The very concept of a basketball X-factor is a narrative creation — so much so that even a basketball lifer like Gregg Popovich could find little practical sense in it. Those of us who predict, observe and document the game have a vested interest in classification and meaning, and thus long ago concocted this term to more precisely account for the unknowable. By labeling a player as such, we essentially acknowledge their potential for chaos — that at some point, the internal order of the game may break down, and that these chosen players may be best equipped to thrive in the bedlam.
In the case of these Eastern Conference finals, the concept is perhaps best embodied by Miami’s Norris Cole and Indiana’s Lance Stephenson. Neither is an outstanding NBA player by any means, but they hold in their highly variable games the potential to influence the course of this series.
There are hot streaks, and then there is Cole’s incandescent run of accurate shooting and sound decision-making through the first two rounds of the playoffs, each element of which strayed wildly from what we’ve come to expect from him. In the regular season, Cole was the one element of the Heat’s rotation that could consistently undercut their combination of star power and floor spacing, often to the point of dragging Miami’s best lineup combinations into a negative point differential. His defense was largely sound and quite impressive at times, but on offense he was an unconvincing scoring threat (and thus a player opponents could leave unguarded) who often attempted to do far too much with the ball. That may not seem like a grave basketball sin, but when the opportunity cost is wasting possessions that would otherwise be utilized by a hyper-potent offense, those limitations can prove rather damaging.