NBA Playoffs 2023: Eastern Conference X-Factors & Key Players To Watch

The Eastern Conference standings are finally cemented with the play-in quickly approaching. A team’s primary options will always fuel deep playoff runs, but X factors can swing a series by either chipping in consistent production or producing performances above expectations. Volatile role players are the typical X factor archetype, although this isn’t always the case. Check out below for every East squad’s X factor that could extend their respective playoff life.

Eastern Conference X-Factors For NBA Playoffs 2023

Milwaukee Bucks – Jae Crowder

Khris Middleton missed last postseason due to injury, and he hasn’t been able to achieve his former two-way production since returning in early December. Middleton is at a career low 43.6 FG%, and his 31.5 3PT% is the worst mark since his rookie season. Plus, his defense remains a notch below his usual standard.

Milwaukee desperately needs Jae Crowder to step up by defending opposing wings, spacing the court and creating off the dribble from time to time. His short Bucks tenure has been extremely encouraging: good defense with an elite 48/42/83 shooting split. Crowder isn’t afraid of the big moments either as he played 31.5 MPG in the 2020 Finals and 37.2 MPG in the 2021 Finals.

If Crowder turns in an effective two-way performance, then Milwaukee can survive rust affecting Middleton. Otherwise, the Bucks will lack that crucial 3&D wing, which may be the difference against a team like Boston that features Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Boston Celtics – Robert Williams III

Boston’s deep, positionless roster is loaded with players that can fill numerous roles on the spot. However, Robert Williams is the only Celtic that acts as a lob threat, dominates the glass, and protects the rim at a high level. During the 2022 Finals, he annihilated any Warrior that dared to test him around the basket and averaged 2.8 BPG as a result. When Williams was on the court (26.3 MPG) versus Golden State, the Celtics had a monstrous 154 Offensive Rating and 104 Defensive Rating!

Unfortunately, injuries have plagued Williams; he only managed 23.5 MPG across 35 games this season. It’s worth noting that Boston outscored opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. The Celtics likely must face Joel Embiid in the Second Round and Giannis Antetokounmpo/Brook Lopez in the Conference Finals, so Williams’ health is crucial. If he cannot hold up physically, then Boston’s chances of returning to the NBA Finals takes a significant blow.

Philadelphia 76ers – James Harden

Can James Harden string together elite performances across multiple series? Since his first season in Houston, Harden’s regular season shooting split is 44/36/86, while his postseason split is 42/33/87 – not a massive but still significant drop. He doesn’t seem to elevate his game when the pressure is at its highest and recently has been concerningly passive in key moments.

For example, in Philadelphia’s elimination loss to Miami last playoffs, Harden only attempted two shots in the second half and didn’t score a single point. The 76ers were only down one point at halftime, and they wound up losing by nine points because they couldn’t muster any offense down the stretch. If Harden is aggressive and provides an offensive punch to pair with Embiid, then perhaps the 76ers force a Game 7 and subsequently face Boston in the Conference Finals.

Philadelphia currently shares a conference with the two best teams in basketball, and it’s highly probable that they must down both of them before earning a Finals berth. If the 76ers are going to shock the world twice, then it’s imperative that Harden shoulders more of a scoring burden without sacrificing efficiency in addition to his playmaking duties.

They have their superstar (Embiid), desirable third and fourth options (Maxey, Harris), and winning role players (Melton, Tucker, McDaniels, Milton, House Jr). The only thing missing is that second All-NBA caliber player. If Harden fills these shoes, Philadelphia has a legitimate chance to reach the Finals. If not, another disappointing Second Round exit lies in their future.

Cleveland Cavaliers – Isaac Okoro

Garland and Mitchell form an undersized defensive backcourt, so Cleveland needs to surround them with defenders to compensate. Mobley and Allen are non-shooters meanwhile, so they must have three-point shooters around them to provide the necessary spacing. Therefore, 3&D wings are absolutely essential based on Cleveland’s big four.

Okoro has been a lockdown wing defender this season. Per BBall Index’s respected defensive metrics, he ranks 16th in matchup difficulty, 28th in on-ball defense, 7th in off-ball chaser defense, and 9th in ball screen navigation. Essentially Okoro plays stingy defense despite consistently guarding offensive stars.

He’s also knocking down threes at a 36.3% clip, although many of them are open or wide open. Playoff defenders will dare him to shoot, and Okoro must make them pay by converting at a reasonable rate. If he can hit threes, then Cleveland will have that necessary 3&D piece that could help swing a series.

New York Knicks – RJ Barrett

The Knicks have the depth to match East contenders, but Brunson and Randle as a duo are a notch below other primary options. Therefore, New York needs their third scorer to outshine his respective opponents in order to help neutralize this disadvantage. Can Barrett erase his inconsistencies though during a prolonged postseason run?

The former third overall pick averages 19.6 PPG but on a mediocre 43/31/74 shooting split. He owns a dreadful 25.2 FG% on pull-up jumpers, and his 47.7 FG% on drives is average at best. However, Barrett’s produced twenty 25-point games and seven 30-point games this season, so the potential to be a volume scorer is there. If Barrett can be an efficient 22-26 point scorer in at least four of the seven games, then the Knicks may surprise Cleveland in the First Round before facing Milwaukee. Essentially, Barrett will play a large role in determining whether New York is bounced in the First Round or makes a deep run.

Brooklyn Nets – Nic Claxton

Given that MVP-candidate Joel Embiid (33.1 PPG) awaits in the First Round, it’s crucial that Brooklyn’s interior defense reasonably holds up. Claxton may receive All-Defensive 2nd Team votes because he protects the rim while thriving as an isolation defender. Per BBall Index, he ranks 14th in rim points saved per 75 possessions and 23rd in rim defensive FG% versus expected (min. 750 minutes).

On offense, Claxton acts as a roll and lob threat, which provides balance to the 3&D heavy roster. The Bridges-Claxton pick and roll produces 1.16 points per possession, so look for Brooklyn to utilize this frequently.

In their last matchup, Embiid scored 37 points on 12/18 shooting while Claxton had 6 points and 4 fouls. In the previous one though, Claxton scored 25 points and held Embiid to 6/18 shooting. Both games were extremes, but the Nets won’t stand a chance if the series leans towards the former. Claxton absolutely must play the best defense of his life for Brooklyn to advance.

Miami Heat – Duncan Robinson

The ultimate X factor; he’s either going to be a catalyst for massive runs behind a barrage of three-pointers or go stone-cold while being hunted on defense. Despite Miami ranking 27th in 3PT% and 25th in Offensive Rating, they haven’t seemed eager to hand Robinson more minutes. He has oddly severely regressed this season (33.1 3PT% compared to 40.8% over the previous three seasons), but inconsistent playing time hasn’t helped Robinson’s shooting rhythm either.

Butler and Adebayo need shooters surrounding them, or they won’t gain the necessary space to operate optimally. Robinson played his role perfectly during Miami’s 2020 Finals run; he shot 39.7% on 7.4 3PA per game during that postseason. Robinson can provide that required perimeter spark, although Miami must risk opponents exploiting his very real flaws and a shooting slump.

Atlanta Hawks – Onyeka Okongwu

The Hawks are 8th in Offensive Rating, but they finished in the play-in due to their 22nd Defensive Rating. They allow the 4th most opponent FGA within eight feet of the basket and the 12th highest opponent FG% on those shots. Plus, Atlanta is 29th defending the roll man and 26th defending cuts. Clint Capela remains a solid defender, but Okongwu is the superior, more versatile option that the Hawks should turn towards.

A matchup with Bam Adebayo is certain, and Atlanta may face Giannis/Lopez or Horford/Williams depending on the play-in results. Mobley/Allen and Embiid also lurk in the East, so defensive centers are essential for a deep playoff push. If Okongwu can adequately defend the rim and aid Trae Young in the pick and roll, then the Hawks may avoid a one and done this season.

Toronto Raptors – Gary Trent Jr

Outside of Fred VanVleet, Toronto doesn’t roster a single reliable playoff point guard. They use Barnes and Siakam in a point-forward role, but a bench playmaker would provide a massive boost to the offense. Although Trent Jr isn’t a natural point guard, he’s shown the ability to occasionally run the pick and roll – he has 194 possessions this season.

In addition to his catch and shoot prowess, Trent Jr frequently scores off the dribble at a decent rate. Because the Raptors are short on playmakers and scoring guards, Trent Jr will be a valuable player that can create his own shot while sometimes setting up teammates. Toronto has the necessary defense to advance, but their hopes will boil down to whether the Raptors’ offense functions consistently.

Chicago Bulls – Patrick Williams

The Bulls face elimination against the Raptors, who own a stable of versatile wings. Therefore, Patrick Williams’ defense will be essential. He’s grown as an on-ball defender and possesses near lock-down defensive potential. Chicago will need an excellent performance from Williams when he marks Siakam, Barnes, and Anunoby. If they end up securing the 8th seed, then Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo await Chicago too.

The Bulls rank 24th in Offensive Rating, and yet they haven’t allowed Williams to truly explore his scoring potential because DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic command so many possessions. During their win over Dallas on April 7th though, Williams displayed tantalizing off the dribble scoring and isolation offense. If the Bulls give him more volume, then Chicago may reap the rewards immediately and reach the playoffs.

NBA Championship Odds

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Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

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