The NBA is a star's league -- at least that's what they say. But for every LeBron James block or Michael Jordan game-winner in NBA postseason history, there's a John Paxson or Robert Horry moment that reminds us how important role players are to winning a title.
This postseason is certainly not short on stars -- with James, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic just to name a few -- but there are also plenty of X-factors waiting for their opportunity to help their team win a game, a series or even an NBA championship.
A quick, loose definition of an X-factor: It obviously can't be a superstar player, but rather someone who, with a strong performance, can help push his team to the next level. With the playoffs set to begin in earnest on Saturday, here's a look at each team's biggest X-factor, organized by matchup.
No. 1. Utah Jazz
The Jazz roster is littered with consistency, but Clarkson serves as a decent barometer for success. When he scored 20 points or more this season, Utah put up an 18-6 record. When he scored 13 points or fewer, the team was 8-9. A lot of this has to do with his 3-point shooting, which can be incredibly streaky -- Clarkson shot 37 percent from deep in Jazz wins this season, while falling to 30 percent in losses.
This was even more exaggerated last postseason, when Clarkson averaged 17.8 points on 36 percent 3-point shooting in three wins during Utah's first-round series loss to Denver, compared to 14 points on 30 percent from beyond the arc in four losses. If you're looking for a player that can swing the Jazz's playoff fortunes one way or another, Clarkson is your guy.
No. 8. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have a deep, talented guard rotation, but their net rating is 6.7 points per 100 possessions better with Melton on the floor. That's largely due to his defensive versatility and length, as Memphis boasts a 105.4 defensive rating in Melton's minutes, but he's also improved to a 41 percent 3-point shooter, after hitting just 29 percent over his first two seasons.
In Grizzlies wins this season, Melton averaged 10.6 points on 49 percent 3-point shooting, and in losses he put up 7.5 points per game on 31 percent shooting from deep. It's not crazy to say that in the playoffs, when 3-and-D players become so important, Melton could have a huge impact on the Grizzlies' upset chances.
No. 2 Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul wasn't the only veteran the Suns brought in this offseason to aid the playoff push. Crowder was a key contributor to Phoenix's turnaround season, but his skill set will become even more valuable in the postseason. First and foremost, Crowder will be assigned to guard one of the opponent's best scorers nearly every game -- starting with LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers.
On the other side of the ball, we saw in the bubble how Crowder getting hot from deep can change the dynamics of an offense. He made three or more 3-pointers in eight games last postseason, and the Miami Heat won all but two of them. Expect a similar impact on the Suns' offense this time around.
No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Pretty much every Laker outside of LeBron James and Anthony Davis can be considered X-factors this postseason, but Caruso could potentially have a tremendous impact given his two-way ability. The Lakers' already-stellar 107.8 defensive rating with Caruso on the bench dropped to a measly 101.7 with him on the court, the lowest among the Lakers regulars. Considering they'll start their playoff journey against Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Lakers might enlist Caruso more than usual for defensive purposes.
He's also improved considerably on the offensive end this season, shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line after hitting just 33 percent last year, and he landed in the 84th percentile by producing 1.412 points per possession in unguarded catch-and-shoot situations, per Synergy. Caruso already showed his postseason value in the Lakers' play-in win over the Warriors, putting up 14 points, three steals and a block in 30 minutes while playing solid defense on Stephen Curry.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets
With the injury to Jamal Murray, we can no longer call Michael Porter Jr. an X-factor -- he simply needs to perform for the Nuggets to have any shot at advancing. One player who could potentially take them to another level, however, is Gordon. They'll obviously lean on him defensively, but they'll also need him to step up as a scorer in an effort to keep up with a Blazers team that logged the second-best offensive rating in NBA history during the regular season.
After a strong start, Gordon wound up shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range in 25 games with the Nuggets. This could lead to teams sagging off of him and daring him to shoot, reducing space for Nikola Jokic and Porter to operate. In his last 13 games of the regular season (all without Murray), Gordon shot 32 percent from the 3-point line in nine Nuggets wins, and just 18 percent in four losses.
No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers
Anthony had a quietly strong season, averaging 13.4 points while making a career-high 41 percent of his 3-pointers, and the Blazers will need that kind of production against the Nuggets and possibly beyond. No stranger to the playoffs, there's a decent chance that Melo ends up playing more than the 25 minutes per game he averaged during the regular season in certain games, and that largely depends on his ability to defend. Portland was worse, but not terribly worse, defensively with Anthony on the floor this season, and his offense helped keep the Blazers afloat with Damian Lillard on the bench.
With Lillard off the court, Anthony shot 45 percent from the 3-point line, while his usage rate jumped from 20.4 percent to 25.9. Portland's defense isn't going to magically become good in the postseason, so they'll need to rely on their offense if they hope to advance. Anthony is a huge part of that.
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers
It goes without saying, but the Clippers traded for Rondo with the playoffs in mind. The 15-year vet averaged 8.9 points, 6.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per game during the Lakers' championship run in the bubble, making 40 percent of his 3-pointers. If the Clippers can get that kind of production from him, it could certainly swing a series in their favor.
Rondo can help run the show while Kawhi Leonard is on the bench -- the Clippers had a plus-4.9 net rating in 283 minutes this season with Rondo on the court and Kawhi off -- and they were even better together. In a small sample size of 84 minutes, the Clippers had an incredible plus-20.7 net rating with Rondo and Leonard sharing the court. There's a good chance Rondo will get closing minutes at point guard, which could help stabilize a Clippers offense that notoriously struggled in the clutch last postseason.
No. 5 Dallas Mavericks
In the bubble, the Clippers got a firsthand look at what Luka Doncic is capable of in a posteason setting, but the question for the Mavericks will be how they perform when he rests. A lot of that will depend on Brunson, who missed last year's matchup with the Clippers due to shoulder surgery and has been an important part of the Mavs' attack all season long.
The Mavericks had a plus-3.9 net rating this season with Brunson on the court and Doncic on the bench, and they were even better together with a plus-6.8 net rating. In last year's series with the Clippers, Dallas was outscored by 10.7 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the bench. If Brunson continues to play the way he has all season, that trend won't continue this year.
No. 1 Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have solid, known commodities in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Danny Green, but the performance of their fifth starter has fluctuated more than the others. Curry's shooting has provided necessary spacing to open up Philadelphia's offense, but when he's off, the team tends to struggle. In wins this season, Curry averaged 14.3 points on 50.5 percent 3-point shooting -- in losses, those numbers fell to just 8.4 points on 33 percent shooting from deep. When Embiid and Curry shared the floor this season, the 76ers had a plus-15.2 net rating in over 1,100 minutes, with an absurd offensive rating of 119.1.
Curry was excellent in the Mavericks' first-round loss to the Clippers in the bubble, averaging nearly 13 points per game on 48 percent 3-point shooting, and he has playoff experience from the Trail Blazers' run to the Western Conference finals in 2019. Defensively, he'll probably be the player that opponents target, so he'll have to hold his own on that end to make his offensive contributions a net positive.
No. 8 Washington Wizards
Ask the Pacers about the impact that Gafford can have on a game, even in limited minutes. The second-year center put up 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks in 22 minutes in Thursday's win over Indiana that clinched the No. 8 seed for Washington. Gafford has been great for the Wizards since coming over from Chicago before the trade deadline, with per-36 minute averages of 20.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks.
The 76ers usually have one big on the floor in Embiid or Dwight Howard, so Gafford will be an important part of the Wizards' center rotation -- along with Alex Len and Robin Lopez -- to help defend the rim and clean up the boards. The Wizards had a plus-11.6 net rating with Gafford and Russell Westbrook on the court together this season, which could allow them to win the minutes when Embiid and/or Ben Simmons are on the bench.
No. 2 Brooklyn Nets
Talk about the mother of all X-factors. Griffin is just two years removed from being named to an All-NBA team, and now he's heading into the playoffs on a roster with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The 11-year vet's production has been modest so far with the Nets, but opponents have to be terrified of Griffin's potential to put up 20-plus points on any given night to bolster an already unguardable Brooklyn offense.
At the very least, Griffin will provide consistent playmaking and 3-point shooting (38 percent with the Nets this season) off the bench, but if he plays well and head coach Steve Nash extends his minutes, Griffin could have a serious impact during Brooklyn's quest for a title.
No. 7 Boston Celtics
Without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are going to need Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier in peak form to have a shot of escaping a first-round matchup with the Nets. One player who could push them over the top, however, is Williams, their 23-year-old center. Williams took over the full-time starting job after Boston traded Daniel Theis before the deadline, but he's been hampered with a nagging turf toe injury that he reaggravated in the Celtics' play-in win over the Wizards.
First and foremost, the Celtics will need Williams' rim protection against a Nets team that was 11th in the NBA in points in the paint this season, even with prolonged absences from Durant and Harden. Williams was in the 83rd percentile in defense around the rim this season, per Synergy, allowing 0.904 points per possession, and he's significantly more effective in that area than Tristan Thompson, the Celtics' other main center option. If he can power through his injury, Williams can also provide a boost on offense as a lob threat and an excellent playmaker from the high post and in dribble hand-off situations. As a starter this season, he averaged 9.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 blocks per game.
No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks
Portis had a sneakily fantastic offensive season for the Bucks, averaging 19.4 points and 12.2 rebounds per 36 minutes on 52/47/74 shooting splits. His impact during the postseason will likely be minimized due to his defensive shortcomings, but could there be a game or two in each Bucks series where he puts up a 15-10 and changes the course of momentum? Absolutely.
You rarely have to worry about Portis' offense and intensity, and the Bucks have actually been better defensively with him on the floor this season. But that all changes in the playoffs, when opponents will relentlessly hunt him in pick-and-roll, where he was in the 38th percentile, allowing 0.935 points per possession according to Synergy. If Portis can hold his own defensively this postseason, his offensive contributions could make a big difference for Milwaukee.
No. 6 Miami Heat
Dragic had a solid season for the Heat, but his outstanding performance in the bubble last postseason was a main factor in Miami's NBA Finals run. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro will likely contribute, but they lack Dragic's playmaking ability -- particularly out of the pick-and-roll -- which is crucial for a Heat team that could struggle to match the offensive firepower of some of its potential opponents.
With Dragic and Jimmy Butler on the floor together last postseason, the Heat had a 116.5 offensive rating and a plus-10.5 net rating. They'll need to recapture that magic if they're going to have any shot at getting back to the Finals.
No. 4 New York Knicks
Burks provides some necessary bench shooting for a Knicks team that finished with the 22nd-ranked offense in the NBA this season. He shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range, which is notable because he's much more than just a catch-and-shoot threat. Burks also made 46.5 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers, second in the NBA for players with two or more such attempts per game. Overall, his 1.089 points per possession on off-the-dribble shots was good for the 88th percentile in the league, per Synergy.
Along with Derrick Rose, Burks gives the Knicks a reliable shot creator when Julius Randle rests. New York had a plus-4.4 net rating this season with Burks on the floor and Randle on the bench, and it will be a huge bonus if they're able to win those minutes in the playoffs.
No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Hunter was well on his way to Most Improved Player consideration before knee surgery in February, and a quick setback after his return, sidelined him for the majority of the season. Prior to the injury, Hunter was averaging 17.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 51/37/88 shooting splits. He played in three of the team's last four regular-season games, averaging eight points in nearly 18 minutes per game, while making just 32 percent of his field goals and failing to make a 3-pointer.
The Hawks have grown accustomed to winning without Hunter, but if he's able to give them a semblance of what he provided on both sides of the ball before his injury, that could considerably raise Atlanta's playoff ceiling.