The X-Factor For Each Team In The Eastern Conference For The 2023-24 NBA Season

The 2023-24 NBA season is upon us, and with the start of a new year comes optimism around the league. Every team believes they are ready to take a step forward, whether that’s becoming a title contender, playoff/Play-In contender, or just simply seeing it click for rising stars.

However, to make those strides as a team, there are always some key players a bit further down the roster that hold the keys to unlocking another level. While much of the conversation about teams reaching their goals is understandably focused on the stars, we’ve all seen enough to know that the top two or three players on a team cannot go it alone. They need some help from the role players, and when one of those players pops and takes their game to another level, it often elevates the team around them.

Here, we are going to explore the X-Factors for all 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, who might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think about each team, but we believe will play a critical role in whether those teams can achieve their season-long goals.

Atlanta Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic

While Hunter is important, I think getting a fully healthy Bogdan Bogdanovic would be the thing that really allows the Hawks to be a factor in the East playoff picture. He has played in 44, 63, and 54 games in his three seasons in Atlanta, struggling to stay healthy and on the floor consistently. That’s been a big loss for a Hawks team that has a big need for a player of his skillset, who can be a shot creator and initiator with the second unit and a spot-up threat and off-ball worker with the first unit. Hunter isn’t at the level of Bogdanovic with either of those skills (but is a superior defender), and when Bogdanovic isn’t in the lineup or is banged up and playing at less than 100 percent, the Hawks just lack some juice offensively.

He’s coming off of a tremendous summer showing in the FIBA World Cup for Serbia and should be in great condition to start the season. The concern is whether he can maintain that conditioning throughout the 82-game season and into the playoffs, especially after taking on a big workload in the World Cup. If he can carry over that level of play, the Hawks should look much more dangerous offensively this season as he figures to bring a lot of qualities Snyder will want from Atlanta on that end of the floor this year.

Boston Celtics: Playoff Jrue Holiday

You could go in a number of directions here, as Porzingis is going to be heavily relied on, but my concerns there are more about health than how he fits in. What I am fascinated by is how Holiday fares once the Celtics get to the playoffs, because in Milwaukee he was always sensational on defense but struggled to be an efficient scorer when the postseason rolled around. In 40 playoff games with the Bucks (including the title year), Holiday shot just 39.2 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three on nearly 18 shots per game. Being that inefficient on high volume is not what you want out of your lead guard, and I want to know how much of that was circumstance in Milwaukee and how much of that will carry over in Boston.

Holiday’s skills as a distributor and creator for others should be a huge help to a Celtics team that can bog down in the halfcourt, provided Holiday leans into that role. With the Bucks, he would go on some wild adventures on the ball, dribbling into bad shots and contributing to Milwaukee’s halfcourt issues in the postseason rather than relieving them. However, he was on a team that needed someone to do that (which is the biggest reason they traded him for Lillard) and didn’t have as many offensive weapons as this Celtics team does. Tatum, Brown, and Porzingis should be a better offensive fit around Holiday than Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez, particularly because all three are capable of spacing the floor as opposed to just two of them. If that allows Holiday to feel like his job is simply to be a table-setter and secondary scorer, rather than trying to take on the burden of lead shot-creator on the perimeter, then it’s possibly he becomes a more efficient postseason player. That, however, is far from a guarantee given we have a pretty big sample size of what Holiday is as an offensive player in the playoffs.

The most difficult part of this evaluation is, we won’t be able to learn much of anything about it during the regular season, because Holiday is typically fantastic offensively over the 82-game schedule. It’s in the postseason things get sticky, and we’ll just have to wait until April and May to find out if things can be different for him in Boston.

Brooklyn Nets: Ben Simmons

For a team that needs a great facilitator, Simmons is the player that seemingly holds the key to unlocking this roster. Simmons was a decent rotation player a year ago in his 42 appearances, but just did not have the same juice as he previously had and was not nearly as aggressive attacking the rim. He’s shown some flashes of that explosiveness in the preseason and if he can be 90 percent of the guy he was in Philadelphia (which is a very big if), that would raise the ceiling considerably on this Brooklyn team.

Banking on Simmons to stay healthy enough to do that is not something most folks are willing to do, and there is a understandable “believe it when we see it” thing with regards to him regaining something close to the form that made him an All-Star. That said, his skillset would be incredibly useful on this roster on both ends of the floor.While Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 9.1 assists per game in his 26 appearances with the Nets, he has never averaged more than 6.5 per game over a full season in his career. Adding a proven facilitator with the passing acumen of Simmons would give this offense a dynamic they simply won’t have otherwise.

They have some good floor-spacers with Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges (and potentially Dorian Finney-Smith if he can find his form again) and a good pick-and-roll big man in Nic Claxton. As such, Simmons should have space to operate and attack the rim, and could focus on distributing more than trying to score, which is the area he’s always been hesitant to try and dominate. He and Claxton could do some fun stuff in the pick-and-roll with shooters around them, and there is a world where this offense looks pretty dynamic. Defensively, the combination of Simmons, Bridges, and Claxton provides a lot of length and versatility and could create a lot of turnovers and cause a lot of problems for opposing offenses.

However, all of that only works if Simmons can move like he used to before the back issues on defense, and if he is willing to be aggressive in pressuring the rim, even if the goal is often to collapse the defense to facilitate for others. Those are very big ifs, but if there’s anyone on this team capable of unlocking another level for the group as a whole, it is probably Simmons.

Charlotte Hornets: Mark Williams

The Hornets have been searching for a center for years, drafting big man after big man in the first round but never quite finding the right fit. That might have finally changed with Mark Williams, who came on strong late last season and became the Hornets starter for 17 games in the second half of the year after they traded Mason Plumlee thanks to his defensive impact on the interior. Williams’ defensive presence endeared him to Clifford, whose teams are known for being particularly solid on that end of the floor. The Hornets don’t have a lot of great defenders on the roster, which makes Williams’ ability to clean things up at the rim and protect the paint an especially useful skillset for this Charlotte team. Williams is not a tremendous offensive threat, but if he can develop as a pick-and-roll partner for Ball and Terry Rozier, there’s enough creators and perimeter firepower on this Charlotte roster to not need him to be anything but a play finisher at the rim.

His continued development is important for this Hornets team to reach the goals they have this season, as they desperately need to have a functional center rotation to execute what Clifford wants defensively. Williams and Nick Richards figure to be the center rotation this year, as P.J. Washington has split time between the four and five in the past, but last year was almost a non-factor in the center rotation under Clifford, which isn’t a surprise since he’s undersized as a center and not a great rim protector. That presents an opportunity for both of those young centers to take a stride forward and prove themselves, but it also means this Charlotte team will be leaning on them to provide quality minutes at the five.

Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams

Maybe one day the answer here will be someone else! For now, Williams just turned 22 and is on the verge of a gigantic season, as he’s slated to hit restricted free agency next summer and is eligible for an extension right up until the day before this season starts. His fit on the Bulls still makes a ton of sense: They need a jumbo, two-way wing to take on the opposing team’s best wing and add some more floor spacing alongside DeRozan. Continuing to round out his game and get better at putting the ball on the floor, or becoming a more disruptive player on defense, or becoming a more imposing rebounder would certainly be welcome.

The big question is what his ceiling even is at this point. The comparisons to Kawhi Leonard that he received coming into the league are pretty clearly out the window. Is he a crucial member of a starting lineup for a good playoff team? Is he a fifth starter for a team that maxes out as a 6-seed? Is he a rotation dude who primarily comes off the bench? He’s only 22 and wanting to bet on him makes sense, but at a certain point, taking a major step forward would be huge. Shooting a good clip from three last year (41.5 percent) on increased volume (3.4 per game, by far the best mark of his career) was a good start, but continuing to progress could be the difference between a nice payday and a monster one.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley

The most optimistic Evan Mobley fans believe he’s a face of the franchise type of player. Even those who aren’t quite that high believe he has the potential to be an All-Star, and with good reason — he’s only 22 and he is already one of the most singularly destructive defensive players in all of basketball. His offense is still a work in progress, but if he’s building on top of his floor, he’s a guy who has averaged 15.6 points on 53.3 percent shooting from the field in his NBA career. If that dude is your third-best player, you’re in a very good spot.

The thing that makes Mobley so interesting is that he has the talent to be much more than a third-best player on a team as good as the Cavaliers. His jumper is a work in progress, but it doesn’t look irreparably broken or anything. He flashes the ability to put the ball on the deck and create. Allen’s injury to start the year could end up forcing Mobley to play more center — which is probably his long-term position in the league — and could theoretically be the sort of thing that results in growing pains but is a long-term positive.

Mobley made his playoff debut and was, to put it bluntly, embarrassed. The Knicks shoved him around and completely minimized his impact, as he went for 9.8 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, 1.2 blocks, and 0.6 steals in 37.6 minutes per game. He shot 47.8 percent from the field and missed the only three he took over five games. I’m a big believer in his talent, and we’ll see if last postseason was a wake-up call for him at all the things he has to do to become great. If he can, the Cavs are going to be a handful during the regular season.

Detroit Pistons: Figuring Out Their Core

Detroit has … we’ll say a lot going on. Again, it’s not like this is a team that will be expected to compete for a title at some point in the next 20 months or anything like that, so this season is all about figuring out who is and is not at the center of Williams’ plans going forward. Cunningham seems to be a lock, as does Ivey. Jalen Duren, whose bright spots last year were incredibly bright, seems a safe bet. Ausar Thompson, who went fifth overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, has superstar potential.

But what about everyone else? Namely, what will they do with the younger players on their roster? James Wiseman, Killian Hayes, and Isaiah Livers are potential restricted free agents next offseason. (Not young guys, but Joe Harris, Alec Burks, and Monte Morris are all unrestricted free agents next summer, too.) Marvin Bagley will hit the unrestricted market in 2025. If you assume a Cunningham contract extension is coming and they don’t make any trades, the only players the team will have on the books in 2025-26 are Cunningham, Duren, Ivey, Thompson, Marcus Sasser, and Isaiah Stewart.

(Stewart, as an aside, is an interesting case here, as he’s only 22, has shown a willingness to shoot threes, and brings energy and toughness every night. He’s due $15 million a year, every year, through his team option 2028, which is not a ton of money considering where the salary cap is going. He’s either part of their core going forward or he’s a potentially fascinating trade chip.)

There are obvious questions about whether or not the team tries to turn any those aforementioned veterans — along with Bojan Bogdanovic — into more future-facing stuff over the course of this season. But above all else, Detroit is in the process of figuring things out with those youngsters, and having clarity about how they all fit together by the end of this season is crucial.

Indiana Pacers: Obi Toppin

Toppin was such a weird player in New York because he always seemed to provide a major spark, and despite that, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau just never fully trusted him. He’s not exactly the most defensively stout player in the league — see the Biggest Question section! — but Toppin is an impactful offensive player whose athleticism and willingness to hustle should make him a wonderful fit on this Indiana team.

Carlisle threw a ton of bodies at the 4 spot last year. Nesmith generally started alongside Turner in the frontcourt, Oshae Brissett was a frequent option in that spot off the bench, and Carlisle just pieced things together from there. Toppin, one would assume, is here to take the starting gig and inject a little more size into that group, while Nesmith can come off the bench as a 3-and-D wing option or small-ball 4. Plus having someone with NBA experience in that role who simultaneously fits on the team’s timeline lets them be patient with rookie forward Jarace Walker, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

Ultimately, the big question with Toppin is whether he’s able to scale up the good stuff he did in New York (hustle, athleticism, shooting) in a role where he’s asked to play significant minutes. If he can, it stands to reason that Indiana is going to give him a nice payday next summer, and the team’s already exciting offense will be able to climb yet another level.

Miami Heat: Nikola Jovic

Given the Heat are going to be looking for some new contributors to the main rotation, I’m fascinated to see what (if anything) Jovic can do with what should be a bigger opportunity this season after playing very sparingly in 15 appearances a year ago. The second-year forward has intriguing offensive upside and had a solid showing for Serbia in the World Cup, helping them to the silver medal by scoring 10.1 points per game. We’ll see if he can crack the regular rotation, but in terms of players with the potential to make a leap in Miami’s robust development program, the 6’10 forward certainly seems to be a top candidate.

The top five of the Heat rotation remains the same, with Butler, Lowry, Herro, Adebayo, and Caleb Martin, but their next three highest minutes eaters are gone and that should result in some experimentation, at least early in the year, from Spo. Jovic presents a skillset the Heat don’t currently have in abundance, but a lot of his utility for this team will come down to whether he can be a reliable shooter from deep. If he can, that’s a dynamic the Heat could certainly use and would ease some of the depth questions facing this Miami roster.

Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton

Is it just me, or has everyone kind of just forgotten how good Middleton is at his best this offseason? There were glimpses where he looked like the multi-time All-Star last season, you just needed to squint sometimes as he was working his way back from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his wrist. He was hot and cold against Miami in the playoffs, but his good games looked great. His efficiency as a shooter took a step down, but his per-36 numbers looked an awful lot like what you generally expect out of him — from 2019-22, Middleton had per-36 averages of 23 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.2 steals. Last season, he was at 22.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and one steal.

Between him being in a good place physically and his long-term future being settled, it’s not hard to foresee Middleton having a big bounceback season. His ability as a secondary playmaker should fit great next to Lillard, and after an awful season on catch-and-shoot threes (he only connected on a legitimately jarring 29.5 percent), don’t be surprised if he’s immediately the best third option in the league. How he holds up defensively — he might have to take on the opposing team’s best perimeter player with some frequency — is a real question.

New York Knicks: Josh Hart

While the Knicks only made the one addition this offseason, this will be the first full season with Hart on the roster. After arriving in a trade with the Blazers at the deadline, Hart was sensational for the Knicks in his 25 games and continued that into the postseason. What he provides as a rebounder, cutter, and defender is incredibly valuable. Last year in the playoffs he was third on the team in rebounds per game (7.4), and while Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Randle got rightful credit for their work against Cleveland’s bigs on the glass in the first round (effectively swinging that series), Hart’s work crashing from the wing was vital to that effort. However, as mentioned above, the Knicks have a spacing issue and for Hart to be on the floor he has to be more of a threat spotting up in the corners.

Hart was terrific from an efficiency standpoint in the regular season in a small 25 game sample (51.5 percent), but saw that dip to 31.3 percent in the playoffs. However, even when he was shooting well in the regular season, it was only on 2.1 attempts per game has he has a tendency to only shoot when wide open (which, naturally, boosts that percentage). He is a frequent record-scratcher, pump-faking against closeouts and then moving the ball. That isn’t always a bad thing, but there are plenty of times for this Knicks offense that creating a semi-open three is going to be the best look they create in the halfcourt. Passing that opportunity up sometimes forces them into a tougher shot, and Hart building his confidence to let it fly is important given he’s often on the floor with multiple other non-threats from deep. Hart can be a better three-point shooter than I think he is willing to give himself credit for, and embracing that part of his role (in a way he embraces the non-scoring parts so well) could unlock some things for this offense.

Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs

In some ways, the X-factor could be the entire backcourt for Orlando. The Magic have talented guards like Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, and 2023 lottery pick Anthony Black, but Suggs is perhaps the biggest enigma right now. Suggs, a former top-five pick, has appeared in only 101 games through two seasons and, on the offensive end, his limitations have been evident. That includes a career 48.7 percent true shooting mark and a 17.5 percent turnover rate that is unsustainably poor. On the positive side, Suggs has shown a great deal of aptitude and effectiveness on the defensive end but, in short, that is not why guards are drafted in the range where he was selected.

Can Suggs find more efficiency? Can his shooting come around? Beyond that, what is his best role moving forward on a team that will almost certainly play heavily through its forwards? A lot of questions should be answered over the course of the next few months.

Philadelphia 76ers: De’Anthony Melton

If they move Harden, their current guards are going to need to take a step forward. I’m fairly confident in Maxey’s ability to shoulder a larger scoring burden, but he still has a ways to go as a floor general. That means the responsibility for running the offense is going to need to be shared, and the guy most likely to see an elevated role is Melton, who was terrific for the Sixers last year (but mostly played at the two or the three). Melton has turned himself into a very good spot-up shooter and brings some much needed point of attack defense to the Sixers roster, but him being able to provide something as a facilitator would be massive if Harden leaves. That’s not ever really been his strongest attribute, but there’s also not really anyone else to turn to on this roster (or projected roster based on what L.A. has to offer).

Replacing Harden would require a team effort to pick up the slack, with Maxey and Tobias Harris taking on bigger roles as scoring threats (which I think they can do). The facilitator role would also be a combined effort, as they don’t have anyone capable of double-digit assists, and players with the versatility to take on more ball-handling, like Melton, will be important in trying to fill that void.With so much excitement coming out of Philly from the players about Nick Nurse implementing an offense that shares the ball more, everyone’s playmaking chops will be put to the test. The Sixers are still going to have plenty of talent and expectations after a Harden trade, but it will certainly shift more responsibility and pressure onto the full rotation to pick up some of that slack.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes

If there is a player capable of a major leap, it’s Scottie Barnes, but the former Rookie of the Year stagnated in his second season (and actually saw his efficiency dip a bit as a scorer). The question for Barnes has always been whether he can develop a reliable jump shot, which is one of the hardest things to do once you reach the NBA level. On another team, the pressure on Barnes to diversify his offensive repertoire might not be as high, but as long as Pascal Siakam (and to a lesser extent OG Anunoby) shares the floor with him, there’s just not going to be much space. Siakam, at this point, is who he is and is in his prime years. Barnes is the young guy with theoretical upside and the runway to still add those skillsets to his game. Whether he can do it or not is an entirely different question, but if there’s a leap to be made by this Toronto team, it will almost certainly have to come from a massive step forward from Barnes as an offensive player.

Washington Wizards: Deni Avdija

Deni Avdija fits snugly alongside Davis, Kispert, and others with regard to Washington’s biggest question, but he gets his own section for a few reasons. For one, Avdija is extension-eligible before his fourth season, and the former No. 9 pick remains something of an enigma. The pitch on Avdija as a draft prospect centered on his abilities as a versatile connecting forward that every team seeks and, in some ways, he has shown signs of being that. On the other hand, Avdija can be a tough fit on offense, shooting 31 percent (on few attempts) from three-point range in his career and settling into a very low-usage role.

On defense, the 6’9 forward is an effective cog, but he isn’t dominant. He also overlaps a bit with Kuzma positionally, and the two don’t make the greatest tandem at the forward spots given some overlapping limitations. It would be fair to project Avdija as a long-time NBA player, and he has proven to be a rotation-caliber entity through three seasons, but Washington was undoubtedly looking for more from a top-10 pick. While it is too early to close the book entirely on Davis from the 2022 Draft, that pick isn’t looking fantastic and, as noted above, Kispert is probably bound for a life as a pure role player. Washington’s Draft history is checkered at best but, independent of that, it could be a revealing year for Avdija and how the franchise views his long-term future.