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

The Western Conference standings are set, and the play-in is nearly here. 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 West squad’s X factor that could extend their respective playoff life. 

Western Conference X-Factors For NBA Playoffs 2023

Denver Nuggets – Christian Braun

The Nuggets are 29th in bench Net Rating, and opponents outscore them by 12.5 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is off the court (per Cleaning the Glass). Bruce Brown is a solid do-it-all sixth man, but Denver needs others from the second unit to step up. Rookie Christian Braun may be the answer; he owns a 49/36/61 shooting split, dominates in transition, and has flashed connective passing. 

However, Braun’s defense is the more tantalizing trait. He’s a sticky defender that moves his feet well, doesn’t over-contest, and navigates ball screens. Given Denver’s defensive issues, especially on the perimeter, Braun can have an immense impact. His shooting is somewhat streaky, and rookies commit rookie mistakes though. If Braun avoids these potential issues, then the Nuggets will finally have a reliable bench duo. 

Memphis Grizzlies – Xavier Tillman

It’s unknown whether Steven Adams will return, and Brandon Clarke is out for the season. Jaren Jackson Jr has the ability to play center, but he doesn’t rebound well and is more effective as a forward roaming the court. Therefore, Xavier Tillman controlling the glass and allowing Jackson Jr to play forward is vital for Memphis’ success. He also provides some frontcourt insurance should Jaren sink into foul trouble because Tillman is a dependable option. When he screens for Ja Morant (10.7 times per game), it results on average in 1.12 points per possession – a desirable mark. 

If Tillman struggles, then the Grizzlies may be forced to play Santi Aldama or Kenneth Lofton Jr in high-pressure moments. They have flashed promise, but those two are not ready for playoff minutes. Memphis’ run could include Anthony Davis, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo/Joel Embiid. The Grizzlies desperately require Tillman to be a solid player on both ends of the court considering the talent at center these days. 

Sacramento Kings – Davion Mitchell

The Kings possess the best Offensive Rating in NBA history, but they are 24th in Defensive Rating. Based on historical trends, the Kings cannot win the championship with that defensive number. They need to improve their ability to get stops on the less glamorous end, which is extremely concerning considering Sacramento faces the defending champs Golden State Warriors in the First Round. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole abuse opponents on the perimeter through their motion offense, and the Kings starters are not equipped to guard them. 

Enter Davion Mitchell, who owns the nickname “Off-Night” because his hounding defense forces opponents into ugly efficiency numbers. Per NBA CourtOptix, Mitchell ranks 2nd in the NBA in average on-ball defensive pressure score, which measures how tight a defender guards his opponent utilizing tracking data. He also ranks 7th in ball screen navigation, 20th in on-ball defense, and 32nd in off-ball chaser defense (via BBall Index). Mitchell can change the series by sticking to Curry and Thompson through screens while defending in isolation. He’s also a capable playmaker for the second unit, although his streaky shooting is a roadblock. 

If the Kings maintain even an average defense, then they are favored to defeat Golden State and advance. Mitchell will play a huge role in whether that comes to fruition or not. 

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant lead the scoring charge, while Chris Paul ensures that teammates are set up for quality looks. Those three will be consistent forces that shoulder Phoenix to the finish line, but it will be Deandre Ayton who allows them to actually cross it. His around the basket repertoire and pick and roll relationship with Chris Paul provide balance to a jump-shot heavy team. He also performed well on the glass and subsequently ranked 10th in defensive rebound percentage. 

Can he defend the paint against elite frontcourt talent? Will his effort even consistently be there? Ayton’s defense this season has been suspect at times, which cannot happen if Phoenix wants to win the title. The Suns lost the 2021 Finals in large part because Ayton couldn’t limit Giannis in the slightest or impose his will on the other end. If Ayton elevates his play on both sides of the court, then the Suns will be the favorite to emerge out of the West and go toe to toe with Milwaukee or Boston.  

Los Angeles Clippers – Russell Westbrook

Westbrook is a polarizing player that ferociously attacks the rim, sets up teammates, and occasionally flashes moments of disruptive defense. In terms of leading a transition charge and operating in space, he’s highly desirable. However, teams completely sag off of him and dare him to shoot because Westbrook’s jumper is hyper-unreliable. Even when Russ was at the peak of his powers, teams would be perfectly content allowing him to attempt open jumpers. 

Since arriving with the Clippers, he has a 48.9 FG% and a 35.6 3PT% on 3.5 3PA. Plus, the Clippers are three points per 100 possessions better with him on compared to off the court. If Westbrook’s shooting continues at this level, then he’s an absolute series changer for them. Paul George is unlikely to return for the First Round, so the Clippers need vintage Russ to appear. Los Angeles will play Phoenix in the First Round, so the motivation to defeat Kevin Durant may fuel him even more as well. 

Golden State Warriors – Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins hasn’t played since February 13th, although he’s expected to return for Game 1 versus Sacramento. Although rust could severely reduce his efficiency, Golden State possesses the offensive weapons to thrive despite this. However, the Warriors are 28th in Defensive Rating on the road. Wiggins’ ability to lockdown opposing wings and switch onto guards would be massive; it’s a key reason for the Warriors winning the title last season. 

The Kings produced the best Offensive Rating in NBA history this regular season, so Wiggins’ defense could be the difference here. Unfortunately for Golden State, he won’t be at the necessary conditioning level to play long, grueling playoff minutes against this fast-paced squad. If he can nearly return to shape by Game 4 or 5, then they have a great chance of moving on. 

Los Angeles Lakers – Jarred Vanderbilt

The Lakers acquired Vanderbilt at the deadline because he rebounds, passes well, and is an effective opportunistic scorer. He injects cutting and secondary playmaking into the lineup, which are excellent traits around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. His biggest impact remains on the defensive end though, as Vanderbilt relentlessly hounds opposing scorers. Standing at 6’9” with a 7’1” wingspan, he has the length to bother forwards and the mobility to stick to most guards. 

The Lakers will face Minnesota and likely Memphis in the First Round. Vanderbilt’s defense on Edwards, Towns, Morant, Bane, and Jackson Jr will have a massive effect on how far the Lakers advance. An additional benefit is that LeBron James avoids guarding elite offensive players, which allows him to conserve precious energy. 

Minnesota Timberwolves – Kyle Anderson

Sunday was a disaster: Jaden McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall out of frustration, and the Timberwolves sent Rudy Gobert home after he threw a punch at Kyle Anderson. Fortunately, Minnesota managed to defeat the Pelicans and claimed the 7th seed – they now have two chances to reach the playoffs instead of one. If they are going to secure a playoff berth though, then Minnesota needs someone to replace McDaniels, an All-Defensive caliber player averaging 12.1 PPG. 

Kyle Anderson isn’t in the same league as McDaniels, but he’s a smart, disruptive 6’9” defender. Anderson can also replace McDaniels’ scoring while adding more playmaking. He’s having a career year from three too, and the Timberwolves desperately need his shooting to hold. Perhaps the biggest issue that falls on Anderson is the locker room; he must forget the incident with Gobert and not allow team morale and chemistry to falter. Otherwise, Minnesota will be an early exit. 

New Orleans Pelicans – Herb Jones

As the 9th seed, the Pelicans have to win two elimination games before earning the chance to face Denver in the playoffs. The path includes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and either Anthony Edwards or LeBron James. All three are positionally big scorers that thrive attacking the basket and lead their respective offenses. Therefore, defending them will be the key for New Orleans as Ingram, McColum, Valanciunas, and Murphy can handle the scoring load. 

Herb Jones had a case for All-Defensive team last season despite his rookie status, and he’s an even stronger candidate this year. At 6’7” with a 7’0” wingspan, Herb possesses the size to smother most scorers. His defensive IQ is also off the charts dangerous too. He arguably defended Gilgeous-Alexander better than anyone this season, and New Orleans will need his services once again against the All-NBA First Team candidate. 

Oklahoma City Thunder – Isaiah Joe

The Thunder lead the league in drives and restricted area FGA, so trotting out elite three-point shooters elevates the offense to lethal levels. At a 40.9 3PT% on 5.4 3PA, Joe has been a premier three-point threat. Oklahoma City frequently uses him as a high screener to create chaos, and his ghost screening has led to many open threes. (Here’s an article I wrote earlier about how the Thunder’s offense utilizes Joe). 

Meanwhile, Joe takes a number of charges and seems to always grab a couple key rebounds every game. If he can shoot the lights out while contributing in these other areas, then the Pelicans’ defense will be in trouble. However, his struggles could doom Oklahoma City since they lack another superb three-point shooter. 

NBA Championship Odds

Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2021-22 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs about analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions and NBA Analysis Network.

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