Unexpected x-factors for each Western Conference playoff team
LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden will earn much of the limelight in the Western Conference when the NBA season resumes. While each of these players will obviously play a giant role in their team’s success (or lack of success), we can guarantee that an unexpected contributor will step up during a team’s march to the NBA Finals.
Now, we’re not talking about the likes of Anthony Davis, Paul George, or Russell Westbrook. Rather, we’re focused on the end-of-rotation players who could have a heroic performance in a single game. We did a similar exercise with the Eastern Conference last week.
Below, we’ve listed the unexpected x-factors for each Western Conference team.
Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso
The balding 26-year-old may not be unfamiliar to Lakers fans, but he’ll have a prime opportunity to introduce himself to casual NBA fans following the hiatus. While Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is likely to slide into the starting lineup following Avery Bradley’s decision to sit out, Caruso should inherit most of his teammate’s minutes.
Among Lakers players with at least 1,000 minutes played, Caruso had the second-highest Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) on the team. Plus, his ability to hit jumpers (at least when compared to alternative Rajon Rondo) should earn him some important playing time.
Los Angeles Clippers: Landry Shamet
The Clippers improved their depth prior to the hiatus by adding Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. However, it should be one of their incumbent players who will be key come playoff time.
While the 23-year-old Shamet hasn’t been able to match the incredible shooting numbers from his rookie campaign, he still managed to shoot 39% from three this past season. Sure, he’s going to have to fight Jackson, Patrick Beverley, and Lou Williams for minutes at guard … but when the Clippers desperately need some shooting, Shamet could emerge as an integral piece.
Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.
The Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and the majority of their rotation players shouldn’t be described as “unknown” nor “unexpected” contributors. It’s worth noting that the majority of this depth comes at guard, and while Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic will do their best to defend the rim, Denver will still need a sturdy forward who can guard the likes of LeBron and Kawhi.
Enter Michael Porter Jr., a 2018 first rounder who missed his rookie campaign due to back issues. Considering he has less than 700 career minutes to his name, the Nuggets will take what they can get from the “rookie” come playoff time. However, he finished with the third-best defensive rating on the team (behind only Mason Plumlee and Jokic), and he has the physical attributes to defend the NBA’s top wings. Despite his inexperience, he should get a chance.
Utah Jazz: Ed Davis
The Jazz have played a number of players next to Rudy Gobert in the frontcourt, but many of those options (including Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neale) profile more as small forwards than power forwards. If Utah is forced to play against lengthy frontcourts like the Lakers or Nuggets, they could struggle.
Fortunately, they have a fallback option in Ed Davis. While the veteran hasn’t played much this season, he still finished third on the Nuggets in DBPM (among players with at least 200 minutes played). Davis doesn’t provide the floor spacing that the Jazz value, but his experience playing both power forward and center could lead to playing time in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Luguentz Dort
After started the season as a two-way player, Luguentz Dort has established a role in the starting lineup. To be clear, he’s not the token fifth starter; he has a top-five DBPM among his teammates.
Houston Rockets: Tyson Chandler
This isn’t the Tyson Chandler of old. While the Rockets are going all-in on their “small ball” lineup, they’ll need size at some point. The 37-year-old Chandler is their only choice.
Dallas Mavericks: Delon Wright
Courtney Lee will miss the rest of the season, so the Nuggets will need someone to take his minutes on the wing. Those minutes could end up going to Delon Wright, who shot better than 38% from three this past season.
Memphis Grizzles: Solomon Hill
Portland Trail Blazers: Gary Trent
New Orleans Pelicans: Kenrich Williams
Sacramento Kings: Corey Brewer
San Antonio Spurs: Trey Lyles
Phoenix Suns: Cheick Diallo
These teams are all playing for the chance to lose to the Lakers in the first round. If they want to win even a single playoff game, they’ll need offensive or defensive production from an unexpected source.