lonzo Ball. But fast-forward to the present and well you can easily say that all 3 of those players are better than Kyle Kuzma.

Players like Tatum Ingram have taken the next step into becoming NBA All-Stars while Kyle Kuzma hasn’t improved his game at all and has possibly regressed after being considered the best young talent among the Lakers young core by many (I was always highest on Lonzo Ball out of the young core) and being recognized as the one untradeable piece by Rob Pelinka, Jeanie Buss, and ultimately LeBron James.

Last year, Kuzma averaged 18 points per game on 51.5 effective Field Goal percentage unlike this year where he’s averaging 12.5 points per game on 49.6 effective field goal percentage. Now the percentages might look pretty similar but his usage is around the same (23.8% last year, 23.2% this year), but his production has dropped drastically and to add to that his 3 point percentage this year is a pathetic 29.7%.

He has also failed to show up when the Lakers need him most especially on defense, as the Lakers defensive rating improves when Kuzma is off the court and the team’s NET rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) gets better by 3.1 points when Kuzma is off the court. If the Lakers want to have any chance of beating the Clippers in a potential playoff series, Kyle Kuzma needs to step up.

Los Angeles Clippers – Paul George

The legend of “Playoff P” is almost a seasonal trend now. Paul George is one of the top 10 players every NBA season (when healthy). But that is the complete opposite come playoff time. Every year when you have high expectations for a team led by Paul George, the result will disappoint you.

In elimination games, George averages 16.4 points on sub 40% shooting (74/186 throughout career elimination games). In those elimination games, he was the number one option and the best player on his team. This year; however, he’s in a different situation. He doesn’t have to be the main scoring option, and he has less of a load on his shoulders.

His team is extremely deep with plenty of playoff experience and the reigning Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard as the primary scoring option. Kawhi Leonard had a choice to sign with anyone this past summer, but he signed with the Clippers because he saw something in Paul George who he desperately wanted to play with. So it is time for Paul George to step up in the playoffs and prove to Kawhi that he made the right decision to pass up playing with LeBron and AD so that he could play with him.

Milwaukee Bucks – Eric Bledsoe

We all know Eric Bledsoe can turn it up in the regular season and play at a high-level on both sides of the ball, but that isn’t the same player we got in the playoffs last year. In the 2019 playoffs, Bledsoe averaged around 14 points per game but he shot sub 25% from behind the arc, which is just unacceptable on a team which relies heavily on whether or not they hit their three-point shots.

People love to quickly place the blame on Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks collapse last season, but what is Giannis really supposed to do in a situation where one of the greatest defenders of all time in Kawhi Leonard was funneling him to two great defenders in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

His threat in the paint was significantly compromised and he couldn’t rely on his teammates like Bledsoe to hit shots when he needed them most. Eric Bledsoe also has to realize that Malcolm Brogdon is no longer on the team, so he can’t keep deferring to others while taking a backseat. He needs to step up and be a reliable third scoring option behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

Denver Nuggets – Michael Porter Jr

Michael Porter Jr, the 14th pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, has shown flashes of brilliance whenever he has seen playing time. The problem is, he barely gets playing time. In 14 minutes a game, Porter averages 8 points on an efficient 50/42/77 shooting splits. Now imagine if someone of his talent is given the minutes to flourish in a Denver where he doesn’t always have to worry about creating his own shot due to having the best center and best playmaking center in basketball in Nikola Jokic.

People quickly forget that Porter Jr. was ranked number 2 nationally coming out of high school and was projected to be the number 1 overall pick until he went down with a back injury in his second game at Mizzou.

He is now fully healthy and has shown that he can live up to the hype, so this message goes towards Michael Malone. If you are serious about being a true championship contender or a real threat to the LA teams or Milwaukee (the favorites), give Michael Porter Jr the minutes he deserves.

Philadelphia 76ers – Tobias Harris & Al Horford

There have been several discussions on whether or not Simmons or Embiid work well together and if one or the other is the problem, and although some of that can be a part of the reason why the 76ers have been so underwhelming this season, it is mainly due to the disappointing season we are seeing from Tobias Harris and a horrendous season from Al Horford.

Just this past summer, Elton Brand and the Sixers front office decided to spend $180M on Tobias Harris over the next 5 years and $109M on Al Horford over the next 4 years ($97M guaranteed). Those two contracts have so far proven to be huge mistakes with Harris being extremely inconsistent and with Al Horford messing up the spacing on this team by not being a serviceable backup to Embiid, not bringing much of a positive impact on the court (Sixer NET when Horford is on = 3.5, when off = 1.1), and failing at the one job he was signed for, to play elite defense especially on Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If these two guys can perform at the level which they have in the past, can accept their role, and become an integral part of the Sixers’ success, then Philly has a true chance of making things interesting in a potential playoff match-up with Milwaukee. But it’s all up to them whether they are willing to do that.

Houston Rockets – Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon used to be the guy that the Rockets always relied on when facing a tough situation. However, that has not been the case this season. Gordon is having his worst statistical season of his career averaging around 15 points per game on 47.8% eFG percentage. Yes, he has to take a hit to his scoring load since there’s another ball dominant guard in Russell Westbrook on his team this year but if anything he should be more efficient by taking less shots and scoring less and not vice versa.

Eric Gordon is currently in the middle of his prime and he needs to bring back that same Eric Gordon who won 6th Man of the year a couple years ago.

Boston Celtics – Gordon Hayward

Let’s just face it, Gordon Hayward will never return to his Utah Jazz form and he will never live up to that max contract after that devastating injury he suffered almost 3 years ago that ended his season in his first game as a Boston Celtic. He’s never going to be that guy who you can consistently rely upon when the game matters most and he’s never going to be as aggressive when it comes to attacking the defense.

However, he is blessed to be in a situation where he doesn’t have to be. He has two young wings starting ahead of him in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who demand to be on-ball scorers and that allows Gordon Hayward to be more of a catch and shoot guy and someone who can generate buckets off the dribble. Not to mention he also has Kemba Walker who can set him up perfectly for these open shots.

The only thing he would have to worry about from there is hitting his shots at an efficient clip, which he has been doing. Another primary concern of his is he has to stay healthy. If he is healthy, he could be the one piece the Celtics never expected would put them over the top.

Toronto Raptors – OG Anunoby

OG Anunoby was considered the missing piece of the Raptors championship run last year. They ended up not needing him since they had a superstar in Kawhi Leonard who took them to greatness. This year they don’t have that superstar and that makes their pathway to success even more difficult.

But this year, they do have a healthy OG Anunoby, who can replicate a lot of the things Kawhi Leonard does on the basketball court except on a much lower level. He’s improved his scoring and positive impact on the court this year, and if he can keep up the same intensity and bring on an even higher level on an elevated stage in the playoffs, then maybe, just maybe, the Raptors have a shot at returning to Championship form.

Miami Heat – Andre Iguodala

Well the Heat did trade for him for a reason. His championship pedigree combined with the Heat’s championship culture was supposed to be a match made in heaven, but so far that hasn’t been the case. He’s been very disappointing by averaging only around 4 points per game and not making much of a difference on either side of the court.

One can argue that right now, Jae Crowder, who was a part of the same package from Memphis, was the best part of that trade. However, if the Heat want any chance at even making the Eastern Conference Finals, they need Iggy to start playing like the assassin we know he is on the court.

Utah Jazz – Mike Conley

Mike Conley, prior to this season, was recognized as one of the NBA’s top point guards. Last season with Memphis, Conley had a career high season when it came to scoring by averaging 21 points on 44/36/85 shooting splits. However, this season, in his new role, Conley is averaging about 14 points on 41/38/80 shooting splits and has seen a -2.1 decrease in his assist totals per game.

Those stats on those similar shooting splits look very similar, but Conley has been extremely inconsistent in his path to get to this averages, as he is having the worst statistical season of his career. But what has been Conley’s bread and butter throughout his career has been his skill on the defensive side of the ball but unfortunately for Mike Conley, his defensive rating has risen and that is odd especially since he has joined a very good defensive team.

He is also a lot less impactful on the Jazz compared to his impact on the Grizzlies. In his career with Memphis, the Grizzlies’ NET Rating with Conley on the court was a +2.1 and when he was off the court, the Grizzlies NET rating was a -4.1 meaning that Memphis got much better when Conley was on the court, as they should. However, this season with the Jazz, when Conley is on the court, Utah’s NET rating is +1.6, but when Conley is off the court, the Jazz NET rating is a +3.1.

This shows us that the Jazz actually are a better team and function a lot better with Mike Conley off the court, which is a cause for concern. But, adjusting to a new situation can be difficult. and if Conley can figure out what is causing his struggles, whether it’s chemistry or something on his end, and fixes it before the playoffs begin, the Jazz can make some real noise out west.

Indiana Pacers – Healthy Victor Oladipo

When healthy, Victor Oladipo is a top 5 and arguably a top 3 shooting guard in the NBA. But the problem for Indiana is that he hasn’t been healthy. He came off of a ruptured quad tendon and although he has been cleared as medically healthy, he hasn’t looked the same on the court during the 13 games he has played.

In those games, he only averaged 13.8 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, and 3 assists per game on 45.7 eFG%, which makes this season his worst statistical year of his NBA career. Maybe he rushed back from injury and needed more action to get fully accustomed to the game.

Whatever it is, Oladipo has had all this time to fully heal up during the hiatus and will get an additional 8 games and many practices to get readjusted to the game going into the playoffs, and maybe all of that just might bring back the All-Star version of Victor Oladipo we are accustomed to seeing just in time for the start of Indiana’s playoff run.


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