Coming out of the All-Star break, the NBA world knows which teams are contenders, which are pretenders and which are trending toward a pursuit of the best odds in the 2018 draft lottery.
Given the devastating effectiveness of 2017-18′s top squads, the first category is a rather tiny one.
In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and revamped Cleveland Cavaliers are fighting it out for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and a chance to represent their half of the Association during the Finals. A two-horse race has emerged in the West, with a pack of teams trailing the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets by a substantial margin.
But who could push these outfits—plus a few notable honorable mentions—toward even higher levels of play during the league’s second season? Which men can emerge as the X-factors and spark more success for their respective teams?
We’re not worried about the best players, or even those with the most untapped potential. These are the contributors who could realistically change something about their performances—whether developing new skills or finding a bit more consistency or getting healthier—and improve the title chances of their teams.