With the NBA season heading down the home stretch, teams at the top of each conference are gearing up for the playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors remain heavy favorites in their respective conferences, so teams must craft their rosters with beating them in mind.
This list examines key factors for the top four teams in each conference — factors which could determine success or failure against the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant. A guard in Boston or a forward in Utah could be what puts their respective teams over the edge.
As for Cleveland and Golden State themselves, we’ll look at the factors which will have the biggest impact throughout the postseason. For example, a healthy Kevin Love could be the difference for the Cavs to make it back to the Finals for a third straight year.
Here are the biggest X-factors for each NBA title contender.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love
Love is currently sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and expected to return sometime around the start of the playoffs (more on that here).
The power forward’s health is vital to Cleveland’s success — he was a key cog in their title run last season and will be this year if they repeat.
Whether he can stick with more agile forwards or switch onto smaller, speedier guards may not matter in Round One against whichever dreck emerges from the Detroit-Miami-Milwaukee-Charlotte blob at the bottom of the East.
But the Cavs will be tested in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards are all capable of pulling off an upset. Against those teams, Love will have to bang around with the likes of Al Horford, Serge Ibaka and Markieff Morris to prevent that from happening.
In all likelihood, the Cavs will have to play two of those three teams. An unhealthy Love won’t just hurt their scoring — Love is averaging 22.6 points per 36 while shooting 38.4 percent from 3 — it could also kill their rebounding. Love leads the team with a 19.1 rebound percentage.
If he’s hurt during key playoff games, it diminishes a massive advantage over teams like the Celtics and could result in an embarrassing defeat.
Golden State Warriors: LeBron James
Maybe its a bit of a jump to say that Golden State’s X-factor plays on a team they won’t see until the Finals. But if you see any reason to think the Warriors won’t be playing in June, then you’re more creative than this scribe.
The fact of the matter is that LeBron James has been the biggest obstacle for the entire league since 2011. Every move the Warriors make, every strategy they break out and every lineup they trot onto the floor is with James in mind — rightly so.
Golden State didn’t have an answer for James last season. Andre Iguodala is 33 years old and probably can’t be a LeBron-stopper for an entire series. And the consequence of bringing in Kevin Durant last summer was a hit to the Warriors’ depth. Durant will undoubtedly see minutes guarding James in a potential Finals matchup, and the Warriors will probably survive those minutes just fine.
But there are few options beyond Iguodala and Durant. If James is comfortable against either of them, it will spell trouble for Golden State.
Boston Celtics: Perimeter defense
The Celtics are 18th in defensive rating, allowing 106.3 points per 100 possessions, and much of it comes from the perimeter.
Nobody expects Isaiah Thomas to be a defensive stalwart, but opponents are hanging 109.7 points per 100 on Boston with him on the court. The little guy ranks dead last among point guards in defensive real plus-minus and will be a matchup liability against any playoff point guard.
That’s unsurprising, but what is surprising is Avery Bradley’s 108.7 defensive rating. Bradley is currently out with an Achilles injury but will return soon. Normally a stout defender, Bradley’s -1.50 defensive RPM should be cause for worry. If the Celtics end up playing, say, the Cavs in the playoffs, it will probably be Bradley matching up against Kyrie Irving while Thomas slips onto a less threatening shooting guard.
If Bradley has trouble in such a matchup, it will spell trouble for Boston. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson can cover for a lot of mistakes — as can Thomas’ scoring ability — but come playoff time, teams will attack the Celtics with more precision.
If their perimeter defense doesn’t fix itself, it could become the glaring flaw that sinks Boston.
San Antonio Spurs: The aging curve
The Spurs have been battling the aging curve since the paleolithic era and usually win, so their fans shouldn’t be too worried.
However, San Antonio is a very old team. Manu Ginobili is 39, Tony Parker is 34, Pau Gasol is 36, LaMarcus Aldridge is 31 and David Lee is 33.
Gregg Popovich does a great job of managing rest, and Kawhi Leonard can take over down the stretch of must-win games. But the season is long and the playoffs are taxing. Two years ago, Tony Parker looked spent by Game 7 of the Spurs’ first-round series and they lost, with Parker a -8 in 33 crucial minutes.
This will be a question for San Antonio every year until the end of time, or whenever Manu retires, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Jr.
Porter made the leap this season, jumping from a 14.5 PER, 54.1 effective field goal percentage and and +0.6 net rating to an All-Star-level 17.9 PER, 63.2 effective field goal percentage and +5.9 net rating. The question is whether he can keep it up in the playoffs.
Last time the Wizards won a playoff series was when they swept the Raptors in 2015. Porter was a huge difference maker.
If they win another series this year, he’ll have to carry a big load again. When Markieff Morris sits and Porter is the defacto power forward, teams will go at the third-year Georgetown product.
They haven’t had much success doing that so far this season. Washington’s most-played lineup with Porter at the four has a +20.0 net rating. But things tend to get tougher in the playoffs. If Porter’s shooting slumps or his defense lapses, it could spell the end of Washington’s season.
Houston Rockets: Patrick Beverley
If the Rockets have a chance at beating the Golden State Warriors, they need to at least slow down the Splash Brothers. Patrick Beverley offers their best chance of doing so.
A tough, physical defender, Beverley has gone at Stephen Curry in the past. He’s also second among point guards in defensive RPM. Any team with a prayer of contending with Golden State has to do so with physicality on the defensive end.
This goes double for the Rockets, who will have to make up for James Harden’s defensive liabilities.
The teams that bumped Curry off the ball and got in his space on the ball were the teams that had success against him last season, and Beverley can do that. For Houston to make hay in the playoffs, Beverley has to be at his best.
Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan is capable of playing like a superstar. The Raptors need him to exercise that capability during the postseason.
Last season, DeRozan’s 44.6 field goal percentage, 23.5 points and 8.8 free throw attempts per 36 dropped to 39.4 percent, 20.2 points and 5.9 free throw attempts in the postseason. If Toronto is to have more success than we saw in their uninspiring Eastern Conference Finals exit last season, that can’t happen again.
DeRozan isn’t a great defender, passer, rebounder or shooter. His value is almost entirely concentrated in scoring, and if his scoring drops, then the Raptors aren’t getting enough production in the 35.5 minutes he plays per game.
During the playoffs, DeRozan has to be the same player he is during the regular season — the All-Star who puts up a 24.1 PER on 34.4 percent usage. If his production falls again, the Raptors can kiss their Finals dreams goodbye.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward
This is not a typo: Gordon Hayward dunks on The Greek Freak and a stare down pic.twitter.com/Az3lhpp5JR
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) February 25, 2017
Ever so quietly, Hayward has put up superstar numbers in Utah this season. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 while putting up a 23.1 PER and +7.6 net rating.
Without any playoff experience, its tough to say how Hayward, Gobert, Rodney Hood or head coach Quin Snyder will respond to the higher level of competition exhibited in the postseason. But we do know Hayward will have the ball in his hands come crunch time.
He leads the team in usage rate, PER and scoring. The Jazz signed him to a $62 million deal a few years ago, which was viewed skeptically at the time, and will face a franchise-altering decision as to whether or not they max him out this summer should Hayward decline a player option.
Whether he proves to be a star during the postseason will have a great impact, not just on Utah’s chances of advancing but on that decision.