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Biggest X-factor on every NBA team: Russell Westbrook must mesh with Rockets; MVP Giannis has room to improve

Every NBA team has one — that one player potentially capable of single-handedly changing the dynamic of an entire season for a franchise, for better or worse. Questions exist, but if things go right, this player could catapult his team to new heights. Such players are commonly referred to as “X-factors,” which works.

X-factors aren’t limited by age, accolades achieved or experience, but rather their individual impact on their respective teams. That’s why on this list you’ll find a mix of rookies, established veterans, All-Stars and even a couple of MVP winners. Each situation is different. In some cases X-factors are complementary pieces, and go-to options in others.

With that said, here’s a look at the biggest X-factor on every NBA team entering the 2019-20 season:

Atlanta Hawks

He may have started slow, but by the end of his rookie season, Trae Young looked like a future All-Star, and he will have every opportunity to take a big step forward this season. If he does, the Hawks will too. For what it’s worth, Young thinks he will be more comfortable in his second season. 

“Now I know what to expect,” Young said. “How to handle the long road trips and the back-to-backs. How to take care of my body. I’m going to be able to feel more free and have more confidence going into the season.”  

Boston Celtics

After an extremely promising rookie campaign, Tatum had somewhat of a stagnant second season. The Celtics as a whole were pretty dysfunctional, though, so it’s tough to tell just how much the environment worked to stunt Tatum’s growth. With All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford now gone, Tatum has the opportunity to step up and form a dynamic duo with newly acquired Kemba Walker, and his development will go a long way toward determining just how good the Celtics can be this season, and beyond.  

Brooklyn Nets

Things didn’t go especially well for Irving in Boston as he had difficulty jelling with his teammates, and his teams ultimately failed to live up to expectations. In Brooklyn he gets a fresh start, and he will obviously look to avoid a similar fate to the one he experienced with the Celtics. How Irving goes, the Nets will go, especially in the short-term until Kevin Durant returns to action.  

Charlotte Hornets

After a couple of seasons of playing second fiddle to Kyrie Irving in Boston and itching for his own team to run, Rozier will finally get that opportunity in Charlotte, where he will be tasked with filling the All-Star-sized shoes of Kemba Walker. Rozier’s ability to run his own team will go a long way in determining how Charlotte fares in 2019-20.  

Chicago Bulls

Carter showed a lot of promise as a rookie, and in his second season he will look to solidify himself as the Bulls’ center of the future. Carter only played 44 games last season, so we should get to see much more of his all-around game this year; something that could be a big benefit to the Bulls.   

Cleveland Cavaliers

Sexton developing into an All-Star-caliber guard during his second season would help to soften the lingering sting that Cavs fans feel from losing Kyrie Irving and LeBron James in consecutive summers as the team continues its rebuild.  

Dallas Mavericks

It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen Porzingis in an NBA game, so it will be extremely interesting to see how he looks, if it takes him some time to knock the rust off and how quickly he is able to mesh with his teammates in Dallas. If things go well, he and Luka Doncic could propel Dallas toward postseason contention.  

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets invested heavily in Murray this summer, and in turn, they need him to develop into an All-Star-caliber point guard in the West. If he’s able to, the Nuggets will continue to grow as legitimate contenders. However, if his game stagnates, the Nuggets may have already hit their ceiling.  

Detroit Pistons

Kennard is entering his third season in the league, and he provides a big boost for the Pistons as the team’s top floor-spacer. He is also able to make plays with the ball in his hands, and he should get ample opportunity to produce this season.  

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors lost Kevin Durant over the offseason, and they will be without Klay Thompson for a good portion of the regular season. Russell will be expected to pick up some of that slack, and how well he plays and meshes in the backcourt with Steph Curry will be a big factor in determining where the Warriors land in the playoff picture in the West.  

Houston Rockets

Westbrook had a very successful run in Oklahoma City, but ultimately he was unable to win a title during his time there. Now entering his first season in Houston, it will be up to Westbrook to figure out how he can best fit in with the style of play that James Harden and the Rockets have established over the years. If he can mesh with the team, they could be extremely dangerous. If not, things could go south quickly.  

Indiana Pacers

Though he’ll be missed in Milwaukee, the former Rookie of the Year will get a fresh start in Indiana, where he should get more of an opportunity to make plays and expand his game. The Pacers project as a playoff team in the East, and Brogdon will be a key cog for them, especially until Victor Oladipo returns to game action following the quad injury that he suffered last season.    

Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet showed a lot of potential as a rookie last season with both the Sixers and the Clippers, and his ability to space the floor will become increasingly important now that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be drawing a ton of attention from opposing defenses. He has the opportunity to grow into a valuable rotation piece on a contending Clippers team.

Los Angeles Lakers

Kuzma has a huge opportunity in front of him this season. If he can continue to develop and grow his game, he could solidify himself as the third member of a championship trio in Los Angeles along with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, if Kuzma isn’t up to the task of filling that role, the Lakers will almost certainly move on and look for someone who can.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are in the midst of a rebuild, and Morant was selected with the second overall pick in June to be the franchise’s point guard of the future. Though the Grizzlies appear to be a few years from contention, Morant could speed up their timeline if he can find superstardom as a rookie.  

Miami Heat

With Hassan Whiteside gone, Adebayo should get an opportunity to flourish as the full-time starting center in Miami. He has the potential to develop into one of the top bigs in the East, and if he is able to begin to approach that status, it could quickly change the Heat’s trajectory.  

Milwaukee Bucks

After losing in the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Bucks’ roster remained largely the same over the offseason. This means that the team will continue to only go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s reigning MVP, can take them. While the rest of Milwaukee’s first five consists of veterans that have already hit their ceilings, there is still another level that the Greek Freak can reach, especially if he is able to extend his shooting range. 

This summer, Antetokounmpo said that he’s only reached about 60 percent of his potential as a player. There isn’t another player in the league that is as talented as Antetokounmpo with similar room for growth. It is that room for improvement in an already-dominant game that makes Giannis Milwaukee’s X-factor. The idea that a player that was downright dominant for large stretches of last season could improve by nearly 40 percent is a scary thought for the rest of the league. 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Will this be the year that Andrew Wiggins finally starts playing (consistently) like the All-Star-level player that many expected him to be coming out of college? The Wolves certainly hope so, because they’re paying him to be that player, and their chances in an ultra-competitive Western Conference hinge on Wiggins taking the next step in his game.  

New Orleans Pelicans

Williamson is the most highly-hyped prospect since LeBron James back in the early 2000s due to his combination of size and athleticism, and it will be fascinating to see how he matches up to some of the game’s greats as a 19-year old rookie. The Pelicans will be building the team around him moving forward, so how quickly he is able to reach his potential at the professional level will go a long way in determining how quickly the Pelicans can climb back into contention in the West. For that reason, he’s clearly New Orleans’ X-factor.  

New York Knicks

The Knicks missed out on Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA Draft, and they also missed out on the big-name free agents over the offseason, but their consolation prize was a talented young wing in R.J. Barrett. If he lives up to expectations, he could become the Knicks’ next All-Star and make them at least somewhat bearable to watch.  

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder need foundational building blocks after losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the same summer, and Gilgeous-Alexander had the look of one during his rookie season with the Clippers. The season will likely be a rough one for Thunder fans regardless, but some solid play and development from Gilgeous-Alexander could at least provide a nice silver lining.  

Orlando Magic

Issac is entering his third season in the league — and in Orlando — and he appears poised to take a major step forward after a promising second season. Issac said that he has bulked up over the offseason, which should work to his advantage, and if he can become a consistent contributor on an already-solid front line that also includes Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, the Magic could make some noise in the East. 

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have arguably the most formidable starting five in the entire NBA, but there are some legitimate questions about their depth. Smith missed the majority of his rookie season, but the Sixers drafted him to be a two-way wing that fits in perfectly with the style of play prevalent in the NBA today. If Smith can live up to some of that potential and he can prove to be a reliable rotation piece, the Sixers become infinitely deeper and more dangerous.

Phoenix Suns

Ayton averaged an impressive 16 points and 10 rebounds per game as a rookie, and if he can build upon that kind of production, he could quickly turn into one of the better bigs in the West, which in turn — paired with Devin Booker — could ultimately lead the Suns somewhere they haven’t been in a while: the playoffs.   

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers have one of the best backcourts in the entire NBA in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and a formidable frontcourt, but they are a little thin at the wing position. Hood has shown flashes of potential throughout his career, but consistency has been an issue. If he can find that consistency and provide Portland with a reliable perimeter threat, he could potentially be a piece that helps to push the franchise further than they have been in the West in recent years.

Sacramento Kings

Fox appears to be on his way to becoming one of the best point guards in the NBA. For the Kings, the question is just how quickly he can get there. A breakout season from Fox could potentially propel the Kings into the playoff picture.  

San Antonio Spurs

Murray missed all of the 2018-19 season, but prior to that he appeared poised to establish himself as San Antonio’s point guard of the future. The Spurs’ postseason chances will improve greatly if Murray is able to have a bounce-back season.  

Toronto Raptors

Kawhi Leonard’s departure left a gaping hole in Toronto’s hierarchy, and it will be up to Siakam to try to fill it. The fourth-year forward really came into his own last season as his points per game average jumped from 7.3 to 16.9, and he will need to continue that upward trajectory if Toronto is to remain in the thick of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.  

Utah Jazz

The Jazz have built a very solid team, especially on the defensive end, but they will need Mitchell to continue his development as a consistent, reliable go-to option if they are going to have major success in 2019-20.  Mitchell appears to be a budding All-Star, and the Jazz really need him to blossom in order to compete with some of the other heavy-hitters in the West. 

Washington Wizards

Can Bradley Beal single-handedly carry the Wizards to mediocrity [or better] next season? He’ll basically have to if they want to be anything other than a bottom-dweller. With John Wall out for the foreseeable future, Beal won’t have much help, so the Wizards will go as far as he can take them. However, in his second season, Troy Brown Jr. will have an opportunity to step up and establish himself as a second option in Washington. If he can, perhaps things will go a bit smoother than expected in D.C.