Who’s the X-factor for LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ title hopes?

Keith Smith
·9 min read

According to BetMGM, there are 11 NBA teams that have 30/1 or better odds of winning the 2020 NBA Finals. Each of those 11 teams are led by a critical All-Star duo. But it’s going to take more than a pair of stars to win the championship.

Someone always steps up around the superstars to help win a title. It’s often someone who is a little less-heralded who makes key plays that lead to winning. With that in mind, here are 11 players — one for each team with solid odds — who can be the X-factor for their teams.

Los Angeles Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) follows through on a 3-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needs to keep hitting threes for the Lakers to thrive. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lakers

Caldwell-Pope is the most under-the-radar Laker. He doesn’t start, he’s not a fan-favorite like Kyle Kuzma or Alex Caruso, and he’s not a wily veteran like Dwight Howard. That’s left Caldwell-Pope to do his thing as anonymously as a Laker can.

Here’s the thing: KCP has had a really good season. He’s shot 47.2% overall and 39.4% from behind the arc, which are both career highs. His defense, especially on ball, remains very good, too. With Avery Bradley sitting out the restart, Caldwell-Pope becomes hugely important. The Lakers have wild cards Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, but Caldwell-Pope has been a rotation guy all year. And he’s a better defender than either of those veteran additions. Look for KCP to take Bradley’s spot in the starting lineup and to play major minutes during L.A.’s playoff run.

Eric Bledsoe, Bucks

There is no shortage of solid players for the Bucks, who have the deepest roster in the NBA. They regularly get contributions from 11 players. But the guy who will swing playoff games for them is Bledsoe.

After a disastrous playoff series in the first round in 2018, Bledsoe’s contract extension with Milwaukee looked like a mess. But he’s bounced back to turn in two of his best seasons. As much as it feels like the Bucks’ offense is Giannis Antetokounmpo ripping and running off the boards, Bledsoe runs the show in the halfcourt. Bledsoe’s steady hand has allowed Milwaukee to have the league’s seventh-best offense. And, in his 11th season, Bledsoe’s had his best defensive year since his frenetic bench years with the L.A. Clippers. His work against opposing point guards has helped propel Milwaukee to the NBA’s best defense.

Marcus Morris, Clippers

The Clippers paid a hefty price to pick up Morris at the trade deadline. L.A. sent out starter Maurice Harkless and its 2020 first-round pick for Morris, who is on an expiring deal. But when you go all in on a short title window, it’s best to really go all in.

Morris gives L.A. a bigger, tough-minded forward to go against the Lakers and LeBron James. While no one really stops James, Morris has done decent work in slowing him down in the past. It was only 12 games before the league’s hiatus, so we’ll overlook Morris’ shooting struggles with the Clips. If he gets back to high 30% 3-point shooting, Morris gives L.A. another offensive weapon. The other team the Clippers have their eye on is the Houston Rockets. Morris is a nice player to have in that matchup and unlocks some fresh small-ball lineups for the Clippers.

Robert Covington, Rockets

No team may have benefited more from the pause of the season than Houston. Not only were the Rockets playing a comically small lineup, but they were going with a short rotation, too. In years past, the Rockets have looked worn down come playoff time. This year, they should be fresh and ready to go.

When GM Daryl Morey acquired Covington at the trade deadline, the Rockets fully committed to small ball. Because P.J. Tucker is essentially a fire hydrant with legs, he can defend any center in the game. But the key to the small lineups is Covington and his ability to defend 2-4 and hold his own. For Houston, Covington is going to defend mostly power forwards, which is not a problem for him. He’s also going to help space the floor even more for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the closest thing to a non-shooter the Rockets play now. Covington’s presence both helps open the offense and allows coach Mike D’Antoni to play the small groups he adores.

Boston Celtics' Gordon Hayward (20) and Kemba Walker (8) plays against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March, 8, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Gordon Hayward has quietly had an excellent season for the Celtics. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Gordon Hayward, Celtics

It’s weird to call Hayward an X-factor when he makes almost $33 million a season. But such is life since Hayward’s gruesome ankle injury almost three years ago, and the rapid ascensions of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown since. It’s been a long, strange trip for Hayward, but he’s finally playing a key role for a Celtics team with high aspirations.

There’s a good chance you didn’t know Hayward averaged 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 50/39/85 shooting splits this year. He’s missed time with a broken hand and recurring soreness in his left foot, but Hayward’s been good for Boston. No player is a better bellwether for the Celtics’ fortunes. He’s awesome on both ends in wins. In losses, everything drops off. The Celtics will need him to be great to get to where they hope to go.

One challenge: Hayward said he’ll leave the team at some point in September to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. That’s likely to occur during a conference semifinal against Toronto or the conference final against Milwaukee. Not ideal timing, but certainly the correct decision for Hayward and his family.

Al Horford, 76ers

This pick can’t be anyone but Horford. To say his season has been a disappointment is an understatement. Horford has shot the worst percentages of his career and his defense has fallen from his typical All-Defensive level. The pairing with Joel Embiid has been clunky, to put it nicely.

When Philadelphia wins, however, Horford is pretty good. He averages 13 points on 49/36/80 shooting in victories. In losses, Horford drops to 10.7 points on 38/31/64 shooting splits and the defense is bad. All season long, the 76ers have told us that they were built for the playoffs. If that’s true, it’s because Horford is giving Philly great play alongside Embiid and not just as the All-Star center’s backup.

OG Anunoby, Raptors

Anunoby missed Toronto’s run to the title last year. This year, he’s a key player in the Raptors’ quest to repeat. He’s the lone member of Toronto’s rotation to not get bit by the injury bug this season. That’s allowed Anunoby to turn in his best season as a pro.

Anunoby will handle the opponent’s best wing. That likely means matchups with Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton are looming. The Raps know they can count on Anunoby making life difficult for his matchup when he’s on defense. But what will make the difference in Toronto’s bid for back-to-back championships will be if Anunoby’s 38% 3-point shooting can hold up. If it does, don’t count out the Raptors from making a return to the Finals.

Gary Harris, Nuggets

As good as Nikola Jokic is, he needs help. That’s supposed to come from soon-to-be max player Jamal Murray. But the guy the Nuggets really need to step up is Harris.

For the third straight season, Harris’ shooting has dropped. This year, he’s at an abysmal 42% overall and 33% from deep. That’s not going to cut it. Harris is a solid defender, but doesn’t do enough to make a difference if he’s not scoring. Denver needs him to get back to being the guy he was a few years ago when he signed a big contract. Otherwise, the Nuggets’ playoff stay could be shorter than they hoped.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Mavericks

You know Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are good. What you may not know is how good the other guy the Mavs got from the Knicks has been. Hardaway seems to have this contract-year thing down, as he’s turned in a terrific season in Dallas.

Hardaway has mastered playing off Doncic. Watch him relocate on the court as Doncic throws passes. It’s like a quarterback leading a wide receiver on a route. That’s allowed Hardaway to shoot 40.7% from three, which easily eclipses his previous career-best mark. He’s also solid enough with the ball that he can create his own look when everything else breaks down. That’ll be key as playoff defenses will key on Doncic.

Andre Iguodala, Heat

Iguodala played just 14 games with the Heat and averaged a whopping 4.4 points per game. What makes him Miami’s X-factor? He’s been there, done that more than anyone else on the roster.

Miami’s got a couple of holes that opponents can attack in the opening group. That means Iguodala will be on the floor at the end of games, likely as the Heat’s pseudo-power forward. His defensive ability and veteran know-how will have him closing games between Bam Adebayo at center and Jimmy Butler at small forward. If the Heat are going to win more than a round, it will be because Iguodala finds what made him great for the Warriors Death Lineup during five straight NBA Finals.

Mike Conley, Jazz

Without Bojan Bogdanovic, who was turning in a terrific season, the offensive pressure is back on Donovan Mitchell for Utah. This time around though, the Jazz will be counting on Conley to help carry some of that load.

Utah runs some of the best offensive sets in the league. The challenge in the playoffs is that when you see a team four to seven times over a two-week period, teams are ready for it. Over the past couple of years, that’s put all the pressure on Mitchell to create late-clock offense when everything breaks down. Bogdanovic and Conley were supposed to help ease that burden. Conley’s first year in Utah has been a mess. His shot inside the arc has completely abandoned him. If the Jazz are to make any sort of noise in the postseason, they’re going to need Conley to find his Memphis game again.

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