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 Western 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.
Memphis Grizzlies: Luke Kennard
For all of their talent, the Grizzlies still don’t have a ton of reliable three-point shooters. As a team, they were 23rd in the NBA in three-point percentage a year ago (35.1 percent), and only two of their returning players shot over 36 percent from deep a year ago. One of those is Desmond Bane, who has vaulted into stardom on the wing, at 40.8 percent from deep. The other is Luke Kennard, who shot an outrageous 54 percent from distance in his 24 appearances for Memphis in the regular season and knocked down 50 percent of his threes in their first round series loss to the Lakers. Lineups with Kennard were among the Grizzlies best last season, including in that playoff series with L.A., when five of their six best three-man lineups (out of their 25 most used) in terms of both offensive and net rating involved the sharpshooting wing.
The concern with Kennard is on the defensive end, which likely limited his minutes, but given his shooting is something they simply do not have anywhere else on this roster the Grizzlies are likely going to need to expand his role some this season, especially with the departures of Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones. That has thinned out the backcourt rotation a touch, even with the addition of Marcus Smart, and Kennard’s ability to open up the floor is going to be critical for Memphis come playoff time when there are fewer opportunities to run in transition and push the pace. Having a more dynamic halfcourt offense is vital for the Grizzlies if they’re going to be a real playoff threat in the West, and Kennard seems like the best bet to see an increased role to help open things up.
The question is whether he can remain as effective in more minutes (which is never a guarantee as more minutes mean more expended energy) and if the Grizzlies defense suffers at all. Playoff lineups featuring Kennard (in admittedly a very small sample) didn’t feature any real defensive struggles, in part due to Kennard almost always playing alongside quality defenders like Bane and the NBA’s DPOY. It certainly seems like Memphis needs more floor balance on the offensive end, and with plenty of good defenders on the roster like Bane, Jackson Jr., and now Smart, they can keep a strong defensive presence around their best offensive weapons like Kennard and, most notably, Morant. For Taylor Jenkins, the task will be figuring out what combinations work best come playoff time to try and raise the ceiling on what this Grizzlies team can be in the West.
New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Murphy III
If we move away from the health of the Pelicans’ stars, the player who unlocks their team’s full potential is Trey Murphy III, who will be sidelined to start the season with a meniscus injury. The Pelicans do not have anyone on the wing who brings the skillset Murphy does as a knockdown shooter (40.6 percent on 6.3 attempts from three last year) and a cutter/finisher at the rim (75.9 percent shooting at the rim). His ability to space the floor and apply pressure to defenses off the ball is so important for a team with three terrific on-ball threats, and he’s continued to get better as a secondary creator and three-level scorer. Last season he took a considerable leap in terms of efficiency from every area of the floor, and his continued development is one of the things to watch this season as he can alleviate some of the pressure on Ingram in terms of wing creation.
On the other end, Murphy is a big, long defender with plenty of versatility that helps paper over some of the deficiencies on that end from their stars. Getting Murphy back on the court healthy is the first order of business for New Orleans, because they simply don’t have a replacement for all that he brings this team on the wing. If he can continue taking a step forward as an offensive playmaker, the Pelicans will be a true nightmare to deal with offensively because of the attention you have to give their top-3 already.
Dallas Mavericks: Dereck Lively II
The player on the roster who seems capable of raising the team’s floor on defense is rookie center Dereck Lively II, who was unreal defending the paint at Duke, particularly in the back half of last season. Lively has a frame and skillset that no one else on the Mavs comes close to replicating at the center position, and as such they may be more reliant on him than you typically see from a hopeful contender with a rookie. Given Dallas has serious questions about their ability to guard at the point of attack with Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, having a high-level rim protector is a necessity to mitigate the issues that come with below average perimeter defense. While they bolstered their frontcourt rotation with guys like Grant Williams and Richaun Holmes, their only hope for above average paint protection is their 7’1 rookie.
Lively looks like the kind of rookie who can step into a pretty big role immediately and be an above average defender as a rookie, perhaps becoming this year’s version of Walker Kessler. However, in order to do so he is going to have to be able to have an impact offensively beyond the spotty production he had at Duke. The good news is, in Dallas being a productive big man means setting good screens, rolling hard to the rim to finish lobs, and being active on the glass. He’s not going to be asked to deliver points via post touches, but he will have to find his space in the flow of the Dallas offense, which means building chemistry with Doncic and Irving in order to be on the same page as they probe and drive to the paint. If he can do that, the Mavs might have found themselves an immediate impact player as a rookie. They are a team in desperate need of the exact thing he is supposed to be good at, and if he can deliver as a rim protector and simply stay out of the way on offense and do the little things correctly, he should have a very good rookie season. If not, then the Mavs will run a lot more small-ball and will probably run into the same issues they’ve had in the past when dealing with the West’s top bigs.
Houston Rockets: Alperen Sengun
Sengun holds a lot of importance to this team because they are going to need him to be at least passable on defense. It’s certainly possible he gets there with better structure around him, as he has good hands and could be disruptive in his own way without being a dominant paint defender. The reason that’s so important is because he is the one that unlocks a lot of what this team can be on the offensive end. There will, rightfully, be a lot of attention paid to Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr.’s development this season, as both need to take strides forward in terms of efficiency and should benefit greatly from playing next to a real veteran point guard in Fred VanVleet.
However, I think Sengun stands to benefit more than just about anyone else from having a better facilitator on the floor with VanVleet. I’d expect those two’s minutes to be paired an awful lot, because having a point guard that can get him the ball on time and on his spots will only make him a more effective and efficient scorer, while also needing to be paired with a solid screen navigator on defense. Sengun has tremendous offensive upside both as a scorer and playmaker, and I’m fascinated to see how Ime Udoka deploys him and tries to maximize his skillset this season. Playing on a team with a coherent identity should allow Sengun to show his full abilities on the offensive end. A year ago, Sengun was second on the Rockets with 3.9 assists per game, and I’d expect them to continue leaning on his playmaking abilities even more this season.
Part of what makes Sengun so important to this Rockets is they don’t really have anyone else capable of impacting the game the way he can on offense. Jock Landale is a very solid backup big man and will give Udoka an option for a solid rim protector off the bench, but is not anywhere close to as dynamic on offense as Sengun. While there are some overlapping talents elsewhere on the roster, they are banking heavily on Sengun at the center position right now. As such, if he stagnates this year, the Rockets will probably end up right around their win total projection of 30 or so wins and be a mid-lottery team. However, if he continues to grow and the structure around him improves to augment all the things he seemingly can do, that could unlock that higher level for Houston to allow them to start dreaming a bit earlier of a Play-In chase.
San Antonio Spurs: Jeremy Sochan
There aren’t as many players in the league as weird as Sochan, and this is meant to be a major compliment. Everything about his game is funky — he’s 6’9, a wonderful connecting piece on the offensive end of the floor, finds ways to put his fingerprints all over the place on defense, and plays with a kind of visible joy that is contagious. He has a pretty obvious flaw in his shooting, as he was at 24.6% on threes last year and started shooting free throws with one hand last year, but he also just turned 20 and has a ton of growing as a basketball player ahead of him.
He’s known Wembanyama for quite some time, and the two of them are interesting compliments for one another. Wembanyama is obviously the superstar, face of the franchise guy, while Sochan seems incredibly content to do whatever is asked of him to help his team win. That sort of player is invaluable if you’re an up-and-coming squad that is trying to build an identity, and seeing as how we have a pretty good understanding of what Johnson and Vassell (both of whom agreed to long-term extension with the team) are going to be as pros, Sochan’s malleability is a superpower — they even have been running some Point Sochan during the preseason. His individual development, particularly as a shooter, is going to be fascinating to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching all the ways Pop uses him to try and unlock the best version of Sochan.
Sacramento Kings: Keegan Murray
If the Kings are going to handle a full season with expectations, they will need continued growth from the guys between Fox and Sabonis. If teams are sending more attention at those two, it should open up opportunity (or add pressure, depending on your viewpoint) for guys on the wing. The player with the most room to grow is Murray, as last year’s No. 4 overall pick had a terrific rookie season averaging 12.2 points per game and hitting 41.1 percent of his threes. That said, the vast majority of Murray’s production came off of assists, and I think this year the Kings will be asking him to open up his own playmaking ability.
He’s shown some flashes of that in the preseason and there are plenty of people around the league that think he is a candidate for a major step forward this year. That said, going from being a highly efficient spot-up threat to being an efficient scorer and creator is not an easy jump to take and there figure to be some growing pains involved. However, it’ll be worthwhile for the Kings to work through those growing pains, because they need to know if that’s a role he can take on long-term. Last year’s playoff series with the Warriors showed that Sacramento’s offense needs a little more variety on the wing, because when the three-point ball goes cold those guys need to be able to alleviate some of the pressure on Fox and Sabonis, who face increased attention in the postseason. If Murray can become not just a release valve as a shooter but as a secondary creator capable of attacking defenses who have tilted the floor to slow Fox and Sabonis, that would be massive for this Kings team trying to take another stride forward as a team without making major additions to the roster.
Phoenix Suns: Jusuf Nurkic
When the Suns jumped into the Damian Lillard deal to send Deandre Ayton to Portland for Jusuf Nurkic, there were some reports that Phoenix felt the move was addition by subtraction, as it was clear the relationship with Ayton in that organization was frayed beyond repair. That may very well be the case, but Ayton’s top-level of play has been higher than Nurkic’s in recent years and the two bring very different skillsets to the table. That means there’s ample pressure on Nurk to find another gear alongside a new star trio, particularly on the defensive end.
On offense, I think the Nurkic fit could be better than Ayton, just based on what Nurkic is willing to do that Ayton wasn’t satiated in doing. Ayton wanted more touches, as happens with a former No. 1 overall pick on a big contrct, while Nurkic will be a more willing tertiary contributor. He’s a big body that sets solid screens, and while he’s certainly not the vertical roll threat Ayton was, he’s a good short roll man, with solid touch and much better passing acumen than Ayton. That passing ability figures to be where he impacts the game the most, as they can trust him to keep the ball moving, find cutters out of the high post, and run some different dribble handoff actions to apply stress to the defense with their stars all working off the ball.
Defense is where most of the concern lies with this Suns team with Nurkic swapped in for Ayton. Of their top four, Durant is the only plus defender and with Ayton gone, they are seriously lacking in terms of rim protection. Ayton’s defensive issue wasn’t skill based but engagement based, as he had a tendency to lower his effort level when he wasn’t having the offensive impact he wanted. That said, he was a rim deterrent simply by being a giant with athleticism in the paint and he was a strong post defender thanks to his size and length. Nurkic is not close to the same level as an athlete or rim protector, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how Frank Vogel crafts a defense with Nurk at the five. Vogel has long leaned on very good shot-blocking bigs as the anchor for his defenses, dating back to Roy Hibbert, but won’t have that in Phoenix this year. Finding a way to get a net-neutral defense out of this group with Nurkic at the five will be the task for Vogel, but doing so will require some creativity in lineups and a different structure than he’s usually put together on that end.
Los Angeles Lakers: Rui Hachimura
Honestly, you can take any of the non-LeBron or AD guys and put them in here. Hachimura is the one I’m going to highlight just because the absolute best version of himself — someone who is lethal on catch-and-shoot threes, is capable of creating his own shot, is willing to rebound and, as we saw against the Nuggets when he would match up with Nikola Jokic, use his size to battle with bigger offensive players. Just spelling it out like that, Hachimura is the perfect player to put alongside the two guys around whom the entire team is built.
The problem: He’s not that guy all the time, or at least hasn’t shown the ability to be that guy on a night in, night out basis. Even the start of his stint with the Lakers didn’t go especially well — Hachimura averaged 9.6 points in 22.4 minutes per game while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three. For the Lakers to get where they want to go, he has to be better than that. Not necessarily the guy he was in the playoffs (I do not think Hachimura is going to hit 48.7 percent of his threes this season), but a consistent, reliable third or fourth option would go a really long way towards helping Los Angeles get to where it wants to go. But again, that applies to everyone on the Lakers beyond their top-2. If they can have their rotation and the roles everyone will fill all figured out come, say, the start of December, that would be gigantic.
Los Angeles Clippers: Terance Mann
The Clippers have refused to include Mann in James Harden trade talks to this point, which is apparently one of the larger sticking points in negotiations. They’ve also elevated Mann into the starting lineup alongside Westbrook, George, Leonard, and Zubac, showcasing the faith they have in their fifth-year wing. There have been flashes of it all clicking for Mann in the past, but to this point the consistent impact on a game-to-game basis hasn’t been there. However, you can also point to an inconsistent role (a rather constant issue for the non-stars on this Clippers team) as a reason for Mann’s relative inconsistency.
If he’s given a long leash in this starting spot and given the time to establish himself in this new role, we should learn an awful lot about what he can be as a player. A year ago he averaged 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 51.9/38.9/78.0 shooting splits in 23 minutes per game, but should see his minutes load increase this season. He should get plenty of open looks from three given the attention paid to his co-stars, but that also brings pressure to be a solid (and willing) floor-spacing option. His versatility on defense likewise makes a lot of sense with this starting unit, which has a ton of length and could wreak havoc on teams without multiple strong ball-handling options.
Mann has always seemed like the Clippers best bet at having a young player pop on a roster otherwise filled with veterans, and it seems like this year they are finally going to take the governor off and give him the larger role many have wanted him to have. How long that lasts is likely dependent on how effective that starting group is early in the season, but it’s at least an opportunity for Mann to put his full abilities on display.
Golden State Warriors: Jonathan Kuminga And Moses Moody
At a certain point, one of these guys has to break out and completely earn the trust of Kerr … right? The pair combined to play 222 total minutes during the team’s 13 playoff games — Moody got 161 of them, and did get a bit of run in both series. Kuminga didn’t play in three games, Moody didn’t play in one. When the chips are down, Kerr is always going to rely on Curry, Thompson, Green, Looney, and Andrew Wiggins. Gary Payton II has steadily earned Kerr’s trust when he’s healthy, and you’d think that Paul would get to that point. The youngest guy in that group is Looney, who will turn 28 in February.
Moody being able to step in and provide some shooting and wing defense would be a very nice boost. Kuminga, who was a pretty consistent bench option in the regular season, was apparently frustrated with his postseason usage. His athleticism and age (he just turned 21) are things the Warriors could really use with an older core, and would likewise provide a very nice boost if he’s able to remain in the team’s rotation. They both present skillsets this team could use, and if either (or both) can take a leap into Kerr’s circle of trust, that could be huge for the Warriors chances.
Denver Nuggets: Literally Any Young Guy Stepping Up
The one real question facing the Nuggets has to do with their depth, namely the way that they’re going to replace the minutes they got from Bruce Brown and Jeff Green. They have a few veterans coming off of their bench in Reggie Jackson and Justin Holiday, and while there is value in the fact that you can usually pencil in what you can expect from them on a given night, they’re probably not helping to raise the team’s ceiling.
If that’s going to happen, it’ll come by way of one of their youngsters blossoming in a larger role. The obvious candidate here is Christian Braun, who funny enough tied for the second-most games played last year and continued to earn Malone’s trust as the year went on — he played in every NBA Finals game and famously exploded for 15 points in 19 minutes during Denver’s Game 3 win. Maybe Zeke Nnaji or Peyton Watson’s familiarity with the team (Nnaji is entering his fourth year, Watson is entering his second) can be parlayed into more playing time — with the Nuggets heaping praise on Watson in particular this offseason, indicating he’ll take on a larger role. Or can they get literally anything out of their NBA Draft class, all of whom are old for being first-year players — Julian Strawther is 21 and turns 22 in April, Hunter Tyson just turned 23, Jalen Pickett turns 24 right before the start of the regular season.
The good news is that, barring multiple catastrophic injuries, Denver doesn’t need any of these guys to magically morph into an impact starter or anything like that. Their starting unit is so good that they have the luxury of time. But building up depth is important, and the defending champions have 82 games to do that before the playoffs roll around.
Minnesota Timberwolves: A Full Season Of Mike Conley
Another step forward for Jaden McDaniels can go here, too — man, how excited must the Timberwolves be that they didn’t have to give him up in the Gobert trade? — but we’ll show some love to an important veteran presence. No one is going to argue that Conley, who just turned 36, will play at an All-Star level or anything like that. Conley’s best days are obviously behind him, but he is still quite good at understanding the tempo of a game, getting his guys organized, and making sure his teammates get the ball in the spots that they like. He’s happy to defer to others, and has a good sense of when he has to pick his spots.
Conley started every game after the Timberwolves acquired him in a trade at the deadline last year. While this 4-man group only appears in seven games and 103 minutes together, lineups with Conley and the team’s three stars had a net rating of 9.2, per NBA.com. While they struggled against the Nuggets in the playoffs (and, who didn’t?), Conley is the kind of conductor who can really help those three players gel over the course of an 82-game season. If he can do all the stuff that has made him a great pro for years, he’ll provide a really great 1-2 punch in the backcourt alongside Edwards.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Chet Holmgren
Holmgren is probably going to end up being a good professional basketball player. It’s unclear what, exactly, that means — he could end up being a solid and reliable rotation big man who blocks shots and can score a little on offense, or maybe he’ll end up being the sort of superstar-level player who is a perfect running mate alongside Gilgeous-Alexander. The best version of him is a gigantic, two-way nightmare who earns All-Star nods and gets labeled a unicorn.
While he essentially redshirted last season due to an injury he suffered during the offseason, Holmgren is still a rookie who has to get used to all the little things that come from playing 82 games of professional basketball. There will be nights where he’s really good, there will be others where he gets put on a poster and his shot is just not falling. He should be fine no matter what, his work ethic and competitiveness have drawn praise for years, but for a team looking to be a playoff contender now, just how good — and how often — he can be matters. If he’s able to consistently be a positive piece of the puzzle for Oklahoma City, that would be absolutely gigantic, as the one thing the team could really use is a guy with his size imposing his will on a game.
Utah Jazz: John Collins
Let’s take a quick trip back to June 20, 2021. The Atlanta Hawks walked into Philadelphia and knocked off the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference in a Game 7, thanks in part to the play of John Collins. He had 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting along with a game-high 16 rebounds, and looked to be a crucial part of what was being built in Atlanta. He cashed in not long after with a 5-year, $125 million contract, and for some reason, it sure seemed like the Hawks spent every moment since then trying to trade him.
Whether it was injuries, a lesser role, or something else, Collins last year had his least productive season since his rookie campaign — his 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in 30 minutes per game were the lowest marks since his first year in the league. He shot 50.8 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three, and had a usage rate of 17.1 percent, all of which were career-lows. As such, Utah opted to take a remarkably cheap flyer on him, acquiring him for the low price of Rudy Gay and a second-round pick.
Obviously, Utah doesn’t need Collins to turn into a guy who goes for 25 points and 12 rebounds a night or anything like that. But the athleticism and ability to stretch the floor that he brings should fit nicely alongside Markkanen and Kessler, he’s under contract for at least the next two seasons, and at his best, he’s a really dynamic frontcourt option. A roll of the dice on a guy like that makes a ton of sense, and as we saw last year with Markkanen, the Jazz have an idea of how to help these sorts of guys take a step forward in their careers. Getting him was the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move.
Portland Trail Blazers: Shaedon Sharpe
Sharpe’s unusual path to the NBA has been well-documented. There’s a chance he could have been in the conversation to go No. 1 overall in the 2022 NBA Draft if he played in college, but instead, he went through his only season at Kentucky without playing a single game. And while he was not perfect during his first year in the league by any stretch of the imagination, Sharpe’s flashes as a potential game-changing talent on the wing with rare athleticism were quite promising.
It’s worth noting that the Blazers’ priorities … we’ll say evolved as the year went on — they played 24 games after the All-Star break, won five of them, and Lillard was shut down for the final 10 games of the year. Sharpe’s play was a bright spot over this stretch, as he shouldered a bigger load down the stretch and responded well. Those final 10 games without Lillard were especially promising for Sharpe, as he played in nine of them and averaged 23.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 35.5 minutes a night while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from three.
He’s similar to Henderson in that the infrastructure around him is going to be important, because even though he has a year of NBA experience under his belt, the amount of responsibility that is going to be on his shoulders is increasing. The reps he gets this year are going to be gigantic for the long-term outlook of the Blazers. If he makes the most of them, Portland’s post-Lillard rebuild is going to look even more exciting.