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We're trying our best to avoid the whole "wild west" trope, but the NBA's Western Conference is really making it difficult. The race for the top is tight, with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets all within a single game of each other. But perhaps even more interesting are the fifth through 10th positions, which are separated by just 3.5 games. One bad stretch in the West could mean going from home-court advantage to the Play-In Tournament.

Anyone who follows the league knows the major storylines heading into the home stretch of the regular season. Will LeBron James and Anthony Davis stay on the court? Will the Wolves' late-game offensive issues come back to bite them? Are the Thunder too young and inexperienced to keep it up as the playoffs near?

All those questions are important, but there are also players who are flying under the radar that could significantly affect the playoff race. Here's a look at five X-factors that could ultimately determine the Western Conference standings.

1. Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks

It might seem odd because the Mavericks acquired two players at the deadline who essentially play his position, but Kleber is the key to unlocking one of his team's biggest weapons – small ball. Luka Doncic has thrived with traditional, rim-running center Dereck Lively III, but so far, the chemistry hasn't been there with duplicative backup Daniel Gafford. With Doncic and Gafford on the floor, Dallas has averaged a meager 107 points per 100 possessions in nearly 100 minutes.

In contrast, lineups with Doncic and Kleber have been dynamite together, thanks to the big man's ability to stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting. While it may eliminate the traditional lob threat and rim protector, going small with Kleber at center allows the Mavericks to switch defensively and gives opponents a different look offensively, with much more room for Doncic and Kyrie Irving to go to work. Matching up with the eye test, lineups with Doncic, Irving and Kleber average a blazing 125 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of plus-12.3.

Kleber is unquestionably significant to the fate of the Mavericks for the rest of the season.

2. Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans

Despite his mother questioning him about missed free throws, Murphy has the ability to transform the Pelicans on both ends. New Orleans allows nearly seven fewer points per 100 possessions with Murphy on the floor, the best mark of any Pelican who's played over 900 minutes, and it's not hard to see why.

At 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, Murphy is a defensive menace. Opponents are scoring just 0.762 points per possession against him in isolation situations, per Synergy Sports, which lands in the 84th percentile. He also uses his incredible length to excel on closeouts. Watch here as he runs Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu off his spot behind the 3-point line and is still able to recover enough to get a good contest on the ensuing attempt.

Offensively, Murphy's 3-point percentage isn't the best this season, but he regularly launches from well beyond the line and is never afraid to shoot. That causes the defense to stretch – whether the shots are going in or not – creating more openings for Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, who all prefer to operate inside the 3-point line. It's no wonder that lineups featuring Murphy and Ingram outscore opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions.

In New Orleans wins, Murphy averages 16 points on 40% 3-point shooting, compared to nine points and 28% from deep in losses. The Pelicans could finish fourth in the West or fall all the way to the dregs of the Play-In, and Murphy will be a determining factor in whether they rise or fall.

3. Bones Hyland, LA Clippers

Russell Westbrook's broken hand means that Hyland should get the first crack at replacing his minutes. Hyland isn't the same animal as Westbrook, but he's certainly capable of pushing the tempo in similar ways and can do one thing that Westbrook can't -- shoot. This season has been a wash so far for Hyland, but last season he made 39% of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, and 36% of his 3s off the dribble. He won't put the pressure on the rim the way that Westbrook does, but he can provide more floor spacing for whichever of the Clippers' stars remain on the court with him.

The real questions will come on defense, where Hyland is a moving target for practically every opponent. If his slight 6-foot-2, 170-pound frame can hold its own defensively, he could help keep the Clippers afloat heading into the playoffs.

4. Rui Hachimura, Los Angeles Lakers

Assuming the "Big Three" of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves continue their production, the Lakers' difference-maker could be Hachimura, who has started the past 12 games. He's been a bellwether for the Lakers, averaging 13 points on 56/44/79 splits in wins compared to 10 points on 45/35/65 shooting in losses. The jumbo-sized potential closing lineup of James, Davis, Reaves, Hachimura and Taurean Prince has a net rating of plus-13 in 52 minutes, scoring a scorching 125 points per 100 possessions, giving Darvin Ham another option if D'Angelo Russell isn't hitting his shots.

Overall this season, both the defense and offense improve significantly with Hachimura on the court. The Lakers have consistently tried to empower him to be more aggressive, and they're going to need him to step up in order to avoid the Play-In Tournament.

5. Peyton Watson, Denver Nuggets

We know about the Nuggets' dominant starting lineup – the best in the league in terms of net rating – but the questions surround the supporting cast, particularly after the offseason departure of Bruce Brown and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Green. While Denver has yet to find a consistent playoff-worthy rotation, Watson is the most likely to make a significant impact as the Nuggets hunt the Western Conference's top seed. The overall on/off numbers for Watson aren't pretty, partly because he plays a lot of minutes with Nikola Jokic on the bench, but he's had success when on the court with pretty much any of the starters. For example, lineups with Watson and Michael Porter Jr. (who provides floor spacing) have a net rating of plus-11 in 368 minutes this season.

At least once a week, Watson makes a defensive play that leaves you dumbstruck, like this chase-down block on Wizards forward Eugene Omoruyi to make up for his own turnover.

The 6-7 wing actually leads the team in blocked shots and is also shooting 45% from 3-point range over his past 12 games. He's a player to watch down the stretch.