Western Conference Playoff X Factors: Four Players Who Affect Title Chances

X factors are not superstars like Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but rather role players who can play above their position on the team hierarchy and significantly impact a series. They are players who do not consistently produce great numbers; they are volatile and prone to poor nights. Every team has an X factor, or perhaps multiple, but these are four who can change their respective team identity and raise the ceiling. 

Patrick Beverley – Minnesota Timberwolves 

The Timberwolves will be able to score against anybody due to their offensive trio of D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota also has some scorers off the bench in Malik Beasley (12.1 PPG) and Jaylen Nowell (8.5 PPG). They are 7th in Offensive Rating and 13th in Defensive Rating, which is a huge improvement from previous seasons. If they are going to advance deep into the playoffs, they must tighten up their defense and consistently get stops on the less glamorous end. Patrick Beverley is a ferocious guard defender who ranks in the 86th percentile at spot up defense and 73rd percentile in pick and roll ball handler defense. With guards such as Paul, Booker, Morant, Curry, Doncic, and Mitchell potentially waiting for Minnesota, they must defend at the point of attack. Beverley’s job will be to slow these lethal guards down and provide a spark of energy. If Minnesota gets defensive production from Beverley, they are a dark horse to reach the Conference Finals, especially because they are the 7th seed and avoid Phoenix. 

Beverley also provides some secondary playmaking (4.6 APG) and spacing (34.3 3PT%). He’s a net positive on offense, so he is by no means a one-dimensional player. One of the most critical aspects of his influence is experience. He’s played in 59 playoff games, while Edwards, Russell, and Towns have played in a combined 10 playoff games. Patrick Beverley has completely changed the culture and identity surrounding the Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell finally look committed on defense because of Beverley’s energy and intensity. Beverley is a huge X factor because he not only provides value himself, but he inspires teammates to evolve into a better version of themselves. 

Dwight Powell – Dallas Mavericks 

Powell falls into this category assuming Luka Doncic plays. The Mavericks are defined by their three guards: Luka, Jalen Brunson, and Spencer Dinwiddie. Dallas will get tremendous production from these three, but the interior game must be strong so that they are balanced. Dwight Powell is not the flashiest center, yet he is a solid player who does the dirty work. In the first round, the Mavericks will play against either the Nuggets (Jokic) or Jazz (Gobert). If they win that matchup, they likely face the Suns (Ayton). Dallas wouldn’t play a team without exceptional talent at center (Grizzlies or Warriors) until the Conference Finals. If the Mavericks are going to survive for that long, then Powell must perform on both ends of the court. As Luka’s pick and roll partner, Powell can roll without much attention focused on him. He ranks in the 93rd percentile as a roll man due to Luka dominating the defensive attention. The Mavericks are 10-1 this season when he scores 15+ points because they become impossible to defend when there is pressure on all areas of the court. When Powell is playing well, the offense becomes less predictable. 

Defensively, he must keep Jokic, Gobert, and Ayton off the offensive glass. The Mavericks play at a slow pace, so second chance points hurt more than for a team like Charlotte who runs and guns. He will face off against more talented centers, but Dallas can thrive off of Luka’s production if they just limit the damage done by opposing centers. When the game becomes a battle between the guards, the Mavericks will feel confident against any team besides perhaps Phoenix. Luka will propel Dallas through his perimeter game, but he needs Powell’s help in the interior. 

Monte Morris – Denver Nuggets 

The Nuggets revolve around MVP-candidate Nikola Jokic, but he cannot carry the Nuggets to a deep playoff run alone. He needs other players to create shots both for themselves and for teammates. Monte Morris is averaging 12.6 PPG and 4.4 APG on 48.4 FG% and 39.5 3PT%. He’s a solid ball handler who can use the pick and roll to get open shots for teammates. Although Jokic is a great offensive option, they must decentralize slightly and diversify the offense in order to become more effective. That’s not to say that Jokic shouldn’t control the ball for the majority of the game – just that Morris handling the ball would take some pressure off of Jokic’s shoulders and allow the offense to function when Jokic sits. Morris is also an elite spot up shooter (89th percentile) who spaces the floor for the Nuggets. When Jokic’s teammates actually back up the threat of Jokic passing to the open man, opponents cannot solely focus on limiting Jokic’s own field goal attempts. Morris will be a dual threat for the Nuggets who scores both on and off-ball. With a competent point guard running the show at times, Denver’s offense looks downright scary. 

Defensively, Morris is not a stopper who shuts down opposing point guards. However, in a conference that will likely claim 5 of the 6 All-NBA guard spots, perimeter defense is essential. Jokic and the hyper-athletic Aaron Gordon can clean up mistakes around the rim, so Morris needs to focus on going over the pick and watching the three-point line. If Morris can elevate his game on both ends, the Nuggets can advance to the next round and potentially overthrow the Suns. 

Norman Powell – Los Angeles Clippers 

I would normally consider Norman Powell too good to fall into the role player X factor category, but I will include him since he has only played five regular season games with the Clippers. In those five games, he averaged 21.4 PPG and 2.8 APG on 50.8 FG% and 54.2 3PT%. Powell ran the pick and roll to perfection and produced excellent results. The Clippers are 8th in Defensive Rating, yet they own a horrible 25th Offensive Rating. Powell’s ability to play both on and off-ball will provide a much-needed boost to this inefficient offense. In 45 games this season with both the Trail Blazers and Clippers, Powell shot a blistering 45.4% on catch and shoot threes. Paul George and Reggie Jackson will handle the ball mostly, so Powell’s shooting abilities will be on full display. However, when the volatile Jackson is having a bad night, Powell can step in and run the offense. Against the Timberwolves in the play-in, Powell would have made the difference if he handled the ball instead of Reggie Jackson. 

The Clippers are filled with versatile, switchable wings who can defend multiple positions. They won’t need Powell to play elite defense, so he can focus his energy on the offensive end of the court. Overall, Powell significantly elevates this team’s ceiling. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is; if an NBA team is draining threes all night, they are probably going to win that game. Powell enhances this element and gives the Clippers a fighting chance in the playoffs. 

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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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