Not every NBA team boasts a superstar on its roster and very few have more than one. However, each squad in the league is blessed with at least one interesting player, either for the present or the future, and that helps to make teams that aren’t exactly in the playoff hunt quite fun to monitor.
In this space, we will take a look at something of an “X-factor” for each of the league’s 30 teams with full knowledge that it won’t be the best or most dominant player available on the roster. Is LeBron James the NBA’s biggest “X-factor” at the moment? Absolutely, but our mission is to go a bit deeper and uncover some players that could be pivotal for teams without necessarily moving the needle when it comes to the national landscape.
Some teams have several candidates and some, well, do not but we managed to unearth 30 pivotal players and let’s roll through the list.
Atlanta Hawks – Taurean Prince
Dennis Schröder is Atlanta’s best player and rookie big man John Collins is the team’s most exciting piece. Taurean Prince, though, is a direct pivot point. There are only a handful of players around the league that have legitimate small forward size and project to be average or better on both ends of the floor. Prince is that piece. Is he going to move the needle from an excitement or “buzz” perspective? Absolutely not, but the Hawks need to start thinking about their projected lineup of the future and the team needs Prince to work.
Boston Celtics – Jaylen Brown
Amid the hype surrounding the new additions in Boston, it is almost as if Brown is flying under the radar. That is rarely the case for the No. 3 pick from just 16 months ago but, in adding Jayson Tatum, the Celtics created something of a log-jam. At this moment, it feels safe to say that Brown is more NBA-ready when it comes to contributing to winning, if only because of his defensive gifts. Still, it is a big year for the Cal product and Boston’s upside is lower if he doesn’t take the next step.
Brooklyn Nets – Caris LeVert
Everyone is focused on D’Angelo Russell and with good reason. The former No. 2 pick has (easily) the highest ceiling of anyone the Nets roster. Because that is a given, LeVert is rather anonymous but remains quite important to what Brooklyn is building. There were encouraging signs for the former Michigan wing a season ago, especially in the area of play-making. With that said, Brooklyn needs a young wing to run alongside Russell down the line and, because of LeVert’s talents would compliment the point guard well, it makes sense to spotlight him heavily.
Charlotte Hornets – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The loss of Nic Batum for the start of the season is absolutely brutal for the Hornets. Only Kemba Walker has the license and ability to create offense now in Charlotte and, well, that is a problem. What Batum’s absence also means is that Kidd-Gilchrist should see more court time, if only for lack of options. It seems wild that he just turned 24 years old but, at some point, Kidd-Gilchrist falls into danger with becoming a pure specialist and another season of offensive struggles would basically cement that reality.
Chicago Bulls – Denzel Valentine
The Bulls are going to be a mess. Full stop. There are intriguing pieces from Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine but wouldn’t it be nice if Chicago didn’t just throw away its 2016 first round pick? Valentine was openly bad as a rookie and, while most rookies fall into that category, it is much more concerning for a prospect that claimed extra value for his NBA readiness. Can he defend at all? Can he help facilitate the offense? These are questions that the former collegiate player of the year has to answer with haste.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Isaiah Thomas
Thomas is the best player on this list when healthy and, by proxy, the easiest choice of the bunch. While his defense was always a problem in Boston, it cannot be overstated just how incredible the diminutive guard was a season ago and the Cavs will absolutely need his backcourt firepower to reach their collective ceiling. Thomas’ timeline for return is anyone’s guess but he holds the keys to a bunch of things in Cleveland. That is both intriguing and terrifying.
Dallas Mavericks – Dwight Powell
In an effort to leave rookies (ahem, Dennis Smith Jr.) off this list, we land on Dwight Powell. Seth Curry would’ve been a logical choice also if not for injury but Dallas is a bizarre mix of safe veterans and young guys. Powell gets the nod based on the eight-figure annual investment in his services and, frankly, Mavs fans haven’t been terribly thrilled with the return to this point. Is he even a lock for the rotation with everyone healthy? That is an ominous question in itself.
Denver Nuggets – Emmanuel Mudiay
Everyone on the planet is penciling in Jamal Murray as Denver’s starting point guard and it is easy to see why based on his considerable talent. Still, the Nuggets have a lottery pick at the position in Mudiay and there are legitimate questions about whether Murray can really function as a full-time point guard. In fact, Mudiay being a functional player would go a long way toward alleviating stress in Denver but we just haven’t seen that to this point. When you’re turning to Jameer Nelson as a stop-gap (and that could happen again this season), things have gone awry.
Detroit Pistons – Stanley Johnson
Remember when Johnson was going at LeBron James during a playoff series? We’ve come a long way. The former lottery pick saw his age-20 season spiral in a big way and the jury is now firmly out as to what Johnson is and can be at the NBA level. Detroit’s roster is not exciting in the slightest and, while Luke Kennard is fun to watch, he isn’t the high-upside player that Pistons fans craved in the draft. Johnson probably isn’t that either but it would go a long way toward helping the Pistons see the future if Johnson became the two-way stud that many projected.
Golden State Warriors – Nick Young
It is hilarious to consider X-factors for the Warriors. Golden State has four of the best 20 players on the planet, including two of the top five, and the roster is littered with safe veterans like Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Zaza Pachulia and David West. To that end, it comes down to the newcomers (and Pat McCaw) so we’ll go with the most volatile in Nick Young. It wouldn’t shock anyone if Young’s revolution a season ago did not continue in a new stop but, if it does and he buys in to what Steve Kerr is selling, Swaggy P could be a lot of fun in Oakland. If not, the Warriors can just go to McCaw and be fine but, as noted, there isn’t really a right answer here.
Houston Rockets – Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson appeared in 72 games and made 40.3 percent of his threes a season ago. In short, things went as well as could be expected after he signed a massive, four-year deal in Houston. Now, though, he’ll be asked to repeat that kind of production and, with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Anderson’s offensive firepower and shooting are even more needed. Make no mistake, the Rockets are better on paper now than they were a season ago but, if Anderson (or Eric Gordon) struggles to stay healthy and productive, the ceiling drops considerably, at least from a regular season standpoint.
Indiana Pacers – Domantas Sabonis
What a weird roster. Victor Oladipo gets a fresh start, Myles Turner is awesome and fun, there are veteran stop-gaps (and no small forwards) and Nate McMillan has the pleasure of putting it all together. We’ll go with Sabonis over all the rest, if only because he makes some logical sense with Turner as a long-term frontcourt. In some ways, Sabonis is a throwback in that he’s not a center, isn’t a great athlete and needs the ball to be as productive as he could be. Turner can cover up for a lot of that, though, and if Sabonis flames out, it will be an even worse look on the heels of the ill-conceived Paul George deal.
Los Angeles Clippers – Milos Teodosic
All you need to do is watch Milos throw a few passes to understand just how much fun he’ll be on the floor. That is a given but, in the same breath, LA’s backcourt rotation doesn’t make a ton of sense as currently constructed and Teodocic’s defense might be unplayable. Austin Rivers would be a reasonable choice here, if only because he’s going to have to play a lot of small forward, but if Teodosic works, everything will be easier.
Los Angeles Lakers – Julius Randle
“Is Julius Randle good?” has become a very popular question and one that is unanswered to this point. We know he can rebound and facilitate at a high level for a player of his size but his defensive production hasn’t matched the tools and Randle remains a non-shooter. Moreover, the Lakers have to make a decision on him sooner rather than later with an eye toward July and everything (weirdly) revolves around him from that standpoint.
Memphis Grizzlies – Chandler Parsons
This is just too easy. The Grizzlies gave Parsons a four-year deal worth $94 million and he appeared in 34 games last season. Oh, and he was not a positive basketball player when he did take the floor. Memphis needs him to be competent. It’s simple.
Miami Heat – Justise Winslow
The Heat built a deep, interesting roster but they employ exactly one small forward. Sure, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder and Josh Richardson can fake it on the wing but Winslow is the only player with legitimate size at the 3 and, well, Miami invested quite heavily in him once upon a time. After playing only 18 games last season, Winslow is shrouded in mystery but, for the Heat to really pop, he needs to be useful and that extends to both ends of the floor.
Milwaukee Bucks – Thon Maker
Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton are the best supporting players in Milwaukee and Malcolm Brogdon’s nickname (“The President”) rings true. With that said, we kind of know what those guys are, whereas Maker is much more uncertain. There were very encouraging signs for the 20-year-old center last season, especially in the playoffs, but he was dreadful in Summer League and there are still many questions. Can he be this team’s full-time center of the future? We’ll find out soon enough.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins
Wiggins, alongside Isaiah Thomas, is one of the biggest names on this list but his inclusion is too perfect to ignore. Using Jeff Teague as Minnesota’s X-factor also makes sense because of his projected role and the transition from Ricky Rubio but it is Wiggins that may have to make the biggest transformation. Simply put, he is now the No. 3 offensive option and there is no reason that Wiggins should be incapable of making that adjustment. His defense, to put it kindly, has been poor to this point and easing off his offensive workload could aid in that development. Everything is theoretical until we see it but it’s a big year for Andrew Wiggins.
New Orleans Pelicans – E’Twaun Moore
The Pelicans have a roster that makes no sense. Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis are very good, Jrue Holiday provides stability at the point but everything in between is a mess. Moore isn’t a fantastic player but the loss of Solomon Hill placed an even bigger premium on competent wing play and he’s the best of the bunch. It isn’t ideal to have a 6’4 role player as a team’s best option at either wing spot but here we are.
New York Knicks – Tim Hardaway Jr.
Paying $71 million for four years of Tim Hardaway Jr. is certainly a choice the Knicks made. In order to live up to that contract, Hardaway Jr. doesn’t have to be star but he does have to improve (vastly) as either a defender or a three-point shooter. The former Hawks swingman does have considerable talent but, sometimes, it is as simple as the Knicks needing him to return something approaching value when considering the impact on their future books.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Patrick Patterson
Patterson gave the Thunder an immense discount and, for his trouble, is now slated to come off the bench behind Carmelo Anthony. Of course, that isn’t a problem for a veteran glue guy but Patterson is also the backup center to Steven Adams right now and, given his skill set that includes a solid jump shot, it is hard to overstate just how important he will be this season. There are a bunch of guys who will attract more attention but Patterson is vital.
Orlando Magic – Elfrid Payton
It seems like a familiar tale in Orlando but the Magic don’t have a lot of “safety” in their roster projection. Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon seem likely to be around long-term but, at the point, Elfrid Payton has tantalized the organization on a number of occasions. Over the final 41 games of 2016-17, Payton was a starting-caliber player in shooting 49 percent from the floor and averaging 14.0 points, 7.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. He isn’t exciting anyone right now but it would go a long way from a planning perspective if Payton established himself as a starter.
Philadelphia 76ers – All the injured guys
We could be conventional in this space and opine on the virtues of Robert Covington. The 3-and-D swingman is a very important part of the future in Philly and that would be a reasonable answer. Let’s not pretend, though, that anything beyond the health and production of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons matters. Markelle Fultz is obviously a very important piece given his vast pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick but we won’t know much about this team until we see the frontcourt in tact.
Phoenix Suns – TJ Warren
Warren probably would not have been the choice in this space if the Suns didn’t lock him up to a four-year extension but here we are. There are plenty of questions with an extremely young basketball team, especially when it comes to both of Phoenix’s 2016 top-10 picks in Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Still, Warren is now penciled in as a contributor in the long-term and that can be tough when you remember he doesn’t yet boast an NBA-caliber jumper from three-point distance. Warren might just be a helpful bench piece but, if that is the case, he’s probably overpaid.
Portland Trail Blazers – Moe Harkless
When we last heard from Moe Harkless, he was making $500,000 for not attempting any threes down the stretch of the 2016-17 season. Now, the Blazers need him to shoot them. The loss of Allen Crabbe was a financial necessity but, in the same breath, Portland is now without a serious perimeter shooter other than the “big two” of Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. Harkless isn’t going to be that, but he is easily the best small forward on the roster and Terry Stotts is going to need competent offensive production from that spot. After all, the other option is Evan Turner.
Sacramento Kings – Buddy Hield
George Hill, De’Aaron Fox and the influx of “new” talent are the story in Sacramento. The Kings still need Buddy Hield to be… good. He was the centerpiece of the DeMarcus Cousins trade and, once arriving, Hield was very solid in converting 43 percent of his threes and flashing signs of life. He isn’t that young but Hield displaying traits of a long-term contributor would be encouraging here and his shooting is a must.
San Antonio Spurs – Rudy Gay
There was concern that Gay wouldn’t be ready to start the season after an Achilles ailment but he has been strong in preseason and that is good news for the Spurs. The loss of Jon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon leaves a void on the Spurs roster and, well, Pau Gasol isn’t getting any younger. In fact, San Antonio might be at its best with LaMarcus Aldridge and Gay in the frontcourt but, for that to happen, the veteran has to buy in, stay healthy and contribute to winning basketball.
Toronto Raptors – Serge Ibaka
Ibaka isn’t the same kind of dominant rim protector that he used to be and, by 2017-2018 standards, he should be a full-time center. Toronto probably can’t afford to have that happen, though, as Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl both represent significant investments. Is Ibaka good enough at the 4 to justify playing time? Are there concerns that his dwindling athleticism will have more wide-ranging impact? The Raptors must find out but, in the meantime, Ibaka needs to be good for Toronto to reach its ceiling.
Utah Jazz – Rodney Hood
As long as Rudy Gobert is upright and healthy, the Jazz are going to have a top-five defense. That comes with the territory under Quin Snyder (and with the game’s best rim protector) but the offensive questions are very real in the post-Gordon Hayward era. Rodney Hood may not be a transcendent piece by any means but he also happens to be Utah’s best shot creator and a step forward will be needed to facilitate even a passable unit on that end of the floor.
Washington Wizards – Marcin Gortat
Gortat has been an iron man for quite some and that was true again as he played all 82 games last season. In some respect, he is ultra-safe but the continuing fiasco that is the Ian Mahinmi contract places Gortat in the spotlight. He’ll be 34 by the end of the regular season and, at some point, common sense dictates he’ll slow down. Otto Porter Jr. would be an easy choice based on the massive investment but Gortat is so vital that everything Washington does that the team just can’t afford any slippage or unavailability.