The usual stars will be out in Orlando doing their thing once the 2019-20 NBA season resumes late next month. We’ll hear a lot of talk about the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard as they look to lead their teams to a title.
Though, as we have seen in the league’s recent history, lesser-known individuals will have to make an impact if their teams are going to be successful.
Can Khris Middleton respond after a disastrous performance in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals? What about a relatively unknown big man in South Beach and a better-known guard in New Orleans?
These are among the eight biggest X-factors for when the 2019-20 NBA season returns at Walt Disney World on July 31.
Khris Middleton, forward, Milwaukee Bucks
It’s obvious that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the central focus of defenses once the season resumes and the playoffs ultimately start. But as we saw in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, he can’t do it himself. The Bucks need their other star to step up if they’re going to follow up a tremendous regular season with a run at the title.
Middleton failed to do that against Toronto in 2018-19, averaging less than 14 points on 41% shooting from the field in the Bucks’ six-game series loss. Now that the conference is improved from a season ago, the onus is going to be on this All-Star to step up in a big way.
Lou Williams, guard, Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles has multiple players capable of erupting for 20-plus points on a nightly basis. In addition to headliners Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, this list includes Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris. With that said, Williams will be a major X-factor in the Clippers’ hopes of coming out of the Western Conference.
The three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner is averaging nearly 19 points to go with 5.7 rebounds on 36% shooting from distance this season. If he’s able to hit from the outside on a consistent basis with George and Leonard doing their thing, other top-end contenders in the conference will be in trouble.
Gordon Hayward, forward, Boston Celtics
Boston’s big three consists of youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as well as big-time free-agent signing Kemba Walker. Combined, this duo averaged 69-plus points, 17.6 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game. If they play up to these averages, the Celtics are going to be hard to beat once the playoffs starts.
The X-factor here is obviously Hayward. After suffering a serious leg injury in his first game as a member of the Celtics back in 2017-18, it’s been a long road back. The high-priced forward averaged a hair over 11 points per game last season. Though, he’s picked it up during the 2019-20 campaign to the tune of 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds on 50% shooting. If Hayward can provide this type of punch as Boston’s fourth option, it may very well come out of the east.
Anthony Davis, forward, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s going to be LeBron James all the time once the season resumes in Orlando. He has an opportunity to help his Lakers finish off what has been both a tragic and a strange season with the 17th championship in franchise history. I don’t want to hear anything about an asterisk being placed by the title. Los Angeles would have earned it. Period.
However, the team won’t be able to reach the pinnacle unless Davis continues the domination we saw during the regular season. At 27 years old, he’s played a combined 13 playoff games in his first seven NBA seasons. Will this relative lack of experience be an issue for one of the game’s most-skilled players? Time will tell on that front.
Fred VanVleet, guard, Toronto Raptors
Fellow Raptors guard Kyle Lowry has boatloads of experience in the playoffs. He’s been the team’s No. 1 or No. 2 option during its run of consecutive postseason appearances dating back to the 2013-14 season. Though, VanVleet finds himself in a different situation now that Kawhi Leonard is no longer in Toronto.
Depending on the night, it’s either Lowry or VanVleet as the Raptors’ top option behind Pascal Siakam. The former undrafted free agent from Wichita State has made the most of it this season, averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 assists on 39% shooting from distance. Will VanVleet be up for the task once the playoffs start? If not, that would hinder the Raptors’ hopes of repeating as champs.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
Much like the rest of his Thunder squad, Gilgeous-Alexander has been a pretty big surprise this season. Acquired as the centerpiece in the Paul George trade last summer, the former first-round pick looks every bit the part of a star. SGE, as he is known, is averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game this season. He’s also a legit contender for one of the All-NBA Defensive Teams.
Oklahoma City will head to Orlando with a 40-24 record and as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Led by Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul, the team has an opportunity to earn a top-three seed. How this youngster plays in the remaining eight regular-season games will be telling.
Bam Adebayo, forward/center, Miami Heat
Rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro have received most of the press in South Beach. Veteran free-agent acquisition Jimmy Butler is not too far behind those two. The backdrop here being a Heat team that’s 41-24 on the season and has an outside shot to catch the Boston Celtics for a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference.
Though, it would be absurd to ignore what Bam has brought to the table in his third NBA season. Seen as a project coming out of Kentucky back in 2017, he’s morphed into one of the best young bigs in the game. Adebayo is averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 57% shooting. If he’s able to play at this level during the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs, Miami could surprise a ton of folks in Orlando.
Lonzo Ball, guard, New Orleans Pelicans
It seems like eons ago that Ball was actually relegated to second-team duties in his initial season with New Orleans after being acquired in the Anthony Davis blockbuster. The enigmatic young guard struggled big time early on, especially from a shooting perspective.
There’s no telling whether a four-plus month layoff will impact Ball moving forward. What we do know is that he was playing excellent basketball when the season was suspended back on March 11. The former No. 2 pick has averaged 13.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 43% from distance over the past 22 games. He also continued to make sweet music with rookie No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. If these two can connect at a high level, the upstart Pelicans could have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. How fun would that be?