NBA championships are often determined by the superstars
participating in the series. Those superstars are also judged by
the number of championship rings they possess at the end of their
illustrious careers. However, in most series, there are unsung
heroes who play a massive part in their team reaching the
These X-factors do the necessary things not only for their teams
to win, but also for their stars to shine the brightest. Think
about Andre Iguodala in 2015, Marc Gasol in 2019 or Danny Green in
just about any year.
Iguodala is obviously an extreme case by winning Finals MVP, but
his work on the defensive end made what Steph Curry and Klay
Thompson did easier. The Toronto Raptors traded Jonas Valanciunas
for a fossilized version of Gasol, but the veteran big's defensive
prowess and playmaking added up just enough to lead The North to a
title. Green just did his thing, shooting from deep and defending
The NBA is loaded with more talent than ever, which leads to
more contending teams than ever. There are the favorites like the
Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee
Bucks, and some fringe favorites such as the Chicago Bulls, Miami
Heat and Utah Jazz. Outsiders like the Memphis Grizzlies,
Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks are making noise too.
With a number of teams in true contention, and others that could
be a few trades or buyouts away from contention, the team who has
the biggest X-factor will prevail. Let's take a look at who's been
the most impactful this season so far.
Honorable Mention: Ben Simmons (from a team
This is more like a multiverse scenario, or one of those "choose
your own path" books you read as a kid. Ben Simmons is an X-factor
who could determine this season's NBA champion for a few different
Nothing happens. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday
that Sixers president Daryl Morey has stayed adamant on standing
pat, even after a meeting with Simmons' agent Rich Paul. So say
Morey keeps his strong stance of only taking back one of the 25
players on his top-secret wish list. The Sixers
have managed to still do well — currently fifth in the East — but
with 21% of their payroll not even coming around the team, they
will be hard-pressed to be actual contenders this season.
Lunch meeting in Philadelphia with Paul and
Sixers' management to talk through the ongoing Simmons situation,
sources said. Sixers continue to want Simmons to return to the
floor, but there's no movement on that front --- nor traction on a
trade now. Trade deadline is Feb. 10.
Simmons staying put and not playing would all but eliminate the
Sixers from championship contention.
Ben Simmons shows up eventually and plays for Philly. Would this
be a mentally and physically prepared Ben Simmons, or an "I'm just
here so I don't get fined" Ben Simmons? The former would put this
team back into the conversation as a real threat in the Eastern
Conference, while the latter would sabotage the season even worse
than sitting out has. This feels like the least likely of all
scenarios to happen.
Morey finds a deal of his liking, whether that brings back what
he has been holding out for all along or he settles for "good
enough." Even finding a couple of competent starters in return for
a player who hasn't played at all would be an increase in title
odds for Philadelphia.
On top of the Sixers gaining valuable players to add to their
rotation for a playoff push, whoever adds Simmons also likely
improves their odds at contending as well. Teams like the Portland
Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks would all
immediately improve and have the ability to throw a wrench into the
The biggest wildcard in the NBA continues to be Ben Simmons and
his elite defense and playmaking has the ability to reshape the
playoff picture. Mix in some confidence if he were out of
Phildelphia and he is one of the biggest X Factors in the
Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets
The third-year big out of the University of Georgia has burst
onto the scene in Brooklyn for Steve Nash and the Nets. The
Brooklyn roster hosts LaMarcus Aldridge, Day'Ron Sharpe, Blake
Griffin and Paul Millsap as the team's "bigs" other than Claxton.
With a high-powered offense led by future Hall-of-Famers Kyrie
Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant, the Nets need somone to on
the back end to do the dirty work: rebound, set screens, block
Some might argue that a larger role coming at this point in his
career is one season too late, as Brooklyn opted to feed DeAndre
Jordan minutes when Bruce Brown wasn't playing as the small-ball 5.
Nonetheless, we are here, and more importantly for the Nets,
Claxton is here.
Per 36 minutes, Nic leads the team in rebounding and blocked
shots for players who have played at least 300 minutes on the
season. Even more surprising, according to Basketball-Reference, he
leads the team in Offensive Rating at 129, which is 10 points
higher than Durant, the next in line. His Defensive Rating of 106
is also second behind Brown.
It's his ability to drive and use his length to finish over and
around the most elite shot-blockers like Myles Turner that makes
him such a great fit in this offense. He's a perfect pick-and-roll
partner for any of the stars handling the ball and an even better
rim-runner in transition.
Gary Payton II, Golden State Warriors
In the Warriors' Jan. 11 matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies,
Ja Morant got what and where he wanted when he wanted, early and
often, to the tune of 15 first-quarter points. After a quick
opening run by Golden State, Memphis responded by Ja, Ja and more
Ja. He seemed unstoppable.
Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Payton II might be the only player in the NBA who can slow down
Morant. Andrew Wiggins, an important defender for the Warriors
himself, had little success hanging with Morant. If GP II can hang
with the electric Morant, he will be able to frustrate the likes
Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and more of the
like over the course of a playoff series.
Payton single-handedly flipped the game from an 18-point deficit
to a Golden State lead by cutting off the head of the snake.
Picking up Morant for 94 feet and being extremely physical slowed
down the All-Star guard to the point where he was asking the refs
for a foul call. It forced the Grizzlies to insert Tyus Jones as a
secondary ball-handler... meaning Payton's defense changed a
The Warriors are, once again, an elite defensive team. The
player with the best Defensive Rating on the team? Payton, allowing
just 98 points per 100 possessions, is among the top defenders in
the entire league by this metric. GP II is not a one-trick pony
with his stellar point-of-attack defense; he is also shooting the
three-ball at a 42% clip this season on just under 2 attempts per
While Stephen Curry has certainly improved defensively
throughout his career, Steve Kerr having the option to unleash
Payton on the other team's best guard will prevent Curry and even
Klay Thompson from expending that energy and picking up fouls.
Every team in the NBA would want Mikal Bridges if you gave them
the chance. He is absolutely the perfect glue guy for any lineup.
His length and defensive ability allow him to guard almost every
team's best player in the league. He currently possesses a
Defensive Rating of 107, which is ironically the second-highest on
the Suns, but that is more about who he is guarding rather than his
Bridges is also a highly efficient, low-usage-rate player. He
does not need nor demand the ball offensively to be effective. He
fits that Bruce Bowen or Shane Battier role quite well. 58% of his
three-point attempts are from the corner, and he is converting
those at a 40.7% rate — the ultimate 3-and-D player that teams
across the league covet.
His basketball IQ and fit next to Paul and Devin Booker are
crucial to the success of the Phoenix Suns. Just like Payton in
Golden State, Bridges can guard Morant, Mitchell, LeBron James,
Paul George and more at a high level, allowing Booker to use his
legs primarily on the offensive side of the ball.
Mikal Bridges makes the Suns one of the toughest outs in the
NBA. Not Devin Booker. Not Chris Paul. Not Deandre Ayton. Mikal
It is what he does on both sides of the ball at a high level,
night-in and night-out, that ultimately fuels the Suns.