Checking In On Contender X-Factors
Looking at a few players who might be the difference between a championship and a first-round loss
Programming Note: I wrote two pieces for HoopsHabit this week you might enjoy. One about the perfect Three-Point Contest roster for this year’s All-Star Festivities, and one about the strange year Jaren Jackson Jr. is having in Memphis. Check ‘em out!
We’re officially at the 50-game mark of the season. We know who these teams are now (barring trades made), and the competitive landscape has come into view.
This year feels more wide open than ever in both conferences. Sure, Phoenix is running away with the best record, but they don’t feel inevitable in the way some past NBA teams have.
By my count, at least ten teams think they have a chance. In the East, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Miami, Chicago, and Philly (if they make a move) are all going for it, with Cleveland probably one starting wing and backup guard away.
And in the West, Phoenix, GS, Utah, the Lakers (I said they think), and Memphis are dreaming of glory, while Denver and the Clippers eagerly anticipate the return of stars that could catapult them back into the conversation.
13 teams could theoretically make deep conference championship runs. That’s almost half the league! By this point in the season, we’re usually down to six or seven clubs, at most. (Side note: it could make for a disappointingly quiet trade market since there aren’t as many sellers as usual).
The competitive balance of the NBA has never been better, and that’s before we think about the teams fighting to make the play-in tournament, an altogether different struggle that we’ll examine later on in the season.
Given the number of contending teams, there are a lot of players who are going to play oversized roles in this season’s story. X-factor is an overused term, but it’s true that the spotlight on role players gets brighter in the playoffs, where the margins for error get thinner. When we look back at year’s end, at least one of these players will likely have been a critical piece of the narrative.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Mikal is the quintessential 3-and-D role player, but he can do more.
Bridges can unfurl his tentacles and take away a shooter’s space. He got early-year DPOY buzz for his lockdown defense on Steph Curry, and he’s as good of a perimeter stopper as anyone, thanks to those arms and his quick feet.
He’s down in both accuracy and volume from three this year, but 37.6% on 3.6 attempts per game is still good for an All-Defensive Team lock. He’s shooting 60% on twos, including a preposterous 83% at the rim! There are centers whose only job is to dunk the ball that aren’t shooting 83% at the rim.
3.6 attempts from three aren’t enough. If you’re shooting 83% at the rim, that means you aren’t shooting enough there, either.
Bridges is the rare player that needs to be more assertive on offense. His touches per game are the exact same this year as last year, which seems wrong for someone who’s demonstrated he can shoot, dribble and pass. It sounds simple, but the number of role players who can do all three is quite low.
As good as Phoenix’s second-ranked offense has been, Chris Paul loses a tiny bit more shotmaking juice every year, and he has a hard ceiling on his individual scoring in the playoffs. Bridges should be soaking up some of those shots and touches. He’s shooting fewer times per game than Cam Payne!
He’s a quick decisionmaker who’s flashed some nifty playmaking skill. Watch as he makes a nice cut into space, rises for an open mid-ranger, then fires a beautiful pass to a wide-open Cam Johnson in the corner. Not many players would willingly pass up an open look for an even better one:
Bridges is better than his role. The Suns are a well-oiled machine right now, so the temptation is to keep doing what they’re doing. But in the playoffs, somebody needs to step up and provide more offensive punch on nights where Paul or Booker is limited. Bridges should be the one to shoulder the load.
Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks
Woo boy. Donte has had a tumultuous few months. “The Big Ragu” was a critical part of the Bucks’ regular-season juggernaut of the last few seasons, providing pesky defense, superb positional rebounding, solid shotmaking, and a little off-the-dribble sauce.
Then he tore ligaments in his ankle in the first round of last year’s playoffs and watched as the Bucks ground their way to their first title in fifty years without him.
Rehab ran through the first half of this season before DiVincenzo finally saw the court. He hasn't looked the same in the fourteen games he’s played since his return. He can’t hit a shot to save his life, and although the defense is still feisty, Donte doesn’t feel essential to the Bucks’ success the way that most (including Milwaukee) thought before last year’s playoffs.
Anybody returning from a severe injury will take a while to find their groove. But after Milwaukee’s success last season, and the offseason addition of Grayson Allen and George Hill, the Bucks must be asking themselves if they need Donte at all.
The Bucks’ offseason extension of Allen and inability to come to an agreement with Donte could well mean that they’ve already made their choice. DiVincenzo reportedly still generates interest from other teams looking for a rugged combo guard. The Bucks showed last season with their addition of PJ Tucker that they aren’t afraid to make midseason trades. Replacing Tucker with another physical wing seems like a key priority, and DiVencenzo is the obvious piece to give up.
Cleveland Wing X
Cleveland has accelerated past all previous estimates of championship timetables. One of the greatest traps in the NBA is waiting until the moment is right to push your chips in when championship windows open and close with no notice. Do I believe that Cleveland is a real contender? Not really; history isn’t kind to young teams making their first run into the playoffs.
But last year’s run by the Hawks shows that being led by a young superstar with no playoff experience might not be the death knell it used to be, and Cleveland’s incredible ability to weather the injury storm and still keep winning has been inspiring.
There is a lot of talk that Cleveland needs to find a backup guard, which is true. But that might not even be their most pressing need. The Cavs’ wings are limited in one fashion or another in ways the playoffs often exacerbate.
Lauri Markannen has been okay offensively for the Cavs this season playing as an out-of-position small forward. However, he’s a lurching seven-footer with limited defensive capabilities on the perimeter and down low. Dean Wade, the primary backup wing, is a similar player.
Isaac Okoro has done excellently as a slashing shooting guard and can defend any wing or guard, but his shooting limitations could hinder the Cavs’ offense in the playoffs. Teams will completely ignore him on the perimeter.
I believe that this team is one two-way wing away from making real noise in the playoffs. I‘m just not sure who that could be. Reliable 3-and-D wings are the rarest and most valuable player archetypes in the league after superstars, and they command a premium on the trade market.
Eric Gordon makes a ton of sense but might be too pricey. Caris LeVert would be a mediocre fit and brings issues on both sides of the ball. Kyle Anderson might be a good match, but I’m not sure if he moves the needle enough.
Regardless, the Cavs are calling almost every team in the league, and it feels like they’re going to try something. Cleveland has been the most entertaining story in the league this season (yes, even more so than the Warriors or Grizzlies), and I would love to see them bolster the lineup with one or two more moves to really go for it.
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
Good lord, Dillon Brooks. For readers unfamiliar, Brooks is a bigger Marcus Smart but with a Patrick Beverley edge. He’s mean, talented, and far too confident in his abilities on both sides of the ball.
Brooks is the inverse of Bridges. Do less, Dillon!
Defensively, Dillon has one of the highest foul rates of wings in the league. He doesn’t seem to know what a reaching foul is and constantly goes for steals he has no chance of getting. They aren’t even the kind of desperation reaches that players like Bradley Beal might do if they get blown by (there’s nothing lazy about Dillon). He just legitimately thinks he deserves every basketball within his vicinity.
On a per-minute basis, Brooks is second on the team in shots (barely behind Ja), despite a career 42/35/89 shooting line, which would be very reasonable if he shot 10 times a game instead of 16. Encouragingly, he is doing better at passing and getting to the free-throw line than in previous seasons, but the ball still sticks to him a little too long.
Like Smart, there are nights where Brooks will catch fire. He played out of his mind against Utah in the playoffs last season when he forgot how to miss. He’s the only one on the roster with the size to guard bigger stars like Luka Doncic, and he’s a critical piece to the Grizzlies’ success.
That said, the team would be more successful if Brooks learned to pick his spots a little better. He has a bad tendency to dribble into traffic with his head down (a sign of a handle that’s too loose), and he gets stuck in bad situations or misses open teammates:
You see that tunnel-vision tendency below, too, where Dillon dribbles into a brutal mid-range jumper with 11 seconds on the shot clock. True story: my cat often sits on my lap when I type these posts, and she vomited after I played this clip:
Brooks is a legitimately good player who can create his own shot and isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. If he toned down his worst tendencies by 15%, he could become even better.
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