• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

NBA X-factors: Seven players who could swing the championship race

·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The road to an NBA championship is unpredictable, and the margin for error can be razor thin for the top contenders. A key player's performance can make or break his team's title hopes.

Every year, X-factor players help decide the championship as much as superstars. With the 2021-22 season upon us, we've identified seven such players whose performances will go a long way to determining which team raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.

This year, the exercise wouldn't truly be complete without mentioning Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, two X-factors in a category by themselves whose X-factor-ness hinges largely on availability issues of their own making. Plenty has been written elsewhere on Irving and Simmons. For this list, we're choosing players for on-court or basketball-related health reasons.

Russell Westbrook, Lakers

Westbrook wouldn't normally be considered an X-factor, but things will be much different this season with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers. And while his struggles to play next to superstar teammates are overstated, for the first time in his career, Westbrook will be his team's third option on offense.

How Westbrook fits with James and Davis is one of the NBA's biggest questions. He'll help take playmaking pressure off James but won't be as ball-dominant as he's been throughout his career. The Lakers will need Westbrook to be an off-ball option much more often. If he embraces the role and fits seamlessly, the Lakers could be the runaway favorites to win the West and perhaps the title.

Jordan Poole will likely be the Warriors' starting shooting guard until Klay Thompson returns from injury.
Jordan Poole will likely be the Warriors' starting shooting guard until Klay Thompson returns from injury.

Jordan Poole, Warriors

Golden State is hoping Poole can parlay last season's strong second half into a key role this year. After sporadic playing time early and a stint in the G League, Poole averaged 14.7 points on 43.3% shooting from March to May and looked comfortable in the backcourt with Steph Curry.

Entering his third season, Poole will likely start at shooting guard until Klay Thompson returns from injuries. Once Thompson is back, Poole could still see plenty of time in small lineups with Curry and Thompson, while providing crucial scoring depth to help the Warriors become a top title contender again.

WHO IS KYRIE? NBA star at center of vaccine saga certainly one thing: complex

MARK THE CALENDAR: Top 20 must-see games on the 2021-22 NBA schedule

Bam Adebayo, Heat

Adebayo has become an All-Star and All-Defensive pick as the interior anchor of a Miami defense that should once again be a nightmare to score on. His expanding offensive game could also get a boost playing alongside new point guard Kyle Lowry, who can help set Adebayo up with plenty of great scoring chances.

The Heat aren't a particularly big team and don't have a ton of frontcourt depth. However, if Adebayo continues to develop on offense without sacrificing anything on the defensive end, the Heat can overcome those shortcomings and challenge the Nets and Bucks at the top of the East.

Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers

The Blazers have no problem putting up points, finishing second in the league in offensive rating last season (117.1). The defense was equally bad, sporting the second-worst rating in the NBA (115.3). Nurkic is the key to everything defensively for Portland, and the numbers are stark. With Nurkic on the floor last year, the Blazers' defensive rating was 108.2, which would have ranked fifth in the league. Without Nurkic, their rating was 116.6, which would have been dead last.

As long as Nurkic stays healthy (never a guarantee) to keep the defense from being a complete sieve, the Blazers should contend for a top-four seed in the West. And maybe that will be enough to convince Damian Lillard his long-term future remains in Portland.

Joe Harris, Nets

Kevin Durant's foot on the 3-point line in Game 7 against the Bucks got all the attention after the Nets' season ended, but it overshadowed what a poor series Harris had. He went cold against Milwaukee, averaging 9.6 points on 34.9% shooting overall and 31.2% from 3-point range.

Harris remains one of the best shooters in the league. He's a 43.8% career shooter from deep and led the NBA last season at 47.5%, so it's easy to pin his struggles against Milwaukee on simply having a bad series. But Brooklyn's elimination showed how, even with stars like Kevin Durant and James Harden, a key role player's cold streak at the wrong time can help sink a title contender.

Deandre Ayton, Suns

Ayton was one of last year's breakout young stars, turning in his best all-around season and helping the Suns reach the NBA Finals. His evolution has put Ayton in line for a rookie max contract extension. However, the Suns have appeared reluctant to offer a five-year, $172 million deal, leaving Ayton "really disappointed" by the impasse.

The deadline to reach a deal is Monday; if they don't, Ayton will play the season on the final year of his contract. As long as the contract situation doesn't become a distraction and Ayton remains happy with his role, he should only get better and help keep Phoenix in the thick of the title race.

Robert Williams III, Celtics

Williams has been snakebit by injuries in his three seasons and struggled at times to stay on the floor, but the Celtics still have high expectations for "Timelord." They reaffirmed their commitment with a four-year, $54 million extension in the offseason, and Williams will get every opportunity to realize his potential.

His talent and athleticism are undeniable, especially on the defensive end where Williams has shown good instincts as a shot-blocker and interior presence. He's also flashed potential as a playmaker from the post. Williams becoming a reliable dive man in pick-and-rolls could give the Celtics offense an added dimension around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and raise their ceiling as a contender in the East.

Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA championship X-factors: Seven players who could swing title race

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting