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The Biggest Playoff X-Factors

With the post-season just around the corner, teams are looking to finalise their rotations and provide stability heading into their respect play-in or first round match-ups.

Each season, the stars deliver their consistent best, but the teams who succeed and go deep manage to find role players who step up and deliver in big games and big moments.

Below, I take a look at the four main candidates who loom as X-Factors for their respective teams heading into the Playoffs.

Russell Westbrook – Los Angeles Clippers

Let’s be honest, with the history the Clippers have of injuries to key players at any time, let alone the post-season, the entire team can be viewed as an X-Factor heading into the Playoffs. Not only are there so few teams built to genuinely compete right now, but even fewer have the core issue that has plagued LA for several seasons: the lack of a play-making PG.

Enter Russell Westbrook.

A former MVP who the team picked up off waivers after he was traded by the Lakers to Utah, Westbrook has had growing pains at the Clippers, albeit with flashes of brilliance. Fans are quick to point out his short-comings, of which there are many, but also slow to admit that the former perennial All-Star does in fact possess rare qualities which can help a team win games.

There are many Westbrook haters in the NBA sphere, but the former MVP can be very valuable if he picks his spots.

Each night is a lottery as to whether LA will get ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Russ, and as such his minutes could easily fluctuate between 15 and 32 on any given night. Despite this, as seen in recent performances against the Bulls and Grizzlies, when he gets it right and plays within himself with confidence, he can be a real difference maker.

Rudy Gobert – Minnesota Timberwolves

Where to being with Rudy Gobert.

Of all the starters on post-season bound teams, Gobert might have one of the lowest floors in spite of his elite defensive ceiling.

Throughout many regular season games we’ve seen Gobert dominate the glass, lock down the paint against all who enter it and anchor some of the league’s elite defences. Come the Playoffs though, he can find himself played off the floor due to poor free-throw shooting, a lack of assertiveness on the offensive end and a general lack of desire to close out to perimeter shooters when required on defensive rotations.

The Timberwolves as a team seem to have found their groove since the return of Karl-Anthony Towns from long-term injury, but how Gobert fits into their picture when other teams target him over a potential seven-game series remains to be seen.

Rudy Gobert's first season in Minnesota hasn't gone according to plan, but if he can avoid being played off the floor, he could help raise the Wolves ceiling in the post-season. Credit: Dunking With Wolves

This year, we will truly get to see whether Gobert has learnt anything from previous post-season failures as well as whether Head Coach Chris Finch and his staff can find a way to keep a multiple Defensive Player of the Year winner both on the floor and effective.

Andrew Wiggins – Golden State Warriors

Do people even remember the fact Wiggins has missed more than 40 games this season?

Those who do will also likely remember just how much of a pivotal piece he was during the Dubs run to the Championship last season, and that is part of what makes Wiggins such a big X-Factor for Golden State. We know what we will get out of Steph as a ball-handler and primary scorer, we know that Draymond will bring his aggression and instigator mindset, but will that pair be backed up by their best perimeter defender come the post-season?

Who knows.

Andrew Wiggins after winning his first Championship last season. Credit: SF Chronicle

Wiggins has been dealing with a personal matter and hasn’t suited up for the Warriors since February 13th. During that time, the Warriors have gone 11-9. It’s not dire and there is enough talent on the roster to potentially win an opening round series without him, but if Wiggins doesn’t suit up thereafter, it’s hard to see the Warriors going deep in the West.

Robert Williams III – Boston Celtics

The only nomination on this list to come from the Eastern Conference, Robert Williams III shouldn’t appear as any surprise. For as good as the Celtics defence is regardless of whether he is on the court, it’s far more imposing when he suits up down low to guard the rim.

Williams spent the first 29 games this season sidelined following off-season surgery and while Boston didn’t miss a beat during that time, they were forced to try a variety of big men to try and fill the gap behind Al Horford in the rotation. Noah Vonleh wasn’t the answer and was promptly traded to San Antonio for a heavily protected second-round pick in January, while Blake Griffin has been a reasonable fit but lacks the defensive presence and skill-set the team is ultimately searching for.

Robert Williams III ability to protect the rim against the Easts elite bigs might decide how far Boston advance this season. Credit: CelticsBlog

The Celtics need Robert Williams to be healthy in the post-season and if he can do that, he raises the teams ceiling immensely on the defensive end. Given Boston will likely need to battle one or both of Philadelphia with Joel Embiid or Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo, rim protection will be a key factor in determining whether the Celtics can get back to the NBA Finals.

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