The NBA season is fast approaching as 30 teams will be vying to improve their chances of getting a championship ring. The offseason presented a lot of major moves but now, for the most part, the teams are set and ready to see how their new assemblies will fare against elite competition.
When going into games, teams will have scouted the major players and schemes of their opponents but few can predict the sleeper assassins who will come alive at tipoff and send coaches scrambling back to the drawing board. Those players are the “X-Factors” and every smart team has one in their back pocket who could step up at any time and change the dynamic of the game and swing momentum in their favor.
X-Factors are those impact players who may be ignored during scouting reports due to having a lesser role, inconsistent play and minutes, a checkered injury history or just being unproven on the court. Teams will usually underestimate these players and that’s when they’ll be hit by them the hardest.
In this list, we will go team by team and predict the most likely X-Factor players who may slip under the radar of scouting teams. We will do our best to avoid the obvious top talent who will be zoned in on by the defense. With teams focusing on trying to stop the star players, these X-Factor wild cards will be the difference makers on any given night and with their unsung talent will make teams pay dearly.
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30 Atlanta Hawks
X-Factor: Dennis Schroder
The Atlanta Hawks impressed enough last year to be one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, finishing in 4th place. However, after another disappointing exit being swept by LeBron and the Cavs, the Hawks decided they needed to shake up their reliable core a bit to improve their chances this season. Gone went Al Horford, replaced by Dwight Howard. Also shipped out was Starting PG Jeff Teague, with hopes that productive high-energy backup Dennis Schroder could take over the role.
Schroder was effective off the bench in short bursts, posting a season average of 11 PPG, 2.2 Rebounds and 4.4 assists. With him now slated to receive starters’ minutes against the elite PGs of the league, the 22 year old will be given a true test as to whether he has what it takes to anchor the team.
With defenses focusing in on the Hawks big men in Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard and looking to make things tough for sharpshooter Kyle Korver, the often erratic Schroder will be looked at to make the right decisions on the court to keep the Hawks high on the win column.
29 Boston Celtics
X-Factor: Gerald Green
The Celtics were languishing in NBA purgatory for a few years after the end of the Big Three & Rondo era but have seemed to find the right collection of players to become a playoff team once again. Isaiah Thomas has emerged as a top-tier point guard in the Eastern Conference and the Celtics looked to solidify their Center position by signing Al Horford.
Boston has been getting tired of first round exits and is looking to stack their deck to improve their chances against Heavyweights like the Cavs and the Raptors. While the Celtics starting lineup of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Al Horford is talented enough to make the Celtics a possible fourth seed in the East, their depth on the bench may be what can possibly get them to the Finals.
The Celtics have signed Gerald Green, who started his career with the Celtics, to add firepower to their bench. The bench has been where Green has thrived in his stints around the league and playing in short bursts with the second unit with backup PG Marcus Smart could make the Celtics a team that may get more wins than expected.
28 Brookyn Nets
X-Factor: Jeremy Lin
The Nets were terribly disappointing last season finishing with a 21–61 record, their worst since moving to Brooklyn in 2012. In the offseason the Nets would sign Jeremy Lin and Luis Scola with hopes to revamp their team.
After his magical Linsanity year with the Knicks, Lin was moved around the league and had rather disappointing stints with the Rockets and Lakers that failed to match that productive breakout season. However, Lin seemed to find his groove with the Charlotte Hornets as the backup to Kemba Walker, posting an efficient average of nearly 12 points a game, 3 rebounds and 3 assists.
In Brooklyn, Lin is once again depended on as a starter, a role he hasn’t been too comfortable with. Success or failure of the Nets will rely on if Lin can be a good distributor and scorer for the team. The pressure’s on.
27 Charlotte Hornets
X-Factor: Michael Kidd Gilchrist
The Charlotte Hornets surprised the league with their 48-34 record last season which brought them back into playoff contention. Last season also became a career year for Kemba Walker who posted stellar numbers and made a case to be heavily targeted by defenses for this season.
The scoring pressure will be higher for Walker this season with roleplayers Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee now gone from the team. Walker is going to need help or else he’s going to be double and triple teamed all season long.
That’s why it’s crucial that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist provide the Hornets a healthy season this year. MKG only played 7 games last season due to shoulder issues. In the time he was on the court, Kidd-Gilchrist showed improved scoring to go with his tenacious defense. Time will tell if MKG will be able to stay healthy and fill the void.
26 Chicago Bulls
X-Factor: Rajon Rondo
The Bulls look like a completely different team going into this season. Gone are long-time staples of the franchise in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose to make room for Rajon Rondo, Dwayne Wade and Raul Lopez. The new go-to player of this team moving forward is emerging superstar Jimmy Butler of course so teams will be lasered in on slowing him down.
It’s not 2008 anymore. Rajon Rondo’s star has fallen in the league, largely by his own doing. Volatile, emotional and erratic, Rondo is a far cry from his elite Celtic years as shown by his dysfunctional stints with the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings. However, if he gets his head together and creates some chemistry with his teammates, he could be vital to the Bulls success this season.
Rondo is still a good point guard but if he puts his emotional issues in check for the betterment of the team, his dynamic with D-Wade and Butler could be something to keep an eye on.
25 Cleveland Cavaliers
X-Factor: Kay Felder
The reigning champs are definitely going to have a target on their back by opposing teams this season. LeBron will be the top priority as usual by defenses and Kyrie Irving will also be getting a lot more attention.
The Champs have their core team from last year still together, so they are going to need a wild card that teams will overlook and it may just be their 54th pick in the second round of the draft.
Kay Felder will be filling the void left by crafty Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova who’s moved on to the Milwaukee Bucks. Felder will be relied upon to relieve Kyrie, who the Cavs will be sure to preserve to try for another championship during Playoff time.
Felder, who is undersized at 5’9, makes it up by being amazingly athletic. His rookie season will be a critical one as he looks to make his mark with the defending champs.
24 Dallas Mavericks
X-Factor: Harrison Barnes
This one was an obvious choice as Harrison Barnes was possibly the fourth or fifth option on a stacked Warriors team. A four-year $94 million contract later, he is now being looked upon as the possible new savior of the Dallas Mavericks.
The Chandler Parsons project didn’t work out for Dallas who wanted to win now, but Parsons couldn’t stay healthy on the court to do much for them. Now looking towards Harrison Barnes who was broken away from a comfortable position playing alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, he will be looked upon to do more.
Will Barnes be able to make plays and create his own shot? Barnes himself stated, “Whether I’m ready or not, I guess we’ll find out starting with the first game.” Barnes play will determine whether the Mavericks click or once again have to shuffle things around.
23 Denver Nuggets
X-Factor: Emmanuel Mudiay
The Nuggets are an interesting case because without having a clear cut superstar on their team, they have an entire lineup of talented roleplayers who could be X-Factors that will could go off on any given night and surprise opposing teams.
Mudiay had a disappointing first season in which he was abysmal with his shot selection in the first half of the season, but he shot better after the all-star break. If the Nuggets have any shot at making significant gains this season, it all starts with the point guard being able to distribute and get the rest of the team involved.
If Mudiay improves upon his play last year and demonstrates he’s a capable floor general to his teammates, the entire team will benefit and the Nuggets may have a shot at making the playoffs.
22 Detroit Pistons
X-Factor: Stanley Johnson
The Detroit Pistons are a well-balanced team with their entire starting lineup averaging double figures in points last year. The players to watch out for on the scouting reports are volume scorer Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, who has emerged as a solid front court player who is almost guaranteed to have a nightly double double.
A player that many defensive coaches may overlook is the versatile Stanley Johnson. Johnson brings hustle and tenacity to the Pistons bench and has shown that he could contribute on both sides of the court and at multiple positions.
His field goal percentage is something that needs improvement as well as his stubbornness as discussed by Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. If he shows progress on these fronts, the Pistons may be an even stronger force this season in the East.
21 Golden State Warriors
X-Factor: Andre Iguodala
The Golden State Warriors broke tons of records last season but still came up short of winning a championship. Their team was as perfect a team as there could be from top to bottom, what could they possibly upgrade? Insert Kevin Durant into the mix and you have your answer.
With a super team of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson looking to torch defenses with their offensive firepower, opponents will have their work cut out for them. But with all this Durant talk, let’s not forget that Andre Iguodala is on the Warriors bench.
Iguodala will be instrumental to the team this season and will be looked at as the glue that holds the team together with his defense, decision-making and intangibles.
20 Houston Rockets
X-Factor: Clint Capela
The Rockets are among the league leaders points per game, three pointers taken and three pointers made but offense has not been what the Houston Rockets have needed to focus on. It’s their poor and often nonexistent defense that has done them in time and again. With Mike D’Antoni coaching now, the Rockets will be even more offensive minded, but if they want any semblance of long-term success, they have to take some pride in playing defense on the other side of the court.
With tenacious defenders like Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley on the team, they do have personnel capable of defending, but the defensive mindset most likely has to start in the paint with Clint Capela.
Capela will be filling in the shoes of the departed Dwight Howard who has been on the decline. He has shown in small bursts to be a decent rim protector and will be relied upon even more this season to do the dirty work in making opponents think twice before coming in the paint. If he can do that, the Rockets will be taking steps in the right direction of being taken seriously as a playoff contender.
19 Indiana Pacers
X-Factor: Myles Turner
Similar to the Rockets, the Indiana Pacers will have no trouble this season putting points on the board with the likes of superstar Paul George at the helm and volume scorers Monta Ellis and Aaron Brooks playing supporting roles in the offense. It’s their defense that needs to be focused on so they can be playoff contenders once again and it very may well be their young center that will be key to take them to that next level.
Turner is only 20 years old but has already been compared to a mixture of Roy Hibbert and LaMarcus Aldridge with his ability to protect the rim and stretch the floor for mid-range jumpers. Turner still needs a little seasoning but Pacers fans would be hopeful he blossoms sooner rather than later.
18 Los Angeles Clippers
I would have placed a particular player that would be a difference maker aside from the star core of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul but really the biggest key to the Clippers success is if they can keep their stars injury-free when it matters.
Last season injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul derailed what would’ve been a promising redemption season for the Clippers in the playoffs. Players like Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, while serviceable, could not be relied upon to carry the team when one of their go-to players goes down. Paul Pierce is only taking spot minutes and being preserved for the playoffs where his clutch shooting will come in handy.
So here’s hoping that the injury bug steers clear of the Clippers lineup.
17 Los Angeles Lakers
X-Factor: D’Angelo Russell
The Kobe Bryant farewell tour is finally over so now the Lakers can start to get serious with this youth movement and see if their band of promising youngsters can bring them back to the playoffs. The front office’s first step during the offseason was selecting a successful young coach in Luke Walton to head the team.
The X-Factor could go to a number of talented players on the Lakers lineup who last year it appeared were merely just going through the motions and waiting for Kobe Bryant to call it quits so they could hit reset. Julius Randle could be someone to watch if he stays healthy and productive and the same could be said for Jordan Clarkson.
For the sake of this list, we have to start with the second year point guard D’Angelo Russell who will be looking to build on his rookie campaign and prove to LA fans that he’s a star for the long haul.
16 Memphis Grizzlies
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
The Memphis Grizzlies made a splash in the offseason by adding Chandler Parsons to their team for this season and it remains to be seen if that was a smart move to make giving the oft-injured Parsons a multi-year deal.
Parsons’ best season was back in 2013-14 as a part of the Houston Rockets. Since then, as a part of the Dallas Mavericks he showed potential of breaking out as a star alongside Dirk Nowitzki but injuries to his knee would cut both of his seasons short and he wasn’t able to show his skills in the playoffs.
If Parsons stays healthy, he could definitely be a welcome addition to the Grizzlies who already have a reliable lineup of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Mike Conley. His shooting, playmaking ability and defense makes him an excellent fit if he can stay on the court.
15 Miami Heat
X-Factor: Justice Winslow
The big three that won back-to-back championships has now downgraded to just one and even that one is questionable with Chris Bosh’s health problems putting his career in jeopardy. The team will not look the same without long-time star Dwayne Wade in the mix but they do have talent that can keep them competitive in the Eastern conference.
Last season was the breakout year of Hassan Whiteside who surprised the league with his stellar offensive play, rebounding and shotblocking ability. This season though, team defenses will be focused in on making things tough for Whiteside so he’s going to need some help.
That’s where Justice Winslow comes in, last season Winslow was on the bench, subbing in for starter Luol Deng and he thrived in the position with his ferocious defense and rebounding. As a likely starter this season, Winslow will be expected to up the offensive side of his game if he desires the position long-term. If he does, then the Heat may have a blossoming duo in Whiteside and Winslow to build on.
14 Milwaukee Bucks
X-Factor: Michael Carter-Williams
The Milwaukee Bucks are likely again to be on the outside looking in when it comes to landing a spot in the playoffs this year but if a certain Michael Carter-Williams returns to form, he could provide the depth needed to get the Bucks to be noticed by the league once again.
Teams that underestimated the Bucks last year were surprised by Milwaukee’s play, namely the Golden State Warriors whom had their historic 24 win streak ended via the Bucks. MCW was a contributing factor to that win and will continue to be a gem on the Bucks bench.
Defenses will likely put all their attention on the likes of Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe and Giannis Antetokounmpo which will allow MCW to attack teams and throw them for a loop. Health will be a main key as it’s been a hindrance to Carter-Williams since his Rookie award winning season.
13 Minnesota Timberwolves
X-Factor: Shabazz Muhammad
While fans were swept up with the drama of Kobe’s farewell and the Warriors historic run, the Minnesota Timberwolves were slowly assembling and developing a lethal lineup which may finally make enough noise to gain some respect in the league once again.
While teams will be prepared to slow down budding stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad may be overlooked on the scouting reports and would make teams pay dearly for it.
Shabazz exploded for over 20 points off the bench on several occasions last season, highlight by a 35 point effort against the Warriors. His ability to play multiple positions shows his versatility on the court and if he’s on, he will make life quite hard for opposing teams.
12 New Orleans Pelicans
X-Factor: Solomon Hill
Anthony Davis continues to take the league by storm individually but the Pelicans took a step back last season after making the playoffs with essentially the same team which can only mean that other teams got better.
With players like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon moved to the Rockets, the Pelicans hope that others will step up to take the scoring load off of Mr. Unibrow. On top of that, Jrue Holiday will not be with the team due to a family emergency and Tyreke Evans is still recuperating from knee surgery.
Recent signee Solomon Hill will be crucial at the small forward position and may be most effective playing alongside Davis at Center while he slides over to the PF spot. If Hill can hold the fort until the rest of the team returns, he will show that he was worth signing.
11 New York Knicks
X-Factor: Kristaps Porzingis
The Knicks made a lot of noise in the offseason with the signings of Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah as well as Jeff Hornacek being brought in as the new head coach. New York is desperate to return back to relevance and keep Carmelo Anthony happy with its direction.
With all these moves made, it still appears that the X-Factor in all of this is last year’s rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis. In a team now filled with ball dominant players (Rose, Lee, Jennings and of course Melo) there is worry that Porzingis may be stifled production-wise, but hopefully with the right coaching and offensive scheme that fits the young Latvian in, he could be instrumental to the Knicks success this season.
10 Oklahoma City Thunder
X-Factor: Victor Oladipo
With Kevin Durant now gone, it is officially the Russell Westbrook show in OKC but as much as Westbrook would love to get nightly triple doubles trying to do it all, it might not make much of a difference in the win column if no one else steps up.
Victor Oladipo fared well during his tenure with the Orlando Magic and will look to fill part of the gaping void left by Durant with his dynamic and athletic play.
Playing alongside Westbrook will be quite exciting to see as the two have the potential to be one of the leagues toughest backcourt duos. Oladipo will likely have a career season in scoring averages and will have a lot of room to grow on the Thunder.
9 Orlando Magic
X-Factor: Evan Fournier
The Magic made some big moves signing big men in the offseason with Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo now donning Orlando blue so it seems that the team largely addressed their defensive woes with these acquisitions. But you have to score points to win so who will step up offensively in a team without a bonafide superstar?
The X-Factor role is up for grabs on this Magic team but perhaps most deserving is Evan Fournier. Fournier came off a breakout season last year with the Magic averaging 15.4 points and 1.2 steals per game. This was while he was battling for minutes with starting shooting guard Victor Oladipo.
With Oladipo now gone, Fournier is slotted into the starting lineup where he will bring his quickness and efficient shooting to the table on a team that will need his scoring prowess if they want to go far.
8 Philadelphia 76ers
X-Factor: Joel Embiid
The Sixers for the past few years have been landing lottery pick after lottery pick and this might be the season that it will finally pay off, that’s if Joel Embiid proves that his foot issues are a thing of the past.
The third overall pick of the 2014 draft still has yet to make his NBA debut, but if he remains healthy this season and can contribute to an already loaded frontcourt of Jalil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons, the Sixers future will suddenly be looking very bright.
Embiid has been looking very impressive in workouts leading into training camp so if the foot holds up, the joke of the league may very well come back to haunt the doubters.
7 Phoenix Suns
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe, along with Brandon Knight, have All-Star talent and — at 26 and 24 years old — are capable of becoming one of the NBA's prime backcourt duos, if they can only stay healthy.
Second year player Devin Booker could also make the case for being the teams X-Factor judging off his play after last years All-Star break (19.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3 rebounds in 35.4 minutes) showed promise. But this spot is all on the starting PG because when Bledsoe was on the court last year, he posted career high averages in scoring, assists and PER.
A healthy Bledsoe may give the Suns a chance to come out of the league’s dungeon in terms of their win-loss record.
6 Portland Trail Blazers
X-Factor: Festus Ezeli
When you think of the current day Trail Blazers, you think of the high scoring 1-2 punch Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum turning up on the heat on the scoreboard, but unfortunately while letting the guards wreak havoc on teams worked well for the Blazers in the regular season, in the playoffs it hasn’t worked out too well for Rip City.
Ezeli played well on the Warriors as an effective backup but he hasn’t managed to play a full season without being out for big chunks of time with injuries. If he is able to stay healthy in his new home, the Blazers will now have a game-changer when it comes to their interior defense as Ezeli is an excellent rebounder and rim protector.
If he gets hurt, the Blazers may find themselves in a re-run of last season.
5 Sacramento Kings
X-Factor: Ben McLemore
The Sacramento Kings no doubt have talent but last year, and for the past few years, what they lack is consistency and chemistry. The Rajon Rondo project didn’t work out too well for them and he was shipped out. Ben McLemore regressed last year as well possibly due to sharing the backcourt with Rondo.
The Kings made signings this offseason of Aaron Afflalo and Matt Barnes, but as far as we know, McLemore is still the default starting SG. He’s more athletic than both Afflalo and Barnes and brings more energy on the court. If he can improve upon his disappointing season last year, the Kings may a shot of being taken seriously again.
4 San Antonio Spurs
X-Factor: Kevin Martin
The Tim Duncan era has come to an end but the Spurs have done a good job finding the right personnel perhaps to pass the torch to. A frontcourt of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge will be something to see and will bring a lot of the same fundamentals that the Spurs enjoy and that Duncan thrived at in his prime.
However the Spurs still look to be an older and slower team with Ginobili and Parker playing guard minutes so it’s vital they give Kevin Martin some burn at the guard position.
Martin should be able to excel with the talent on the floor as defenses will be looking to stop the Spurs new franchise face in Kawhi Leonard and the big men. Martin has proven that he can be a great scoring spark off the bench especially in his stint with the OKC Thunder. If he does well with a bigger role, the Spurs may be just fine, as usual.
3 Toronto Raptors
X-Factor: DeMarre Carroll
The Raptors may have overachieved last season with 56 wins and a Eastern Conference Finals appearance where they took the Cavs to the brink but it’s likely that they their fate could have changed if DeMarre Carroll was healthier and in a better groove.
Carroll — who the Raptors signed to a four-year, $60 million contract last summer — was sidelined for 56 regular-season games and never truly found the same rhythm that he had during his two years with Atlanta.
If Carroll can return to form as an elite three-and-D weapon in the Raptors arsenal, Toronto may give the Cavaliers a bigger run for their money.
2 Utah Jazz
X-Factor: Trey Lyles
The Jazz missed the playoffs just barely last season squandering away the 8th seed with some devastating losses near the end of the season which was a shame because they have a lot of young talent that could use the playoff experience.
With Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward as their main scorers, the Jazz have a talented nucleus that will be even better this season. One talent that scouts may not prepare themselves for is offensive minded backup PF Trey Lyles who unlike defensive stalwarts Favors and Gobert, can stroke it from long range.
Lyles has an upside that will catch teams off-guard, so look for the Jazz to utilize him more this season.
1 Washington Wizards
X-Factor: Trey Burke
While the Wizards have been looking for a small forward who could shoot the ball wall for the longest, Andrew Nicholson loses just by a hair to Trey Burke when it comes to X-Factor potential. Burke is coming off a rather disappointing year with the Utah Jazz but his numbers were still good considering he was slotted out of the starting PG position for Dante Exum.
On the Wizards, Burke will be looking for a fresh start as backup to elite PG John Wall. In his role, Burke will be looking to bring energy and scoring to the bench unit. Burke is reliable and a hard worker and will gain a lot of experience playing alongside Wall.
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