It took us a few more months than expected, but the NBA Playoffs are finally here. 16 teams are once again duking it out for two whole months in high intensity basketball. Only this time, there’s a whole new dynamic. How will a lack of fans affect the matchups? How will it affect team intensity? We may see more upsets than we have ever seen in a postseason.
We also may see players step up that we never would have expected to in a high pressure situation. Unlikely heroes may emerge to help crown an NBA Champion. So, here are my predictions for which non-stars will immortalize themselves in NBA history, and be the x-factor their team needs to get over the top in the Western Conference. Checkout x-factors for the East as well.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma
No surprises here, if the Lakers want to make a championship run, they need a strong postseason from Kuzma. Lebron James and Anthony Davis are going to be their superstar selves, there’s not much doubt about that, but they can’t be the team’s only sources of offense.
The need for Kuzma’s offense has become abundantly clear since the restart. The Lakers have been one of the worst offensive teams in the bubble, and only went 3-5 in their eight seeding games. With Rajon Rondo injured, the offense has looked rather stagnant at times. When role players like Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope aren’t hitting their threes, the offensive burden falls completely on the two superstars.
This problem didn’t just arise in the bubble either. The Lakers haven’t been a prolific offensive team this year, ranking just 11th in points per game. They have found a way to attain the best regular season record mostly behind their dominant defense. But in the playoffs, there is no path to success without a highly efficient offense.
And the Lakers don’t have time to wait for Rondo to come back either. Playing the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, one of the hottest teams in the league, they will need to be locked in and ready to go game one.
Kuzma has been up and down all year, having trouble adjusting to coming off the bench, and playing alongside James and Davis. He has certainly played better since the restart, and will hopefully be able to carry that into the playoffs. If he can play aggressively and be L.A.’s third shot creator, it completely changes how teams have to match up against them.
Los Angeles Clippers: Team Chemistry
It is hard to argue with the fact that, on paper, the Clippers have the most complete team in the NBA. Behind their superstar core of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they have a surplus of talented role players who all excel in their roles. Lou Williams continues to be the best bench scorer in the league. Patrick Beverley’s elite defense and relentless pestering of opposing stars is as effective as ever. Montrezl Harrell has developed into a menace in the paint on both ends of the floor. Midseason acquisition Marcus Morris has been the jackknife that every championship team needs. Even young players like Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac have carved out a role for themselves.
It may not be a stretch to say this could be the deepest and most balanced roster in NBA history. Unfortunately for the Clippers, the NBA Playoffs are not an NBA 2K simulation. An ability to execute as a unit and trust one’s teammates is an invaluable asset to a team going for a championship. We have seen very talented teams underachieve in their first year simply due to a lack of familiarity.
Not only is this iteration of the Clippers in its first year of existence, but due to injuries, rest, and player acquisitions, the rotation has rarely been intact all year. The starting lineup we expect to see for the playoffs; Beverley, George, Leonard, Morris, and Zubac, has played a mere 10 games together. This lineup is one of 32 different starting combinations the Clippers have used this year.
So the question mark on this team is not one of talent, but rather if they can function on the level of a championship team given this lack of time on the floor together. If they want to make it out of an incredibly deep Western Conference, they are going to have to beat teams that have had their core intact for much longer.
The good news is this team is filled with veteran players who have competed in many high stakes playoff games. They are also led by head coach Doc Rivers, who led the ‘08 Celtics, another group that was in its first year together, to a championship. So the challenge is certainly there, but the Clippers have the right pieces in place to make it work.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
Probably the biggest surprise of the NBA bubble, rookie Michael Porter Jr. has looked like a completely different player since the NBA restart. After redshirting his first year in the NBA due to injury, the young forward made his much awaited debut this season.
Before the shutdown, he began showing flashes of his immense scoring potential, but was not getting consistent minutes. But in the bubble, with wings Gary Harris and Will Barton both injured, Porter Jr. got his shot. In the seven seeding games he averaged 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, showing extreme confidence and an ability to score from all three levels rarely seen from a player his age.
As impressive as this offensive explosion was, there is a big difference between the intensity level of the seeding games and what we are going to see in the playoffs. Typically it is very difficult for rookies to excel in the pressure of playoff games. With that being said, with these games being contested with no fans, we will see a completely novel playoff environment. So young players like Porter Jr. are not nearly as likely to be overwhelmed, and can play their game to the best of their abilities.
Denver is going to need Porter Jr. to step up and continue his success into the playoffs if they want to make a deep run. With Barton and Harris still out for at least the beginning of the postseason, much of the offensive pressure falls onto Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. These two have created quite a dynamic two man game, but that won’t be enough firepower to match up with the defenses of the Lakers or Clippers.
If Porter Jr. can’t be a reliable third option for this team, this offense cannot be as dynamic as it normally is, and for a team that finished outside of the top 10 in points allowed, that is not an option. It is certainly more responsibility than is normally put on a rookie, but Porter Jr. has not looked like a 22 year old in the bubble.
Houston Rockets: Russell Westbrook
The Rockets have seemingly fallen victim to the same recurring issue every year in the playoffs. When defenses can key in on stopping James Harden, their isolation style offense seems to fall apart. Guys that aren’t used to creating their own offense are forced into doing so, and the team’s offense goes from highly efficient to dysfunctional.
With Chris Paul as Harden’s backcourt mate the last two years, the team was almost able to break through and make it to the finals in 2017. Luck was not on their side though, as Paul went down with a hamstring injury in game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, making it easier for teams to once again focus on Harden.
This year, Harden has the most dynamic teammate he has ever had in his time with Houston. Russell Westbrook, after several high volume, up and down seasons for Oklahoma City, was traded to Houston, and he has reinvented himself as an efficient, highly effective offensive player.
He plays a similar role to Paul, but brings a different level of athleticism and dynamic play. Mike D’Antoni’s decision to play super small ball this season has opened up huge driving lines for the superstar. In the regular season he has averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game on 47% shooting.
He will miss the beginning of the playoffs with a quad injury, but when he returns there will be no player more vital to making this team a contender. If Westbrook can continue to take pressure off Harden on the offensive end, while being efficient and in control, this team becomes very hard to stop.
When both All-Stars are able to continuously break down the defense, the Rockets’ deep arsenal of shooters can have a field day. If this can happen, the Rockets could be the team to come out of the West, and Harden and Westbrook can once and for all put to rest the narrative that they aren’t winners.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams
Few would have thought that after trading Russell Westbrook the Thunder would be back in the playoffs this year. But behind a resurgent year for Chris Paul, and the emergence of Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, they find themselves in the fifth seed, matching up with the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder don’t have a real go-to scorer like most of other playoff teams, and haven’t had an incredibly efficient offense, ranking only 21st in team scoring. For this reason many think that they will be an easy out in the playoffs. And while the Rockets are a team most would agree are better built for the playoffs, the Thunder have several ways to make this first round series very interesting, and possibly pull off the upset.
For starters, they have one of the best defenses in the league, only boosted by the return of Andre Roberson. The combination of him, Paul, and Gilgeous-Alexander on the perimeter, along with the switchability of Nerlens Noel, can allow them to match up with the Rockets small ball offense.
The biggest key in this series though may not be any of the Thunder players previously mentioned. With the Rockets not including a single big man in their rotation since the trade of Clint Capela, they have been vulnerable both in their interior defense and their ability to rebound the ball. Steven Adams has been an elite low post scorer and rebounder for most of his career with the Thunder, but is having an off year. He has not been as large a part of the offense this season, having his lowest scoring average since 2015-16.
For the Thunder to keep pace with this Houston offense though, they may want to incorporate Adams into more of their actions, giving him post touches and looking for him in the pick and roll. He also must be assertive and punish smaller defenders if no double team comes and be active on the offensive glass.
Oklahoma City’s guards will certainly be the headliners for them in this playoffs, but if they want to advance past the first round, Adams needs to punish the Rockets for having no player taller than 6-foot-8 on the floor.
Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson
This is the fourth straight year that the Jazz have made the playoffs. Yet the team has yet to make themselves a serious contender during this streak of success, as they have been unable to make it out of the second round in any of these years. This is due mostly to one key factor. Utah has consistently been an elite defensive team every year, but they have yet to make the same true of their offense.
Given how the team performed in the regular season on the offensive end this year, and the strength of the Western Conference, it is unlikely that this is the year that the Jazz have an offensive breakthrough in the playoffs. For them to keep pace with the high scoring Nuggets would be quite the tall task.
But if the Jazz are able to shock the world and break into contention, the team can’t rely solely on the scoring and playmaking of Donovan Mitchell. He has been fantastic this season, but when he has an off night, there has not always been someone there to step up. And with Bojan Bogdonovic injured, and Mike Conley playing inconsistently, that guy has to be Jordan Clarkson.
Since being acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers at the trade deadline, Clarkson has been the scorer that the Jazz needed to lead their second unit, scoring 15.6 points per game and shooting 46% from the field and 37% from three. If the Jazz want to go anywhere in the playoffs, he needs to do that and more on the offensive end. Donovan Mitchell is special, but no one player can carry an entire offense.
Dallas Mavericks: Dorian Finney-Smith
The Mavericks have been one of the most fun offensive teams to watch this year. Only the Bucks and the Rockets have scored more points per game. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are complemented perfectly with deadeye shooters that give defenses no good options when guarding this team.
They are the seven seed for a reason though. They lack much defensive personnel, and their production on that end of the floor has reflected that. Porzingis has been a very effective shot blocker, but he can’t make up for the poor perimeter play. Guys like Doncic, Seth Curry, and Tim Hardaway Jr. are fantastic perimeter scorers, but can be a clear liability on defense.
Considering that they play the Clippers in the first round, and if somehow they come out on top of that series they will most likely play the Nuggets. Both of these teams have numerous guys who can create their own offense at a high level. If the Mavericks don’t want to be an early out in the playoffs, their defense, especially on the perimeter, needs to improve exponentially.
This has to start with their most consistent defensive wing: Dorian Finney-Smith. He is long, athletic, and will be tasked with guarding some of the best scorers in the Western Conference. Most of his minutes in the first round will be spent guarding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Mavericks don’t need offensive production from him. His job is to make sure that those star wings can’t constantly get to the rim, which would likely put Porzingis and the other Mavericks big men in foul trouble.
Dallas can no doubt keep pace with any team in terms of scoring the ball, but if they want to make any noise in this postseason, they need to be locked in on the defensive end of the floor, and Finney-Smith has to lead by example in this department.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
The Portland Trail Blazers have given us some of the most entertaining basketball of the season in the last two weeks just to get into the eight seed. Damian Lillard has put on a scoring display for the ages, taking home the “Bubble MVP” award almost unanimously, and the team is clicking just at the right time. But things are about to get very difficult going up against the one seeded Lakers.
Although the Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league, the Blazers firepower could actually give them the upper hand. But, like the Mavericks, it is the defensive end of the floor that could give the Blazers serious trouble going forward. With Rodney Hood out for the year with a torn achilles, and the opt out of Trevor Ariza, Portland has lost much of their perimeter defense. With Carmelo Anthony now starting at small forward alongside Lillard and C.J. Mccollum, there is no defensive stopper outside for the team.
This is going to put a lot more pressure on the interior defense. If Portland can’t stop the penetration of Lebron James and Anthony Davis, they don’t stand much of a chance. So Nurkic must be that big body in the middle. Since returning from injury in the bubble, he has been a dominant force as a shot blocker and rebounder. He is going to be the key to this entire defense.
He also plays an important role on the offensive end. Lillard and Mccollum are elite outside scorers, but Nurkic’s ability to score in the low post makes this team complete on offense. When he is commanding attention on the inside, teams can’t just completely load up on the star backcourt, and everything opens up significantly. So, obviously this team won’t advance without the continued superstar play from Lillard, but Nurkic plays a huge, and massively undervalued role in Portland’s success.