I bet as he pours his coffee, takes a bite of grapefruit and checks the NBA standings every morning, Adam Silver smiles at what the league has become. That sweet taste isn’t the Splenda. It’s parity, baby! And in a league with so much talent and competition, the playoffs will come down to a fortunate offensive rebound here and a made corner 3 there. All the top teams have a star. Crowning a champion comes down to X-factors.

We have a lot to cover so let’s jump right in. The only rule is that we aren’t talking about injuries because that’s obvious and boring. Some names are bigger than others, but here are the 10 biggest playoff X-factors.

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: More than anyone else on the Celtics roster, Jaylen Brown may have had the hardest time adjusting to “Mazulla ball.” Too often at the start of the season, it seemed like he was swimming against the tide of Boston’s five-out, ball-movement offense. When he didn’t see the ball for a while, he hijacked possessions and settled for contested mid-range jumpers. But Brown has found his voice in Boston’s finesse offense and now, instead of fighting against it, his physical game is a value-add. Brown is averaging 28.9 points on 54 percent shooting over the last 15 games – both marks a hair better than co-star Jayson Tatum. If the Celtics have a fatal flaw, it’s finishing close games. The Celtics are 20-11 in clutch games this season. (Obviously not bad, but not at the world-beating level of their other regular-season stats.) As Tom Haberstroh laid out, Brown’s usage rate in close games drops from 28.3 percent to 20.9 percent – the largest decline for any 20-point scorer in the NBA. Where Tatum and others can sometimes fall into habits of moving the ball without force, Brown is arguably the scorer better built for the playoffs – unafraid to take the tough shots. Brown is the hammer needed to smash open Boston’s Swiss movement watch. 

Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks: After a forgettable end to his Portland Trail Blazers tenure, Damian Lillard hasn’t played in a playoff series since 2021. He averaged 34.3 points on 46 percent shooting in six games. But it’s been a while for one of this generation’s great postseason performers, and his age is starting to show in his regular-season numbers. Nobody is counting out Lillard, but it’s fair to ask how much playoff magic he has left.

Donte DiVincenzo, New York Knicks: If Julius Randle can’t return from his shoulder injury in time for the postseason, the Knicks will need a new No. 2 scorer next to Jalen Brunson. On the team’s stat page, New York’s top three scorers after Brunson are either injured (Randle) or no longer with the team (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley). Then there’s DiVincenzo, averaging 14.9 points after his recent 40-point explosion against the Pistons. His rugged playing style and 3-point shooting (11 3s in that Pistons game) give the Knicks a scoring threat they didn’t have last postseason. The Knicks have climbed the East standings despite injuries because DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein and Deuce McBride have created an ad-hoc scoring committee, but the playoffs will require more. Who among them will emerge as a true secondary scorer?

Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic: Isaac is averaging only 15 minutes per game, but his defensive impact is apparent within seconds of entering the game. He ranks fourth in blocks per possession and the Magic’s defense, which already ranks third in defensive rating at 110.8, goes into turbo-drive and gives up just 104.7 per 100 possessions with Isaac on the floor. He has a knack for blowing up plays before they begin. Good luck trying to run your offense with Isaac on the court. He is Daniel Plainview and he will drink your milkshake. The playoffs often come down to lineups, and the Magic can change the tone of a game (which can change the tone of a series) with Isaac-led defensive units.

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat: Butler is on pace to play his smallest frequency of games and post his lowest usage rate since joining the Heat in 2019, but the potential for “Playoff Jimmy” to appear is enough to make any opponent hesitate. (Is that the “Scream” music I hear playing?) The Heat are 7-1 when Butler scores at 30 points this season and 17-10 when he posts a usage rate of at least 24 percent in a game. It seemed like Playoff Jimmy had entered the chat when Miami won 11 of 14 games from January to March, but he has since made only a cameo here and there. The Heat need Playoff Jimmy to be the star of the show if they are going to repeat last season’s postseason success.

Naz Reid, Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to miss at least another two weeks with his left knee injury. With Towns out of the lineup, head coach Chris Finch recently remarked that he can’t remember the last time he called a post-up and his team is taking more 3s with Towns sidelined. Reid, who has started six of his last seven games in Towns’ place, is more of an outside-in operator. He’s attempted 10 or more 3s three times this month. He is averaging 18.4 points on 50% shooting (including 40% on 3s), 7.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He’s been given the room to expand his game, and the uptick in assists is especially encouraging. Reid isn’t an advanced passer but he makes the right read and keeps the wheels of the offense turning. He’s got an eye for backdoor cutters and knows how to beat the defense’s help. The Timberwolves have won six of their last seven games. Even if Towns is able to return for the playoffs, Minnesota will have to find time for Reid. He can help carry units when Towns is on the bench

Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder: An extended playoff run would mean a series of increasingly challenging boss battles for rookie Chet Holmgren. Perhaps Zion Williamson eating up the paint, or championship-minted Anthony Davis in the first round. Then the towering Rudy Gobert in the second round before facing Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams will anchor Oklahoma City’s attack, but how Holmgren holds up could determine how deep the Thunder can go.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: Is Luka Doncic the best player in the NBA? No, that’s Nikola Jokic, the likely MVP this season. But can he be for two months? Absolutely. And that’s what it will take for the Mavericks to make it to the Western Conference finals and beyond. Transcendent stars have lifted ho-hum supporting casts to the Finals in the past: LeBron James with the 2007 and 2018 Cavs, Dwyane Wade with the 2006 Heat, Kawhi Leonard and the 2019 Raptors… all were the best player in the world during those playoff months. The West is stacked, but Luka playing at a Super Saiyan level for 16 games might be unstoppable.

Bradley Beal, Phoenix Suns: You know what you’re going to get from Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, but the reason a team like the Suns spends on a “Big Three” is to have that third star who can tilt matchups so much that defending them becomes untenable. Most teams in the West have a clear top two, but the Suns and Clippers are the only teams that can claim a true big three. The Suns are 16-6 when Bradley Beal scores 16 or more points and 11-11 when he scores less. Elite to average.

Austin Reaves, Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers have the league’s fourth-rated offense since the All-Star break and while D’Angelo Russell (averaging 20.8 points since the break) has gotten a lot of the headlines, Reaves has also gone up a notch. Reaves is averaging 16.9 points on 49% shooting, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds over his last 17 games. His double-overtime triple-double against the Bucks this week illustrates the full scope of his game. Moreso than Russell, Reaves can make an impact with his rebounding and defense. If the pick-and-roll between him and LeBron James is hitting, Russell becomes less necessary, which opens up different lineup combinations that could tilt more toward defense. Reaves was a big reason why the Lakers were able to advance to last year’s Western Conference finals. They need that version of Reaves again.