You might not believe it, but the NBA season is about to start. Again. Did it ever end? To think that almost exactly one calendar year ago the Lakers were beating the Heat in the Bubble Finals is a trip. When the 2021-22 regular season begins on Tuesday, parts of three seasons will have taken place over the last 12 months and change.
Our previews for all 30 teams are in. Our awards and playoff predictions are coming next week. Below is a look at 10 X-factor players that stand to swing their teams one way or another.
You might argue Russell Westbrook is too central a player for the Lakers to be an X-factor, but I would argue the farther he is from a central player the better for Los Angeles, which has already proven it can win a title with LeBron James and Anthony Davis operating sans a third star. Westbrook’s scoring, assists and certainly his usage rate should all drop precipitously this season, making his defensive contributions and supporting shooting the key to his impact.
Frank Vogel has given Westbrook the green light for catch-and-shoot 3s (this could go terribly), but wants him to be more judicious pulling up off the dribble (good luck). If Westbrook, much like he did over the second half of the 2019-20 season with Houston, stays disciplined on offense, focusing on penetration, and has just a relatively decent shooting season while committing defensively (which he should be able to do with far less offensive responsibility), he should be a plus for the Lakers. If he goes the other way, the Lakers might well follow him right down the drain.
Under normal conditions, Klay Thompson is anything but an X-factor. He’s a central cog in a three-time championship wheel. But this season stands to be anything but normal for Thompson and the Warriors, who officially believe they have what it takes to contend again after two seasons in the tank if Thompson can return to his old form. That’s a big if. By the time he takes the floor, potentially not until after Christmas, it will have been around 30 months since he last played in an NBA game. He’s coming off a torn ACL and Achilles tendon. I wonder more about his defense — so important next to Stephen Curry — than I do his offense; he’s going to be a lights-out shooter for the rest of his life. If Thompson is his old self, by the time the playoffs roll around and he’s back in full swing, the Warriors are right to believe they can make real noise. But if Thompson just isn’t the same, they could be fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament unless Jordan Poole is really the next coming of … Klay Thompson. Don’t bet on that.
I haven’t given up on Kristaps Porzingis as a secondary star next to Luka Doncic, but he is one of the highest-variance players in the league. When he’s bad, he is bad. Bordering on useless. But when he is good, he remains a lethal scoring force with virtually unlimited range on his 3-point shot. There’s a reason the Porzingis-Doncic pairing was, and to me still remains, so enticing: Porzingis pulls defenses out of the lane and Doncic attacks it. Their pick-and-pop game could be unstoppable if Porzingis has a big shooting season. I have not forgotten how great Porzingis played in the bubble before his injury. That wasn’t that long ago. While Doncic is a top-tier MVP candidate, Porzingis — assuming he doesn’t get traded — is the player on which Dallas’ season will likely swing.
The Grizzlies are a one-star team, and that star is Ja Morant. But remember, they are, or were, supposed to be a two-star team, and that second potential star was supposed to be Jaren Jackson Jr. Offensively, he was on that kind of trajectory through his first two seasons before he lost basically all of last season to injury. In 2019-20, Jackson shot 40 percent from 3 on over six attempts per game. And these aren’t stationary pick-and-pop 3s of the normal stretch five variety; he can legit shoot on the move. He’s Karl-Anthony Towns-like. What’s strange is when Jackson came out of Michigan State, he was regarded as a top-tier defender. That portion of his equation hasn’t played out as well; he fouls like a maniac, for starters. But the goods are there defensively, and if Jackson puts it together this season on both ends, a two-star team in Memphis becomes a much different animal.
Boston’s fourth-year big man might be the league’s biggest X-factor this season. He has the makings of a defensive monster and he’s no slouch offensively; he’s a huge rolling threat alongside all those ball handlers and a plenty capable passer. Boston will play two-big lineups with Robert Williams and Al Horford, but if Williams, who shows signs of DPOY potential but lacks consistently good habits, breaks out and the Celtics can finish games as a traditional five-man unit even against smaller lineups (he can guard away from the basket), that’s a major boon in Beantown. To me, a lot of people are sleeping on the Celtics, and Williams is a big reason why I like them to finish as a top-four seed.
Tyler Herro’s sophomore slump was overblown. His numbers went up across the board from his rookie season. The difference was, he wasn’t a rookie anymore. Rookies play with house money. When they play well, we make a huge deal out of it. When they don’t, it hardly registers on anyone’s radar because, hey, they’re just a rookie. That leeway quickly disappeared for Herro in his second go-round. Struggles were magnified under heightened expectations after his, and the Heat’s, magnificent run to the 2020 Finals. If you step back and look at Herro’s two-year sample, he’s really good. With Kyle Lowry on board, he doesn’t have to be a focal-point guy. He’s a perfect X-factor off the bench and in closing lineups. Sixth Man of the Year should be a goal. If he gets near that level, Miami is super dangerous.
The Hawks did the majority of their postseason damage last season without De’Andre Hunter, who missed both the conference semifinals and conference finals with a torn meniscus. A lot of people don’t realize how good Hunter has already become. Drafted as a defensive ace with hopefully spot-up-shooting capabilities, Hunter has quickly turned himself into a lot more than that in support of Trae Young, particularly with his rapidly developing ability to create his own shot. If Hunter continues his upward offensive trend (15 points per game last season; 77th percentile with 119.9 points per 100 shots, per Cleaning the Glass), he could be the difference in Atlanta regressing slightly after an ahead-of-schedule postseason run, or validating last season’s success by moving into the top tier of Eastern Conference contenders.
If you’ve watched the Bulls this preseason, you know this offense has must-see-TV potential. The question is whether the defense can at least hold its own. That’s where Patrick Willams comes in. Williams, who is already a solid offensive role player who can make 3s and do a bit off the dribble (he’s a really good/ hard cutter, too), stands to be Chicago’s best individual defender who will take the toughest perimeter assignments each night. He isn’t going to hold up Chicago’s defense on his own, but if he’s really good, you can talk yourself into the Bulls filling in the gaps around him with switchable pieces in Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and hopefully an at least defensively neutral DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, the latter of whom has shown honest defensive chops in stretches, particularly this summer with Team USA.
You could argue Larry Nance Jr. here. The Blazers need defense (they’ve looked dreadful again this preseason), and Nance is a top-shelf defender. But the Blazers are simply not a threat unless Jusuf Nurkic stays healthy and plays at somewhere near an All-Star level; he has almost no chance of actually making the All-Star team in the West, but I’m talking about 20-and-10, high-efficiency stuff on a consistent basis. There are times when Nurkic goes head to head with the best big men in the game and looks every bit the part. That’s what Portland needs if it’s going to turn into something more than just a dangerous team that is ultimately too reliant on a small backcourt creating and making incredibly tough jump shots.
The idea of Kelly Oubre’s defense is better than the reality of it, but on a Charlotte team lacking defense in a major way, Oubre stands out as a potential difference maker if he can utilize his athletic gifts without having to gamble so much and/or get beat off the dribble first. It’s not all about defense for Oubre. He can put the ball in the basket. His offense certainly can’t be as bad for the Hornets as it was last season in Golden State, where he struggled to fit inside the maze of Curry’s movement, but if he can conjure his time in Phoenix, where he approached 20 points a game and was a 35-percent 3-point guy, and make a positive defensive impact, Charlotte becomes a more viable threat to inch above of the play-in seeds.