NBA Western Conference Playoff X-Factors: Who Could Have An Impact?

Updated on

Best Available Odds for the 2023 NBA Finals

The 2024 NBA postseason is finally here, and it projects to be highly competitive and entertaining. Superstars determine championships, but role players can also swing a series with key stretches of play.

For bettors looking to wager on the following playoff teams in the West, here are some players who could end up swinging things for their teams in a positive direction and an NBA betting guide to the action.

Here are our x-factors for every Western Conference postseason team below, as well as NBA championship odds and data from BetMGM.

NBA championship odds & BetMGM data

Per BetMGM this week, the Denver Nuggets have the most handle and tickets on them to win the championship of any West team.

Western Conference x-factors

Which player on each squad could end up changing his team’s fortunes and what do the playoff odds at some of the main NBA betting sites say?

Denver Nuggets

Denver’s starting lineup is a wrecking crew that routinely dominates against even the best defenses across the league. The bench backcourt featuring Reggie Jackson and Christian Braun can hold its own during the postseason, too, but Denver’s frontcourt depth is a concern. Given that the West boasts many elite scoring wings and lengthy guards (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, etc.), the Nuggets may end up needing a defensive ace in their back pocket. 

Enter Peyton Watson, who has displayed flashes throughout his first two seasons. The 6-foot-8 wing currently owns a block percentage on par with Jaren Jackson Jr. and ranks 30th in contested shots per minute of the 256 players with at least 1,000 minutes (via He has plummeted to just 30% on catch-and-shoot triples this season and fails to generate his own shots off the bounce, though.

The Nuggets likely need Watson’s defensive chops, but he’s somewhat of an offensive liability if his shot does not fall at a respectable rate. If Denver gets the best version of him, then it is likely the sole squad that could hold more championship equity than the favored Boston Celtics

Currently at Fanatics Sportsbook, the Nuggets are the second most bet team to win the NBA title with the percentage of tickets at 18.3%. Below are their odds heading into the playoffs

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota easily leads the NBA in defensive rating due to the brilliance of Rudy Gobert, Jaden McDaniels, and Anthony Edwards. Its offense is below average and frequently shaky, though, and it has only worsened with Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined. 

Although his best days are behind him, Mike Conley remains a steady presence who runs the pick-and-roll at a high level and operates seamlessly off-ball. Conley’s ability to be a playmaker without turning the ball over gives Minnesota a larger margin for error since it does not lose possessions to mistakes. It has been a recurring issue for the Timberwolves all year, as they rank 22nd in turnover percentage

Minnesota’s defense can keep it afloat, but the offense likely needs to improve for a deep playoff run. Conley’s passing and 3-point shooting could unlock new heights and help Minnesota hang with the top tier of contenders.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder are averaging the most drives per game and the seventh most points in the paint per game. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams leading the charge, few teams place more pressure on the interior than Oklahoma City. Therefore, defenses would love to play drop coverage, pack the paint, and force kick-outs. 

Possessing elite outside shooting counters this strategy because defenders cannot afford to either sag or hard double, and Isaiah Joe certainly qualifies as elite. The Arkansas product is shooting nearly 44% on catch-and-shoot threes and producing an absurd 1.34 points per spot-up possession. 

Oklahoma City routinely utilizes Joe as a pick-and-pop screener for Gilgeous-Alexander, which opens up driving lanes and ensures that a shot-blocker is not involved in the primary action. The set becomes defanged if Joe does not punish defenses with his usual efficiency.

The Timberwolves and Lakers field dominant rim protectors, so Joe firing on all cylinders could be especially key against those franchises in a potential playoff series. Should he wilt and lose his touch, then Oklahoma City may be packing its bags early. 

Los Angeles Clippers

Stars typically do not fit into the X-factor category, but James Harden is an exception. He’s a true Jekyll-and-Hyde player who experiences extreme production and effort swings. Los Angeles looked like a juggernaut in December and January; Harden owned an excellent 64% true shooting percentage over that stretch and was at least engaged on the defensive end. Since March 1, Harden is producing a 55% true shooting percentage and appears to be allergic to defensive effort. 

With Harden as a defensive liability, his offensive benefits will need to be significant to compensate. If he morphs into a passive player and struggles with both efficiency and creating quality looks for himself, then Harden is close to dead weight for Los Angeles. 

The Clippers legitimately have a chance at the title if Harden is in top form, as evidenced by their short championship odds. However, he can also make the floor crumble and lead Los Angeles to a first-round exit. Essentially, no player enters this postseason with a more volatile range of outcomes than James Harden. 

Dallas Mavericks

When Dallas signed Dante Exum last offseason, observers wrote the move off as inconsequential. However, the former fifth-overall pick has experienced a basketball renaissance and been a key rotational piece for the Mavericks

Exum is shooting 50% from deep on decent volume, which opens up the court for his teammates. Additionally, he’s a calculating passer who acts as the connective glue. When Exum is on the court, the ball seems to always find the open shooter or cutter. That’s vital because it allows Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to rest without seeing the offense completely crumble. 

Meanwhile, Exum has been an on-ball defensive pest this year. Given that Doncic and Irving are hardly winning any awards for their defense, having Exum’s guard defense is a boon for the Mavericks. Plus, his overall role versatility allows him to fluidly play next to the stars. 

If Exum continues to be a floor-raiser off the bench and help Dallas survive the non-Doncic minutes, then the Mavericks will probably enter the postseason as the top dark horse contender in the NBA. 

The Dallas Mavericks have the third-highest amount of tickets to win the title at Fanatics Sportsbook. They hold 7% of all tickets and have seen a large shift in their title odds since the preseason at +2400.

New Orleans Pelicans

Because the West contains highly effective offensive bigs (Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Domantas Sabonis, Chet Holmgren, etc.), rostering a disruptive interior defender is crucial. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Jonas Valanciunas has significantly regressed over the past few seasons. Of the 37 centers with at least 1,000 minutes played this season, Valanciunas ranks dead last in both rim defensive field goal percentage versus expected and rim points saved per 75 possessions (via Basketball Index). 

On the other hand, backup center Larry Nance Jr. is a quality rim protector who has much more mobility than Valanciunas. Therefore, he’s also better equipped to handle stretch centers, which could be huge if the Pelicans wind up playing Chet Holmgren in the first round. 

Offensively, Nance Jr. owns a superior outside shot, too, so he fits better next to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram’s paint scoring. Overall, certain matchups may dictate more playing time for Nance Jr. instead of Valanciunas. 

Phoenix Suns

The Suns feature Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, and 3-point snipers, so offense isn’t a glaring issue heading into the playoffs. The defense, though, is a concern. It offers little resistance at the point of attack, and isolation scorers can take advantage. 

Royce O’Neale isn’t a lockdown defender, but he provides solid wing defense and flexibility. He ranks third in the NBA in Basketball Index’s defensive role versatility metric, which captures how frequently a player guards different offensive roles (movement shooter, slasher, stretch big, etc.). 

If the Suns are going to get past the first round, they’ll likely need to improve their defense. O’Neale would be a key cog in that leap, especially considering the abundance of elite scoring wings in the West. Plus, maintaining his 38% three-point shooting throughout the postseason would also deter teams from collapsing inside to defend Phoenix’s strong midrange game. 

Los Angeles Lakers

When D’Angelo Russell has scored at least 20 points this season, the Lakers possess a 21-8 record (59-win pace). He’s been on fire recently, too; since Jan. 1, he has averaged 21 points per game on 60% true shooting. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis applying back-breaking pressure around the basket, it’s extremely difficult to stop Los Angeles’ offense once Russell also gets going from beyond the arc. 

His ability to create shots for himself and others also alleviates a portion of the burden from James’ shoulders, thus granting the 39-year-old superstar much-needed rest. 

Can he survive on the other end, though? Denver torched Russell last postseason to the point where head coach Darvin Ham had no choice but to slash his minutes. Los Angeles needs his offense, but it doesn’t want his defense. If Russell plays well enough to at least stay on the court this year, then few teams will want to face Los Angeles. 

Sacramento Kings

Domantas Sabonis struggled mightily last postseason to carry over his impact from the regular season. Not only was he settling for paint jumpers instead of getting to the basket, but he could not control the defensive glass. Given that he’s typically a physical player, it’s likely that both issues fail to pop up once again this postseason. 

Sabonis’ defensive shortcomings could be a threat to the Kings’ playoff chances, though. He doesn’t possess the length or athleticism to be an above-the-rim defender, which limits Sacramento’s ability to protect the rim. Because Sabonis’ mobility allows him to hedge ball screens, the Kings may help cover his rim protection weakness by tagging the roller, thus letting Sabonis deter the pull-up three and recover. 

Overall, the Kings require Sabonis to do the following to have a chance at pulling off an upset: dominate the boards, score efficiently inside the paint, and stonewall centers before they approach the restricted area. Otherwise, Sacramento seemingly lacks the two-way firepower to compete against this brutal Western Conference.  

Golden State Warriors 

Golden State’s best chance to exceed expectations this postseason is to convincingly win the 3-point battle, thus granting the Warriors a mathematical edge. Steph Curry remains the best shooter on the team; he’s making over 40% of his nearly 12 3-point attempts per game. 

However, Klay Thompson’s decline has left him a volatile shooter who is prone to extended streaks. At this point, he either seems to be ice-cold or red-hot, which can be a complete game-changer for Golden State

If Curry and Thompson are both cooking from deep, then the Warriors have the potential to quickly slash or grow any lead. Factor in Jonathan Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins, and the Warriors’ offense features a large ceiling. On the flip side, they may play themselves into a loss via poor shooting, so their floor is lower than most postseason squads. 

Golden State’s run may end up hinging on the following question: can Klay Thompson initiate a scorching hot streak? If not, then the outlook could end up looking grim.