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Playoff X-Factors That Can Elevate Their Teams

D'Angelo Russell Playoffs
(Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Now that it is NBA playoff time, predictions are flying around about who will make it out of the play-in games, reach the conference finals, and finally win the title. After looking at or listening to all the forecasts, everything is clouded in a general consensus. More time is needed to identify how a team could make it far. 

As we all know, the postseason is a different animal to tame. Just last year, plenty of surprises happened in the first round. It probably caused many of those previously mentioned predictions to fail miserably. That’s why in the piece below, we will lay out five players who could be the X-factors in their teams making a deep playoff run. While the expectation for each of these players ’ teams varies, the underlying theme of “if this player performs well, they are going to be tough to beat” applies pretty evenly here. 


Biggest Playoff X-Factors

Kristaps Porzingis

Kristaps Porzingis Playoff

(Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff)

The message that echoes inside the Boston Celtics locker room (and that has been a prayer in the team’s fanbase, too) is that this season, more than ever, will be judged in a championship. Those lofty and finite expectations, spurred by multiple seasons of nearing the title and falling short, prompted the Celtics and their front office to drastically alter their roster.

The centerpiece of the roster reorganization was Kristaps Porzingis. The 7-plus-foot “unicorn” has performed much like he did last season with the Washington Wizards. This, too, has come as a surprise since the Latvians’ last time in the limelight was suffering through a lousy relationship with the Dallas Mavericks. Injuries have prevented stringing together good seasons. Since coming to Boston and inserting himself into the NBA’s best offense, the Celtics have shown how much of an improvement the team is as a complementary team than it ever has been. 

That’s why Porzingis’s availability and play are the biggest things for the Celtics this postseason. The injury history is known. Frankly, that doesn’t have to be stressed too much other than acknowledging something that could happen. Focusing more on why he needs to play well is more important when you see that the Celtics are 43-14 when Porzingis plays, and when on the court, the Celtics are a ridiculous +10.6 points per 100 Possessions, according to league data. Because of his versatility, Porzingis is able to exploit mismatches the best out of any Celtics starter (Porzingis has a career-high 58.9 eFG% this season). 


D’Angelo Russell

The Western Conference was a battle this season. Not at a Dune-like level, but considering that a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, with their pedigree and talent, won 46 games and is in the play-in, that sort of reward must feel like a gut punch for the Lakers. However, they have been in this scenario before, and because of players like D’Angelo Russell, they have the ability to replicate last year’s success. 

Russell was fairly or unfairly labeled the scapegoat even before the season started. That has been the case in recent versions of the Lakers; Russell Westbrook fell to a similar fate just last season. Therefore, the odds were stacked against Russell when the Lakers didn’t pull out of the gate very fast. Due to Russell’s play, the Lakers not only survived injuries to LeBron James and other rotation players, but his much-needed shooting expanded (41% three-point shooting) the Lakers’ offensive identity for the better. As a whole, the Lakers have been better, and that is the case with or without Russell. In total, this season, the Lakers were +5.7 per 100 possessions when Russell was off the court and +2.5 with him on the court. 

It will be interesting to see how that translates to the playoffs because it could mean he gets a short leash in games. With better stretches (particularly on the defensive end), the Lakers might find better lineups in close games with Austin Reaves and Spencer Dinwiddie


Mitchell Robinson

The second-seeded New York Knicks have multiple candidates to pick for this, but Mitchell Robinson is arguably their most impactful player when he is healthy. Robinson has been a per 36 darling since he walked into the league. He is one of the most physically gifted players in a league full of them. The only probably has been his durability, especially in key moments. The Knicks, unfortunately, are used to not having him around and were able to go 31-20 without Robinson. 

Other players like Isaiah Hartenstein emerged as serious contributors in his absence. However, Robinson provides such an elite presence on the offensive glass that he is a legitimate nightmare for other teams. He is tied for first in offensive rebounds per game and has the second-highest offensive rebound percentage for players who average over 15 minutes per game. 

Highest Offensive Rebound % in a single season since 1973 (minimum 25 games played) 

Query Results Table
Rk Player ORB% G Season Age Team
1 Day’Ron Sharpe 23.2 32 2021-22 20 BRK
2 Moses Brown 22.0 36 2022-23 23 BRK, LAC
3 Andre Drummond 21.5 79 2023-24 30 CHI
4 Dennis Rodman 20.8 49 1994-95 33 SAS
5 Mitchell Robinson 20.7 31 2023-24 25 NYK
6 Day’Ron Sharpe 20.6 48 2022-23 21 BRK
7 Mark McNamara 20.6 36 1982-83 23 PHI
8 Jayson Williams 20.5 65 1997-98 29 NJN
9 Ervin Johnson 20.3 45 1993-94 26 SEA
10 Jordan Hill 20.3 29 2012-13 25 LAL

Skill-wise, Robinson is still raw. Where he finds himself in possessions Brunson creates, can he have the same feeling as Hartenstein? To date, and Robinson only played 31 games, the Knicks are slightly better in most of the important advanced metrics when Hartenstein plays. Robinson will have to perform well in whatever minutes he gets, especially as a counter with teams who have poor front-line rebounders.

Tyler Herro

NBA Miami Heat Tyler Herro Playoff

(Jim Rassol/USA TODAY Sports)

For players who have been placed in the forgotten category, Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro could be the most consequential. People seem to forget his ability, and they forget about his impact. While labeled a scorer, Herro provides much more offensive impact than just scoring the basketball. Herro provides a lot of gravity to a Miami Heat offense that lacks it. 

With Miami surviving the play-in, Herro could be much-needed in their attempt to rise from the bottom of the bracket once again. Of course, the Heat were without Herro last season’s playoffs after he played in a career-high 67 games in 2022-2023. After appearing in just 31 games this year, his production mirrored those of peak years. Even more encouraging are his numbers to finish the 2023-2024 campaign. In his last five games, the Kentucky product averaged 21.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists. The assists are what standout because of the lingering question mark around playmakers on their roster. Even though playoff Jimmy Butler has shown he can carry a team, having other players like Herro gives the Heat a much better chance of knocking off higher seeds. 

It’ll be interesting to see what rotations Herro is featured heavily in. On the season, Herro has a 27.8% usage rate. Couple that with signs of Butler dealing with a serious injury and the reliance on Bam Adebayo and Terry Rozier as focal points. How Herro integrates himself back in will be key. Ultimately, the Heat will win as a team, not because of one individual. That being said, a couple of great performances from Herro can elevate the Heat to an even more dangerous threat.  


Mike Conley

Admittedly, the seventeen-year NBA veteran isn’t the sexiest pick here. Like Mitchell Robinson, the Minnesota Timberwolves have numerous players who could be considered x-factors. However, in all likelihood, someone like Mike Conley will be thrust into important moments for an inexperienced Timberwolves team in the playoffs. 

Conley has had a much more subdued role with the Timberwolves than in his career. The weight of a star scorer has never reasonably suited Conley. A pillar of consistency since 2007, the one-time all-star never was able to push himself into the echelon of elite players. While this seems like a lot of criticism, it is purposeful in order to understand the situation he is in this season. At an advanced age, Conley is not asked to be a leading scorer, primary defender, or even primary playmaker. This has allowed him to make a difference as a three-point shooter (44.2% this year). More importantly, Conley has balanced the ripe aggression of the Timberwolves with the calmer demeanor of a seasoned veteran. 

The reason Conley is positioned as an x-factor is two-fold. Will his shooting continue? And can he be better than he has historically? In a lesser role and with the toll on his body being smaller (28.0 Minutes per game), Conley could be a fresher. Even so, the data suggest that Conley is at a different point in his career as a scorer. According to NBA tracking data, Conley averages over 7.5 drives to the basket per game and only averages 2.7 points per game on those drives.  That being said, in the last 22 career playoff games, Conley is averaging 14.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists while shooting 42% from the field. Those numbers, especially in games where the offense is struggling, can’t be replicated. 


Matt Strout is an Editor for Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. You can catch Matt frequently as a guest on the “Cut The Nets” podcast featured on the Back Sports Page network. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_str.out96

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