Both conferences have tight playoff races in the NBA right now. In the East, seeds three through eight are decided by 4.5 games, and in the West, seeds three through 10 are decided by 5.5 games. The West is deeper and more competitive, so we will focus on that. Each team has about 20 to 25 games left to play, and each one matters. Teams can’t afford bad losses and need to steal one when they can.
Not only are teams trying to make the playoffs, but they are trying to avoid the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in the first round. The race will come down to the last game of the season, and health will be imperative. The Minnesota Timberwolves just lost Jimmy Butler for four weeks. The schedule will, of course, be a significant factor, as will the play of each team’s star player, but here is the list of X-factors for each team that will determine if their team makes the playoffs and where they’re seeded once the playoffs start.
Minnesota Timberwolves — Andrew Wiggins
This one is obvious with the Jimmy Butler injury. With Butler out, Wiggins will have to be better than ever. This season, Wiggins has struggled with efficiency and defense and has not lived up to his massive contract. With Butler out, he is going to need to do a little bit of everything, but he will mainly need to score at an efficient level. He is off to a good start, as the Wolves are 2-0 without Butler, and Wiggins is averaging 22.5 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. However, that was the Kings and the Bulls; the real test is about to come with the next eight games against playoff teams starting tonight at Portland. Minnesota is currently the three seed, but they are only half a game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs. They need to go at least 4-4 in this tough stretch to hold onto the three seed. Wiggins needs to carry the load while playing good defense.
San Antonio Spurs — Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay missed a lot of time with injuries this season, but now he is back, and the Spurs need him to step up. San Antonio has struggled with offense this season and will need Gay’s scoring to keep them afloat. Kawhi Leonard may return at the end of March, but until then, Gay will need to pick up the slack. Even if Kawhi does come back, there is no telling how effective he will be. Gay needs to complement LaMarcus Aldridge and provide some secondary scoring. In the two games since he came back, he is only averaging 4.5 points per game, down from 11.1 per season. Gay needs to get back to double-digit scoring. San Antonio has the third hardest schedule down the stretch, according to ESPN’s strength of schedule. They desperately need Gay’s scoring if they want homecourt advantage in the first round.
Portland Trailblazers — Jusef Nurkic
Right now, the Blazers are 35-26 and have played well as of late winning four straight. For much of the season, Nurkic has been there X-factor. His play has been up and down, and when he plays well, the Blazers usually win. In wins this season, Nurkiz is averaging 14.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, two assists per game, and when the Blazers lose Nurkic’s numbers, they drop to 13.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game. The Blazers have the fifth hardest schedule down the stretch and will need Nurkic to be more consistent if they want to make the playoffs and be higher than the seven seed.
New Orleans Pelicans — Solomon Hill
Hill is a different kind of X-factor, as he has not played yet this season with a hamstring injury. Alvin Gentry said Hill could be returning shortly. If Hill is healthy when he gets back, he can help the Pelicans. He can play the three, or the four is a solid shooter and can defend multiple positions. The Pelicans can use his defense right now. New Orleans doesn’t have much of a bench so adding one more good player to the rotation will make a difference. Adding Hill sooner rather than later will make a big difference to a team that is relying on Anthony Davis to do everything right now. New Orleans has the 21st hardest schedule down the stretch and only a 65 percent chance of making the playoffs. Hill would give them a boost.
Oklahoma City Thunder — Carmelo Anthony
You wouldn’t think Carmelo would be an X-factor, but that is where we’re at right now. Anthony has struggled for much of the season, and the Thunder are going to need him to step up. For the season, he is only averaging 17 points per game on 41 percent shooting. He can’t let poor shooting affect the rest of his game. Melo needs to rebound, defend and get to the free throw line more. His rebounds, field goal percentage, and free throw attempts are all way down from previous years. Playing along two superstars was supposed to bring his numbers down, but his efficiency has plummetted. OKC has the eight hardest schedule down the stretch, and the team needs Melo to step up. We know what we’re going to get from Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams, but the same can’t be said about Anthony, and he needs to be more consistent.
Los Angeles Clippers — Danilo Gallinari
The Clippers got a big win last night at Denver without Gallinari, but if they want to make the playoffs, they will need Gallinari. Gallinari has missed most of the season as he has only played 19 games, but when he has played, he has played well. Like Nurkic, he has mainly played well in wins. In wins this season, Gallo is averaging 17.8 points and 5.7 rebounds on 43 percent shooting, compared to 13.4 points and 3.8 rebounds on 36 percent shooting. The Clippers need all the help they can get, and Gallo can give them scoring, rebounding, and passing. Luckily, he should be back soon, and the Clippers needs him, as they have the ninth-hardest schedule down the stretch. Right now, the Clippers have a 64 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets — Wilson Chandler
Denver lost a big game last night and right now are on the outside looking in. The good news is they just got Paul Millsap back from injury. Millsap’s return will decrease the role of Wilson Chandler, but Chandler will still play a pivotal role for the Nuggets down the stretch. Chandler is the Nuggets best perimeter defender, and the Nuggets need it. They also need him to hit shots, something that he has been streaky with this season. Wilson’s role on offense is to make threes, and he has only made 33 percent of his three this year. That number needs to go up to the 35 percent range. The good news for Denver is they have the 10th easiest schedule down the stretch but right now only have a 55 percent chance of making the playoffs. Last night was a brutal loss.
Utah Jazz — Ricky Rubio
Rubio started the season off miserably but that was the catalyst for the Jazz’s 10-game win streak. He was sensational during the win streak, but since has fallen off a bit. In the last three games, he is only averaging eight points and four assists per game. Perhaps no player is better in wins and worse in losses than Rubio. Rubio in wins averages 14.9 points, six assists, and 5.2 rebounds on 45 percent shooting. In losses, those numbers drop 9.3 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.3 rebounds on 34 percent shooting. Utah only has a 44 percent shot of making the playoffs, so if they want to make it happen, Rubio needs to be good every night.