Star-power trumps depth in the NBA Playoffs. Sure, being able to go 9 or 10 players deep is cool, but what really matters is finding top-rotation stars who can contribute night in and night out during these crucial weeks. Teams find themselves asking less about depth, more about, “Who can swing this series for me?”
Every franchise is looking for the x-factor: the guy who isn’t the star of your team, but plays a significant role in determining whether or not your team succeeds or fails. The label falls onto the role players and near-stars, giving them a chance to shine.
Here are three Trail Blazers players who have a real chance to swing their upcoming series against the Denver Nuggets.
Jusuf Nurkic has been pivotal to the adjustment the Blazers have made this season. I wrote about this two weeks ago, but it’s worth repeating; Nurkic has made the Blazers a significantly better team. Without him, the Blazers are an incredibly competent offensive team and bafflingly bad defensive one. With him, the offense is near-unstoppable and the defense league-average (or close to it).
When Nurkic plays, Portland ranks in the 97th percentile per Cleaning the Glass in points allowed differential per 100 possession (-9.9 below league average), turnover percentage differential (+3.2%) and offensive rebound differential (-4.7%).
Offensively, the Blazers shoot 1.8% better with Nurkic on the floor because of the open shots he generates with his excellent screening. After only breaking the double-digit point barrier a handful times after returning from injury, Nurkic has now scored double-digits in 10 of the past 12 games. Those 10 games were all wins for Portland.
It’s been a simple formula. When Nurkic plays, the Blazers do well. When he doesn’t, they lose.
That sounds a lot like an x-factor to me. He’s almost too good to be an x-factor, but I think he falls under the general description. As Nurkic goes, so do the Blazers. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who embodies that x-factor role more than he.
Nurkic is going to have his hands full going up against Nikola Jokic, who is already one of the best offensive centers of all time. We know Nurk will set a million screens and shatter Nuggets defenders into pieces with them. The Blazers would love a repeat of last Sunday’s game against the Nuggets, where Nurkic did well (or at least as well as anyone can) to contain Jokic. We’re going to find out on Saturday whether or not he can do it again.
Every year in the playoffs, teams seem to have a simple answer to slowing down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum: blitz the bejeezus out of them and force literally anyone else in a Blazers jersey to make a shot. It’s a simple yet surprisingly effective method, especially when in years past you had players like Al-Farouq Aminu (whom I loved) and Moe Harkless (whom I thought was okay sometimes) who couldn’t knock down shots consistently. Those two guys couldn’t carry a playoffs team, and everyone knew it.
Enter Norman Powell, who’s a lot different at the three than anyone the Blazers have fielded in recent memory. Powell is a three-level scorer who, despite shooting struggles from outside, has managed to put up about 17 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 57.6% while in Portland. That number would be better if he shot higher than 36% from three, but he couldn’t quite match the 44% clip he was hitting in Toronto.
Threes aren’t the only thing Powell provides offensively. Jason Quick’s most recent article in The Athletic discussed this, but Lillard and company have noted that having Powell on the floor means simply having a guy that has gravity. The ball swings to him and you don’t just let him shoot the open three, because 1) he can make that and 2) that’s not the only thing he can do. He can dribble-drive, relocate, and just generally do whatever it takes to get the best shot possible.
Lineups with Powell have produced overwhelmingly positive results. By the numbers, the starting lineup with Powell is the best Portland has sported all year with the largest sample size (+14.1 efficiency differential in 785 possessions). Part of that is because his arrival coincided with Nurkic’s return from injury, but a big reason is that Powell is a good option at the three. Even Gary Trent Jr., who was traded for Powell and was great in his own right, couldn’t provide the same offensive versatility as Powell. If he can remain a versatile offensive threat, it’s going to be huge for the Blazers.
As fun as it is to watch Carmelo Anthony perform at a high level, Blazers fans know that the high-level version of Melo doesn’t always show up. You go crazy when he makes four threes in the fourth quarter and posts a defender into oblivion; you go even crazier after he misses his rotation for the 27,394th time.
Carmelo Anthony has been a statistical negative for the Blazers overall. At least that’s what his estimated plus-minus of -2.1 tells us. But that doesn’t mean that he has to remain a negative. We’ve seen a really effective version of Melo: a player who takes and makes threes at a high rate, who limits the dribble post-ups, who even stunts on help defense occasionally.
That version of Carmelo Anthony needs to come out in the playoffs. He’s going to play. Portland lacks wing depth and he—plus a somewhat-overlooked Derrick Jones Jr.— are all the Blazers have. You could maybe add Nassir Little into the mix, but even then I’m not sure. Melo is going to play a prominent role in the playoffs for Portland. The only question is whether or not that role is a positive or negative one.
There you have it. Those are my three biggest x-factors for the Blazers. The performance of these three players (in my opinion) could determine whether we’re talking about how excited we are for the second round or how disappointed we are to have been bounced in the first. Think someone else better qualifies for the x-factor title? Let us know below!